A young boy is caught shoplifting and is offered the choice of 8 months hard labour or taking part in a new reality TV show. Having never been on TV, this is his preferred option. The show is an elimination show but unknown to the public who watch every night and interact via social media 24 hours a day, the show is not what it seems. When the boys learn the true meaning of the word ‘elimination’, everything changes.
Aimed at readers aged 11-14, The Elements is a novel very much in need of an agent and a publisher and quite possibly a sympathetic editor – three things that have so far proven impossible to find. Rather than let the words sleep forever in a folder on my desktop, they’re being serialised at Plain Or Pan.
I appreciate you’re not quite the intended demographic for the book, but it’d be great if you could read it through the same eyes that first landed on a 2 Tone sleeve or a Topical Times Football Book. Positive comments welcome. Any and all offers of publication will be considered.
All previous chapters of The Elements can be found here.
by Craig McAllister
Chapters 10 and 11
In a small living room somewhere in the far north, Connor’s parents sat on their neat sofa with their tablet on a cushion between them, just about getting to grips with its functionality and intuitiveness. They’d managed to log on to ‘The Elements’ main social media feed easily enough – “just tap the icon on the screen, love,” had said Connor’s dad and they were in, desperate to see if Connor had replied to their message, eager to see what pictures and comments he had posted of his day in training. There didn’t seem to be any messages, but neither of them was certain they were clicking on the right parts to access them. Confusingly, Connor’s mum couldn’t find the one she’d sent earlier, and she was fairly confident that she was clicking in the right place for this. They’d found pictures that he happened to be in; one as he led the group around the lap of the field, a candid one of him listening to George in the dressing room at the start of the morning, a handful from the classroom in the afternoon, but they couldn’t seem to locate Connor’s actual personal feed.
“I think you’re doing it wrong, Christine, dear,” said Connor’s dad patiently.
“I don’t think so, Robert. I just don’t think he’s posted anything for the day.”
“That can’t be right – all the other boys seem to have put lots of stuff up.”
Connor’s mum passed the tablet and watched with irritation as his dad closed and opened and reclosed and reopened the app. He clicked on hashtags, unwittingly saved random photos to the tablet’s camera roll and managed somehow to leave a love heart icon underneath an unexciting picture of Zimmerman addressing the boys in the classroom. But for the life of him he couldn’t find Connor’s feed.
“Something’s wrong, Robert, I can feel it.” Connor’s mum looked worriedly at her husband, still intent on unlocking this particular mystery.
“I’m sure it’s just us, dear,” he said, not taking his eyes or thumb from the screen. Let’s see if I can find him on that Bubble application instead.”
But Babble was the same; plenty of activity from eight of the boys, none from Connor. Olé, it turned out, was just like the others.
“Well, I’m flummoxed Christine, I really am. I’m sure there’s a simple explanation though.” Connor’s dad handed the tablet back.
Connor’s mum put the tablet to the side and picked up the cushion it had sat on. She pulled it close to her chest.
For the next three weeks, a pattern emerged. It went like this.
Connor rose to the sound of classical music. Sometimes he recognised it. Most of the time he didn’t. He’d hobble to the shower with stiff legs and aching muscles before dressing for physical activity. He’d eat a healthy breakfast and attend a briefing session in the changing room with the other boys and George. The instructor would show clips of the previous day’s activities, giving useful tips on planking technique or skipping style, pointing out how the boys were becoming fitter and healthier. Personal bests were being “smashed!”, “left, right and centre”, he said. All the boys were leaner and meaner. Even Alan. At one point he had to go to the clothes store to pick out new, smaller clothes, his waistline reducing in inverse proportion to his level of fitness. On the blackboard George would list the set of activities they’d be tackling that morning, explaining the benefits of each of them, going into the scientific detail of which muscle groups they worked and how, rain or shine, they’d go into the field for up to three hours and work themselves into the ground. Occasionally the man and Cameron would turn up to watch. Sometimes they’d write on clipboards or tap into mobile devices and offer weak encouragement from the sides. Sometimes, the man would bark insults and obscenities through his megaphone from the top of the viewing tower. Once, purely for thrills, Cameron fired a gun straight into the air and rolled around laughing in the viewing tower when all the boys fell face-first to the dirt in anticipation of what never followed. The boys learned to ignore these unwelcome visits and got on with the task in hand, which was mainly doing as George asked. They were rewarded with encouragement, praise and noticeable abs as a result. Connor would never have gone as far as saying he liked it, but his new routine was something he no longer dreaded.
After showering they had some time to themselves, before a quick lunch and then a session with Zimmerman in the classroom. These sessions, Connor really enjoyed. He’d sit, bones, joints and muscles humming in agony from the morning’s workout and listen as the professor talked to them in his calm and steady American accent, instilling in them a ‘can do’ attitude, a ‘growth mindset’ as he called it. In these sessions, Connor developed a fondness for meditation and an appreciation of the powers of a positive mental attitude. Zimmerman would sometimes start sessions with an abstract mathematical problem and leave the boys to puzzle it out between themselves, returning only once the puzzle had been solved. Initially, these puzzle-solving sessions were quick to break down but slowly over time the group came to appreciate the benefits of working as a team. Rhys and Alan often took charge and when they did, the problem was usually solved with less fuss and argument.
After Zimmerman’s class the boys usually had an hour or so of free time before the evening meal. The majority of boys used this time to update their social feeds. Connor used it to sit and stew, desperate to pluck up the courage to ask for his phone back, willing the man to return it before he had to lower himself to ask. There was no obvious end to the stand-off and Connor had all but resigned himself to never having his phone again. The other boys occasionally tagged him in their posts, but fear of falling foul of the man meant that such times were limited. No-one wanted to lose their only means of communication with the outside world.
What Connor didn’t know was that he was currently a trending online phenomenon. #wheresconnor had started after the first day or two when it was apparent that Connor wasn’t updating his feed. One of his followers had included it as a hashtag at the end of a post, someone else had jumped onto it and suddenly #wheresconnor was a thing. Over the course of the next few weeks it had grown to such proportions that it was more than mere groundswell – it seemed the entire planet was asking the question at once. The other boys knew about the hashtag, but self-preservation meant that none of them dared tell Connor. They knew he was popular, perhaps even more so as a bizarre result of his social media ban, and to have any advantage at all over him was one worth having. Despite the obvious closeness and camaraderie that had developed between all the boys, some things were best kept between only those who needed to know.
One day the man was summoned alone to the TV company’s office. In a room at the far end of Kimble, far away from the boys and the girls and Cameron, he sat opposite three old men with older hair and ancient suits. There’d been a request from the sponsors, they said, to have the boy Stewart back online. A popular boy, they told him, he had quite the following, and quite the following had quite the power. With talk of boycotting the show and the likes, the sponsors were getting nervous and panicky. A lot of their money had been put into this show, they said, and they expected a lot of money out of the show in return. If Stewart, number 9, wasn’t back online, they’d seriously have to consider their position. No amount of fist clenching or teeth baring or shouting could help the man and so, he returned with his tail between his legs and a chip on his shoulder. Stewart would get his phone back, he’d promised, but, oh! he’d pay for it. He thought it best not to tell the TV company that part though.
Connor found his phone on top of his bed. No note. No explanation. It was fully charged and insanely overloaded with notifications and messages. It was then that Connor discovered the #wheresconnor hashtag and shocked and mystified, realised that his celebrity was such that even soap stars and sports stars and pop stars and politicians were Babbling and Olé-ing about him. Without his knowledge he’d become properly famous. Connor typed a message. ‘Hello everybody,’ it read. ‘I’m back back back! #wheresconnor’ He added a humorous #heresconnor hashtag almost as an afterthought and revelled in the familiar whooshing noise his phone made as it was sent out into the ether. Ignoring the immediate flurry of response, he repeated this action across his other social media platforms and lay back on his bed, happy again that he could communicate with the outside world. He had three weeks of memes, messages and misquotes to plough through but they could wait. He only hoped his parents would find out that he was OK. He certainly couldn’t be contacting them in a hurry.
One morning, almost a month after they’d arrived, the boys were awakened at the usual time and accompanied to the dining area to eat breakfast at their tables of four, as normal. The man seemed more animated this day. Cameron too. He was busying himself with a clipboard and a handheld mobile device, seemingly already not enough hours in the day to do whatever it was he did. The man moved to the centre of the room, picked up a small glass of fruit juice and clanked the side of it with a teaspoon. The bright noise cut through the early-morning chatter and quickly, the room fell silent.
“Contestants. I would like a few words if I may, before you enjoy breakfast. There will be no training this morning. I know you will be disappointed at this, but there are a couple of more important matters at hand. You should know that two days from now, we will begin ‘The Elements’. All your training, all your focus has been leading to this moment and it is now almost upon us. We will meet this morning to go over the format of the show. There is much to explain and many questions, I’m sure, to be answered. I have called a press conference for this afternoon. The world’s media is eager to hear from you again, to ask new questions, to find out new information, to fill the columns in their newspapers and online features that will see your names carried across the globe.”
He lowered his voice a notch so that Connor had to concentrate to hear him properly.
“You don’t need me to remind you of the importance of saying the right thing in this environment, do you? It’s more ‘good boy’ than ‘good quote’, do I make myself clear?”
There was a murmur of acceptance from the boys and, as the man stepped down, they got on with the first important task of the day – eating breakfast.
With a mixture of excitement and apprehension, Connor, Rhys and Stephen chatted about the impending contest.
“I tell you,” said Rhys knowingly. “It’ll be based around the five elements; earth, air, water, fire and wood. Won’t it, Pamela?! Remember I said before?!”
Pamela gave nothing away, save a slight smile on her upturned mouth.
“I’ve no idea, Rhys. Really. I know just as much or as little as you. I like your theory though.”
“It will be! Believe me! There’ll be five tasks. Each task will see winners and losers and eventually, after the last task, there’ll be just one winner.”
“And that’ll be me!” said Stephen out loud with a grin. “D’you think we’ll be camping and that?” he asked to the group. “Living outside…living off the land. D’you think we’ll need to kill for food?!”
“Maybe,” answered Connor. “Just as long as we’re not expected to kill each other.”
The thought of this was new and subdued the conversation for the rest of breakfast. The three boys sat in silence, eating and drinking and lost in their own thoughts.
With breakfast over, the boys reassembledPin the meeting area. The room was set out as it had been on the first couple of days, with two rows of chairs arranged in a semi-circle in front of the massive screen. The rotating ‘Elements’ logo revolved lazily. A lectern was placed midway between the screen and the seats, off-centre to the right. Cameron was already busying himself with a small selection of electronic devices. Without prompting, the boys sat in the same seats as before, the girls doing likewise. On cue, the man appeared.
“Contestants. I trust breakfast has set you up suitably for the day ahead. There is much to get through this morning, and I expect you’ll want to ask questions as we progress. Please, watch this short film and we will talk afterwards. Cameron….”
The lights dimmed to black and the logo on the screen faded, giving way to footage of a boy running with purpose through a heavily wooded area. His feet scrunched on leaves and his breath was short and fast. Twigs snapped underfoot, shrubbery scraped across the large backpack that hung heavily from his shoulders and the boy let out an occasional gasp as the terrain below suddenly dropped or changed without notice. Once or twice he looked over his shoulder, back towards the camera. His terrified face told a thousand stories…and begged a thousand questions. Who was he? Where was he? Why was he running? Who was he running from? What was it that made him so obviously terrified?
A voiceover began. Connor recognised it as the same gravelly voice from before.
“The Elements is the ultimate survival show.”
The footage changed smoothly. The boy was still in the same position on the screen, still running frantically, but the landscape had changed to a frozen wasteland. His breath, still short and fast, puffed out in small clouds around his mouth. Where there had been deep green forestry there now was blue white nothingness. His backpack bounced with every tentative running step he could manage. As he looked back to the camera he slipped, his feet giving way. His entire body fell to the right and for one brief moment he lay poleaxed on the frozen ground below. As the camera closed in on his backpack, the boy made it back onto his two feet and he was off and running again, pulling away from the camera once more.
“He who runs the fastest…”
The footage changed suddenly to that of a cheetah racing gracefully across an African plain.
“He who runs farthest…”
The footage was now of turtles and whales and migrating birds.
“He who utilises the greatest survival skills…”
The footage transformed into that of a polar bear, its head poking proudly above a frozen icecap.
The footage changed once more, this time to an aerial shot of a lion atop a rock, his head turned to the sun, his magnificent mane puffed up and blowing in the wind. The King of the Jungle. And the icy terrain. And the ocean, the skies and whatever else too.
The film faded and the poem, the one from the train, the same one that hung on Connor’s wall in his room, by now such a part of the furniture that he barely noticed it, appeared on the screen.
People of Kimble, The
Elements will see to it that some of you will fail. That’s just the
Natural order of things.
Accept this fact and embrace the challenge ahead.
Not all will make the return journey, the
Consequence of failure should be obvious to
The initial letters in each line swelled in size, turned red and remained in that form until it slowly dawned on each of the boys sitting there.
P. E. N. A. N. C. E.
Penance was punishment you inflicted on yourself as an admission of some wrongdoing or other. All the boys here had committed a crime of some sort, some more serious than others, and all the boys had chosen to be here rather than serve punishment in a more traditional establishment. The poem now made perfect, chilling sense. ‘The Elements’ was perhaps the ultimate in penance.
The words remained on the screen after the lights went up and were visible while the man spoke.
“All your training thus far, the days and weeks spent sweating on the field with George, the uncountable hours spent solving unsolvable problems for Professor Zimmerman, all lead to this. ‘The Elements’. As you have perhaps gleaned from the film and the poem too, it is not for the faint-hearted. The rigorous input you have received ensures that all of you are in peak condition, that each and every one of you is in the best-possible mental state to participate. Our team of behind-the-scenes psychologists and analysts has monitored your progress from the off and we have now been given the go-ahead to begin the contest. Let me explain a little bit about the format.”
The screen changed again. This time one word appeared.
A second word appeared below.
Then a third.
By the fourth, Rhys was mouthing them as they appeared on the screen.
The final word was ‘Wood’.
“I told you!” whispered Rhys, sitting between Connor and Stephen. “I knew it!”
Rhys hadn’t got them quite right, but he was remarkably close.
“The Chinese,” the man spoke, “regard the Five Elements as the foundation of everything in the universe. Each has its own character and can generate or destroy one another. Metal generates water; water nourishes wood; wood feeds fire; fire creates ash, or earth, and earth bears metal. It’s a natural cycle. The destructive nature of the elements also means that fire melts metal; metal chops wood; wood breaks up the earth; the earth absorbs water, and water quenches fire.
You boys all have your own character. You have generated team spirit and togetherness, but you also have the capacity to destroy one another too. I hesitate here to point out some of the things you have said and done behind one another’s backs, for that destructive element will rise naturally as the contest progresses.”
Connor wasn’t sure he understood everything the man said, but he got the gist of it; everyone has the ability to win, but no-one is infallible, and no-one can be trusted seemed to be the short of it. A sudden dawning came over him regarding the #wheresconnor hashtag. The other boys would’ve known about this, definitely, yet not one of them had elected to tell him of it. They knew – Rhys and Stephen especially – how difficult he’d found things without having access to his social media accounts. Had they told him he was popular despite his absence, he wouldn’t have worried so much. Instead, they’d kept this from him, and for three weeks too! This told Conor that he was feared by the other boys, that they considered him competition, a threat to their own survival, and from this he drew confidence and strength. It was there and then that Connor understood ‘The Elements’ was all about every man for himself.
“The Elements will play out over five discreet events, each themed around one of the five elements listed on the screen behind me. The first event will be ‘Earth’. For this, you will compete in your teams of three. You will be taken to an area far from here and given the task of retrieving a red flag. There is only one red flag so there can be only one winning team. From the two losing teams, depending on social media response, at least one boy will be eliminated from the process.”
The man made it sound like an interview for a high-flying corporate job. Did ‘eliminated from the process’ mean ‘killed’? Based on the video and the subtle clues dropped here and there over the past month – ‘it’ll be real bullets next time!’, it seemed quite likely. Connor started weighing up his options. Pushing aside unhelpful thoughts of #wheresconnor, Rhys and Stephen, he decided, were fine as teammates. They would all need to rely on one another’s skills and qualities for this task, something that they had been doing so far. Rhys was smart and analytical. Stephen was not the brightest but he was strong and fast and could run all day if he had to. Connor wasn’t sure what the others might consider to be his best features, but he himself knew he had the stamina and strength of mind to compete. He wasn’t going out easily, and certainly not first.
“It’s a simple concept,” the man continued, “but compelling, nonetheless. Are there any questions just now?”
Fowler raised his hand.
“Fowler, two. Question?”
“Eh, yeah. How long does an event last for? Is there, like, a full-time whistle and a draw if no-one wins?”
The man laughed loudly.
“There’s no full-time whistle, no! Ha! Each event continues until someone wins. That could be hours, days, even weeks if need be. I’m certain that our sponsors would prefer each event to be as long as possible without becoming drawn-out and boring. As you compete, we will live-stream events on YouTube. All of the action will be captured as and when it happens. A nightly highlights show will broadcast the best parts.”
Harrison was next.
“What happens if you’re on the losing team but you’re not the worst player in it? It doesn’t seem fair that you can be penalised because someone in your team has let you down.”
“It’s a team game, Harrison,” the man replied. “and if you’re on the losing team, there’s a chance you will be eliminated. It’s how the show works.” He smiled at Harrison, signifying this particular question had now been answered.
Connor stuck his hand up.
“Stewart, number nine. What’s your question?”
“How long is there between each event? You said the ‘Earth’ one could last weeks if it needed to. What sort of break will there be before the next event?”
“A good question, thanks. There’s no definitive answer to this, I’m afraid. If your first event is over and done with in a day, then I’d imagine we’ll get the next event underway a day or two after that. If the first event takes a week, then you’ll obviously need a longer recovery period. That’s one of the things that makes ‘the Elements’ unique in broadcasting. We are not fitting our programming into a traditional TV schedule, rather the TV schedule will bend and shape to fit us. When we first floated the idea of this show, we suggested it might last a year from start to finish, but it might also be over and done with inside a month. Obviously, our sponsors will be hoping for an extended run on prime-time TV but the length of the show will be determined by how quickly or slowly you all complete the events. The public too has a large part to play. They might choose to vote off more than one of you at a time, in which case, there’ll be less contestants, so things will finish quicker. Keep the public on your side and your chances of making it to the end increase.”
He surveyed the boys in front of him with a genuine smile.
“Are there any further questions? No? In that case I’d like to brief you ahead of the press conference. At the last one, one or two of you said some things that would have been better off staying in your head than coming out of your mouth.”
He paused for effect.
“If you remember, I faced the indignation of having to intervene and frame your comments in a positive manner. I’m sure it doesn’t need repeating, but for the record I will repeat it all the same. Do not, under any circumstances allude to things here at Kimble being anything less than perfect, anything less than wonderful and anything less than idyllic. Do I make myself clear?”
He paused, eyeing every boy individually.
“Anyone who makes my life difficult this afternoonmay not see the end of the first event.”
He let that thought hover in the space between them before extending this thumb and pointing his index finger out towards the boys, adding a definitive final two words.
He turned and left, with Cameron scurrying behind him.
One of the girls at the back stood up and addressed the boys. They had some free time, she said, to update their socials, freshen up, whatever, before they’d meet at noon for lunch. The boys dispersed accordingly, some to their rooms, some to the recreation room, some to the gym. Within a minute, the meeting room was empty.
Connor found a quiet corner in the recreation room, away from Grayson and Fowler who’d elected to hang out at the pool table, and scrolled through the various social media feeds on his phone. His glib #heresconnor hashtag had amusingly been adopted by his followers and almost every picture of himself was accompanied with the hashtag somewhere underneath.
He left his own feed and looked at the other boys’. Harrison’s was still full of square-jawed selfies, mid work-out poses and snarling pouts. Stephen’s too was much the same, even if he didn’t quite take as sharp a selfie. For reasons unknown to Connor, Stephen had more followers than anyone else. His teammate was loud and gormless, not the smartest nor the fittest, yet he had almost twice the number of followers of Rhys and Reilly combined. It really was quite something. Maybe it was the hair. ‘hashtag le gingembre’ and all that. The French really did love him. Most of the comments in his feed were from France. ‘If we finish last in this task’, thought Connor, ‘at least I’m ahead of Rhys in the popularity stakes.’ Alan’s feed was interesting. He seemed to have had the sympathy vote from the public, probably based on those first couple of weeks, but all of the comments now were complimenting him on his changing body shape, his levels of fitness and his new-found gung-ho attitude. With a new perspective on some of his fellow participants, Connor made his way to the dining area, keenly aware once more that he’d be on camera. Pamela had been right. She’d said at the beginning that you soon forgot all about the camera, but if Connor was going to survive ‘The Elements’, he was going to have to play up to it.
After lunch, the boys were taken to the press area. The room was nowhere near as frenzied as before. It was once again packed out with journalists from every corner of the world, and at the front, at the back and at both sides of the room, a fleet of cameramen, sound engineers and hairy men with grubby, low-slung jeans guided cables and wires safely away from unsuspecting journalists’ feet. It was much calmer than the first time they’d been here though, with the reporters far quieter and much more settled. Even with the production crew busying themselves continually, there was a relaxed, calm ambience. Connor recognised some of the reporters from before…the lady from the Daily Mirror was in the front row, the American man who’d singled out Rhys for being the science guy was sat on the left. An Indian woman behind the American man raised her take-away coffee cup and gave Connor a smile as he scanned the room. A few rows behind her was the German reporter who’d asked a question the last time. There were one or two faces that Connor didn’t recognise, but that wasn’t to say they hadn’t been at the last briefing. Notable by their absence was the quiet, elderly Japanese man and his translator, the subject of the man’s behind-the-scenes vitriol following the previous press briefing. As before, a big camera at the back swept here and there, capturing every angle of every boy. At a given signal, de la Cruz made his entrance, springing on like a ridiculously flung together cliché of every shiny and fake-happy TV presenter that had ever appeared in front of the cameras. His hair was even taller than the last gravity-defying time, and he had been given some sort of silvery-grey highlight on the front of the quiff. His suit was silver and super-tight, accentuating his already supremely-pointed patent grey shoes. In his hand he held a microphone that, Connor noticed now, had a square block below the round foamy part, a combination of ‘Elements’ and TV company logos around its edge. On his right wrist hung a massive black-faced diver’s watch that stuck out ugly and vulgar from underneath the sleeve of his shirt. To the side, watching everything with a keen interest, stood the man, arms folded, a forced smile stuck to his face. He’d be glad when this was over. A sponsors’ requirement, the press briefing led to the sort of column inches and internet traffic that put the show firmly into the consciousness of a huge percentage of the planet’s population. The stories made stars of the contestants. The contestants sold newspapers and paywalls and drove advertising revenue online. Each was dependant on the other. The man was ready this time for any awkward questions.
At the stroke of 10:50am (the broadcast would go out at 11:00, seemingly live to those watching around the world) de la Cruz turned his fake smile up another notch, visibly grew another inch and, after a brief, slick in’roduction, began directing questions from the press to the boys, or ‘competitors’ as he was now also calling them. Many of the questions related to the boys’ physical appearance, they all appeared fitter, bigger, stronger, the reporters remarked. They had clearly undertaken a programme of intense fitness and it had appeared to work. A well-groomed Frenchman asked Stephen about his hair routine. Many youngsters in France, he said, girls as well as boys, had started to cut their hair in the same style. Could Stephen pass on any fashion tips, perhaps? Other questions were asked around the subject of bullying, with all the boys who’d been on the end of the man’s wrath being probed by the journalists. With the shadow of the man forever-present, each boy gave a non-comital answer that helped maintain the plastic smile on their aggressor’s face. Alan in particular was singled out for questioning and when he struggled to find the ‘right’ answer for a persistent English lady, a subtle nod from the man led to two well-built men with wires coming from their ears appearing from the back to escort her from the room. Each had a hand under an armpit and, despite her noisy protestations, she was unceremoniously thrown out. Serving as a warning to others, this took the questioning along new, safer lines of enquiry; how were they feeling ahead of the first event…were they missing family and friends…what was their favourite thing about The Elements so far…the sort of flim-flam that helps pad out tabloid newspapers and shallow gossip shows, but not the sort of in-depth stuff that the more serious journalists were here to report on; the psychological effects of being part of a TV experiment, for example, or the ethics of some of the practice so far seen via the official YouTube channel. If this was the stuff we were permitted to see – the institutionalised bullying, the confiscation of phones, the effects of all of this on the mental wellbeing of young people, then what exactly, a nosy Spanish woman from El País wanted to know, were they not showing us? This proved to be the last question of the briefing, meaning the occasion ended on a rather awkward and unresolved moment. It also proved to be the stimulus for the online headlines that followed that same afternoon.
‘Fury as sick show throws us out!’ heralded The Mirror.
‘Death Camp Reality TV!’ screamed Entertainment Now!, America’s largest, most-powerful online news and gossip channel. ‘Who will die first?’ it asked in the subheading.
‘¿Es este entretenimiento en el siglo XXI?’ asked the online editorial in El País.
The newspapers the following day were even more scathing. With time to ponder, watch back and analyse the press conference, the more sympathetic of the world’s media tore the show and its producers to shreds. From Madrid to Moscow, Massachusetts to Melbourne, the same editorials were printed; that this show was unethical, that it exploited teenagers who had emotional and psychological issues to begin with, that it was plainly, going by the inferences suggested so far, murderous. Most scathing of all was Mr Yoshiro’s opinion piece in the Japanese daily Asahai Shimbun. Despite repeated requests, he had not been invited to yesterday’s press briefing and despite going through the proper channels he had been unable to secure an interview with any of the show’s producers, so Yoshiro had been forced to write, he explained, a one-sided opinion of the show. This ‘game’ show, he wrote, will systematically kill each of the unwitting boys who are taking part in it. Yes, it is true that they are all criminals to one degree or another, but the barbaric notion that it is somehow OK to eliminate, to eradicate, young people purely in the name of entertainment is a disgrace. We are all to blame, he said, for encouraging it. If any boy died during this show, every person who ever interacted with any element of the show would have that boy’s blood on their hand.
Issues were raised with politicians, motions raised in parliaments and letters sent by heads of state on headed paper, but the show would continue. For every complainer there were hundreds of thousands of fans. Each of these worshippers (for this is what they were) was tied to their phone, checking in on their favourites at least five times an hour, interacting, engaging, sharing content. Hashtag this, ‘love’ emoji that, all the time. It was non-stop. And every time an image was sent zooming across hyperspace or a gif was transferred between devices or #theelements was tagged on to the end of a post, a silent cash register rang and sang for the show’s sponsors, rich enough to begin with and now even more so. No-one, not the Prime Minister or the King of Spain or America’s First Lady would be able to stop its broadcast. Besides, they pointed out, these boys were brought here as criminals, don’t forget that. They were given an alternative, yet they all chose this is as punishment. Do the crime, do the time, that’s what they said, wasn’t it?
When the man saw the headlines, he was furious. Furious at the papers for writing words that were out of his control. Furious with the boys for answering in their ambiguous ways. Furious with himself for allowing these troublesome journalists to be part of the briefing in the first place. He was summoned once more to the office far away at the back of Kimble where he sat opposite the sponsors who suggested – told him, really – that ahead of the next conference he should ask the journalists to submit their questions in writing and to allow entry only to those who asked the ‘right sort of questions’. He kicked himself for not thinking of this himself, annoyed and upset that he was being forced to do what the sponsors asked of him.
When he returned to the boys, he was in a foul mood. Preparations were being made ahead of the big day tomorrow. The boys had been instructed to meet with him so that he could run through exactly what they should pack and prepare for the first event, but the man had a good mind to give them no help at all, or worse, give them false information, and see how that panned out. In the back of his mind though, he worried about the sponsors. They were in charge. They paid him handsomely. This was the best-paid job he’d ever had in TV production and he intended to keep it. Plans were already afoot for another series and associated spin-off shows and they could see him easy into early retirement. If he sabotaged the first event purely as some cheap form of revenge against the likes of Stewart or Harrison, he’d be as well packing his bags before the second event was underway. His revenge would have to wait.
“Contestants!” he shouted with false enthusiasm. “I’ve gathered you here as a group for one last time before our first event. ‘Earth’, as you know, begins tomorrow. I’d like to brief you, if I may, on what you should pack in advance.”
The assembled boys listened intently.
“You will need to prepare for probably a couple of nights and maybe three days-worth of activity. Bring layers. Bring jackets. Bring combat trousers. And your waterproofs. Probably your bite-proof ones too. I’m not sure what’s out there, but I’m sure you’ll find out.”
An uneasy, unspoken feeling crept across the boys.
“’Earth’ is a straightforward task. Think of it as a warm-up to begin with, an icebreaker so to speak. You’ll quickly get into the swing of things, I’m sure! As I have explained before, you will compete in your teams of three. In the morning, early, each team will be taken independently to an area far from here and tasked with retrieving a flag. The area is dense and dark and thick with forest. Creatures live there. No doubt there’ll be creatures neither you nor I have encountered before.”
He broke off to smile.
“You can tell me all about them when you return. If you return. There may be other little things that will hinder your progress along the way. It’s the unexpected things that will keep you on your toes… and keep the viewers watching. It’s all about the viewers, boys, don’t forget that. Give good telly, will you?!”
He smiled again. No-one smiled back.
“Remember, there can be only one winning team and from the two losing teams, depending on social media response, at least one contestant will be eliminated.”
He rubbed his hands.
None were forthcoming. The man felt better for having exerted his power and control over the boys. His chest swelled whenever he brought silence and unease to the proceedings. He loved being in charge again.
“Then we’ll eat. Afterwards you should pack. There may be some free time later on, but lights out tonight will be 2000 hours, ahead of a 4am or so start in the morning.”
The boys ate. They talked about the Earth event, sharing their concerns and fears in a frank and open discussion that none of them would have thought possible a few weeks before. Pamela had told them that after tomorrow morning they were unlikely to see her again, her role now having been fulfilled, so much of the talk was of funny stories and first impressions. She seemed sorry that her time was up and the boys were sad that their first connection to Kimble, to ‘The Elements’ was being severed.
Back in his room, Connor carefully packed his things. The man’s voice rang in his head as he looked out clothing that he’d only ever worn when he’d first tried it on. He packed everything he’d been told to pack, adding a couple of extra layers and a pair of fire-proof combat trousers just in case. In the inside pocket he stuck a ‘juicebox’ – a device that would give him an extra boost of battery power should his phone run out of charge. Alongside it he put in a notebook and a couple of pens and, most importantly of all, his anti-allergy medication. At the top of the backpack he squashed in a one-man tent that had been left in the middle of his room when he’d returned from eating. The note on it said simply, ‘Pack me.’ He lifted his camouflaged backpack, put it on and let his back and shoulders adjust to its weight. Could he carry this around with him for half a week or more? Even with his recently developed strength and fitness, he wasn’t sure he could. Still wearing the backpack, he ran through a mental inventory of everything he’d packed. Perhaps he could lose the fireproof trousers? Or the second pair of boots? He didn’t want to be hampered by it but nor did he want to find himself in a situation where he was wishing he had a piece of equipment that he’d removed from his pack at the last minute. He decided to keep the backpack as it was. He’d get used to it. He’d need to.
There was little free time that evening and so none of the boys emerged from their rooms. Inside, each updated and uploaded; pictures of backpacks, thumbs-up selfies, ‘see you on ‘Earth’-type messages. There was a mixture of excitement and anticipation, expectation of the competition and fear of the unknown. As ever, there were hundreds, thousands of messages from his supporters and as he read with constantly sweeping thumbs, the lights harshly shut off without warning. At 8pm, Connor lay atop his bed in just his underwear, the soft glow from his phone illuminating his face, casting an enlarged shadow of his head onto the wall behind the headboard. He plugged his phone in to charge, brushed his teeth in the dark and lay, trying to sleep in a bed that he hoped he’d be back in before too long. At some point, while lost in jumbled thoughts of parents and dark forests and the boys on the other teams, he nodded off.
(more to follow in the future)