Contest is Matthew Reilly's first novel. It follows radiologist Stephen Swain as he is forced to participate in the ancient alien contest known as the Presidian.
A few weeks before the main story begins, Dr. Stephen Swain manages to fight off two gang members (who are searching for a police officer who was working undercover) despite having no combat experience, and is forced to kill one of them with a gun. In the early hours of the morning, Mike Fraser, a young thief looking to steal computers from the New York City Library, is cornered by Ryan, a security guard at the library. However Ryan is killed by an unseen creature, and a blood covered Fraser is traumatised by what he has seen. Subsequently, the library is closed down while police cordon off the area, but two officers, Christine Parker and Paul Hawkins, are left to guard the library overnight.
After picking up his young daughter Holly from school after she got in a fight with someone who called Swain a murderer, Swain heads to the police station to finalise his statement. When he returns home, he and Holly are teleported into the New York State Library. A mysterious alien named Selexin explains that Swain has been chosen to represent humans in a contest called the Presidian. The rules are simple: seven different intelligent beings are teleported into a place such as the Library, and must kill each other. The last being standing must then find the teleporter that will take them out of the labyrinth. However, an animal called the Karanadon will also be in the labyrinth, and was teleported in a day before the contestants were. Swain has been chosen to represent Earth because of his natural fighting and adaption abilities, as demonstrated in the gang fight. Selexin's species is too small to compete, so they serve as guides and witnesses to a kill. If a contestant says "initialize" a tiny teleporter will appear from a cap on Selexin's head, allowing officials to see what is going on.
Clasped to Swain's wrist is a metal band that indicates how many contestants are in the Library, as well as whether the Karanadon is awake or not. As final a precaution in the game, the whole Library is enclosed in a powerful electrical field. If Swain were to somehow get out of the Library the band will give him fifteen minutes to get back inside, and will explode if he fails to do so.
Meanwhile, seeing a light down in the stack, Hawkins goes to investigate, leaving Parker alone in the Lobby. Another contestant named Bellos arrives in the lobby and has some unknown creatures who kill Parker.
Down in the stack, Hawkins encounters a crocodile-like alien named Reese, who hypnotizes him. Before she can kill him, Swain intervenes and Hawkins escapes. However, Selexin points out that while contestants cannot kill each other at this stage of the contest, they can follow each other. Swain, Holly, Selexin, and Hawkins rush into the parking garage to escape as the final contestant, Balthazar, arrives. In the ensuing fight, Reese injures Balthazar but Swain attacks her and drags Balthazar to an elevator.
Having survived, the group tries to regroup in the lobby, but see Bellos and another contestant, called the Konda. Just as the Konda is about to kill Bellos, hunting animals called hoodayas, or hoods, attack and kill the Konda. Selexin and Balthazar's guide say that the Presidian is over: Bellos has cheated by bringing in the hoods, making him an invincible opponent and the definite winner. Before the hoods can kill the group, Reese, who has figured out how to work an elevator, appears and the group flees in the carnage, to a janitor’s closet.
Unfortunately, they have stumbled upon the Karanadon's nest. The creature wakes, and kills Balthazar's guide before Swain tricks it into falling down an elevator shaft, knocking it out. Now separated, Swain, Holly, and Selexin find a door Fraser left open to the outside world. Before they can escape, Bellos attacks. Swain manages to kill two of the hoods but the door slams shut, becoming electrified, and trapping him outside, alone and with his wristband counting down. To complicate matters, the NSA has arrived, and is trying to keep people from getting near the library. Finally, Swain manages to uses a magnet in a phone to create a gap in an electrical window and gets back inside.
Back in the janitor's closet, Hawkins and Balthazar are attacked by a contestant called the Codex. Balthazar and the Codex kill each other and in the process start a fire. Holly and Selexin manage to escape the stack. Bellos gives chase, and kills Hawkins and the final contestant, called the Rachnid, but one of his hoods is killed by Holly and Selexin.
Down in the parking garage, Swain encounters a psychopathic NSA agent named Henry Quaid, who has managed to get into the Library. He is killed suddenly by Reese, who Swain manages to electrocute. While rummaging around, he finds a paper in Quaid's pocket showing power surges every time something is teleported into the Library. By luck, he also finds Holly and Selexin, and uses Selexin's teleporter to kill the final hood, by teleporting half its body away to watching officials. After killing Bellos by crushing him beneath an elevator, Swain's wristband tells him that, because the Presidian has been "contaminated", the final teleporter will not be opened and everything, including Selexin and the Karanadon, will be left behind. Swain realizes that Bellos teleported a teleportation device into the Library, so that at the end of the game he could send the hoods away, and not be discovered cheating. Selexin is teleported away, with the promise to have the escape device teleported back.
The electrical field around the Library drops, and the wristband begins its countdown sequence in order to kill all contestants and dispose of the evidence. The Karanadon awakes and chases Swain out into a park near the Library. In the fighting, Swain's band gets knocked off. He clips it to the Karanadon and flees. The NSA watches as the wristbands explode, destroying all trace of the Karanadon and also destroying the Library. The novel ends with Swain and Holly going home on a subway.
- Special Agent James Marshall
- Special Agent John Levine
- Commander Harold Quaid
- Special Agent Alan Higgs
- Agent Martinez
- Reilly filmed the events of the first fifteen minutes of the novel, intending to show the footage to get funding to make a movie of the novel. He hopes to direct the adaptation himself.