Genre: YA Sci-Fi Thriller
I flinch away as Mom tries to straighten my collar for the hundredth time, a gnawing unease creeping through me. I should want to win. I know I should.
The others do.
I glance over at them, waiting in the wings, eager to get out on stage. The hope. The desperation. The murderous determination, even. It’s burning in their eyes. They need it. The Harvard scholarship. The prestige. All of it.
Why don’t I?
Mom squeezes my arm. “Nila, stop that.”
“What now?” Pulling away from her, I resist the urge to roll my eyes.
“That thing you do, twiddling your fingers like that.”
I stop what I’m doing and look down at her hands, raising my eyebrows. She’s picking at her cuticles again. “You can talk.”
“Touché.” She tries to laugh as she buries her hands in her pockets. “We’ve got nothing to worry about, though. You aced the presentation. Everyone was completely blown away. Including the competition.”
The corner of my mouth twitches. If only she knew where I was and what I was doing to make that possible. But she’s not let me out of her sight all day, and I’m getting jittery. I just need to calm down. Focus.
Everything’s going to be okay.
But my ribcage keeps closing in on me, all the same.
“Have you turned your palm pad off?” Mom’s words hover on the periphery, not going in. A sudden burst of laughter makes me turn around, and I see Lucinda hanging off Leo’s every word. They’re all smiles and teeth. Ready to take a chunk out of each other to make sure they win. “Nila!”
Mom’s raised voice catches Leo’s attention. He grins at me, flashing his sparkling white teeth. As perfect as the rest of him.
Not even a single blond hair out of place.
Maybe I wouldn’t mind winning if it meant getting to see the look of disappointment on his face.
“Nila!” says Mom under her breath. “Ignore him! He’s not worth it!”
She raises her eyebrows at my tone, but before she has the chance to respond, I feel an arm placed around my shoulder. “Ladies.”
“Leo.” Mom nods at him politely. “If you don’t mind, I just have to go and get myself a glass of water.”
I cringe, and Mom throws me a look as she leaves. One that says, ‘Aren’t you coming?’
Pasting on my best smile, I turn to Leo as I sidle out of his headlock. “Good luck.”
“Thanks. May the best man win.” He winks at me, just in case I didn’t get his meaning.
It makes me want to vomit on his shoes.
I wait until Mom is out of earshot. “So that’ll be Qiu, then?”
I raise an eyebrow at him, refusing to rise to his feigned ignorance.
“Oh, you mean head brace boy?” He looks over at Qiu, who’s doing his best to pretend he hasn’t heard every word. But I can see the red heat surging up the back of his neck. Leo clutches his chest, with a pained expression. “I’m hurt. So hurt, right now.”
“Don’t tempt me,” I growl at him.
Leo looks down at me and laughs, and I seriously contemplate knocking his smile to the other side of his face. Before I get chance, Professor Albright claps his hands.
“Right ladies and gentleman, shall we get in our places?”
Mom hurries over. Giving me one last look up and down, she adjusts a pleat on my skirt and stands back to admire her handiwork. I don’t know why I let her put me in this scratchy gray thing. As if I didn’t feel uncomfortable enough.
Sighing, Mom ushers me towards the stage and whispers, “Your father would have been so proud of you.”
My legs suddenly refuse to cooperate, and I stumble forwards, knocking into Leo. He shoves me back, and I’m out on stage. A burst of polite applause breaks the silence, but all I can see is the bright white of the lights bearing down on me, scorching the backs of my eyes. Everything else is darkness.
It’s broad daylight outside, but they’ve shut the blinds and turned the spotlights on full, anyway.
I can’t see. I can’t breathe. I’m burning up.
And frozen to the spot.
All at the same time.
Why did she have to mention him now?
The others take their seats, but I just stand there. Staring out at the crowd. And everyone’s looking at me. I can’t… I can’t…
Shaking my head, I try to remember what Brooke would say. What would she tell me to do?
Breathe in through your nose, and out through your mouth. That’s all. Forget everything else.
I close my eyes and focus, my breaths coming in fitful gasps. But slowly I take control.
“Come on, dear.” Joining me on stage, Professor Albright places a reassuring hand on my back, and a wave of relief rushes through me as my feet finally obey. He guides me to my seat then steps up to the podium. The applause fades to nothing. “Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen, and welcome to the 2069 International Young Scientist of the Year Awards.”
The professor pauses as another ripple of applause spreads across the room. I will him to hurry up, beads of sweat are already forming on my forehead.
I throw a quick glance over towards the wings. I can’t see Mom in the shadows, but I know she’s there, watching. As subtly as I can, I rest my hand on my lap, palm up, and swipe through to my second skin controls, adjusting the temperature, until a cool wave covers my body. I start to breathe a little easier, and I try to focus on Albright’s speech. Forget everything else.
The professor coughs, and the clapping dies down again. “I trust you have all enjoyed perusing the displays provided by our four finalists. Some impressive work, I’m sure you agree. They’ve certainly made the judges’ work particularly difficult this year. Indeed, all of us here at the university feel truly honored to have hosted some of the world’s brightest minds here today, from as far afield as Asia, Europe and South America.”
I resist the urge to bury my head in my hands. I know he’s trying to make a point, but seriously? Mom and I moved from Lima five years ago. Qiu’s from Houston. But I’ll give him Lucinda. She’s from London. Though, from the look on her face, she’s not so happy about being called European. They always said the fencing along the English Channel was just to keep the locusts out, but everyone knows it’s for the people trying to escape them too.
The audience applaud all the same, even though they must suspect he’s bending the truth, at least a little. We’ve all seen the global news reports. The food camps. The gaunt faces staring blankly through the fences.
Scientific research isn’t exactly the most pressing concern for most.
But here, we just carry on. Like nothing’s changed. And, for the most part, it hasn’t. Food’s a bit expensive. The job market’s what the government likes to call ‘competitive’. That’s about it.
“However, I’m pleased to say, a winner has been chosen! And so, without further ado, I will hand you over to our sponsor! Lara Simmonds of DVL Corp!”
Sitting up straight, I glance at the others and mimic their smile. Eager. Enthusiastic. Pleased.