A Throw of the Dice by Pippa Goldschmidt
You’d think a spacecraft would be all new and shiny and a great place to live, but in fact it’s not that different to the homeless hostel. And while I was told that I was chosen for this mission because of my mathematical skills, I actually think it was because I know how to live in a very confined space with a bunch of other people who aren’t particularly likeable. Scotty, Qwfwf and Eagle. Not our real names, of course, we had a baptismal ceremony as soon as we’d escaped Earth’s atmosphere. I felt reborn as Eagle ran a wetwipe over my forehead and pronounced me Hotspur.
‘After the football team?’ Scotty asked, but I shook my head.
The spacecraft is named Uhuru. Eagle wanted to rename it too, but I pointed out we could hardly go outside and paint over the silver letters.
Uhuru means ‘peace’ and Mars is the planet of war. This hasn't been mentioned in any of our training - I suppose it isn’t a proper scientific fact.
At this point in the journey there’s a lot of spare time. We tend the hydroponics, the water purifiers, the protein generators. We exercise. Mustn’t let our muscles atrophy, we’re going to be working hard once we’re there!
As we pull the elastic bands, we talk.
‘What do you miss?’ Scotty asks us.
The smell of woodsmoke.
My gran’s cat.
Not your gran?
No, just her cat.
‘Can it,’ says Eagle, ‘that way lies trouble. No more talk about ‘missing’ or ‘wanting’ or ‘regrets’.’
He’s right of course. He’s always right, and I’m beginning to dislike him for it.
‘What's that?’ asks Qwfwf.
I show her my lucky dice. At least - back home I thought it was lucky, unless you count the bank going under and the homelessness.
I try and throw them, but of course it doesn’t work without gravity and the little cube just hangs there, as if it’s been cut off in mid-sentence.
‘Wait,’ says Qwfwf and she fetches a plastic container. I put the dice into the container and shake it vigorously then I slide the container towards me, revealing the dots on the worn wooden surfaces.
We play and it’s fun. I surprise myself by telling her about the bank and the hostel and she goes a bit quiet. But we carry on playing.
‘I used to play scrabble,’ she announces, ‘I was quite good at it.’
And I get an image of a younger Qwfwf staring intently at a row of random letters and trying to make some order out of them.
‘What's that?’ asks Eagle.
‘Nothing,’ I say at the same time as Qwfwf says, ‘Dice.’
So now he knows I want to hide things from him.
He’s not much good at first and I’m relieved, but I soon realise how foolish that is. He insists we all play together as a team-building exercise.
Days X to Y
It becomes a habit after dinner. After we’ve slurped down the vacpacs and allowed ourselves one small piece of fresh fruit.
‘Gather round,’ Eagle tells us, holding up the dice. We do as we’re told, and maybe that’s why we’ve been picked for this mission.
‘Let’s make this a bit more exciting,’ Eagle says. ‘Why doesn’t the winner actually win something? We’ve all got something we don’t want to lose.’
And I nod my head, along with the others.
Eagle rolls the dice again. Another six. ‘What you got, Qwfwf?’
She blinks at him before producing from her pocket a small plastic dog. The sort that might be given away as a free toy in a packet of cereal. Her eyes shine with sadness as she hands it to Eagle. And I’m sad too because nobody in our new home on Mars will ever know what that dog meant to her.
‘Not enough, sweety,’ and he looks at her the way you’d look at something you want to eat, ‘What else you got?’
I can’t get to sleep that night. There’s an extra layer of noise on top of Uhuru’s usual creaks and rattles. A noise that reminds me of an animal being hunted in a forest. I give up and turn on my light and I stare at the dice floating above my head, but it’s too late to do anything. I’d throw it in the waste system, but we’re forced to carry our rubbish with us, all the way to Mars.
None of us has anything left to lose, apart from Eagle who has now accumulated all our private belongings.
Qwfwf throws the dice. Three. She doesn’t look at Eagle, she doesn’t look at any of us.
Scotty gets a four.
I get a two.
That leaves Eagle. Six again.
I open my hands wide. ‘Got nothing left, Eagle. You took it all.’
He doesn’t even bother to smile, ‘You know the law.’
Law? Did he just use that word? ‘But I haven’t got anything to give you.’
A pause. Then, ‘We’ve got a whole planet.’
‘A planet?’ I don't understand.
‘A planet that’s bigger than the Earth, and all for us. Do you want the poles? The ice caps? They’ll be more valuable than the desert. Unless of course there are minerals in the desert. Which there are bound to be.’
We all sit and stare at him - apart from Qwfwf who stares at her hands as if they don’t belong to her any more.
‘I’ll take the Northern Ice Cap,’ says Scotty, so suddenly I feel a jolt.
‘You can't do that,’ says Qwfwf, ‘that contravenes the United Nations treaty on outer space, which stops anyone staking claims on planets.’
‘That treaty is behind the times,’ Eagle pauses and his eyes, I notice now, are raptor-like, hooded and sharp, ‘It only forbids nation states to stake claims, not individual persons. In any case, what are you going to do about it? That’s Earth law. And we’re not in Kansas any more, Toto.’
Now he stares at me, ‘What about you, Hotspur?’
Never has my new name felt so inappropriate. ‘I’ll take that mountain – the biggest one,’ I mumble. I try and picture it but I have a feeling I won’t be owning it for very long.
And I’m right. Eagle throws a succession of sixes, and wins from the rest of us the ice caps, the water locked up in them, the mountains, the deserts and all the mineral rights beneath them.
Eagle is the first to step down onto the red rocky surface, which is only fitting now that he is the owner of the entire planet. The rest of us troop down the steps behind him. The United Nations flag we’ve carried all the way from Earth and never unfurled is left behind in Uhuru.