Three years. For three years, the terrorist organization run by Mr. Danya had kidnapped students from schools across the United States, and forced them to fight each other to the death in a sick “game”. The government’s forces, despite locating the island that the second version was held on, were unable to capture or kill Danya and his allies. With each version of the show, those who were able to believe it was nothing more than a drama, or a hoax, dwindled. Some, however, still clung to that idea, denying the truth for their own comfort. They claimed that it was simply the most successful act of viral marketing ever.
After the third version, in which so many of the students of Southridge High School lost their lives, a dead end in the hunt for Danya was reached once more. There simply was no sign of the man. While restless, the public had also begun to be inured to the show; after all, there were thousands of high schools in the United States, so being picked was unlikely, and more people died weekly in car accidents than yearly in SOTF. There were also rumors that the program had suffered severe setbacks in the middle of the third season, perhaps even crippling it enough to put an indefinite end to it.
Though there was no evidence behind the rumors, for many people it was enough. The world went on as normal. Peace and quiet were the order of the day. SOTF was easy to forget, or to push aside as a part of pop culture. It was still embraced by “radical” teenagers, still one of the most marketed enterprises in the country, and it was so simple to dismiss it as nothing more.
But, in May 2008, the SOTF program again returned.
Prologue: The Long-Awaited Trip
The day had finally arrived. The Senior Trip. The air at Bayview Secondary School was buzzing with excitement, as hundreds of seniors at the large high school prepared for their last big event together. Finals were over. Everyone going on this trip had made it through them, some with flying colors, others barely scraping a pass. Today, though, none of that really mattered. It would be another week until graduation, another week until final reports. Now was simply the time for fun.
Principal Kendrick and Mr. Kwong stood near the busses. There were six of them, each carrying nearly fifty students. It was going to be a terrible ride; that was for sure. The campground the school had reserved, in the Badlands national park, was several hours from Saint Paul. The Minnesota weather was already in high gear for the summer, and blazing heat was the order of the day. The air above the asphalt shimmered.
A bell rang, and the students began pouring out of the school. Mr. Kwong watched them come. Some were excited, rushing to make sure they got seats on a bus with their friends. Some seemed apathetic, lost in the worlds of their ipods and books, paying no attention to their surroundings. A few even feigned grudging acceptance, acting like they were being dragged along, slouching their ways contemptuously to the busses. Mr. Kwong had to smile at these ones. Nobody was forced to participate in the Senior Trip. In fact, as Principal Kendrick had repeated so often these past few weeks, it was a privilege, not a right. Some students had been removed from the trip, and others, due to illness or disinterest or family troubles or any other number of reasons, had stayed behind.
Though he did not know it at the time, they were the lucky ones.
“Hey,” a girl shouted from the window of the fourth bus in line. “Over here. Hey!” She waved at one of her friends, who went jogging towards the bus, took the stairs in two bounds, and was soon sharing the seat with the first girl, laughing and chatting.
Before long, nearly everybody was aboard. The busses were packed, and the teachers who were coming along had entered their respective vehicles. Mr. Kwong was in the fifth bus in line, surveying the students. He knew so many of them. Most had passed through one of his math classes at some point in their educational careers, and even though he knew most of them didn’t like him, even though he realized he was one of Bayview’s least popular teachers, he still had a soft spot for each of them. Especially his debate team. They were really the best kids in the school.
“Alright class, listen up,” he said, raising his voice a little. Everyone quieted down, probably cursing their luck as they realized which teacher was taking charge of their bus. “Hardass Kwong” knew how to have fun, knew when to loosen up a little, but he also knew to never, ever let the students in on that fact.
“We’re going to be a little out of comfort zones here, but we’re not totally leaving civilization behind,” he said, launching into the speech he’d hastily prepared, which would cover the rules of the trip. “Every school regulation is still in effect. There is to be no illegal activity of any sort. You are to treat the campsite as an extension of the school grounds. Yes, that does mean no smoking.”
Any less serious teacher would have been met with groans at that statement, but nobody made a noise as Mr. Kwong continued.
“There are cabins. You’ve all had a chance to put in your requests for roommates. Final assignments will be listed when we arrive. There is to be no trading of cabins. Cabins are segregated by gender, and after ten in the evening, you are restricted to your own cabin unless you are with a faculty member.”
There was absolutely no chance that that rule would be enforced, Kwong had no doubt. None of the staff cared that much, and it was simply impractical. His role was to act as a deterrent, a means of discouraging those students who had not yet resolved to misbehave from being pressured into it by those who had.
“I would like to remind you that anyone caught with alcohol, illegal drugs, or participating in any activity that the school would frown upon in an official capacity will not be allowed to walk at graduation. It would be a terrible shame, given how many of you have relatives coming. Soon enough, you will be free to use, or waste, your lives as you see fit. Soon, you will be beyond the reach of myself, and of Bayview Secondary School, and you will need to make your own decisions, your own choices. I hope we have taught you to be the best you can, to make yourselves responsible, respectable members of civilization. In the end, that is the real purpose of any education.”
He found himself wondering briefly after all those who would not be graduating, who were not on this trip today due to that fact. Had they all been failures? Were they doomed to lives of mediocrity, jobs in the service and retail industries at best, crime at worst? Surely not. Surely some of them would make something of themselves, pull things together and become just as important as those here today.
A few minutes later, Mrs. Bishop boarded the bus at a run, taking her seat next to Mr. Kwong, late as usual. She was one of the two backup staff members, though, so it was alright.
The bus driver, a tall, muscled, bald man with a long black moustache and a sunburned head, stood up and began explaining the safety features of the vehicle. He spoke calmly the entire time, but delivered the lecture in a series of deadpan jokes, drawing most of the students into laughing. He seemed so at ease with these students, kids he had never met before. Mr. Kwong was envious of him, in a way. What he would have given to have such an easy manner, to be able to react so calmly even when he was nervous.
The trip did make him nervous. Who knew what would happen? Most of the kids were good, sure, but there were bound to be some wild ones, bound to be some troublemakers. He didn’t fancy having the police show up and take someone away. That would put a damper on the trip for them all.
The police were ready for it, too. Presumably it was because the park was federal land or something, or maybe because there had been incidents involving Bayview in the past. Whatever the cause, somehow they had been referred to Mr. Kwong, called him at home one night after he’d had a particularly tough day. He’d given them all the information he knew; he had, after all, been involved in planning the trip, and they were the police. He’d been meaning to check with Principal Kendrick, to ask the man to avoid forwarding those calls to him in the future. It really wasn’t his responsibility. He’d forgotten, though, and now the bus was warming up, and Principal Kendrick was outside, waving them off. He wouldn’t be along on this trip; someone had to stay and keep the school running.
The bus pulled away from the school, and the students cheered. Now, for a few days, they would enjoy limited freedom, with no responsibilities at all. It was going to be an interesting trip.
Mr. Kwong couldn’t exactly pinpoint when he began to feel tired. The drive was fairly far, and they’d set out in the afternoon on a Monday, after classes had ended. They had been delayed because some students had needed to go home for their bags. The bus was stiflingly hot, likely as a result of the students and their stuff packed in such close proximity.
Mr. Kwong had tried to open the window fifteen minutes ago, but it had been stuck. The bus driver had apologized, and promised to turn the air conditioning on, explaining that the window frames tended to get sticky on old busses like these. He’d said the air conditioning would be going soon, though, and assured Mr. Kwong that, once it warmed up (and was that a pun? It was amazing that this man could joke even while roasting alive), there would be nothing more to worry about, nothing at all.
Sure enough, the whir and feeling of circulating air was calming. It was probably responsible for Mr. Kwong’s drowsiness.
The bus driver was whistling a little, now. It was quiet, just on the edge of hearing. Mr. Kwong tried to focus on the back of the man’s head. It looked a little different. Black and rubbery. Had he put on a hat? A mask? Maybe he was going to scare everyone awake, jokester that he was.
A crackle, on the edge of hearing. What had that voice said over the radio? Mr. Kwong’s eyelids were drooping, but he forced them open and looked out the window. Where were they? He’d been to the Badlands before, and this was certainly not the route they’d taken.
“Urgh,” he said. “Where’re we goin’?”
His voice was slipping, his words slurring. How embarrassing. The bus driver tensed for half a second. Then he chuckled, his voice strangely muffled. Was he mocking Mr. Kwong? In his drowsiness, it also occurred to Mr. Kwong that the man sounded a lot like the policeman who had called him. What was going on?
“Just a little detour I was informed of on the radio. Eighteen-wheeler took out a greyhound, blocked things up for miles, so we’re taking some backstreets. Could add an hour or two, but it beats stalling out in traffic. Others’re still with us.”
That was okay then. They’d just be a little late.
As soon as the bus had quieted completely, Shamino flicked the radio back on. He was in a foul mood. The gasmask was rubbing his sunburn, and the whole plan had nearly been messed up by that call. What on earth were they doing, calling him at a time like this? He was a professional. That was why he had been re-infiltrated after setting up the jammers. Well, that and they’d needed someone to rig the busses with the same equipment. Couldn’t have any last second calls or texts screwing stuff up. He hadn’t turned them on until thirty minutes ago, when they’d passed through a tunnel and told them all they were entering a dead zone.
“What is it?” he said into the radio, voice level like always.
“We’re just checking in. All the others have been ready to go for ten minutes.”
“Yeah, well, someone here could take a bit more gas. Nearly heard you.”
Calm, unconcerned. Make it sound like it was totally the other person’s fault. Let Danya blame them, if this little incident ever came to light. Let them know that would happen, so it didn’t.
Above all, keep things on schedule. Keep everything under control.
“We’re ready anytime you are.”
There were oh so many of them, these students. It had taken for-fucking-ever to tie them all to chairs, especially since somebody had undercounted by twenty students or so and they’d had to strap the extras to a jury-rigged cafeteria bench from the base’s rec room. Christina Stockton was very, very glad that she had not been in charge of the counting. She was also very glad the correct number of collars had been made (actually, there were some extras, they’d been told; better safe than sorry). The students weren’t wearing them yet, but there was no hope of an uprising, not with them restrained and mildly sedated.
Christina stood off in the background, assault rifle at the ready. Elsewhere around the room, Josh Baines, Matt Richards, and some of the other terrorists also stood, also armed. They all stuck to the shadows. What was about to happen was not about them; they were just the insurance, in case someone somehow managed to try to resist. It always happened to some degree. Last year, it had been the coach.
Christina would never have admitted it, for fear of Danya hearing, but there was a betting pool this year. She had her money on the guy who’d taken longest to knock out in Shamino’s bus.
It took them a long, long time to begin to stir. Once again, Danya had made the cautious choice. They’d had plenty of time to prepare this little viewing. Nobody was rushed now. Since the game was beginning, everything had been done to ensure that sensitive preparation time was maximized. Rushing led to mistakes. Mistakes like viruses getting into the system. Mistakes like collar schematics getting stolen. Mistakes like traitors being missed.
Finally, though, they started moving, a few at a time. Confusion was the order of the day. It always was. Once they’d all started to realize where they were, what their situation was, the panic began. The room was huge, almost an auditorium. The cries of some of the students echoed throughout the room. It went on for a couple of minutes, while the eight adults in the front, the chaperones assigned to the trip, struggled their own ways to consciousness. The show was about to begin. The only question was, who would be the troublemaker?
Not like fifty bucks mattered anyways.
Mr. Kwong woke up slowly. He blinked a few times. The bus was gone. The city was gone. He felt like he’d been out for a long time. The world slowly came into focus.
He was tied to a chair, facing the class. It was a nightmare. Had to be. He’d had it before, once. He’d been kidnapped, then put on trial by a kangaroo court made up of every student he had ever failed. They had convicted him, forced him to answer spelling question after spelling question, and as soon as he slipped up, they would...
“Attention, seniors of Bayview Secondary School.”
The voice was loud, projected over a slightly old PA system with a bit of a screech to it. Mr. Kwong perked up a bit. He’d heard that voice before, somewhere. It was not Principal Kendrick. Not one of the student club leaders who occasionally broadcast announcements of bake sales and such.
“Children, please quiet down.”
The voice was cheerful, but it was not kind. It held an edge of menace to it. It suddenly clicked. That show. He’d heard the voice before when linked to a youtube clip of that show, that horrible show.
“Oh, God no,” he whispered. He was frozen to the spot, by fear. The ropes weren’t even necessary. No. No, this couldn’t have happened. It was impossible. Had the police suspected? Had they called to figure out how to save the class? No, they couldn’t have, because the policeman had sounded like the bus driver. The bus driver. The mask. That strange hint of mockery in his voice.
Had Mr. Kwong sold out his entire school to terrorists by mistake?
He had no way of knowing, of course, that it had just been a final check, a provision against changes in plans. Just a precautionary measure.
Next to him, somebody started struggling. He couldn’t see who, couldn’t bring himself to turn his head, but a few seconds later there were noises on his other side, too. It seemed many of the faculty members had decided to attempt some sort of escape, perhaps had figured that they would all tip over en masse and roll out the door or something.
Mr. Kwong did not even consider joining them. He was not brave. He was a math teacher, not an action hero.
When a single shot rang out, followed by a couple of quick bursts of gunfire a second later, he was sickened to realize that, on some level, he was gloating at having been proven correct. It took him a few beats to realize that his left side was wet, that he’d been splashed with somebody’s blood.
There were a few screams, but the PA said, “Now, now. Quiet, kids, unless you’d like to join them.”
The room fell silent.
Damn. Five of them. Five of them had tried, all at once. Did that mean they all lost their money? Or did those who’d guessed right split it? Or just whoever guessed the first one to be shot? It was all purely academic, of course, since Christina’s bet hadn’t moved at all.
She found herself almost happy for him, though. She hated this, hated being involved in the death and the violence and the killing. She hated it, but only while it was happening, and for a little while afterwards. There would be time for tears later. There always was. In the end, though, she only had to cry because she chose to. She had access to guns. She could put a bullet in her brain and be out of this at any time.
No, she wouldn’t, though. She was in this for the long haul. She was happy that that man on stage would get to live a little longer, but she wouldn’t say a thing when he, and the other surviving teachers, were quietly disposed of.
“Pay attention, class. I’m sure many of you are wondering why you’re here. Perhaps some of you know. From what I’ve been told, a few members of your class are quite bright. I suppose, since all of today’s children are visual learners, servants of the television and the video game, that a little film may illustrate my point better than anything I can say, for those of you who are a little bit less intelligent.
“Again, pay very close attention. This will be important for you in the future. There will be a test.”
The video rolled.
“It'll be all right, John,” the girl on the film was saying. Then they were kissing, and it was clear that she wasn’t paying attention to him, as she loosened her grip on her weapons, letting them slip away. She seemed completely lost in the moment, not noticing anything, particularly not the sword the boy managed to stealthily pry out of her hands, leaving it in his possession rather than on the ground.
"Yeah, it will be all right...for me." With those words, the boy stabbed her with her own weapon. Her expression changed, went ugly, and she sputtered a little as the boy began to rant at her, telling her that she was wrong, there was no escape, no way out, that nothing mattered except making it home. He derided her for trusting him, for believing he cared, and as he did so, he pushed her aside, blood dripping from her wound, from the sword.
Then he picked up a pistol.
"Say hi to Cara for me, she was stupid enough to believe me too,” he said, and pulled the trigger.
"The fuck?...Oh, I'm sorry, silly me. Forgetting things left and right it would seem," the boy said, flipping the safety off. The he pulled the trigger again, and the gun went off, and blood splattered everywhere.
“Surely by now most of you have figured out what’s going on,” the voice said through the loudspeakers, as nearly three hundred terrified students sat tied to chairs and benches, every one of them now awake. “I urge you to take what you just saw to heart. That, kids, is a winning attitude.
“Yes, for those of you who are dim or in denial, I may as well just say it. Welcome to Survival of the Fittest.”
Several people, boys and girls alike, began to cry. Others started looking around wildly, searching for an escape. Around the room, however, a number of men and women in gas masks stood, holding assault rifles.
“I’m sure you all have heard of our little show. Yes, from our humble origins we have grown to be one of the most popular entertainment media in the United States, and, dare I say it, worldwide. Today, you have all been granted the opportunity to be a part of that. Before you ask, no, there’s no opting out. You’re in for the long haul, so might as well make the best of it, hm?”
By now, everyone was paying full attention to the voice. The few surviving staff members had slumped in their chairs. Mr. Kwong’s eyes were closed.
“Oh, and I forgot to introduce myself. How impolite. I am Mr. Danya. I am in charge here. You would do well to remember it.
“This is the fifth SOTF program. The fourth to be broadcast on television. You’re our biggest class yet, and we’re expecting quite a show. Ah, but first, you must know the rules to compete. I’m sure you’ve heard of our premise. You must kill your classmates. How you do it doesn’t matter, though I am personally partial to the tearful betrayal. You will be aided in this task by the contents of a daypack.”
At this, the screen flashed a picture of a duffel bag. Next to it were haphazardly strewn a box with a red cross on it, a bag of crackers and a loaf of bread, some water bottles, and a machete.
“Each daypack will contain the bare minimum you need to survive—for a time, at least. A first aid kit, rations, a map and compass, a flashlight, and, of course, a weapon. Well, not all of them are designed to be used as weapons, but get a little creative. You’d be surprised what you can kill people with.”
The image on the screen changed, displaying some sort of improvised knife. It seemed to have been crafter out of a dildo and a toothbrush. Someone let out a nervous laugh. Others were still crying.
“Now, some of you may be upset by this. Some of you may think you’ll be wonderful heroes and save all your friends. It’s best to stop those plans right now. It’s been tried, and by better people than you. And, of course, for every action, there are consequences.”
Now, a film was projected which showed a boy moving around, breaking cameras. He walked out of its line of sight, and then everything went black.
“That, kids, was what they tried last season. I had to blow up some collars for that. Feelings were hurt. It was a terrible mess. Oh, that brings me to those lovely fashion accessories. Each of you will be wearing a collar on the island. It contains explosives, more than enough to remove your head from your shoulders. The collars will go off if you linger too long in a Danger Zone after I announce it, if you try to disable or remove them, or if you decide to be monumentally stupid enough to attempt to escape.”
Danya did not mention that he wouldn’t bother blowing any collars of people whose escape attempts were too idiotic to possibly succeed.
“Play well, play smart, and you may be the one to make it out alive. That boy in the first clip was John Rizzolo, last season’s winner. He played smart, and he played hard, and he won. Take his example to heart. And, if you don’t have it in you, remember that some of your classmates surely do. If you can’t bring yourself to be on the giving end of that sort of exchange, at least be smart enough to avoid receiving.
“Look around. Look at your classmates. How many of them do you truly know? How many would you trust with your life? Because she trusted John, you know, and she made the wrong choice.
“Well, then. Time to get underway. The game will begin presently. Goodnight.”
Hidden fans powered up, and the purpose behind the soldiers’ gas masks became clear. It didn’t take long at all until the students of Bayview Secondary School, and their surviving faculty members, were once again unconscious.
Dennis Louvrey was nearly in a panic. The completed collars all worked, that was for sure. Each had been tested. The problem was, construction had lost a couple of days when one tiny, miniscule, almost-certain-never-to-be-discovered fault had come up.
Of course, they had taken the time to fix it in every collar. It meant that nobody was wearing collars during the presentation, the presentation that was going on right now. It meant a security risk, but there simply hadn’t been any helping it. Danya had gone dead quiet when informed, but hadn’t killed Louvrey. Not yet.
He and his team were desperately throwing together the last collars, those that had not been completed when the error was found. How many more to go? How many? He looked up, and there were no more parts. As he clicked the final component, twisted the final screw, everything seemed to ease, to lighten. He tested the collar on the machine designed for that purpose. It checked out, and everyone in the room cheered quietly. He was lucky, so very lucky that the student count had been communicated correctly to him. He was also lucky that none of the other terrorists knew about this. Had they heard that they were potentially in danger because the students weren’t entirely controlled, due to, of all things, an engineering error, he would have had to watch his back every moment of every day. More than he already did, anyhow.
It was just another thing Danya had to hold over him, and never mind that the problem hadn’t been his fault.
He’d had about two minutes to relax, when the door opened, and there he was. Danya didn’t say anything, and Louvrey just nodded. Everything was complete. Everything was tested.
There would be no mistakes this time.
The game was beginning.