The First AnnouncementEdit
At the heart of an internationally infamous terrorist organization was not where one would typically expect to find a person who, a few short years ago, had been an aspiring criminal psychologist, but fate could work in mysterious ways. Monica Brown had been close to the top of her class before graduation. Her future had looked bright, and passably exciting, if perhaps not what all the crime shows made it out to be. She'd had some offers for jobs, and if they had not been exactly lucrative, they had at least been steady, with room for advancement. Her future had looked clear, like what she'd always thought she'd wanted. Her parents had been proud.
And then, a few days before finals and graduation, the man had shown up. He'd introduced himself as Jim, and had told her that he'd been watching her for a while. Then he'd laid out, with near-perfect precision, how she'd cheated her way through every year of her exams, how she'd selectively plagiarized sections of her papers. And then, when she'd been ready to deny, to argue, to try to think her way out of getting caught and protect that boring-yet-steady future, he'd revealed that he wasn't anyone concerned with academic dishonesty at all. No, he'd let her know he had a job offer for her, one that would be both financially rewarding and exciting.
She'd taken him up on it so quickly, even he'd seemed a little surprised.
Monica liked to refer to her position as Director of Lateral Thinking, but officially she was in the Chief of Security. Oh, sure, there were people who outranked her, people who shared in her responsibilities. She reported to Sonia Nguyen and Steven Wilson, worked hand in hand with Lourvey and Abby and the rest of techs, but to all of them, the security and smooth operation of the game was simply one of many duties. For Monica, it was the sum total of her job.
She knew that failure here would be bad news. She knew she would be incredibly lucky to survive anything like what had happened last version, even if she wasn't killed during a hypothetical attack. Greynolds had made it clear that one did not retire from the Arthro Taskforce, and that there wasn't any position in the organization for a chronic failure. The idea, rather than being frightening, was energizing. It gave her motivation, a connection to her work, a drive. The cheating back in school, it had never been solely because the work was too hard for her. That slight element of danger, of rule-breaking, kept her focused. It let her care.
She took a long sip from her glass of water, rubbed her forehead, adjusted her glasses. Her hair was starting to get greasy already. She hadn't showered since the day before the kidnapping, focusing on sleeping as much as possible in the run-up to the students' arrival. Proper rest was vital to doing a good job, and she was preparing herself for the performance of a lifetime.
Her office was not a large room, and it felt even more constrained, overflowing as it was with a small refrigerator, a half-full trash can, two large, plug-in fans, and mountains of computer equipment. Had she not been such a thin woman, it would have likely been difficult to maneuver around. One console fed into ten separate monitors, each one tracking a different student. There were dedicated techs watching people more specifically, largely based on her directions, but Monica preferred being able to keep an eye on things herself. There were little behavioral things that the techs would miss, just like there were technical things they would be able to spot that she was completely ignorant of.
Thus far, the game was progressing nicely. Monica had insisted that paper and writing utensils be taken from the students but left on the island. The grunts had bitched about that for weeks, and more than once she'd been ribbed for her logic at the lunch table, but she had remained resolute. It was simple, she'd explained.
By removing the paper from the students' possession, it made undetectable communication inconvenient, stopping anything from being hatched spur of the moment. By leaving paper and pens available around the island, they allowed students who were intent on sneaking things under the radar to acquire the means to do so. They were sure to figure out some way eventually anyways; by leaving them a fairly easy option, the taskforce controlled the form that was most likely to take. Students who sought what they had been denied were, if only in a small way, rebelling against the implicit rules of the game, which marked them as possible troublemakers. Anyone so much as carrying a pen had someone watching them closely, and Monica herself checking in on them periodically. Everything she'd seen of them thus far had only solidified her confidence in that decision.
She had only read the student profiles a few days before the abduction, to better keep herself free of preconceptions. They were all stored on her laptop, which sat one the left side of her desk, at a right angle to the keyboard controlling the bank of monitors. The profiles, a series of documents in a database accessed through a spreadsheet of her design, were arranged not numerically, but rather by who seemed most likely to cause trouble. Monica had a system down pretty well there, a mix of traits suggesting rebelliousness, similarities to previous problem children, and gut instinct. Anyone who even slightly reminded her of herself got marked in red as someone to watch.
The last thing on her desk was a netbook, opposite the laptop. It had one purpose, and one purpose only: with about fifteen seconds of work, Monica could detonate any student's collar, or, if that seemed too extreme, send a warning beep or activate a speaker in their vicinity to address them. Greynolds had told her not to be shy about doing what had to be done, and if the thought of killing someone with the push of a few keys was a touch disconcerting, there was also something more than a little exciting about the prospect.
In a way, she was just as much a player in this game as any of the students. The only difference was, she was specifically competing against the cheaters, and she had all the tools she needed to win.
As a girl on one of the screens scribbled on a piece of paper, Monica took another sip of water and reached for the phone hung on the wall behind her to check in with the techs.
The first day was almost over, so the desperation would really be sinking in soon. That meant things were about to get interesting.
Sitting behind the desk, Tracen did his best not to fidget. He'd been here before, once or twice, in preparation. He knew how to handle the equipment, had taken a few dry runs with it, but it was different now that he was about to speak for real. He'd talked with Greynolds about it, taken what advice he could, though the man had been rather apathetic towards the whole process. Tracen had listened to and watched the tapes of his father performing the same duty, had tried to study them for technique. It was difficult; the man had changed his presentation often, the only thing binding the performances their energy. It was not an energy Tracen was sure he could, or wanted to, recreate.
He had a sheet of paper in front of him, on it written the names and causes of death, just in case he found himself at a momentary loss. He'd watched the tapes, several times apiece, and was pretty sure he wouldn't mess anything up. It had been memorable, more so knowing it had just happened than watching tapes of kids who'd died years before.
The technician on the other side of the room flashed him a thumbs up. It was just like the practice runs. Tracen took two deep breaths, let the tension flow out of him. He took a sip of coffee from the mug that was the only thing besides the paperwork and the microphone in front of him. Then he nodded. There was a click, and a light beside the technician flashed green. All across the island, speakers roared to life.
"Good morning, everyone. I hope those of you who slept got some good rest. The rest of you, well, at least you're alive to hear this. That's more than I can say for some of your classmates.
"Yes, we've already seen eight deaths. That's a pretty lousy rate, but I have hope for you yet. After all, there are dangerous people out there, and I'm only going to be telling you about the ones who succeeded. At least twice as many didn't quite manage to make things stick.
"First to die was David Russell, who either decided he couldn't deal with the stress or went absolutely bugfuck. He walked right off a cliff, splattered all over the rocks, and earned the prestigious Remi Pierce award for lemmings.
"After that, our first kill came at the hands of Theodore Fletcher, who gunned down Gabriella Parker. Saying 'pretty please don't shoot me' turns out to not be as effective at keeping you alive as, say, running away? Who could've guessed?
"Oh, that's right. It's common sense. Best keep that lesson in mind in the future. You're in a no-holds-barred match now, and relying on mercy is a great way to get killed. Remember, only one of you is going home.
"A short time later, Hansel Williams, our very own resident cowboy, decided to become an outlaw. It might not've been his first stickup, but his encounter with Daniel Whitten was by far his most deadly engagement of the day. Points for marksmanship, Williams. It almost makes up for your poor showing at the amusement park earlier.
"Theodore Fletcher didn't quite manage a hat trick, but he did collect a second point when he gunned down Dan Liu. Dan thought he might've found a good ally, only to discover he'd fatally misplaced his trust. Someone didn't look to his right like I told him to.
"And Jason Meyers didn't keep an eye on his own allies. He was gunned down by Joe Carrasco, who was supposed to be his friend. I'm glad to see that someone took away the right message from our little movie screening.
"Another enthusiastic participant was the up-and-coming Katarina Konipaski. Kelly Peterson wandered away from her companion, and reaped what she sowed when Konipaski reaped her. Death isn't the only one packing a scythe.
"But good old Death was busy today too. I've looked over the tapes a few times, and I can't quite pinpoint how it happened, but a simple trip led to a collision that sent David Zimmer for a swan dive off the hotel's balcony. I'd watch out for safety rails elsewhere. You know how it is; things got rushed and we didn't have time to get the inspectors in. Don't tell city council.
"Finally, Iselle Ovalle-Vandermeer put her softball skills to use and knocked Sven Olsen for a home run he won't ever be getting up from. Kids with kids just don't have it easy here, do they? Better get used to the Tyke, Mr. and Mrs. Victorino, unless your daughter manages to step it up.
"As promised, there are some places you need to stay out of. Our danger zones for today are The Amusement Park, The Airstrip, and The Hotel. Oh, and one last little rule I forgot to mention: we have a little vote here in the offices every day, about who had the most impressive kill for the day. The winner gets a new weapon and, as a new addition this year, a little something else. Today, we picked Katarina Konipaski. Congratulations, Katarina. You can make your way to The Amusement Park, where there's a box with a gun in it, two cans of Coke, and a double cheeseburger waiting for you. Hop to it, and it may still be hot.
"I'll catch everyone who survives tomorrow. Do a good job, and we'll cook up something special for you, too."
The Second AnnouncementEdit
Richards liked the night beat more than his co-workers. It was quieter. Fewer people were around aside from maybe the drunks. Usually what he saw was something innocent mistakenly reported as a crime rather than actual crime. He was sure he'd never forget - or be allowed to forget - that time he'd almost arrested three members of a local book club.
Richards adjusted his vest. It was a bulky thing, but he was pretty sure he'd be grateful for the Kevlar sooner or later.
He turned a corner and stopped short, paused, and then stepped back to the right and behind the corner. A little ways down the street at the mouth of an alleyway there was a collection of figures standing in the shadows. Normally, Richards would've put it down to a huddle of hobos or something, if he hadn't seen flashes of metal, a glimpse of something that looked very much like a briefcase. Had he run across some kind of covert deal? Decently dressed, definitely no hobo and definitely carrying a gun.
He keyed his radio.
"Looking like a possible 966 in progress on 24th street... at least one suspect armed. Requesting backup, over."
"Baines here. I’m in the area. Be there in two, over."
Richards was hoping for more than one response. However, as the radio went quiet, it quickly became clear that was all he was going to get. The more he glanced around the corner at those covert figures, the more it seemed like there couldn't be anything else that they were doing. It was like 1am, they weren't outside of a bar or a club, and even if they weren't exactly hiding they were-
Two, three of the figures went into the alleyway itself. One stayed at the alley mouth. Keeping watch? Undoubtedly.
Richards stepped around the corner, loosening his service pistol in its holster. Suddenly there was a shout.
A cry of "Shit!" echoed from within the alleyway and the guy standing at the mouth panicked, bolting away from the voice... towards Richards.
The cop went low and body checked the runner, slamming into him so hard that the perp bounced straight off him and went careening to the ground. Rapid footfalls followed the departure of those in the alleyway. They were gone.
Businesslike, Richards rolled the groaning suspect over, cuffed him, and read him his rights, before confiscating his gun.
More footsteps, and Richards straightened up to glare at his erstwhile back-up.
"Great job," he snapped. "You spooked them. Three got away."
A laconic shrug from Baines. "We got one. Didn't fire any shots, and pretty sure they're not gonna be swapping any drugs tonight, right?"
Richards paused... and then folded his arms with a slight sigh. "Yeah okay, but I'd rather have brought them in."
"If you think you could've taken four guys with guns, then sure. Now we've got a suspect and nobody's dead. Everyone wins," he glanced down at the groaning perp. "Well. Except that guy."
That forced out a smile.
"All right. I see your point. Let's get this guy to a nice warm cell."
"Those cells are nicer than my apartment."
"You live in a junkheap? You smell like it."
Tracen sighed as he settled into his chair, unsurprised to find that he was far more accustomed to the office than he had been the previous morning. Everything gets easier with practice, he thought. Tracen had spent most of the day wondering if, or when, someone would criticize his last performance, and was relieved when no one had- at least not to his face. He found himself unsure whether that was out of respect for his father, rather than the quality of his public speaking. No one really spoke to him much anyway; the other staff generally avoided him.
He wondered if he was an adequate replacement for his father. Tracen lacked his father’s capacity for cruel humor and his mastery of lame puns, but he had tried his best to fill his father’s shoes. Perhaps he could get the staff to write his jokes for him. Tracen tapped his fingers against the desk as he waited for the technicians to finish rigging up the equipment.
A fresh mug of coffee sat on his desk when he entered, the cream and sugar packets littering the table indicating that it was made exactly how he liked it. Tracen had no idea who put it there, but it made him question how much his father had meant to the people who worked there and whether he would ever mean the same.
“Good morning, students. I hope this second day finds those still remaining well. Those of you who can hear me have indeed made it to day three. I congratulate you.
“Let’s see, in the early hours of the morning it looks like Amaranta Montalvo stabbed Michael Whaley to death with some broken glass from a snow globe. Improvisation is very important if you don’t have anything at your disposal so don’t be discouraged if you didn’t receive a good weapon!
“Our next kill comes to us courtesy of gravity. Wasn’t there someone last time that said something like that? In any case, Mark Little died from falling off the roller coaster. Which one of you put him in a roller coaster cart? That wasn’t very sporting.
“This next pair could teach the remaining students a thing or two about effective communication. It seems Megan Emerson and Francis St. Ledger were having an argument and she chose to effectively end the communication by pushing him down some stairs. This is also a lesson about having fights near the tops of stairs.
“The next death shows that sometimes even death can be funny. Becca Everett was killed by Maximillian Sawyer. He shot her after distracting her with an exploding cigar. I have to give him points for ingenuity on that one.
“This one sees the return of an office favorite, the hunga munga. It’s very fun to say. Miles Strickland threw his and it hit Chuck Soileau. It should be obvious, but if you want to keep friends, you shouldn’t be throwing three-bladed weapons around carelessly.”
“It does seem a few of you have the proper spirit. Jaquilyn Locke and Joachim Lovelace were both trying to kill Miss Carmina Maliksi, but Joachim got to her first. Nothing like a team hunt through the woods to bond a team together.
“Next we have a trio of femme fatales, Lana Torres shot Venice Pennington-Johannes through the chest, little Yukiko Sakurai shoved Stacey Mordetsky off a small hill and Eliza Patton shot Luca Johanssen who then plummeted off the zip line platform to the ground. Those listening may be interested to know that of the 11 murders this announcement, seven of the killers were ladies. Well done to you, girls. SOTF is equal opportunity.
That’s all for today. I hope you didn’t think we’d forget about the danger zones. Our danger zones for today are Lighthouse, The Homestead, and The Western Beach.
The winner of the office vote for our favorite kill is Summer Simms! Congrats! Please make your way to The Homestead and pick up your prize. Once there you will receive a very nice gun, a box of one dozen assorted doughnuts and a gallon of milk. Yum. Maybe you can share some with a friend.
Great job everyone. If you live long enough, we’ll have another chat."
The Third AnnouncementEdit
Monica Brown sat at her battle station and paged through her notes, her groupings, her monitors, once again. She'd actually managed a solid night's sleep. Jim Greynolds himself had wandered in around ten, peered over her shoulder for a while, standing slightly too close, then told her that he'd take things from here so she could be rested for the next shift. She hadn't argued, though it had rankled a little to leave her post. She didn't much care for picking work back up, especially after someone else left their fingerprints all over it.
But everything had been in order upon her return. Greynolds gave her a quick rundown of some of the night's highlights, but, as was apparently usual, most of the kids had slept through it. Monica was just checking a section of her list, adjusting for the death of one of her notables, when the phone beside her rang.
"Yes?" she said, picking up even as she let her eyes skim over the screens. She found it, middle row on the left, before Lourvey finished telling her the names of the students involved.
"Is it any risk?" she asked.
"No." It was unusual to hear that degree of confidence in the technician's voice. "A knife wouldn't scratch the finish. Like, they jam it right into the joints, it still won't make a dent."
"Okay," Monica said, a smile curving across her lips. "Thanks."
The students on her screen were messing with Rebecca Everett's corpse, and Monica found that she didn't particularly care that they wouldn't be able to cause enough damage to the collars by hand to make them detonate, let alone somehow deactivate them. What had dropped into her lap was the perfect opportunity to make an impression.
Under normal circumstances, the collars of dead students didn't beep. They didn't seem to be active at all, in fact, unless someone were to cause enough damage to one to trip its very-much-still-operational security measures. All of that could be changed, however, with a few keystrokes. Monica's fingers flew across the keys of the netbook, typing. It was a typed interface, so that mistakes were nearly impossible. Anyone who might need to detonate a collar could type quickly and accurately enough that it wasn't notably different from point and click anyways. It took her under a second to set things in motion.
And just like that, the collar around the neck of Rebecca Everett's corpse began to beep rapidly. A few seconds later, as the would-be escapees scattered, it exploded. And that, by all rights, should have been the end of that. Monica flipped a switch, bringing the audio for the screen online, even as its image shifted, now showing the students outside, from a direct side angle. The cameras this time were a nice mix of the old, classic, large ones and newer button cameras, set to activate and transmit based on motion detectors or manual commands. Students in past years had shown a tendency to focus on what they could see, often attempting to stand in blind spots. The setup crew had made sure that most buildings had an appealing corner or two, seemingly outside the range of the most prominent cameras, where the view from the smaller lenses was especially good.
Monica's smile flagged for a second as she heard what the students were saying, but then it returned, broader than ever.
They were going to try again? She blew up the corpse as a warning, and so they were going to try again? So be it. That old definition of insanity, the one everyone credited to Einstein, ran through her head. And if they had no hope of making any headway, if they didn't even have the first clue what they were doing, if detonating the boy's collar wasn't strictly necessary, well, there was nobody who would tell Monica not to kill him, either. She had full discretion, and this would be another useful little lesson. Maybe after this, the survivors would play nice.
As they shouted and panicked and died, Monica took a drink of water. Killing someone hadn't felt like as big a deal as she'd expected. Maybe it was the distance involved. Whatever the case, she was glad to have given it a go when it wasn't crucial. If anyone else came closer, she now knew there would be no hesitation.
One of the great mysteries for the students of Survival of the Fittest, one of the most niggling little unanswered questions, unknown even to those students who had survived, who had come face to face with the terrorists and asked questions and spoken their minds, revolved around something seemingly minor:
Who the hell took the time to drag someone up a mountain? To pin some sad unconscious kid into a coffin in a haunted house? To strap not one but two children into rollercoaster cars, each on a separate hump?
Who was the asshole who stuffed Bill Ritch in a box?
Shamino Warhen was that asshole. It was part of his job. He always strove to keep humor and business separate, but every so often the two became inextricably linked, and it was then that he relished his work the most. He'd provided some of Victor Danya's better material, and while Tracen wasn't half bad, Greynolds had asked that Shamino give the boy a little crash course.
He'd already, very politely, pointed out that it was absolutely unheard of to name people involved with a kill who didn't pull the trigger. It had taken years for Victor to settle on that, but they'd decided that it was far and away the best choice, because it allowed for a little subterfuge, a little trickery.
But now Tracen knew, and it wouldn't happen again, and he'd agreed to let Shamino start the announcements off tomorrow, and the tech crew had been very accommodating of his little request, so everything would be a bucket of fun indeed. Tracen would write most of the material, but Shamino was pretty sure he'd get to steal the show.
"Good morning, kids," a voice boomed out. It was not Danya's voice, but that of a different man, smooth and calm and just a touch apologetic. "My name's James. I'm the collar guy, and, well, I'm sorry to say, after two promising days, nobody actually managed a kill yesterday. You know what that means."
At that, every student's collar emitted a single beep.
For two seconds after that, silence reigned. Tracen took a sip of his coffee. Shamino scratched his neck. Then he leaned forward again.
"Just kidding. Keep up the good work. Here's Danya with our main attraction."
"Thank you, James," the more familiar voice began. "While we're talking about everyone exploding, though, I have a little misconception to point out. Now, I told you all that any day without kills would end in every collar being blown. Far be it from me to discourage you from advancing our little game, but, to clarify, that's a day from one announcement to the next, not twenty-four hours on the dot between actual kills. I figured that'd be pretty self-evident, since it'd be stupid to blow you all up at noon because all the previous day's action went down in the morning and nobody quite managed to get in gear right after the announcement but, eh, I guess logical thinking isn't all of your strong suits.
"But, kids, I want you to know this: When I play, I play fair. The rules are what they are, and as long as you don't try to cheat, you have as good a chance as anyone else of seeing home again. Better, if you play your cards right. And that's the only way you ever will make it back.
"Now then, who died?"
Tracen held up a finger, and a technician muted the broadcast as he cleared his throat and took another drink.
"Brandon Baxter got himself into a tight spot in a danger zone. We were going to blow him up, but he beat us to the punch, setting off a pocketful of grenades. That's some real courtesy for you.
"Yasmin Carrol wasn't quite so clean about it. She managed to hang herself in the school building. I hope this doesn't become too much of a trend. Remember, even if it seems hopeless, you always stand a chance. I wouldn't have put money on some of our last winners.
"A short time later, Maximilian Sawyer struck, and in the space of a few minutes snatched away the title of top killer. He drowned Amy Bachelor in the hotel's swimming pool, then shot down Ilya Volkov and Lydia Robbins when they came to investigate and try to disarm him.
"In another failed attempt at vengeance, Nina Clarke fell prey to Madeline Wilcox. You'd think she'd have known better than to threaten the girl who stole her gun, but, like I said earlier, logic comes more easily to some than others.
"Continuing the trend of collar stupidity, Clayton Leven wandered into a danger zone, and Tessa Blackridge tried to file her collar loose. You can add those to the list of ways to not make it back home.
"Joachim Lovelace surprised Adonis Alba, shooting him with his spring-loaded knife in the middle of their fight. That wasn't very sporting, Mr. Lovelace. Were you afraid you might not win fair and square?
"Mallory McCormick was gunned down in her own pillow fort, victim of Hansel Williams once again. Continuing the shooting trend, Yuan Stephanie Chan took out Brian Zhdanovich, and Makatala So'oialo bagged herself two points in the form of Carlon Wheeler and Alex Ripley.
"Finally, Natali Greer passed away in her sleep, after banging her head and not taking the time to look after it. Take care, kids. It's not just each other you have to watch out for. Nearly a third of our deaths today were from a stupidity epidemic.
"With that out of the way, today's danger zones are the Homestead again, the Nuclear Living Site, the Shipping Yard, the Northern Town, and the Southern Town. Our grand prize winner today was too close to call. With the office staff split, we've decided that Joachim Lovelace, Maximilian Sawyer, and Rosemary Michaels should all head into the southern part of town, to the overpass. We've dropped off two polish sausages and a pint of Neapolitan ice cream apiece, but only one weapon. We'll leave it to you three to figure that one out.
"I'll see the rest of you tomorrow."
The Fourth AnnouncementEdit
For most of the Arthro Taskforce, there was nothing less exciting than a bad view from the cameras. For Monica, quite the opposite was true. It was the bad views that meant trouble was brewing, that represented the greatest potential for something to go disastrously wrong.
Bad views had wrecked the last two iterations of Survival of the Fittest. In Version Three, the loss of overall coverage hadn't been treated nearly as seriously as it required. It had taken days for anyone to become suspicious of the mass of supposed deaths in the same location. The collars had been fundamentally flawed, and so a new designer had been brought in. In Version Four, things had run more smoothly on the whole, excepting the outside influence. However, once again, a student snatching a few moments of time behind a hastily constructed barricade had been enough to see a collar knocked out of commission.
The view now was better than it could have been. There were a few areas around the island that were particularly tough to monitor, but the best cameras were located in places with good angles on them. Zoom technology had advanced a lot in the past few years, and night vision was an acceptable, if flawed, option. They could, at the very least, roughly approximate positions and postures. A combination of multiple flawed technologies could create an adequate composite.
Monica had spent a lot of time reviewing how previous groups had communicated secretly. In V4, writing had been key, and so she had taken a lot of interest when all the surviving students to have encountered Karen Idel's supposed note to her parents just so happened to meet up again. In V4, the island's location had been snuck out through a game of mimicry, and so, when the group began passing a drawing in a circle, Monica had raised her eyebrow. When they had split once again, she had felt it quite likely something was about to go down.
On the laptop were two separate windows, each with a command prompt flashing.
COLLAR(S): B051, B072, G014, G053
COLLAR(S): B037, B039, B045, G060
She was hoping not to have to confirm. She'd come to view the kids in these groups as just a little more than numbers. It wasn't that she particularly cared about them as people, but they were her opposition at the moment. The bulk of the kids in the game were dull as hell, running and screaming and killing and dying and not even bothering to think things through with any real degree of logic.
But now, she had a really strong hunch they were at their own Endgame, one wholly different from the five or six pathetic stragglers that would be herded together in a week or whatever.
At least she'd gotten some sleep again today.
The speakers were pouring the vocals from the microphones in the collars, but she was only paying half attention. They sounded genuinely panicked, and maybe they were. Maybe they really were dying of whatever it was, but she didn't think that things were quite that simple.
The words on the screen flashed as she picked up the phone and punched a call.
It's funny what a loss of an internet connection does to the creative mind.
In what the lead technician for the Arthro Taksforce called the "off season" between now and the last time he had to perform his job, he had a surprising amount of prep work to perform. More collar fail-safe testing, particularly on those pesky heat sensors that apparently were bunk last time, new hires, team management, team-building exercises... in a sense, it was like having his dream tech job if you ignored the whole "murdering children" thing. It's a thing Lourvey thanked his position in the rear ranks of the organization for; since he didn't have to go out on the island himself, to be truly visceral with the experience, it was easier to detach himself, to decathect himself from everything.
The effort was made easier given that in spite of the surprising amount of work he had to do over the last few years, he also had a surprising amount of free time to kill. A lot of this time was spent playing computer games and generally going on his merry way as if he were still in college. Sure, it was tough to play League of Legends when you had to bounce yourself off a couple proxies in order to hide your IP, but it was still playing the game and that was something. Who cares if you're limited to only playing Master Yi?
Well, now, Lourvey wasn't even afforded that luxury. Because they were now on the job itself, everything was to be treated with the utmost care and sensitivity. Greynolds didn't want any chances taken or any risks afforded. For that, any and all of the Online Adventures of Dennis Lourvey were ended. To combat the wear and tear that the job could take on the mind and body, Lourvey had been forced to come up with a different game all his own. So, some few nervous talks to Greynolds and a few cans of courage later, he had managed to convince his boss to allow him to set up a couple of computers in a two-system network. Lourvey was a hardware engineer but he fancied knowing his way around a network as well, and from what he had been told shortly after joining the force, Greynolds was apparently a hacker too. So, the rules of the game were simple: hack into your opponent's computer to access dummy files, all while setting up walls of your own. The game also had a purpose, allowing Lourvey to keep certain skills sharp that he didn't necessarily use when staring at monitors all day and making sure all the blinky lights on a ring of metal were going "bleep".
It was during one of these moments, with the frazzled technician trying to find peace of mind in a computer screen, that the phone rang. It made him jump, and not without reason; Lourvey hadn't slept properly in a few days, worried about that damned group that threatened his job security. With a job like this one, job security was closely tied to life security. If he nodded off and stopped paying attention at a critical time, they might have another escape incident on his hands and he might be another Achlys.
God knows he still had nightmares about that.
Fishing for the phone through a mesa of red bull and mountain dew, Lourvey picked up the receiver and looked at the small screen. Then, he turned the device on and held it to his head.
"Yeah, Monica? What's up?"
"I think we may have a problem." She kept her voice calm, flat. Her fingers hovered over the keyboard. She glanced at the monitor showing the secondary group, but nothing seemed to be amiss there, at least so far. There was no indication of either group synchronizing in any way. She was glad they'd taken watches this game.
"Wha..." Lourvey began. She could hear the exact moment her words sank in. "Oh, wait, what? Problem? Like, a real one? Throw it at me."
"Group A, on the beach. Bad lighting, sounds like one's sick. Could be fake."
Was it fake? She bit her lip.
"That's... the one with, uh... Hunter, right?" In the background , she could hear rummaging, the clinking of some metal. Lourvey was probably digging through the mound of Red Bull cans she'd seen on his desk the last time she passed by his office.
"Yeah," she said. "Idel's hacking up a lung. He says—hang on a sec. He's getting really close. Can't see what's going on."
She squinted at the monitor. Lourvey started to say something, but she cut him off before the first syllable fully passed his lips. "Gun's near her head."
"Okay, slow down," Lourvey said. "Near the head... Group A... ... Ha. Hey, what caliber gun is he using?"
He paused for just a moment, cutting back in before Monica could reply. "Actually, it doesn't matter. If Mr. Hunter... If he shoots the collar, he's going to put Idel away for us. If that happens, I got something for you to do. Ready for this?"
"I a—" Monica began, but she was cut off by a loud beeping from the laptop. It was the noise that signaled a collar detonation, one not prompted by her orders.
Lourvey spoke more quickly now.
"Press the buttons for B72 and G14."
Monica pulled up her prompt, deleted the two extraneous numbers, changed the setting from instant detonation to a fast countdown, confirmed. Somewhere, two collars started to beep.
"Already queued," she said. "What about—"
She didn't usually challenge Lourvey when he wanted something. He was, after all, not the bravest sort, which meant he tended to avoid unnecessary risks. In this instance, though, she couldn't let it go without comment.
"Wait a sec. Wait just..."
On the screen, Hunter raised his gun towards his own neck.
"Now," Lourvey said. "Press it."
"Yeah, a second after theirs start to go. Now."
She slapped the enter key before the boy on the screen could pull the trigger. A split second later, the other two collars finished their countdown and also detonated.
The only sound now coming from the monitors was that of waves breaking against the shore. After a few moments, Lourvey spoke once more.
"So!" he said. "Trust that went smoothly?"
"Done," Monica replied. Her hands were starting to shake, just a little. "Yes. Shit. I'll tell Greynolds. You should wake up anyone who's asleep and make sure everyone else on the list is accounted for. Everyone."
"Yeah, yeah, I'll go and do that," Lourvey said. "Heh... I have to admit, I almost feel a little bad, but... I figured their complex plan involved a bit more than just shooting the damn things, you know?"
"I'll believe that in a week or two," Monica said. "Until then, could be a phase two. Kent pulled something similar, so..."
She trailed off, then just hung up on him. She had a lot to check out, to make sure of. A lot to suggest, too. The whole situation made her very uneasy. Was it a step towards something bigger? Had it just gone wrong? No way to say.
She was going to suggest they hold the announcement of these deaths for a day, though, if at all possible. See what else shook loose, what the kids in Group B said. That would tell them just what they were dealing with.
"Good morning, kids," Tracen said. His coffee mug sat in front of him, but unlike the past few times in the seat, he was already three cups down. He didn't want to be here right now. There were things that felt more important, but that was an illusion. Any hint that anything was out of the ordinary would be damaging, in some form or another.
Greynolds had just given him an ironic little nod when they'd talked. This, Tracen suspected, was what V4 had been like all the way through. It gave him more perspective, but, he found, in this case he would have preferred to remain ignorant.
"It was another decent day from you," he continued, "but you're not breaking any records. James isn't particularly impressed.
"But, as always, here's the roll call. First off, Natalia Kowalski got herself caught in a box when the Shipping Yard became a Danger Zone. Bear that in mind in a few minutes, because a lot of you are going to want to get moving when I'm done talking.
"Jaquilyn Locke filleted Grace Faraday, before having her little breakdown. Travis Webster also joined the stabbing club, tearing Matt Masters a new windpipe. Rose Matheson also got the point of the game, or rather, of a knife wielded by Michael Eastmund. Eastmund himself succumbed to a blow to the head he took from Cody Patton shortly thereafter.
"Alex King thought she was being particularly smart in her attempt to outwit us. She wasn't. You mess around and try to break the system, you lose your head. No exceptions.
"Last, we had quite the chain of events. Max Sawyer was on his way to take a shot at claiming yesterday's prize, when he was ambushed. He managed to take out Emily Rose, but was shot and killed by Harry Hanley, though he fatally wounded him in the process. Gabriel Lee and Arthur Wells then wandered in. Lee shot Wells, but Hanley got off one more shot, killing Lee in the process.
"Don't think you can just walk towards the town and pick up those guns, though. Enter The Woodlands, Lighthouse Point, The Golf Course, The Shopping Center, or The Nuclear Power Plant and you'll be following Kowalski in a quick exit from the game.
"That is, except for Ms. Amaranta Montalvo, who can pick up her weapon, as well as a supreme pizza and a bottle of Fanta, in front of The Shopping Center.
"Do your best, kids. I'll talk to some of you again tomorrow."
Weather: The weather is a little better than yesterday, with the sun peeking through at various points, but towards evening darker clouds can be seen building on the horizon. The wind on the island itself has largely died down, though. It is notanly warmer than yesterday, with highs around around 68F, 20C at 4pm. Tonight is the new moon. The fifth announcement will come at 9 AM on June 19.
The Fifth AnnouncementEdit
Island duty was, as far as Gordon Gladney was concerned, the best gig in the game. It was calm. Didn't involve a lot of heavy lifting. Didn't involve much getting shot at, by and large. Him and his boys, they were the weirdos of SOTF, the adventurers and campers and woodsmen, in a group dominated by fighters and geeks.
Gordon had been an urban explorer way back in the 1990s, one of the earlier ones to establish an internet foothold. He'd had all sorts of pictures of Battleship Island, and one day a man had called him, said he might have a job for someone like Gordon. Since then, he'd been one of the main people in charge of finding the locations for each game, picking places that had a good mix of structures and that weren't known enough to be immediately recognized. Everything else—the combat training, the friendships with his crew, the modus operandi of their little branch of the organization—had come later.
He was head of one of two island teams, each one consisting of three men hauling around bags full of weapons and equipment. He'd been working with Spence and Adrian since before there'd been an island team, and they worked together well. Their job was to form an immediate line of defense against any problem that might present itself during the game, and, in the event that nothing went terribly wrong, to deliver the Best Kill Award to its appropriate location at the start of every day. For V5, that meant they had to first make a trip to the most isolated part of the coast in the middle of the night, to pick up whatever food was going with the weapons. Spence had said they were the most over-payed pizza deliverymen ever to get stiffed on a tip.
The island team had come about during V3, after Sonya raised hell about the upper echelon being sent to ferry weapons to the kids. It had been a good thing, too, since during the blackout Gordon's team had to find Rizzolo to even tell him he'd won his prize. After the debacle that cost them so many men, including the other team at the time, their V4 instructions had been different: deliver weapons and intervene as a last resort only, if action absolutely must occur right away. They'd been kept off the Polanski thing because of the required repairs; Danya had figured it best to kill two birds with one stone, and Gordon had been thrilled to, once again, sit out the real action, no matter how much Spence and Adrian had groused about it. They were both slightly more soldier than he, both had a little of that battle lust left in them, or at least the capacity to get bored after two weeks bumming around an island. Gordon just wanted to enjoy the scenery.
V5 was same old. They all had tracking devices to make sure they were never near any of the kids. They wore camouflage to keep from being spotted from a distance if they screwed up their lines of sight. They kept to the Danger Zones most of the time. Avoiding detection was only even a mild challenge on the first day, when there were no places guaranteed to stay free of kids, and they had to really plan their exit strategies. Now, it was a lot of sitting back and relaxing.
Today would be especially good. The guy on the boat had brought lasagna for the Best Kill kid, and also for Gordon's crew. He'd also promised to make sure that there would be a dry place Danger Zoned, which was important because Gordon was almost positive it was going to rain. So now, they were just making their way towards town, ready for another day in paradise.
"Good morning, kids."
Tracen's voice was the same as ever but today he actually felt that calm he projected. Whatever he'd been afraid of, whatever impending disaster had seemed to be looming, it hadn't come to pass. Things had quieted down. There had been a few rough spots, according to security, but none of them were connected. He tried to keep himself on edge, to keep from becoming complacent, but it was difficult, and in this moment, he gave up the struggle, just until the announcements were done.
He took a sip of his coffee and continued.
"You've had another decent day, though a good number of those responsible for that aren't around anymore to reap the rewards. It's what happens as the game goes on. Let their errors be a lesson to the rest of you trying to make it home.
"And, speaking of errors attempting to get home, let's start with a doozy. A short while before our last announcement, Karen Idel, Gavin Hunter, Cyrus White, and Megan Emerson tried to get their collars off. I'll spare you the details and just say it was a partial success, in that they no longer have collars. Unfortunately for them, they also lost their necks.
"Bianca Howard fell victim to Theodore Fletcher, in one final hurrah. He then ran off and got himself killed in a showdown with Hansel Williams, our favorite cowboy. Happy Trails, Mr. Fletcher; maybe if you'd tried some tactics you could've walked away from this.
"Another who went out with a wimper was Brianna Battaglia, who took too many pills and went to sleep. That's called natural selection, folks.
"Michelle Wexler spent a long time trying to get people to lay down and die with her. In the end, though, Eliza Patton decided that wasn't for her, and and sent Wexler into the great beyond by herself.
"Travis Webster chopped up Edgar Tolstoff, threatening to kill his sister the whole time. Well, I'm sorry to tell you, Mr. Webster, that Stacy Ramsey beat you to the punch, gunning down Katarin Tolstoff and Miranda Millers while they were sitting around having a chat.
"Finally, in between Mr. Webster's horror film and Ms. Ramsey's rampage, Jesse Jennings got his hands on a loose collar. It didn't turn out so well for him, though. Bombs are dangerous, kids. Don't play with them. They're liable to go off in your hands.
"It's pretty grey out there, so you'll all want to hustle for shelter. Just don't try to find it in the School Buildings, the Aviary, the Homestead, the Southern Town, Central Park, the Northern Coast, or the Woodlands, still off limits from yesterday.
"There's a slight exception for Hansel Williams, who can make his way to the School Grounds for a heaping tray of lasagna and a gun. They're in one of the buses.
"Everyone else, keep up the good work, and try to stay dry. I'll talk to some of you tomorrow."
The Sixth AnnouncementEdit
"Excuse me." Christina Stockton stood in the mess hall, watching the dozen or so members of the AT currently eating there. With the way the game worked, they were all on different schedules, some of the men and women in front of her grabbing a quick dinner, others their breakfast. The cooks kept a rotation of high energy foods going, with options suitable to any time of day. She was pretty sure every time she'd seen Shamino in the room, he'd had waffles on his plate.
"Excuse me," she said again, louder this time. She was standing roughly in the front of the room, holding a clean metal pot and a ladle, borrowed from the kitchen specifically for this purpose. A clipboard was tucked under her arm. She banged the ladle against the pot, the clanging echoing through the chamber, cutting through conversations and rousing the half-conscious from their stupors.
"Excuse me, everyone. I have an important announcement to make."
All eyes turned to her, and she felt a little flutter of excitement. She was the one to break the news. After a long week, this was exactly what they needed to get morale up, get everyone back on track. And, besides, this year she was going to win.
"We just hit the halfway point," she said. She waited a few seconds, for the cheers to subside. Now she had their attention. The veterans, in particular, were excited. "You know what that means."
Christina set down the pot and ladle on the table closest the front of the room, then laid the clipboard next to them.
"Ladies and gentlemen," she said, "bets are open. You know the drill: twenty bucks in the pot, predict the winner, whoever's pick takes it home or gets the closest takes the pot. No duplicate picks. So grab 'em early."
And, right at the top of the sheet, in the very first slot, was written: Domino — Iselle Ovalle-Vandermeer
Once again, Tracen Danya sat in the chair behind the microphone, coffee in hand. It was strange, how what had felt so alien less than a week ago now felt almost routine. The goings-on on the island had similarly lost some of their interest, falling even further into routine than he'd always viewed them. The only thing of note was the degree to which the deaths had tapered off a little bit after the high of the past three days—the result, most likely, of the size of the island compared to the dwindling size of the Aurora High graduating class, and of the loss of some of the game's notable motivators.
They'd come up with a good way to deal with that, though.
"Good morning, kids," he began. "I'm sorry to say that, after a very promising start, you've begun to slow down again. This is especially true given how many of you bumbled your way into stupid ends over the past few days. Surely you want to survive, don't you? Ah, but first let me tell you who won't be joining you in that struggle.
"Gwen O'Connor and Casey Malkovich made undignified exits without the aide of their fellow classmates, though a swan dive off the cliffs and getting stuck in a danger zone, respectively. I'd ask anyone else intent on killing themselves to just get it over with, if you don't mind. It saves us some manpower, and it makes it easier on your friends to not have to hear about someone new giving up every single day.
"Cassidy Kant didn't give up, even in the face of her tragic loss a few days ago. It didn't help her too much, though, when she ended up soaking up Tyler Lucas' bullets. Just goes to show, you should be careful who you ally with. They might have enemies of their own.
"Speaking of messes, Oscar Trig made quite the pool on the floor of the mall after he was stabbed by Benjamin Ward. It's another lesson in the dangers of alliances. You never know when you'll find yourself expendable, and not everyone's willing to let you resign with grace.
"And that's not the only lack of manners we saw. Garrett Wilde was right in the middle of a fight when he was stabbed in the back by Andi Victorino. He didn't make it. Probably for the best; three's a crowd.
"Kids, have you ever wondered why we're called Survival of the Fittest? Well, some just aren't fit to survive. Such was the case with Joseph Chaplin, who managed to run into a bar sticking out of his own impromptu barricade, impaling himself.
"You may notice that there's just too much space for all of you to run around in. We've noticed that, too. As such, for the remainder of the game, you're all to stick to the north-western, built up section of the island. That means that the Woodlands, the Nuclear Plant, the Nuclear Living Site, the Airstrip, the Golf Course, the Amusement Park, the Homestead, the Northern Coast, and Lighthouse Point are all off limits for the remainder of the game. Additionally, Central Park is restricted only for tomorrow, unless you're Andi Victorino. You impressed us, Ms. Victorino. Head to the park, and you'll get a new weapon, a big basket of fish and chips, and a smoothie.
"I'll check in with everyone left standing tomorrow. Pick up the pace, or we'll have to push you a little closer in.
"Goodbye for now."
The Seventh AnnouncementEdit
Perfect crispy fried chicken!
380 reviews have given this a total of 4.75 stars.
"Recipe by Elaine O
"I experimented for many years before developing this recipe. It's bits and pieces of hints I had heard over the years. I have had many compliments on this chicken. Most of this recipe is dependant on your own taste. It's more a matter of preparation and cooking method!"
Original recipe makes 8 servings
1 (4 pound) chicken, cut into pieces
1 cup buttermilk
2 cups all-purpose flour for coating
1 teaspoon paprika
salt and pepper to taste
2 quarts vegetable oil for frying
"You know we've got someone who normally does this."
"I know. I want to do it."
Abby blew a strand of hair away from her face, but it didn't budge. She swept it away and a line of white flour streaked her black hair.
"Aren't you gonna bet on anyone? Tina's collecting for the pot," Lourvey asked, leaning against the counter.
Abby put a few shakes of garlic powder into the flour bag. It wasn't on the recipe list, it was something a little extra she liked to add.
"No. I don't learn their names. I would not know who to vote for. I make sure nothing is broken. The rest of it is not my concern."
He shrugged and wandered off with a short wave. "Suit yourself."
It was true, they had a cafeteria cook. Many of the other people in the office chose to utilize the cafeteria infrequently, preferring instead to fill up their desks and mini fridges full of high sodium chips, candy and energy drinks, only occasionally coming down to eat real food. The cook had made the majority of the best kill meal prizes, but Abby requested to make the lasagna and now the fried chicken. The request was not met with much resistance from the cook, who was more than happy not to have to wake up early to prepare the food for the island drop.
Some people had asked her why she wanted to do it. Her response was that she liked cooking. It was true, it was one of the things back home that she'd been good at and she liked to do. With her parents working she often ended up making dinner for her brother and sister. The truth of it was that it wasn't just cooking that she liked. What she liked more than anything was to make food and have other people enjoy it.
Abby had sold her soul to save the people she loved. She accepted that it was her lot in life to use her skills to damn others. As long as she knew her siblings were happy, it was something she was comfortable doing. She was fine with being selfish.
This act of making food for the kids might have been viewed by an outside perspective as an unselfish act, but that would not have been accurate. Making a fried chicken dinner in the kitchen, she could pretend for a little while that she was back at home, making it for her family. When she saw the kids eat it via the cameras on the island she still got that little rush of happiness that she used to, seeing someone enjoy the food she made for them.
THURSDAY, JUNE 21, 2012: UNDISCLOSED LOCATION, 9AM
"Good morning, kids." Tracen Danya's voice, as usual, echoed throughout the island, from speakers hidden throughout buildings and in nooks and crannies in the less developed areas. "After yesterday's showing, you picked up the pace a bit. Just over fifty of you remain. To those who do, congratulations. You've outlasted roughly two thirds of your peers. The end is in sight.
"But let's not get ahead of ourselves. There's still work to be done, and all but one of you will go the same way as yesterday's unfortunates.
"First among them was Jack McDonald, strangled by his Jenna Rhodes, his erstwhile companion. Of course, since he looked about ready to do unto her first, it probably wasn't a friendship built to last.
"Zoe Leverett honored our request and removed herself from the competition, going for one last swim off the coast. Jessica Sanders slept too long and managed the same, getting herself caught in a danger zone. Get your pencils ready and your bags packed, because we'll be having more of those today, too.
"Maynard Hurst flipped his lid and stabbed Adam Morgan, putting an end to one of the longer-running remaining alliances. Good on him; I was starting to get worried he'd spend his whole time hiding behind whoever he could.
"And hiding doesn't work too well. Just ask Alice Gilman, who went skulking around and surprised Cody Patton. It's up in the air who got the bigger shock; Patton's bullets certainly made the bigger impression.
"This next one is a doozy. Rutherford Roger Junior was beaten to death by Veronica McDonald, but his body wasn't cold before he was avenged by Madeline Wilcox. The whole thing was very tragic—you kind of had to be there, though.
"After that, we saw a dust-up between two of our smaller-scale motivators. Benjamin Ward found himself having a harder time with someone who actually fought back, and lost his life to Joe Carrasco.
"With that out of the way, the promised places to avoid: for the rest of your time here, stay out of the Hotel, the Hospital, the Shipping Yard, the Eastern Inlet, and the Aviary. The one exception is Mr. Hurst, who's won our little pool of the day. He can make his way, briefly, back to the hotel to pick up a weapon, a nice basket of fried chicken, and a pitcher of iced tea.
"Stay safe. I'll be in touch again tomorrow."
The Eighth AnnouncementEdit
They came well after dark, so the kids wouldn't see.
They came in boats, from the south side of the island, where they were furthest from sight, and they came with their lights out. They met Gordon Gladney and passed along the day's food and weaponry, though they were not the usual couriers of these things. When that was taken care of, they did not leave.
Instead, they got to work.
They wore dark clothes and carried a variety of equipment. Though there were only about a dozen of them at the moment, they set to work covering as much ground as possible, sweeping through the woodlands and the amusement park first, collecting everything that wasn't here months ago when the AT set up shop. They started simply, removing weapons and bags and marking the locations of bodies for later.
The cameras were left for last, of course. After the last two versions, trust was at a premium. The men and women on the cleanup crew were not the best and brightest the AT had to offer. They were the people expendable enough to be left on the ground at the end but reliable enough to handle a simple job without too much hand-holding. Nevertheless, as a precaution, they were observed by those in charge.
Cleanup usually took a few days, with a much larger crew—and that part would come—but now, even with the broadcast delayed, it was vital to get the first parts done as quickly as possible. So, while the remaining few dozen kids fought and died and hid and slept, the Athro Taskforce was packing up shop.
"Good morning, kids." Tracen Danya's voice was slightly subdued at first today, and a crackle of static cut through his greeting. There was a pause for a moment, the sound of a throat clearing, and then all hints of hesitation were gone. "Another fine day's work from you all, if a bit lacking compared to the past. We're getting down to the wire now. I want each one of you who's left to take a moment. Think of your bedroom. Think of the street you grew up on. Think of your family.
"You're close to having that all back. Just don't make the same mistakes these people did.
"Darren Fox jumped off a shipping container and landed hard. A few days late to opt out, but better now than tomorrow, I suppose.
"Shortly after that, we had a twofer out at the docks. Ian Valmont bludgeoned Yuan Stephanie Chan to death, but got himself shot in the leg in the process. Since he was hanging out in a danger zone at the time, that didn't end well for him.
"Of course, he wasn't the only one to score a Pyrrhic victory. Following in the esteemed footsteps of the Kronwall brothers, Cody Patton and Eliza Patton removed each other from contention. Sibling bonds only count for so much in the end.
"Next off, we had a string of people who decided the best way to handle things was up close and personal after a little deception. Leona Van Kamp rejected Jenna Rhodes' proposed plan of escape, and provided a counteroffer in the form of a shard of glass. Katarina Konipaski, meanwhile, got the drop on a sleeping Rosemary Michaels and strangled her to death. Marcus Leung, for his part, offered to help Rachael Langdon, then stabbed her the moment she dropped her guard.
"So now that that's done with, just a few little matters left. I want you all to stay out of the Western Beach from now on, except for Ms. Konipaski, who has once more won our little vote here at HQ with her tactics. Keep up the good work, and head to Shelson's Beach for a weapon, grilled salmon and baked potatoes, a pitcher of apple juice, and a banana split.
"I'll talk to everyone left tomorrow. Good luck, and remember what—and who—you're fighting for."
The Ninth AnnouncementEdit
While the rest of the Arthro Taskforce was winding down its busiest stages of operation, focusing on cleaning up the island and erasing all trace of their presence from the vicinity, the real work of the version was still in its earlier stages for the broadcast crew.
Things had changed. Once upon a time, SOTF had gone out close to live; there had been some delay, of course, to prevent anyone from simply reverse-engineering the approximate location of the islands based on time of day and position of sun, but it had been minimal. The kids' deaths had shown on roughly the day they occurred. More than that, it had shown on television. At first, it had been a matter of bribes and coercion and the government's fumbled attempt at a cover-up. When that house of cards finally crumbled—far later than it should have, it was almost universally agreed—the news had become an unwitting ally, showing clips that provided just enough of a tantalizing glimpse to lure the curious to those foreign channels still willing to broadcast or the websites running archives and streams.
Now that so many people went straight to their computers as a first stop when seeking entertainment, now that there was such a wide and anonymous audience for footage of atrocities, distribution wasn't such a big deal. Now that the crew had three weeks of preparation time, they didn't have to focus solely on scrubbing identifying details. The island would be found, probably within an hour of the streams going live. What the broadcasting team could devote time to now, for the first time ever, was trying to make the footage look good.
The bulk of them were not on-site; that was left to the more security-oriented members of the organization. The broadcast crew was sequestered far from the action, all the better to view it as work and not anything particularly real or personal. They were a mix of people from all walks of life: film students with slightly too keen a taste for realism, Hollywood never-wases trying to scrape together some meaningful work, radicals with surprising understanding of staging and propaganda. The only thing that unified them, aside from their shared task, was their willingness to sign up for a job that might well last them the rest of their lives.
So they created. They stitched together website designs allowing users to follow specific students with ease. They cherry-picked the best angles on scenes captured by multiple cameras. They figured out just how much to let leak at any given time.
And they waited for the world to see their work.
"Good morning, kids." Tracen's voice today was back to normal, firm and collected with good enunciation. "You're getting closer to the end of our time together. I know I say this every day, but you're nearly in the final stretch. There are just over twenty of you left, putting you in approximately the top fifteen percent of your class. So close to graduating with honors.
"But of course, some fall along the way. Today's first unfortunate was Ian Williams, who trusted Mirabella Strong just a little too much and let her close enough to sink a blade into him. For those keeping score, that's a new killer minted.
"Iselle Ovalle-Vandermeer was shot by her teammate, Kathryn Nguyen, when she startled her during the night. Of course, given the way the two had been arguing, I remain skeptical as to just how much of an accident it really was.
"Shortly later, Phoebe Cho, after days of laying low and hiding from anyone who came near, finally cracked and took a stroll into a danger zone. I'm hoping she'll be the last, but past experience makes me somehow doubt we'll be so lucky.
"It was quite the surprise for Paris Ardennes when Joachim Lovelace turned on him and stabbed him. You never know what crazy ideas your companions will come up with if they get a few minutes to themselves. It didn't do too much good for him in the long run, though, because Ami Flynn happened to wander by and win one last game, sending a bullet through his head.
"After that, Hansel Williams scored two more notches for his belt, winning a gunfight against Virgil Jefferson-Davis and then pulling Christopher Harlin aside and putting on an impromptu one-man firing squad.
"Not so long after and not that far away, Katarina Konipaski used Claire Monaghan as a shield in a fight, and when that didn't kill her finished the job with a knife.
"Finally, Andi Victorino and Miles Strickland managed to finish each other off in a tussle. I know I'm always encouraging you to be proactive, but do make sure to have an exit plan. Otherwise, it might not mean anything in the end.
"With that taken care of, I'd like you all to avoid the School Buildings and the Shopping Center from now on. There's a slight exception to that for a pair of you, though; we couldn't decide between Hansel Williams and Ami Flynn, so we'll leave the two of you to work out your differences on the bottom floor of the Shopping Center, where a new gun, two meatball subs, two large glasses of peach iced tea, and two big slices of apple pie await. That's plenty of food to share, but we'll let you play rock paper scissors for the weapon.
"I'll talk to those remaining tomorrow. You're in the home stretch now. Good luck."
The Tenth AnnouncementEdit
"So," said Monica Brown, "you need to frisk whoever it is. Carefully. I don't care if someone cut off both their hands; you make sure they don't have anything on them that could give you a paper cut."
She stood in front of half a dozen men and women in the fatigues favored by the AT's more militant branches. Behind her, a video projection was frozen on an image of Bryan Calvert holding a knife to the throat of Victor Danya. Everyone in the room had seen this at some point or another in the run-up to Version Five, but Monica found that reminders rarely hurt. Half of the troops in this room had served under the elder Danya. While none of them had been part of the crews that let Dodd and Calvert sneak weaponry into headquarters, they weren't so different from the personnel back then. It was easy to get lax at the end. Easy to make mistakes.
That was why Steven Wilson had okayed this meeting. The scheduled escort was made up of some of the most attentive members of the AT. This whole thing was, if anything, redundant. And yet, somehow the same mistake had been made two years in a row, and the crew back then hadn't been amateurs.
"Excuse me," called a tall man with close-cropped brown hair, standing off to the side. "What do we do if we do find something?"
"You take it," Monica said. "If they cause problems, you use whatever force you need. We'd ideally like them alive. It would be preferable if they were also mobile, but that can slide in a pinch. But at the end of the day, each of you comes before whoever it is."
That was not true on an organizational level; the winner was much more important to the AT's ends than any single grunt. It was good for morale to pretend otherwise, however, especially when there were few fanatical enough to lay down their lives just to ensure one kid survived. It was one of the quandaries they faced—after spending so much time making sure nobody had a sudden attack of conscience or empathy, it could be a little difficult to make sure the more violent sorts would still treat the survivor, who actually mattered, appropriately.
But when a kid getting a little roughed up was the biggest concern they had left, it was all going fairly well. It felt almost miraculous. No further great security threats had been reported. There was one suicide with some camera damage, but Gladney's crew had verified it was on the level. For once, there were no traitors, no malfunctioning collars, no crew of heavily armed vigilantes breathing down their necks. No aftershocks from the earlier attempted trickery had manifested.
It was just ten kids off on an island, and the organization devoted to making sure only one left it alive.
"Anything else?" she asked. When there wasn't, she dismissed the crew. They were all off duty until the final survivor was determined, the better to be fresh and aware for their task.
"Good morning, kids."
In the AT's broadcasting room, Tracen Danya idly stirred the cup of coffee sitting on the desk. The papers in front of him told the tale of the game's progress: only ten students remained. It was amazing how time flowed during the game. It felt simultaneously quick and extremely slow; he could remember with crystal clarity how it had felt first speaking to the students less than two weeks ago, and yet by now it had become almost rote.
This was one of the last times he'd address the remnants of the Aurora senior class.
"I've harped on how few of you are left enough over the past few days. Let me be brief: ten of you remain. Yesterday saw everyone else eliminated.
"First to fall was a leftover from the prior cycle: Stacy Ramsey, shot down by Amaranta Montalvo, the conclusion to a little project she set for herself a few days ago. Was it what you hoped for, Ms. Montalvo?
"After that, we saw two deaths without killers. Travis Webster let himself go, and either passed out or fell asleep in the School Grounds. Whatever the cause, he didn't wake up for my last chat with you, and blew up as a result. Not long afterwards, Makatala So'oialo decided she'd had enough and shot herself. A real shame; they'd both proven capable of causing trouble.
"Mirabella Strong made short work of her two remaining friends, Takeshi Yoshikawa and Juhan Levandi, cutting them—and their reunion with her—short. It didn't do her much good, though, since Hansel Williams turned up and bagged himself another point for the day.
"In another reunion gone awry, Ami Flynn shot the first person she met on the island, killing Ruby Forrester. She then went and found another familiar face in Sean Mulcahy, but our favorite pirate got some good old revenge and shot Ms. Flynn for the death of one of his crew. It didn't save him from one final mutiny, however; Gray Emerson put a bullet in Captain Mulcahy's back as he tried to walk away.
"Breaking the streak of long-standing business getting resolved, Matt Vartoogian blew away Tyler Lucas from an upper-floor window. Of course, he lived to regret going down to check his kill too soon, but 'lived' is the operative word.
"Finally, luck ran out for our poor friend, Michael Mitchellson, when when he accidentally shot himself during a firefight. I have to say, I always expected him to walk into a danger zone. I'd congratulate him for the surprise, but even if he'd survived it, he wouldn't have been able to hear me.
"There's not much else to say, except that you should stay out of the Southern Town. Mr. Emerson, however, can pick up a gun, a chicken pot pie, and a mug of chocolate milk at the overpass.
"I'll talk to you tomorrow, or sooner if we get down to the final four. Good luck."
The Eleventh AnnouncementEdit
"You think they're gonna kill each other?"
The tech who asked the question was a fresh face, someone they'd brought on just prior to the version's start, and Christina Stockton could not remember his name. Once, that might have bothered her. Even a few days ago, it could have given her pause. Now, however, her entire concern was doing whatever she could to help the version wrap up. Since she wasn't one of the escort crew, she was pulling extra duty helping in the communications center.
She'd been lucky enough to be on call when Hansel Williams brought them down to the final four. Tracen Danya was even now preparing himself for the announcement, adjusting the chair, stirring the cup of coffee he'd poured out of what she assumed was tradition, the fact that it was the middle of the afternoon be damned. The only complication was that two of the remaining students—the two with kills to their names—were now in close proximity.
"I don't know," Christina said.
On some level, she understood the desire for neatness. It would feel wrong to have less than four students for the finals, but it would be equally awkward for the scattered two to arrive to a corpse they'd heard announced as alive.
"What should we do?" The tech was frowning at the screen. Christina looked at it. They weren't fighting yet. Their body language conveyed some wariness, but not immediately forthcoming violence.
She turned her gaze to Tracen, who was taking a sip of his coffee. He raised an eyebrow at them, mouthed something. She didn't catch what.
Christina paused for a second, then said, "I think we should roll.
"Back in V2, Johnson died between the announcement and the final arena. It happens sometimes. If it happens now, it's a shame. If one of them dies while he's talking, well, only one of them will be in any position to complain anyways."
The tech looked like he was considering protesting. He opened his mouth, looked at Christina, and she me his gaze flatly. He closed his mouth, nodded, signaled to some of the others.
Just like that, the preparations for the final announcement of Version Five of Survival of the Fittest were underway.
"Good afternoon, kids." Tracen Danya's voice was smooth, calm, reinvigorated. It piped from the speakers spread throughout the park and the town; the rest of the island remained quiet. The bulk of the equipment had been retrieved by now. There was no need for him to be heard anywhere without surviving students.
"As I promised, I'm here to give you the skinny. You know what that means. There are only four of you left, and it's time to whittle that down to one.
"But first, those who fell just short:
"That wasn't the end of it, however. Mr. Williams was fresh from another firefight, one which left Joe Carrasco critically wounded. He bled out a short time after Mr. Emerson's demise. I'm sure he'd have been proud to pull ninth place... if he'd been conscious.
"After that, Madeline Wilcox showed herself out. A pity—she seemed like a real contender at several points, but that last wound she sustained certainly wasn't looking good.
"Kathryn Nguyen fell prey to Matt Vartoogian, finding herself outgunned and outmaneuvered. That didn't do her killer very much good, though, since he immediately ended up on the wrong side of Katarina Konipaski.
"Ms. Konipaski made quite the name for herself throughout this competition, but all runs come to an end eventually, and her luck finally ran out in a rematch with Hansel Williams.
"So that leaves four of you. In the name of fairness—and because some of you have done quite well keeping yourselves out of the spotlight—I'll give you the rundown on the competition. Tradition dictates we do this in numerical order.
"Zubin Wadia, you've been trying to play it so smart, haven't you? You sure were full of ideas earlier, always busy with your notes. You're not so subtle as you think you are—if you'd ever had a chance of making trouble for us, you wouldn't be here now. The real question is, are you smart and dedicated enough to finally figure out the real way home?
"Joey Grey—who? I have to say, the degree to which you've managed to avoid everything going down is almost supernatural. You've seen death once or twice, but I don't think you've even been hurt by anyone but yourself in your time here. You're in the freshest shape, but can that matter if you don't have the stones to back it up? It's time to show your true colors. Nobody lives through this by mistake.
"Hansel Williams, as of Ms. Konipaski's demise, you have officially taken the record for single-version eliminations. You know what has to be done, you know how to do it, but has the road to this point taken too much out of you? All you have to do is hold it together for a little bit longer, and you'll be home free. Take a deep breath and taste it, and do your best not to choke. The others will be looking hard at you if they want to have a shot.
"Finally, no introduction is really needed for the singular Amaranta Montalvo, in no small part because she's the only one of you who's met all the others. Well, Mara, you've killed one of your best friends and gotten yourself pretty torn up on your way across the island. I can't say you always make the best choices—your little fireworks display wasn't a very efficient use of resources—but you invariably leave an impression. Can you manage one final show?
"We'll see which of you takes it home soon enough. This is my final goodbye to three of you. I want you all to make your ways to Central Park with all due haste. As soon as you're there, every other area will become a permanent danger zone. You should be in the park itself; don't get too close to the Duck Pond.
"Good luck. Oh, and remember: you need to score at least one kill if you don't want to star in the next act of our continuing drama. That means you, Grey and Wadia.
"I'll see one of you later. Do your best."