At home with her wife and daughter, the Cook rejects pleas not to enter Zone Cook, telling them with raised chopstick that it is subject-destiny.
Later, the pod arrives, a Zone Cook official stepping out with window-sized clipboard.
On the clipboard, the following questions:
What is your signature dish?
What do you find difficult to cook?
Any allergies we should know about?
Can you bite your tongue, and for how long?
What do you consider fair?
Scanning the clipboard, the Cook takes a pen and answers all questions except one, which she draws a chaotic spiral next to.
In the kitchen, the daughter stares blankly at the microwave.
After packing seven aprons, seven hats, seven small daggers, the Cook leaves and wanders in a long arc towards the entrance of the zone.
She commits to memory twenty-eight dishes that, based on previous shows, should be enough to ossify her win.
‘I WILL win,’ she tells a man talking to a park bench.
Two hours later, she leaves the man and the bench, opens up her pack and starts throwing taro balls wrapped in strips of cloth at the pavement ahead of her.
According to legend, two thirds of those who enter the contest are killed by traps before they reach their cooking bench.
And another four per cent suffocates from ennui.
The actual winners?
Apart from a token interview surrounded by supermarket logos, they’re never heard from again.
Luckily, the taro balls do their job and the Cook makes it to the gates of the zone. The robot guard beeps aggressively a few times then lets her in.
On screen, the arena always looked industrial and in person it looks industrial too, brutalist even.
A pale blue light appears up ahead, and the Cook walks towards it.
The first challenge is to cook something from polyethylene.
Most of the other contestants are drugged or insane so the Cook hides out in the Book Depository next door until the commotion dies down.
When she returns, the judges are bleeding from earholes and eye sockets, each one insisting that this is by far the most difficult challenge ever faced in the Zone Cook kitchen, and if the home cooks truly are hungry for the trophy of all trophies then they will step up, elevate the star ingredient, cook with real/simulated passion, ignore the Geiger counters, complete their dreams, smother the dreams of others, bring great flavours, control the bleeding, the migraines, rationalise all death moans coming from the back room pantry, cook with a smile, etc.
Putting in earphones, the Cook goes about her business.
She doesn’t hear the phone ringing nearby.
It goes to speakerphone.
‘Daughter won’t stop staring at the microwave, please come home, I need help grabbing her ankles, incapacitating her, she’s too-…’
A tannoy blast kills the rest of the message, followed by the green judge claiming there are only five minutes to go.
The Cook stops, looks at the phone, the plastic strips rotating on the hibachi.
‘Quick update,’ shouts the pink judge, seared skin peeling off his neck, ‘due to dilettantism and a surprisingly high number of self-eliminations, this challenge has now become the final. So cook like your future depends on it. Raaaar.’
In the wings, corpses are carried away on ancient baking trays.
The clock above keeps ticking.
Giving the third remaining contestant a fatal heart attack when it strikes zero.
‘Okay, you two…bring up your dishes.’
The Cook ignores the demand and continues her work, sprinkling lime shavings over the charred plastic that, from a skewed angle, resembles a down-on-its-luck porcupine.
Winning exits her mind and sails off down the phone line.
She just wants to cook now, cook with other faces watching how much she doesn’t give a shit that they’re watching her cook better than them.
In the background, a soft thud as the other remaining contestant drops to the floor, unable to cope with the baggage of potentially being successful.
‘Looks like we have a winner…’ shrieks the least bloody of all the judges [the green one], nodding at the nurses giving the other two anti-radiation jabs. ‘Number S, come on up here, show us your winning dish.’
The Cook opens a bottle of soy sauce and chucks it on the mangled plastic. Smiles when she realises it was dark soy not regular. Takes it to the front and places it at the feet of the final judge. ‘There’s no need to speak,’ she mutters.
‘Hmm. Looks melted. Textured. Full of flavour. So many contrasting layers. Incredible, from the standard of a complete amateur who doesn’t really know what they’re doing. You ready for the trophy?’
The Cook shrugs, looks at the neon logo hanging above, the coloured paper strips raining down the same way they had rained down the other three hundred and seventy-four times this parade happened.
‘Tell us, will you come back next season…help us pick out the winner of Zone Cook?’
You had a wife, the Cook thinks, scratching a strip of tin foil off the trophy, a daughter, a microwave, other things. Have them. Had. Having. Had.
‘What is it, the radiation haze?’
The Cook shakes her head, swatting away nurses and security, pulling a scientist out of a small rucksack, and a small bomb out of the scientist.
In some ways this is traumatic, she says, looking down at the two defeated judges.
But never mind.
Back home, the Cook puts down the shovel and lights up a cigarette she stole from inside the zone. Throws the trophy into the hole. Leaves it uncovered, for the wolves to pick at.
‘Didn’t know you knew how to disassemble a bomb,’ says her wife, but the Cook ignores her, heading straight to the daughter and the microwave.
Together, they stare at the ON button.
What they think is the ON button.
Outside, a shuttle takes off, heading somewhere new.
The house rattles, kind of.