Red Zero by Jonathan Wainwright

With training nearly complete the prize was tantalisingly close, Alison could almost touch and smell success. It was exciting and she was nearly there. Pure joy in achievement. Just one little baby step left and the prize that she yearned for was hers. And all at the tender age of twenty-two.

For years she had stuck to gruelling schedules, agonised through injury, and pushed herself to the absolute limit and beyond. She had put everything into this challenge, dedicating her learning and career development to achieving the necessary goals to make it possible. She had carefully planned and calculated every step of the way through the Academy.

And then without any warning, she was dealt a cruel blow. A ‘Curved ball’ was thrown into the mix, and everything changed. She was devastated, felt cheated, with the ground taken away from beneath her feet.

Alison’s early childhood had been rather empty and barren, but very directed. Both parents were absorbed in business, so a series of Nannies guided her through the initial years of life. They had been carefully chosen for their knowledge of child development and ability to instil a work ethic, and desire for success, within the young girl.

Then boarding school toughened her up and educated her with the social graces. It worked too.  As a teenager her work ethic and discipline were astonishing. Once Alison applied herself to a ask, her motivation was unswerving. She never deviated until the job was complete.

Adults were in awe of her resolve. It was so steely for one so young. And, generally, she excelled at every task in hand. But ‘Merely doing it’ wasn’t enough for Alison, the work had to be completed to a high degree of perfection and she set herself impossibly high standards.

The situation she now found herself in, involved chance. That’s why Alison liked schedules, you simply followed them. Chance wasn’t allowed, success was just single-minded grit. Should you fail, it was all down to you, no-one else to blame. That’s the way Alison liked it, to stand or fall based upon your contribution. Never having to rely upon others who didn’t have quite the same motivation and who would often let you down.

She was beautiful too, a social magnet and centre of attraction at any gathering; well, nearly all of them. But like most things in life, nothing is that straightforward. Where there’s a ‘Yin’ there’s also a ‘Yang’. And Alison’s ‘Yang’ was just as smart, cunning and every bit as motivated and was called Amanda. She mirrored Alison, ready to pounce and steal the glory if she could.

To look at her you wouldn’t think butter would melt in her mouth. She was a sweet little thing. But that was her strength, people underestimated her resolve until it was too late. She was a formidable competitor, uncompromising and single minded.

They both regularly swapped honours for the top spot, it was neck and neck between them. And they excelled across the board, from Interpersonal relationships to Astro physics and Botany. It was ‘Nip and tuck’ between them - they could have been clones.

Outside of class they maintained a healthy respect for each other and whilst their social lives didn’t cross, they did occasionally meet for a drink. Their lives shared similar patterns. Both sets of parents rather distant and demanding, few expressions of love as they grew up and no other siblings, they were lone children. This sounds like they had an unhappy childhood, but this was far from the truth, they both had amazing opportunities to explore and try new ideas and sports, to find out what really excited them. Extraordinary, as very few other children had such an opportunity to explore and discover like this.

And that’s how they both ended up in the Academy. The winner would have the chance of incredible exploration, pushing this journey to the very limits of humankind. But they needed to be rounded people, the complete package. Psychologist, Navigator, Hero, Motivator, Leader,

Organiser plus the ability to react analytically in a hostile environment. They would be competing to be the best of the best. Every aspect of their physicality and mentality would be examined, tested, and measured. This wasn’t for the faint hearted. It would lay their souls bare. Nothing would be left to chance.

Then fate stepped in. At the start they were never competing against each other to participate. They were competing to be leader. That’s when the accountants gained leverage, and budgets cut as the public perception of their task shifted from natural human exploration to Billionaire’s greed. So, edges were shaved, and specifications trimmed. Rhetoric was adjusted to become greener, and some would say, woke. And, rather than two roles, thanks to the ever-increasing development of Artificial Intelligence, it became one, just days before the decision was due to be made.

There was no way of separating them, they were both equals. Matriculation Boards tried to assess how to compare them and failed miserably. They couldn’t agree how to decide between Alison and Amanda. They were like cojoined Siamese twins. Two admirable and astonishing candidates.

This was the ‘Curved ball.’ The decision makers decided to leave choice to fate. The candidates would draw lots. Two years from both their lives would be crystalised down into a decision made by chance and chance alone. It was ‘Winner takes all,’ with no runner up; AI, PR and budgets had seen to that.

From Alison and Amanda’s viewpoint, this was a nightmare. They now had no control whatsoever over their fate. It seemed worse than a life-or-death decision. The ticket had to be a ‘Red zero.’ “Please let it be, please,” Alison murmured to herself as she thought about the draw.

Six months ago, she had been carefree, with no worries or serious commitments. Life was good, the route forward clear and nothing left to chance. Now, everything was uncertain, changed in the blink of an eye, “Please let it be red zero,” she spoke quietly. How could she guarantee it? She had pondered over this for months. Studied the rules of chance and probability. Nothing she could identify would put the draw in her favour.

Within 5 minutes the prize would be decided. The Victor awarded and Champion crowned.

There was a shake to Alison’s hand. Her eyes narrowed and lips pursed slightly as she caught sight of the tickets being loaded into the tumbling container. She needed to keep calm for the next stage, she must maintain physical control, it was essential to her plan working.

It was agreed that Alison would draw first. She took a ticket and unfolded it. ‘Red one.’ Her heart sank with a shiver and damp flesh crawled with disgust. Now it was Amanda’s turn. A ‘Red one’ too. Alison was off the hook in this penalty shoot-out. Taking a second ticket Alison quickly started to unfold it, then stopped. As she continued, it looked like another ‘Red one,’ was revealed, but no-one could be sure. She froze, time stood still, and Alison was lost in a private moment. As she withdrew her hand from the box, with palpable relief, it became clear that the ticket was a ‘Red zero.’

A thousand thoughts flooding through her mind; happy, joyous, thrilled, excited, celebratory, ecstatic; the whole nine yards of an emotional journey pure of mind and thought and wholly unique to her way of thinking. She had won the place and achieved her goal. Adrenaline surged through her, and she felt elated. Now it would be, Commander Alison Dubcek, Chief Astronaut, Mars project. An astonishing achievement decided by brutal chance.

But this isn’t quite the end of the story. Unbeknown to Alison the draw was filmed using a high speed, slo-mo camera. This captured what the eye couldn’t see, so every movement of the draw was recorded. And the camera never lies, it clearly showed that Alison had two tickets in her hand, and she had carefully decided, using sleight of hand, which one to discard.

Once the decision to make the choice by draw had been announced, Alison had embarked on training with the Magic circle. Switching tickets using sleight of hand seemed to her to be the only logical way to stack the odds in her favour, despite the dubious morality. She wasn’t aware of the camera, and without it she would have got away with the deception.

But she didn’t, so with Alison summarily fired and dishonourably let go from the programme, the Leader’s role was awarded to Amanda. But that wasn’t the end of our story. As despite cheating, Alison was snapped up by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin Space Exploration team. Their attitude to coming first had opposing values to those of Elon Musk. They viewed the Magic Circle lessons and deception skills as creative problem solving, something to be applauded and essential on a 35-million-mile journey.

And with one further stroke of luck, the Blue Origin team reached Mars first.

Published in Issue #22

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