The first skin graft wasn’t so bad. I came to under bright spotlights, watching Ma-lee’s tight face fade in and out of focus and catching vague blurs of pink lips. A morphine-induced merge of metal and skin nodding approvingly down at me in the hospital bed.
“Does it look good?” I whispered through bloated lips and new teeth.
That was Ma-lee’s name for me. My real name is Sheil but both my parents had nicknamed me Shay-Shay at an early age and, even at the age of eighteen, they carried on using it. I didn’t mind. It was cute, and cute was my thing. Cute was my USP — unique selling point.
“Are my eyebrows cute?”
But the second skin graft changed my complexion from sand to rose-sand, and it hurt like hell. I stayed in the hospital for weeks with just Ma-lee and Na-li for comfort. Na-li was in and out, getting updates for her robo-skin and having a few skin grafts of her own. She was nearly a hundred and getting procedures to stay looking good seemed like a full-time job for her, but at least her new body was holding up well. The artificial organs had given her a new lease of life and she even beat me at tennis nowadays.
Being in hospital was a bummer. I had speeches to prepare. I had swimsuits to choose and manicures to get. I had exfoliation treatments to book. It was only a month to the Sweetheart competition and if I didn’t get better soon, I’d be pasty for my first photo-shoot. The Sweetheart contests were everything for me. It meant my Ma-lee and Na-li could afford their operations and I got to wear crowns and hear the sound of applause. Missing out on my prep was so not cool. But I shook my head and decided to find at least five positive things in any situation, a little hobby of mine.
- Ma-lee was bringing me nothing but green tea so I was losing plenty of weight.
- No walking or moving meant the slightly built-up muscles in my calves would soften.
- It gave me lots of thinking time to positively imagine me lifting the Super Sweetheart first place trophy for ages eighteen to twenty-five. Oh that would be cute.
- This experience could turn me into the well-rounded person I needed to be for the Sweetheart competition. Everyone knew you needed a sob story and being bed-ridden for weeks was well up there with the death of a grandparent.
- I could imagine all the ways to crush my opponents.
I would lie in that hospital bed thinking of them–Anna-la, the only part cyborg Sweetheart. She had metal breasts that always seemed to enchant the judges. Ma-lee and I talked about me going part cyborg, but she thinks it would be best to wait until I’m old like she had. Then there was Lora who had the smallest feet, tiny little trotter things like stumps bound with bandages. She would dance and skip for the judges but I could simply stick my toes out and trip her onto her face. Jeanna, Ry-Ry, Sa-li and Tama-wa, non-descript models in sequins and lipsticks. They were no match for me but a little nightshade in their blusher should do it. With a smile on my lips I imagined their demise. Positive attitudes get results!
Then there was Kelli, winner of the Sweetheart contest for the last three years. Regular skin grafts kept her fresh and with the fashion. Chameleon eyes that changed from blue to grey to green to violet with every blink. Lips puffed into a heart. Hair, like Rapunzel’s, to her ankles, blonde and waved like ruffled silk. As I thought of her, I gripped the handles around my hospital bed, nails digging into the palms of my hands until it hurt more than the skin graft.
Whiners never win! I thought to myself with a positive chin nod. Kelli could be dealt with. Strangled with her own hair. Force fed until her stomach exploded. Eyes scratched out with steel reinforced finger nails. Glass hidden inside shoes. Hairspray containers filled with acid. I discussed all these with Ma-lee but she told me to wait until the Showdown round. I said to Ma-lee that she was so right and I was glad she was with me, and then I fell asleep, dreaming of Kelli’s blue fingers on a mortuary slab.
Two hours to go.
Ma-lee and a can of hairspray.
Thank God for my skin grafts. The rose-sand is a good shade; it complements my honey highlights and the glitter injected into my eye-balls. Na-li programmes my smile to beaming and injects a little extra bleach into my teeth.
“My ass still needs buffing,” I say to Ma-lee desperately.
She grabs an exfoliation mitt and gets to work on my buttocks. Na-li fluffs the feathers in my gown. I take three deep breaths and imagine myself with the Super Sweetheart crown and Kelli as a bloody mess on the floor. Only four rounds to the showdown. It has to be me and her. Her and me. A ring. Weapons. And one winner.
One minute to go.
The stage is set. The cameras positioned. Standing at the side of the stage, my smile beams, and Ree warms up the crowd with his usual banter before the Sweetheart contest. I’ve watched this moment so many times on the Telly-screen. I’ve memorised speeches. I admired Kelli back then. I loved her, almost. Idolised her.
I’m first on. Ma-lee arranged it this way so I would be remembered by the judges. The girl who sets the tone, who gets to make the very first impression. She used all her influence on this one so it’s all I have and I’m going to make the most of it. Positive attitudes get results!
“Bitch. Bitch. Bitch. Bitch,” chants Ry-Ry behind me, but I ignore her. “Fat bitch. Fat bitch. Fat bitch.”
I smile and turn down the volume of her voice with my ears, but I can’t resist it and with my brand new mind upgrade I send one message straight to her brain. I know I shouldn’t. I’m bigger than this and it uses a lot of energy, but I can’t help myself.
YOU ARE A WORTHLESS, UGLY, PIECE OF SHIT
“…please give a warm welcome to the winner of the regional Aralis Little Miss competition five years in a row, iiiiiiit’s Shay-Shay!”
I skip on with a giggle on my lips. In the third row Ma-lee and Na-li clap their hands and whoop, getting the crowd going just as I’d hoped. I act bashfully at the applause and giggle into my hand making sure the blush on my cheeks is plumped up to the perfect “shy but not embarrassed” hue.
“Awww,” Ree says to the crowd. He puts an arm around my shoulders and I giggle again. “Would you just look at this?”
I perform a charming little bow and Ree’s eyes linger on my body a little too long, but that just means it is working. Then I look straight at the judges on the front row and I beam, fluttering my eyelashes to enhance the glitter in my eyes.
“Isn’t she just too cute?” Ree says into his microphone. He’s handsome for someone who’s forty. Obviously skin-grafted with some enhancements–smoother skin, eyes slightly bigger and an effervescent sheen added to his teeth. I remind myself to ask him which surgeon did that because it looks good. “Well, hello, honey. How are you doing today?”
“Oh, Ree,” I say with a big grin. I put my hand to my heart in earnest and flutter my eyelashes. “Oh, I’m doing so great. I’m so excited to be here!” I address the last part to the crowd and they go wild.
Ree starts asking me questions and I fall into the routine we practised at home. Little hand claps. Leaning into Ree’s questions. Addressing the crowd with a huge smile and performing an impromptu ballet routine. Everything goes smoothly and I leave the stage with a giggle and a little tap on the bottom from Ree. Ma-lee waves at me with her metal thumbs up.
At the side of the stage I watch as Ry-Ry goes up. Her eyes are a little more furtive, as usual, as though her mind is fighting something. She looks anxiously around at the crowd and when Ree asks how she’s doing, Ry-Ry bursts out, “I am a worthless, ugly piece of shit,” and the crowd falls silent.
One down, I think.
“Iiiiiit’s the Swimsuit Round,” Ree booms into the crowd.
We’re in a new arena, an outdoor one with a pool, and a large crowd watches us from the stands. Four of us remain, wrapped in dressing gowns: me, Anna-la, Tama-wa and Kelli, all waiting to disrobe.
Anna-la’s cyborg side is transmitting some kind of message into our minds but I’m blocking it out by meditation and concentrating on the Sweetheart crown. My smile is twitching just a fraction and I concentrate harder to keep it under control. Next to me, Tama-wa frowns and I know she’s suffering under the mind control message. Anna-la grins with smug satisfaction and I think about delivering my own mind-message, but I’m too weak from concentrating against Anna-La’s attack to transmit.
“Okay, girls!” Ree shouts. “Let’s see those beach bodies!”
The music starts and I begin to giggle again. The music has a slow rhythm, ideal for taking clothes off to, and for the first few seconds I pretend to be embarrassed as my contestants start to edge their shoulders out of their robes. My hand moves to my mouth in faux shock as Anna-la reveals a smooth, hairless thigh from her robes and then I start to wiggle just a little bit from my gown.
Kelli is smart. Her tack is to sit back on a sun-lounger and pretend not to notice what’s going on. She’s conjuring up a persona of mystery and I almost kick myself for not thinking of it first. She slowly un-plaits her hair, teasing the strands free and I feel the crowd’s attention move straight to her. But then Tama-wa steals the spotlight. She rips away at her gown, staring down at her own hands in horror as though she has no control over their actions. Then she starts to jump up and down on the sun-lounger until it breaks; arms flailing and feet stomping like a child having a tantrum.
“I’m fat. I’m fat. I’m fat,” she screams into the crowd. I turn to my left and there is just the hint of a smile playing on Anna-la’s lips.
Just as Tama-wa is dragged away by security, I decide to bend down seductively and play with the sandals on my feet. I can tell that Anna-la is trying to push something into my mind but I push it back as I idly kick my shoes into the crowd. A boy with dirty, brown hair catches one and I giggle at him and offer a teeny-tiny wink. While I’m walking on tip-toes back to my sun-lounger, pulling slowly on the tie of my robe, something pops into my brain. It’s not a command from Anna-la to do something stupid. It isn’t a command at all. It seems to simply be a statement, one with such heartfelt feeling that I almost stop in my tracks.
This is bullshit. Why am I doing this?
Anna-la concentrates so hard on trying to make me trip up that she faints halfway through, unveiling her metal breasts in a pink two-piece. I get a round of applause as my robe slips to the floor and I stand shyly in a tiny pink bikini. Kelli finishes undressing a few seconds after me and we both slip into the pool. Her body is flawless. Ivory with a gleam of freckles. Her hair fans out in the water like a mermaid’s and I grit my teeth.
See you at the showdown, I transmit to her.
She says nothing. Kelli leans back into the water to float languidly as though we really were on holiday.
Thirty minutes to go.
“Keep still, soldier.” Na-li injects more reinforcement gel into my skin. “You want to be toughened up for the Dome.”
I force myself not to squirm around in my chair and slip into my favourite daydream, clutching a bunch of flowers and the Sweetheart trophy, and stepping over Kelli’s bloodied body to become crowned. Ma-lee pulls at my fingernails to activate the steel reinforcements and then moves on to check the blades on my shoes.
“Are you focussed, Shay-Shay?” she says solemnly.
As quick as a flash, Ma-lee transmits pictures into my mind–pictures of my town celebrating my win; their grubby faces being filled with food and wine; the old people crying and being delivered clean clothing; my dad, my Pa-la, coming back from the farming fields and collapsing in the kitchen from exhaustion. The Crown. The Fame. The Fortune. It is all there within my grasp, and I have to make everything count.
I nod. My teeth clench and I realise that I’ve never been so sure of anything else in my life. I am going to win.
“Crush her,” Na-li says with emphasis.
The reinforcement gel spreads through my skin and I feel it toughen. Within fifteen minutes my skin will be the equivalent of armour, lasting for hours.
“I wonder what tricks she has,” I say half to myself and half to Ma-lee.
“There were knives in her hair last year,” she answers. Her robot half pulls up more information, and I see her eyes un-focus as she reads the information internally. “Alligator skin–tough, flexible. Laser beam eyes–burn but not kill. Stiletto gun–50 rounds. Daggers embedded in elbows.” She stops and becomes human again. “But Kelli rarely duplicates. Just be careful, Shay-Shay. And remember to use your tricks and take from the crowd. Take anything you can get.”
Fifteen minutes to go.
I nod at Ma-lee. I know the drill.
“Places, please,” a steward shouts through a loud speaker.
Na-li slips one more knife into my ankle strap and kisses me on the forehead. “Whatever happens stay positive.”
“Positive attitudes get results!” I say brightly.
Ma-lee takes my hand and leads me to the steward. “For Pa-la, Shay-Shay. Just keep thinking about Pa-la.”
“Follow me.” The steward sets off at a brisk walk, her small bottom wiggling cheerfully. Occasionally she answers her walkie-talkie briskly, chastising whoever is on the other end. “We need to get you in position before the start.”
Wherever the area is, it takes a lot of twists and turns to get there. We are underground somewhere, flown in from the pool and then taken to a dressing room in some kind of basement. The steward begins to climb a long row of stone steps and I follow behind silently, not wanting to waste too much energy before the Showdown begins and, with every step, the noise from the crowd grows louder. We’re close. My heart begins to pound and the first signs of nerves tingle in my muscles. I steady my breathing and focus.
The stairs stop and we are a few feet away from a black metal gate at least seven feet high. The noise from the crowd is almost deafening, and if I squint through the metal bars I can just make out the image of Ree with a microphone. I can’t make out what he’s saying but it seems to be some kind of a joke because the crowd bursts into a fit of loud laughter.
“Okay. Stand here and wait for the gates to open. Ree will call your name and you go to him,” the steward says before turning around and heading back down the stairs, barking another order into her walkie-talkie.
Two minutes to go.
Through the gates I can just make out the arena. The floor is sand baked hard from the sun. It is vast. I wonder where the weapons chamber will be and whether the crowd will be allowed to toss weapons to contestants this year.
One minute to go.
The gate squeaks as it opens as if hundreds of tiny mice were being pulled apart from inside. I can just make out another gate on the other side of the arena which must be where Kelli enters. As the gate slides open I think about Kelli. She is my enemy. I hate her. She stands between me and that crown.
I will crush her.
I edge closer to the gate.
“Laaaadies and gentlemeeen! Cyborgs, clones and mergers! Today is a special day. Today is the day we’ve all been waiting for. It’s Showdown day!”
The crowd goes wild and Ree stretches his arms wide as though embracing the cheers. The gate is almost open and I feel the adrenaline begin to course through my veins. I move even closer to the gate, taking in the buzz of the crowd and feeling the warmth of the sun on my skin. It’s fortunate that Na-Li added sunscreen to the reinforce gel. At least my skin won’t burn.
Ten seconds to go.
“I think it’s time you met our Sweethearts, don’t you?” Ree pauses and the crowd goes wild again. I try to squint through the gates and see if I can make out any banners with my name on, but the arena is too large. “They’ve charmed you. They’ve titillated you. Well now they’re going to scare the crap out of you! It’s Kelli and Shay-Shay!”
Right on cue, I jog into the arena. The giggles are gone and my game-face is on. I salute the crowd and they salute back. Gone are the sequins and the glitter eyeballs, I’m in a khaki jumpsuit and I mean business. Straight up ahead Kelli jogs towards me, with Ree in the middle like a referee; Kelli is in an identical khaki jumpsuit, her hair tumbling around her body. I see something glittering in the strands of her hair and I wonder what tricks she has in there.
Ree turns from Kelli to me and back to Kelli. “Fight to the death girls. If you’re both alive in three hours we blow you up with the bomb implant on your right shoulder….”
“We know,” Kelli says with a roll of her eyes.
He ignores her and speaks into his microphone. “Boy, have we got some hot honeys for you today. In just a few moments they’ll be fighting for their lives and the Super Sweetheart trophy…”
“That trophy’s mine, bitch,” I say. Kelli only blinks in retaliation.
“…but why not sponsor one of our gals,” Ree continues. “Get down to the weapon exchange to help a honey out. Toss your knives and guns into the arena, but remember: no vigilantes. No kill attempts. You wanna get your money’s worth, right? Right?”
“Right,” the crowd yells back Ree’s catchphrase.
“So…what did you pay for?” He cups his hand to his ear.
“Jesus,” Kelli whispers under her breath.
“Right, I’m outta here,” Ree says back to us. “Good luck, girls. Especially you, Shay-Shay. If you live and don’t lose any limbs come back to my dressing room after the show.”
A wink and then he’s gone, and I’m left with the girl I have to kill in order to survive.
We’re both as still as statues, waiting for the countdown. The crowd jeers and leers at us from the stands. I look out at them and see their banners with our names painted in red or our bloody bodies caricatured on white cardboard. The sand is warm beneath my feet and the relentless sun beats overhead in the circular arena. A crackle from the speaker behind me and the crowd begins to hush except for one voice screaming, “Kill her Kelli,” over and over again like a chant. Then someone else shouts, “Smash her Shay-Shay,” before the countdown begins.
Kelli is staring at her feet, and I wonder if she has weapons hidden in her shoes.
My palms grow sweaty, and I hope the knives won’t slip out of my hands.
Kelli sighs dramatically, and once again I find myself wondering what she’s thinking.
Her eyes are closed and her lips seem to be moving. Is she praying?
I finger the knife on my waistband.
My fingers wrap around the knife and begin to draw it out.
I have the knife in my hand. Kelli hasn’t moved.
Kelli’s head snaps up and her eyes focus on mine. Desperate eyes.
I manoeuvre myself into position to spring on her like a cat.
The crowd roars and I’m ready to spring, to pounce on my victim. She would be merciless to me, but then I hear something in my mind that stops me in my tracks.
We don’t have to do this. We don’t have to do this. We don’t have to do this. We don’t have to do this.
Kelli’s eyes are almost pleading as she holds her hands up. The crowd murmurs in shock. I have the advantage. I could spring forwards and slit her throat like an orange, but something makes me stop and I curse myself for doing so. I imagine Ma-lee and Na-li cursing me, too, but I just can’t seem to help it. Kelli is watching me with huge painful eyes and I just can’t kill her like this.
“We have to,” I say. “They’ll kill us. They’ll kill our families. We have no choice.”
She shakes her head. “There is always a choice.”
But then something inside me seems to snap and I feel the blood surging through my body like a furious wave. My mind fills with pictures of Kelli’s broken body lying before me, cut open by my own knife. I lunge towards her, knife-edge pointed straight for her throat, and Kelli lunges back, throwing her weight at me whilst simultaneously dodging the knife. She flicks her hair and tiny daggers rip at my jumpsuit.
“Don’t you know what they do to your brain?” she whispers in my ear as we hit the floor. All around us the crowd yells and cheers. “They make you hate me. They make you want to kill me.” She rolls on top of me, pushing my knife-arm away from her.
“No,” I say as I struggle to push her off me, “I want to kill you because I want to win.” Finally I’m free and we’re back on our feet, circling each other. Kelli takes a knife from her waistband and eyes me suspiciously.
You don’t have to do this.
“Stop telling me what to do!” I scream and run at her again with my knife out, but she’s too quick and drops to her left. I activate the blades in my shoes and manage to slice her left calf as she ducks out of my way. The crowd oohs and aahs as if someone set off fireworks, and I hear someone call my name.
“Shay-Shay, over here.”
I hate to turn my back on my enemy but as Kelli is wounded I have a few seconds to spare. With my knife still raised, I sprint over to the voice in the crowd and see a cyborg merger pointing down into the sand. Nestled in the golden grains is a chain. I lift the chain to see a large steel ball attached to the end. There’s a little switch on the ball and when I press it sharp razor blades poke out. It’s heavy, but not too heavy for me to swing, and the chain is long so I can get my opponent at long range. With a curt node, I thank my benefactor and move back to the centre of the arena and back to Kelli who eyes the new weapon dubiously. Her calf is bleeding steadily but it isn’t a deep wound. I have a long way to go yet.
“Do you even know how to use that thing?” Kelli says.
She’s obviously trying to make me doubt myself. How can I believe a lying whore like her? I swing the ball above my head, gaining momentum before letting the chain snake out towards her. Kelli leaps to the side, missing the razor blades by millimetres and I gather up the chain again. Smugly I say, “Does that answer your question?”
The crowd is on their feet in applause but Kelli doesn’t seem fazed by this. I swing the ball above my head again, waiting for the perfect moment to strike.
“Do you know what it’s like to kill someone?” she says suddenly.
I lose rhythm for a moment and almost drop the ball to the ground. But then I recover. “Victorious.”
Kelli shakes her head. “Do you know how warm blood is?”
We were back to circling each other.
“To have it on your hands is like having their remains on your fingers,” she continues. “It’s gooey and sticky and takes hours to wash away. It’s redder than you’d imagine.”
Something feels weird inside me–wrong. I feel my body twitch. I keep swinging the ball and the crowd keeps yelling at us. Yelling for blood.
“People’s eyes don’t close when they die. You have to force the eyelids down to stop them staring at you.”
Swoooop, swoooop, goes the ball above my head.
The crowd-noise is a roar, like the distant sound of the ocean.
“There’s nothing cute about it. There’s nothing victorious or celebratory. It’s mindless and animalistic. It’s disgusting.” Her face screws up as though she might cry.
“Shut up,” I snap. “I know what you’re doing. This is a game–a trap. You’re just putting me off….” My voice is shaky and withering. I feel my muscles begin to tremble as the ball circles my head in a never-ending cycle.
“Slice her open.”
“We want blood.”
The crowd is booing us now. I’m struggling to breathe.
“Have you thought about what happens after you win this?” Kelli carries on. “Every year you come back. You parade your body in front of those perverts; you have to do unspeakable things with Ree. You kill. And you kill. And you kill again.”
“Stop it!” I yell.
“Then put the ball down!” she shouts back to me.
I see Ma-Lee and Na-li in my mind’s eye after the skin grafts. I think of the injections and the bikinis and the green tea diets. I think about Ree’s wink and the pat on my bottom. I think about the images in my head and I try and try to think about my life before all this. What was I like? Was I gentle? Kind?
“Okay,” I almost whisper. “Okay, I’ll stop all of this.”
Kelli stops circling and moves slightly forwards. “Oh, thank God….”
But then the chain slips from my fingers and it’s flying towards her. The crowd is on their feet, cheering and jumping for joy. The ball is travelling straight for Kelli, straight for her head and my fingers can’t work quickly enough to gather up the chain. I hear myself screaming, but the ball is travelling too quickly for Kelli to dodge. It hits her squarely on the forehead, cutting straight through her skull. I have to look away, to stop myself staring at the blood and the hair flying through the air. Everything slows down and I slump to my knees, facing the crowd. Fights are breaking out between the Kelli-fans and my own, some of them using the weapons they bought for us to use on each other. Police fire gunshots into the crowd and drag away the fighters until everything goes quiet. A hand finds mine and I’m dragged to my feet.
“We have a winner!”
Ree dumps a crown on my head and flowers in my arms. On a huge screen, my journey is replayed from the giggling girl to the bikini clad swimmer to the knife wielding maniac. Tears fall from my eyes and Ree coos at them as if they were tears of joy. He shoves a microphone in my face but I don’t say anything. Then Ma-lee and Na-li are here, wrapping their arms around me, shoving their faces into the television camera, but Ree keeps hold of my hand the entire time.
“Remember what I said,” he whispers in my ear. “My dressing room in fifteen minutes.”
A smile on my face, I bend down and pick up the chain from the floor. “Sure! That’d be cute!”