The contest

Breakfast is at 7:30 sharp. The mess is hot with bodies, hungry and mean with boredom. I slept badly – I was on larvae duty last night, and that means broken sleep. They won’t be in the mess for a few weeks, until their induction is finished and they join the pool of pre-cons, and from the sounds of them it’s just as well. They seem younger every time, although they’re sixteen, the same age I was.

I catch up to Harvil in the serving row and let the staff slop some watery porridge into my bowl. I try to ignore the dried-on remnants of previous meals I spot before the rising tide of oats and milk submerges them.

“How’re you feeling?” I ask once we’ve sat down.

“I’m fine,” he says between mouthfuls. I might have believed him, but then he carries on, too brightly. “You know what the annoying thing is? I can’t leave her now. She’s already gone.”

Lish was called yesterday. She and Harvil had been a couple since they came here. It’s true that for days Harvil had talked about breaking up with her, although I’d learnt not to take these squalls too seriously, and I’d seen his face when her number rang out. I play along. “You never know – you might both make it, then you can leave her after all.” Harvil snorts into his porridge, but before he can reply, the hiss of live speakers fills the tent.

Good morning pre-cons. It is Wednesday July 12th, 2051. This is the morning call. This morning’s arena is Megiddo. Any contestant who successfully traverses the arena will be guaranteed safe passage home and immunity for their first child. Do we have a volunteer?

Silence. I look at Harvil – it’s not unheard of for someone to impulsively stand up and save the rest of us from selection, at least for one call. But he makes no movement. Nor does anyone else.

In the absence of volunteers, we will select a contestant. The selector for this call is Charybdis.

This prompts murmuring around the mess, some excited, some apprehensive. There are superstitions about the selectors, theories that they do not choose randomly.

This morning’s contestant is: zero, zero, three-

It’s not me. I don’t hear the rest of the numbers. Nor do I know the person who stands, shakily, on the far side of the hall, but I join in with the applause and table-banging that sees her out. She leaves without a fight, and unlike some, doesn’t make a speech or linger with friends. I wonder how long she’s been here.

The next contestant will be selected at 1pm. Goodbye.

We pour out of the mess, five thousand of us scattering into the endless sandy scrubland. Like every pre-con zone it’s barren to the horizon, except for a few structures: the heavy canvas of the mess; the wooden barracks where we sleep; the squat concrete induction building; and the checkpoint. That’s where this morning’s contestant will be now, ready to be driven into the tunnels that lead out of here.

Somewhere out there are the arenas. And beyond that, home.

Harvil has found a gaggle of newbies, fresh from induction, their regulation wear still clean. They’re easy to spot – soon they’ll fragment, drifting into smaller partnerships. Large groups just mean more people to be separated from. One newbie, who introduces himself as Ronder, is clearly the leader. He’s tall but not quite lanky, and he speaks with the authority of someone who believes entirely what he was told in induction, and for years before that: that this is necessary, even honourable. That this process, of random selection at sixteen followed by the arenas, is the fairest way of keeping the population in check.

“How long have you been here?” he asks. I tell him. I can see him thinking it: the average time before being called is two and a half years. I am overdue. He looks at me with slight distaste. I stare back.

A small, angry-looking girl breaks the silence. “Does anyone make a run for it?”

Harvil gestures widely. “Which direction?”

“Only a coward would run,” proclaims Ronder. I roll my eyes. “Come on Olsen,” he says to the girl, although the others snap to attention too. “Let’s go.” They walk off past some pre-cons doing shuttle runs in the dust. I’ve never seen the point of this. The contests aren’t screened here, and the arenas are modified regularly anyway, to stop anyone training for them or memorising a route they once saw. You might spend months working on your speed, only to be faced with water, or a sheer climb.

I start to move as well, but Harvil calls to the retreating group. “Do they still show the contests in induction?”

Ronder turns. “Yes. We missed the evening, though.”

“But the afternoon? In Châlons?” There’s a pleading note in Harvil’s voice. I realise now why he sought out the newbies.

“We saw it.” Ronder’s tone is guarded. They’re not supposed to tell other pre-cons about the contests.

“I know the contestant. She-” Harvil stops, then opts for the present tense. “She’s called Lish.”

The unspoken request hangs in the air, before Olsen speaks up. “She made it.” Harvil nods slowly, and thanks her. He doesn’t ask anything else. Ronder shoots her a look, but whether for telling a lie or the truth it’s impossible to know.

That night, back in my own bunk, I sleep well. Harvil, however, does not. He’s heavy-eyed and quiet in the morning. For a second day in a row I ask how he is. “Fine,” he mutters. But as soon as the speakers hiss into life he stands, staring straight ahead, not looking at me.

Volunteers get the loudest applause. As I clap and stamp my feet harder than ever, I can’t help but wonder who would do that for me, and to my surprise I realise that for the first time in years I am crying.

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