In June, 2008, the fourth version of Survival of the Fittest came to an end, though not in the way anyone had expected. Having suffered a grievous loss at the hands of a paramilitary group, culminating in the death of Victor Danya and the rescue of twenty-nine students from the game, it was all the terrorists—under the temporary leadership of Jim Greynolds—could do to hold things together long enough for a winner to be found. As soon as the game concluded, the terrorists scuttled whatever they could and vanished, going to ground.
For the next year, the world waited with baited breath, but no further news surfaced. When the summer of 2009 passed uneventfully, newly elected Democratic president Oscar Chase McAllister declared the menace past, announcing that those responsible for Survival of the Fittest had been crippled to such a degree that they no longer retained the capacity for acts of terrorism on such a broad scale. At first, this pronouncement was met with extreme skepticism, but the next year came and went without an abduction, and slowly but surely the world came to accept that the menace had truly ended.
A few people, including some of the survivors of Version Four, continued to make their presence known and refused to allow the attacks to be forgotten, but for many, it was an unpleasant reminder of bad times. Even many who had been directly affected by the game chose to distance themselves from the painful memories.
So it was that as the summer of 2012 approached, tension was not high. Some schools still increased security. In many parts of the country, particularly those affected directly by the attacks, schools trips still seemed inconceivable. Bayview Secondary School, on the other hand, made the news by holding a trip once more, feeling that now that all students enrolled at the time of the attacks had graduated, it was time to begin the process of healing and returning to normalcy, and noting rather pointedly that students had been abducted from their classrooms in the past, meaning the trip was no less safe than simply attending school. Teacher Kwong Lei, who had returned to active teaching duties in 2010, once again volunteered to chaperone the trip, which went off without notable incident.
Not all parts of the country were so lucky, however.
Wednesday, June 13, 2012: Seattle, Washington
For some time, the fate of the Aurora High school trip had been up in the air. The idea to charter a plane to take the graduating seniors to California's Disneyland had seemed almost fanciful. The expense was great, but the students and teachers had managed to solicit donations from local businesses and parents, and so it had actually come to pass. For the next three days, fun would be the biggest priority.
Now, the students were being herded onto a few buses for the drive to the airport, under the watchful eyes of several of the teachers. Coach Lomelli and Mr. Davidge stood off to one side, making sure nobody was goofing around too much, though most of their attention was actually focused on their discussion of the football team. A lot of the best players were graduating this year, and while that was a happy event, it also meant next year's kids had a lot of slack to pick up.
The students were buzzing with excitement. There were several buses. The front three were already full, and the last was getting there. Soon enough, it, too, had been crammed to capacity. Coach Lomelli waved goodbye to Principal Freeman and Howie, telling them to take good care of the school in absence of the seniors, to which the security guard simply shot him a grin and a statement that things would be easier than ever without them. Then, Lomelli and Davidge entered the bus, taking seats near the front.
The bus driver, a short man with a thick moustache and short black hair, looked to be in his early middle age. He wore a frown and ran through the safety precautions as quickly as he could, giving off a clear air of indifference. Perhaps he figured that the students all knew the routine by now, after countless field trips over the years. Maybe he simply hated his job.
Whatever the case, before long the convoy of buses was snaking through Seattle, heading towards the airport. It was slow going, more like rush hour than early afternoon. The atmosphere inside the bus was rather unpleasant. It was a warm day, but also overcast, and the humidity was high.
"Can we open the windows?" Coach Lomelli asked, leaning forward from his seat at the front of the bus.
"Sorry," the driver said. "Don't like opening the windows with kids in the bus. They throw stuff out sometimes."
Lomelli gave the man a stern look. The bus driver shifted uncomfortably for a few moments, then said, "Okay, I'll turn up the AC."
The fans began to whir, and the bus cooled down, if only a little. Some of the students managed to maintain a decent level of activity and enthusiasm, chatting or giggling or playing with phones and ipods. Others, especially those not seated near their friends, slowly drifted off. Coach Lomelli felt his own eyes getting somewhat heavy, and pinched himself to stay awake. He was one of the trip's chaperones, after all. It wouldn't do for him to take a nap and allow the kids to do something problematic.
"We're here." The bus driver sounded just as bored and impatient as ever as the bus pulled up outside the airport. Coach Lomelli shook himself from his half-doze and stood up, stretching to work out the slight stiffness in his back. The worst part of school buses was the seats, even the front row, which had a bit more room. Of course, the plane ride was sure to make this seem like an easy ride by comparison.
The airport, fortunately, had advance warning of the Aurora group. This made getting everyone through security a slightly quicker proposition, though a few kids still had to give up pocket knives and the like. Half an hour later, however, everyone was on the plane. The flight to California was not a long one. They would all be arriving at the hotel in the early evening, with just enough time to get settled in the rooms.
Fortunately, they'd even managed to get the boys and girls housed on different floors. Lomelli remembered his own graduation, remembered the messes some of his friends had gotten into then. He tried not to shudder as he thought of the Aurora kids getting into similar trouble. Life had been simpler years ago, or maybe he was just too far from that age to really connect to how life had been back then.
The trip through the airport went relatively smoothly. A few kids disappeared into the bathroom, causing a brief panic until they were located, but after that everyone stayed together. With nearly a dozen school chaperones, it wasn't too hard to keep everybody under control. The boarding was quick and easy. The students found their seats and settled in. Lomelli did the same.
The captain rattled off the pre-flight checklist, instructing all students to turn off any portable electronics they might have for the duration of the flight. Lomelli smiled. He knew that particular rule was largely superstition and courtesy. Many airlines even allowed the use of electronics once the flight was in progress. He wasn't about to complain, though. He liked the students, but he had no interest in hearing their cell phone conversations all the way to California.
Still, he simply turned his phone to silent mode.
The plane shuddered to a start, taxiing along for a few minutes. Lomelli put on some headphones and listened to the music. The plan began to gather speed, and fifteen minutes later was approaching cruising altitude.
The first hour and fifteen minutes of the flight were totally uneventful. One of the stewardesses, a pretty Asian woman in her thirties, wandered around a bit, though Lomelli couldn't exactly figure out what she was doing. There wasn't any meal service or first class, not on a flight privately chartered as cheaply as the school could manage.
Then, just when things seemed to have evened out and become totally boring, Lomelli noticed his fatigue rearing its head again. Much like before on the bus, he felt his eyelids drifting slowly closed. In an effort to stay awake, he dug his phone out of his pocket and tried to get some internet access, but there was no connection, no signal of any kind. Too bad. Probably for the best, though. He was a role model for some of these kids, and if he broke the rules there'd be no stopping them from following suit.
Glancing around, he noticed that a lot of the kids had started to doze off as well. Maybe there wouldn't be any shame in taking a quick rest. Part of him knew it was a terrible idea, but the rest of him didn't care. Closing his eyes, Lomelli slid into unconsciousness.
"Did anyone try it?" The voice coming over the radio in the cockpit sounded just a little bit too cheerful for sheer professionalism. That was often how it was with Jim Greynolds, especially now that he'd stepped back from being the top of the organization. His cheer still made Christina Stockton a little nervous. She had vivid memories of her time on the island with Greynolds in Version Four. Everyone else had been rattled or surprised at some point, but he'd kept his cool the whole time.
"I don't think they did," Christina said. In truth, she wasn't sure and didn't care. She'd figured the odds of anyone figuring out what was going on had been low enough to make Greynolds' precaution nothing more than a backup plan in case of emergency, but he'd found something in the idea appealing enough to bring it up a few times.
Greynolds had figured it possible that a kid would get an inkling that something was wrong with the air and try to use an oxygen mask to ward off the sleep, so all of them had been set up to pump a nice double dose of gas into any student unwise enough to use them.
"Ah well," Greynolds said. "Everyone out?"
"Yeah," Christina replied. She had a view of the passenger compartment of the plane, and all of the students were safely unconscious. Sonia Nguyen and two soldiers were making the rounds just to be sure, all armed and wearing gas masks. Christina didn't exactly like working so closely to a superior, especially Sonia. The woman could be very cold, and Christina had no doubts that she'd enforce lethal discipline if it seemed convenient. That wasn't such a worry with Wilson, one of the reasons Christina felt more comfortable working under him.
A lot had changed in the past four years, and a lot more had stayed roughly the same. The taskforce rested primarily in the hands of Sonia, Greynolds, and Wilson. The three made some references to outside contacts and directions from whoever had been in league with Danya, but nobody else ever had any contact there. Christina didn't even know if it was true. She didn't much care.
She'd picked up a lot more personal responsibility in the years, along with Shamino, Cecily, Lourvey, and especially Maverick. They were all veterans, and that meant quite a bit these days, when so many of the old-timers had been lost to the cause. Christina was still waiting for her own day in that regard. If ever the time came for a reckoning and a United Nations trial, Christina planned to be dead and gone long beforehand. She'd tied herself to this ship, and she was fully prepared to ride it all the way down.
"Good. The ground crew will be ready when you get in. Make sure everything's airtight."
"It will be," she said, nodding to Elias, the pilot who sat next to her. He gave her a nod and a thumbs-up in return.
She found that she even believed her words this time. Versions Three and Four had been flukes. No, more than that, they had been the product of complacency. Christina had nothing against the memory of Victor Danya, but it had been insane not to conduct a purge of problem elements after V3. It had been clear that there were flaws in the recruitment process, and they had all paid the price.
Well, no more. Secrecy was at an all-time high, and every remaining member of the organization was someone whose records had been scoured time and again for even the slightest hint of disloyalty.
It would go well this time. It had to.
Thursday, June 14, 2012: Undisclosed Location
It was Thursday, technically. It was in the early hours of the morning, shortly past midnight, yet the seniors of Aurora High School were just now waking up from their chemically-induced slumber. As they began to return to consciousness, they one by one came to realize that something was dreadfully wrong.
They were still seated, but they no longer occupied the padded chairs of the airplane. Now, they sat in plastic chairs, each student secured to their spot by several sets of metal handcuffs. They were crowded in a rough semicircle around a small stage. On the stage was another chair, and tied to it was Mr. Davidge. Mr. Davidge's mouth was covered in duct tape. His eyes were full of fear.
Behind him stood a man who appeared to be in his early thirties, with glasses and a ponytail. He wore a sweater and stood easily, seemingly relaxed. His arms hung loosely at his sides. His right hand was out of view of most of the students, though those on one extreme side of the semicircle could see something metallic in it.
"Morning, kids," he said. His voice boomed and echoed from some speakers throughout the room. He was clearly wearing a microphone, though it wasn't visible. "My name's Jim Greynolds, and it is my pleasure to introduce tonight's entertainment."
Almost lazily, he drew his right hand up, revealing the object in it to be a pistol. He managed to make the act of shooting Mr. Davidge in the leg seem casual.
The sound of the gunshot echoed throughout the room. Some of the students screamed. Others stared in silence, eyes wide. Some of those in the back turned their heads, hoping perhaps for some means of escape, but behind them stood a large number of men and women in combat fatigues, anonymous behind gasmasks and armed with heavy weaponry.
Mr. Davidge, for his part, began to thrash wildly. Blood flowed down his left calf. His screams of pain could be heard even past the duct tape. He remained upright, though.
"We bolted the chair to the floor," Greynolds explained. "I've always been one to learn from past experiences. Speaking of, the reason your other teachers aren't here is because we already killed 'em. I just invited this guy to make a point, that we're not fucking around."
As he said this, Greynolds shot Mr. Davidge in the side of the head. A small burst of blood flew from the other side, and the teacher slumped forwards, still held up by his restraints.
"Okay," Greynolds continued. "Everyone paying attention now? I hope you're paying attention.
"Like I said, it's my pleasure to introduce tonight's entertainment. That bit, the introduction, it's done."
Some people were still screaming, but the amplification of Greynolds voice let him speak over them. Still, a hint of a frown crossed his face.
"Okay," he said. "It's time to shut up now. Next person to make a noise, I'll make shut up."
He pointed his pistol into the crowd and fired a single shot. The bullet did not hit anyone, but it kicked up a cloud of dust from the back wall. The room fell silent.
"Now then," Greynolds said, "it is my great pleasure to welcome a very special member of our team to the stage tonight. Everyone give him a hand."
The silence continued. Greynolds gave an exaggerated frown, then slapped his forehead and laughed.
"Oh, silly me. All of your hands are bound. I guess it's up to me, then."
He set the pistol down in Mr. Davidge's lap, and gave a polite little golf clap. His microphone picked it up and amplified it, the noise booming and echoing throughout the room. Then Greynolds scooped his pistol up again, hopped off the stage, and made his way to the back of the room.
Almost as soon as Greynolds had departed, a new figure made his way forward. He was a young man, probably in his mid-twenties, with short, cleanly-cut black hair. His brown eyes were bright and intelligent, and his posture was impeccable. He was not tall, but he was solidly built and he walked with confidence. He wore fatigues just like all the other figures in the room. The only thing that marked him as different was the lack of a gasmask.
Though it did not show, the young man's heart was hammering in his chest. Of all the days, why did he have to be facing stage fright now? Wasn't this what he'd wanted? Hadn't he spent the last four years proving himself, making his way to this point? This was his chance for closure.
This was his shot at revenge.
"Hello, students of Aurora High School," he said. His voice was level, warm. He tried to project a hint of theatricality, a good contrast to Greynolds' more conversational tone. His breathing was slowing down. He was beginning to feel comfortable.
"I imagine a few of you still don't know what's going on. I'll clear that up for you. My name's Danya. Welcome to Survival of the Fittest."
Early Spring, 2012: Undisclosed Location
"You think they're going to come?"
Tracen Danya was sitting in Greynolds' office, trying not to fidget. He'd known the man for most of his adult life, had worked under him directly since a few months after Version Four, but being in close proximity with Greynolds was still a little bit awkward for him. It wasn't that the man frightened him; they went back too far for that, even with all he knew of how Greynolds could be at times.
No, it was how their relationship had changed that was odd for him. His father had been good friends with this man, had worked with him for years. Tracen didn't have that history, and he always felt like a little bit of an interloper when given special privileges because of that.
Still, some things he needed to know, and he knew that Greynolds would always be straight with him.
"No," Greynolds said. "They won't come. They don't know what's coming more than anyone else. We're ready if they surprise us, but it won't be this time. Maybe next time, but I wouldn't even count on that."
Greynolds paused for a moment to help himself to a cracker from the platter that sat between him and Tracen. He chewed thoughtfully for a moment, then said, "You know, you don't have to do this. There're other ways you can help. It's not easy for everyone. Even your father had trouble, some days."
"It's fine," Tracen said, hoping it was. "I want to."
"Alright," Greynolds said. "I mean, I sure don't like it. All yours. Just tell me if you change your mind."
"Thanks," Tracen said. He helped himself to a cracker, stood, and then paused.
"When you think they're coming, you'll tell me, right?" he said.
"Of course," Greynolds replied. "After all, I think I've got as much of an axe to grind as you do."
Thursday, June 14, 2012: Undisclosed Location
Once the students had quieted, Tracen continued to speak.
"A lot of you may be too young to remember exactly how Survival of the Fittest works. Therefore, it falls to me to fill you in. When I'm done speaking, you'll all be rendered unconscious by gas again. After that, you will wake up on an island.
"You will each be wearing a collar. These collars are packed with explosives. If you try to escape, they'll blow up. If you mess with the collars, they'll blow up. Every day, there will be some places you can't go, and if you go in them anyways or stay in them too long, your collar will blow up.
"You will each receive a pack containing basic provision, a first aid kit, and an assigned weapon of some sort. It's luck of the draw, but don't worry if you get a weak pull; you can always upgrade.
"You see, the point of the game is to be the last one standing. Only one of you will ever see home again. Once on the island, you will have to kill each other until only one remains. That last survivor, assuming they managed to kill someone during the game, will be returned home. If they didn't, well, it's back on the V6 island for them, and such a shame for everyone else who died for nothing.
"In case you don't get the picture, allow me to illustrate."
Here, Tracen gestured, then stepped to the side. From the back of the room, an image was projected onto the wall, with only slight interference from Mr. Davidge's body.
The image which resolved on the screen was dark, but the resolution was good and everything was clear and easy to discern. Two girls were sitting on a beach. The shorter one seemed to be asleep. Her friend, a tall redhead, slowly lowered her down to the sand, bundling a blanket under her head for a pillow.
For a time, nothing further happened. The redhead sat, looked around, and before long she had begun shaking, her arms wrapped around herself. Tears began to run down her face, more and more, and she buried her face in her hands, sobbing. It was easy to tell that she was not in a good state of mind
Finally, the redhead quieted, stood, wiped her eyes. She straightened herself and brushed the sand from her clothes, then walked a short distance and picked up a duffel bag. Returning, she knelt beside her companion, placed the bag over her face, let out a terrible gasp, and pressed down. She pushed harder and harder, and she screamed, and she shook all over, and then after too long she stopped and stood again.
The shorter girl was not moving. The bag covered her face. The redhead stumbled away. The screen faded to black, and the lights came back up.
"As you can see," the man said, "the game changes people. Those two were best friends before. I'd like you all to look to your right. The person sitting there may very well kill you in the next twenty-four hours. Now, look to your left. There's a decent chance you'll have to kill that person to survive. Everyone next to you—each of your classmates in this room—must die before you can go home.
"Every day, I'll come on to talk to you and tell you who died and who killed. I'll make it nice and entertaining, so you'll have a good reason to listen. If that's not enough, I'll also tell you what parts of the island you can't go to.
"Everything done here will be broadcast over the internet, so you don't have to worry. Your families will know what became of you. They'll be able to cheer you on as you struggle to make your ways back to them. I'm sure each of them wants very much to see you again. No matter what someone does, if they're family, well, you love them on some level.
"Oh, and don't get any ideas about rescues. I'm sure some of you heard what happened four years ago. We've spent the time since then making our process airtight. Some of you may decide to try to get the location of the island to the outside world. I'd recommend against it. We've got some very good measures in place to deal with that, as well as anything else you might cook up, and if you become annoying enough with it we'll blow your collars and call it a day. For example, break cameras and you're dead. Similarly, don't think you can just wait this out. If a day ever goes by without someone being killed—yes, you heard me; suicides and accidents don't count here—then we'll just blow all the collars and try again next year. The game's no fun if nobody's playing.
"I think that's all you need to know. Good luck. This is the beginning of the rest of your lives, and, for all but one lucky person, they will be very short."
Finishing his speech, Tracen reached behind his back and pulled out a gas mask. As he tugged it on, someone cut the lights, plunging the room into darkness as a whirring noise started. Over the next few minutes, the students once again found themselves passing out, next to awaken on the island.
Outside, Tracen was shaking. He felt ill. The taste of filtered, dead air still lingered in his mouth. The other members of the taskforce were busily attaching collars to the students and moving them once again, this time for deployment on the island.
"Don't worry," Greynolds said. Tracen jerked. He hadn't noticed the man making his way towards him. Clearly, he was off his game. That would have never happened during his time in the military.
"I'm not worried," Tracen said.
"Good." Greynolds smiled, a rare smile that looked genuine with no hint of malice. "You did a good job today. Your father would be proud."
Tracen mulled that over. Maybe it was true. He wasn't done yet, though. He'd barely even started. He'd see to his father's legacy, and he'd make sure that Victor Danya was never forgotten.
Years ago, when Dennis Lourvey attended that job fair seeking the promise of career advancement, this hadn't been exactly what he'd predicted. It had only been... somewhere in the realm of four years since he had joined the Taskforce, and he was sitting pretty as Head Techie. Honestly, he'd attained the title after the end of V4, though he had to remind himself it was on virtue of Achlys being killed for his incompetence, and Dorian leaving after...
Well, Lourvey didn't like thinking about what happened there too much.
It was better to be focusing on the positives, and there were a lot of them to think about. Following his promotion, he didn't have to be the guy sweating bullets in a hot, stuffy room trying to jam a few last collar components together. He had a team of guys for that, now, and could sit pretty while overseeing the production. It seemed that he had pretty much accomplished what he had set out to do from school, as dark as the circumstances made it out to be. At 28, he was the head of his own team. The money he was making, as ill-gotten as his gains may have been, were more than enough to send home to his parents and leave comfortable space for his expenses. Paying school bills was a snap as well; accounting made all of his work look legit. Dennis Lourvey, the MIT alum, was simply working overseas in Information Technology.
If only his duties were as simple as taking calls from a desk, though. There was no pretending that what Lourvey was doing wasn't terribly, terribly illegal. Not only was there the threat of the law, but there was the matter of failing in the eyes of his superiors. Promotion or no promotion, a lack of care in either matter could easily result in his death. There was... precedent for that sort of thing. Even with Victor Danya dead, working under Greynolds with V5 looming had to be assumed as every bit as dangerous.
That train of thought reminded Lourvey of the present situation. He felt as though his job security were in jeopardy when the incident with V4 happened, but he was kept on and the team stayed together. It felt strange thinking it, but it was a good thing too; he was unsure where he could possibly go from here. 'Former terrorist' didn't look good on a resume, after all. Then, word got around that Danya's kid was joining. Lourvey wondered if he had been the last to hear about it; Baines and Richards and all of the other guys, the seniors, they tended to get this sort of info long before the relative newbie got them. 'Relative' was becoming a weaker and weaker word as time passed on, though... hell, he was practically getting to be a big-shot, what with his responsibilities for the game.
For pre-abduction duties, the collars were given a once-over in design. It was not worth re-doing the entire thing when there was hardly anything wrong with it, but apparently there was something of a failure in the heat-trigger detecting system. It didn't take long for a more proof-positive prototype collar to come into being, and along with it the new system that had been adopted in late V4 for the prevention of signal blocking. There were jokes in the collar room, funny enough; a few ribs about how Lourvey's 'inescapable collars' had failed before, and only a stroke of luck saved him from a bullet. He laughed it off like nothing, but something about it shook him. It really was a stroke of luck that Achlys was killed and not him; it was either that or a stroke of understanding.
The collars had been built and tested, all of it going much smoother than they had back when he was still a complete rookie. There were cameras to set up, anywhere and everywhere. Again, he had a team under him. It was a nice, empowering feeling to be in charge. Then, once things were set in motion, they'd have to monitor the cameras. Lourvey would take personal responsibility there as well; he would not be repeating the mistakes of the prior version. Finally, his last and least formal duty was making Tracen Danya feel comfortable. Lourvey supposed, with a bit of imagination, that there must have been a softer side to Danya, Sr. that his kid must have known. There was no telling how awkward it must have been for the guy to be trying to follow in his father's footsteps. He really was only a kid - Lourvey was still under the 30 mark, himself. Looking after him just felt sort of right. Plus, if Tracen eventually became the big boss around here, it'd be nice to have a friend on high.
Lots of things to worry about, but those were in the future. Lourvey mulled over the collars. Three hundred, a definite surplus. Left others for testing, getting consistency between them. Things would go smoothly... hell knows his life depended on it.
Thursday, June 14, 2012: Seattle, Washington
It was all over the news. Apparently, a plane carrying the vast bulk of the senior class of Aurora High School had lost radio contact and dropped off the radar about two hours into their flight to California, after deviating somewhat from their flight path. As the disappearance had occurred over the ocean, it was fairly easy to draw the conclusion that the plane had crashed, especially when search crews came across small chunks of debris washed up near where the plane had vanished.
Wednesday, July 4, 2012: America
The missing flight was old news by now. The impact was still felt in Seattle, but the nation at large had lost interest. It was, after all, Independence Day in an election year.
The day was fairly slow for news at first. Around ten in the morning, however, some unusual images and messages began to show up on message boards. A few small sites began streaming video.
Within an hour, it was all over Twitter, all over even mainstream media sites. It was all that was being talked about on the radio and the television. The streaming was only getting started, was only showing things from the earliest moments of the incident, but it was still very clear:
Survival of the Fittest was back with a vengeance, and the seniors of Aurora High School hadn't died in a plane crash after all.