Epilogue

Students remaining: 1

One year later . . .

With her cat, Beauty, curled up on the sofa beside her, Sophie flicked over the channel on the TV. When she saw that she had switched to the news, a programme she had never taken a great deal of interest in, she was about to switch back when she caught a little of what the newsreader was saying.

". . . which consisted of fifteen boys and sixteen girls. The winner, who emerged after fifty-one hours and eleven minutes, was Boy #6: Gilles Delacroix." As a photograph showing a handsome dark-haired boy was flashed up, Sophie needed no-one to tell her that this was the news report announcing the end of another Program. The same report was broadcast every year, in exactly the same format; only the names and numbers ever differed. This year, it had been the turn of the Gallic State to send a class, though Sophie had not caught the name of the school involved.

Though there had been fewer students in the chosen class than last year, this Program had taken longer to resolve. And, now, the annual ritual of showing the dead students' pictures was beginning. To a soundtrack of sombre classical music, their faces were projected onto the screen, accompanied by a caption stating how each of them had died. At the same time, the newsreader read off each of their names in the kind of matter-of-fact tone which Sophie would always associate with Osborne.

"Boy #1: Marc Leblanc." A picture of a fair-haired boy in a white t-shirt appeared, bearing the caption: Gunshot wound. "Girl #1: Stephanie Piaget." A girl with long auburn hair, whose caption read: Drowning. "Boy #2: Thierry Paul." The next picture showed a boy with slightly messy brown hair, accompanied by a caption which said: Decapitation. "Girl #2: Mimi Chirac." The caption accompanying the picture of the dark-haired girl who used to be Mimi read: Caught in forbidden zone. The same fate which had befallen Shane last year . . .

Sophie paid no attention to the next few faces; she was wondering how Mimi had come to die in the way she had. Had she, like Shane, used a forbidden zone (or a zone that was about to become forbidden) as a means of committing suicide? Had she simply misjudged her location and paid the ultimate price? Or, worse, had one of her fellow students deliberately tricked her? It wouldn't surprise Sophie if it was the latter; after what she had been through last year, she knew people were capable of virtually anything if they were desperate enough to ensure their own survival.

Though she had seen this report every year for as long as she could remember, it had never made much impression on her before. True, it involved kids who had been forced to fight and, in most cases, die in the Government's sick game, but they had always been kids she didn't know personally. Now, however, she knew something of what these thirty-one students must have been through, the fear they must have felt, the knowledge that thirty of them were going to die and there was nothing they could do about it. By the time the last dead student - "Girl #16: Monique Dubois" - appeared on the screen, accompanied by a caption which read: Stab wounds, Sophie found herself imagining what Gilles must be going through right now.

She had never known him, but she could clearly remember how difficult the past year had been for her. Not only had she lost all her former classmates, including her best friend, she and her family had been forced to move to a new town and make a fresh start. That in itself wasn't too bad, but she had been ordered never to mention any of the students who had died in last year's Program again. She was supposed to act like nothing had happened, so she had not even been able to grieve openly for Benita. No-one had told her what would happen to her if she ever broke her silence, but she had a feeling it would not be pleasant.

So she kept quiet and tried to get on with her life. But it wasn't easy; there were always little things which reminded her of Benita. A small teddy bear similar to one Benita had owned, seeing a film on TV that they had been to see at the cinema, a top which Benita would have loved . . . Even the fact that she had been on a couple of dates with one of the boys from her new school made Sophie think of how she and Benita used to compare notes on boys they fancied. But not any more; Benita was dead and, though she had made one or two new friends, Sophie doubted she would ever be as close to them. There was no way she could replicate a friendship she had known since early childhood.

Now, she found herself wondering if Gilles was going through something similar. Had he also lost someone close to him in the Program? If so, was that person his best friend or someone he had know more intimately? Either way, he would now have to spend the rest of his life pretending he had never known them, never speaking of them openly. And, she knew from experience, it would make no difference how long he had known them. The surviving student from each Program had to make a clean break and that meant they had to forget about their dead classmates.

But Sophie had not forgotten, at least not about Benita. She still had her pendant from the pair she and Benita had shared, the one with Friends Forever etched into the silver, tucked away in the bottom of her jewellery box. She had not worn it since the Program, but had kept it to remind her that, while the Government might order her to forget Benita, they could not control her memory. Every night, she took the pendant out and looked at it, remembering the thirteen years of friendship she and Benita had shared.

It was the only means she had of rebelling against the Government.