Students remaining: 10
"Can everybody hear me? Well, everybody who's still alive anyway."
It was midnight, time for yet another announcement from Osborne. His voice was now being projected all over the village, even though there were less than a dozen students left to hear it. There had been four deaths in the past six hours and Osborne now proceeded to read out the names of the students concerned. "Boy #5: James Anderson, Boy #7: Jonathan Hill, Boy #17: Theo McKenzie and Girl #17: Dani Andrews. Well done to all of you; if you keep this up, the winner should be determined some time tomorrow. But remember, no-one has won yet. Each of you must still outlive nine of your classmates."
The next order of business was the forbidden zones. "At 1:00 AM, Zone 36," Osborne told the students. "This will be followed by Zone 29 at 3:00 AM and Zone 19 at 5:00 AM. So, if you are in any of those zones, I strongly urge you to get out as quickly as possible. Because you know what will happen to you otherwise . . ." Then, he concluded his announcement with the words: "And, until six o'clock, goodbye."
As the announcement ended, Benita exchanged worried looks with Shane and Daljit. Sophie was sleeping on a sofa in the farmhouse kitchen, her arm bandaged where Shane had used a knife to cut out the pellet from Theo's air rifle. "Did you hear what Osborne said?" Benita asked. "We've got two pending forbidden zones right next to us!" Which, she realised, meant they would have to get out of here by three o'clock; otherwise, they would be hemmed in, unable to escape if Zones 24 and 30 joined the list of forbidden zones.
"In that case," Shane said, "we'd better get some sleep. We'll have to leave before two - that'll give us an hour to get clear of Zone 29 before it becomes forbidden." Of course, they could have left the farmhouse there and then, which would give them plenty of time to get away from the pending forbidden zones, but Daljit had insisted that Sophie needed to rest after Shane's impromptu surgery. It was fortunate that Daljit had intervened when she did, though Benita couldn't help wondering why she had done it. In this game, especially when the number of students was reduced to a handful, it was everyone for themselves; there was no sense in saving someone's life only to have to kill them later.
"Daljit?" Benita whispered, as they prepared to catch a couple of hours' sleep. "Why did you save us?"
"I told you," Daljit whispered back. "We - Shane and I - think all this killing is wrong and we want to do something about it. That's why we formed SAP."
"And what are you planning to do exactly?" Though Benita was a natural optimist, she couldn't help thinking that Shane and Daljit were taking rather a large risk. Aside from the fact that Osborne could detonate their collars if he suspected they were plotting against the Program, there was still the matter of getting the other students on their side. Which could be difficult in this game where everyone was a potential killer, where nobody could be completely trusted.
"Find out how to get these collars off without blowing ourselves up, for one thing. Then, we'll pay Osborne a visit in his little bolt hole . . ." Daljit meant the village hall, which had become the first forbidden zone. ". . . and make him pay for what he's done to us!" Of course, this kind of ill-thought-out talk of rebellion was one of the reasons the Program had been imported in the first place; the Government maintained that it served as proof that teenagers needed to be kept firmly in line, that they must not be allowed to develop dangerous ideas. After all, it had been young people who initiated the riots which had led to the Clampdown.
"What then?" Benita asked. "It's all very well getting our collars off and escaping from here, but the Government will never let us get away with it. We'll be hunted down for the rest of our lives!"
"Then we'll have to do more than escape from this village. We'll have to escape from the Republic."
Escape from the Republic. That could be easier said than done; the Great European Republic covered nearly all of Europe and, while it was possible for officials to travel outside the Republic, the privilege was not extended to the general population, certainly not to a group of teenagers plotting against the Government.
Antony had not slept once since arriving in the village; the need to avoid his fellow students kept him constantly on the move and he only allowed himself a few minutes of rest every time the next announcement came round. The moment Osborne's voice was projected across the village, he would sit down and listen as the names of those who had died since the last announcement were revealed. By now, twenty-six corpses lay scattered all over the village and Antony was desperate to make sure that his would not be the twenty-seventh.
He had not done too badly with his weapon, which had turned out to be a hammer, but he was another of those students who were trying to get through the Program by avoiding the others and hoping they would wipe each other out. So far, all such attempts (in both this and previous Programs) had been unsuccessful; sooner or later, every student in the selected class had to face a life or death situation and anyone who was unable or unwilling to fight would end up dead. But, as long as he kept moving and steered clear of the forbidden zones, he at least had a slight chance.
He risked switching on his torch to check his map, now covered with black crosses to indicate the forbidden zones. By now fifteen zones were either forbidden or scheduled to become forbidden, with three otherwise safe zones cut off because they were surrounded by forbidden zones. And, by dawn, Zones 24, 30 and 42 would be rendered inaccessible for the same reason. The area within which he could move safely was steadily shrinking and that meant all the remaining students would eventually be forced into the same area. When that happened, it would only be a question of time before all but one of them was dead.
Dead. For the first time, Antony began to realise how futile his plan to avoid his classmates and wait for them to kill each other was. There was no way he could avoid his fellow students forever, not when they were constantly being forced to move on to avoid being caught in the forbidden zones. Sooner or later, he would be forced into a confrontation with them, forced to fight kids who had once been his classmates but were all now potential murderers. The thought caused something to snap inside him; he lost all sense of reason. In his mind, every corner concealed a lurking student trying to kill him and, had he been armed with a gun, this would almost certainly have caused him to start shooting at shadows.
He had to avoid the others at all costs. But how? Thanks to the collar around his neck, there was no way he could go beyond the boundaries of the village without blowing himself up. But, maybe if he found a vantage point, somewhere which looked out over the whole village, he would at least be able to spot his potential killers before they spotted him. And the highest point in the whole village was the church tower which, as an added bonus, was in one of the safe zones.
He began to run in the direction of the church, not realising in his madness that his plan to hide in the church tower contained at least two flaws. Not only could not he not guarantee that Zone 6 (where the church stood) would not become forbidden at any point, he also risked becoming trapped if any of his fellow students decided to search the tower. His only thought was to get to the highest point he could reach and that just happened to be the church tower.
According to his watch, it was just after 1:00 AM when Antony reached the churchyard. His heart started pounding at the sight of the gravestones sticking out of the ground; any one of them could conceal a killer, a fellow student out to eliminate him from this deadly game. But more than that, they reminded him of his own mortality, not that he needed reminding right now. In his mind, every gravestone had his name carved on it; he imagined his family standing around each of them and weeping, mourning another young life lost to the Program.
No! That was not going to happen. He was going to survive this and, in order to do that, he had to get to the church tower where he would be out of the reach of any potential killers. Breathing raggedly, he began to run towards the church, focusing solely on the building ahead of him, unaware that his single-minded desire to reach his destination was a manifestation of the madness into which he was descending. This was a church, after all, and weren't churches supposed to be a place of sanctuary? Of course, this was the Program and nowhere in the village was completely safe, not even the church.
Reaching the bottom of the church tower, Antony found the door which led into the tower conveniently unlocked, though it did not occur to him to question this. All he knew was that it meant he was supposed to go inside, that this was where he must wait out the Program while his fellow students slaughtered each other. It was almost like a sign, a message from God that he was the Chosen One, the one who was destined to survive while everyone else died. That was the thought which was uppermost in his mind as he ran up the spiral staircase and entered the tower room. Ropes used for ringing the church's two bells dangled above his head, but he paid them no heed; his only thought was that, out of all the students in 11G, he was the only one who had succeeding in outsmarting the Program.
It was then that any vestiges of sanity left him. Originally, his intention had been to hide in the tower, but he now grew bolder and began to climb the ladder which led to the belfry, the part of the tower which housed the bells. From there, it took him a matter of seconds to climb out onto the roof of the tower, by which time he no longer cared if anyone found him or not. Let his fellow students come and let them be armed; he was going to outlive them all. And, as for Osborne . . .
"Hey! Osbert, or whatever your name is!" he shouted, taunting the man who had been monitoring his every move since he arrived in the village. "You think you're so big, sitting there reading out dead kids' names? Well, no-one can kill me because I am invincible!"
And, as if to prove his invincibility, he stepped onto the crenellations around the edge of the tower roof and launched himself off it.
It was Joseph who found him, sprawled on the ground in front of the tower. One look was all that was needed; Antony's insane belief in his own invincibility had ultimately proved to be his downfall, in more ways than one. The fall had killed him instantly and he now lay on the ground, his neck broken, his eyes still open but seeing nothing. After all his attempts to evade his fellow students and wait for them to wipe each other out, Antony had died because, in a moment of madness, he had forgotten that the law of gravity still applied even in the Program.
Joseph finished his cursory examination of Antony's body and turned his attention to the dead student's pack. He was interested in the weapon it contained; though he had his pistol, the supply of bullets which had come with it was beginning to run out. That meant a back-up weapon was essential if he was going to win this game, preferably something which didn't require bullets. Such as . . . Joseph smiled to himself as he pulled what looked like an ordinary hammer out of Antony's pack. It didn't look as though it had ever been used, certainly not for the purpose it had been placed in the pack, but Joseph decided that it might come in useful and transfered it into his own pack.
Remembering that he had killed Dani somewhere near this spot, he wondered if he should take the time to look for her body as well. After all, judging from the way she had stabbed Jonathan to death, her pack contained some kind of bladed weapon. But he decided that his pistol and the hammer he had retrieved from Antony's pack were enough for now and moved on, but only as far as the vicarage.
Right from when he first learned that his class had been selected for the Program, Joseph had been playing the game. And, in doing so, he had lost all sense of humanity; all that mattered to him was that he had to win at all costs. He had already ruthlessly murdered seven of his fellow students, but he had not allowed his conscience to bother him for some time. Any doubts he might have about what he was doing to kids he had known for years were quickly suppressed; he must kill or be killed and he could not allow morality to get in the way.
As for Antony, Joseph could not tell how he had come to fall off the church tower, but it hardly mattered. All it meant was that the game had moved one step nearer to its conclusion, to the point where the sole survivor out of thirty-six students would be allowed to leave the village with his or her life. And Joseph was determined that he would be that survivor.
"Twenty-seven down, eight to go," he thought out loud.
Sophie woke to the sound of Benita calling her name, urging her to get up. She groaned and sat up, taking stock of her surroundings; she was in the farmhouse, lying on a sofa with Benita kneeling beside her, shaking her awake. Shane and Daljit were standing nearby, their packs slung over their shoulders and a tense look on both their faces. She wondered what was going on; she remembered getting shot in the arm and Daljit leading her and Benita here, but she must have fallen asleep shortly after arriving because she remembered nothing since. She checked her watch - 2:15 AM. That meant she had slept through the midnight announcement.
"Did you hear . . .?" she began to ask. But Daljit cut her short.
"Yes. James, Jonathan, Theo and Dani are dead. And we're about to be surrounded by forbidden zones." Which meant SAP, the anti-Program group she and Shane had started would have to move out of the farmhouse which had in effect been their headquarters. She had no idea where they were going to go next, only that they had to get away before Zone 29 became forbidden, effectively boxing them in. Of course, there were only four members - most of the students who might have been potential SAP recruits were already dead - but that was all the more reason to get clear as quickly as possible. Once they had done that, they could try to work out a way of dealing with those wretched collars; only then would they be able to make a move against Osborne.
Shane and Daljit had already examined each other's collars and knew they were held shut by a lock which could only be opened with the right key. Any attempt to pry it open would trigger the explosives inside the collar and that was the last thing they wanted. But perhaps they wouldn't have to worry about blowing themselves up if they could somehow override the computer in the village hall and, to do that, they would need someone who really knew about computers. Someone like Antony, a member of Parkwood's computer club; it was said he could even get round the Great European Firewall, the nickname given to the mandatory Internet filters installed on all computers in the Republic to ensure that no-one could gain access to "dangerous" ideas.
With that in mind, Daljit had tried to call Antony on his mobile; Osborne had said the students wouldn't be able to call anyone outside the village, but he hadn't said anything about them not being able to call each other. But the only response she received was a series of beeps which meant she was not getting a signal. In the end, she gave up; if she and Shane wanted Antony in their band of rebels, they would have to find him themselves. Now, with most of the students dead, it was more important than ever for those who remained to band together and resist the tyranny which had forced them into this deadly game.
But, as Daljit switched off the kitchen light and left the farmhouse with Shane, Sophie and Benita, she did not know that Antony was already dead, that the one student who might have been able to help them get their collars off safely could help them no longer.