THE CULLING

David Klein

Lottery Night

On Lottery nights Maren Hart ran the tower stairs. She dressed in running tights and a fitted T-shirt. A headband held back her hair to help wick sweat from her forehead. On her feet she wore athletic shoes with supportive arches and padded soles.

Her comscreen sleeve remained strapped to her wrist; she turned off notifications.

While the Lottery opening credits were broadcasting onto hundreds of millions of screens, Maren pushed through the fire door at the end of the east corridor on the fifty-eighth floor of the Atria Tower where she lived. A single shatterproof fixture mounted to the wall illuminated the staircase landing and cast a quivering LED beam halfway up the stairwell, where it was met by the light from the fixture on landing above. The stair treads were constructed of composite material more cushioned than concrete or steel and not as stressful on her joints and feet. A thin layer of dust papered the treads, despite regular cleaning by maintenance. The air tasted stale, recirculated, due to inadequate fresh-air vents.

You could get used to bad air, just as you could almost anything else.

She placed her foot on the first tread, rocked back and forth, counted in her head 1-2-3, and launched herself, charging up the first flight, turning, running up the next. She stopped on the landing of the sixtieth floor to do ten push-ups, and again on seventy, each set of stairs getting her closer to the top on the seventy-sixth floor.

Her objective: complete exhaustion.

Because she was running, Maren missed the ceremonial presenting of the military color guard, the raising of the rebranded flag, and the playing of the revised national anthem. She didn’t hear the opening remarks by the co-hosts—Marshall Kent and Victoria Thiem—he dapper and authoritative dressed in the military uniform of the chief commanding officer’s personal battalion, Victoria professional and groomed in a tailored pants suit. They adhered to their script about honor, equality, and sacrifice. They welcomed America to this week’s broadcast and introduced the American Patron who would choose tonight’s Lottery dates prior to his reporting.

The stairs went largely unused in Atria Tower. There were express elevators, local elevators, and service elevators, along with private elevators for the wealthy and privileged who lived on the uppermost floors. Other than the freight elevators in the rear of the building, which opened into the delivery and maintenance alleys, the passenger elevators were situated in convenient central locations, while the neglected stairwells were tucked into the east and west corners of the building. Most people would rather wait for the ride than climb even just a few flights. Occasionally while running, Maren would see a resident taking the staircase from the main lobby to the second or third floor, or in the middle floors someone might take the stairs up or down one or two flights, and during business hours people who worked for companies that occupied more than one floor used the stairs, but at night, and especially on Lottery nights, Maren had the stairs to herself, and she could run and pant and grunt with abandon—and almost, but not quite, forget.

When she reached the top of the building on the seventy-sixth floor, she peeked through the door at the fitness center and swimming pool. Both empty. Everyone was watching the Lottery.

Maren didn’t hear Marshall Kent reciting the number of new American Patrons who volunteered this past week. Or the total number of Lottery selections over the past three months segmented into deciles by the currently weighted demographic attributes.

She didn’t watch Victoria Thiem remind viewers of the Lottery rules, which everyone knew word-for-word anyway, and often recited along with Victoria, as if the rules were a chant that could give them good luck.

Luck. The theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity had been largely elbowed out of the way in favor of a single secular virtue: luck.

Luck was now a virtue.

In her breathy newscaster tone, Victoria stated the simple rules: dates of the year will be chosen at random, after which the official calculated coefficient for the week will be announced, followed by the delivery of notices.

This week four dates would be drawn, a lower number than usual.

Resting only for a moment at the top, Maren began the trek down from seventy-six to sub-seven. She could descend faster than climb, but while the ascent burned her muscles, the descent stressed her joints, and a misstep or a trip could send her down an entire flight of stairs.

She passed the fifty-ninth floor where Leah lived, and then reached her landing on fifty-eight. She paused. Invariably she felt weak and drained when she reached her floor—thighs protesting, head light, arms and shoulders sore from pushups—and she would consider quitting. Why go all the way down only to have to climb back up? No one was forcing her to do this, no one was keeping track.

Except she was keeping track, and one small surrender could lead to others. A single lapse in her routine could be the crack that opens the fissure causing her to fall into deep depression or even a dissociative state, no longer able to function or even be sure who she was, and she had to talk herself into continuing her workout, employing what objectively could be considered trite mantras:

You don’t quit.

You are strong and committed.

Never surrender.

Trite or not, the words served as effective reminders, at least while running stairs. With renewed vigor she started again and didn’t stop until she reached sub-seven.

On Lottery nights Ven adhered to his regular routine: He hunted. He started in the sub floors of the tower, where the gated and chained entrance to the damaged metro station sometimes attracted rats trying to escape through the tunnels. Most of the rats from last week’s Lottery had already been captured, and new ones wouldn’t hit the market for twenty-four hours, but Ven often found success picking up assignments other Mercs didn’t complete or getting late entries from supplemental drawings. He’d take any available contract because he needed all the points he could earn to reach his retirement threshold before he bumped up against a deadline to recertify.

He liked to begin on sub seven because from his position in a shadowy corner behind a support pillar he could get a glimpse of the woman who ran. He’d often see her other nights of the week, but he always saw her on Lottery nights. He’d hear the stairwell door open and he’d watch her run through the maintenance floor, as far as the parking garage, then rest for a moment or two before circling back. He rarely saw a person running and sweating who wasn’t also fleeing capture and consumed by fear. She was a novelty in that way.

He never revealed himself to her. He never spoke to her. She fascinated him for reasons he did not allow his thoughts to explore. She was short with an athletic build and a serious, determined, and beautifully-shaped face. She was . . . There’s the door now. Here she comes.

He watched her chest and rise and fall with each breath. She was close enough to him he could see the shine of perspiration on her face and the darkened, wet patches on her shirt where the fabric adhered to her skin. He caught her scent—a pungent waft of stink and spice as she passed near him. Something shifted inside him. He exhaled slowly. Then she was gone, back through the doors leading to the stairs.

He hadn’t received notification from his MPR app of any rats nearby, so it was time to leave for another spot, street level, down a few blocks, near the next metro station.

That’s where he headed, now that he had seen her.

In the deep basement Maren stopped and caught her breath, in the oily air of the boiler room and among the exposed ductwork, near the power panels and maintenance facilities. There was a parking garage here for those who could afford their own autonomous vehicle and possessed credentials to drive on the city streets. There were rows of secure residential storage units, one of them belonging to Maren, where she had packed away mementos, first of Peter, and later of Hollande, and not once has she unlocked the door and looked through those boxes, but neither could she toss them away, much like her memories of her husband and daughter, which were too painful to ponder, yet too cherished to forsake.

A light shone in the window of the maintenance office. On other nights she might poke her head in to greet Emerson and the crew; they knew her, and found her stair running an odd, endearing habit, but they too were occupied watching the Lottery, huddled around a screen mounted to the wall. They didn’t see or hear Maren run past.

The other sub floors housed retail stores, office-based businesses, health care centers, and even apartments now that sub-residency was becoming more popular. It was affordable. Heating and cooling costs were cheaper. For a while, she and Peter had talked about selling their unit on fifty-eight and moving sub. You gave up windows, of course. You gave up any semblance of natural light. You lived underground, like moles or worms. But you saved money, important at the time, after Peter lost his position as a history professor and refused to accept the guaranteed minimum living stipend. Maren, a senior director at a charitable foundation, earned a good salary, although the future of the foundation was unknown now that its founder, Catherine Pager, was the first lady.

Then Peter came up with another plan to help support the family.

She summoned her will for the climb back up to her apartment. She drew three deep breaths and began the grueling ascent. She didn’t hear the name of the American Patron as he was introduced (provisional status, to be changed to “In Perpetuity, In Equality” following tonight’s broadcast when he reported). He was young for a Proffer, only twenty-two, and appeared healthy and educated. He was likely chosen among many candidates for this honorary role because more young volunteers were needed to balance the numbers and his presence might encourage others to take the necessary step.

Maren missed the American Patron’s allotted one-minute speech during which he dedicated this honor to his sister, his sister’s husband, and their children, for whom he was proffering. He was remarkably poised, until the very end, when his voice began to break, but he didn’t totally collapse or embarrass himself. When he finished he stepped forward, flanked by Marshall and Victoria, and he pressed the key that would instruct the computer to randomly choose four dates of the year—and the citizens of the United State of America collectively held their breath, rubbed their charms, groped their rabbit’s feet, crossed their fingers, and prayed for luck.

She reached the level of the first-floor lobby, then began to ascend through the dense commercial floors—the businesses and stores and services. The headquarters and the satellite offices. The boutique manufacturers. Past the eighth and ninth floors where she worked at the Catherine Pager Foundation. She stopped on the tenth-floor landing, dropped, and gutted out ten pushups. She counted under her breath, kept her back straight, her chin pointed to the floor.

Back on her feet, she began climbing again. Her legs wobbled, her lungs strained for more oxygen. She ascended ten more flights. Residential floors, floors with markets and pharmacies, floors with clothing retailers.

Ten more flights. Her heavy feet thudded on the treads, her thighs ached. Pushups again.

Sweat spilled down her face, her heart hammered, adrenaline pumped—this much she had in common with those watching the Lottery.

Past the thirty-first floor that housed one of the tower’s two casinos. Pushups on forty. Resume climbing. One flight, turn, another flight, turn. Her body in rhythmic control.

Past the forty-seventh floor where her favorite liquor store was located. Forty-eighth where her former dentist used to be—a thought that made her aware of her toothache and the need to find a new dentist.

Ten pushups on the landing on fifty. Back straight, elbows in.

When she first started running stairs last year she could do six pushups and climb twenty-seven flights. She could swim ten laps. Now she could run the entire tower, both directions, and perform more than 100 pushups total. She could swim for an hour without stopping. She was in the best shape of her life.

For a while Ven hung out near the metro station and its surrounding towers. A low, leaden sky wept a half-hearted drizzle that bedewed every surface, dampened his clothing, and turned his skin as clammy as if he’d been licked. He watched pedestrians start down or emerge up the long metro stairs. About half the usual crowd tonight. Near the tallest of the city center towers, this metro stop was one of the busiest, with the station under Atria Tower still closed for repairs.

In recent months he’d expanded his hunting ground. He’d traveled out to the airport. He loitered near unguarded sections of the wall. It was no trade secret where most of the action originated. Other Mercs hunted the same locations. Occasionally he’d see a Merc he recognized because of a previous encounter, but Mercs did their best to blend into the background, to look like your average person. You could be sitting next to one and never realize it, unless you got a close look at the side of their neck, just below the ear, and happened to notice the bulge where every Merc had a transmitter chip lodged between their trapezius and elevator scapulae.

Someone flashed by on the sidewalk, pushing pedestrians out of the way. Ven’s app remained silent. Just as quickly the mini-commotion dissolved. Must not have been a rat.

Business might remain slow all night. Still, he had to work. He had to put in extra hours. He had captured two rats since yesterday, a Class C and a Class B. He needed 3.8 more points to qualify for retirement and there were less than eight days until the recertification deadline. There wasn’t a chance he could pass the physical test, not with his asthma worsening and his weakened shoulder compromising his strength. 

So his mission was to hunt. And to hunt more. And to earn the points he needed to get the hell out of this madness. Fortunately, the desperate desire to stay alive was a universal affliction, a true totem of equality that crossed all ages, races, and socioeconomic groups. It motivated people to attempt escape from a Lottery notice, and it provided Ven with his livelihood and helped him protect his brother.

Maren stumbled on the next set of stairs, stubbing her toe against the riser and scraping her shin on the edge of the tread, but she righted herself and continued climbing. Her legs were beginning to cramp, the muscles spasming. It was getting harder to lift to the next tread. She focused her mind on the physical demands of her task: knees high, feet light, arms pumping, and breathing, breathing, breathing.

She wasn’t watching the Lottery when the four dates were randomly selected by the American Patron pressing the enter key four times, and so she didn’t know it was her birthday—February 5—that came up as the third of the four dates drawn. Happened to be the birthday of First Lady Catherine as well, Maren knew.

She didn’t hear the announcement that the coefficient for this week’s Lottery was .07862 and above. The coefficient hadn’t been a feature in the original Lottery Amendment. It had been added after the first year. Maren’s coefficient was currently .07878, and therefore by date of birth and coefficient she qualified for this Lottery. She didn’t know any of this because when the Lottery broadcast, Maren made sure she was running the stairs or swimming laps in the pool. She didn’t need to watch. She had two years immunity remaining. For now, she was protected. That much she knew.

However, she didn’t know the rules about submitting immunity credentials had changed: You now had only a 30-minute grace period from the time you were notified of your Lottery selection to the deadline for applying for immunity.

On the last few staircases she grabbed the railing and staggered like a drunkard. She’d had a long day at work and didn’t have an opportunity to properly fuel before exercising, but exercising wasn’t really the point. The point was to mentally numb herself through physical exhaustion. Four nights a week on the stairs. Three in the pool. This is how she battled her anxiety and grief and fear, and it was effective for as long as she was running or swimming and for a short while after—an hour, maybe two or three—the endorphins silky in her system.

She finally reached her floor. Spent, drenched, achy. Exactly how she wanted to feel. She stood with her hands on her knees, sucking air, unsteady on her feet. A sense of accomplishment flowed through her and soon a semblance of strength and stability returned.

She pushed through the stairwell door and shuffled along the quiet, sound-muffling corridor, her feet hardly willing to lift enough to take the next step. She turned the corner and encountered a group of four people coming the opposite way toward the elevator banks, strangers to her, about her own age, laughing and heading out for a night of celebration. It must not have been their birthdates chosen. They paid no attention to Maren until they had passed her and she heard a comment about how she stank, and she did, she needed a shower.

It was only when she reactivated the comscreen sleeve on her forearm to unlock her apartment door that she saw the official notification from EOP Command that she’d been selected in the Lottery and had twenty-four hours to report to her nearest EOP center.

She checked her screen again. The selection of her birthdate and coefficient carved a hollow well of fear into her chest, a sinking, paralyzing feeling, despite her immunity.

She thought of Peter and what he’d done, which was not the same as thanking him.

Her door swung on its pressure hinges to electronically lock behind her. Unaware she had less than a minute remaining in her 30-minute window—if she’d paused to get a drink first, or go to the bathroom, her fate would have been quite different—she tapped in her immunity code and received confirmation that she was exempt from this Lottery drawing.

David Klein

Published novelist, creative writer, avid reader, discriminating watcher of movies and series.

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