Chin up. Breathe through your nose. Raise your eyebrows slightly, focus on a point in the darkness. Roll those shoulders back. Show off your good genes, prove that it was only bad luck that landed you here. Tighten your ass, stretch your neck as if you’re suspended from the ceiling by an invisible thread. But look natural, never forced.
And for god’s sake, smile. Not the too-broad grin that shows teeth and desperation and the mania of a thousand miserable nights crammed into the charity house. Nor the tight-lipped smirk of Nurse Huang as she cranks another fifty cc’s of Andox into your bulging foot vein to quell the night sweats and the bad dreams. And not the sad, hollow smile of your peers. Do not let the truth betray you. Today could be your big day. With the right smile and a bit of luck, you could go home with a Parent.
Don’t shield your eyes when the sliver of light fractures the darkness and grows into a blinding maw. Blink if you must–tears are a sign of weakness.
Maintain your poise as the Parents glide in. They’re different. Frightening. Their bodies are gnarled and wrinkled, hunched as if a tremendous force threatens to snap their spines. Their fingers, bony and mottled with lesions, scrabble at the controls of their exoskeletons. They drift like ghouls, toes grazing the floor, buoyancy engines humming. Their faces are cracked and translucent, pulled taut like bat’s wings pinned to spreading boards.
But don’t stare. What Parents lack in beauty they make up for in affluence. In a cruel twist of fate, their wealth has betrayed their bodies. The failures of their exorbitant genetic treatments have manifested in their bones and their reproductive systems. They sought longevity, immunity to the atmospheric pollutants and the toxic waters and the cancers that plague the Earth. But their treatments rendered them weak and sterile. They are a wealthy class without children. A nation in need of heirs. Herein lies your golden opportunity.
Never make eye contact. Deference is the key to a Parent’s heart. One day, if you are chosen, your Parent may ask you to look them in the eye. They’ll yearn for connection. They’ll crave companionship. They’ll search for a piece of themselves in you. But to force such things upon them during the judging period is off-putting, frightening even. A frightened Parent translates to another lost opportunity for you. Another year inside working sixteen-hour days to compensate the charity house for what could have been a lucrative contract buy-out.
The Andox should keep you upright throughout the judging period, so long as you don’t lock your knees. If your appetite swells, remember your instructions. Swallow shallow breaths, tighten your abdomen to prevent audible evidence. Do not allow yourself to be swayed by the scents of nectar and syrup that trail the Parents. The lingering aromas of their breakfasts are not yours to relish, nor will they ever be if you allude to malnourishment. Parents seek healthy girls and boys capable of providing enduring love, not products that require maintenance.
When a Parent pauses to study your vitals, be proud. You’ve captured their interest. It’s OK to feel unworthy because you are. A child of the polluted streets, festering in this sordid brood, alive by the grace of charity alone. You’ve been here before, passed over many times already. But never let it show. Parents are shrewd. They can spot the difference between a fresh smile and one haunted by a hundred shattered almost-futures. Always be fresh.
When a Parent is accompanied by a servant, never acknowledge them. In the unlikely event that the Parent chooses you, there will be time to conspire later. Parents must never suspect compassion for those less fortunate than themselves.
When a Parent graces you with a question, answer it quickly and with as few words as possible. The quality of your response is important, but their time is infinitely more so. Every passing moment is a reminder of their failed attempts at longevity. The scientists hang by their necks from rafters outside shuttered laboratories, but such recompense does not grant a Parent access to the years they were once promised. Timely responses to their questions prove your understanding of the injustices that have befallen them.
When the boy at your side crumples, clutching his cramping stomach and writhing on the tiled floor, do not waver. When you spot traces of foam on his lips, do not blink. When his eyes turn bloodshot like crimson spiderwebs from the Andox overdose, offer no sign of recognition. This is his battle, not yours. And when Nurse Huang drags the boy away, clamped to a stretcher with restraints and bleeding from his ears, remember that all wars have casualties.
Maintain your smile. Keep your chin up. Focus on that point in the distance. Temper your own stomach cramps–you’ll have time to vomit later. Regulate your breathing. Exhibit contrast to your fallen brethren.
This is not betrayal. He had his chance, and so did you. You were stronger. Parents value strength. Parents love a competitor. It reminds them of themselves, always fighting to add years to their glorious lives. The nearby candidates that blanch, that look upon the boy aghast, that succumb to sympathy retching–they will not be chosen this year.
But you. You’ve tamped your reaction and quelled your fear. You’ve proved that you have what it takes to make it in this world. Patience. Guile. Ruthlessness. The qualities of a winner. Every Parent loves a winner.
And every Parent is a fool. Before you step into the light, remember your secret pledge. One day you will inherit this withered world. When the Parents have passed into their graves as all things do, rise above their folly and the folly of all the Parents before them. Return to lift up those that have fallen, those that could not smile.
We will be waiting.