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Note: Results of the last poll are up on the website. There's a new poll on my profile, this time asking who you want to see in the final ten.
Dr. Alvin Mendelson, 61
March 22nd, 13:33 MST
"We want you to help shake things up."
Alvin knew as soon as the words left his mouth that he could have worded that better. Ian burst out laughing. Maria was shaking her head in disbelief as she jotted the message down for Vincent to read. Vincent scoffed, barely holding back a laugh himself. Only Penelope nodded, as if she understood what he was asking for – and why he was asking for it.
"Why the hell would we want to help you do that?" Ian asked once he finally got his laughter under control. "If they're not moving quickly enough for you, that's your problem. Don't see any reason why we should step in and help you fix it. If you're worried the Games aren't going to work out this year—"
"We aren't," Alvin assured him. "They'll work. They're going quite well, in fact – better than we'd expected."
Penelope cocked her head curiously. "What do you mean by that?"
Damn it. He'd been hoping they wouldn't ask. So far, the four of them hadn't been particularly chatty. It was as if they'd realized that it was going to be a long haul this year, and they were settling in for days – probably weeks – of sitting around and watching screens, waiting on the edge of their seats for whatever was going to happen next.
No one had told them that the rest of the country was waiting, too.
Alvin hesitated, but only for a moment. No one had explicitly told him that he shouldn't tell the coaches what was going on. They may have assumed that was a given, but where was the harm in telling them? "The group of mutants that Piper is working with somehow hacked into our cameras. They're posting footage from the Games online, and it's spreading. The secret's out. People know about the Games."
There was a moment of silence while Maria, still dumbfounded, scribbled some words in the notebook. Alvin shook his head. "Oh, to hell with it." He pressed a button on a remote, and Vincent's collar clicked off. Alvin positioned himself between the nearest fan and Vincent. "That should make communicating a little easier. Just don't do anything you'll regret later."
"Like what?" Vincent asked bitterly.
Ian glanced back and forth between the rest of them. "Didn't anyone hear what he just said? People know about the Games."
Penelope nodded. "Yeah. But he also said the Games were going better than they expected." She turned to Alvin. "So what's the catch?"
"The catch is they don't care," Vincent muttered.
Alvin nodded. "Not entirely, but … yes. Some people care, but not enough. Not enough people with enough power or influence to do anything about it. The Games are out in the open, and they're still happening."
"So you wanting us to get things moving – it's not because you're worried that if the Games go on long enough, someone might have time to interfere," Maria realized.
"Right. It's not."
"So what is it about?" Ian asked. "Why do you want to shake things up?"
"For the contestants' sake."
"Not entirely for their sake, of course," Alvin admitted. "But it's in everyone's interest that the Games not drag on too long. Before the storm, things were proceeding at a reasonable pace. Not as quickly as last year, of course, but that was only to be expected. They're not trapped on an island this time; there's more room for them to spread out and lose track of each other."
"And for you to lose track of them?" Ian guessed hopefully.
Penelope shook her head. "Hardly, unless some of them figure out how to get their collars off." She turned to Alvin. "And you're not worried about them getting too far away from each other, are you."
"Because you have some way to keep them within a certain area."
"Yes, and if Marcus and Manaka keep going at the pace they have been, they'll reach that boundary pretty soon, and—"
"Damn," Vincent muttered, and Alvin realized that Vincent must have heard what he'd been thinking rather than what he'd said. "You want our help turning them around."
"Not all of you," Alvin clarified, then turned to Maria and Penelope. "You're their coaches, so it should be you two."
"And if we refuse?" Maria asked.
Alvin shrugged. "Then we do nothing, and let events play themselves out."
Vincent leaned back in his chair, his arms folded over his chest. "Do it."
Maria turned, surprised. "Why?"
"Because they'll be turning around either way, and it's better if it's their choice."
Maria turned to Penelope, who nodded her agreement. Alvin relaxed a little. Good. This would be a bit smoother if the coaches cooperated. Maria finally nodded.
"What do you want us to do?"
Elio Haines, 16
What do you want us to do?
Elio took a deep breath, staring out at the lake, the sunlight reflecting off of it as the sun began to sink a little in the sky. As he repeated the question, another light appeared, beautiful and warm and pure, washing through him, warming him more than the sunlight. Elio let it course through his body, smiling contentedly, then began to pack up the supplies as he turned to Lea. "We should keep moving."
Lea raised an eyebrow, realizing that it hadn't been a suggestion. "What's going on?"
"I'm not sure, but whatever it is, we don't want to be anywhere near it."
"Something to do with that storm?"
"So you've just got a feeling, then?"
Elio smiled. "More than a feeling. We should keep moving. I know it."
Lea nodded. "All right. I mean, it's not like we have any reason not to keep going, as long as they let us."
As long as they let us. That was the question, really. How long would the MAAB let them just keep going like this? If they kept walking long enough, they were bound to run into something eventually. A road, or maybe even a town. The mountains couldn't go on forever. He'd thought that maybe the MAAB was counting on the contestants coming back to the tunnels where they'd started to get supplies, but as long as they didn't run out of lakes to fish in, he and Lea would be set for quite a while. Sure, it wasn't the most exciting diet, but it would keep them alive. That was what mattered.
It was a while before Lea's voice broke the silence. "I don't think they have a plan."
"Yeah. If they were going to do something to make us turn around, wouldn't they have done it by now? We must be miles away from everyone else. Even if someone else ended up coming this way, they'd have to be going exactly the same direction to even come close to us. We've been assuming they have some way to keep us together, but … well, what if they don't? What if they just weren't prepared for something like this, compared to how contained things were last year?"
Elio nodded. Lea sounded like she was trying to convince herself rather than him, but he had to admit, if he was in charge and wanted to keep the contestants together, he would have done something by now. No. No, even that wasn't right. He wouldn't have picked somewhere like this in the first place. They'd had the right idea last year, choosing an island in the middle of the ocean that no one could reasonably hope to escape from. This year, all they had to do was keep walking.
So what was the catch?
It couldn't be that easy. It just couldn't. It was only a matter of time before the other shoe dropped. Wasn't it?
Does it matter?
Not really. Not as far as it affected their plan. Their plan was the same, regardless of what the MAAB did or didn't do. They were going to keep going until – unless – something stopped them. Elio took a deep breath and managed a smile.
He really wanted to believe that.
Liv Holle, 18
She wanted to believe she'd had some effect on the storm
Liv glanced around as the three of them settled down near the mountain. There wasn't much around, but maybe that was a good thing. Maybe it meant no one else was likely to head this way – especially whoever was affecting the weather. The farther away they got from whoever was doing that, the better. They'd managed to stay away from the worst of the storm, but after the first day's storm, she definitely didn't want to end up stuck out in any more bad weather.
And she had managed to keep the snowstorm farther to the north. Or at least, she wanted to believe that she'd had some influence on the storm. The trouble was, it was impossible to tell whether it had stayed farther north because she had wanted it to, or whether it would simply have done that anyway. Weather was unpredictable like that, which made it harder to tell whether she was actually doing anything. Sure, she'd been trying to keep it away from her group, but…
But nothing, she tried to tell herself. After all, they weren't sitting in a pile of snow. That was the important thing. Why did it matter whether it was because of her or not? Lee and Elena seemed perfectly content to give her credit for it, so why not simply accept that?
Because it wasn't concrete. Because it still didn't quite seem real. Because there was no way to be certain – not really certain – that she was doing anything at all. Because every time she tried to imagine what it would be like to really control the weather, she imagined it happening quickly. A bolt of lightning exactly where she wanted it. A gust of wind to knock an opponent off their feet. Rain exactly when they needed it to provide water. But she couldn't do any of that. Or at least, she couldn't guarantee that. It didn't work like that.
Not yet, at least. Maybe with practice. Maybe with time. She knew as well as anyone that anything really worth doing took both practice and time. But there wasn't any more time – not now that they were in the Games. And as far as practice, it was all she could do to try to focus on keeping the weather nice. Trying anything more complicated than that didn't seem like a good option.
Then again, there wasn't really any reason to try anything like that now. No reason to try to summon a thunderstorm or a lot of wind or snow or rain or … well, anything but nice, sunny days. There was no one else in the area to try to scare away – at least not as far as they could tell. Besides, any sort of unusual weather was bound to draw attention as much as it might frighten people away. Whoever had created the snowstorm was certainly taking a risk if anyone figured out where they were. They'd made themselves a target, and that was something she had no intention of doing.
Of course, there probably weren't many people who would run towards a snowstorm. Sure, she had suggested running towards the sound of screaming the other day. Was that only yesterday? It seemed like ages ago. But that was because she had thought that maybe someone had been injured, that they would be easy pickings. It sounded horrible, when she put it like that, but if they were going to fight, it made sense to pick someone who would be at a disadvantage.
Not someone who had the ability to conjure a snowstorm at will. Even if they hadn't meant to – she couldn't imagine anyone would actually want to subject themselves to a snowstorm, after all – that was still an incredible amount of power. But why did they have to use it to make it snow? Why couldn't they make it nice and sunny and warm instead? What did they possibly have to gain by making everybody miserable?
Except it did make sense, even though she wished it didn't. If whoever had created the storm had a way to protect themselves from the elements – maybe a teammate who could keep them warm or something – then there was an advantage in making everyone else miserable. Miserable people made mistakes. Miserable people did desperate things. Reckless things. Anything that seemed like it might have even the slimmest chance of making things better.
Liv glanced over at Lee and Elena as they began unpacking some of the food for dinner. Or lunch. Or whatever meal it was now. She'd almost made that same sort of mistake, almost led them off on a wild goose chase after whoever was screaming because … what? Because she wanted the Games over quickly? Because she wanted to feel like they were doing something, making some sort of progress? Maybe.
Liv shook her head. She should have known better. There were always stretches of a race that made people feel like they weren't really getting anywhere, that they weren't making up any ground. The important thing was to tough it out through those stretches, to come out the other side ready to keep going. That was what the three of them would have to do, if they wanted to survive. They didn't have to fight every moment of every day; they just had to be ready to.
She just hoped that they were.
Rick Clifton, 19
He just hoped no one was coming for them.
Rick couldn't help a groan as he sat up a little, thought better of it, and slumped back to the ground. "Yeah, maybe not yet," Vi agreed, reaching into the closer of the two packs and pulling out the bottle of pills. "Maybe a few more of these."
"And some water," Rick agreed.
Vi nodded. "Okay, but we'll eventually have to get moving if we want to fill our water bottles."
Rick's shoulder throbbed with pain at even the thought of moving again. "Maybe we could just put some snow in the bottles and…" He trailed off. And what? Wait for it to melt? In this cold? If only it was warmer.
If only he could make it warmer.
Except he could, at least in theory. He'd managed to stop the snow, but only after Vi had … what? Distracted him? Calmed him down? Maybe. Maybe it had just been a coincidence. Maybe the pills had kicked in and eased the pain a bit, and that was why it had been easier to calm the storm. But that seemed like too much of a coincidence, and he couldn't shake the feeling that Vi had helped him somehow, even if he hadn't known it.
"There's probably water somewhere nearby," Vi offered. "There hasn't exactly been a shortage of it. I don't think they mean to let us die of thirst out here."
No. No, if that was what they'd wanted, they wouldn't have dumped them in the middle of a mountain range with plenty of lakes. Hell, if that was what they'd wanted, they wouldn't have chosen someone who could – at least in theory – make it rain.
But they had chosen him. Rick grit his teeth as he lay on the ground, shivering, pain coursing through his shoulder at every hint of movement. They had done this. Part of him wanted to blame Evelyn's reckless plan, but it wasn't her fault. It wasn't even the fault of whoever had shot fire at them. They were all pawns. All helpless. This was the MAAB's fault. All of it. They were pulling the strings. They had chosen him in the first place.
And why? Because they thought he had the potential to make things interesting? Because they thought he would be able to do what his mother had done? Well, he couldn't. Maybe he would have been able to, given enough time and training, but he'd had neither of those things. Not much of either, anyway. Three days. Three days of training, and they'd dumped him in a fight to the death with people who could shoot fire or lightning or melt everything in sight. What had they thought would happen?
This. They had thought this would happen. He was going to die, and that was what they wanted. They didn't give a damn who made it out alive, but they sure as hell hadn't thought it would be him. But for a moment – for a real moment, as he and Vi had been hunting the other group – he had thought that maybe it would be, that maybe he had a chance.
He should have known better.
Slowly, gritting his teeth, Rick forced himself to his knees, then to his feet. He reached for one of the backpacks and slung it over his good shoulder. "Come on." He offered Vi a hand.
Vi raised an eyebrow. "Why? Where are we going?"
Rick nodded vaguely back in the direction of the circle. At least, he was pretty sure that was the right direction. "That way."
"Why not? We passed some lakes on the way, so at least we know there's water."
"We should probably rest a bit more—"
Vi cocked his head. "Why not?"
"Because if we wait too long … we'll just want to stay here. To keep resting. And we're not going to die here. We're not going to die like this – just waiting for it to happen."
A hint of a smile passed across Vi's face. He gripped Rick's hand, and Rick pulled him to his feet. Vi swayed for a moment, unsteady on his injured leg, but Rick slung Vi's arm around his good shoulder and gave him a moment to steady himself. Finally, Vi nodded and slung the other pack across his back. Rick gave Vi's shoulder a squeeze. "When we go, we go down swinging."
That was it. That was all there was to it. All that was left. They weren't going to go quietly. They weren't going to go down without a fight. They would almost certainly lose, but they would fight all the same.
Right now, that was all he wanted.
Manaka Shizue, 16
"Want to stop for the night?"
Manaka shook his head as he and Marcus slowed a little. "I think we can make it to the end of the canyon." Well, it wasn't a canyon, exactly, but he wasn't sure what the right word was. There were slopes on both sides, but canyons were something that was carved out by a river, weren't they? There was a river here, but he'd always pictured canyons as narrower than this. Not that he'd seen one before, outside of pictures in books, and they probably looked different from the inside.
If Marcus knew a better word, though, he didn't say so. "As long as we make sure we stop before it gets dark. I wouldn't want to have to try to find our way in the dark down here."
"We could probably start another fire if we need some more light," Manaka suggested. There were a few trees in the canyon, after all. Maybe it wasn't much, but they didn't need a big, roaring bonfire – just enough for a few torches.
Marcus shook his head. "What if someone sees us?"
"Like who? You think there's anyone near us?"
Marcus chuckled. "Probably not. But better safe than sorry. Like you said, we're already pretty far ahead. We can afford to rest for the night once we reach the other side of the canyon."
He was probably right about that. As far as they could tell, they'd been making good time. But that was the trouble, really; there was no real way to gauge distance out here. The ridges around them meant that most of the reference points they'd been using to navigate were obscured. That hadn't caused much of a problem yet, of course; there was really only one way to go. Forward. But it also meant that their sense of distance and time was skewed. The sun was going to set earlier in the canyon, and there weren't really any landmarks to tell how far they'd gone – or how much farther they might have to go.
Except … there did seem to be something in the distance. Manaka slowed down a little, and Marcus followed suit. "What's that?" Manaka asked, pointing.
Marcus peered into the distance. "It looks like a bridge."
It did look like a bridge – a small footbridge over the river they'd been following. "What's a bridge doing in the middle of nowhere?" Manaka asked.
Marcus shrugged. "I don't know. But people go hiking in the mountains sometimes, right? Maybe there are trails around here, and we just haven't found any of them. Or maybe the MAAB let the trails get grown over, but decided not to do anything about the bridge. Or maybe they want us to be able to cross the river…"
He trailed off, and Manaka nodded. Maybe there was something on the other side that the MAAB wanted them to be able to reach. Manaka grinned. He'd been worried that maybe the MAAB wouldn't want them to head out this far, that maybe they hadn't expected the two of them to just take off in one direction and keep going. But if there was a bridge out here, that meant that they had planned for the Games to spread out in this direction – or had at least considered that it was a possibility. Manaka grinned up at Marcus. "Race you to the bridge."
Marcus beamed back. "You're on." Immediately, both of them took off sprinting, faster than they'd been going all day. They'd been trying to pace themselves, but this was just a short race. It wouldn't take long to reach the bridge, and then they could rest. Manaka sprinted ahead, but he could still hear Marcus just behind him.
Suddenly, he heard something else. Some sort of high-pitched noise. Almost a beeping noise, but longer. Well, it would be longer, of course. He was slowing down time. But what would be beeping out here? Manaka kept running, but suddenly, he couldn't hear Marcus anymore. He'd stopped. "Manaka, wait!" he heard Marcus call, but he was almost to the bridge. Whatever Marcus had found, it could wait a moment.
Manaka reached out and tapped the side of the bridge, beaming proudly at Marcus, who had fallen quite a ways behind. He was holding something, but Manaka was too far away to see what it was. "I'll just see what's over there!" Manaka called, and raced out onto the bridge as fast as he could.
He only got about halfway.
Marcus Del Rio, 19
He only got about halfway.
Marcus raced towards the bridge, gripping the package that had fallen from the sky. Manaka had frozen in place for a moment, but then dropped to his knees, screaming, clutching at his collar. Marcus ran as fast as he could, but it seemed to take an eternity to reach the bridge. How fast had Manaka been going?
Manaka was still screaming, writhing in pain, rolling about on the bridge as Marcus reached the edge. What had happened? Marcus took a few steps onto the bridge, but nothing happened. Then a few more. Suddenly, a jolt of pain shot through his neck – some sort of shock from the collar. Marcus clenched his fists, taking a step back. It was like one of those dog collars – the ones that gave the dog a little shock to keep it in a certain area, within a certain boundary. He'd simply taken a step back, and the shock had stopped, but Manaka—
Manaka had kept going, maybe going too fast for the shock to hit him right away. Marcus swore under his breath as he took a step towards Manaka, meaning to grab him and pull him back. But he couldn't get close enough. "Manaka!" he called, jerking back again as the shock ran through his collar. "Manaka, you have to come back!"
Even as he said it, he knew it was hopeless. Manaka was lying on the ground, motionless except for the occasional jerking motion as the collar shocked him again and again. Damn. Was he even still alive? Marcus clenched his fists tightly. He had to be. They wouldn't just kill him like that, would they? Not for going over a bridge they'd just left in the middle of nowhere.
No. No, he was moving, little by little. Crawling. Rolling. Marcus took a deep breath, braced himself, and raced forward a few steps. Far enough. Far enough to grab hold of Manaka's hand, to pull him back along the bridge. Marcus gasped as he fell backwards onto solid ground, pulling Manaka along with him.
Breathe. Marcus gasped for breath as he and Manaka lay shaking near the end of the bridge. His heart was pounding, his ears ringing, his lungs burning as he forced himself to draw another breath. He tried to turn his head, to see how Manaka was doing, but even that small movement was impossible. Rest. He needed to rest. There was nothing he could do for Manaka right now. There wasn't even anything he could do for himself. Not until he could move.
Marcus closed his eyes. Slowly, so slowly, the pain subsided, leaving exhaustion in its place. Marcus slowly relaxed his grip on Manaka's hand, then realized he was holding something else in the other one. The package that had fallen from the sky as they'd been racing towards the bridge. Marcus let it fall to the ground as he rolled over a little to face Manaka. "Are you all right?" His voice was dry and raspy. He wanted water, but he wasn't sure he could move enough to reach either of the packs yet.
A groan let Marcus know Manaka was still alive, at least. "What … what was that?" the younger boy asked, confused.
"A warning, I think."
"Yeah." His fingers fiddled clumsily with the package he'd dropped, finally managing to open it. Marcus laughed dryly when he saw what was inside. "It's a map."
"They sent us a map." He peered closer at it, surprised by how blurry his vision was. Hopefully that would clear up. "I think … I think there's a dot on here for…" He chuckled. "Of course."
"They were trying to let us know we were close to the edge. There's a circle around … well, most of the map, and there's a dot right near the edge. I think that's us." He leaned back, closing his eyes.
"I'm sorry." Manaka's voice was shaky. "I'm sorry."
Marcus' eyes opened again. "What for?"
"It's my fault. You told me to stop. I … I just wanted to keep going. I thought there might be something useful on the other side of the bridge, and I…" He trailed off, breathing heavily.
"It's not your fault," Marcus said firmly. "At least, no more than it's my fault."
"We both thought … hoped … that we could just keep going. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew it was too good to be true, that there had to be something stopping us from escaping, but I guess … I guess I wanted to see how far we could go. Didn't think it'd be something this … sudden, I guess."
"Or painful," Manaka mumbled.
"So what do we do?"
"Wait, I guess. I don't think we're going anywhere for a while, do you?"
"I … I don't think so." Manaka's voice was shaky, although Marcus wasn't entirely sure how much of that might be the ringing in his own ears, the fuzziness in his own head.
"So we wait this out. We get back in the game. We stop running, and we figure out how to win this thing. Deal?"
Alphonso Bell-Garcia, 15
"I think they're ready to deal."
Alphonso looked up from the cards he'd been shuffling. "Hmm?"
Seb nodded at the cards. "You've been shuffling for at least ten minutes now. I think they're good." Seb shrugged. "Unless you don't want to play anymore."
Alphonso shook his head. "No, I want to play. It's just…" He trailed off, unsure how that sentence should end. He did enjoy playing with Seb, who had taught him several card games he hadn't already known. They'd played ping-pong, darts, pool, and pretty much every other game they'd been able to think of that didn't require any kind of electricity. Almost all of them had been his suggestion, too. This was what he'd wanted to do. It had been his idea. And it was certainly better than whatever was going on outside the walls of the house.
No. No, there was no 'but.' Whatever was going to happen, it would happen eventually. Eventually, the Games would catch up to them. Eventually, someone would find them. And they would be ready.
They would be ready.
How could they not be? They had everything they could want for defense. He'd even asked Seb to write up a few more pistols for them, and plenty of extra bullets, just in case. But he still couldn't shake the feeling that it wasn't enough.
"Maybe a guard dog," Seb suggested, as if he'd been able to tell what Alphonso had been thinking. "Something to alert us if someone's coming, before they try to break down the door or something. Then one of us wouldn't have to constantly keep watch."
Alphonso nodded. "Good idea. Just make sure it's quiet when there's not something coming, right?"
"Right," Seb agreed. "Sounds like we're on the same page."
And it did seem like they were on the same page, more and more now. Alphonso smiled as Seb wrote the word 'dog' and, sure enough, a large, menacing-looking dog appeared. "Good boy," Seb crooned. "That's a good boy. Who wants a nice, juicy steak before he goes on guard duty?"
Alphonso chuckled as Seb wrote the dog a steak. He could have written a dog that was already full, of course, but he hadn't, because he'd wanted the pleasure of feeding it. Maybe they weren't entirely on the same page; Alphonso wouldn't have thought of that. But maybe there was nothing wrong with flipping over a few pages to where Seb was. "What're you going to call him?" Alphonso asked.
Seb cocked his head. "I don't know. I've never really had a pet before. You?"
Alphonso shook his head. "I won a goldfish at some sort of town fair when I was little, but it didn't last long."
"How about Phantom?" Seb asked. "Because he appeared out of nowhere?"
"Could say that about anything you write," Alphonso pointed out. "But I like it. Good name for a guard dog. Phantom it is." Hesitantly, he reached out a hand. Phantom certainly looked like he could tear apart anything, but Seb wouldn't have made a dog that would bite the two of them. Or at least, he wouldn't have meant to. Alphonso stroked Phantom's head, and the dog nuzzled him gently. "Good boy, Phantom."
Alphonso couldn't help a smile as the dog finished devouring the steak. "I was thinking maybe we could still stay awake tonight while he stands guard," Seb ventured. "And then if that goes well … just let him take over the job."
Alphonso nodded. That certainly sounded more appealing than staying up half the night. And if it didn't work out – if it turned out the dog went to sleep while he was supposed to be keeping watch or something – they could always keep staying awake. Or Seb could keep making dogs until they got it right. Hell, he could probably make them an entire army of guard dogs.
One thing at a time. They could see how Phantom did first. A lot of dogs, after all, might attract attention. Of course, if the entire house hadn't attracted attention, how much more obvious were a few dogs going to make it? Alphonso watched as Seb led Phantom outside, already feeling a little safer.
What more could they really want?
Kylena Albright, 16
She just wanted to rest.
Kylena shook her head as she and Jaime slowed to a stop in the fading light. "We should stop for the night. Even if we're going in the right direction, we could miss it in the dark – or worse, fall into one of the holes. Better to wait and keep looking in the morning."
Jaime nodded, clearly too tired to argue. "And then what?"
"Well, after we get back to the circle, collect some more supplies, see if there are any weapons … then what?"
Kylena shrugged. "I guess it depends on what we find."
Jaime nodded. "What if … well, what if we don't find anything useful. What if it's just food and maybe some extra clothes?"
"That's useful," Kylena reasoned.
"You know what I mean."
Kylena nodded. She did know what Jaime meant. Food and clothes were useful, but they weren't exactly short on either of those things. The main reason they were headed back towards the circle in the first place was because it meant they were headed away from the other group. Once they got there. "I don't know," Kylena admitted. "I didn't really have a plan beyond that. You?"
Jaime shook their head. "Just … play it by ear, then?"
"I guess so," Kylena agreed. Maybe that was for the best. Evelyn had been the one with a plan, and where had it gotten her? Having a plan hadn't kept her from getting stabbed. Having a plan hadn't stopped the other group from shooting fire at them. Having a plan hadn't saved Rick and Vi from getting burned. Maybe it was better to just avoid the other groups and play it by ear.
But they could only avoid the other groups for so long.
"Then we find something we can use as a weapon," Kylena decided. "If something happens – when something happens – I don't want us getting caught without some way to defend ourselves. If there aren't any weapons back at the circle, we start looking for something that we can turn into a weapon. Sticks we can sharpen into spears. Rocks we can sharpen into knives. Something so we're not completely defenseless."
Jaime opened their mouth, then shut it again. Kylena knew how it sounded. What good were knives and spears going to be against people who could shoot fire or lightning or move faster than them or turn those weapons into goo with a touch? But it was something. Something that had at least a chance of keeping them alive a little longer.
Because the alternative … well, the alternative was just giving up. But if they'd wanted to do that, they could simply have stayed with Evelyn and tried to fight the other group. But neither of them had – and neither had Rick and Vi – because the truth was, they wanted to live. Even if it was just a little longer. Even if they were just delaying the inevitable. Even if they were just fooling themselves and they'd never really had a chance. Living was better than dying.
It was as simple as that.
Yes. Yes, of course it was. As long as they were still alive, they had a chance. Maybe a slim chance, but a chance, all the same. If they died, that chance was gone.
If they died, none of this would matter.
Lilith Haywood, 23
"Am I dead?"
Lilith glanced around at the landscape. The whites and greys. The cloud-like feel of everything. It didn't quite look like what she'd always imagined Heaven to be, but it didn't seem like a dream. Didn't feel like a dream. There was a certain reality, a certain solidity, to everything.
Lilith whirled around. There was a girl behind her – a girl who looked a bit younger than her, and also looked vaguely familiar. She was so startled, it took her a moment to realize what the other girl had said. "Not yet," she repeated. "But I am dying."
"I think you knew that already."
Lilith nodded. She'd been stabbed in the gut pretty badly, miles away from anyone who could really help her. Coburn and Savannah had probably done their best, but they were no doctors, and they didn't have many proper supplies. It was only a matter of time, and she had a feeling that time was slipping away. "So … where am I?"
"You're still asleep, thankfully."
"So this is a dream?"
"But I didn't make you up, did I."
"No. My name's Diana. I'm a mutant, like you. This is what I do – manipulate dreams."
"So what are you doing here? I mean, what am I doing here? What…" She shook her head. "What do you want?"
"I just wanted to let you know that your sister's safe."
"Meghan? She's here?"
"No, unfortunately. She's not asleep right now, so I can't communicate with her. But she's been working with your family – and a few families of the other contestants – to organize in protest against the Games."
"I thought you said she was safe." Lilith shook her head. Right now, she couldn't think of anything more dangerous than opposing the Games.
"Oh, she's safe from the Games – because you're here. They won't choose relatives of previous contestants for the Games."
"It's part of our … arrangement. Technically, I'm not supposed to spread the word around, but…"
"But it doesn't matter because I'm not exactly going to spill the beans," Lilith finished bitterly.
Lilith shook her head. "Just because she's safe from being chosen for the Games doesn't mean she's safe. She has to realize that."
"Of course she does. But would you let that stop you?"
No. No, she wouldn't. If their positions were reversed, she would be fighting tooth and nail to try to find a way to help Meghan. But it was too late for Meghan to help her. It was too late for anyone to help her.
But maybe it wasn't too late to help her friends.
Maybe somebody already was helping her friends.
Lilith cocked her head. "When Coburn said he had a feeling someone was coming after us … that wasn't just a feeling, was it."
"No. It was his sister. She's a telepath. She's been trying to communicate with him, but so far, it seems like only strong feelings are able to make it through. A feeling that he was in danger, for example, and should keep moving."
Lilith nodded. "But we couldn't keep moving forever."
"I know. Believe me, I know. And there are only so many places to hide in your area."
Your area. That was the last piece she'd needed. "You were one of the contestants last year. That's why you look familiar."
"But you died."
"Pretty early on, right?"
"Surprised you remember that, but yes. So you beat me, at least."
Lilith scoffed. "How many of the others are dead so far?"
"Not counting me?"
Lilith nodded. It should have felt strange, maybe, discussing her own impending death with a complete stranger. But she was the only person available to talk to, unless she happened to wake up before the end. "How long…?"
"Another hour or two, maybe."
"Will it … will it hurt?"
Diana shook her head. "I don't think so – not if it doesn't hurt now. I've been trying to block out the pain for you, so if you still feel fine now, I think it's working."
"I don't feel fine, exactly. Just … numb." Still, that was better than pain. "Thank you."
"Will you … stay with me?"
Diana nodded and slipped her hand into Lilith's. When she squeezed, Lilith actually felt it. "Of course. And Coburn and Savannah are with you, too, even if you can't feel them right now."
Good. That made it a little better. Not much, but a little.
At least she wouldn't be alone.
Savannah Kingston, 19
They couldn't just leave her alone.
Savannah glanced over at Coburn as the pair of them finished off one of the boxes of pop tarts. She'd let off some lightning shortly before sunset, but sitting around and waiting was already causing the energy to build up again. Staying put was making her nervous. Anyone could find them here, just waiting for … what? The longer they waited, the clearer it was becoming that Lilith wasn't going to wake up. They'd tried their best, but they weren't doctors. Lilith was going to die; it was only a matter of time.
Savannah shook her head. It wasn't fair. Lilith had only wanted to protect them, help the pair of them learn how to control their powers. If she hadn't been with them, if she hadn't chosen to help them, she would probably still be alive. It was Savannah's lightning, after all, that had let the other contestants know where they were. She was the one who had burned an arrow into the ground, hoping that it would lure anyone following them into going the other way. She was the one they were after.
But Lilith was the one who was dead.
"You should leave." The words came out before she could stop them. Coburn turned, surprised, but she plowed on. "I'll stay here with Lilith so she won't be alone, but you should go. I'm the one who keeps giving our position away. You'll have a better chance without me."
For a long moment, Coburn didn't say anything. Maybe he'd been thinking the same thing. Maybe he'd even been wondering if he could slip away without her noticing. But finally, he shook his head. "A better chance at hiding, maybe. But not a better chance in a fight. And no matter how good we are at hiding, we won't be able to do it forever. So maybe it's better if we don't."
Savannah shuddered. "How can you say that after what happened to Lilith? We stopped running and tried to stand our ground, and now…" She trailed off. If they'd kept running, would Lilith still be alive?
She's not dead yet, something in the back of Savannah's mind reminded her. And that was true. But she would be soon, and there was nothing she or Coburn could do about it.
Coburn nodded, the words coming slower than before. "Now she's going to die. But we also killed one of them – one of the group that attacked us. We fought, and we killed. And that's what we're going to have to keep doing."
We. Maybe it helped to think of it like that. Maybe it helped him forget that he was the one who had actually killed the girl who had attacked them. Or maybe he was trying to give Savannah credit, as well. After all, if he hadn't killed her, the damage from the lightning bolts Savannah had shot at her would probably have done the job. Coburn probably figured she deserved a share in the credit, or perhaps a share in the blame. But didn't the blame really lie with the people who had attacked them?
No. No, even that wasn't quite right. It wasn't really their fault either. The girl who had attacked them – the girl they had killed – hadn't wanted to be here any more than they did. She'd attacked them because she knew it was the only way she had a chance of going home. And now Savannah and Coburn were one step closer to surviving, because one of their opponents was dead. But the blame really belonged with the people who had brought them here in the first place.
"You're right," Savannah said quietly. "That's what we have to do." But it was only what they had to do because the MAAB had told them it was what they had to do.
But it wouldn't help to say that. The fact that all of this was the MAAB's fault didn't change what they would have to do. Savannah ran her fingers absently along Lilith's wrist, feeling for a pulse.
She tried again, pressing a little harder this time, fingers searching for the thready beat that had been there before. Still, there was nothing. She glanced up at Coburn, who quickly knelt by her side and felt Lilith's wrist, then her neck, then listened for breathing. He shook his head. "I think … I think she's gone."
Savannah nodded, bracing herself. But there was no lightning. There was nothing. She'd been bracing herself for hours, wondering what would happen if Lilith died. When Lilith died. When her mother had died, after all, the lightning had set a whole room on fire. It had been uncontrollable. But now…
Maybe that was just it. Lilith wasn't her mother. She'd been kind to both Savannah and Coburn, but they'd all known from the start that only two of them could survive. Maybe she simply hadn't allowed herself to get close enough to Lilith to register such a strong reaction. Maybe she was just more in control now.
No. No, this wasn't control. It didn't feel like control. It didn't feel like anything. Lilith was dead, and there was just … nothing. It wasn't what she had expected. It certainly wasn't what she had wanted.
But maybe it was what would keep her alive.
Kenji Rose, 12
They were still alive.
Kenji relaxed a little as he settled down beside Florence. For the first time since the Games had started, he hadn't offered to take the first watch. For so long, he hadn't wanted to sleep, afraid of what might happen. But now…
Now there was a part of him that was hoping he would slip into the future. Knowing in advance that they would make it through the night last time had helped him sleep better. If it happened again … well, then all they had to do was stay put and keep watch, and they wouldn't have anything to worry about.
For a little while, at least. Until dawn. Kenji rolled over and closed his eyes. What if … what if he tried to go farther? Not just the morning, but a day or two. Or a week. What if he tried to jump forward in time to the end of the Games? Would that even work?
Probably not. When he'd slipped backwards in time, he had always been thinking of a specific place, a specific moment, not just 'a week ago' or 'last month.' Emery had told him to think about waking up in the morning, and he had, but the place hadn't changed. He had no way of knowing where their group would be a week from now, or what they would be doing.
Or if he would still be alive.
Kenji swallowed hard. What would happen if he tried to slip forward into a future where he was already dead? Probably nothing. But then how was he supposed to know if nothing had happened because he was dead, or if nothing had happened because he simply hadn't jumped into the future at all?
Kenji rolled over again, trying to find a comfortable position. Frustratingly, now that he wanted to sleep, now that he wanted to travel through time and find out what was going to happen, his body didn't seem to want to cooperate. Maybe he simply wasn't as tired as he had been the night before.
"It'll be fine." Emery's voice was gentle as she ran a hand through his hair. "Just get some sleep, and we'll see what happens."
We'll see what happens. It sounded so easy, so simple, when she put it like that. But the problem was, she was right. The only thing any of them could do was wait and see what would happen next. They couldn't act on anything he saw until – unless – he actually saw it. Which would only happen if he finally managed to fall asleep.
Kenji took a deep breath. Then another. Emery ran her hand gently along his back, and he could feel himself relaxing, little by little. Slowly, little by little, the hands turned to paws, and she snuggled up beside him, her fur warm and soft and comforting. Kenji opened his mouth to say something like, "But you're supposed to be keeping watch," but thought better of it. If anything, she would probably be better at keeping watch in wolf form, and she was nice and warm.
Kenji snuggled a little closer, worming his way in beneath her paws, trying to hide a yawn. She was right. There was no point in worrying about what might happen. Nothing they could do but wait and see what happened.
He just hoped they would still be there to see it.
Henry Helstrom, 14
They just wished the golem would stop waking them.
Henry rolled over again as the ground shook from the golem's stomping footsteps. They opened their eyes, but sure enough, there was nothing there – just like the last three times the golem had woken them. Whatever had been there – probably some sort of small animal that had made a sound – was long gone. Maybe it had even been the wind blowing the snow. They'd told the golem to keep watch and wake them if anything happened, but why didn't it understand that 'anything' meant 'anything dangerous'?
Henry sat up a little and shuffled through their backpack, finally deciding on one of the beef sticks and some gummy worms. If the golem was restless, it was probably only because they were restless. It took its orders from them, after all. If they were nervous that any little sound might mean someone was nearby, then it only made sense that the golem would react to that.
And they were nervous that someone might find them. The pain in their shoulder wasn't as sharp as it had been before, but that didn't mean they were in any condition to fight. Yes, they had the golem to protect them, but that was no guarantee – not considering what some of the other contestants could do. If someone managed to get past the golem, there wouldn't be much Henry could do to stop them.
Of course, that had also been true even before they'd been injured. There were quite a few of the other contestants who would probably be able to get the best of them in a physical fight if the golems weren't part of the equation. But the MAAB had to know that, didn't they? The younger the contestants, the more they would have to rely on their powers in order to get the job done. But it had worked out for Penelope last year…
But they weren't Penelope.
Slowly, Henry finished their snack and lay back down. They were probably just tired. They'd been sleeping on and off throughout the day, but never for very long. Yes, that was what they really needed. Just a good, solid eight hours or so of sleep. Henry glanced at their watch. A little after ten thirty. They'd been asleep for maybe fifteen minutes, tops. If the golem would just stop waking them…
But telling it not to wake them up … no, that didn't seem like a good idea. What if someone did find them? Would the golem be able to fight without them being awake to direct it? Maybe, but that didn't seem like a chance they wanted to take – not when they were already injured. They would just have to deal with being woken up every now and then until the golem figured out what was really dangerous.
But how long would that take?
Henry fought back a yawn. It didn't matter how long it took. They weren't exactly running short on time. They had plenty of food and water to last them a while, so there wasn't much of a rush to go anywhere. They could afford to wait, rest every now and then, and take some time to figure out their next move.
Henry stretched their good arm and shifted a little, trying to find a more comfortable position. Their next move. They hadn't really meant to make a first move. The girl had found them, after all. If she hadn't, they would probably have been content to stay put quite a while longer without anything happening. They had only killed because they'd had to.
But that didn't matter. None of it did. The why wasn't important; the result was. And the result was that there was one less person in the Games. One less person trying to kill them. One less threat.
One step closer to making it out alive.
Iola Boman, 19
They had to be getting closer to something, didn't they?
Iola leaned on Kiara as the three of them kept walking in the moonlight. It was bright enough to see by, especially with the light reflecting off the snow on the ground. They were leaving tracks, but there wasn't really anything they could do about that. They couldn't stay put forever. When they'd stopped earlier because of the snow, they hadn't been by a lake, and they would eventually need water.
That had seemed like as good an excuse as any to keep going. The truth was, she'd simply wanted to get moving again, to feel like they were doing something. And while walking was exhausting, at least it didn't seem as cold as when they were just sitting there with nothing to do. It was something to keep them occupied so they didn't focus on how bleak things looked. It was a distraction.
But maybe that was what she really needed – a distraction. Because every time she started to focus on what was happening, on their chances of survival, things looked … well, 'not good' would be quite the understatement. They had no way of knowing how many people were left, of course, but when it eventually came to a fight…
She kept trying to tell herself she didn't need to worry about that. That they could cross that bridge when they came to it. That when the moment came, she would do what she had to do. After all, she'd killed the boy who had attacked them the first night.
But he'd only been one person. There had been three of them against one of him, and it had still been a bit too close for comfort. Not to mention the fact that his power didn't seem to have been anything particularly dangerous. If it came to a fight against a bigger group, or someone with a more dangerous power who actually knew what they were doing, it wouldn't be much of a fight at all.
Maybe it was better that way. Maybe it was better if it was quick. If she was going to die anyway…
No. No, she couldn't start thinking like that. If she let herself start thinking that, she might as well give up right now. But she hadn't. She was still here. Three days into the Games, and she was still alive. She wasn't sure how many of the contestants were dead, but she wasn't one of them. That was the important thing.
That was the only important thing.
Iola looked up as Kiara gave her arm a squeeze. Kiara was pointing at something in the distance – something Fae had run ahead to investigate. From the way the light was reflecting off the surface, it certainly looked like a lake. Sure enough, Fae came running back, giving them a thumbs-up sign and waving one of the water bottles, which was now full.
Iola smiled and nodded back. Maybe it wasn't much, but it was something. It meant they weren't going to be thirsty tonight. And maybe in the morning, they could figure out what to do about the footprints. With any luck, there wasn't anyone close enough to them to find their tracks in the first place. They hadn't gone that far; it had just taken them a while at their pace.
At her pace. The other two had been waiting for her. Iola gave Kiara's hand a squeeze as the pair of them followed Fae. She wasn't used to that – being the one that everyone waited for. She was used to leading, used to being in charge, used to others looking to her for help or answers. This was … different. Frustrating. But not as frustrating as she'd imagined it being. It was clear that Kiara was used to helping people, and Fae…
Well, Fae was still trying to make up for her mistake. She'd been the reason they'd been attacked the first night, and even though things had turned out well enough, it was clear that it was still bothering her. That, at least, Iola could understand. If she'd been the reason they'd been found, she'd be beating herself up over it, too.
But she wasn't. She was just the reason they were moving so slowly. Which wasn't much better, considering that could get them found just as easily as Fae's singing. It was only a matter of luck that no one had found them after that. Well, luck and some bad weather. As miserable as the snow was, at least it meant that most of the other contestants probably wouldn't be going too far, either.
It would be a while before things started moving again.
Representative Mack Urban, 37
"At least they were willing to help get things moving again."
Mack glanced over at Alvin, who was pacing around the room, shaking his head. "They might not be as willing after what happened to Marcus and Manaka. If the package had just gotten there a little earlier—"
Mack shrugged. "There's no way you could have known they would suddenly decide to start racing to the bridge. If they'd kept going at the pace they had been going at, they would've had plenty of time to read the map and figure it out without getting zapped."
Zapped. That was what was supposed to happen. Just a quick shock to let them know that they'd gone too far, to get them to turn around. But Manaka had been going so fast that by the time his collar registered that he'd gone too far, he was already past the border. Too far to make it back without help, and now…
Mack's gaze strayed to the screen that showed the pair of them. They'd showed no real signs of moving from the edge of the bridge where they had collapsed. Marcus was sitting up, at least, and had managed to dig through one of the packs for some food, but Manaka appeared to have fallen unconscious. Marcus had tried to shake him awake before apparently deciding it was best to let him sleep it off.
But would he be able to sleep it off?
Mack shook the thought from his head. It didn't matter, really. Whether Manaka recovered or not, Marcus had to realize now that they couldn't just keep running forever. He, at least, would be more motivated now, regardless of what happened to Manaka. And that had to be a good thing, right?
Alvin shook his head. "Of course I couldn't have known. No one could. That's the point. That's what I've been telling everyone from the start – that their neat little experiment is too unpredictable, and it was only a matter of time before something like this happened."
Mack shrugged. "Okay, maybe. But where's the harm?"
"I said, where's the harm? Okay, sure, maybe Manaka got a bit more of a jolt than we meant for anyone to get, but compared to the fact that twenty-eight of them are going to die, anyway, does it really matter if one of them got hurt by one of the collars rather than each other?"
"Why? How is that any different from what we did last year, when we sent those pieces of paper? Most of them thought there were only a few of them left, so things started moving faster. What makes this any different?"
"Nothing. If you recall, I also recommended only using that as a last resort, as well."
"But it turned out all right in the end."
Mack glared. "Yes. It did. Last year's Games were a success, and this year's going just as well, despite what Piper's doing to try to derail the Games." He shook his head. "That's it, isn't it. All your predictions about how things could go wrong – none of it's happening, but you just can't admit that it's working better than you could have predicted, so you just have to keep finding things that could go wrong. You just don't want to admit that maybe you were wrong."
Alvin shook his head. "You just don't get it, do you."
"I never wanted to be right about this. I checked and double-checked everything, ran the numbers again and again, not because I wanted to prove that I was right, but because I was hoping, right from the start, that there was something I'd missed. That somehow this could all go off without a hitch."
Mack rolled his eyes. There was no arguing with Alvin. Anything he said somehow became part of the reason everything was eventually going to go to hell in a handbasket. But for all his insistence that something would eventually, inevitably go wrong, Alvin never seemed to be able to specify what, or when, or even why things would go wrong – just that the variables were too unpredictable for everything to possibly go right.
But they had so far. And maybe that was the thing. Maybe they just had to make sure that everything worked out all right today. And then the next day. And then the next. If they did that long enough, the big picture would take care of itself. "So what are you going to tell the coaches?" Mack asked, trying to change the subject.
Alvin shook his head. "I don't think I'll need to tell them anything. I've got a feeling they'll do all the talking. They've had plenty of time to figure out what they're planning to do, whether they want to go along with what I suggested or not."
"And if they've decided not to?"
Alvin shrugged. "Then the Games will last a little longer than if they cooperate. That's really the only thing at stake here – the Games finishing a little sooner or a little later. I mean, what would have happened if we hadn't sent that map? Marcus doesn't slow down and reaches the bridge a little sooner. Maybe he and Manaka reach it at the same time, and they both end up crossing too far before realizing what's going on."
Mack smirked. "I think you just proved my point."
"Yes! You just said it wouldn't have made a difference whether we sent that map or not. So how can that mean it was a bad idea?"
"It doesn't change the outcome," Alvin corrected. "That doesn't mean it doesn't make a difference."
Mack shook his head. "But that's what making a difference means – changing the outcome."
"No. Everything that changes the outcome makes a difference, but not everything that makes a difference changes the outcome. Sort of like how all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares."
Mack sighed. He'd never been much good at math. People – they were his thing. Just … well, just not people like Alvin. Most people were easier for him to wrap his head around, but … well, maybe sometimes it was better not to try. There were some things that he would never understand. The difference between him and Alvin was that he didn't assume that meant something awful was going to happen just because it was uncertain. Sometimes uncertainty could be good. It kept things interesting.
And right now, that was what people seemed to want.
"You might want to reconsider your request."