Chapter Nine

Students remaining: 17

Fortunately for Sophie, whoever had thrown the bola had not thrown it hard enough to do any serious damage. The stones grazed her temple, causing her to fall to the ground, her head bleeding profusely. But Benita, watching the unfolding scene, knew the amount of blood Sophie was losing was no real cause for concern; her mum was a nurse and had told her that head wounds often looked worse than they were. What worried her was the fact that Nicola, the student with the bola, was already heading over here to retrieve her weapon, no doubt intending to finish the job she had started.

Determined not to give Nicola that chance, Benita quickly fitted an arrow to her bow, something she had never done for real before. She could feel her hands shaking as various thoughts raced through her mind. If her arrow hit its target, she would almost certainly end up killing one of her fellow students, a line she had hoped to avoid crossing even under her current circumstances. But, if she missed, it would give Nicola more than enough time to run over here and retrieve the bola. She would then have plenty of time to finish off both Sophie and Benita; the bola looked like it would be pretty handy for beating someone to death, in addition to being a fairly lethal projectile weapon. It was the thought of this that caused Benita to let fly with her arrow.

More by luck than judgement, the arrow hit Nicola in the chest. She dropped to the ground immediately and lay lifeless, the shaft of the arrow sticking straight up in the air, as Benita hurried over to see how much damage had been done. A quick examination of Nicola revealed no trace of pulse or heartbeat; she had died instantly, killed by Benita's arrow. Benita sank to her knees as she took in the sight of her fallen classmate, wrestling with her conscience, the small voice inside her which said killing people was wrong. Inexperienced with the bow as she was, she had expected to wound Nicola, not kill her outright.

She remembered when she had asked Sophie what it was like to kill someone. Now she knew and it was not a pleasant feeling; she would have Nicola's death on her conscience for the rest of her life, however long that may be. But, under her current circumstances, she had had no choice; had she allowed Nicola to retrieve the bola, she and Sophie would almost certainly have had their names included in Osborne's next announcement.

She slowly reached out and retrieved the arrow which had ended Nicola's life.

Sophie groaned as Benita helped her to sit up. "What . . . happened?" The last thing she remembered was something hard grazing her temple and knocking her to the ground.

"Nicola just tried to kill you," Benita replied, holding up the bola. "With this. But I got her with one of my arrows . . ." She trailed off, unable to voice what she had done. The image of Nicola lying on the ground with an arrow in her chest seemed to have lodged itself in her mind.

"Dead?" Sophie asked, seeing that her normally optimistic friend looked troubled and guessing the reason why.

Benita nodded, tears welling up in her eyes. "I didn't mean to do it! The arrow just . . ." She could go no further, unable to stop thinking of the arrow in Nicola's chest, the arrow which she, Benita, had fired intending to injure, not to kill. But it had caught Nicola right in the heart, an injury which no-one could hope to survive unless they were wearing some sort of body armour. And none of the packs had come equiped with body armour this year, though such items had been included in the past. In any case, Nicola was dead and it had been Benita who killed her.

Sophie was using her hankie to try and stem the flow of blood from her head; even so, she managed to give Benita a look which mixed concern with practicality. "Listen," she said. "If you hadn't done it, I wouldn't be talking to you right now. It's not pleasant having to kill people, but we don't have any choice. It's kill or be killed in this game. We didn't ask to be here - none of us did - but we are here and we've got to do whatever we need to do to stay alive." She did not add that this included the possibility that one of them might have to kill the other; aside from anything else, it did no-one any good to dwell on such things.

Benita nodded, though she was not entirely convinced. And she suspected that Sophie too was troubled by thoughts of the students she had had to kill, despite the way she tried to rationalise what she had done. Sophie had killed three students since the Program began, though Lucy didn't technically count, since she was already dying from the injuries she had sustained in the landmine explosion. But Benita had not been aiming to kill when she targetted Nicola . . .

"Come on," Sophie said, staggering to her feet. "Let's get out of here." And the two of them moved on, but not before Benita had stashed Nicola's bola in her pack. Neither of them had any use for the bola, but they didn't want to leave it lying around for the others to find.

Since the Program began, Jayne had been constantly on the move, never daring to stop in the same place for long. If she did, she would be in danger from her fellow students, some of whom were actively taking part in this sick game, though she had no way of knowing how many killers were out there. One thing she did know, however, was that she wanted no part in this. Her supplied weapon was a set of nunchucks, but she had no intention of using them. Instead, her plan was to avoid the others, keep changing her location and leave all the killing to the others.

Right now, at 4:35 PM, she was in Zone 3, about to enter the end cottage. This area should be safe for a while; it had not yet been named as a pending forbidden zone, but the north-west sector of the village was now dominated by forbidden zones. That, she hoped, meant her fellow students would be keeping clear of the area; even so, she decided to check carefully before entering the cottage.

She pushed open the front door - no response. However, she knew better than to trust a lack of response in a situation like this and took her nunchucks out of her pack, prepared to use them if she had to. She may not want to take part in this game, but there was still the possibility that she might have to use her weapon to defend herself, though she doubted her nunchucks would do much good if she came up against any of the students who were armed with guns. With that in mind, she moved cautiously, constantly on the alert for signs that this cottage was already occupied.

After several minutes had passed with nothing to indicate that there was anybody here, Jayne slowly pushed open the door to the living room - and stopped short. Someone was lying on the sofa, apparently asleep, and a knitting needle had been left lying on the floor. Jayne surveyed the scene with growing unease. Something wasn't right; her new housemate seemed unnaturally still for someone who was only sleeping. Which could mean only one thing . . .

A closer inspection confirmed it. The student on the sofa was Yasmin and she wasn't sleeping; she was dead, had been dead for several hours. Jayne gazed down at Yasmin's body, taking in her blood-stained shirt, her slightly open mouth, her eyes gazing sightlessly at the ceiling. Yasmin's name, Jayne recalled, had been among those which Osborne read out at his first announcement, which meant she had been lying here since last night. And she wasn't the only one; by now, there were bodies scattered all over the village, fifteen in total as of Osborne's most recent announcement and, judging by the shooting which Jayne had heard earlier, more had died since.

Jayne panicked; the thought of being in a room with a dead body terrified her. She backed slowly out of the living room, then fled the cottage, slamming the front door behind her. She began to run, skirting round the soon-to-be-forbidden Zone 4, wanting desperately to escape from this nightmare.

But there was no escaping the Program.

At the back of the village shop, Jayne paused to catch her breath. She did not know how much more of this she could take. The fatigue, the constant need to keep moving, the knowledge that a momentary lapse could get you killed . . . If only there was some way she could call for help. But there wasn't; Osborne had said none of the phones in the village would work and even mobile phones were useless. The village was completely cut off from the outside world; after its residents were forced to leave, the surrounding countryside had been declared a no-go area for anyone not connected to the Program. That meant even signalling for help from passing motorists was out of the question.

Overwhelmed by despair, Jayne sank to the ground, tears welling up in her eyes. "God! Get me out of here!" she cried. But, if there was a God, He did not seem to be listening. She was trapped in a nightmare game where she faced death at the hands of her own classmates, a game she did not want to play but which she could not hope to escape. The most she could do was avoid the other students and, thanks to the increasing number of forbidden zones, she couldn't even do that forever. Sooner or later, her luck would run out.

As she sat sobbing behind the shop, Jayne was unaware that her luck had already run out. Abigail, who had made the shop her hideout as long as Zone 10 remained safe, had heard crying and gone to investigate. But not to see if she could help; she was out to claim a second kill. She could see Jayne sitting by the bins, completely oblivious to the danger she was in, so wrapped up in her despair that she had not even heard Abigail approach.

Good, Abigail preferred it that way; it meant she wouldn't have to shoot someone face-to-face. She still didn't know if she would ever be able to look one of her fellow students in the eye before killing them. That was why her strategy had been to shoot her opponents from behind; it was the only way she could bring herself to do what she had to do in this insane game. It was kill or be killed, with only one student allowed to live.

Abigail raised her revolver and fired three bullets into Jayne's back. Jayne slumped forward, coughing up blood; Abigail thought she was probably finished, but decided it was better to make certain and moved closer to her victim. The last thing Jayne ever felt was the barrel of Abigail's gun against the back of her skull.

While all this was going on, Katelynne was skirting round the outside of the barn in Zone 29. Like Jayne, she wanted no part in this slaughter, even though she had received one of the most lethal non-projectile weapons. Her pack had come equiped with a kama, a sickle blade on the end of a short handle; the blade looked like it could do a great deal of damage if it ended up in someone's skull. But Katelynne felt physically sick at the thought of doing that to another human being and had not taken her weapon out of her pack since she opened it to check its contents.

Instead, Katelynne was concentrating on keeping herself alive. As she did not wish to fight, the only way she could hope to do this was to keep away from the others, but this strategy would not work for long; attempts to avoid conflict in this game invariably ended in failure. Sooner or later, students who tried this would run into someone who was either actively participating in the Program or had been driven so mad with paranoia that they attacked on sight. Or they might get themselves caught in a forbidden zone and die when their collars exploded. Either way, the Program was no place for pacifism.

More than anything else, Katelynne wanted to get under cover before night fell. She had spent last night in Zone 37, hiding in a ditch; fortunately, none of the others had entered the same zone. But Zone 37 had become forbidden at seven o'clock this morning and Katelynne had spent the hours since moving from field to field. Now, as night drew near, she wanted to get undercover and the barn looked like it might provide her with shelter. Even so, she decided it would be safer to check first to see if any of her fellow students had already claimed it; you could not trust anyone in this game which required the players to kill each other until only one was left standing.

And, as she rounded the corner, she found proof of how deadly some of her classmates had become. A boy lay face-down on the ground, dead, a wound which looked as though it had been caused by a spear or similar weapon in the middle of his back. Closer inspection revealed who he was - Harry, that kid who was into boxing. Katelynne remembered hearing his name mentioned at the noon announcement and was just wondering which of her fellow students had killed him when, out of the corner of her eye, she saw something moving. Moments later, Aidan appeared from round the other side of the barn, an expression of grim determination on his face and a harpoon poised in his hand. And the backwards-pointing barbs that made up the harpoon's point looked like they could do some serious damage.

Katelynne immediately decided she would try to reason with Aidan. All this killing was completely senseless and she was sure her fellow students (those who were actively taking part in this game) were only doing it because they were afraid of what would happen to them if they passed the three-day time limit without a clear victor. But, maybe if all the remaining students could get together and call a truce, they could work together on a plan to get out of here. And, if they could kill Osborne at the same time, it would be even better. Katelynne might not want to kill her fellow students, but their instructor was another matter; he worked for the Government and it was because of them that she and the others were here.

Hoping she could enlist Aidan as her first recruit, Katelynne stood up, holding her hands up to show that she had no intention of fighting. "Listen, I . . ." she began. But she never finished her sentence.

Aidan fired his harpoon; the barbed spear hit Katelynne right in the stomach before she had time to react. For a moment, she looked astonished at the sight of the shaft sticking out of her belly, before she keeled over, her life slipping away. Within minutes, she was dead, though Aidan waited until he was absolutely certain before attempting to remove his harpoon. When he did, he found that the shaft came away easily; however, the head was hopelessly lodged in Katelynne's stomach, the barbs preventing him from pulling it free. In the end, he gave up; his harpoon came with a set of spare heads anyway, so losing one of them wouldn't make much difference.

As the sun set, Sophie and Benita sat on a roadside verge, looking at the pinkish orange of the evening sky. They had not seen any of their fellow students since their encounter with Nicola that afternoon, but they knew that could not last. Sooner or later, they would be faced with another life or death situation and, in order to preserve their lives, they had to be prepared to cause the deaths of one or more of their fellow students. And Benita was still finding it difficult to come to terms with what she had done to Nicola.

"Sophie," she said, her voice shaking slightly, "how can someone kill another person?"

"This is about Nicola, isn't it?" Sophie guessed. A slight nod from Benita confirmed that she was right and she hurried on. "I don't know. Perhaps they've got something wrong with them which means they like killing people. Or perhaps, like us, they've got to kill or they'll be killed themselves." Either way, she added silently, the Program stole the innocence of the young people selected for it; many in the chosen class became murderers and all but one became murder victims, unless they died as a result of suicide or being caught in a forbidden zone. And the collars around each student's neck ensured that there could be no escape . . .

Just then, Osborne's voice cut through Sophie's thoughts; it was 6:00 PM, time for another announcement. Sophie and Benita listened carefully as Osborne revealed which students had died in the last six hours.

"The deaths which have been confirmed since my last announcement are as follows," he told the remaining students. "Boy #2: Devon O'Hare, Girl #2: Jayne Parsons, Girl #4: Katelynne Moss, Boy #6: Liam Selby, Girl #7: Lucy Foster, Boy #13: Daniel Gifford and Girl #15: Nicola Black." As in the three previous announcements, he read out the names of the dead students in the matter-of-fact tone which Sophie hated. "Excellent work, everyone - at this rate, we shouldn't have to worry about missing the deadline. But you all know what will happen if a winner isn't decided by the end of the third day."

"And now for the forbidden zones," he went on. "At 7:00 PM, Zone 9 will be the next to become forbidden, followed by Zone 25 at 9:00 PM and Zone 41 at 11:00 PM. So get out of those zones by the designated times and, if you're still alive at midnight, I'll speak to you again then. Over and out."

As she coloured in the squares on her map which corresponded to the pending forbidden zones, Sophie thought about what Osborne had just said. Devon, Liam and Daniel had been listed among the dead, which meant the nearest thing Parkwood had to a gang had been almost completely wiped out; of the five boys who had sat in the back seat on the bus, only Theo remained. But, beyond that, the number of students in 11G had been reduced from thirty-six to just fourteen.