Tags: contestant, daytime television, daytime tv, gaol, guard, jail, reality television, reality tv, television, TV
Penny Travis spent her twenty-fourth birthday in the Contestant Holding Wing. The stark cell walls reflected her despair until her moans attracted the attention of her guard.
John Jefferson considered Penny a gutless nuisance and had baited her since her arrival. She’d fed some bleeding-heart line to his partner, Adrian Storey, who’d then disgraced himself by actually trying to get her contract reviewed. The Warden had been unimpressed, the Number Two livid.
Jefferson tapped his truncheon against Penny’s door and growled a warning. She shuddered into silence, tears peppering the blanket to which she clung.
‘That’s better. Now stay nice and quiet and I’ll be back soon with your bad news.’
Jefferson stomped down the gleaming corridor. Penny buried her face, scarlet with rage and regret. Why had she bothered to protest? Nils Muller had been right: once you signed, there was no escape. If only she’d spotted his error. Or had he put the wrong day on purpose? She’d never know. Protected by the omens of Xania Starwoman, someone else would take her place in the Tank and ascend the social scale to paradise. She would play tomorrow and die — punished for ignoring her grandma’s lessons in humility.
The minutes dragged, punctuated by coughs, muttering and what seemed like impossibly protracted masturbation from other cells. At last Jefferson’s heavy tread returned. Penny bit her knuckles.
‘Hellooo Travis!’ He braced himself against the smooth lintel. ‘Travis, Travis, Travis. Jesus, did you ever pick a winner! You a betting woman? Ha! Good one — course you fucking are! Bet your life! Har, har, har! Well, it’s a crying shame you weren’t in the old Tank just now. But that’s what you’ve been whining about, isn’t it? Today was your lucky day.’
‘You know it was.’
‘Oh ho, the lady speaks! Nice to know you’re paying attention. Well, in summary, your Xania Starbitch predicted a 1,024 to one long shot. All ten punters escaped a watery death and have made it to the dizzy heights of Comfortable Status.’
‘That’s not true.’ Not since the odds had shortened had The Game spared ten consecutive contestants. Penny had expected a disproportionate number of survivors but Jefferson’s exaggeration was simply unbelievable.
‘Ah, healthy scepticism; I thought as much.’ Jefferson spat on a results printout and mashed it onto the Perspex. ‘Can’t blame you, since it’s pretty fucking freaky. I’d stay and chat but it all seems a bit of an anticlimax. I’m sure Mr Storey will soon be along to comfort you. I’d rather check my account. You see, Travis, though I never believed a word of your story, I bet on it. Now that your ship has come, and gone, I should receive a nice little ETAT windfall right about… now.’
The printout fluttered in his wake as he wandered whistling towards the console room. Penny stared raw-eyed after him. Before she could manage another blink, Adrian Storey burst from a connecting corridor and snatched down the paper.
‘I, Penny… I’m sorry. I was ordered to E Block. I couldn’t get back in time…’
‘Forget it,’ said Penny listlessly, ‘you did what you could. I’ve killed myself.’
‘Don’t say that! Your odds of winning tomorrow are still fifty percent, despite this. Every device has to obey the laws of probability.’ She stared through him. ‘Penny, listen to me! Penny!’
The wall fogged. On wiping the condensation with his sleeve, Adrian saw that Penny had closed her eyes. Entering her cell required co-operation from the remote team. What reason would he give? He’d already shot himself in the foot attempting to have her contract pulled. He looked at her again; she was stone. Slowly, he turned and walked away.
Stressed beyond endurance, Penny slid into a deep trance. She sat at her grandmother’s feet in a small garden far away. Her mother, poleaxed by another bender, wouldn’t bother them for hours. They were playing ‘Ask Me Something’.
‘Ask me something, Grandma.’ Penny plucked at the grass while the old woman made show of composing a worthy question.
‘Very well, how about this one: where does rain come from?’ She stroked the child’s hair.
Penny eagerly touch-typed ‘rain’ and began a search. Waves shot between her laptop and the house and she received a cascade of topics. Scrolling and poring, she clicked a promising title and stumbled over large, unfamiliar words. She summoned a helpreader and proudly added two years to the age field. The article reappeared in language understandable to an average eight-year-old, or a well-coached child of six.
Penny summarised: ‘rain is caused by… moisture in clouds coming together in drops and falling to the ground. Clouds are made when the sun shines on water…’ Her voice mingled with the murmur of birds and insects as her grandmother listened smiling.
Back in her cell, Penny slipped into merciful sleep, while rain drenched the factory where the garden had been.
She woke suddenly. The light emanating uniformly from every surface had been reduced by two thirds. Once accustomed to the gloom, Penny found it as maddeningly bland as the full-strength version. A bench, blanket, commode, tap and drain were the cell’s only features. She craved distraction and snickered at the irony of wishing away her last night. Even her terror had lost its bite. It seemed nothing could remain vivid in the debilitating environment.
She repeatedly refolded her blanket. She sought rhythm to snores. She blew saliva bubbles and counted how many distinct gestures her hand could make. It was exhausting. Around dawn she managed to doze, until footsteps had her wide awake again. Her cell lit up as Adrian clipped a tray to her door and threaded tubes through holes in the Perspex.
Starved for sensation, Penny approached them after Adrian nodded and left. She pressed her palms to the wall and put her lips around the first tube. Pureed cereal splashed over her tongue. She winced at the thick taste of cream and switched to peaches, again pureed. Despite the sugary syrup, she continued until the container showed nearly empty. The third course was orange juice; its unsweetened tang pleasing her most.
Penny passed her hand over a sensor and water dribbled from the wall. She rinsed and spat on the tightly meshed drain hole. Folding her blanket into one of the more exotic shapes she had practised, she composed herself to wait. Eventually the guards reappeared.
‘Yes Adrian, let’s get on with it.’
‘I um, I have to give you an injection Penny, to calm you.’
‘I don’t need one, Adrian. As you can see, I’m quite calm.’
‘Actually, we don’t have a choice; it’s been ordered.’
‘I don’t care. I don’t need an injection.’
‘You bloody prima donna…’
‘John! Just cool it, OK? I’m on cells today. You’re to assist.’
Jefferson pushed in front of him. ‘I’ll assist alright. Come here Travis, give us your fucking arm!’
‘John!’ Adrian put a finger to his ear. ‘Remote are screaming for me to control you on pain of suspension. Will you please cool it!’
Hunched over their monitors, the remote team members grinned at each other. They’d bet that Jefferson would be disciplined before completing his rotation. His conduct with the troublesome Travis had been diverting, though unprofessional.
Jefferson backed off reluctantly and Adrian begged Penny to put her arm through the chute. She refused. Force was authorised and the cell unlocked. Jefferson pinned her roughly while Adrian administered the injection. The fire died in her eyes and she became limp and compliant. The guards buckled her into a straitjacket and wheeled her to the despatch airlock on a trolley. She stared blankly as roadies slid her into a waiting van. Jefferson sneered and drew a finger across his throat. Adrian raised his hand and mouthed ‘good luck’.
Penny was deposited in a studio ready room. Though she could neither move nor speak, her senses were unaffected. Footsteps passed with scrapes and squeaks. A voice gave directions with growing impatience. Every now and then came faint crowd laughter, echoed seven seconds later on the monitor outside the door.
A new realisation crept over Penny, like the chill from opened veins. The machinery of society was grinding inexorably towards one objective. People were setting the stage for her death. The trolley belts hugged her like a jilted lover. She felt buried alive and her terror returned in force.
‘Good Morning Everyone’ was in full swing. Plump, balding and moon-faced, Bernard Plimpton ground execrably through a familiar format.
‘Today we’re very fortunate to have with us one of the rising stars of the film industry. Would you please welcome…
‘You know I used to have a weight problem myself. That is, until I discovered…
‘Now Miriam, let’s just go over this fabulous offer: viewers receive the entire boxed set, plus the recipe book, the oven mitts and the tongs for only…
Penny listened. For the first time she wondered why she’d been addicted to the program. Perhaps its sheer inanity had made her miserable life seem tolerable. However she cut it, she hadn’t chosen a classy time slot. She might have tried for an evening program, even prime time, but competition was fierce.
Low-odds Game events rated far below high-end long shots. Penny’s meagre hop was small potatoes to a hungry crowd. This was why ‘Good Morning Everyone’ ran ten Poor-to-Comfortable bids sequentially.
Two grunting roadies wheeled Penny backstage and reconfigured her trolley to hang vertically. From her new vantage she saw the deadly glass cylinders. As if on cue, the nearest swung slowly open. Penny stared at the yawning chamber until she felt the belts being loosened. The first roadie held her while the second fitted a harness over her straitjacket. Broad straps tightened around her thighs, waist and shoulders.
With more grunts, the roadies carried Penny to the tank marked ’10′. One fussed inside it with thin beryllium chains. He beckoned his partner to lift Penny over the lip of the device and snapped clips to the rings sewn into her harness. He checked each fitting then stepped past her. Released, Penny dangled from four points.
Two more tethers snaked around her feet. Penny knew they were to prevent her breaking the water’s surface once it peaked. Head slumped forward, she saw they’d been adjusted for her small build. The image of ten struggling, bug-eyed punters flashed through her mind and she fainted.
When Penny regained consciousness, much had changed. The stage had been rotated and rolled to the foot of an enormous curtain. Lights blazed and technicians moved about with equipment. Roadies swarmed over three of the tanks, all of which now contained contestants. Though an air of urgency pervaded, no one spoke above a whisper.
Penny discovered that with great effort, she could just turn her head. She tried to clench her fingers, but could move them only a fraction. A smartly-dressed woman with a clipboard stepped up to her tank, studied a readout and clicked her fingers in front of Penny’s face. She swivelled her eyes, whereupon the woman made notes and strode away.
Penny felt very weak and had trouble focussing. Groggily she surveyed the other tanks. Each held a cocoon of orange surmounted by a pale face. Only the contestants’ hair bespoke their individuality. Penny couldn’t be certain, but they all seemed female.
The stage emptied. Beyond the curtain, Bernard Plimpton’s voice rose and fell. Penny divined that the cooking segment was nearly over. This usually preceded a commercial break.
Suddenly a tremor ran through the stage and it lurched forward. Ten contestants swung on their chains, glancing around apprehensively. The heavy curtain soared to the lighting gantry. A torrent of music and clapping struck the platform as it slid before roaming cameras. Penny was stunned; the segment was running early! Panic clawed at her entrails.
Bernard Plimpton stood microphone in hand. Though no Lester Rodrigues, an army of fans called him a ‘lovely person’. Young men couldn’t stand him and uninitiated channel surfers had to be convinced he wasn’t virtual. Yet increasing viewer longevity suggested that ‘Bernie’ would enjoy his niche for some time.
He basked in the applause. The Game segment was far and away the highlight of his show. As the audience wearied, flashing signs and warm-up crew set them off again. Then Plimpton mellifluously introduced the segment, outlined the sequence of events and described the show’s bonus prizes. At last the bandleader sounded a corny bugle fanfare. Background lights went out and each tank bathed in its own spotlight.
Penny now had enough motor control to squint against the glare. From each tank rose an array of lights that pulsed green, red and yellow. At once the chambers looked like so many fairground ticket booths. Again the crowd was whipped into applause. The arrays ceased strobing and displayed forty green, thirty-nine red and a single flashing yellow light.
Green indicated a contestant’s chosen numbers; red stood for losing numbers. Alternating with whatever number it shared, the yellow light represented The Game’s random result generator. The audience peered at the arrays, murmurs of approval and dissension trickling down the tiers.
Penny saw her numbers projected on her Tank’s head-up display. ‘At least the bastard got something right,’ she thought bitterly. Looking away in disgust, her gaze fell on none other than Xania Starwoman, preparing for her segment.
Devoid of post-production magic, the astrologer looked hard, bored and haggard. Penny noticed the unpainted chipboard behind Xania’s glittering console and was shocked to see her olde-worlde lace and velvet terminate at a pair of slacks. Xania donned costume jewels from a battered box, with none of the solemnity Penny had always imagined. The truth she had ignored all her life rose and bit her in the face.
How could she have staked her fate on the word of this tawdry faux gypsy? Again her tears spilled, shame compounding sorrow. ‘When the water comes,’ she told them, ‘I’ll taste you again.’
Plimpton stood relaxed, his foot on the base of the temporarily unsealed Tank Two, quizzing its occupant. There was little risk of a damaging outburst from this woman. Her consultant assessment described her as calm, rational and confident of success. Her standard contract also authorised an ETAT representative to override the random generator if she said anything untoward, though this had never happened.
‘Tell us about your numbers, Soula.’ Plimpton swung the microphone.
‘Well, I’ve gone for all the odd ones today, Bernie. My friends say I’m a very odd person, you know — quirky? The only odd number I haven’t chosen is thirteen because he’s unlucky, you know? So I’ve skipped him and gone for fourteen instead; he’s my only even number.’
‘And how d’you think you’ll go today, dear?’
‘Ohh, I’m very confident, Bernie. I watch your show every day, you know, and I’ve kept a list of all the outcomes with the different numbers for five months now.’
‘And I believe you’ve even done some research on individual tank performance?’
‘Yes Bernie. I spoke to my consultant and she said my list was very accurate. She agreed that Tank Two has killed fewer people than any other tank over the last five months and that most of those who have lost their lives have done so on even numbers.’
Plimpton tried to conceal his confusion. ‘So you’re going… with the odds.’
‘Yes, that’s right Bernie! All the way!’
Soula’s supporters cheered. The crowd followed suit, though not because Soula had won them with her home-grown probability theory.
Plimpton took centre stage. ‘Let’s hear it for Soula! How about a round of applause for all our contestants! Three cheers for…’ he caught a furious wind up from the floor manager, ‘…for everyone!’
The audience lapsed into embarrassed silence, whereupon the comic relief bandleader justified his existence.
The Game had theme music consistent across its myriad program formats. For each device there was a variation on the theme. The Wheel had a brash, big band sound evoking images of secret agents in exotic sectors. The Tank’s refrain had a calm, swaying, bottom-of-the-ocean feel, replete with harp, glockenspiel and tubular bells. The band gave an excellent rendering of the main theme, negotiated a tight segue into the Tank’s special refrain and wowed the crowd with a big finish.
By this time Soula’s chamber had been resealed and The Game was ready to run. Plimpton didn’t hesitate. In the voice of a snooker presenter, he said quietly into his microphone, ‘Gentlemen and ladies, I give you, The Game.’
Above Tank One, the indicator began moving among the eighty numbers. Gaining speed, it hopped in an erratic series of red and green. Contestant One had chosen the top block of forty numbers. Her selection was popular, since it was easy to tell whether the indicator spelt life or death as it landed. The yellow light blurred and grew a tail as it reached maximum speed. Then it slowed. The audience held its breath, savouring the suspense.
The whites of two eyes shone wet as Punter One tracked her fate.
Slower and slower; the indicator flopped like a landed fish.
Tank One rocked as its occupant wrenched at her chains, willing the light to make one more exhausted jump.
The crowd froze. Had it stopped? A chime sounded; four was indeed the last number.
The studio exploded into noise and movement. Roadies swiftly opened the tank and unbuckled the beaming winner, whose name was Jeanette. She shrugged off her harness and extended her arms while the sleeves of her straightjacket were rolled to her elbows. She flung herself on an expectant Bernie Plimpton and kissed him. Two of the show’s henchwomen arrived with a spray of flowers. They gently prised her from the reluctant host and walked her to the winners’ couch. The show had to stay on track, to avoid truncation by the news.
Red-faced and aroused, Plimpton signalled for the event to continue. A roar from the crowd heralded Soula’s turn and she smiled back confidently. Plimpton sauntered to the winners’ couch to reap a little more gratitude but was disappointed. Jeanette sat straight-backed, directing her energy to the next contestant.
‘Are they related?’ he murmured to one of the henchwomen.
‘Not in the biblical sense,’ she replied through thick foundation. ‘Apparently Jeanette is very in touch with her inner goddess. She wants to use her good fortune to save her spiritual sisters.’
Plimpton resumed his post beside Tank Two. At least he and Soula had some history.
Soula’s indicator was on its home run, darting among friend and foe. Her checkerboard of green numbers seemed to cover more of the screen than had Jeanette’s block approach. Looking at her unswerving countenance, many believed Soula did have the right combination. Even a few crew paused under monitors to witness the success which seemed naturally hers.
When thirteen came up, all expected a pause before the indicator finally came to rest. The last number was arguably due to be odd, since the previous four had been even. The pause ate into another second; then another. The indicator light continued to alternate red and yellow. Then a siren sounded.
The audience jumped; Soula the Likeable went white as milk.
Her supporters leaped in vocal protest. Technicians killed feeds from the offending area as the roadies fell into pairs and removed the struggling women with minimal fuss. Penny felt a tremor as beneath the stage, a powerful pump thrummed into action. Soula looked past her feet at the water inlets in the floor of her chamber. Between them was a camera, whose sole purpose was to record this moment of realisation.
The shot was perfect and went straight to the main screen. The inlets pointed anticlockwise around the cylinder, in a characteristic design touch from instrument manufacturers Bloch and Spiegel. As the Tank’s manual stated:
‘Under correct pressure, liquids will whirlpool upon entering the chamber, affording a view of the death sequence unobstructed by bubbles, misting or splashes’.
The inlets coughed stale air and condensation. Soula jerked up her head in mute appeal. The studio was silent save for the music which, though unchanged, had taken on a sinister feel.
Read Chapter 11.
Brought to you by The Feisty Empire.
Pic by Andres Rueda.