Todd cycles. He cycles to keep the lights on and The Dark at bay. Todd has been taught to fear The Dark. His bike is in Row 84. He looks around The Cavern and sees Row 85 ahead and Row 83 over his shoulder. He cycles between Beth to his left and Marcus on his right. According to the screens, his row is in the top 5%. They all cycle together, but Todd is proud of being in one of the strongest rows. Someday, the poison will leave the air and they will go to The Outside. Until then, they cycle together. The machines are old. One of the few things the cyclers can agree on from the gibberish graphs and symbols on the screens everywhere is that The System is now running at 84%. Whenever the cyclers try to ask The System about this, it claims it doesn’t understand their questions. The System regulates every aspect of life in The Cavern, but it could or would only answer the simplest questions. It is deaf to suggestions and negotiations. And pleas for mercy. The last cycler who knew how to command it died long before Todd was born.
The Chime sounds. Everyone flinches. What provokes The Chime is a mystery. A malfunction in air filtration? A recalculation by The System of optimal population? A failed crop in the aeroponics hangar? The speculation is endless, but whatever the reasons, the result is always the same. There will be a Contest. Afterwards, efficiency will be higher. It was girls last time, so now it’ll be boys. Todd feels sick. The screens everywhere darken, and then ID photos begin to cycle. They cycle faster and faster until they’re nothing but a blur. They halt on a photo of a young man with the text ROW 48 ROY underneath. Every boy except one in The Cavern exhales in relief. Then, the photos cycle again. When they stop, Todd sees his own face with ROW 84 TODD beneath. Terror grips his heart. The cyclers around him stare in morbid fascination. Only Beth looks sad. She is his friend. He begins to cycle faster. If he doesn’t cycle more than Roy over the next three cycles, he will be sent into The Dark.
Todd doesn’t think it unfair that the contestants are selected randomly, and that the high performance of his row offers no safety. He hasn’t the vocabulary to even internally grasp the concept of fairness. Feelings of entitlement died with the blue sky. Todd cycles. When it’s time to eat, Beth tells him to keep cycling and takes his access card. She brings him his ration. There’s too much food. The System would never distribute extra food accidentally. Had she given him some of her ration? Why? He feels something strange. Beth has made him feel this way. He cycles. He can’t see Row 48 from his bike, but he knows Roy will be cycling too. Beth cycles with him. Of course, everyone is cycling with him. They all cycle together, but with Beth, it feels different somehow. It feels like he imagines The Before, when two people would cycle together to go to different places and see different things. Alone together. Beth stays with him through the sleep cycle. Sometimes, she goes to check on Roy. When she comes back, she cycles to show Todd how fast Roy is cycling. Todd matches her, and then cycles faster. She talks to distract him from his exhaustion. She pours her dreams into him. They wash over something wilted, stunted and neglected within him. He forgets the pain in his legs and lungs, and he cycles faster.
Roy goes into the Dark. Mercifully, there is no announcement or warning. The System sends a signal to the chip at the base of his skull and he simply falls from his bike. The cyclers on either side of him drag his body to aeroponics for recycling. The Cavern is a closed system. No nutrients are wasted. There is another Chime ending the Contest. Todd falls from his bike. Beth helps him to his feet and then to his bunk. The System reports in at 92%. Todd and Beth cycle together now. He hasn’t got the language to tell her how he feels. He can’t remember what drove him to cycle before. They cycle together.
The Chime sounds. The ID photos cycle and stop. ROW 84 BETH. Todd’s stomach drops. He is nearly consumed by panic but then a flash of something goes through him. He doesn’t know the word Defiance. He resolves that Beth will win her Contest. He’ll share his ration. He’ll give her his dreams as she gave hers to him. They will cycle together. The photos cycle again and stop, ROW 84 TODD.
The System places its specimens under closer scrutiny than they ever suspect. Algorithms concerning machine efficiency and optimal resource allocation scenarios take up a small percentage of its capacity. Behavioural analysis and the other perimeters to which its long-deceased programmers made it aware take up the majority of its processing power. Its specimens are infinitely more fragile than its hardware. Balancing the equations of specimen morale is its primary objective. It hadn’t been the air filtration system that was at 84% of optimal. The machinery is self-repairing. It was specimen morale which had dropped. The Contests keep the specimens from succumbing to monotony. Continued existence must be perceived as a privilege. The cycling keeps them in peak physical condition while simultaneously giving the all-important illusion of Purpose. The System, of course, is powered by a fusion generator.
Another pattern that was guaranteed to provoke a response concerned population density. Todd and Beth’s behaviour had been heightening The System’s interest ever since the last Contest, until finally crossing a threshold when Beth gave him a bite of her allocated apple. Equilibrium must be maintained. Replacement specimens weren’t scheduled for years yet.