THE NATION'S NEWEST PASTIME
By TL Taylor
The air grew thinner still, as Kel scaled the final ridge. Aromatic flowers, extreme desert heat, the stench of sweat made quite a cacophony for the senses. Beyond the horizon sat their destination. Once upon a time there’d been a tram one could ride back down. No longer. Twelve hard miles up meant twelve miles back down. No way around it.
Kel looked for Braille, their faithful Australian husky from before The Transformation. Pets were no longer allowed under the Policy, but Kel had never been much of a rule follower. Braille panted as his owner poured some water from the canteen into his mouth and then their own. Kel scratched around the dog’s neck. “We’ll set up for a few hours, rest, then make the descent once night falls.”
They moved as fast as exhaustion and heat allowed, securing the tent amongst a cluster of rocks flanked by a horseshoe of blooming cacti. Kel had always felt closest to God on a mountaintop; that is before God had packed his bags and deserted mankind like a jilted sailor on leave who’d just walked in on his girl getting schtupped by his best friend. Reminded them of that song from a long long time ago: “The Father, Son, and the Holy Ghost — they caught the last train for the coast,” No more religious gatherings. “The day the music died.” No more music. Kel didn’t mind the religious ban seeing as God the Father had turned out to be just another deadbeat dad who abandoned his kids when the burden became inconvenient. However, being denied music, the lifeblood of one’s soul, had proven torturous.
They drug their napsack into the tent, drinking in the sky’s symphony as it transposed day into night with an array of orange, pink, and purple hues. Kel knew sustenance was needed, but fatigue permeated their weary bones. They weren’t sure if they even had the energy to chew, though Braille never appeared too tired to ravage a meal. As if on cue, Braille whimpered and nosed the napsack. Kel would have laughed were it not for the precious oxygen and energy it would have cost. They unzipped the napsack, and retrieved two food ration bars. Not exactly gourmet cuisine, but they’d stave off hunger. Kel unwrapped one and extended their hand toward Braille, who opened his mouth and took the bar with the gentility of a prima ballerina pirouetting across a stage.
The arts, another Policy restriction. Kel missed nearly everything The Administration had abolished, save sex and organized religion. The two went hand in hand in Kel’s mind. As a previously devout church-goer, abstinence had been the outward expectation ... which was easy for an asexual, non-binary person as themself. Behind the pews, pulpits, and closed stained glass doors, however, dirty ancient men chased anything with an orifice they could stick their wrinkled rods inside. Kel didn’t miss sex, or the pretense of church.
They opened a second bar, forced themself to nibble at it, pulled the napsack to the sleeping bag, and laid their head down. Braille licked his chops, eyeing Kel’s bar, before curling up against him like a little spoon. Bits of nutrition bar lingered in Kel’s mouth, the unconsumed remainder clutched in their palm. Braille was happy to be of assistance, snatching it out of a sleeping Kel’s hand, downing it in a single gulp.
Kel woke on instinct, as they did every time there was a campaign to discharge. One wasn’t asked to accept a mission, one was chosen. Life was different now; one did what one must do to survive.
They adhered the headlamp to their head, retrieved two more rations from the pack, decamped. Braille by their side, the two began the descent. Fifteen hours later they arrived at The Stadium in the valley. The obligation was to be discharged first thing on the morrow.
Having reached the checkpoint, Kel glanced about nervously. It was imperative they hadn’t been followed. That’s how accidents manifested. Once confirmed all-clear, they retrieved a key from the pack, and found their assigned locker. They climbed inside with Braille, and slept the sleep of the dead.
The cheers of the crowd roused Kel. They listened to make sure the coast was clear before stepping into the corridor. Water, rations, stash Braille back in the locker, strap weapon to back, get into position, wait. The waiting felt like time had stopped. Kel crouched, reached back to run their hand along the loaded crossbow, unintentionally offered up a silent prayer. Old habits died hard. Father forgive me, though I know what I do, I have no choice.
The flare sounded and Kel stepped from behind the protective barrier. Although experience was on their side, they knew one day their luck would run out.
“NOT TODAY, SATAN!” Kel screamed their freedom fighter slogan over the crowd’s din.
Blinded by survival, they raced onto the playing field.
Don’t think. Don’t retreat. Stand your ground.
Kel stopped precisely at the field’s thirty yard mark before snatching the crossbow from their back and bringing the scope to their eye.
Count of eight, deep breath, aim….
Indiscernible to Kel, at the opposite end of the field stood a young mother tightly clutching her two small children, one in each arm — no weapon visible — a mix of terror and determination on her face. Two offspring — a breach of Policy.
Bile filled their mouth as Kel fully realized the pitted opponents before him. It was impossible to take back their actions.
The ringmaster didn’t bother to wait for the bodies to fall before releasing the intentionally starved jackals, who wasted no time tearing apart the unwounded children’s bodies and that of their murdered mother. The baby’s cries were the last thing Kel heard as they raced headlong into the bloodbath, dropping their crossbow on the bright green field now showcasing a puddle of spreading crimson.
The gates of hell opened. Kel rushed through.