Please find below the first chapter of my new book “The Compassion Prize”. The book is available here. Please share with your friends!
What if compassion was not an emotion that evoked a response, but was a prize to be won?
He woke with a gasp. It was only a dream, not real at all. He rubbed his hands over his face to wipe away the sweat. He was safe, well, as safe as an Outsider could be. As his heart beat drumming in his ears slowed its pace he remembered why he was so anxious, and why dreams had plagued him for the past three nights. This was the first time he could get post.
He had heard it rumoured that life hadn’t always been like this. The facts, however, were difficult to find when your resources were limited. He kept his ears open though, unlike most Outsiders who just continued as if this was their lot, as if this was all that mattered, as if their life no longer counted for anything.
He would have asked his grandparents the truth but he had never known them. The life expectancy for an Outsider was forty five years, although he did know of one shrewd old lady who reached fifty six. He had asked her once about it. She recommended keeping your wits about you and advised him to keep his head down. As if that were an existence. Within three months she was dead. Her wits had obviously run out on her.
Today was a day the Outsiders both dreaded and excitedly anticipated. Two times a year the post arrived. Two times a year twenty are selected. Two times a year two got the chance for Compassion.
The Compassion Prize could change everything. For those that won, their families enjoyed the comfort and security of Tropolis. The contestants never returned; win or lose, they were never seen again.
He thought about leaving this place and even the uncertainty could not cloud his hope. No one returned, that could only mean they were free from this place one way or another.
As soon as an Outsider reached fourteen, their name was highlighted on the Tropolis database and if they hadn’t been selected by the time they were seventeen they remained an Outsider, to live out the rest of their life as one.
He had turned fourteen two months ago. That was why the arrival of the post brought mixed feelings. The anticipation made his stomach lurch.
His birthday had been marked only with the test that was taken each year; a thick stack of paper with numerous pictorial questions and multi-choice answers. No reading was required; it was just as well since most Outsiders had never learnt. He was an exception to the rule. This was the one thing his father had continued to teach him as a promise to his mother before she went.
The dream was already becoming a little hazy. A narrow bridge had stretched out over the deep-sided gorge. He knew he had to cross but the sight made him dizzy. Approaching, he had stepped gingerly onto the wooden boards. They gave a little under his weight. His heart quickened as a deep growling had come from behind. He had turned and briefly saw the red eyes peering at him through the jungle undergrowth. There had been no choice, he had to cross over. The bridge swayed with every hurried step. Fear overwhelmed him as he rushed towards the centre. Under his foot the board shuddered and snapped in two. He had felt himself falling …
But it had only been a dream.
As the last residues of panic faded away the familiar tension began to rise.
He assumed that everyone felt the same the first time that they could be selected, but had very little to go on to confirm this.
With friendships ever at threat, Outsiders didn’t make friends, at least not often and he was no exception. He had no friends and he would not tell them how terrified he was if he did. He hid it, tried to act normal with his dad, a man who didn’t ask and who he was not sure that even cared. Outsiders never asked or offered that kind of information. To talk about how you felt showed weakness and an inability to cope with what life had dealt. He knew that feelings and emotions were a waste of already drained energy. There was little use in complaining anyway, no one could do anything to make it better.
He lay still for a moment, listening for movement. He heard the slow deep breathing from the other side of the room. His gasp hadn’t woken his father. But it was no use, he knew he wouldn’t sleep again, so he got up. He slung the empty rucksack over his shoulder before he pushed the door ajar. He peered back to check on his father who looked almost grey in the early morning light. He sighed, aware that he would never be able to blend in like that. His dark red hair made him almost one of a kind in this community. His mother, who he had inherited his russet hair and green eyes from, had celebrated it, but he hated being noticed.
He squeezed through the gap.
It was cold this early in the morning. The sun hadn’t come up yet. Not that he complained. He preferred a chilly day. The stench was more bearable that way.
This time in the morning the city almost looked habitable. The darkness was great at hiding the lopsided shacks made of mismatched materials.
Many of the houses down this way were basic to say the least. There were places, however, made of preformed concrete and shipping containers closer to the walls of Tropolis. They were for the important members of the community, although he was not sure quite how they got chosen, since they did’t seem to do much for the Outsiders as a whole.
Tropolis, the place of the future. He saw it daily on the screens but as an Outsider he had never seen it with his own eyes. It was a place where he longed to be, a place of ease and comfort. The people there lived somewhere way beyond the wall and the Compassion gate. He thought he knew some of what went on. He had gleaned a little information from old newspapers, but even they were a rare find these days. He was not sure how they passed on their news anymore, but very little made it past the wall.
The passages were empty. There really was no need to get up until the barges delivered their loads, but he couldn’t go back to bed. He was hopeful that maybe he would make a find while his world slept.
He quietly made his way through the maze of shanty houses towards the dump. The smell intensified as he got closer. He was grateful that his house was far enough away that on a good day, when the breeze blew in the right direction, the smell was whipped away. Today, there was no breeze and the stench hung in the air.
The chain-link fence that barely separated the homes from the dump had an unmanned gate, but in order to enter you had to be scanned. He lifted his wrist and put it up against the black panel. The gate clicked open, he stepped inside, the gate rattled as it shut behind him.
The hard packed roads were wider within the dumps to allow for the trucks that moved the waste to the incinerators where energy was produced, but at that time in the morning they were deserted highways haunted only by the waiting gulls. There would be nothing worth gleaning this far away from the heap but he didn’t feel like a long walk. He wandered aimlessly up to the nearest pile yet to be moved to the vast power station, not really paying any attention to where he was going.
By far the best way to find anything of worth was to sort as you go. Gather the plastics in one bag, paper in another. Mixed gleans needed to be stripped before it was of any worth. If you were lucky you might find metal in cables or old technology. Traded metal would earn enough credits to buy things of the greatest value, like food to eat. Of course, there was food to be found at the dump too, but the food that could be bought at the Compassion gate hadn’t been thrown away and tasted much better. He rarely had enough credits for that type of food as it was only him that gleaned for his family’s survival.
When he was eight he had gleaned an old book, ‘Growing Vegetables by Season’. He had almost lost it to another Outsider who knew that much paper would earn a credit, but thankfully he was quicker on his feet. But he had other plans for the valuable glean.
He consumed the details and learnt all that he could. He understood why the Tropolis resident had thrown it away, it was old fashioned compared to the glossy magazine he occasionally came across, but worth so much more than the credit had he traded it in. He gleaned containers that would hold soil and had success in growing some food. The seeds discarded by others in rotten food past eating still grew and when he did have to buy food, he chose wisely and saved whatever seeds there had been. Tomatoes were his favourite and very easy to grow, except in winter. He had a little success with strawberries in the hotter summer months. He had tried other plants too, such as pumpkin and corn. He stored whatever he could to carry himself and his father through, but winter months left them hungry and reliant on credits. He had to save his credits up to get them through those months.
He lazily pushed the top layer of rubbish over with his foot, not even attempting to bend low to investigate. Years of foraging had taught him to save his back from strain. He pressed his lips together in a tight line before weakly smiling to himself. Nothing, just as he had thought. This was all worthless and only good for potential power in the incinerator.
A little distance away, something glinted in the early morning rays. He kept focused on the spot as he picked his way across the heap.
A small ring pull from a drink can protruded out of the pile. Excellent. Not worth much on its own but that was not the point, each item brought a little more hope. He bent down to pick it out and was greeted by an even better find. The ring pull sat wedged within the pages of a thin pocket notebook. A double glean.
The pages were fragile from the wet conditions, so he placed it carefully in his rucksack. He had tried to open a wet book before and only torn the paper, ruining it for anything other than trading. He had learnt to be patient and would let it dry out. He had the time.
He spent the rest of the morning in fruitless labour but was grateful that the time passed quickly. It wasn’t long before other Outsiders were making their way to the far end where the barges docked laden with fresh rubbish. He dragged his feet, he didn’t want to join them but knew that his father and himself needed to eat.
There was normally very little talk, but today there was even less. The post would arrive and they could all feel it, the potential for gain and also for loss.
Near the dock side stood razor wire fences taller than two fully grown men. The Tropolis workers said that the fences were to protect Outsiders from danger, from getting too near to the barges. The report had been that a couple of Outsiders had fallen into the water and been crushed in an accident several years ago when they had gotten too close to the unloading barges. There had certainly been deaths that day. The truth was less attractive. Several Outsiders had been shot, others had been drowned and even more injured as the force of Tropolis had exerted its control over the people. There was no medical assistance for Outside. He had keenly felt the loss every day since. He knew it would do him no good to linger over the sharp reminder.
There had been plenty more accidents on the unstable heaps since then, but after the refuse had been delivered it was no longer Tropolite responsibility as to how dangerous it was. Nothing was ever done to make them safe there.
It was Tuesday, so the Outsiders would be working the purple zone and the orange zone was out of bounds as the rubbish was moved and spread before being carried away to the incinerator. It normally took about two weeks for the sorted rubbish to be collected and burned. The less able Outsiders tended to frequent the spread refuse as the working zones could erupt into violence. Either way, before you gleaned you had to be scanned in.
All his hopes and fears seemed to be carried in his wrist and in the device implanted there.
A large concrete gateway separated the Outsiders from the heaps. The ever flickering sign above it indicated that the incinerator output was within the limits as it was lit by green numbers and the trade of reusable waste, the gleanings, were high. Both indicated that the Outsiders were desperate as much as Tropolis were extravagant and careless.
The queue was orderly. One at a time the Outsiders stepped up to one of the three archways, put their arm into the hole and had their chip scanned. They were recorded in and out of this place, ‘for their own safety’ of course. He scanned the chip at the turnstile all the while thinking that maybe he should have stayed away today.
A red light flashed above him and a horn sounded. The turnstile would not move. He was trapped between the barriers. His heart began to race in a way reminiscent of the dream that had plagued him.
A Tropolis worker, in his neat green overalls strolled over to the archway, slid his pass key through the slot and smiled excitedly.
‘This way number 57124. Follow me.’
He knew that everyone watched, because he would too. He hunched his shoulders as he approached the open ground and looked for a place to hide. Everyone must know that this wasn’t just a little problem with his chip.
The Tropolis worker took him over to the small prefabricated office situated to the side where it monitored all the turnstiles. A tall man in a pale crisp suit, and a very white shirt was pre-occupied with his silver communicator. He looked up, his eyes a little wide as if startled by seeing someone there. But quickly his face became stern as he held out a crimson package.
‘Congratulations 57124,’ the man said without a hint of enthusiasm. ‘You have been selected to enter the competition for the Compassion Prize.’