Chapter Three

Students remaining: 31

Sophie could not believe she had been so careless as to not consider the possibility that someone might be hiding in the back garden. Whoever was currently holding a machete to her throat must have reached this cottage ahead of her, gone inside, walked straight through it and hidden in the garden, hoping one of their fellow students would do what she had planned to do. She had barricaded the front door to keep out intruders, but she hadn't even thought about the back and that oversight could be very costly indeed. There were thirty other students out there, any one of whom could be her killer.

Unless she killed them first. Sophie had no idea who had attacked her, but, if her theory was correct, it must be one of the students who had left before her - minus Lauren, Michael and Yasmin, all of whom were already dead. Whoever it was, she would have to take them out before they did the same to her. Grateful for the fact that her attacker was preoccupied with her throat and had left her arms free, she reached into her belt and pulled out her cutlass. Not allowing herself time to think about what she was doing, she thrust the curved blade deep into her assailant's stomach.

There was a groan and the person attacking her fell back, moaning in pain. Sophie pulled her cutlass free and thrust it into her attacker again, and again, taking advantage of the element of surprise, determined to make sure the person would have no chance to use their machete against her. Finally, to make absolutely certain, she slashed her attacker's throat.

Sophie waited until she had got her breath back, before taking her torch out of her hold-all and switching it on to see who had just died at her hands. Long auburn hair, hazel eyes staring sightlessly up at her . . . It was Charlotte, the girl who had sat directly in front of her at Osborne's briefing. Sophie knew Charlotte well; she was 11G's Form Captain - or rather she had been. Now, she was dead and it was Sophie who had killed her, who had stabbed her in the stomach and slit her throat. By the light of her torch, Sophie could see the gaping wound in Charlotte's neck, just above her metal collar.

Sophie's only thought was to get away as fast as she could, to escape from this garden where she had killed one of her fellow students. She had known from the moment Osborne revealed why she and the others were here that something like this might happen, only she hadn't expected it to happen so soon. Less than three hours had passed since she left the village hall and already someone had died at her hands. She was taking part in the Program whether she wanted to or not.

Someone who most definitely did not want to take part in the Program was Kieran, the only student who had dared to speak out. Osborne's threat to shoot the next person who questioned the Program in the head had silenced him, but he had spent the remainder of his time in the village hall fuming at how unfair it all was. There was no way he was going to kill his classmates! By the time his name was called ("Boy #10: Kieran Francis.") Kieran had decided what he was going to do.

With that in mind, he had checked his map and decided the building which best suited his needs was the village primary school; there was no secondary school in the village, which was why the students had been brought to the village hall. Heading straight for Zone 4 (the zone where the school stood) he had broken into the building and was now in the process of trashing one of the classrooms. He had already pulled out all the drawers and scattered the contents over the floor, knocked over all the desks and chairs, ripped down the flag of the Great European Republic which all schools were legally obliged to display in every classroom . . .

Next, he had done something no citizen of the Great European Republic would have dared to do, unless they wanted to be arrested for treason. He had unzipped his jeans and blatantly, deliberately urinated on the flag crumpled at his feet. As far as he was concerned, he had nothing to lose anyway and he hated the way the Government told everyone what to do, hated the fact that he had been forced into the Program. There was no way he was going to co-operate and kill his classmates, especially not Nicola Black (Girl #15), the captain of the school netball team, whom he had had a crush on for the past year. He had hoped to pluck up the courage to ask her out, but that was before he knew the real reason behind this "school trip". Now he would never have the chance.

Kieran zipped his jeans back up, but he wasn't through wrecking the classroom yet. Suspecting that every building in the village was rigged with hidden cameras, he was going to leave a message to let Osborne know exactly what he, Kieran, thought of the Program. He walked over to the blackboard and picked up a piece of chalk. Spelling wasn't his strong point, but as long as he could get the message across . . . In large capitals, Kieran chalked the words:


followed by:


Kieran stepped back to admire his handiwork, smiling as he read what he had just written. He was especially pleased with his second message; as far as he was concerned, the Government did stink. What right did they have to force kids to kill each other, just because someone had decided that the Republic's youth needed to be kept in line? Kieran had learned about the history of the Republic at school - or, at least, the version the Government wanted him to know. From what he'd been able to gather, the ten States had once been independent countries, but, after a war which left much of Europe in ruins, they had vowed to make sure there would never be another such war. To that end, they had come together, initially as trading partners, but this had evolved into a political union somewhere down the line.

That was how the Great European Republic had been born. Ten States (the British and Irish State, the Iberian State, the Gallic State, the Central European State, the Scandinavian State, the Italian State, the Hellenic State, the Germanic State, the Balkan State and the Baltic State) all ruled by a central Government but allowed a limited amount of autonomy. That in itself wasn't too bad, but the Government had become increasingly controlling over the years, though they always insisted that it was "for the good of everyone" and few questioned them openly. Then, following a series of anti-Government riots involving young people in each of the ten States, came the Clampdown.

Anything deemed "morally corrupting", which meant anything which might encourage youngsters to question the Government, was outlawed; even the lyrics of pop songs were checked for "dangerous" content and, if anything suspect was found, the offending song had to either be rewritten or replaced with an instrumental version. But, in addition to this, the Government, having seen how successful the Program had been in the Republic of Greater East Asia, imported the idea. Soon, students in the Great European Republic were also being made to kill each other and, like their counterparts in the Far East, no-one dared to speak up for them. No-one dared to question the Government's official line that the Program served to teach the students the importance of obedience.

There was no way Kieran was going to co-operate with this sadistic game, especially after he had just sent Osborne a pretty clear message via his trashing of the classroom. But he knew there was no way to escape the Program - except one. The students faced a choice: kill or be killed, but Kieran meant to die on his own terms. It was the only freedom he had left to him and he suspected that Lauren and Michael (whose bodies he had found as he left the village hall) had already taken that option.

Unlike them, however, he did not have access to a gun - his weapon was a wooden club - so he couldn't shoot himself. He considered using his belt to hang himself, but the classroom contained no convenient beams from which he could do the deed. And, as for throwing himself off the school roof, the building was only one storey high, so there were no guarantees that the fall would kill him. Kieran sighed and ran his hands over the collar around his neck, the collar which could potentially kill him.

He had just lowered his hands when a thought occurred to him. Osborne had said these collars would explode under certain circumstances, including any attempt to force them off. Kieran smiled to himself; the collar which had been fitted around his neck to ensure his co-operation in the Program would instead allow him to commit the ultimate act of defiance. Still smiling, he slowly reached up and placed his hands on the clasp which held the collar around his neck.

Sophie had managed to get clear of the cottages and was approaching the school when she heard an explosion from within, accompanied by the sound of breaking glass. She hurried over to investigate, prepared to defend herself if she had to. The explosion had not been powerful enough to demolish the school, but, when she turned her torch in the direction of the building, she could see that all the windows in one of the classrooms had been blown out, leaving only empty frames.

But what had caused the explosion? Had one of her fellow students found bomb-making equipment in their pack? Or had the explosion been caused by something else, namely someone's collar? If it was the latter, it could only mean that someone had attempted to interfere with their collar in spite of Osborne's warning about what the consequences would be. And that meant he had not been making up that stuff about exploding collars in order to scare the students into co-operating with the Program.

Sophie touched the metal band around her neck, the band which not only had the potential to destroy her, but also monitored her every movement and told Osborne precisely where she was at any moment. That meant, no matter where she went in the village, he would be able to find her and there was no way she could escape from the village as long as she wore the collar. The collar she could not remove without blowing herself up . . .

She was trapped.

Sophie ended up spending what remained of the night in the village churchyard, crouching beside one of the gravestones. It was not the sort of environment that was conducive to getting a good night's rest, especially when you knew death lay in wait around every corner, but she was too tired to go any further. So she crouched among the graves, keeping a tight hold on her cutlass in case she had to defend herself.

Defend herself - that was how she tried to justify her actions in killing Charlotte. Her life had been threatened and the only way she could save herself was to kill her attacker. She had not known it was Charlotte until she shone her torch on the body of her victim and saw the girl who had been her Form Captain lying there with her throat slashed and stab wounds in her stomach. Even if she had, would it have made any difference? She doubted it; in the Program, everyone was your enemy, so, if someone ambushed you the way Charlotte had done, your best bet was to kill first and ask questions later. All the same, Sophie vowed, she would never knowingly kill Benita; thirteen years of friendship couldn't be destroyed just like that.

Somehow, Sophie managed to doze off, waking to the sound of Osborne's voice making the 6:00 AM announcement.

"Since midnight, two students have died," he informed the remaining youngsters. "Girl #5: Charlotte Evans and Boy #10: Kieran Francis. And here's a quick warning to anyone who thinks I was joking when I said your collars would explode if you tried to remove them. Kieran attempted to do just that and blew himself up in the process. So remember that before you start interfering with your collars. And remember that the same fate awaits anyone who gets caught in a forbidden zone."

"And, talking of forbidden zones," he went on, "the following will be added between now and twelve o'clock. Zone 37 at 7:00 AM, Zone 13 at 9:00 AM and Zone 1 at 11:00 AM. So, if you are in any of those zones, remember you must get out by the allotted times. That is all."

Sophie took out the felt-tip pen she had found the previous night and marked the new forbidden zones on her map. In order of when they would become active, these were a field that was part of the farm which lay to the south of the village, the village's football pitch which was immediately south of the village hall and the area which included the cottage where Sophie had sheltered last night. Already, she noted as she finished colouring in the squares containing the pending forbidden zones, the top left-hand side of the map was looking distinctly red.

"Looks like I made the right decision," she thought out loud. Though her main motivation in leaving the cottage had been the fear of being trapped if neighbouring Zone 2 became forbidden. Her present location, Zone 6, which contained the church and part of the churchyard, was currently safe and there were no forbidden zones immediately next to it. That, however, could change and she knew she had to be ready to move in case Zone 6 was named in a future announcement.

For now, though, she took the time to check out her surroundings; it had been too dark to do that when she left the village hall. The church was one of those that had no steeple, just a square tower with decorative carvings in each corner and a clock face which showed 8:45, even though the current time was just after six o'clock. This told Sophie that the church clock had stopped, though she couldn't be sure precisely when it had stopped; it had been gone nine o'clock before any of the students left the village hall. Most likely, she thought, it had been stopped for some time before she and the others arrived in this village. That meant, the only reliable means she had of keeping track of time was to listen out for Osborne's announcements, which were broadcast to the whole village every six hours.

The churchyard where Sophie had stopped for the remainder of last night was divided into two sections. Most of the older graves with their ornate headstones were at the front of the church, while more modern graves were round the side, in a section which, according to the map, spilled over into Zone 5. Sophie had spent the night by one of the older graves, one marked with an arch-shaped stone nearly as tall as she was. The inscription on the stone was now almost completely illegible, but she could just make out the words:

Sacred to the memory of

followed by a name which almost caused her heart to stop:

Charlotte Evans

Sophie almost felt as though this gravestone had been put there to taunt her, to remind her of the Charlotte Evans who had been her classmate - until she killed her last night. But she told herself that was impossible, that the stone had been there for a long time, that it was just a coincidence that the person it commemorated had the same name as one of her dead classmates. According to the inscription, this Charlotte Evans had died in 1876 - or was that last digit an 8? In any case, it was so worn that it was impossible to make out much else.

Sophie turned her back on the grave and turned to walk away, not wanting to stay in this churchyard any longer than she had to. It was bad enough that the place reminded of the mortal danger she was now in, but discovering the grave of someone who had the same name as a girl she had killed just hours ago made it seem even worse. She recalled the moment Charlotte attacked her with the machete, forcing her to fight back with the cutlass. She had been in danger and had reacted instinctively to preserve her life, even though the cost had been the life of one of her fellow students. But she doubted it would be the only time this happened in the next few days. Those in the Program had to choose between being killed and killing others; there was no middle ground, no means of cheating the Program.

Except one, one which Sophie suspected had already been taken by Lauren and Michael. And, when she heard that Kieran had blown himself up by interfering with his collar, she quickly added him to the list of suicides. It made a kind of morbid sense. Kieran had made it clear that he had no wish to participate in the Program; he had even gone so far as to call it "a load of crap". And, knowing the only way he could avoid doing so was to kill himself, he must have tried to remove his collar. That must have been what caused the explosion at the school. Sophie shuddered and vowed to keep her hands off the metal band round her neck from now on.

Just as Sophie reached the church's lych gate, she came across a scene which made her stop in her tracks. A boy was standing over a kneeling girl, pointing an arrow straight at her head.