Sometimes the crowd is wrong. Sometimes the group leads everyone astray. Sometimes the bandwagon leads to destruction.
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“How long have you known?” She paced up and down in front of me, her long hair swirling around her agitation as she interrogated me.
“If I said: long enough, would that be a cliché?” I smiled my crooked smile into her scowling blue eyes. “Okay, I’ve known since I got out.”
“You were inside?” Lucia stopped in mid-stride, wisps of blond hair caught across her face with the sudden motion.
I nodded; the smile sloughed off my face.
“How did you…?” She left the question hanging in the air between us. I thought about answering. My mind flashed back across the month since I’d been in the games, the months before that it took me to find a way out, and the scars I would bear forever.
She let it drop.
“What we need to do is to let everyone else know what’s going on,” I changed the subject to one only slightly less painful. She nodded and went back to pacing. The rhythmic click-clack of her calf-high leather boots on the bare concrete echoed through the warehouse. We were hiding and hoping to finish our job before they found us.
“Right,” Lucia said, “first we need to get our evidence.” She ticked off the items on her fingers as she paced. “Then we need to identify the best way to get the information out. Then we need to actually get the evidence to them. Finally, we need to get away.”
I shook my head, but she didn’t see me through the cloud of her hair. “No,” I said.
She kept pacing and muttering to herself.
I cleared my throat and spoke again, “No.” The sound came back to us from the far wall of the building. Her heels made a small screeching sound as she stopped in front of me.
“To what part?”
“We won’t make it out. We won’t get away.” I looked at my feet as I delivered her death sentence. Mine had already been handed down; it was just suspended temporarily. Lucia was young enough to have never thought about her own death. For that matter I was too, but life didn’t afford me the same luxury it had her.
“Marco, what do you mean?”
“I mean that if we’re doing this, there won’t be a way out. The evidence is, um, not very portable.”
“What does that mean? Stop speaking in riddles.”
“Sorry,” I looked up into her eyes again. She wasn’t angry anymore. “Lucia, I’m the evidence. They need me to prove what’s been going on inside. And I need someone to protect me while they figure all that out.”
She just shook her head and squeezed her eyes shut.
“Lucia, if I wanted to survive I would have left a long time ago. I didn’t break out for me. I broke out for everyone left inside.”
When she opened her eyes again they glistened with moisture. She swallowed and clenched her jaw before responding. “Okay, I’m ready.”
I still don’t know if she was, but we proceeded like it was true. We found the journalist who had been most opposed to the games, the one who had taken the most flak, the one who had stood the longest in the face of opposition. We read everything he’d written about the games. We read his book. We read his articles. We read his blog. Finally, we felt like we could trust him with what we knew.
Lucia contacted him first. She didn’t have any flags on her profile that would alert the authorities. She’d been especially careful to never say anything about her opposition to the games in any electronic format. She only spoke to people in person, and only after they’d left all of their devices behind. The abandoned warehouse got a lot of visitors during that time. We had to be careful and we had to be sure. I wouldn’t survive otherwise. Not that survival was at the top of my priority list, but I needed to stay alive long enough to deliver the evidence. After that…
The journalist agreed to meet us. Ned Stein had been writing about the games since before I was born. He had always been opposed to them, but more recently his opposition had turned from subtle digs at those who watched the games into all-out vituperation toward the entire industry. Each volley he lobbed made him more a target, brought more sanctions, took away more opportunities, but still he persisted. He believed. I didn’t, not until I was on the inside. Not until I’d played in the games.
When you watch from the outside the games seem like the perfect distraction. They’re fun; they’re filled with cheering and hope. The players are brash and jocular, or humble and competent, or excitable and angry. The players are playing a part. Their lives depend on it. Not a one of them goes home after the games are over. They all pretend to have lives and families outside the game, but none of them actually do. They’re convicts, sentenced to death, sentenced to the games.
I know this isn’t a new idea. They’ve been doing it on a large scale since the time of the Roman Empire and before that into the mists of prehistory. People have always used those they deem as less for their entertainment. Governments have always used entertainment to numb the masses and reinforce the necessary patriotism for the rulers to maintain power in the face of the suffering people. It’s not new. That’s the problem. If it were new then maybe people wouldn’t accept it, maybe they wouldn’t keep watching, maybe they would eschew the violence and human trafficking that are required for their entertainment. Maybe.
This iteration of the games is nearly flawless. The illusion of competition draped over the real struggle of each person to simply survive. They made us promises. At first the promises were of fame and fortune. They pointed to the facade of all the stars in the games before us as the proof that we should join them. They did not point to the retired stars that chose to end their own lives rather than continue living with what they had done — or what had been done to them. They didn’t tell us about the restrictions. They didn’t tell us about the mandatory medical treatments. They didn’t tell us very much at all. They didn’t have to. We wanted what they were selling us. We wanted to play in the games. All of our heroes were in the games and we wanted to be like them.
Most of us came from poor families. The games were akin to a lottery — an offer of hope that was too powerful in the face of our daily despair. When the recruiters approached us and spoke of fabulous income, the chance to give something back to our suffering community, the chance to rise out of the ghetto and take our families with us, we stopped listening there. I’ve heard that it’s the same when someone gets bad news; they hear the diagnosis or the termination or the divorce and stop processing new information after that. We did the same when we heard about what we might be able to do for our families.
Almost immediately after signing the contract we were taken to a camp. They called it boot camp. We lost all contact with the outside. We trained fourteen hours each day and slept the rest. A few couldn’t keep up or were injured during training. They wept like children while the trainers dragged them away. We never saw them again.
After boot camp we were divided into gaming teams by our ratings. The teams took turns picking the people they wanted based on the ratings from the boot camp. They celebrated the selections. They showed the families of the selected players cheering in the streets when a pick was made. Hope is a powerful drug.
So is fear.
They kept the images of our families cheering. They played those images for us regularly. If we didn’t perform up to expectations a coach would show us the video. Usually they didn’t speak. They just sat us down in a dark room with a video screen and showed us our happy, cheering loved ones. I found out later — through secret conversations — that sometimes the coach would ask questions. “Do you want your family to keep being happy?” “Do you want them to be disappointed in you?” “Do you want them to keep getting the checks?” “Do you want them to suffer because of you?”
Nothing overt was said, but enough was implied. Our families were hostages to our performance. We were buying their safety with our bodies.
“Are you ready?” Ned asked me.
I nodded while Lucia squeezed my hand. She had barely stopped crying in the weeks since we had decided to go through with our plan. She wasn’t making things any easier. The only reason I’d been able to escape is because my family had gotten in an accident. I still don’t know if it was retaliation against me by my coach for not playing well or an attempt at sabotage by another team’s coach so I wouldn’t play well in the future. Either way it broke their hold over me. Now Lucia tried to take their place. I had rebuffed her advances a dozen times. She was attractive to be sure, and I admired her courage in following me into certain death, but I couldn’t let myself feel again. Not that way. I like to think that she understood.
“Okay, Marco,” Ned spoke softly, clearly, “I’m going to begin. I’ll tell you what I’m doing as I do it. This is being recorded — both what we’re saying and doing, and your medical information — do you understand?”
“Yes,” I replied.
“Good. Do you have anything to say before we begin?”
“Just that…” I thought of the words that had been on my tongue waiting for an audience. They felt odd now. Like they didn’t fit the reality of what I had imagined. Like they couldn’t convey enough of anything. Like they would crumble under the weight I was asking them to bear. “…I want to say that I am doing this freely.” My voice cracked and warbled as I tried to force the words past the lump in my throat. I swallowed and continued, “I’m doing this freely because I think the world needs to know about the games. It needs to know what happens. It needs to know what the results are. It needs to know the cost.”
Those weren’t the exact words that I wanted to say, but they were close enough. Good enough.
“Thank you, Marco,” Ned spoke gently, “I’m going to administer the anesthetic now. This will numb your skin, but keep you alert and aware of everything else that’s going on.”
I felt my skin fade away in a tingle.
“Next I’m going to make an incision on your thigh,” Ned narrated his actions. “Notice that as I expose the muscles there is significant scarring of the tissue. That’s a result of the micrografting of non-human fibers into the muscle tissue. See here and here,” he gestured as much to the cameras positioned around the island of light in the middle of the darkened warehouse as to the two people there with him.
Lucia gasped and looked away. I hated that she had to see this, but we needed her.
“Next I’ll move aside the muscle tissue to expose the femur.” He inserted metal devices in my leg and pushed the muscle apart. It felt like a gigantic tick burrowing into my leg. Ned went on, “Notice the carbon-fiber reinforcements on the bone. They help the bone to have greater strength, but also to heal from a break while still being usable. Notice this break here—” he tapped on my bone with a metal instrument. The feeling made me twitch. “—Sorry. The edges of the break here and here,” he pointed without touching, “show that the leg was in full use while it healed.”
He continued to examine my body for the camera. He showed scars, repairs, enhancements, and all the while I watched him dismantle me. I saw the inside of my leg and my arm, my abdomen and even my face with the aid of a mirror. But the end of the examination was something I couldn’t witness. It was what the world needed to see most of all.
After some hasty stitching of the wounds on the front of my body — and the aggressive clotting of my genetically modified blood — I was flipped over on the exam table. Ned kept narrating what he was doing the entire time, but my thoughts drifted. I still didn’t know what had actually happened to my family and I had tried to convince myself that I didn’t care. But in this moment, my last moment, I wanted to know if it had been an accident or not.
Her weeping had spent itself and now she stood guard over me with grim anger.
“Lucia?” I called again.
“Marco?” she bent down to look at me through the face-hole in the bottom of the table.
“Lucia, I—” What did I? She couldn’t find out about my family, and certainly not in time for it to make a difference to me.
“I know,” she said quietly. For a moment I thought she might. For a moment I thought she understood what I was trying to say even though I didn’t have the words to say it.
Then she kissed me.
She bent awkwardly under the table and pressed her lips against mine. There was no passion in that kiss, just as there was no passion in her advances toward me, there was only the need for human connection. Perhaps she did know.
Ned cleared his throat. Slowly Lucia pulled away. We didn’t look at each other.
“Now I’ll make an incision over the left kidney. Notice the adrenal gland atop the kidney. Here you can see the radio transmitter attached to the adrenal stimulator. This is used by coaches to push players when their performance is considered insufficient. Often the rush of adrenaline is maintained long after the body would normally go into shock.”
A loud sound came from the dark recesses of the warehouse, then shouting.
“Keeping going,” I said. Ned froze both his hands and his commentary, “Ned! Keep going. Show them.”
“He’s right,” Lucia stood up straight from where she’d been crouching on the floor, “This is my job.”
I could only see the small patch of worn concrete beneath me, but I could hear Lucia as she did her job. The warehouse echoed with cries of pain intermingled with the wet, cracking sounds of bones breaking. Even after months out of the games, the sound still brought back visceral memories of being both the giver and receiver of those wet, cracking blows.
“Keep going, Ned.”
I felt him nod through his hands in my back.
“Here you can see the sensors embedded in the spinal column. These can tell the coach if the player is hurt, but also allow the coach to turn off the feeling of pain to get the player to continue. Next I’ll open up the back of the skull.”
The feeling of a saw on your skull is one of the more disconcerting experiences I’ve ever had, and I’m somewhat of an expert in such things. We’d discussed this at length. I knew that any general anesthetic would steal my voice, but it would also prevent Ned from being able to show the final piece in all its awful glory.
“Within we see the control piece of the whole system.”
I knew that he was pointing at the computer system embedded in the back of my brain. I’d never seen one functioning, but I knew they existed. The training accident was horrific, but gave me a glimpse. Then when we’d finally talked to Ned he’d filled in more information. He’d been able to smuggle out a body and perform an autopsy on it. The hardware had all been there, but inactive and damaged. In me he had a fully functional system to show.
“This part connects directly to the oldest parts of the human brain — called the lizard brain or the bird brain — which controls our near-instinctive responses to external stimuli. The coaches use this to incite fear, anger, and even lust when it suits them. This tool bypasses the rational parts of the brain. It cannot be resisted or ignored.
“Marco, are you ready for the demonstration?”
I took a deep breath and then looked at the camera positioned on the floor beneath the table. For a moment I thought about what it showed of my kiss with Lucia. Then my mind flitted to the lessening sounds of violence and the growing sounds of wounded suffering.
“Yes,” I said.
“Good. Please tell me about a peaceful experience.”
“Okay,” I didn’t have many to choose from, “When I was a boy my mother would take me with her to get water. We were about a kilometer from the nearest well. I pulled one of the barrels on a cart while she took two more on her shoulders. All the way, in the cool of the morning, she would sing songs in Spanish. Today that’s all the Spanish I can remem—”
Ned did something. I heard him say it, but the words didn’t register as coherent.
I raged. Had I not been strapped down I would have leapt off the table and tried to kill Ned. I wanted to taste his blood. I wanted him to suffer as I killed him.
Then it was gone.
“Can you tell us about what you experienced?” Ned asked quietly.
My throat was raw with hate. The words burned as I pulled them out. “I wanted to…” I paused and looked straight at the camera on the floor, “I wanted to kill you.”
“Good,” Ned’s voice was clinical.
Lucia limped back into the circle of light, “What are you doing to him?”
“It’s alright, Lucia,” I said, “It needs to happen.”
“What does?” I heard the fear in her voice.
“Okay, now we’re going to stimulate the flight response,” Ned spoke for the audience we hoped was watching around the world.
I shrieked and writhed against the straps holding me down. I felt the warmth of my urine seep into the fabric covering the exam table. I needed to be gone. I needed to hide. I needed to be moving as fast as possible away from here.
Then I was sane.
“What did you experience that time?”
My eyes stop producing new tears, but they continued to fall from my eyes to splash on the camera. “I was terrified. I wanted to run. I wanted to get away. I…” the confession caused me to blush, but I continued, “I pissed myself.”
“Stop it,” Lucia said.
“No,” I said, “No, it has to happen. People have to know.”
“We’re nearly done,” Ned assured Lucia.
“It’s enough. Let him up. Let him go.” She pleaded with him.
“No,” I said again.
The lights went out.
“They found the generator.” “Can you get out?” “We’re trapped.” “Did they cut the feed too?” “No, that has a battery pack.” “What do we do?” “Where are they?” “I’ve got one.” “Stop this.” “You know we can’t.” “You won’t survive.” “Neither will you.”
I died knowing that, at least for a short time, my thoughts and actions were my own. I died hoping that you could know that freedom too.