Inspired by Lorde's song Glory and Gore.
There’s a humming in the air of the green room. It makes the whole room feel like it’s skittering, filled with static electricity or robot ants. Maybe it’s just the air scrubbers, or some loose vent cover somewhere. Or maybe it’s just our nerves. We’re all still in our formal wear from the talent portion of the show. We look like a bunch of prom-goers waiting in an Emergency Room—wondering who’s going to live or die.
We’re the final six.
Of course six doesn’t mean squat. It’s the final five we want. Then we get the first pay off we’ve seen since passing auditions nearly three months back. I shake out my hands for the hundredth time, hoping this time it will get rid of the jitters. Other people are busy on their com-swatches, sending out last minute pleas for votes, or thanks to their many fans.
“Bam!” Thomas Cochran suddenly says. “Two million fans.” He scans the room with a smirk. He’s gorgeously fit and can turn on the charm for the cameras. A deadly combo. Too bad he’s rotten to the core. I think there used to be a song about that. Something about a pretty boy with an ugly heart. “There’s no way I’m up for elimination. Not with numbers like that.”
“You heard the judges, they thought your singing was crap,” Mae says, ever the debater.
“Yeah, but the judges don’t get to vote. Not anymore. It’s all up to the world now.”
I swallow the burning bile at the back of my throat. I don’t have many fans—only a couple hundred thousand. I don’t have the knack for schmoosing people and during the talent portion of the show I’d forgotten my dance routine. I’d tried to fake it but no one had bought it. Truth be told, dancing isn’t my real talent. My real ability shows during eliminations. Still it worries me. No one likes facing the possibility of being sent home.
The seconds continue to crawl past, punctuated with the dull tapping of everyone checking and rechecking their swatches. Everyone but me and Gianna, who half-sprawls atop the glass table, poking one of the cheap cups slowly from one edge to the other. I shake out my hands for the hundred and first time to no avail.
CRASH! Everyone jumps at the sound of the glass breaking. Gianna’s pushed the cup off the table. She shrugs. She’s older than all of us by a few years. Twenty, I think. She’s fought in the army on three continents, launched into a minor acting career after appearing as the Army’s poster-child in a variety of ads and has the most amazing alto voice you’ve ever heard. She’s the essence of the show. A real triple threat, just like the name of the show.
“Gah! What’s wrong with you?” someone says
“Better than listening to the sounds of your desperation,” she answers. Everyone glares and I can almost hear their thoughts. I hope you’re the one eliminated. But Gianna won’t be—at least not easily. She was a contender last season and only got eliminated due to a freak injury. She’s heavily favored to win and she knows it. So does everyone else.
We return to our waiting. I keep replaying that stupid dance routine and my epic failure. How can I remember the routine so perfectly now, but an hour ago…? The green room door opens. One of the many PAs enters with a cloud of camera drones that eagerly zoom in on the six of us.
“The results are in.”
Some start hamming it up for the cams. Deep breathing, teary gasps. I try to stay calm—stoic. It’s the one thing I have going for me. People think I’m cold as ice, that I don’t have fear or regret. I’ll make it work for me.
“Aster, Gianna, you’re going up for elimination.”
She says it so matter-of-factly I almost miss it. Then the icy fist slams into my gut. I have to go up against Gianna-the-freaking-veteran. I’m doomed. I shake the thought away. The mind is half of the battle. I have to win there first. The PA continues as if my life isn’t about to end. “We’ll get the entire cast ready to go, set up on the main stage for the judgement. Check your swatches. The director has pushed some suggested lines and reactions. Wardrobe is ready for everyone so let’s go.”
Reality TV. Nothing real about it—except the money.
I swallow my dread as we head out. There’s a flurry of excited conversations and exchanged glances. The others think I’m as good as gone.
They get us all dressed quickly. We slide out of our shimmering formal wear and into snug leather and plastine, stuff designed to look “tough” more than actually offer any protection. The entire time we’re surrounded by wardrobe and production staff as well as other contestants. Then there’s fresh makeup. New hair styles. Then they film us pretending to get ready and saying potential good-byes. Sometimes they have us repeat something we actually said, other times we’re fed lines and reactions. The cameras seem to linger on me, getting more footage than the other contenders. They think I’m going to be eliminated—they need that extra footage for the farewell montage.
“Not today,” I vow. That ten million is going to be mine, even if I have to go through the veteran.
Then we’re brought up to the big stage and we have to wait in the wings while they bring in an audience, prep the judges, and finish adjusting the lights and redressing the stage. We’re all sitting in silence, me because I’m nervous out of my mind, the others probably because they’re working on their lines.
I glance at the swatch in my sleeve. I’ve been given five options to say when the producers ask me how I feel about being up for elimination but I’m not going to use them. I’ve picked a line. Had it in mind since before auditions.
Suddenly Gianna pipes up. “You know. They had stuff like this in ancient Rome. People battling for the entertainment of the masses. Gladiators.”
For a moment everyone’s silent but inevitably Chochran pipes up. “I’d friggin love to see a gladiator sing Teenage Dream before going out to battle.”
Mae falls for Gianna’s goad as well. “We auditioned for this. We can quit any time. We’re not slaves or like, prisoners.”
I expect an argument, but Gianna just shrugs again. “Sure. Keep telling yourself that. Anyway, the height of the games coincided with the height of Roman corruption. See, no one cared the country was falling apart so long as they were being entertained. I think that’s what we are. My dad called it the opiate of the masses. The Visigoths are on the hill but no one cares because, hey, Triple Threat is on.”
I frown at the thought. Where is all this coming from? Is she trying to rattle me? Trying to get me to forfeit? Or is she just running her mouth? “If you think that, why don’t you quit?” I snap before I realize everyone will think I’m hoping not to have to fight Gianna. I can't appear afraid.
“I’m pretty sure I can kill you all, one by one to get that ten million,” Gianna says. “And even the Visigoths take cash.” That silences everyone.
She should have saved that line for the cams, I think. It’s a good line.
The production staff finally have us line up, down the length of the stage. There are lights, holograms, smoke, music cues. The producers start filming lines, responses they’ll splice together in editing with the judges asking the same questions. Everyone is performing at full bore now. Tears, anxious faces, stiff upper-lips even though they know they’re not going into the arena after this. I feel confused. Conflicted. I stare down through the crystalline floor to the bright mottled orb of the earth hundreds of miles below us. What am I doing here? Distracting the world from problems it should be facing?
I shake off the thought. It’s just Gianna’s mind games at work. The cams and production assistants and director with their black clothing and nerd-chique hairstyles gather around me. This is the worst part for me. Worse than what’s to come.
“Got your lines ready?” the director smiles his taxed smile.
I nod and try to look delicate, cool. A stylist fusses with me for another second and then the cams are on, little red lights winking away as they orbit me.
“So this line will come from Simon,” the director says. He indicates an empty judge’s seat. “So we want you looking that direction for these close ups. Okay.”
A PA reads the line with the enthusiasm of a wanna-be. “What would you say if I told you, you were up for elimination tonight, Aster?”
I jump on my line. “The ancient Samurai used to say, ‘I am already dead. Only victory will return my life.’”
There’s a buzz of excitement from the staff. They’re all grinning, nodding and for a moment my heart surges full of pride. My line’s a hit.
“Great! Great, Aster. Let’s try another couple that we’ve prepared. Give the editing monkeys some other stuff to work with.”
I rattle off the other lines with a lot less enthusiasm, hoping that’ll make them use the first take. After a few minutes more they wrap up my close ups but instead of going to the next person they backtrack to Gianna. To my horror, they give her my line. They’re all grinning and nodding again as if they thought of it. A hollow fills my stomach and a hot fury, my heart. I try not to cry. It’s such a stupid thing to cry about.
Eventually they finish the close-ups and we move onto the wide shots with the actors/judges delivering their lines. Then the final judgment, which Gianna and I have known for hours is declared and the platforms beneath our feet slowly lower us into the floor. They edit the footage so it looks like we’re taken directly to the arena but really we’re just under the stage. They take us out, doctors look us over, we’re redressed, this time in better armor and then we’re given our weapons. Swords. No shields.
They want an ugly match tonight. The execs must want a boost in the ratings.
My anxiety and energy are building. I feel that humming in the air again. I dance on the balls of my feet. My heart rate is going up. I can feel it thumping in my finger tips. My mouth is dry. My palms wet. I spin the sword experimentally. It’s not like the ones I’ve been practicing for the past few years. It’s a heavy broad blade designed for hacking, as well as crushing thrusts. I can hear my father’s voice telling me I’m ready, that he’s proud of me, that there’s ten million on the line.
I glance at Gianna. She doesn’t seem to have any of my pre-fight jitters and just stands staring out towards the arena that’s beginning to fill with the crowd that had been watching our “final judgement” earlier. These people must have been in line since dawn this morning. It’s going on eight PM now and we’re finally getting to what they want.
The death match.
“You ever think about death?” Gianna asks. I pause in my nervous excitement, looking for another mind game. She turns to me, her dark eyes hollow. “It’s alright if you do.”
“Barely anyone dies in these eliminations.”
“Yeah. I know. But do you think about death, about it really, truly finding you and ending everything?”
I swallow again. Her simple words have pierced my excitement like a needle through a balloon. I suddenly feel older than my sixteen years, stretched thin and tired. “Yeah,” I admit.
“Me too.” Her voice is soft, almost too soft to hear over the cheering of the crowd and the thundering music as the arena doors swing open, beckoning us towards the final five.
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