Please find below the first three chapters of my 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.’
This was it. His whole future was sealed in the red envelope being handed to him.
It was strange. For a moment he wished he had never gone. He wished he had stayed away. But he knew they would have found him wherever he was. They had a way of knowing. How was that?
The flame red envelope felt like it was burning his hand.
An invitation to the competition, yet not an invitation at all if you wanted to be free from this place. It was a requirement to get out, the key to freedom and it was in his hand. Yet, he was still not sure if he wanted it or not. Freedom he wanted, but at what cost?
Suddenly the need to glean became urgent. If he was gone, how would his father survive? But with every eye seemingly focused on him in that moment, the only place he wanted to be is hidden away at home.
‘Thank you,’ he said with a dry mouth to the crisp- suited man, yet there was no change in the Tropolite’s countenance; his expression remained one of disgust.
He stepped away nervously, certain that there was little else to say but not knowing if he had been dismissed.
The alarm sounded again and the light flashed above the far archway.
He watched as the green clad gate keeper scanned the card and opened the turnstile. A girl, maybe his age but a little shorter, was released. She followed the worker to the suited man who handed her a red envelope.
‘Congratulations 43316, you have been selected to enter the competition for the Compassion Prize.’
He wondered if he looked that confident as he approached. He shook his head, certain that he hadn’t. She stood straight and looked at the crisp man full in the face. The contrast was stark. His over clean, elegantly cut apparel to her brown and encrusted oversized coat with sleeves turned up and hem cut roughly. But it was their faces that captured the attention. The Tropolite looked down at her, with much the same expression, Outsiders were lower than him, too low, but she, well she was different, her face was not fearful or desperate, or full of expectation like others that had gone to the competition before. She was confident, almost as if she expected today to be her day, as if she knew she would be here, receiving the post.
There was no way to get away. He felt intimidated already. The turnstiles were still busy with the queue of gleaners stretching beyond the them. He anticipated an agonizing wait.
Only a moment passed before he realised that he was not standing alone.
‘Are you going to glean?’ she asked.
There she was. Her long trench coat skimmed the ground, her red envelope clutched in her hand.
He knew he should answer. ‘I’m going home.’ For the first time he looked in her face. She had wide grey eyes, a small button nose dotted with freckles and a narrow chin. Her face was framed by thick black hair. She reminded him of a porcelain doll he once saw. She had an open face, not like his. Anyone could see who she really was just by looking at her. She reminded him of his mother. He did not want to go there – not there, not then, not ever.
‘Oh well,’ she smiled a little sadly, ‘I thought that maybe we could work together today.’
Together? Only semi functioning families worked together. ‘No thanks. I need to head home.’
‘Okay. I hope your father takes the news well.’
What? What did she know about him? He turned and faced her. ‘Excuse me! How do you know about my father?’
‘I’m sorry. Am I not supposed to know?’ she whispered. ‘I didn’t mean anything by it. I know he isn’t well and I just hope that the news gives him a little joy, that’s all.’
Outsiders stared as they trundled past.
‘It doesn’t matter.’ He waved his hand in dismissal. ‘See you at the gate.’ He hurried away and pushed through the tide of disgruntled Outsiders and out the arch. He had to get away.
The loud gulls called to one another as the barges arrived at the docks. Life happened behind him as he headed home, but was there life ahead of him too?
Reaching into his pocket he pulled out the red envelope. It was thick and heavy. He had never handled such a pristine object before. He frowned at the opportune yet hideous post. Shaking his head, he thought of the waste of paper, still, he could always trade it for credit.
His number was embossed on the rich surface and the flap was stuck down with some medieval looking wax seal. He broke the Tropolis T in half as he opened his post.
The card inside was the purest of white with artistically torn edges and fancy red swirls and swishes round the border. The Tropolite crest was printed in gold. There were very few words, but the ones that were there sent a shiver down his spine.
‘Congratulations 57124, you have been selected to enter the competition for the Compassion Prize. Tomorrow, Compassion Gate, 09:00.’ The time and location were printed boldly underneath. There really was no need for instructions, everyone knew what the red envelope meant even if you couldn’t read. But below, in small print was a short warning. ‘Consider wisely if you wish to enter the competition as there will be no option to return to Outside or be re-entered.’ It may have been short, but even that many words would have been a task for an Outsider to read. He thought, without arrogance and slight nervousness that he may be the only Outsider to receive post who could read the warning.
No option to return? What did that mean? The only way not to return was to be kept prisoner wasn’t it? Or was there another way to prevent return? He had never seen anyone come home again. He had assumed that they had either won the prize, their family collected and lived a wonderful life at Tropolis, or that they had been given a lesser compassion and been allowed to stay alone, perhaps given work, menial work but better than here. He had an awful feeling that perhaps he had been naïve all this time.
With the threat still buzzing in his head, he shoved the card back into his pocket and entered the maze of streets. The common use of tarpaulin and collected planks or bricks formed the main structure of most homes.
There was no litter on the pathways but there was still a smell of decay. Everything was useful or had a use. In the doorways to their shacks small children played with some Tropolis child’s rubbish.
He had to get out. There must be more to living than being someone’s cast off. Everything had use or is useful, well perhaps this was his time to be useful, perhaps he could get them free.
He had to travel deep into the maze and out the other side before the branch of shanty houses and shacks that were his neighbours came into view. Near to the edge, tucked into the rock face the fused plastic casings of multiple discarded goods that formed the façade of his home came into view. It had been his idea to move this far out, away from the docks, away from the lavish containers. They had needed a quieter, less hostile place to exist, although, these days there were few reports of violence, people were just too tired trying to survive to think about death.
He slid the door to one side, ignored his father and filled a mug of rain water from the container in the corner.
It was cool.
He could feel his father’s gaze but refused to turn just yet. He refilled the mug and then filled a second mug.
‘Want a drink?’ he asked as he put down the mug in front of his father.
The room was dark and his eyes were slowly adjusting.
He could see the frown and the question forming, but didn’t really want to answer.
‘Not much today,’ he added. ‘New book though. Needs drying.’ He carefully lifted the notebook from the bottom of his bag and laid it in a patch of sunlight. ‘Won’t take long. Just a bit damp on the edges.’
His father watched him. ‘Post day,’ he mumbled.
The boy sighed. He thought his father had forgotten like so many other things. ‘Yes. It is Post day.’ He pulled the red envelope from his pocket and put it down next to his mug.
His father’s head lowered and he let out a small gasp.
‘I got the Post today,’ the boy stated with as little emotion as possible.
‘Too young,’ he uttered.
‘No. I’m fourteen.’
‘Fourteen year olds have been selected before. There was another one just after me, a girl actually.’ He started to feel anger rising up. ‘I’m smart, I can do it.’
His father nodded because he knew that his son was capable. He took the mug in his shaking hand and tried to steady it before taking a sip. The man looked frail. His hair had fallen out in patches and he was dangerously skinny. ‘Why you?’ he finally asked. If anyone else had used such a small voice you would imagine them talking to themselves, but speech was difficult for this boy’s father. He wanted an answer.
‘It’s random. They pick out twenty at random. The odds are going down, there just aren’t as many of us as there used to be.’
‘What do you mean, not random?’
‘I don’t know what makes me so special! But it doesn’t matter. I could get us out of here.’
‘Nothing to gain if you win.’
‘Of course there is! We would get to be in Tropolis. Don’t you want to be free?’
‘Not freedom there,’ his father said weakly. ‘Not what you think.’
‘Well it isn’t freedom here.’ He snatched up the notebook and turned to leave.
He turned back. His father’s gaze was fixed on the damp notebook, but there was a faraway sound in his voice. His stomach tightened as he gritted his teeth.
‘Mother isn’t here anymore. She’s gone.’
‘That’s right,’ he sighed.
In that moment he knew he had to enter the Compassion Prize. He couldn’t do this by himself in this rotting place anymore.
‘I’m sorry Dad. I have to enter the contest. It is the only hope that we have.’
‘Only hope in the death room.’
‘What?’ He was so hard to understand sometimes. The faraway look even suggested that he was not in the room anymore. This place was killing his father and if he didn’t do something about it soon it would kill him too.
‘I’m not going to die. I will win. I need to.’ His father’s face softened and his eyes closed. There would be no more words from him for a while and the boy didn’t want to talk any longer. He went over to his bed, lifted the hatch in the wall at the end and climbed out. Tomorrow would come all too soon and he needed to make preparations.
The competition should be completed within the month, at least that was about the time the winner’s family were taken to Tropolis. He didn’t know that his father would be able to look after himself for that long.
There was little left of the vegetables to harvest. He picked the last marrow and inspected the pumpkin. It wasn’t quite ready but it would have to do. He thought that his father could live off pumpkin soup for a while and whatever else the credits would buy. He had doubts that he could leave him, but he knew that he would. It was for his father’s sake that he needed to do this. A niggling thought that rang loud: who was he trying to kid? He wanted to get out of this place, his father was just his excuse to go for the only escape route.
There was enough sun streaming through the clear corrugated plastic roof to the sheltered garden to dry out the pages of his find for today. He laid the notebook down, gently fanning it out to let the air circulate. The grey cover, though battered, still clung steadfastly to the wire spine. He could tell it had been used by someone, by the inked flower drawn on the front. It wasn’t a flower he recognised. He curbed his curiosity knowing it would do no good to finger the pages. He would give it an hour or two and then investigate.
Back inside, he tipped the carton holding the thick plastic credits out over the bed. There weren’t as many red as he would have liked to have seen, but plenty of brown. A quick calculation told him that there were 172 credits that could be redeemed; a balance that was being saved for the winter months. If he could budget it right, and get his father to agree, they could last until spring. The competition would be over, maybe within a month, so the credits would last longer than that if needed. With that grim, lingering thought, the boy knew that even with them his father would still starve, but it would take longer. There was no choice, he had to win or know his father would die.
Things would be different if his father would only glean but he had never seen him do it. With a desperate hunger, perhaps his father would get up and do something for himself rather than living off his son’s hard efforts. Never had he gone to the gates, never had he provided for his family, never had he been a father. The boy was essentially alone and living with a parasite. He paused and hung his head, wondering if other Outsiders had such putrid revulsion in their minds.
He shook his head and sighed.
Being an Outsider had made him like this. He reached for the envelope and ran his finger over the broken seal. He dreamed of Tropolis, to be without an empty stomach, to live in comfort and happiness. There really was no choice, he had to win to be free.
He woke very early. The same dream still lingered as he rubbed his hands over his face and eyes.
The thought came rushing. Competition day today.
‘Blast! I forgot the notebook.’
He reached over to the hatch and clambered out. The sun had not risen fully or broken through the clouds that threatened rain. The book was still there although the pages were a little damp from resting on the moist ground. He still couldn’t see if it was worth keeping or worth trading.
He went back inside, shivering slightly from the damp morning air, and draped the blanket over his shoulders. There was no chance of sleep so he laid the notebook on his bed.
He had so little time left in this shack that he would risk the emotions. Carefully he took the most precious of his books down from his cubby hole. It wasn’t a book that had helped him to survive, as it didn’t contain knowledge that would change the way he lived. It was just a simple children’s story. His mother used to read it to him. He gently stroked the cover, remembering times when they used to pour over the illustrations, picking out the details and repeating the story over and over again. With it she taught him the extraordinary gift of how to read. For a year and a half she would read chapter after chapter to him, re-reading the book countless times. The cover was battered with wear and the pages yellowed. It was probably not worth more than a half credit, but priceless to him.
He missed her most when there was something he needed to talk about.
She would always be ready to listen. She didn’t always have the answer but was able to take the burden.
He wished she was here to take it now.
Even if she were, he was not sure if he could put into words how he was feeling. But she would know.
He missed her.
She would often congratulate him on his ‘Good Choice!’ He felt right now, that he had no choice left. That option had been taken away from him.
He needed to take his mind off her. He needed a distraction.
It was still a little too delicate, but he could be careful and that would help take his mind from his mother.
The flower on the cover was so unusual and had been hand drawn. Five petals, like elongated hearts had a hint of pink in them. In the centre, it looked to have a split stigma, surrounded by a twist of filaments. It reminded him of the faded green botanical book his mother used to have. The illustration style was very similar. Not helpful. He needed distracting.
He almost ripped the cover off in his haste to get away from studying it.
Page after page were full of numbers and letters in columns. Some were crossed out while others were underlined. They meant nothing.
The drink can ring was still caught in the damp pages. He gingerly peeled them apart. This page was different. In neat handwriting was written:
Compassion – testing
Death room = danger
Today, of all days to see that word again. Compassion. He knew that the Compassion prize was awarded to the one who wins the competition so testing makes sense. But to see death room written down. Didn’t his father mention that yesterday? He didn’t understand so he eased apart the next pages looking for answers.
There followed half a dozen pages with various two letter combinations next to six digits and then four. The system and pattern seemed familiar but he couldn’t put his finger on it. The same number sequence assigned for several letters then it changed, but only slightly.
He adjusted the blanket to sit more snuggly around his shoulders.
The last few letter number chains were incomplete. Then that was it. Nothing else. Over half the little book empty.
He turned back to the notes. The word compassion glared at him.
He sat, staring at that page for quite some time, fears, hopes and unknowns rushing through his head. On a whim, he decided to add it to the bag with the few possessions that would be going into Tropolis with him.
He picked up the credits that were bunched together with elastic bands and called to his father to wake up. He grunted.
‘I’ve got to go. Wake up. You need to listen for a moment.’
His father turned over and looked up sadly. He remembered what day this was.
‘When they come to collect you, I want you to bring all my things, do you hear me?’ His father nodded. ‘I’ve split these up into weeks,’ the boy said as he showed him the bundles of credits. ‘You’ve got to be careful not to overspend.’ His father nodded again. ‘I mean it.’
‘Yes. Keep safe.’
‘Don’t worry about me.’
‘Love you, Luca.’
Luca turned and left, frowning at such an outburst.
He didn’t want to think about loss. He bit down on his lip as he remembered his bitterness that had surfaced the day before.
Saying goodbye made it too final. Instead he found comfort in his use of his name.
Names were never used. No one officially had one. His mother used to call him Luca and she would not respond to his father unless he called her Willow. She would say, that just because they lived as Outsiders, doesn’t mean they cannot be given the dignity of a name as it costs nothing. But it did cost. Soon after his mother was gone, there was a shut down on the use of any names, even nicknames. If a Tropolite worker heard the use of a name, there was trouble. There were stories of severe beatings circulated after insider information had been given, but Luca had never seen any evidence. The habit of using registration numbers then became natural and friendships died out. Names were reserved only for the Tropolites.
Luca’s bag was hardly stuffed full, but weighed heavily on his shoulders.
The streets were full of Outsiders heading for the docks. Luca joined the silent throng as they threaded through the narrow passages.
He could hear voices up ahead and strained to see what the noise was about. The group were nearing the gate. Luca’s last journey with fellow outsiders is almost done.
People were calling out and a solitary voice female answered each time.
‘Thank you … I’ll do my best … Take care of yourself … Look after each other … I’ll miss you!’
There she stood. Number 43316 in her oversized trench coat. She answered the calls of Outsiders as they wished her well. How did they all know her? The Compassion contestants never got a send off like this. Luca saw a younger Outsider run to her and get lost in the folds of the coat. 43316 bent down, whispered in the little one’s ear then kissed them on their cheek. The mother stood a short distance away and blew a kiss as her child dashed back to her.
Luca shuffled to one side feeling uncomfortable. His people did not act this way.
As the Outsiders left her, they chatted to one another. The silence was broken. One smiled at another.
Luca held back to listen to the conversation.
‘You know her too?’
‘Oh yes! The sweetest girl.’
‘I shall miss her.’
‘How do you know her?’
‘You know what, I don’t recall! But she is always so …’
‘Like no one I’ve met.’
‘Mind you, who have we ever really met?’
‘That is true.’ They laughed together.
‘You gleaning green today? Do mind if I join you?’
‘Yes, why not!’
Outsiders were choosing to talk, choosing to be friends? Luca rubbed his eyes once again thinking that he must be imagining it all, but he glanced round to see another couple shaking hands, a group of three were laughing together and even more were indulging in chatter.
He backed away from them.
He didn’t understand.
He found himself in the only place where there were no Outsiders, near to the Compassion Gate and next to the strange girl.
She continued to call out, waving and smiling at so many of the Outsiders as they filed past on their way to the port.
It wasn’t long before they were joined by eight others. All were taller, older and more menacing than Luca. Suddenly, this little girl seemed like the only one that Luca could beat in this competition. Even more come wandering over and soon there was a silent crowd.
Luca had a brief moment of doubt. He thought he should run while he had the chance.
The sound of booted footsteps alerted Luca to a new arrival behind him.
Luca spun round and came face to face with the same Tropolite man that handed him his invite. His crisp clothes and white shirt were uncrumpled and his stern face remained unchanged as he scrutinised the group.
‘Missing two already.’ he stated with no emotion. ‘Hold out your wrists.’
The others lined up. Luca shuffled to the end of the line, thinking of breaking free.
‘I’m glad you’re here. I was hoping you’d come.’ She had a clear voice, even in her whispered tone.
‘Are you talking to me?’ Luca asked.
‘Of course I’m talking to you! You said you were coming, so I decided I would too.’
Luca was debating whether he had what it took to escape and was just about to make a run for it when a dark skinned boy with a faded black baseball cap planted himself next Luca.
‘You nearly missed it!’ The girl said as she leaned around Luca.
‘You said I should be here, so I am.’ he answered back, pushing the cap up away from his bright eyes.
The suited man approached the girl, ran the scanner over her wrist and then held it up to take her picture. She stood as tall as she could and smiled.
Luca was so taken aback by her pose that he failed to move. He ran out of time to escape.
‘Wrist,’ the crisp Tropolite man commanded.
Luca held it out. He was scanned and photographed and was sure that his image was nowhere near as confident as hers.
‘Ah! A late comer. You nearly missed your chance.’ The stern face almost became a sneer.
‘Not gonna happen,’ the boy in the black cap said, adding a lopsided smile to the photographic collection as he hummed.
There they were, nineteen out of the twenty. The competitors for Compassion.
‘Follow me,’ the Tropolite commanded.