The hazy purplish-pink light of the dawn filtering through the partially open window hits my eyes, waking me instantly. I’ve never been a heavy sleeper. I’ve never had a chance to be. I’ve had to protect my little sister my whole life.
I climb out of bed and shuffle over to a wooden chest at the foot. I don’t bother making my bed; chances are I won’t be returning to it anyway.
I pull on a pair of boxer shorts and a tank top before padding out into the communal area of the small home I share with my sister. Our home isn’t what most on our planet would consider large or lavish. Even by our town’s standards, which are ridiculously small, our home is tiny.
I’m not what you’d call a small guy. Doing physical labor all my life means that I’ve grown quite larger than many of my peers.
My skin is on the darker side, but then so are most of the people here. Rain is slightly lighter than I am due to our mother, who was quite a bit lighter skinned. My hair is also dark. It’s true color is brown, but it’s so dark that it looks black except in the sunlight. Rain, on the other hand, has a beautiful brown, similar to the caramel that our grandmother told us about. Caramel was a sweet treat that the ancient humans would eat. I asked her once why ancient humans ate so many sweet things. She told me that it was just something that they enjoyed and, since sugar wasn’t expensive, they could enjoy it much more often than we do.
So, anyway, I’m a large fella and fitting in our miniscule shower is always a feat for me. I tend to not shower except for special occasions or if I get visibly dirty. Then again, most people are like that around here. Today, however, is a special occasion. It’s my little sister’s birthday.
My shower finished, I get dressed and go to wake Rayanna, my sister. I bang on her door as hard as I can. She hates when I do that, so, of course, I do it as much as possible.
“Get out of bed already,” I shout at her. I turn to go into the kitchen area and begin getting breakfast together.
I hear muffled from her room, “I’m up already, chill.” I chuckle to myself. I get our breakfast of a mushy, wheat-based hot cereal together and put it on the table with a bowl of sweetener.
I once heard that before humans left and came back to the planet, there was this stuff called sugar. It was a natural sweetener. According to old records, the ancient humans would use it on or in pretty much everything. Now, however, we only have a synthetic sweetener and not that much of it. We only use it for special days.
“Come and get your breakfast. You know today is a big day,” I shout to her, knowing it would annoy her. I hear her shuffling around in her room and finally come out to the main area.
“Hey, Sport,” I greet her using her nickname I gave her when she was younger. She sticks her tongue out at me. I laugh. I go to her and give her a one-armed side hug.
“Happy birthday, Rain. Breakfast is ready. Then we have to go.” She nods her head at me. I feel horrible. This day has been hell for her. She had the great misfortune of being born on the day of the Lottery.
The Lottery. Long ago, according to the ancient writings and screen logs, the lottery was something fun that the ancient humans would pay credits, uh money, to be a part of. If they won, they would get a bunch of money back.
Now, the lottery isn’t so benign. We gather in the center of town. We all take our turn to press the button. On the screen it will show either an “0” or an “X”. The entire thing is random. There are fifty that draw the “X.” If you draw an “X,” then you “win.” But there’s nothing winning about it. Those that “win” aren’t ever seen or heard from again. They get shipped off to another planet and no one knows what happens after that.
Rain believes that they are instantly put to death. I don’t think the Ghemin, the race that runs the Lottery, would be that merciful. I’ve heard stories about other races performing unspeakable experiments on the Lottery winners. Genetic experiments. Why? No one knows.
The Lottery only runs for citizens from the age of twenty-one to the age of thirty-five. Usually, there are around one hundred people between those ages. I’ve seen as many as two hundred and as little as sixty before. The more involved, the less likely to be chosen. Before and after, your life is pretty much your own. During those fourteen years, on the eighteenth of Birhios, our planet lives in constant fear.
I notice the sadness and worry in Rain’s eyes. I smile at her.
“Don’t worry. This will be my fifth year going through the Lottery, and I haven’t been chosen yet.”
She nods, but I still get the feeling that she doesn’t quite believe me.
We sit and eat our breakfast. This should be a day for celebration, after all, it’s not every day your little sister becomes an adult. The last sixteen years have been hard on her. Our mother died when she was three, she was chosen during the Lottery. Then our father died when she was five; he was attacked by a rabid pack of wolves. I’ve been taking care of her since.
After breakfast, we clean up and get ready to head out.
We step out of the small home onto the dusty, dirty streets. I look up at the yellow sky. I read once that the sky used to be blue, but our planet was destroyed by The War. Not just any war, because I know that our race and many other races have been through wars. No, this was The War; capital “T,” capital “W.” Two hundred years ago the countries that were here went to war. After eight years of fighting, it looked like there was going to be a winner, but then one of the countries launched a nuclear weapon. Then the other countries launched their own, one by one.
The entire planet was destroyed. What was left of our race, the humans, left the planet in search of one that wasn’t uninhabitable. For reasons we don’t know about, the humans returned about one hundred years ago. This would have been right around the time of Rain’s and my great-grandfather. He moved his family here and we’ve been here ever since. The Lottery started only about twenty years after our great-grandfather settled here. I like to think that if he knew what was to happen, he never would have had his family move here.
So, if it’s so horrible, why do we have the Lottery? Well, from the stories we’ve heard, which may or may not be accurate, it all started when the Ghemin showed up. They told everyone that a massive intergalactic war was coming; you know the kind. The war to end all wars. The apocalypse. Doomsday. Yadda yadda yadda. They needed soldiers. The problem was that no one would volunteer to fight in this so-called war.
That’s when they started the Lottery. The fifty chosen would be taken to another planet to train for this coming war. It’s been over eighty years since the first Lottery, and still, we’ve never heard of a war breaking out. Still, the Ghemin come every year and take unwilling participants to wherever it is they take them.
Rayanna asked me once what I think happens if someone doesn’t comply with the Lottery. I’ve only heard about it happening once, and I’ve never seen it for myself, but from what I’ve heard it’s worse than the Lottery itself. If someone doesn’t comply, they are shipped off to the neighboring planet to work day and night in the mines. Though this is only a rumor, and others, including Rain, have heard different theories, this one seems the most believable to me.
The planet near ours has Tinatina, which is a super valuable substance that powers spaceships and allows for interstellar flight.
Rain grabs my hand, breaking me out of my daydreaming. She gives me a tight smile, and I feel her shaking. I squeeze her hand and give her a small, comforting smile back. I don’t think it helped though because she takes one shaky breath to steady herself.
We reach the center of town, where there is already a large crowd gathered. In the center of the gathering place, two large silver ships rest behind the Genetix Lab, waiting to take the unfortunate fifty to wherever it is they take them. In front of the building is a platform with a large white screen in the middle of it. Three steps on either side lead up to the platform. Already, there is a group of about twenty or so gathered off to the side of the platform. They have drawn the “X” and are only waiting for their fate.
Standing all around are the Ghemin soldiers. They are the race that controls the Lottery and Genetix Lab. They wear full metal suits all the time. No one that I know of has seen what a Ghemin looks like, just those suits with their eerie yellow visor. It’s rumored that they are, or at least used to be, human. After all, they have the same basic shape as a human, two arms, two legs and they walk bipedal. They sound vastly different though and the language they use to communicate with one another is not like any language I’ve heard before.
Before we can get in line, we have to check in. They take our names and ages, then we walk through the Identity Scanners and then get in line at the affectionately named “Death Button.”
We stand in line for around 30 minutes or so before we reach the platform. During this time, I count how many have drawn the “X.” If fifty people draw it before we get there, they shut everything down and we can go home. Unfortunately, this is not the case this year. Before Rain steps onto the platform, I turn and smile at her. She smiles back.
I watch her gather herself and reach her hand out to the large, red button and push down on it. On the screen, a large “X” and “0” flash by quickly before finally slowing. The breath in my lungs wheezes out and my shoulders drop. Displayed on the screen is a solid black “X” on a plain white background. Soldiers usher her off to the side to stand with the others that have drawn an “X.”
Rain is staring at me in disbelief. By my count, her “X” was the 49th of the day. I watch her as I ascend the platform to the button. I gingerly place my hand down and slowly push the button. Again, the “X” and “0” flash by quickly before stopping.