The light streaming in through the filtered windows was warm and artificial. It had been set to mimic a lazy winter afternoon from the Tropic Sector and the sterile white walls of the waiting room were awash in a soft golden glow. The light danced across her skin, casting shadows across the polished marble flow, and Ayana felt like she was on fire.
She never got used to the light, no matter how many times she did this. Just like she never got used to billowing silk robes that she was wearing. The robes were a deep maroon, and hung loose against her thin frame. She felt like she was being swallowed whole.
She sometimes thought that she hated this waiting period more than the actual viewing.
She resisted the urge to pull at the hangnail on the corner of her thumb, or shake her legs, or any of the other nervous tics she would normally be exhibiting. Instead she sat perfectly still with both feet planted on the ground, and her back pressed against the cool leather surface of the couch. She fixed what she hoped was a neutral look on her face and watched the seconds tick by on a vintage digital clock mounted on the wall.
Exactly twenty minutes later the door to the waiting chamber slid open silently and a Medic strode through accompanied by the Host who had attended to her earlier. The Medic wordlessly walked up to her and checked her ID bracelet, noting down the details of Ayana’s station and medical history on a tablet she held in her hand, while the Host smiled pleasantly at Ayana from where he stood. His teeth were a crystalline white, the edges filed down to sharp points. Ayana
The Host wore no name tag or identifier outside of the shiny black tunic that designated his position. His pale blue eyes shone with the same empty hospitality she had seen reflected in all the Hosts she had met in the past.
The Medic gave her a brief once over, her gaze brushing over the deep purple shadows under Ayana’s eyes, the dry, flaking skin covering her hand, before giving a satisfied nod to the Host. The Host’s smile got even wider and Ayana flinched despite her best efforts. He bowed to the Medic, and then swept his arm towards the door in invitation. Ayana stood on shaky legs and made her way to the amphitheatre in the next room without saying a word.
The warm sunlight poured through the filtered skylight in this room, and Ayana felt her skin boil under her robes. The feeling was only offset by the dozens of eyes that had snapped to her as she entered the room. She could see each individual person peering at her from the viewing pods arranged in a semi-circle before her. They were all dressed in tunics similar to the Hosts, except they were a deep golden color. Many of them were sipping from tiny crystalline flutes in their hands. Most of them were smiling widely at her, slivers of light dancing off of their shiny teeth
She wished the room were dark.
The Host led her to the center of the stage at the base of the theatre - a small raised podium wide enough for her to stand on.
A delicate voice began to echo through the chamber.
“Beneficiary #53Alo. Name: Ayana Iyengar. Representative of the 44th Station in the Eastern Midlateral Quarter. Age: 23. The 44th station has been sponsored previously by the Dalloway and Beaumont family in the years 2135 and 2142.”
As the voice delicately continued on, Ayana felt the Host step in behind her and begin pulling the silk robes off of her skin. She contorted her face into a beatific expression, widening her eyes and letting her mouth fall open gently as she stood naked on the podium. She considered letting her eyes well up with tears but decided it was too early for that. Better to hold on to that until the end.
She caught a flash of movement in her periphery as another Host, activated the camera display surrounding the podium. In an instant the screens inside every Donor pod lit up with a magnified image of her body. She knew this same image was being broadcasted into the homes of other citizens wealthy enough to possess etherlink screens.
The voice continued on.
“The 44th EMQ Station is requesting funding to increase food supply and access to medication for its citizens. They suggest that the current population is growing too rapidly within their Station to be sustained by the allotted resources. This is their 16th official request in front of the Benevolence Council.”
Ayana knew that the Donors were examining her form carefully. Combing over her sunken cheeks, the ribs visible under the loose skin of her torso, the dry peeling skin on her face, and the chalky paleness to her brown skin.
She thought the Station had done an inspired job this cycle. They had reduced her meals to just a quarter of the recommended intake, and had focused on starving out individual nutrients from her diet for just long enough to let the visible symptoms of malnutrition bloom across her skin, without causing damage so lasting that they would have to find a new Representative. After all, only the visible damage mattered.
She had felt the bones of her leg soften and begin bowing inwards every time she moved in the last few months.
The voice in the background continued on, listing the population metrics of Station 44. The number of people on waiting lists to access medics, the amount of food available per citizen. The average output of the population. Ayana looked up beseechingly at the forms towering over her in the amphitheatre, and tried to make eye contact with the ones that looked the most sympathetic. One Donor in the third column, had placed a hand over her heart, her mouth delicately twisted down in sympathy. Ayana caught her eye and immediately let her own get wet with tears.
It was all about the balance. Look too emaciated and they may just decide that the money isn't worth the effort of resuscitating a dying population. Look too healthy, and you could be held in contempt for wanting more than they need. They would be accused of decadence and greed. Virtues that are only permitted here in the Center.
Ayana always managed to toe the line between dignity and destitution. This is why it was her 8th time before this council in only 6 years. It also helped that despite her newly shriveled countenance, she was still quite pretty. She had seen Donors trace her form with something other than gentle benevolence before.
“Projected fatalities without funding are well-within Government guidelines. However, Station 44 also boasts a higher than average literacy rate, and a higher than average number of trained artists within the population. In fact, Beneficiary #53Alo has some ability to sing.”
Ayana opened her mouth to belt out a single high note. She thought the bleeding gums really elevated the whole image. The audience seemed very moved, she thought she saw a few even shed a tear. She could feel the ache in her teeth as she opened her mouth
And so it continued.
Fifteen minutes later she felt the Host slip the robe back onto her frame and lead her into an adjoining hallway. He paused before another chamber door and turned to clasp a thin chain around her neck, a pulsing red heart at the center of the necklace.
“Congratulations! Your Stations has been accepted into the next round of deliberations! If the locket flashes red twice over the next hour, it means they have decided to accept your application!” His voice was deeper than she expected, his sharpened teeth clicking together on all the consonants, “If it stays dormant you will then have the ability to apply in the next cycle. We sincerely appreciate your cooperation.”
She nodded gently, keeping her eyes downcast and looking, hopefully, grateful and submissive. The chamber door slid open and the Host walked her into the room.
Sitting stiffly in individual chairs organized into neat rows covering the room were at least a dozen other figures in red robes. The Host led her to a chair at the Northwest corner of the room, before bowing gently and sweeping out of the room.
Ayana looked to the right of her, there was a row of empty chairs stretched across the room. To the left was a boy of about 15. The dark skin of his face was as sunken in as hers. His right leg ended somewhere above his knee. There was a similar locket pulsing at his throat
She slid onto the chair clutching the pendant in her hand. And she waited.