Chapter Fourteen

Students remaining: 7

Since the Program began, Lana had forced Eleanor to be her accomplice in the murders of three of their fellow students; Christina, Deepak and Theo were dead because of the two of them. And it was becoming increasingly clear that Lana was not finished yet, that she was prepared to kill again. And Eleanor had an uneasy feeling she knew who the victim would be; as far as Lana was concerned, her usefulness was almost at an end.

Eleanor had regretted teaming up with Lana almost from the start, but her lack of a proper weapon meant she hadn't had much choice. By teaming up with a fellow student, she at least had someone to watch her back, but she hadn't counted on Lana being one of those who were actually prepared to take part in this sick game. In spite of Osborne's warning about what would happen if the students failed to co-operate, Eleanor had not believed any of her classmates would actually obey him and start killing each other. True, there were those who didn't get along, but no-one in 11G disliked any of the others enough to want them dead. By the time she realised what Lana's intentions were, it was too late.

They sat in one of the farm outbuildings, Lana toying with the siangham which used to be Deepak's weapon, Eleanor thinking miserably of the things she had left behind. There was little chance that she would ever see her parents, her sister or her rabbit again - in fact, no chance. If she tried to escape, Lana would be more than capable of killing her; whether it was with the siangham or the garrotte made little difference. And, even if she could somehow get away, there were still five other students to worry about, students who had weapons and, it seemed, were prepared to use them. How far would she get armed with only a box of matches?

Eleanor knew her only hope of surviving this game was to get as far away from Lana and the other students as possible, then wait for them to wipe each other out. But, with much of the village now off limits, there was no way she could avoid the others long enough to outlive them all. She was in a truly hopeless situation, facing death whether she stayed with Lana or tried to go it alone. And it was in the realisation that there was nothing she could do to save herself that she came to a grim conclusion.

Lana had to die. If nothing else, Eleanor had to take out the girl who had forced her to be an accomplice to murder. The only question was, how was she going to do it? Lana was bigger and stronger than her, so attempting to get one of her weapons would only result in Lana claiming a fourth kill. Something Eleanor suspected she was planning to do anyway . . . If only she had been able to get her hands on a gun of some sort, she wouldn't be in this mess now. But all she had was the matches which had been her supplied "weapon".

Matches, Eleanor realised as she took the box out of her pack and examined it. Matches could be used to start a fire and a fire could burn someone to death. But simply striking a match and attempting to set light to this building with Lana inside it would not be enough; she, Eleanor, had to be certain her plan would work. If the fire failed to take hold, if Lana managed to escape, all her efforts would be wasted. Whatever happened, she had to be certain that Lana's name would be among those Osborne read out at the noon announcement. Eleanor disliked the thought of killing innocent students, but a girl who had already killed three times and, she suspected, was also planning to kill her was another matter. Kill or be killed - the words echoed in her head once more.

It was just as she was pondering how she was going to carry out her plan to burn Lana alive that Eleanor spotted the can of petrol in the corner. Good - it suited her purpose. She made her way over to the corner, picked up the can and lugged it into the centre of the room. Before Lana could stop her, she unscrewed the cap and started sloshing the contents everywhere, making sure as much of the petrol as possible landed between the door and Lana. She had to be certain that the girl she was trying to kill could not escape. Of course, since there was no other way in or out of this building, this also meant she was cutting off her own escape route, but she no longer cared about that. All that mattered was eliminating Lana.

Once the can of petrol had been emptied, Eleanor tossed it to one side and pulled out her matches. It was at this point that Lana realised what Eleanor's plan was, why petrol had just been poured everywhere. And she reacted as most people would under such circumstances - she panicked. "W - what are you doing?!" Had she kept her head, she might have attempted to take Eleanor out and make her escape, but she was rooted to the spot, unable to move as Eleanor opened her box of matches and took one out.

"Something I should have done a long time ago!" With that, Eleanor struck her match and tossed it into the petrol she had just poured all over every surface.

With so much flammable liquid around, it was not long before the whole building was engulfed by fire. Unable to escape, Lana and Eleanor could do nothing but crouch on the floor, bracing themselves for the inevitable moment when the flames consumed them. Eleanor had taken a simple box of matches and, with a little help from a can of petrol, turned it into a weapon which would kill not only Lana but also herself. In a matter of minutes, two more students would join the ever-expanding list of the dead.

Sophie and Benita could see the burning building from the cottage in Zone 16 that was their current refuge; Zone 28, where the farm outbuildings stood, was directly across the road. They knew there was no way this fire could have started by itself, that one of their fellow students must have started it. But was it an accident or had someone set the building on fire deliberately? It was impossible to tell, but the question of whether the fire was accidental or the result of arson paled into insignificance when you considered the possibility that . . .

"Do you think there's someone in there?" asked Benita, staring helplessly at the building, now completely engulfed by fire.

Sophie shook her head slowly. "If there is, they've had it. No way anyone could survive that." She shuddered, unable to imagine a more horrific death than being burned alive, and wondered if someone had indeed started the fire deliberately. Had one of her fellow students trapped another fellow student in that building, then set it on fire? A few days ago, she would not have imagined any of her classmates to be capable of such an act, but that was before they found themselves in the Program. Now, she knew there were students in her class (including herself) who were capable of killing others, who would turn on their own classmates for the sake of their own survival.

Not all of them, though. There were also students like Kieran, who had killed himself as a gesture of defiance, or Shane and Daljit, who had attempted to form a group to resist the Program. Not that it had done any of them much good; they had still died. Sophie remembered how Shane had refused to leave Daljit, even though he knew she was already dead, even though he knew the zone he was in was about to become forbidden. It made her wonder what she would do if she and Benita ended up in a similar situation. The two of them had grown up together and it was hard to imagine life without the girl who had been her best friend since early childhood. But, under the rules of the Program, there was no way both of them could get out of this village alive.

In some ways, if anybody was trapped in the burning building, they were lucky. At least they wouldn't have to worry about surviving at the expense of a friend.

At noon, with the fire still smouldering, Osborne's voice came through the speakers installed all over the village.

"Well, my young friends, it's time for another announcement. And, as is traditional at these times, I will start by updating the list of the dead. The newest additions to that list are as follows - Girl #13: Lana Matthews and Girl #14: Eleanor Holmes-Wilson. Which means only five of you are left. Congratulations to Boy #1: Aidan Jeffries, Girl #3: Abigail Wells, Girl #11: Sophie Clarke, Boy #18: Joseph Walker and Girl #18: Benita Wright for making it this far. But remember, the Program is not over yet; four of you must still die. If you want to avoid becoming one of those four, you must be prepared to survive at all costs - even if that means killing a friend."

Sophie and Benita exchanged glances, a sombre expression etched on both their faces. Osborne's words reminded them - not that they needed reminding - that one of them might have to kill the other in order to get out of here. So far, they had managed to keep each other alive, but the Program had now moved into its final stages, the point where they faced the very real possibility that it might come down to the two of them. They listened as Osborne continued his announcement.

"I will now announce the zones that will become forbidden between now and six o'clock. The first of these will be Zone 34 at 1:00 PM, followed by Zone 16 at 3:00 PM and Zone 3 at 5:00 PM. And I hardly need to remind you that you must get out of those zones by the times stated - one student has been caught in a forbidden zone already. Over and out."

Sophie got out her felt-tip and coloured in the squares on her map which corresponded to the zones Osborne had just named. The ink was beginning to run dry, but that hardly mattered now; something told her there would not be another announcement, or, if there was, she would not be around to hear it. One way or another, her fate would be determined some time between now and 6:00 PM. According to Osborne, only three students apart from herself and Benita were still alive; that meant this sick game should reach its conclusion sometime in the next few hours. The trouble was, she had no way of knowing where Aidan, Abigail and Joseph were.

She looked at her map. Since Zone 34 was scheduled to become forbidden in less than an hour, it was unlikely anyone would hang around there or in any of the nearby zones, four of which would be rendered inaccessible once Zone 34 was off limits. And Zone 3 had been inaccessible for some time, so there shouldn't be anyone in that area. Anyone living, at least. And then there was their present location, Zone 16, which would become a forbidden zone at three o'clock; that meant she and Benita would have to move again and they were rapidly running out of places to go.

"Sophie," Benita said, as Sophie put her map away, "you don't think Lana and Eleanor were . . .?" She trailed off, unable to give voice to the awful thought which had just occurred to her.

Sophie, guessing what Benita meant, could only shrug. She had not heard any shooting all morning and the last collar she had heard exploding had been Shane's. That meant Lana and Eleanor had almost certainly died in the fire, unless one of them was stabbed, or had her skull bashed in, or was attacked with an axe . . . But she had no way of knowing; the only way she would find out was if she survived this sick game and got to hear about it on the news. Even so, the knowledge that at least one of the two girls could have been trapped in the burning building made her shudder. She did not want to imagine what the clean-up teams might find when they went to retrieve Lana and Eleanor's bodies at the end of the Program.

Bodies. There were now thirty-one of them scattered all over the village. Much as it disturbed her, Sophie found herself thinking about the corpses she had seen since she left the village hall at the beginning of this insane game. The first had been Lauren and Michael (the latter, she recalled, had shared Joseph's surname, though they were not related) who had most likely died in a suicide pact. She had killed Charlotte not long after and had heard (but not witnessed) Kieran's death shortly after that. And then there was Adam, whom she had shot to save Benita; Lucy, who had to be put out of her misery after she stepped on a landmine; Nicola, Benita's first and, so far, only kill; Daljit, impaled by a harpoon; Shane, who had chosen to die in a forbidden zone rather than face life without Daljit . . .

"Sophie?" Benita's voice distracted Sophie from her morbid thoughts of dead students. "Are you scared?" She looked pretty scared herself, Sophie noted, not at all like the Benita she had known nearly all her life. Possibly, the fact that the Program was nearly at an end and the knowledge of what this entailed was beginning to get to her.

"I haven't stopped being scared since I left the village hall," Sophie replied, recalling the moment she had gone out to face more than thirty potential killers. By now, most of them had been killed themselves, but that did nothing to ease her fear. If anything, the feeling that she could be the next student to fall increased with every death. It was a fear which stalked all the students, a fear made worse by the knowledge that no-one could be completely trusted in this game, that someone who had previously been your friend could end up being the one who killed you. Even at this late stage, she could not imagine herself killing Benita, or vice versa. But, if it came down to the two of them, they wouldn't have a choice.

Or rather they would have a choice, but it would be a choice between refusing to fight, in which case their collars would explode after twenty-four hours, or betraying thirteen years of friendship. Whichever way you looked at it, at least one of them would not leave the village alive.

Abigail had been driven out of Zone 10 when it became forbidden an hour before Osborne's latest announcement. As a result, she had heard the news of Lana and Eleanor's deaths from neighbouring Zone 11, though Osborne had not said how they came to die; he had not revealed that information about any of the dead students except Kieran and Shane, both of whom had been killed by their collars. Abigail suspected that was to let the students know his warnings about not interfering with the collars and staying out of the forbidden zones were not idle threats. In fact, thanks to the collars, he had the power of life and death over all the students; they had no choice but to co-operate with the Program, as failure to do so meant certain death for all of them. However, by taking part in this game, there was at least a chance that one of them might survive.

Abigail recalled seeing smoke rising from one of the farm outbuildings across the road. That, she released, meant one of the buildings was on fire and she wondered if that was what had killed Lana and Eleanor. If it was, someone must have started the blaze. Someone must have trapped the two girls in a building, poured flammable liquid everywhere and . . . Abigail did not realise how close to the truth she was getting; the only detail she had missed out was the fact that Lana and Eleanor had been together throughout the Program. That, however, was hardly surprising; Lana and Eleanor had not been in the habit of hanging out together.

Five students remained. Abigail counted off their names on her fingers - Aidan, Sophie, Joseph, Benita and herself. She had to outlive all four of her remaining classmates, but she wasn't sure how she was going to do it. Until now, her strategy had been to shoot her opponents from behind to avoid having to look into their eyes as she killed them, but she had a feeling that strategy would no longer work. By now, the only students left would be constantly on the alert, on the lookout for victims while trying to avoid becoming victims themselves.

She had to find somewhere to hide and wait out the game. But where could she go? By now, much of the village was forbidden, or at least inaccessible, meaning she had only a small area within which she could move. And, once Zone 16 became forbidden at 3:00 PM, the number of zones she could enter would be reduced even further. Her only hope was that the rest of the students were somewhere to the south of Zone 16 - at present, five zones in that area were still safe - and that they would end up wiping each other out. In the meantime, she would be safely hidden in one of the cottages she could see nearby.

But it was a very slim hope and, just as she was about to take her chances in the nearest cottage, she found out how slim that hope was. She had just pushed the gate open when Joseph emerged from the shrubbery, his pistol drawn. Before she could attempt to escape, or even draw her own gun, he opened fire, sending two bullets into her chest at close range. He watched dispassionately as Abigail, blood soaking through her t-shirt, sank to her knees. Seconds later, she was dead.

No emotion registered on Joseph's face as he looked at the body of the girl who had just become his eighth victim. He did not think about the fact that he had killed another of his classmates, shooting her in cold blood; he was playing this game to win. Now, there were just three students between him and victory.