I remember the day I was taken away. I remember the white coats barging in, overturning furniture and not saying a word. A small candle flickered on the cake my mother had made to celebrate my name day. It toppled to the ground, extinguishing the flame. Somewhere to my left, my mother was shrieking while my father, eyes narrowed, stepped in front of all of us, my sister Emily and I seated at the table, while our mother hugged us close.
The men talked loudly, and despite the hands held over my ears, I heard every word:
"By order of the Queen, the noble Alice Starblaze, all children aged ten to nineteen will be subject to the Culling. Every child on the morning of their tenth name day will be collected to serve in the arena until the sunrise of their twentieth name day."
A man in a white knight's coat moved forward and pried me from my mother's arms.
"According to records, Elysia Faber, daughter to Victor and Marybeth Faber, qualifies for the Culling on this morning. In the name of Alice Starblaze, we welcome you to the trials and thank you for serving."
It was the first time I’d ever heard of the Culling, a brutal sport enforced by the crown and enjoyed by the aristocrats. They called it a noble sport, a respectable calling to clean up society so that only the well-adapted, the strongest would survive. The older children, the teenagers especially, were prized beyond compare. Making it up to your nineteenth birthday meant that you were either strong enough or smart enough to survive.
The last time I saw my parents, I was looking out from the back of a wagon, filled to the brim with other, confused ten year-old’s. My mother was in teary-eyed shock, and my father was stone-faced. Meanwhile, Emily, who was only five, pulled on our mother’s sleeve and I could see her mouth working. I saw the confusion in her eyes as she stared at my retreating countenance. I heard her call my name as she ran after the wagon in a futile attempt. It was about half a mile later that I felt the wetness staining my cheeks.
Crying was nothing new; half the kids with me were either bawling their eyes out or quietly sobbing to themselves. The scariest or most heartbreaking were the ones who were simply staring into nothingness, not crying, not saying a word. These would become the shooting stars, the ones who cracked under the pressure.
Elysia Faber. Nineteen years, six months. Born in the winter, the harshest, most godforsaken season in terms of the Arena. The cold was unforgiving, and if you were foolish, you were dead before the frost melted in the spring. Your body would be collected and disposed of in the mass grave in the center of the arena, unfit for a proper grave. Only the ones who were hunted, who went down fighting, were worth anything. The ones who died to the elements, or worse, took themselves out (read: the shooting stars) were worthless.
In the Arena, there was only one way to survive, and that was to distance yourself from the others. I learned that after we were issued our survival packs at the reception hall.
Every kid present sat through an hour long lecture on the history of the Culling, at the end of which, we were given a backpack slightly bigger than we were. Inside, sitting at the very top of the clothes and the supplies, was a hunting knife with a gleaming blade that easily covered the length of my wrist to my elbow. While I was admiring the craft quality of the blade, worth much more than anything I’d ever seen, a scream was heard moments before a sickening squelch and the dull thud of a body hitting the linoleum. In the back row, a child who’d sat next to me on the wagon ride to the Arena lay with blood gushing out from a deep slash in his neck. In his hand, his hunting knife glistened with crimson.
Without a word, an official strode up to the body and leaned over it. When he straightened, he was wiping the knife on a white handkerchief, the red staining it irreparably. He replaced the knife in the pack, closed it tightly with swift motions, and returned to his position. At the front of the hall, the opening speaker looked on with weariness, as if this wasn’t the first time she’d witnessed something like this. She brushed the hair from her eyes, looking exhausted and huffed.
“Well, now we know who the first shooting star is.”
From the reception hall, we were moved down to the first gate. It was over forty feet high, made of barbed wire and steel plates. The way that it buzzed and radiated made me think that it wouldn’t be wise to hug it. I was right, as there was a choked sob and a horrendous shriek as a girl ran straight for the fence. A white-blue glow emanated from her twitching figure as she pressed her body to the metal, screaming the whole while. I still remember the smell of burning flesh and blood as her body fell, charred and burnt. I saw a flicker of orange in her hair as an official stepped up to stomp it out.
“Shooting star…” a kid next to me mumbled, eyes wide with weary horror.
With an almost bored look, the official standing by the gate waved a collector forward to remove the body. It was hefted into a wheeled bin and rolled away. When it was out of sight, he gave a sharp whistle to bring our eyes back to the front.
“Congratulations for making it this far. When I call your name, come forward to receive your special survival gift.” He held up a white box, completely smooth and unmarked. “Boxes are assigned at random, names are randomly ordered. In these boxes will be your secret weapons, use them to your advantage. It could be useful, it could be comforting, it could be worthless.”
Like that, they began issuing boxes. One by one, children stepped forward to claim their prizes. Name after name was called and the stack of boxes slowly diminished. I counted each one diligently until the very last one. Fifty seven.
I strode up to the front and felt the weight of the box drop into my arms. Around me, everyone was opening their boxes, desperately hoping to find something magical to help them through the next decade. Some got rope, others got flints. I looked around at the faces around me and decided not to open my box just yet. Deliberately, I shook off my pack (it weighed at least twenty pounds all together) and packed the box into it. I’d open it later, away from all the hungry eyes.
I shrugged my pack back up on my shoulders as a new official strode to the front.
“Alright, some quick information on the Arena and certain regulations.” A curt nod was thrown somewhere to the back and a projection was thrown up on the blank wall behind the speaker.
I felt my stomach groan and wished I could have had a piece of the cake my mother had made earlier today. Despite the acid rising in my abdomen, I soaked up every word the official said, storing it away for use later.
“The Arena is over eight hundred thousand square kilometers. As such, we have multiple gates surrounding the main area, and multiple drop points within the Arena. You all will be split into groups and dropped a mile away from each other to be fair. It wouldn’t be right if we allowed you all to stay together as a group.” A group of officials made their way through the crowd of children and began separating them, assigning them numbers. “The numbers being given to you correspond with the truck you are to report to as your last convoy. If you have your number, go line up. Welcome to the Culling.”
The speaker stepped off the stage and moved back through the gate to the reception hall. Idly, I wondered if it was the same person giving the same speech every day.
“Elysia Faber; ten. Anthony O’Reilly; five,” a woman strode past me, repeating a list of five names over and over. “Melissa Kim, six.”
The jumbled voices blended together, and my heart began to race. I’d gotten my number, where was I going? I looked up at the adults that surrounded us, and they were waving us through another gate, where a line of vans waited. Actual cars, like in Metropolis. Some of them were full already, and purring softly, engines growling as if just waking up. I made my way to the end of the line, van number ten.
“Welcome aboard, Ms. Faber,” the driver drawled, ticking my name off a list. I wasn’t the first to arrive.
Three kids had already taken seats in the back, sitting with their backs to the sides, knees to their chests, quiet and dejected. They kept their packs near them. I took a seat next to one of them, eyeing him carefully.
“Hi.” I offered.
He glanced at me nervously. “Hi.”
“What’s your name?” I asked cautiously. “Mine’s Elysia.”
“Alex.” He replied, bringing his knees down a bit and staring at me, guarded.
“Happy birthday, Alex,” the driver laughed harshly, bringing an abrupt end to our conversation, “Happy birthday to all of you!”
The rest of the time waiting was spent in silence, until a few minutes later when the last kid showed up: a wiry young girl with freckles and long hair. She must have come from closer to the capital, I thought to myself, noting the sleekness to her hair and rigid posture. Daughter of a noble, maybe? I’d read about them, heard stories from the adults in town: the other half. The aristocracy.
The Persisters. The ones who didn’t just survive the Arena. The ones who prevailed.
It was whispered that those who belonged to the aristocracy were cunning like vipers, who weaseled their way through ten years spent in confinement, and passed on those traits to their children. Looking at the girl seated across me, I wanted to laugh. We were taught from a young age to fear the children of nobles, that they would tear us apart and we should avoid them at all costs, and here I am, sitting right next to one who looked too meek to even look anyone in the eye. An official followed her into the van, hopping into the passenger seat.
“That all of them?” the driver asked, revving the engine impatiently.
“All five, accounted for.” The woman replied, removing her glasses and wiping them on a white handkerchief. “Let’s hurry back, mess hall closes in an hour and I haven’t eaten anything since breakfast.”
The man shrugged nonchalantly and pulled out of the lot, turning onto a long, winding dirt road. The silence was by far the worst part of the day. It had been hours since they’d arrived at the reception hall, and through all of it, there was at the very least a dull murmur in the crowd, if not an official speaking. But here in the van, no one spoke. Everyone was lost in thought or, like the adults up front, couldn’t care less.
As for myself, I was sizing up the other kids, weighing my odds against theirs. It was a grim prospect, but that was the reality of it: them or me. I would tell myself that a million times during my stay. Them or me. While I was running from the hunters, them or me. While I was stealing from other kids, them or me. While I was digging foxholes to survive the winter, them or me. It went beyond a mantra; it was my way of life.
There was only one way to survive the arena.Them or me.