Chapter Six

Students remaining: 25

Amy was constantly on the alert for her fellow students, any one of whom could become her killer, as she crossed from Zone 11 to Zone 10, the location of the village shop. She been holed up in one of the houses in Zone 11 for the last few hours, but she was now on the move again. She had no particular reason for moving - this area wasn't scheduled to become a forbidden zone - but she was a naturally restless person and couldn't stand being in one place too long.

A little before ten o'clock, the inactivity had proved too much for her and she had left the house she had taken shelter in, even though she knew she was putting herself in danger by doing so. The "weapon" in her pack had turned out to be a corkscrew, useful for opening wine bottles but not much use if you found yourself confronted by someone armed with a gun. And Amy knew there were guns out there, though she had no way of knowing how many. So she kept constant watch for the others; if she saw any sign of movement, she was going to try and make a run for it, which would hopefully allow her to get back to her sanctuary without being spotted.

Just as she reached the shop, Amy spotted something lying in the doorway. A pile of rags, she thought at first, probably left behind when this village was evacuated. But, when she got closer, she saw what it really was: the body of one of her fellow students, slumped in the doorway with a pack lying open nearby. It was Vijay, who had, she recalled with a pang of regret, once had a crush on her and kept trying to pass her notes in lessons. The trouble was, she was dating someone else at the time and Vijay had eventually given up on her and started dating Katelynne.

Now, he was dead, another fatality of the Program, though she could not tell how he had died. There was no sign of any gunshot or stab wounds, he hadn't been strangled and his skull had not been bashed in. In fact, he seemed to be completely uninjured except for a single cut on his hand, but that couldn't have killed him. Unless whatever had caused the wound was poisoned . . . Amy recalled that, after each Program ended, the bodies of the dead students were collected up and examined to determine how they had died. This information was announced on the news; pictures of each student were shown, together with a caption such as gunshot wound, strangulation, stab wounds . . . But, until the game ended, the corpses were left where they had fallen.

Amy knew there was nothing she could do for Vijay, but she wanted to at least move him from the shop doorway. She grasped him under his arms and began to drag him until he was lying on the pavement a few yards away. Not very dignified, but it was the best she could do under the circumstances, though she did take the time to close his eyes. Then, just as she was taking a final look at the body of the boy who once had a crush on her, she sensed a movement behind her.

Amy turned just in time to see Jordan Burns (Boy #11) on the verge of putting a meat cleaver through her skull. She dodged out of the way and pulled out the corkscrew that was meant to be her weapon; it might not do her much good, but at least she might be able to wound Jordan before he killed her. She held the corkscrew in front of her, the screw part exposed and ready to stab him, as he gripped the meat cleaver he had found in his pack. Both students had only one thought: to kill the other.

"What's the matter?" Jordan taunted. "Afraid to die?" He was one of the smaller kids in 11G, but he was also one of the most spiteful and never had a good word to say about anyone. And it looked as though he had decided to participate in this game where he and his classmates had to kill each other, even though his size would put him at a disadvantage against some of his opponents. His height was just over 5' 3", two inches shorter than Amy, and there were boys in the class (such as Joseph) who were already close to six feet tall. The tallest girls were Lana and the now deceased Yasmin, both of whom were 5' 9".

But, regardless of his height, it was clear that Jordan had the advantage in terms of weapons; that meat cleaver looked like it could do some serious damage. All Amy could do was keep hold of her corkscrew and try to fight back as best she could. Even if he did end up hacking her to bits, she wanted to inflict at least one wound on him first; that way, no-one could say she hadn't tried to save herself. With that in mind, she made to stab him with the corkscrew, but Jordan was too quick for her. He dodged her easily, then knocked her to the ground.

Jordan sat astride Amy's chest, smirking to himself at the look of fear in her eyes; it was the same look he had seen in the eyes of the younger kids when he bullied them into giving him their lunch money. "Well now," he said, trying to ignore her attempts to force him off, "what bit of you shall I chop off first?"

Amy's only response was to spit in his face as hard as she could. He calmly wiped the saliva away with his sleeve and continued to taunt her. "You know, I think I did pretty well with my pack. Did you know my dad's a butcher? And did you know I was thinking of following him into the trade? Of course, I might not get out of here alive. But, just in case I do, I'm going to practise on my opponents. Starting with you . . ."

He was certainly enjoying himself, Amy noted. So much so that he was beginning to let his guard down, which, along with the fact that she was slightly heavier than him, might give her an advantage. Making the most of her chance, she pushed him off her, then pinned him to the ground, feeling a certain satisfaction at the look of terror on his face. Her younger brother, Matthew, was among the kids Jordan had bullied and now it was payback time. She gripped her corkscrew tight and, before he had chance to attack her with his meat cleaver, thrust the point into the fleshy area of his throat, just above his metal collar, and slowly started to turn it.

Jordan died with Amy's corkscrew in his throat, but Amy only outlived him by a few minutes. Just as she realised he was dead, she was hit in the back by a bullet. She slumped forward, sprawling across the body of the boy she had just killed, as her assailant walked towards her and finished her off with a second bullet, one fired directly into the base of her skull.

Abigail stood over the two most recent corpses with a revolver in her hand. Her game plan had been to stalk her opponents and shoot them from behind, but she hadn't had much luck so far. Everyone was too aware of the need to watch your back at all times in this game; even if you were teamed up with someone, there was no telling when they might decide to turn on you. So shooting an opponent from behind proved to be easier said than done, but Abigail was determined not to give up. She knew the alternative was to shoot her fellow students face-to-face and she could not bring herself to do that. She could not look into the eyes of someone who had been her classmate, then callously murder them.

Eventually, however, she had come across someone kneeling over a body. The person had their back to her, so she couldn't see who it was, but this was an opportunity she couldn't afford to miss. Without a second thought, she had killed the person and she now moved closer to see who it was she had shot. Trying to ignore the bullet wounds she had inflicted, especially the one at the base of the skull, Abigail turned her victim to face her.

Short blonde hair, grey eyes staring sightlessly, heart-shaped face . . . It was Amy, the girl who had sat next to her on the bus. Abigail and Amy didn't normally hang out, but they'd been the last to arrive and therefore had no choice but to sit next to each other. During the journey, they had not said a word to each other; Abigail, who had the window seat, sat watching the scenery go by, while Amy had her nose buried in a book. At least until the gas was released, after which they woke up in this nightmare. But perhaps it was just as well she and Amy hadn't really known each other, Abigail reflected; it would only make this harder than it already was.

Every dead student brought her closer to getting out of here. That was how Abigail justified the fact that she had killed one of her classmates, that she had pointed a gun at someone and fired it in the knowledge that the person she was shooting would die as a result. Besides, it wasn't like Amy was an innocent victim; from the look of things, she had just killed Jordan with a corkscrew, of all things. Abigail could see it sticking out of his throat like a small flagpole. She debated whether to pull it out, but decided against it; she had no use for a corkscrew. Nor did she have any use for Jordan's meat cleaver, not when her strategy was to shoot her opponents from behind.

She slowly turned her back on her dead classmates and walked away to search for more victims.

Harry Edwards (Boy #16) was a keen amateur boxer. He had already competed in several bouts at his local boxing club and had been thinking of turning professional once he was old enough. Which would probably never happened now, he thought ruefully as he looked at the pair of boxing gloves he had found in his pack. Clearly, they were meant to be his weapon, but they wouldn't be much use against opponents armed with guns and knives. With that in mind, Harry had hidden in the barn which stood in Zone 29; if none of his fellow students ventured here and this zone never became forbidden, he might just make it.

It was a slim hope, but, without a proper weapon, it was his only chance. He couldn't stop thinking, however, that fate must have been in an ironic mood when he received his pack. Why else would he, the kid who loved boxing, end up with a pair of boxing gloves? Especially in a situation where they would be worse than useless? He knew he wasn't the only one, that others had ended up with useless weapons as well, but he couldn't help thinking it was just his luck that he should find the thick padded gloves in his pack. Every time he looked at them, he was reminded of his dreams of being a professional boxer, dreams he might never be able to fulfil.

Right now, however, Harry had more important things to worry about. He had been in the barn for several hours by now, having found his way here some time after the midnight announcement, and nature had been calling for some time. Necessity finally drove him out of the barn, though he dared not go too far, just round the side of the building. He should have picked the side nearest to Zone 23, which had been forbidden since 3:00 AM, so that no-one could sneak up behind him, but he didn't. He simply went round the side of the barn, unzipped his jeans and began to relieve himself against the wall.

Harry had just finished what he was doing when a short spear with a rope attached to one end suddenly lodged itself in his back. He gave a low grunt, then sank to the ground, a look of complete disbelief etched on his face as his life slipped away. His strength failing, he imagined the referee from one of the boxing matches he had competed in standing there, counting out loud. If he could get to his feet before the referee counted to ten, he would be all right. He would not be out of the running.

"One, two, three . . ." Harry recognised the voice, but not from one of his boxing matches. It was Osborne, the man who had briefed everyone when they first woke up here, who had outlined the rules for this sick game. "Four, five, six . . ." Harry remembered the trophy he had won only two weeks ago, the first addition to what he had hoped would become a shelf full of silverware. "Seven, eight, nine, ten." Now there would be no more trophies, no chance that he might one day turn professional. Just the indignity of lying on the ground with a harpoon in his back and his jeans unzipped.

And Harry Edwards, amateur boxer and student at Parkwood Comprehensive School, threw in the towel for good.

At the same moment Harry lay dying from being harpooned in the back - by Aidan, though Harry never knew this - Craig Willis (Boy #15) was being "entertained" by Dani in one of the cottages in Zone 3. It was right next door to the cottage where Yasmin had died, but that was the last thing on Craig and Dani's minds. They had met up by chance and their first instinct had been to draw their weapons - until Dani had a better idea. Knowing Craig was the sort of boy who couldn't resist a pretty girl (and she was one of the prettiest in the class) she had told him that she didn't want to die without, in her words, "knowing what it was like to be with a boy". And Craig, who had fancied Dani for some time, happily went along with it, not suspecting what her real motives were.

Now, as she and Craig lay on someone's bed in the aftermath of their love-making, Dani began to put the next phase of her plan into operation. Careful not to wake him, she slipped off the bed and went over to where her pack lay on the floor next to her scattered clothes. Opening it, she took out her kukri, a curved dagger with a sharpened inner edge; this was the weapon she had received at the start of the game and she had been saving it for just such a moment.

Still naked except for her metal collar, she made her way back to the bed, kukri in hand. "Seems a pity really," she thought out loud as she looked at Craig lying there, completely oblivious to what she was about to do. Like a praying mantis or a black widow spider, Dani was going to dispose of the male with whom she had recently coupled. As had been her plan all along . . . Smiling, she placed the inner edge of her dagger against Craig's throat and pressed down, slicing through the flesh and severing his windpipe, ensuring that his sleep became permanent. She watched him for a few minutes to make sure, then, once she was satisfied that he was dead, she calmly began to dress herself.

Before she left, Dani took one last look at Craig. He almost looked like he was sleeping, lying there with his eyes closed and his head resting on the pillow. Only the wound in his throat betrayed the fact that this was a sleep from which he would never awaken. Dani smiled to herself; this game might require her to kill her classmates, but Osborne hadn't said anything about not having a little "fun" with them first.

Osborne, monitoring the students' progress from the village hall, was pleased with how things were going. Already, fifteen students were dead, leaving twenty-one still in the game. There was a map identical to the ones with which the students had been issued on his desk, marked with X's to indicate where each of the fallen students had been when they died. This information would be passed on to the clean-up teams at the end of the Program to allow them to locate and recover the bodies. In the meantime, Osborne added four more X's to represent the four students who had died most recently, two in Zone 10 and one each in Zones 3 and 29.

Next, he checked the cameras which had been installed all over the village. There were no fights going on at the moment, but it never hurt to check up on the students once in a while. Apart from anything else, it gave him a chance to see if any of them were doing anything the Government might consider subversive, though so far only Kieran had attempted any kind of rebellion. Osborne had checked the camera installed in one of the classrooms at the village school and had seen Kieran trashing it. A completely futile exercise which only served to prove that young people needed to be kept firmly in line.

And then there were the messages Kieran had written on the blackboard. OZBORN IS A BASTED and THE GOVAMINT STINKS. The kid couldn't even spell, but, if any of the other students had seen those messages, it might have encouraged them to attempt a rebellion. However, just minutes after writing them, Kieran had deliberately attempted to remove his collar, blowing himself up in the process. Though, since Kieran was clearly a troublemaker, Osborne had been on the verge of detonating his collar anyway. In theory, the instructor for each Program could detonate any student's collar at any time, but this rarely happened in practice.

As he finished checking the cameras, Osborne noted that the clock on the wall showed 11:59. He waited for the minute to tick over, then switched on the microphone in front of him and spoke into it. "Hello, everyone. It's twelve o'clock and you all know what that means . . ."