Shoulder to shoulder the cadets stood in rigid formation beneath a joyless sky the color of galvanized steel. Shrieking winds knifed through their uniforms cold and unforgiving, their pants and sleeves snapping like flags.
Fifty had been selected to colonize a faraway planet: twenty-five men and twenty-five women. They had been chosen with meticulous care from an extensive battery of test results. For months, they had been stabbed with needles and deprived of sleep, spun wildly in circles and interrogated under hot lights. They had been locked up in perfect darkness until they didn’t know the time of day. Or the day. Or the year.
They had been abandoned to live or die on a jungle planet turned loose with no water and no food for two weeks, a grim microcosm of Darwin’s survival of the fittest.
Together the cadets had learned by necessity to function as a single unit. Each member had demonstrated exceptional psychological stability and physical stamina as well as a high estimated capability for reproduction.
They were the elites of the elite.
Now finally they had arrived, all their training leading them to this day. Motionless statues, their faces revealed no emotion as they stood on a vast expanse of asphalt behind the Universal Exploration and Expanse Building. Here they teetered on the precipice of history receiving last words of encouragement before embarking on this final voyage, a voyage from which none of them would ever return.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” said a stern and impeccably groomed colonel as he paced back and forth before them, hands clasped behind his back. “Today your names will be added to those of the greatest explorers humankind has ever known. Pages of text will laud your courage and children will be taught of your sacrifice for centuries. This mission, YOUR mission, holds the key to unlocking secrets that the universe has held captive from the beginning of time and space.”
He stopped and regarded each of them deliberately for long ponderous moments. “It would be impossible to overstate the value of the contribution each of you is making. As your commanding officer, I am proud to have known you and I thank each of you for your exemplary selflessness and dedication.”
The cadets stared into the distance.
As one might expect at an event of this magnitude, a large crowd had gathered to watch the ceremony. Some of the spectators were family members and friends of the cadets. Some were reporters. Most were strangers growing bored with the pomp and circumstance and eager to see the launch so they could get out of the cold and on with their lives.
Amongst this latter group was a man who was decidedly insane. He shouted to the colonel, “you make it sound like they had a choice!”
The crowd gasped and murmured uneasily, whispering and shivering and fidgeting about nervously while the wind whistled and kicked up grit.
The colonel turned and cast a disapproving glare at this unexpected interloper and immediately four military policemen waded into the crowd to take him.
The lunatic, who seconds before was packed in tight, found himself standing alone in a broad circle of space as though he were the lone contestant in some otherworldly dance contest and all eyes were fixed on him.
“You’re being hustled,” he advised the cadets who stared at nothing without expression. “You’re being played for chumps. Do you think you had a choice in this?” he cried. “Did you really think you could say no?”
The crowd chattered appalled and the MP’s broke through and grabbed this rouser of rabble under his arms dragging him backwards through the crowd, his legs sprawled out behind him. He went limp and said no more and soon he was gone of no more lasting significance than a streaker at a football game.
But the disturbance had punched a hole in the festive atmosphere such as it was, and the colonel had lost his enthusiasm for the dramatic. The ceremony wound down quickly afterwards and the cadets mingled through the crowd hugging people they knew and shaking hands solemnly with those they didn’t receiving heartfelt “be safes” and “good lucks.” A few of the cadets gave brief interviews and posed for pictures until eventually, the last of them was loaded into a transport and scuttled to the launch site.
On the ship they sat in two neat rows facing each other as they contemplated to themselves the magnitude of leaving their home planet for the last time. Hearts beat fast and breaths came shallow and mouths were dry as they clenched their hands into fists and relaxed them then clenched them into fists again. None of the cadets really saw the others, each was looking inward instead.
FIVE said the transponder in their helmets and the ship jumped to life and began to hum.
FOUR Louder now and they began to vibrate in their seats.
THREE Now the high whining of the propulsion drives engaging and heavy kachunking sounds as massive suction cups released the ship from the launch pad one by one.
TWO The windows went black as anti-gravity shields slid along the side of the ship and locked securely into place.
Twenty years later a bright but rambunctious child was whispering across a classroom to his friend when the instructor called his name clear and loud.
“James!” he said and the boy froze.
“James, since you obviously have this course figured out and no longer need to pay attention, why don’t you tell me the story of Outbound I.”
The boy hesitated and a few of the children tittered. Uncertainly, in what was more a question than a statement he said, “it was vaporized at lift-off?”
“Good,” said the instructor. “And what was its mission to have been?”
“They were going to be the first colonists on Epsilon 7,” said James, “but the ship malfunctioned and exploded before they left the launch pad.”
“Excellent,” said the instructor. “It appears you may learn a thing or two this year in spite of yourself.”
The class laughed and James laughed with them although he didn’t get the joke.
“One more, James, and you may sit down. What were the names of the colonists on Outbound I?”
James stammered for long seconds and felt his ears go hot. Just as he was about to confess his ignorance the instructor broke into a wide grin and the class roared.
“Just kidding, James!” he laughed. Nobody could remember all those names!”
James grinned broad and sat down relieved, his interrogation complete.
“Ok class, that’s enough of that” said the instructor, “I’d like to have you turn your attention to the wall screen, please and let’s take a look at Outbound II…”
This story is a response to the one-word prompt Fifty.
Now try this: A Difficult Decision – Short Short Story