By Alex Korovessis
Artwork by Jose Baetas.
Because I have not had reliable access to internet, I was unable to review fiction submissions for this month. Initially, I had thought to cancel publishing a story for October, but that would mean the first cancelled publishing month in 6 years, since the start of the magazine! Surely that would not fly.
So this month will be a bit different. Instead of picking a great story from the many talented authors who submit their work to me each month, I will present you a rather unimpressive story that I wrote years back. Some of the themes are reminicent of a popular franchise that has come out since I wrote it, and depending on your tastes I might have to apologize. In my defence, I wrote A Winner's Song years before I heard of the franchise. I do hope my story entertains you, and I promise to have a fresh new story for you next month-- a story that is of the caliber that I have been lucky to sustain through all of these years as editor of Kasma Magazine.
Thanks for understanding, and I hope all is well in your worlds.
My morning prayer was finished. My song to Saleh had been sung. My eyes slowly opened. Above me, barely distinguishable from the drab gray of the plate beyond it, was a small, round metallic object, hovering without sound. It was a sphere.
The sphere spoke to me.
I stared at it, unsure of what to do.
"Citizen 1812562," the sphere repeated, "of the Lower Eighth... Congratulations," the metal voice hummed.
"Congratulations," it elaborated, "you have been randomly selected to appear on Food for Thought." Cheerful music played from the sphere, but stopped abruptly. "A carrier will arrive later in the day to take you to the studio. You are going to the Upper Eighth. Please be ready," the sphere said, and then flew away. I stared at it until it became smaller and smaller, eventually disappearing behind a tall stack of scraps in the distance.
I saw a great machine flying towards us. Long before this, everyone in my tribe had heard about the strange event of the morning and the camp was since buzzing. Now, the flying machine slid above and over large mountains of debris. It touched down on the ground a short distance from our camp. A small door opened right above a ramp that extended outwards-- both moving entirely by themselves.
A tall man emerged from the opening and walked toward me. He was a handsome man, and by far the cleanest man I'd ever seen in my life. As he got close I noticed that his clothes and skin were completely free from even the slightest bit of dust.
"Citizen 1812562?" He asked once he reached us.
"Yes?" I replied, trying to mask my nervousness, but my voice cracked. "My name is Kirin."
"Congratulations Citizen," he said, and flashed a big smile. I couldn't believe how white his teeth were. "As you know, have been chosen to appear on Food for Thought!"
The confirmation brought envious looks, but neither I nor my tribe knew what "Food for Thought" was. The clean man seemed to understand this.
"It's a game," he said. "Food for Thought is a game, but not just any game, you can win prizes." His eyes lit with the mention of prizes.
"Prizes?" I asked.
"Yes, gifts. Food, machines, medicine, toys and games for the children-- things that will make life easier for you and your people. This is a chance of a lifetime!"
Everyone around me started talking at once, drowning out the clean man. He tried to shout over the crowd but it was no use. "Please!" I heard him shout over and over. Finally he was able to regain some degree of control.
"Please, we must leave at once."
"Wait," I cried, "will I be coming back?"
"Of course," he exclaimed, "and if you win, with many gifts and prizes!"
Again, the word "prizes" sparked many questions and inspired exchanges. The clean man looked at me and smiled. He motioned with his hand to follow him and led me to the flying machine. I turned and waved back to everybody before climbing the ramp. My escort also waved before the door closed.
Once inside, the clean man told me to sit down on a metal seat against the far wall. He sat beside me. I stared at the inside walls of the belly of the flying machine. There were a multitude of lights, some flashing, some not, all around us. The flying machine began to roar. My eyes closed. I held on to the rim of my seat and sang a soft prayer to Saleh. The clean man noticed my fear.
"Hold on, this is going to feel a little funny..."
"Ladies and gentlemen. Welcome pictures people, welcome pictures."
The voice was muffled a bit, like I was under water, but it came from everywhere.
"Welcome to Food for Thought!"
A well-fed woman led me out of a room that was called a "green room," although oddly enough nothing in the room was the color green. I was fitted with a strange device, which was attached to the back of my neck. When I asked about it, I was told that it would keep track of who was winning the game.
Music blared, making the floor tremble. It was the same music that came from the sphere earlier in the morning, but much louder. The well-fed woman beckoned me to follow her to an area which flanked a large black platform. I heard a great crowd of people break into cheer. My heart was pounding in my chest. The music stopped. On the platform, the man who had greeted the crowd of people spoke again.
"Thank you very much ladies and gentlemen," the man on the platform announced, then continued in a hushed tone, "let's get under way. I want you to meet two special friends. They are our special friends. So special, yes. Let's fill them with welcome!"
"You're on," another man with an unusual head dressing told me.
The man appeared flustered. "Go," he told me frantically, "go to the stage."
I walked onto the platform. The crowd burst into cheer once again. I felt Saleh flowing through me. I saw another young woman walk onto the platform from the other side. Judging from her dress, she was from Beneath as well, although I did not know her. She was not from my tribe.
The man on the platform with us proceeded to show us the gifts that we could win. A great light shone down on a variety of foods, machines, boxes and other strange but amazing looking things. The man listed the name and usefulness of each gift. There was food that would never spoil, machines that created water from air, and others that healed wounds and prolonged life. Each gift was miraculous in its own way. I imagined myself bringing some of the treasure back to my tribe. I would be a hero.
My opponent and I were told that we would be asked questions. At the end of the competition, the person who answered the most questions right would choose from the gifts. The game seemed easy.
Shortly into the game however, it was clear that I was out-matched. My opponent had answered the first five straight questions correct. The crowd was clapping and cheering wildly for her. I couldn't even look at her I was so angry. It was after she got the sixth question right that I turned and stared at her defiantly.
I couldn't believe what I saw. My opponent was not the same young woman that had been brought out onto the platform with me when the competition had started.
Her face appeared at least twenty years older. Her left eye was drooping, running down the side of her cheek. The device attached to the back of her neck was glowing, seemingly energized from the horrible things that were happening to her. I looked away in horror. The crowd continued cheering madly.
"She's winning ladies and gentlemen!" The man with us on the platform announced.
Something was terribly wrong. "Stop playing," I shouted to her.
"But I'm winning," she responded pitifully.
The crowd roared again into cheer in response to her declaration. But it was not the same cheer I thought I had heard when the game started. It was mocking.
"Next question!" The man on the platform proceeded.
"Stop," I pleaded.
She ignored me. Everyone ignored me.
She was right again. Then three more questions right. She looked worse with every question. By the tenth question her eye had sunk lower and had reached the middle of her cheek. Her skin was pruned and swollen. She was horribly disfigured. The attachment on the back of her neck was glowing with a bright blue light.
The questions had become so simple a child could answer them, but I refused to speak. Come the time the game was over and the man on the platform declared my opponent the winner, I was in tears.
The woman standing next to me was unrecognizable. The crowd was howling, chanting "Winner! Winner!" Over and over in mock support. She moved towards the gifts but collapsed, falling onto her knees. The crowd jeered and laughed. I ran over to help her but was cut off by three men wearing the same strange head dressings. While they carried her off of the platform I could hear her telling the men over and over, in a sobbing, feeble voice that she'd won. Whatever had so affected her body had also affected her mind. She was an empty shell. Saleh no longer flowed through her.
"And that's... Our Food for Thought ladies and gentlemen!" I heard. The rest trailed off. I couldn't focus. My mind had frozen, slipping into a fog that served no purpose other than to preserve my sanity.
"What did you win?" I was asked upon my return.
"Nothing," I replied, "their gifts are curses. Their song is a curse."
From time to time I would see the spheres flying here and there, and to them I would direct my anger. "Lower Eighth, you are our foundation," a voice would come from them while they hovered by me, "from your roots our glory grows."
"Shut up," I would yell back, usually picking up a stone and throwing it, "get away!" They always dodged the stone and hovered on with their purpose, unaffected by my rage.