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CHAPTER 1: PENULTIMATE
Tomorrow is the day that I die. I’ve known this since the day that I was born, just over 18 months ago. Now that I think about it, I’m not sure born is the right word for it. Extracted? Produced? Manufactured? I don’t suppose it really matters.
Here I am, just over 24 hours from certain death, and instead of enjoying my last few hours in this dismal place I’m facing my worst nightmare. It’s cold, damp, and muddy, as it always seems to be. Towering before me is the monkey bars. I hate every part of this assault course, but I reserve a special place on my shit list for this endless parade of upper body torture.
I stand at the side, watching a stream of far fitter candidates traverse the bars like they nothing. Frank gives me a nudge on his way past, which is hard enough to bruise. He doesn’t do anything gently. Of course he’s lapping me. As if running the course once wasn’t enough physical torture, he’s voluntarily doing it again for fun. I’ve tried stressing to him the risks of doing unnecessary exercise this close to the final exam, but he’s not great at listening, particularly when I use the R word. Frank eats risks for breakfast, or so he would have us all believe.
Frank stops halfway down the monkey bars to turn and wave at me, effortlessly hanging from one hand. His mop of ginger hair contrasts sharply with the grey and brown palette of our home. He shouts in my general direction, “When you’re done with your little pitstop Bumble, feel free to join the rest of us over here at the finish line.” With that he swings off again, leaving me to face the first mud coated bar. I can’t stand here all day. I know, I’ve tried.
The first couple of swings aren’t so bad, but just as I’m finding my rhythm I lose my grip with my left hand. It’s too much for my other arm to handle, and down I tumble into the mud. Technically I’m supposed to go back to the start of the obstacle, but I’ve had enough for today. If it was anyone else they would be teased mercilessly for giving up so easily, but the other candidates gave up on teasing me a long time ago. I am expected to fail. It’s what I do.
I begin the trudging walk of shame through the thick brown mud, inching slowly towards the finish line. I look up and see Frank smirking back at me, his oversized hand reaching out to pull me free. I should refuse it, prove to him I still have some pride, but the truth is I don’t. This place stomped it into the dirt a long time ago. I stretch out my arm and he effortlessly drags me out and onto dry land. He chuckles and his muscles ripple, “You’ll get to the end of the course one of these days.”
I try wiping the mud from my legs but only succeed in smearing it around, “Seeing as tomorrow is my last chance I hope you’re right.”
“You could always have another go at it…”
I can’t tell if he’s joking or serious. Sometimes I’m not sure he even knows. I shake my head, mud flying everywhere, “No thank you. I’m ready for lunch.”
We make our way down the endlessly drab corridors. This place is a warren of dead ends and circular paths, like the architect got drunk halfway through the plans and just joined the dots. You’d think our keeper could at least colour code the areas to provide some bearings, but if there’s one thing Eve is not it is decorative. Or wasteful. Or forgiving. Ok, that’s three things, but there are plenty more choice words I could rattle off if I didn’t think it would get me killed even sooner.
I stare at the small glass dome on the ceiling and feel Eve watching me. There’s nowhere in this place that escapes her watchful gaze, and I do mean nowhere. I would be shy about it, but I already live with a hundred guys and no shower curtains. I lost all sense of shame a long time ago. It’s vacationing with my pride.
You might be wondering where are all the women? Believe me, we’ve collectively spent a long time wondering the exact same thing. There are rumours that there are thousands of women just outside our colony, patiently waiting to jump their future mate. Unfortunately for me only the fittest and strongest make it out of here alive, so I have more chance of becoming a woman than ever meeting one.
At least we have one woman in our lives. Kind of. Eve is always there, watching over us, ranking us, deciding who is fit to leave. She is our judge, jury and for most of us executioner. No-one has ever met her, although some claim that she’s young and beautiful and this is all an elaborate ruse to find her perfect breeding partner. If that’s true there must be an easier way to have sex.
Not that I would know. Sex is strictly forbidden in the colony. It’s a shame I can’t get that message through to my subconscious. I may only be 18 months old but I have the body of an eighteen year old, with all the baggage that comes with, even if I did skip right past puberty. Somehow I think that has made it worse, none of us know how to deal with these complex emotions. Most of us haven’t even fully got to grips with the simple ones.
There are lots of theories as to why sex is banned here. My guess is that Eve wants us full of testosterone and ready to kill each other when the time comes. Did I mention that’s tomorrow? It may have come up already.
I’m caked in mud and sweat, but there’s no shower for us today. It isn’t Thursday, and Eve doesn’t like to waste water. She doesn’t like to waste anything. You might say she’s an efficiency expert. I’d call her stingy. Not to her face though, if I ever saw it. I can’t help but imagine a grumpy old lady, scowling disapprovingly at each of us in turn. My turn would be far longer than anyone else’s.
I guess I can’t really blame Eve for her environmental conservation efforts, water is our most valuable commodity. There’s almost no rain since the ozone layer finally gave in, instead there is just this constant humidity that is impossible to shake. It oozes out of every wall. It doesn’t bear thinking about how many times the water we drink has been recycled. It was probably piss not even 24 hours ago. It’s been piss a hundred times already. It spends most of it’s time as piss. During our early obstacle courses we had to swim a mile, but recently the lake has been empty. I’m surprised Eve doesn’t just fill the lake with piss, it would save resources with the added bonus of making the obstacle a whole lot less fun, two of her favourite things.
When we reach the cafeteria I join the back of the lunch queue. Frank has no patience for such niceties. He barges right to the front of the line. No-one’s going to argue with him. He’s by far the biggest and strongest one here, the alpha male of our group, the top dog. I inhabit the opposite end of the spectrum. If there was a vote for bottom dog, I’d be odds on favourite.
This discrepancy is made all the more amusing by the fact that Frank’s my room mate. Everyone else was paired with candidates of similar abilities, and then there’s Frank and I, the odd couple. Strangely it works. Frank’s so competitive about everything that I couldn’t imagine him being bunked with someone that could actually compete with him. They’d both be doing a hundred pushups before breakfast. I’ve probably done a hundred pushups total in the 554 days I’ve been alive and that’s only because I was forced to. There are other benefits too. Frank looks out for me, watches my back, makes sure I’m not the victim of an unfortunate ‘training accident’ like those that claimed the lives of several of our weaker class mates. It’s the only reason that I’ve survived as long as I have.
All the larger candidates cut the line so I make very little progress towards lunch. This is fine by me, it’s hardly a gourmet feast I’m waiting for. The substance that is pumped from the rusty nozzles is exactly the calories we need to survive, no more. It has no colour or taste. Why would it? It is designed to serve one purpose, to keep us functional. We are just another resource to be optimized. I’d love to know what Eve is eating up there in the control tower. I’m fairly certain it isn’t this grey paste.
I finally get my bowl of slop and Frank waves me over to his table with a big grin. I reluctantly trot over to join him. He’s finishing up his lunch already. I’m barely seated when he says, “So how’s your day going Bumble?”
I sigh into my mush, “Why won’t you call me Ben?”
“Cause I know how much it bothers you.” He slaps me on the back a little too hard. I think he was going for playful. I sense the others at the table staring at me, so I force out a laugh, “Maybe I’ll come up with an amusing nickname for you.”
He pours the last spoonful into his mouth and keeps talking, showering me with goop, “Call me whatever you like little brother, everyone here know’s who I am.”
I’m the only one Frank calls little brother. Technically we are both the same age, we share the same production date. I’ve never figured out if it’s a term of endearment or patronization. I don’t think Frank even knows what those terms mean. He carries on, completely oblivious, “You were looking pretty slow out there today, even for you. You saving your energy for the big day tomorrow?”
I wish that were true. It would be the smart thing to do. Tomorrow’s assault course plays an important part in the final exam, although Eve has been suspiciously quiet about the exact ramifications. You can bet it’s going to be more important than my extensive knowledge of human history. There’s no room in the outside world for the weak. It is survival of the fittest, in every sense. Eve only selects the finest specimens to graduate. Every year a handful of candidates are released into the wild. The rest of us are rejected as failures of the cloning process, anomalies to be ironed out in the next batch, like a cook perfecting a recipe. What happens to the defects? Let’s just say the returns policy sucks.
None of this works in my favour. I’m tall and skinny, not in the lean and wiry sense, but in a gangly, uncoordinated way. The daily tests have repeatedly proven that I am not athletic, strong or competitive. I’m not a hunter, a farmer or a fighter. I am a forager, a scavenger, a pacifist. I’m the scholar, in an environment where being smart gets you nothing but dead. Basically I’m the guy everyone is hoping they are matched against tomorrow.
I realize I still haven’t answered Frank’s question, “Of course, got to save my energy. I don’t want to give away all my secret moves. I plan to surprise a few people.”
Frank’s laugh echo’s throughout the cantina, “I bet you do little brother, I bet you do.” He eye’s the rest of my lunch and I push it towards him, just like I have every other day. I’m used to surviving on less.
I know I’m one of the weaker candidates, but that doesn’t mean I’m giving up. If I am forced to fight I’m taller than some, with a longer reach. I have pretty good aim with a rock or spear, if I get enough time to throw them. The only small problem is I hate violence. Unless I can talk my way out of a fight to the death, that’s probably going to be an issue.
I watch the rest of the candidates carefully, trying to decide who the best match would be for me. The weaker guys tend to stay in a pack, safety in numbers. For some reason I wasn’t invited. Their favourite pastime is poker, they play it for hours with a homemade deck. Gambling is also technically forbidden here, but poker is one of the few times Eve has turned a blind eye. I’m sure she enjoys checking out their respective hands on the cameras. At least that is what I would do.
Hamish breaks away from the poker game. He’s trying to hide a limp. He’s pushed himself too hard this morning and now he’s paying the price. A lower ranking in the race tomorrow probably means he’ll be up against a tougher opponent. It’s unlikely we’d be paired against each other. Shame.
In the other corner I see George quietly muttering to himself. He’s been unravelling for weeks. One day he was fine, the next he’s barely coherent. This place has taken it’s toll on all of us. With only one more day until the final test there are a lot of people considering their options. Two or three will try to kill themselves tonight. At least twice that many will try to escape. No-one will be successful. There is no leaving this place unless it is on her terms.
I hate this feeling of helplessness that the end is nigh. I do what I do best, retreat. I retrieve my bag from a nearby cubby and fumble inside it for my homework. Eve has assigned us all final presentations and of course mine is about bee’s. That’s really not helping with my nickname, but at least it means I don’t need to study. I know more about bee’s than anyone else here.
Still, it’s an excuse to read some of the few remaining books on the topic from the library that I haven’t already devoured. This latest book was filed in the wrong section and it was pure chance that I found it, thanks primarily to the garish black and yellow cover. I’m not really learning anything I don’t already know, but the act of escaping into a book is reward enough for the effort.
I flip through the tatty pages of the book until I reach the one with the folded edge. I’m just starting to read when Frank pokes his finger into the book. “You still reading about bees? I’ve already heard you practice your presentation, it’s fine as it is. It doesn’t even count in the final test.”
I clutch the book to my chest, “You know that I find bee’s interesting. I haven’t read this book before, it’s nice to have some new reading material.”
“What good is it going to do you out there in the wild? You’d be much better off reading about self defence or survival tactics.”
How can I explain to him that I don’t expect to ever leave this place. That books are the closest I will ever come to escaping these walls. He will never understand. For him tomorrow is the start of his new life. For me it’s my use-by date.
Frank reaches over and snatches the book from me. He holds it at arms length. I can feel my pulse racing and my cheeks darkening. I lean over and try to grab it back, but he dangles it just out of reach. Other people notice and start to laugh. He chuckles at my feeble attempts, “What if I was a hungry bear, come to take your honey? How would you defend your precious bees?”
I punch him hard in the chest, but he barely flinches. He bellows so everyone can hear, “Come on little brother, there’s no room for softness out there. If you want this back then come and take it.”
There’s a crowd gathering now, and the cameras are all swivelling to face us. This is far too much attention for my liking. Brute force is out of the question, obviously. I could appeal to his better nature, but there are too many people watching and he’s a born showman. My only option is to take away the show.
“Ok Frank, you win, keep the book.”
I turn and walk away. There is a collective sigh from everyone that was hoping to see me take a beating. It’s at this moment the buzzer sounds and everyone hurries off to their next lesson, leaving Frank without an audience. He chases after me and thrusts the book back into my hands with a grunt, “Don’t sulk, I’m just trying to help.”
I’m about to put the book away when I notice a grainy photograph. I don’t pay it much attention, but something about it catches my eye. I slip the book back into my bag and make a mental note to look at it later.
I know deep down he’s probably feeling bad so I try to give him a break, “Frank, it’s entirely possible I’m beyond help.”
His eyes light up, “The good news is I get one last chance to toughen you up. We have our last sparring class now. Fancy showing me what you’ve got?”
No, I certainly do not. I find myself dragging my feet, but Frank pulls me along with no apparent effort. He gives me the usual lecture, “As I keep reminding you, you need to take this seriously. You’re going to need these skills one day. Life is one long fight. You never give up, you never back down and no matter how much it hurts you keep going. Understood?”
“I don’t want to fight anyone, let alone life itself.”
“Then you’ll never make it out of here alive.”
A part of me hopes he is right. I am not designed for life outside these walls.
Want to find out what happens in Chapter 2? The Colony is available now from Amazon (here)