All against all, p.1
All Against All
By Nathan Allen
Copyright 2016 Nathan Allen
Cover image by Aleksandra Bilic
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Also by Nathan Allen
The War On Horror: Tales From A Post-Zombie Society (novel)
The Empathy Correction (short)
The Fine Print (short)
Available now for free download.
“The state of men without civil society (which state we may properly call the state of nature) is nothing else but a mere war of all against all.”
Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan (1651)
“You don't have to join a freak show just because the opportunity came along.”
Marge Simpson, “Homerpalooza” (1996)
A few facts about the animal kingdom:
The majority of conflicts that occur in the wild are not between an animal and its predator. They are more often between two members of the same species.
A low-status chimpanzee has more to fear from a domineering alpha male than a leopard.
Most of the scars and bite marks an animal suffers throughout the course of its life will be caused by an attack from one of its own, rather than a hungry predator.
The apex creature of a species is rewarded with food, mates, status, and the opportunity to pass along its genes.
The weaker of the pack are left to squabble among themselves for their share of the leftovers.
Might is right, and the weakest eat last.
The Soldiers Memorial Hall was a nondescript community center situated on a quiet street in an anonymous pocket of suburbia. The sign out the front announced that tomorrow night was bingo night. The night following, they were host to an over-forties singles dance.
Alice Kato made her way up the front steps, three minutes before the designated starting time.
She pushed the front door open and stepped into the foyer. She was met by a solitary middle-aged woman seated behind a booth. They made eye contact, but the woman’s face remained a mask. She offered no welcoming smile, or any other invitation for Alice to approach.
“Um, hi,” Alice said, sounding slightly unsure of herself. “I’m here because I was–”
The woman spoke in a flat monotone.
Alice scrambled to retrieve the invitation from her jacket pocket. She handed it over, and the woman verified its authenticity underneath a fluorescent scanner.
“Turn to your left and face the camera,” the woman ordered.
Alice turned and squinted. “I don’t see any–”
She was temporarily blinded by an unexpected flash of white light. She blinked a few times in rapid succession. Blobs of color hung in the air in front of her.
Alice never really liked the way she appeared in photographs, but she was certain this would be one of her most cringeworthy.
The booth woman pressed a button, and a door opened behind her. Alice took this as her cue to enter.
The room was a medium-sized auditorium, the type often used for motivational speakers and corporate events. The smell of stale cologne lingered, a hangover from the real estate seminar held there earlier in the day.
About a hundred people were already inside, seated on flimsy plastic chairs arranged in a seashell formation. At first glance Alice could detect no common thread between those in attendance. They were drawn from a range of ages, ethnicities and sociological backgrounds. A low murmur hovered as they chatted quietly among themselves.
A few glanced up at Alice when the door opened, then returned to their invitations resting on their laps once they saw that she was just another of the invited attendees.
Alice self-consciously tiptoed around to the back of the room and settled into an empty seat.
On the stroke of eight p.m., a rear door opened and the Messenger entered.
He was a fortyish man of dark features, dressed in a stylish designer suit that Alice guessed was worth more than her car. He was also unusually tall, at least six foot eight, and had to stoop slightly to avoid hitting his head on the doorframe.
The chatter came to an immediate halt.
One hundred pairs of eyes followed the Messenger as he strode to the front of the room. This scrutiny was not reciprocated; the individual members of the crowd remained invisible to the Messenger.
He took his place behind the lectern. The vacuum of silence was so severe that Alice could hear her own beating heart.
After consulting his notes for one brief moment, the Messenger looked up at the audience. With nothing in the way of introduction or formalities, he launched straight into his spiel.
“If you are here tonight,” he began, “that means you have been selected to take part in a once in a lifetime opportunity.”
His voice was loud, and he spoke with confidence. He could project to the back of the room without the need for amplification.
“Rest assured, my client is not here to sell you anything, nor are they interested in taking your money. What my client is about to offer is one hundred percent genuine, so pay close attention because I will not repeat myself.”
Alice sat up in her seat. Like everyone else in the room, she had no idea what this was all about. But her curiosity had certainly been piqued.
The Messenger continued.
“On the back of your invitation you will find two contact numbers.”
The ruffling sound of one hundred pieces of paper being turned over swept through the room.
Alice studied the back of her invitation. There were indeed two embossed numbers in the bottom left- and right-hand corners. She hadn’t noticed them before – or if she had, she didn’t think anything of them. Both were five digits long, so she probably assumed they were serial numbers or something similar.
“If you call the number on the left, you will receive two thousand dollars in cash within twenty-four hours.”
Alice shifted her gaze upwards, studying the body language of those seated in front of her. She tried to gauge their reactions. Like them, she expected the Messenger to qualify his statement with terms and conditions. But none were forthcoming.
“If you call the number on the right,” the Messenger said, “your name will be entered into a type of lottery. A sum of money has been placed in a trust, and the total value of that trust, along with any accumulated interest, will be paid out to the lottery’s last surviving member.”
A slight whisper rippled through the crowd. A few nervous laughs escaped. Whatever these people were expecting when they came here tonight, it was safe to assume it wasn’t anything like this.
The Messenger pressed on. “The total value of this trust is one hundred million dollars.”
The next thing Alice heard was the sound of one hundred people devoid of breath.
The Messenger’s words seemed to echo around the room, bouncing off the walls like a ping pong ball.
She couldn’t see the reaction of any of the other attendees, but she assumed their faces all had the same bewildered expression that she currently wore.
“Now, I understand if you believe this to be some sort of hoax. But let me assure you, this is a genuine offer. There is no catch. There are no conditions. The sum of one hundred million dollars plus interest will be deposited into the bank account of the last living participant in the lottery, and to t
The Messenger turned and headed for the same door in which he entered.
The crowd were so bamboozled by everything they had just seen and heard that a few minutes had passed before anyone noticed he had slipped out of the room without answering any of their questions.
Three days earlier, Alice awoke to find a plain brown envelope had been slipped under her front door.
The specific details of the invitation were hazy, and the message rather cryptic. It provided a time and a place: eight p.m. Thursday at the Soldiers Memorial Hall on Kent Road. It promised an immediate payment of two thousand dollars just for attending. It stated, unequivocally, that this offer extended only to the person whose name was on the invitation, and the offer would be rescinded if anyone else tried to enter with it.
What the invitation did not do was supply any information as to what the meeting was about, or who was behind it.
It was this sort of vagueness and ambiguity that stimulated Alice’s curiosity. Ordinarily she would have tossed the letter straight in the trash. But something in the back of her mind told her this was worth looking into. Part of this was due to the invitation itself. It wasn’t a cheap mass-produced piece of junk mail promising some sort of bogus get-rich-quick scheme. It was printed on expensive ivory-colored matte paper, with gold leaf inscription and striking calligraphy. The envelope had been stamped with a hot wax seal. It looked like something one might receive when summoned to dine with royalty. This, and the fact that it had been hand delivered, contributed to the enigma surrounding the document. It had intrigued her enough not to immediately throw it out.
Alice read and reread the invitation several times, searching for the asterisk that pointed to the fine print that revealed the catch behind the offer. But there was none. She put her research skills to use to see if she could dig up any further information, or find out if anything else like this had ever happened before, but her search came up with nothing.
She asked her neighbors if they had also received invitations. None of them had.
Her best guess was that she was being specifically targeted as part of some elaborate viral marketing stunt. If so, the brains behind the campaign or product launch had done their job. Alice’s attention, as well as her imagination, had well and truly been captured.
She decided she may as well turn up to see what it was all about. She had nothing to lose, other than another night alone in her drab apartment.
If nothing else, it would provide a temporary reprieve from the crushing monotony that her life had become.
The one hundred people shuffled out of the Soldiers Memorial Hall with a minimum of fuss. None were entirely sure what they had just witnessed. A few attendees murmured quietly among themselves, but for the most part they were silent.
Alice was one of the last to leave. Along with everyone else, she had no idea what to make of it all. It was such a strange encounter, and one that had ended so abruptly, she began to question whether it really did happen. For all she knew, this could be one big collective hallucination.
While the majority of the crowd returned to their vehicles, a small group of smokers milled around the front steps beneath a single strobing fluorescent light. They engaged in polite chit chat while still remaining cautious – they were all strangers to one another, and no one was really sure who they could trust. For all they knew, the person next to them was in on the joke.
“I bet it’s one of them psychological experiments run by the government,” a moustached man said as he flicked his lighter. “Or a university, like that Milgram experiment. Or the one with all them people pretending to be prisoners.”
“I think a recruitment corporation could be behind it,” a younger woman countered. “Headhunters. You know, like they’re trying to identify potential leaders.”
“And how would they do that exactly?” the moustached man said.
“Because the people who choose to take the money upfront only have a short-term mentality, but the ones that go for the millions are the mavericks who can aim high and can see the bigger picture. Instant gratification verses long-term rewards, and all that. Gamblers verses risk-takers.”
“Gambling and risk are the same thing.”
“No, they’re not,” a younger man in a sharp gray suit interjected. “Gambling is betting on random outcomes. Risk is a calculated venture.”
Alice moved in closer. She surreptitiously activated the voice record function on her APhID to tape the conversation. She wasn’t sure what compelled her to do this. It was probably her journalistic ambitions taking over, documenting the moment in case she needed to refer back to it at some point in the near-future.
She casually leaned up against the stair railing, like she was waiting for a friend to come by to pick her up.
“It’s probably just one of those dumb prank shows they have on TV,” a man with a receding hairline and ineffective combover suggested. “Someone out there is playing a big joke at our expense.”
He ground his cigarette butt into the pavement with his foot.
“It’s obviously some kind of marketing ploy,” the gray suit said. “They’re trying to sell us something. You go to claim your two grand, the next thing you know you’re handing over your credit card details and being charged three hundred dollars a month to buy whatever it is they’re selling.”
The discussion came to a halt when the hall door opened and the final attendee exited the building.
A morbidly obese man maneuvered his electric wheelchair through the narrow doorway and down the ramp adjacent to the stairs. A respiratory mask covered his mouth and nose, connected to an oxygen tank mounted to the back of his chair.
As he passed, the group saw that both his legs had been amputated at the knee.
They didn’t intentionally make this man the center of attention, but that was what ended up happening.
A few pitying glances were cast in his direction. Others in the group averted their eyes, doing their best not to stare at this gentleman’s unfortunate predicament.
The silence was interrupted when Mike Lever, a burly guy in a trucker cap, removed the crumpled invitation from his back pocket and smoothed it out on his leg.
“What are you doing?” the combover man asked, rolling another cigarette.
“What does it look like I’m doing? I’m claiming my two big ones.”
A light breeze swept through the night. Alice felt the warm air on her skin, followed by a face full of smoke from the gray suit’s Camel filters. She held her breath to avoid gagging on the pungent stench.
“You mean you’re not going after the hundred million?” the young woman asked with more than a hint of sarcasm in her voice.
“Hey, I have bills to pay,” Mike said. “And with the amount of junk I eat, I’ll be lucky if my heart’s still pumping blood by the end of next week.”
He punched the number into his APhID.
The gray suit let out a dismissive snort. “You don’t seriously expect to get any money out of this, do you?”
“Guess there’s only one way to find out,” Mike said with an easy shrug. “If a wad of cash lands on my front doorstep, at least we know that part of it’s for real.”
He held the APhID to his ear and listened.
There was a soft whirr, and then a click. Next came a brief silence, followed by a dial tone.
“What was it?” the woman said.
“Nothing,” he replied. “It just hung up straight away.”
The combover man smirked and blew out a cloud of smoke. “Not before charging a hundred bucks to your account, I bet.”
Mike Lever’s home was an ugly old weatherboard junker situated in a lower-working class neighborhood on the city’s fringes, sandwiched between abandoned houses with boarded-up windows and ove
He pulled into the driveway and parked his Mazda station wagon in the garage.
That was a waste of time, he thought to himself as he killed the ignition and made his way to the front door. It was late, well beyond eleven p.m. He’d traded his whole night for some pointless seminar, and he had to be up in less than six hours for work tomorrow morning.
The invitation he’d found in his letterbox the other day promised the easiest two thousand dollars he’d ever make. But instead he got ... whatever the hell that was. A marketing stunt? A performance art piece? He suspected the seminar might be a front for Amway, or a Ponzi scheme. But not that.
It dawned on Mike during his journey home what was really going on here. This was probably the work of some sneaky telemarketing outfit. It was becoming harder and harder for companies to harvest private APhID numbers, so they had to resort to underhanded methods. By making that call to claim his prize, Mike had voluntarily added his number to their database. He could now look forward to invasive and annoying calls interrupting his dinner for the next decade.
He fished around his pocket for his keys as he trudged towards the house, silently cursing his stupidity.
And then he stopped.
Something was waiting for him on his front doorstop.
A solitary package.
He blinked twice to make sure he wasn’t seeing things.
He tiptoed towards it, like it might somehow be dangerous. He knelt down for a closer look.
It was a small gift box.
He looked around to see if anyone was there. He half-expected to find some prankster watching him from the bushes. If so, they remained well hidden. The neighborhood was empty, save for a stray dog roaming the streets, and a couple of young children out riding their bikes far too late for a school night.
Mike lifted the box up. It was light in weight. He removed the lid.
His mouth fell open.
Inside was a thick wad of brand new one hundred dollar bills.
He plucked out a single bill and held it between his thumb and forefinger. It certainly felt genuine – the crisp texture, the ridges, the raised ink.
All Against All by Nathan Allen / Humor / Science Fiction have rating 3.2 out of 5 / Based on35 votes