On the 25th of June, 2012, the fifth iteration of Survival of the Fittest ended. Unlike the past two iterations, Version Five was completely successful and uninterrupted due to the increased security precautions and revised broadcasting techniques employed by the terrorists. By the time the terrorists—now led by Tracen Danya, the son of former leader Victor Danya—aired the events, letting the world know of their return, it was far too late to do anything. The end result of the version was the deaths of one hundred and fifty-one senior students from Aurora High School.
In the wake of Survival of the Fittest's return, many schools across America significantly increased their security. The threat of another abduction hangs over many schools to the point where senior trips have all but died out. President Oscar Chase McAllister managed to deflect much of the backlash from the terrorists' return onto the former president, Aaron Bridges, and won reelection in the fall, though rumblings of discontent with his handling of the crisis remained. President McAllister announced the launch of a manhunt with the sole purpose of finding and capturing the leaders of the terrorist organization, but it has proven largely ineffectual, with no captures being made in the years since it began.
Three years later, during the spring semester, Cochise High School students prepared to leave for the school's annual science field trip, thinking that, like every other year, this trip would go off without a hitch.
Tuesday, May 5, 2015: Kingman, Arizona
It was a hot day in Kingman, as it always seemed to be on the day of the science trip. Samuel Graham had come to accept it as something inevitable, like death or taxes. The sun rose, the stars shined, and the science trip was uncomfortably hot. He was standing watch over the group of kids that were going on the first trip. The trip was split over two days by period, largely because the faculty didn't have the manpower to look after the entire junior and senior classes at once, which meant he'd spend tomorrow much the same as today. It also meant he didn't need to check the news to know tomorrow would be another scorcher.
He could see Hilary Barks shepherding a dallying group of students towards her bus. The two of them organized, controlled, and ran the trip every year. Mr. Graham enjoyed the tradition, but the stress sometimes made him wonder if it was worth it. He turned to the group of students that had been chatting outside of the bus and told them that it was time to get on. Ignoring their protests about the heat, he turned his attention back to Mrs. Barks as she hurried over. She had been having a rough go of it lately, so he hoped for her sake the next two days went smoothly.
After quickly confirming with each other that they had each student who was sick or unable to attend crossed off their registers and making note of any potential troublemakers, Mr. Graham wished Mrs. Barks luck with her bus with a light-hearted smile before boarding his.
The humidity inside hit him right away and he was thankful that he had decided to dress casually with his 'Sherlock Ohms' t-shirt for the trip. After informing one of the male students that unfortunately, no, he wasn't allowed to take his top off, Mr. Graham switched his attention to the bus driver.
"Is there any chance we can open the windows? It's like an oven in here."
The bus driver, a young looking man with long blonde hair and a faint brushing of stubble, looked at him with a slight grin. "Sorry, my man, they refurbed all our buses but put in the wrong size windows, things are wedged shut."
Mr. Graham raised an eyebrow as he sat down at the front of the bus. "That seems like quite the oversight."
"You're telling me, man." The bus driver said, pulling the lever to close the doors and starting the bus moving. "Tell you what, I'll put the A/C on super low for you guys."
Mr. Graham pulled a face but said nothing, instead settling into his seat and reviewing his trip plan. He heard the bus' air conditioning slowly come to life, and took in the relived reactions of his students. Eventually the chatter started to die down, and Mr. Graham observed some of the students drifting off to sleep. He assumed that they'd had rough nights. Students fell asleep in his classroom every so often—the only notable thing about napping on the bus was that a few more students than normal seemed to be doing so. As he looked over his lesson plan, he felt his eyes growing heavy, as if in sympathy with his class. Shaking his head and blinking himself out of it, Mr. Graham instead decided to look out the window, hoping that would keep him awake. Despite his best intentions, however, he eventually drifted off to sleep.
Baines whistled a cheery tune through his gas mask as he drove down the road. Everyone was out like a light. He was surprised the teacher had actually bought that line about the windows not fitting—they'd been secured such that he probably wouldn't have been caught even had they come under scrutiny, and he was almost disappointed that nobody had bothered to check. Regardless, things were looking good for the next stage. As he drove, the radio above him crackled into life.
"Hey, Baines, what's your status, over?"
Slowly reaching up, Baines pulled the transmitter down and spoke into it. "All good here, buddy. Everyone is on the train to sleepytown."
"Good, same here."
"Man, could it be any more boring right now?" Baines asked, hoping his tone brought out some sort of reaction from the other bus.
"Just do the job, Baines," was all he got before he heard the crackle of the radio going dead. Laughing quietly to himself, Baines turned off the interstate and continued to the checkpoint. Where was the fun in being professional all the time? As far as he was concerned, you had to enjoy what you did, or at least do as much as possible to make it fun.
He started whistling again as he continued to drive. He reckoned it would be another half-hour.
Tuesday, May 5, 2015: Undisclosed Location
Being technical, it was actually still going to be Tuesday for another hour and a half, but that detail didn't matter to the students from Cochise who were slowly waking up from their slumber. No, what was on their minds was the realization of their predicament setting in.
Mr. Graham was slowly awoken by the sounds of panic coming from his students. As his blurry vision adapted to the room he saw the entire trip group arranged in a semicircle in front of him. His confusion amplified when he tried to open his mouth to find it duct taped shut. Confusion then turned to panic when he tried to move from his chair, only to find his hands and feet were handcuffed to it. He heard footsteps behind him and tried to turn his head to see. He stopped and froze when he felt something cold and metallic press against the back of his head.
"Children, please, if you could be quiet."
The cries of terror from the kids continued unabated. Mr. Graham heard a sigh from behind him before he didn't feel anything else.
Tuesday, May 5, 2015: Australia
Zach Valentino was trying to keep cool while waiting for news. There was intel—real news for the first time in years—about a possible abduction. So Zach was sitting, elbows resting on his thighs, hands clasped in front of him. Ki was due to be meeting him in five minutes with a full report, and Zach was tense. This could be their chance. There had been progress before, but always too late, reactive, something-is-better-than-nothing sorts of results. But now, maybe they could finally achieve their purpose.
After getting outsmarted and finding themselves unable to do anything in 2012, a lot of STAR were desperate to get something going. That's why Zach was so nervous. Whatever Ki had to tell him, it was important, and it had the potential to stir them from over half a decade of inaction.
There was knock on his door.
It was Ki. He had a few papers in his hand and a grin on his face.
"We've got them. They've taken kids from Arizona."
Tuesday, May 5, 2015: Undisclosed Location
The gunshot silenced the kids.
"There we go," The man said, lazily tossing the gun to one side. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, with glasses and a ponytail. "Now that I have your attention, please allow me to lay down the ground rules for the presentation you're about to receive. No talking, no struggling, and absolutely no crying." The man moved to one side of the chair that contained Mr. Graham. He was in a sweater and let his arms hang at his sides as he moved. "Kids, my name is Jim Greynolds, but you probably won't be seeing me again.
"I'm out here to make it clear that if you think of trying anything at all," he raised one hand gestured to Mr. Graham's body, "that will be you. We take our chats pretty seriously, and we know how kids love to chatter, so we're demonstrating our no-tolerance policy. So, with that said, please welcome to the stage the one and only Danya."
As he walked off the stage, clapping his hands in one-man applause that echoed through the now otherwise silent room, Greynolds smiled at Tracen. It was a bit of a deviation from the usual routine with these things, but that was intentional, keyed to catch everyone off-guard. What better way to make people pay attention?
Tracen slowly stepped to the front of the stage. It had been three years since the last time he had been required to make this sort of speech, but it felt like a lifetime had passed. He'd learned so much from the last version and its aftermath. He knew what to do, how to act. This time, there was no stage fright.
"Hello, students of Cochise High School."
The nearly theatrical tone had become easy to slip into; he had no delay getting to grips with the material he had to work with.
"For those of you who don't know what's happening, or who may have forgotten or chosen denial, allow me to explain. My name is Mr. Danya. Welcome to Survival of the Fittest."
Despite Greynolds' warning, this stirred some brief murmurs and exclamations. Tracen waited until the students before him quieted before continuing.
"If you don't remember or know how this works, after this speech is over you'll be rendered unconscious once again.
"The next time you awake, you will be on an island. You will have a metal collar around your neck. These collars are filled to the brim with explosives. If you try to escape the island, they will blow up. If try to tamper with the collars, they will blow up. Every day we will make parts of the island off-limits, and if you enter them or stay in them, your collar will blow up.
"You will each be provided with a backpack containing the basic provisions you need to survive: food, water, a map, a first aid kit, and so forth. You will also be randomly assigned a weapon, but keep in mind that if you don't like your luck you can always seek out an opportunity to upgrade.
"The point of this little game, you see, is to be the last person standing. Only one of you gets to go home. Once you wake up on that island, your one and only concern if you want to survive is killing each other until only one remains. That lucky survivor will, providing they killed someone, be allowed to return home. If the last one standing didn't kill anyone, well, that speaks to a lack of participation we hope to discourage. Thus, should you end up alone without getting your hands dirty, you'll be put right back in for the next version, to learn from your mistakes or be taken out by someone with a better attitude. Of course, it'd be an awful shame for all your classmates to die for nothing, but such is the nature of the beast.
"Don't worry, if you are struggling to understand. It is quite a lot to take in. Allow me, if you will, to provide an illustrative demonstration, to perhaps make clear what simple words cannot."
Tracen stepped to one side and gestured to the wall behind him, which lit up with an image projected from the back of the room, Mr. Graham casting a slight silhouette at the bottom of the screen.
The picture revealed depicted a bright, sunny day. A boy with a beanie and FAMAS and a girl appeared to be talking to another smaller boy in a striped shirt, he wasn't looking at them. "You can't just run away from this."
"Yeah, I know," The smaller boy said without turning around. "But I think I can briskly walk from it. See you later." He started walking in the direction he was going, away from the other two.
The girl was saying something. "Did he really just do that?"
She turned to look at boy with the beanie. "He killed Ami and is now walking away like nothing happened?" There was a pause as she seemed to assess what was happening. "Do we follow?"
"No. We don't follow." The boy with the beanie raised the FAMAS and fired, shooting the smaller boy in the back. He collapsed to the ground.
The taller boy turned and walked away, not looking back. The girl went off in another direction. The smaller boy tried to move, but eventually went still.
The projection faded and the lights came back up before Tracen started to speak again.
"Those two boys," he said, pointing to the wall where the image had been, "were friends. You see now what friendship is worth. This is the reality of our game. It's one thing to let a buddy copy your math homework, but quite another to trust him with your life."
Tracen opened his arms in front of him, gesturing as if to encompass the whole room.
"Look around you. Anyone you see could end up killing you, or you could end up killing them. Every one of the others in this room, every one of your classmates must die if you want to go home.
"I'll be in touch with you every day. I'll tell you which of your friends died and who killed them. I'll also be kind enough to let you know which parts of our arena you can't go to. If that's not enough of an incentive for you to pay attention, I'll also make it nice and entertaining for you all, and will dispense a weapon to whoever scored the best kill the day before. So tune in—your life may depend upon it.
"Of course, I won't be the only one on stage over the course of our little adventure. Everything that takes place here will be broadcast over the internet using cameras we've placed around the island. That means there's no cause to fear for any of you worried by the idea of your families not knowing what's happened— they'll be able to watch it all unfold. Of course, it would be very selfish of anyone to prevent the families of the others from keeping up—not to mention a mildly irksome security concern—so if you tamper with or damage a camera, we'll blow your collar. And of course, while we know you'll want to put on a good face for your loved ones back home, do remember what you have to do if you want to actually see them again. I imagine most will be forgiving—relieved, even, should you be able to do what it takes to make it back."
Tracen turned and began to walk offstage, but suddenly stopped and smacked a hand to his forehead.
"Oh, silly me, of course there's one more thing."
He turned to face the students again.
"There's no waiting this game out. If a day passes without someone getting a kill—and we're very specific about that; a suicide or some unfortunate accident won't count—we'll blow all your collars, call it a day and try again next time.
"That covers everything. Good luck. This is the first day of your new, significantly shorter lives—shorter, at least, for all of you but one."
With that, Tracen reached behind him and pulled a gas mask from a case in the wall. As he pulled it over his face, the lights in the theatre went out. A faint whirring noise could be heard, and the air in the room stirred. Within moments, the first student's eyes drifted closed, and one by one the rest followed into unconsciousness, to reawaken on the island.
From the sides of the room, the members of the AT moved forward and got to work attaching collars and moving the students, a process made somewhat cumbersome by the time spent disengaging their restraints. Tracen moved outside and found Greynolds, who was busy talking to one of the newer recruits but ushered her away when Tracen approached.
"It's all set up. Confirmation just came through now," Greynolds said, as Tracen pulled the gas mask off.
"Good... that's good."
Greynolds laid a hand on Tracen's shoulder.
"It's finally time."
Wednesday, May 6, 2015: Kingman, Arizona
The police had been searching all day and night but had found nothing. The buses the children had boarded were gone. Everyone knew in the back of their minds what had happened. No one wanted to say it out loud, however. So the police continued to search. The evening of the disappearance a candlelight vigil was held outside of Cochise High School. Even at the event, nobody voiced the one possibility that made sense.
Over the next few weeks, of course, things started to change. The first to talk were the political fringes, claiming with certainty that the disappearance was the result of foul play. The McAllister administration urged patience and a full investigation, but did not specifically deny these claims, and for some that was as good as a confirmation. As the a days dragged on, a sizable contingent believed they knew exactly what had become of the missing Cochise students, though others argued that it didn't add up—the methodology was wrong, the timing off. And still, in polite conversation, it was wisest to treat it all as a mystery.
But nobody was truly that surprised when, on June First around nine o'clock in the morning, somebody online revealed that a mysterious link had been found on the deep web, leading to a page that just had V6 written in white across a black background. The word spread like wildfire across social media.
At 9:30 am it was picked up by mainstream news.
At 9:45 am the link to the disappearance of two bus loads of school children from a small town in Arizona was officially acknowledged by President McAllister.
At 10:00 am the feed went live.
By 10:05 am the whole world knew.
Survival of the Fittest had returned, and the worst fears of those in Kingman were confirmed.