INVOCATION

It is my desire, it is my wish
To set out to sing, to begin to recite,
To let a song of our clan glide on, to sing a family lay.
The words are melting in my mouth, utterances dropping out,
Coming to my tongue, being scattered about on my teeth.

Beloved friend, my boon companion, my fair boyhood comrade,
Start now to sing with me, begin to recite together
Now that we have come together, have come from two directions.
Seldom do we come together, meet one another
On these wretched marches, these poor northern parts.
Let us clasp hand in hand, fingers in fingers,
So that we may sing fine things, give voice to the best things
For those dear ones to hear, for those desiring to know them
Among the rising younger generation, among the people which is growing up,
Those songs got about, those lays inspired by
Old Chris McLean's false tongue, the depths of Eva's fury,
The point of the knife of Chef Hatchet, a man with a far-roving mind, the range of Duncan's bow,
The remote corners of Wawanakwa's fields, the heaths of the Muskoka District.
These my father formerly sang while carving an ax handle,
These my mother taught me while turning her spindle,
Me a child rolling on the floor in front of her knee,
Miserable milkbeard, little clabbermouth.
There was no lack of songs in the Dock of Shame, nor did Heather lack magic charms.
In the songs the bonfire grew old, in the charms Lindsay disappeared,
In the lays Cody died, Bridgette in her frolics.

There are still other songs, magic words learned of,
Plucked from the wayside, broken off from the heather,
Torn from thickets, dragged from saplings,
Rubbed off the top of hay, ripped from lanes
When I was going about as a herdsman, as a child in cow pastures,
On honeyed hillocks, on lovely knolls,
Following dusky Bunny, going along with spotted Petey.
The cold recited me a lay, the rain kept bringing me songs.
The winds brought another song, the waves of the sea drove some to me.
The birds added songs, the treetops magic sayings.
These I wound up in a ball, arranged in a clew.
I thrust the ball into my sled, the clew into my sleigh;
I pulled it home on my sled, on my sleigh to the threshing barn,
Put it up in the storehouse loft in a round copper box.

For a long time my lays have been in the cold, housed in darkness.
Shall I pull the lays out of the cold, draw the songs out of the frost,
Bring my box into the house to the end of the long bench
Under the fine ridgepole, under the lovely roof?
Shall I open my chest of words, unlock my song box,
Clip the end off the ball, undo the knot in the clew?
Thus I will sing a really fine lay, intone a beautiful one
Out of rye bread, barley beer.
If no one happens to bring any beer, serves no table beer,
I will sing from a leaner mouth, intone on water
To gladden this evening of ours, to honor this memorable day
Or to delight the morrow, to begin a new morn.


EPISODE #1: THE TALE OF THE GATHERING
Original title: The Not So Great Outdoors (a.k.a. Not So Happy Campers), Part I

In the Muskoka district of northern Ontario, about a three-hour drive and a twenty-minute boat ride from Toronto, there is a summer camp called Camp Wawanakwa. This camp served the youth of Ontario for a generation, but eventually fell into disuse as population patterns shifted and better-equipped and better-located competitors emerged.

In The Year of Our Lord Two Thousand Six, a television studio scouting locations for a new reality show rediscovered the camp. Its location, on an island in a large lake, was of particular interest to the show's producers, who wanted to limit the cast's contact with the outside world. So it was that Camp Wawanakwa echoed with the sound of human activity for the first time in 14 years, as a team of laborers cleared away undergrowth and refurbished the derelict camp to make it at least marginally fit for human habitation.

The next year, on a warm day in late spring, a camera crew and its subject stood on the camp's decaying dock. The crew was focused on a dark-haired man of thirty-odd years. His longish hair had a windswept look, his face sported perpetual three-day stubble, and he was dressed in a grunge style. This was Chris McLean, an actor who was then at the height of his fame and who is still well known today.

Speaking to the camera, McLean addressed his future audience directly, speaking grandly about "the hottest new reality show" and identifying himself as the host. He briefly described the nature and structure of the show (an elimination game, although he never explicitly said so) and revealed that the winner would receive, in his words, "a small fortune which, let's face it, they'll probably blow in a week." That was certainly a good bet, for the game's grand prize was $100,000—a nice chunk of change, but not enough to change a person's lifestyle, especially after taxes. A dollar isn't what it used to be; and even then, even a million pretax dollars, which was the grand prize in later seasons, wouldn't have supported more than a lower-middle class lifestyle if you wanted the money to last a lifetime. No, most of the contestants weren't in it for the money. They were in it because they wanted to be famous. Indeed, the show's theme song was a vocal titled, "I Want to Be Famous".

A well-appointed yacht approached the dock as the host completed his introduction by confessing that the contestants were about to discover that they had been deceived. These 22 teenagers, fresh out of their sophomore year of high school, had been led to believe that they were the finalists in a talent competition to be held at a five-star resort. They were not expecting to be living in a dilapidated summer camp for the next 13 weeks, nor did they have any inkling that the competition itself would actually be an elimination game. "So if some of them seem a little pissed off," McLean confided to the camera, "that's probably why."

The boat docked, and the first contestant answered the muster call. This was Beth, a short, pear-shaped girl with a strange fashion sense. She wore her shoulder-length, light brown hair in a high ponytail—more like a pony leg, really, for it jutted from the side of her head instead of from the back. She wore an oversized, green and gold shirt festooned with a variety of pin-on buttons, and pale pink slacks.

From head to toe, Beth's appearance signaled "nerdette" —mousy and plain, but not truly ugly. Emphasizing Beth's nerdiness were her Coke-bottle glasses and railroad-track braces, her family apparently being unable to afford modern orthodontia. Beth would later reveal that she grew up on a farm, which explained her family's limited means.

Beth's manner was as awkward as her body. When McLean welcomed her to the island, the first words out of her mouth were, "Wow, you're much shorter in real life." Beth's observation was true enough, but it demonstrated that she had much to learn about tact.

In conjunction with Beth, the next arrival served to illustrate the physical extremes of humanity. Whereas Beth was short, fair and dumpy, Devon (or "D.J.", as he preferred to be called) was tall, dark and muscular, with a close-cropped beard of a thickness unusual in a boy so young. Muscular, in his case, did not mean muscle-bound, for he moved with the grace of a cat. D.J.'s size and ripped physique gave him an intimidating appearance glaringly at odds with his shy smile, soft voice and gentle manner. He wore a white skullcap over hair that was as short as his beard, but was otherwise dressed simply and unremarkably.

"Chris Mclean! It's an honor to meet you," the starstruck brickhouse said when he reached the host's position.

"D.J.!" Chris replied as he fist bumped the huge lad. "Welcome to the show."

Noticing the ramshackle buildings beyond the dock, D.J. asked uncertainly, "This is it?"

"You got it," Chris replied.

"It sure looked a lot different in the recruiting brochures," D.J. said, fishing for an explanation.

"Yes, it did," the host replied unhelpfully.

"Whatever," the gentle giant said, shrugging his shoulders as he continued down the dock. He was tempted to complain, but his momma had taught him to not talk back to his elders.

The next girl off the boat was a softcore Goth. Her short hair was dyed pitch-black and highlighted in teal, although her highlights tended to look green on camera. Her dark, cool-colors outfit consisted of a sleeved corset top that arranged her modest chest to its best advantage; a short skirt with a patchwork look; forest-green hose; and black, knee-high platform boots. Her pasty complexion was not the artificial, chalky white of a hardcore Goth, but the natural pallor of fair skin that rarely feels the sun.

Unlike Beth and D.J., she carried no luggage. The contestants had been given that option, for some had brought more than they could carry in a single trip, and anything they didn't bring off the boat in their disembarking shots would be offloaded later. The decision of which luggage, if any, the teens carried off the boat themselves would therefore depend on how they wanted to look to the viewing audience.

"Our Goth girl, Gwen!" Chris cheerily announced to the camera.

Gwen, surveying the ramshackle structures beyond the dock, could not believe her eyes. This place did not even faintly resemble the resort where she was expecting the contest to be held. "We're going to be living in a summer camp?" she asked incredulously.

"No, you're going to be living in a summer camp, McLean corrected. "I'll be living in that tricked-out trailer over there," he added, casually motioning to the accommodations in question.

Gwen did not have a sunny disposition under the best conditions, and this unpleasant surprise did not improve her mood. She knew how to be tactful, but was not now inclined to make use of that knowledge, so she came right to the point.

"I did not sign up for this," she declared.

"Actually, you did," Chris corrected again, as some intern of little note nor long remembered handed him what was presumably the standard contestant's contract. Thanks to the magic of postproduction editing, the finished episode would make it look like the host had casually pulled the document out of his back pocket.

McLean opened the contract at a bookmark. Clearly, he had been expecting someone to react as Gwen had.

"Here it is," the host pronounced rhetorically. Turning the page to Gwen, he asked theatrically, "Would you be good enough to read this bit for the camera?"

With the air of one calling a bluff, Gwen read aloud the clause Chris had indicated. The Goth smugly read the name of the resort where she had expected the competition to be held, but her heart skipped a beat when she came to the damning caveat:

"…or such alternate venue as the Producer may designate."

Gwen's first impulse was to flip to the back page, to see if it had been signed in blood. Her second impulse was to tear up the contract before Chris' eyes. That would be futile, she knew, since this cruel document was surely just a copy. Still, the host seemed to be enjoying Gwen's discomfiture far too much, so she decided to get what enjoyment she could, as well. She snatched the contract from Chris' hands and tore it up. It wasn't easy, given that the contract was a substantial stack of paper, but Gwen managed it by imagining that she was actually rending McLean's head from his body. She gave the host an evil smile as she did this, hoping to give him a hint of what she was actually visualizing.

Chris was not impressed. Receiving another copy of the contract from the same nameless intern (McLean having apparently expected someone to commit contractricide) the host flourished the undead document again.

"I am not staying here," Gwen declared, turning back to the boat. The boat, however, had already left the dock and was even now receding in the distance.

"Fine," replied the unperturbed host. "But assuming you can swim all the way back, you do realize that there are some pretty heavy financial penalties if you back out now. Do you think your single mother can afford a long and costly legal battle which we will win?"

That hurt. Gwen's mother was, indeed, raising two children alone. She was able to make ends meet, but little more; and part of Gwen's motivation for this competition was to ease her mother's burdens, most notably by being able to pay for her own college education. For anything Gwen knew to the contrary, the threatened litigation could have them all living under a bridge.

Defeated, the Goth trudged sullenly down the dock to where the other contestants stood. "Steaming little pile of crap," she muttered.

Beth cocked her head. "Did you just say the camp was a 'steaming little pile of crap'?" the farm girl asked innocently.

"No," Gwen replied acidly, "the camp is a big steaming pile of crap."

The boat came about and returned to the dock. The finished episode would suggest that the boat was shuttling between the mainland and the island, fetching the contestants one by one, but that would have been grossly inefficient. The truth was that, when the boat docked for the first time, all 22 contestants were on board, under virtual lockdown so they wouldn't even see each other or the camp before disembarking. The boat would dock, deposit a contestant, steam away from the island for a few hundred meters, come about, head back to the island, and repeat the process. The only reason the boat left the dock at all after discharging its first passenger was so the finished episode could include a few shots of one contestant or another standing on the prow as the boat approached. The contestants chosen for this role were those who, based on their personality profiles, seemed the least likely to react negatively to the revelation that they would be staying at a dilapidated summer camp rather than a fancy resort.

The fourth contestant to arrive was a faux cowboy type who had probably never spent a day in the presence of livestock in his life. He wore sandals, jeans, a pink silk button-down shirt, and a ten-gallon hat. His shirt was completely unbuttoned, the better to show off his washboard abs. He would later reveal that he played football at his school, which explained his ripped physique, as weight training is par for the course in most football programs.

"And here's our party king, Geoff!" Chris pronounced as the "cowboy" reached him.

"It's great to be here, man!" Geoff exclaimed in turn.

"It's great to have you here, man!"

"I'm totally psyched for this contest, man!"

Chris and Geoff continued in this manner for far too long, ending every single sentence with the word, "man". They eventually tired of trying to out-"man" each other, and Geoff ambled down the dock to where the other contestants stood.

The boat docked again and a tall, model-thin, drop-dead gorgeous girl stepped ashore with regal bearing. Her straight, waist-length hair was unbound, and as black and glossy as jet. She wore a stylish maroon top that was little more than a sports bra, barely legal shorts, and open-toed, spike heel shoes. This was clearly a girl who could turn heads and enjoyed doing so.

Dramatically removing her sunglasses, the new arrival took in her surroundings. She appeared to be of mixed blood, with Asian features but pale skin, the vast majority of which was on display.

This "dragon lady" made no attempt to hide her displeasure. She stormed up to the host; and when she spoke, it was clear that she was used to getting her way, and that she was used to having others do her bidding.

"Welcome to the island, Heather," McLean said with the bland smile that the contestants would get thoroughly sick of over the next 13 weeks.

"You cannot make me stay here," Heather snapped as she stalked past. "I'm calling my parents."

"Calling them with what?" the host asked with false pleasantness. "Have you forgotten that you will have no contact with the outside world?"

Heather did not turn back to face McLean, but she stiffened for a moment before her shoulders slumped in defeat. The host was right. Even if she still had the cell phone and other modern communications gadgets that she had been forced to surrender before boarding the boat, and even if the camp's location didn't turn out to be too remote for said devices to work, Heather wouldn't have put it past the apparently unscrupulous producers to have a jammer or an "evil twin" going.

At least we'll still be on camera, Heather told herself, noting the camera crews scattered about the dock area. That meant that the opportunity to become a celebrity—the main reason why she and most of the others had signed up for the show—was still intact. Somewhat mollified, the teen queen resumed her haughty bearing and glided along the dock to where the other contestants stood.

The boat next deposited a punk type with a wiry build. He wore a black T-shirt, emblazoned with a large skull design, over a long sleeved yellow undershirt. (Those long sleeves were there for a very good reason, which would be revealed soon enough.) His dark hair was styled in a green fauxhawk, and his face was heavily pierced. His skin was not pale, and this detail revealed him as a punk, as opposed to another Goth.

Duncan, for that was the boy's name, was even more abrupt than Heather had been. "I don't like surprises," he told Chris, ominously pounding his fist into his open palm.

Chris' smile lost none of its wattage. "Yeah, your parole officer told me that," he acknowledged amiably. "And if you go around beating people up, or even threatening to, that's a parole violation, right? And with your every move being recorded on camera, it's not like there would be a lack of evidence, would there?" The host's smile hadn't changed one iota.

Duncan had been in enough fights to know when he was overmatched. Mustering a wry smile, he replied, "Okay, then."

Duncan sauntered down the dock to where the other contestants stood, and sidled up to Heather. "Meet you by the campfire, gorgeous?" he suggested with a leer.

"You're kidding, right?" Heather sniffed. "Try Weird Goth Girl, 'cause you're not getting any from me. Got it, Ugly Thugling?"

With a smirk and a voice dripping sarcasm, Duncan replied, "Wow, what a winning personality! Has anyone ever told you that you're as beautiful on the inside as on the outside?"

"Get bent," Heather snapped.

"I think that's your role. We don't have the right, er, 'equipment' to do it the other way around," Duncan suggested, with another leer that left little doubt as to what he proposed to do if Heather were indeed to "get bent". Duncan wasn't normally quite so crude toward girls, but he had decided that he didn't really like Heather, her hotness notwithstanding, and he wasn't willing to let her have the last word in any case.

"Can you possibly get any more vile?" Heather sneered.

"Hey, toots, if that's what turns you on, I can get as vile as you want."

Heather did not deign to reply, turning back to face the arrival point and studiously ignoring the juvenile delinquent. Her wordplay on "ugly duckling", though, had been more apt than she knew; for the day would come when Duncan would show himself to be more than just piercings and attitude, but that is another story for another time.

The boat approached the dock again, and the girl who now stood at the prow was obviously a surfing enthusiast. Tall and willowy, she was pretty in a "girl next door" sort of way. She wore her long, naturally blonde hair in a low ponytail that was more functional than fashionable; and she wore no makeup, for she held the view that all beauty is best the way Nature made it. She was dressed simply, with a sky-blue hoodie, jorts and sandals, and she carried a red and gold surfboard.

"Glad you could make it, Bridgette," Chris said when the new arrival reached him.

"Great to be here," Bridgette replied with a friendly smile. That smile faded, though, as she glanced around. "I thought we were going to be on a beach," she said uncertainly.

"You are," Chris pointed out, for the island did indeed have a beach of sorts—two or three meters of sand between lake and greensward. The beach was littered with detritus, some natural, some not.

"I mean a surfing beach," Bridgette explained.

"Sorry, can't help you there," Chris replied, his bland smile suggesting that his inability to help didn't really bother him. "I don't recall the brochure ever mentioning surfing".

"Oh, well," the surfer girl said, sighing at this disappointment, "If I can't surf, I guess I'll just swim."

"That's the spirit," Chris said.

As Bridgette hoisted her surfboard over her shoulder, the end of the board brushed against the side of Chris' head, and he reacted as if he'd received an electric shock.

"Gaah!" he cried, flinching in fear, his hand at his temple. "Watch the hair, dudette!"

"Oh, I'm sorry!" Bridgette cried, as she reached out to smooth the tiny perturbation in Chris' otherwise perfectly groomed hair. As she did so, she unwittingly swung her surfboard round and smacked the host painfully on the elbow.

"Darn it, that hurt!" Chris complained, sounding more like a seven-year-old boy than a grown man. Shooing Bridgette down the dock with hand gestures, he added petulantly, "Just go stand with the others and look pretty. And try not to hurt anyone else."

As the chastened surfer girl moved to join the other contestants, Chris rubbed his injured elbow and grumbled, "I don't get why they call it a 'funny bone'. That was not funny."

The boat docked yet again, and a beanpole who probably didn't weight 50 kilos stepped forth. He, like D.J. before him, was dressed simply and unremarkably; and like Beth before him, he wore eyeglasses with thick lenses. Below his lip were a few wisps of hair that were presumably meant to be a soul patch; and upon his head, that great storehouse of useless trivia, was a crop of brick-red hair, for such records as are known hold that his line originated in the Orkney Islands, off the coast of Scotland.

This was Harold, son of Alan, who had taught his son well in wilderness lore, son of Gavin, son of Douglas, who was the first of his line to make his home in the New World, son of Lindsay, who found his fate on the banks of the Marne in the early days of the Great War, son of Bruce, son of Stuart, speaker of laws, son of Neil, son of Donald, who fought under Lord Nelson at Trafalgar, son of Kenneth, son of Malcolm, son of Scott, skilled in the ways of the sea, son of Wallace, son of Colin, who was well-versed in ancient lore.

"I thought this was supposed to be a talent contest," Harold said uncertainly, with an asthmatic wheeze.

"I'm sure you did," Chris agreed.

"So why are we at a crummy old summer camp?"

"Because you're actually going to be doing summer camp-y stuff."

"Excellent!" Harold cried, pumping his fist. "Prepare to gape in awe at my mad wilderness skills!"

"Whatever, Harold," Chris said as Harold the Skinny sauntered down the dock.

The next contestant was, to make no bones about it, gigantic. He dwarfed all who had come before, except for D.J., and that dusky brickhouse was comparable only in height. Not only was this boy two meters tall if he was a centimeter, but he was also grossly fat, tipping the scales at a good 180 kilos. He was dressed simply, in shorts, sneakers, and what looked like a faux team shirt of some kind. He had a scraggly little mop of unkempt blond hair.

Owen, as this giant's parents had christened him, had an uninhibited personality, to put it mildly. Picking Chris up like a rag doll, Owen cradled the host to his bosom and loudly proclaimed, "This is great", "I'm so psyched to be here!" and many other exclamations of like kind. When it became apparent that Owen was likely to exult in this vein indefinitely, Chris pointedly asked the gregarious goliath to take his place with the others so that the contestant introductions could continue.


SEND IN THE CLONES

The boat docked again and decanted, not the expected contestant, but two contestants. One was as skinny as a rail, with black hair and bronze skin, although whether her skin tone came from ancestry or lifestyle was not immediately clear. The other new arrival was shorter, very fat (albeit not as fat as Owen) and very fair. Her hair was dyed black and styled in the same high pigtails as her companion, for companions they clearly were.

These Bobbsey Twins wore matching outfits, with pink shorts almost as skimpy as Heather's and black and white "prison striped" shirts. Even their luggage matched.

It is said that, "Growing old is mandatory, but growing up is optional," and Kathleen and Sarah (or "Katie" and "Sadie", as they preferred to be called), had not grown up. They saw the world with the innocent wonder of small children, and their personalities were even bubblier than Owen's, if that was humanly possible. They were inclined to squeal in delight at one thing or another—a trait everyone else found grating until they learned to tune it out—and it took little to delight them.

After disembarking, Katie and Sadie paused a moment to take in their surroundings, and then began to chatter. When either spoke, the other tended to echo the thoughts of the first. Unquestionably, they had grown up together and had been inseparably close for a very long time.

"Oh, my gosh," Katie gasped, unabashed joy writ large on her face. "Sadie, look! It's a summer camp!"

Sadie's face lit up like the sun. "Oh, my gosh, how awesome is that? I've always wanted to go to summer camp!"

"Oh, so have I! Don't you love that about us?"

"Oh, I totally love, love, love it! I mean, it's like we—"

"—like the same things, and we—"

"—each know what the other is thinking, and we—''

:"—can tell each other all—"

"—our secrets, and we—"

"—can totally be ourselves—"

"—with each other, and—"

"—now we get—"

"—to be at—"

"—summer camp—"

"—together—"

"All summer long!" they finally exclaimed in unison.

This remarkable display concluded, the "twins" dropped their luggage and hugged each other, squealing in delight for the first time of many. Retrieving their luggage, they finally, mercifully, pranced down the dock to join the other contestants.

It's official, Gwen thought morosely. I'm in Hell.

As Katie and Sadie passed Chris, he looked toward the camera and genially admitted, "Well, I was going to introduce Katie and Sadie, but there really isn't a lot left to say." In a lower voice and a less congenial tone, he muttered, "Way to steal my thunder, girls. Sheesh."

On the boat's next stop, a short, somewhat skinny boy strutted off the gangplank like he owned the world. This legend in his own mind had short brown hair with long bangs nearly obscuring his green eyes. His most notable physical feature, though, was the All-Pro spitting gap in his teeth.

This was Cody, the troupe's science geek. He projected an aura of coolness, or at least of what he perceived coolness to be, but it didn't quite go with his outfit: a short-sleeved sweater, with a couple of stripes across the chest, over an off-white button-down shirt, the tails of which hung out over his cargo pants.

"The Codester! The Codemeister!" Chris declaimed as Cody approached and they flashed trendy hand gestures at each other, for Cody thought that he needed a "cool" nickname, and he was hoping that one of his suggestions would catch on by virtue of Chris using it for his introduction.

"Great to be here, Chris!" Cody replied.

As the cool geek, if there is such a thing, strutted down the dock toward the other contestants, he was mainly checking out the girls. There was a pretty, athletic looking blonde carrying a surfboard, for what reason Cody couldn't guess; a dumpy, mousy, nerdy-looking girl who nevertheless was not without her charms; an identically dressed pair, one thin and one fat… threesome material, Cody thought, for he was nothing if not confident in himself; a hot Asian chick with a "master of all she surveys" air; and… well, Cody stopped there. He did not notice Gwen, who was standing at the back of the crowd. If he had seen her now, instead of later, events might have played out differently.

"I see the ladies have already arrived," Cody said in what he imagined to be a suave tone. Assuming that he would have the pick of the crop (for who else here would be able to match his manly charms?) he strutted up to Heather.

"Out of your league, alpha geek," Heather sniffed before Cody got too close, for she had guessed that he intended to chat her up.

Having struck out with the dragon girl, Cody decided to try his luck with Bridgette. She responded to his chat up lines politely and amicably, but nevertheless made it clear that she was currently more interested in meeting the remaining contestants.

Next off the boat was the obligatory blonde bombshell. This superabundantly endowed sun goddess, even prettier than Heather, sported a warm-colors ensemble consisting of stylized cowboy boots, a short skirt, and a halter top that seemed ready to fail at any moment beneath its titanic burden. Her only cool-color garment was the baby blue bandana that would serve her so well not two weeks hence, but that is another story for another time. Her long, straightened hair shone like sunbeams given form. Her skin was fair and flawless, and her face was made up subtly and skillfully.

As Her Cytherean Hotness approached Chris, she flashed a dazzling smile for the first time of many, for hers was a sunny disposition not unlike Katie and Sadie's, although her tastes were more sophisticated. She walked with grace, despite her top-heavy build.

It is said that the Creator suffers no mortal to be perfect. When Lindsay spoke, her voice was as pleasant as wind chimes, but her words suggested that her many gifts had included precious little in the way of brainpower.

"Ladies and gentlemen, Lindsay!" Chris announced to the camera.

Lindsay's high-wattage smile gave way to an uncertain expression and a furrowed brow—even that looked pretty on her—as if she was trying to remember something.

"Okay, you look familiar," this ethereal vision said to Chris, a famous actor whose face was probably more widely recognized than the Prime Minister's.

Dear God, Chris thought, although he said only, "I'm Chris McLean."

Lindsay did not react.

"The Host?" Chris prompted helpfully.

Still nothing.

"Of the TV show you're on?" the now-exasperated host added.

"No," Lindsay answered slowly, "That's not it."

Finally, something flickered to life behind Lindsay's pale blue eyes. "I know," she beamed in satisfaction, "You were the funny guy in that tennis movie! You were a lot taller then." The haze of confusion passed over Lindsay's face once more. "Are you the host or something?" she asked.

Chris was losing patience. "That tennis movie" (actually a movie about badminton) had been Chris' big break, and his role therein was decidedly not comedic.

"Look, bra," he began.

Lindsay looked down and inspected her straining halter top. For the first and last time in the 13 weeks the show would take to shoot, the other contestants were sympathizing with Chris, who looked ready to scream. After a seemingly eternal moment, the microcephalic goddess looked back up at Chris, satisfied that her clothing was in order, and smiled contentedly.

Chris chose his words with more care this time, avoiding anything that could be misinterpreted as an instruction. "Linds, you're here because you're pretty and sweet," he told her. "Just try not to get yourself kicked off too early, OK?"

"OK," Lindsay agreed, with an endearing smile. And with that, Princess Lindsay her Hotness, heir to the throne of Bimbonia, took her place with the other contestants.

The next boy to arrive had a rustic, unsophisticated air about him. His unstylish but practical outfit consisted of work boots, jeans, a heavy greenish hoodie variant, and a toque. He wore his hair in a mullet, and had a downy proto-beard on his chin. Lindsay and Sadie cringed at the sight of the newcomer, although the other teens either didn't notice this or didn't know what to make of it.

"Our homeschooled country boy, Ezekiel," Chris announced to the camera. Turning back to the new arrival, McLean said, "What's up, Zeke?"

"I am, Mr. McLean," Ezekiel replied. "I'm so up for this contest, I can't even describe it, eh?"

"Hmph," Chris grunted in surprise, "I didn't think you'd know what that meant. I mean, homeschooled your whole life, raised by freaky prairie people… to be honest, I figured you'd be our one-and-done guy."

Ezekiel lifted his eyes to the heavens in mock supplication. "Just because I'm homeschooled doesn't mean I live in a cave, eh?" he replied in the exasperated tone of one who has gotten sick of explaining the same thing over and over. "We have Internet. It's just dialup, but still… I understand trendy expressions, even if I don't use them. And I don't plan to be your sacrificial lamb, eh?"

"O…kay," the nonplussed host said, buying himself a moment to recover from his surprise. "And you can call me 'Chris'. Everyone else will."

As Ezekiel continued down the dock to join the other contestants, Chris turned back toward the camera. "Well, well," the host said with that bland smile of his, "It seems our lamb may actually be a lion. That'd be cool."

Ezekiel's handling of his introduction impressed at least one of the other contestants, for Duncan smirked and stepped up to meet the new arrival. "Dude, way to tell off the Man!" the delinquent exclaimed, offering a high-five that Ezekiel hesitantly met.

The boat departed, but failed to turn around at the usual point and continued on its way until it was nearly out of sight. This break from the routine left the teens that had already arrived some 20 minutes to chat and get to know each other a little better.

When the boat finally returned, it was moving at its top speed—much faster that it had on the previous trips. The reason became apparent when the sharp-eyed Geoff spotted a speck in the sky. As the boat approached, the urban cowboy was also the first to identify the growing speck as a hang glider, connected to the boat by a towline.

The boat was now as close to the dock as it could safely get at its current speed, so its pilot throttled back and turned aside. Whoever was on the glider dropped the towline and began to descend in wide, lazy circles.

The glider was now close enough for the people on the dock to make out a few details. Most notably, at this point, was that the glider pilot seemed to be clad almost entirely in red. A couple of minutes later, the spectators could see that the pilot was a brown-haired boy wearing a red tracksuit, white sneakers, and a headband.

"Our jock of all trades, Tyler!" Chris announced dramatically.

Tyler was now low enough to hear McLean's announcement, and to make himself heard as well. "Great to be here, dude!" He called down, waving for the cameras. "Clear the runway!"

Chris retreated to join the contestants at the base of the dock. After a couple more circles, Tyler was low enough to make his landing approach. Waving once more for the cameras, he brought his legs down and forward in a landing posture.

And slammed squarely into the end of the dock, folding over it like a jackknife.

"Guh-dunge," Ezekiel said, wincing in vicarious pain.

"That's going to leave a mark," Duncan smirked.

"Wicked crash, dude!" Chris called from the base of the dock.

Tyler could not speak, for he'd had the wind knocked out of him, but he gave a "thumbs up" to let everyone know that he was not seriously hurt.

Next to arrive was a short, stocky, buxom girl clad in a blue leotard and matching gym shorts, with white sneakers. Her arms were noticeably muscled, even at rest, and she wore her black hair in a short, midlevel ponytail. Her expression was sullen.

Eva, as this tough-looking lass was called, could have been a pretty girl. She had a classic hourglass figure, with legs that were reasonably shapely despite being as hard as iron, and she even had a beauty mark on her lip, but she didn't seem especially interested in her appearance. She was content to keep the unibrow that Nature had given her, although even normal eyebrows might have looked like a unibrow with her perpetual scowl. The severe ponytail she wore probably wasn't the most flattering look for her, and she wore no makeup beyond lipstick that matched her hazel eyes.

Eva acknowledged Chris' greeting with naught but a grunt, her sullen expression as unchanging as McLean's smile, and trudged down the dock. When she came to Cody and Harold, she thought that a good place to await the arrival of the remaining contestants. As she turned to face the end of the dock, she dropped her bag, which fell to the dock with a heavy clunk.

"What's in there?" Cody asked, trying to make conversation. "Dumbbells?"

"Yes," Eva replied in a tone that was equal parts, "What else would it be?" and "Go away and leave me alone."

"Cool," Cody said in an aside to Harold, as Eva turned her baleful gaze back to the arrival point. "A Klingon chick."

Eva overheard the science geek's comment, and smiled a bit—a rare occurrence, as her new colleagues would learn in due course. The musclegirl knew little about the Star Trek franchise, but she had heard enough about it to know that the Klingons were postulated as a warrior race. Since that fit reasonably well with her self-image, Eva regarded Cody's assessment as an honest compliment. He would never hear that from her, though, because it wouldn't do for this pipsqueak to get the idea that she might be into him.

The boat steamed in once more, with a slim girl standing at the prow and waving excitedly. Her long, somewhat curly hair was a fiery Scotch orange-red, and her eyes were green. This is a very rare combination, but that was only fitting, for this girl was a nonesuch.

She wore a green halter top with a collar and a cleavage window. She was the only girl with a long skirt, reaching almost to her knees, but the skirt was of a curious design—covering most of her thighs on the outside but "barely legal" on the inside, it was knotted on one side and hung low on her hips, only partially covering her green, bikini-like panties. All in all, it looked like Izzy, as the new arrival was called, had simply wrapped a yellow-green towel around her hips.

When the boat came to a stop, Izzy rushed to the gangplank, but stubbed her toe and took a header off the boat. Recovering quickly, she executed a flip and landed catlike on her feet, just about as close to the end of the dock as she could have done without falling into the water. She straightened up from the deep crouch she had landed in, with an "of course, I planned that" look on her face, and then dashed up to Chris, for she was a bundle of energy.

"Izzy, glad you could—"

"Oh, it's so great to be here, Chris!" Izzy interrupted, with a delivery slightly slower than an American-style auctioneer's. "This isn't really what I expected, but that doesn't matter. I'll knock 'em dead no matter what, or I should actually say, no matter where. Is this a summer camp? I thought you were taller. Are these the other contestants? They look nice, well, most of them, anyway, but I'll overcome them all. When do we eat? Oh, wow, did you see that mosquito? It was the size of a pterodactyl! Don't you go biting me, Skeeterzilla, 'cause I bite back! Grahr!"

Izzy bounded down the dock, leaving Chris to grumble about contestants who wouldn't let him do his job. When the manic redhead reached her new colleagues, D.J. said, "That was a sweet flip you did when you came of the boat."

"Oh, I can do back flips, too," Izzy replied, demonstrating with a flawless back flip. "See?"

"Cool," Tyler said. "I can do those, too." The jock demonstrated, as Izzy had; but unlike Izzy, who had executed a flawless full rotation, Tyler executed a flawless rotation and a quarter, and so landed flat on his back.

"Oh, are you all right?" Bridgette cried as she rushed to Tyler's aid, for hers was a heart of gold. Unfortunately, as she went to help Red Jock, she accidentally bumped Duncan. The delinquent flailed his arms desperately for a moment or two before toppling into the lake.

As Tyler clambered to his feet, seemingly none the worse for his second unfortunate encounter with the dock, Duncan began to muscle his way back onto the dock. The delinquent looked more bemused than angry, for he understood that Bridgette had meant no harm, and it wasn't like he was going to melt.

"That's what I get for standing so close to the edge," Duncan said rhetorically.

As Izzy watched Duncan haul himself out of the water, his arm and shoulder muscles rippling beneath the soaked shirt that now clung to his wiry frame, the redhead suddenly looked to her side and said, "Sunshine, put your tongue back in your mouth. What will the viewers think?"

"Who's Sunshine?" Bridgette asked.

"She's me bud," Izzy informed her.

Bridgette was confused for a moment, for there was no one in the direction that Izzy had been looking when the redhead had addressed "Sunshine". Then, understanding dawned.

"Oh, I get it," Bridgette said. "An imaginary friend."

"She gets that a lot," Izzy replied enigmatically.


LUST(IN) AT FIRST SIGHT

On its next stop, the boat disgorged a boy who looked every centimeter a brain. A brain with no fashion sense. He had longish, dark brown hair in no identifiable style (for it is a common quirk amongst intellectuals to have little interest in personal grooming) and a generically brown skin tone suggesting native or Hispanic extraction. He wore high-top sneakers that didn't quite reach his high-water cargo pants. His layered top (a combination he probably hadn't changed much since his mother was dressing him) consisted of a white, long-sleeved undershirt; a short-sleeved, misbuttoned blue button-down shirt, and a red, lightweight sweater vest.

As the boy approached, Chris declared, "Our bookworm, Noah!"

Noah gave no greeting, but came right to the point. "Did you get the memo about my life-threatening allergies?" he asked. This was no small thing to Noah, for some of his allergies—most notably to formic acid, the active ingredient in certain insect stings—were indeed life-threatening, as the other teens would learn before the contest was done, but that is another story for another time.

"I'm sure somebody did," Chris replied unhelpfully.

Noah quickly scanned the decrepit buildings beyond the dock. "This doesn't resemble the pictures in the recruiting brochures," he pronounced.

"No, it doesn't," Chris replied, as if they were discussing the weather.

"So, then, we're here because…?" Noah prompted.

"Because this is where the contest is being held," Chris replied matter-of-factly.

Noah decided that he would get nowhere with this line of conversation. Having established that Chris had no shame, Noah decided to see if he might score points with some of his competitors.

"I see that's not the only thing you've deceived us about," Noah began enigmatically.

"What do you mean?" the host asked, his curiosity aroused.

"There was a pretty strong suggestion that only mortals would be competing," Noah explained, as he moved to join the other contestants. "You've got half the goddesses of Olympus here. This, for example," he continued, indicating Eva, "Is surely none other than Pallas Athena, goddess of war; and this," he added, motioning to Gwen, "can only be Hecate, goddess of the night and patroness of sorcerers." Coming to Heather, he turned and asked, "And who is this, if not Queen Hera?" Looking to Bridgette, who was once more holding her surfboard, Noah added, "I seem to have missed Aphrodite rising from the sea. I hope the finished episode shows that bit."

"Silver-tongued devil," the visibly blushing Bridgette said to no one in particular.

Nerdling knows how to spin a compliment, Heather thought. The finished episode would have her and others saying as much in confessional spots. The girls thus flattered savored the moment, and it was well that they did; for this was the last time that most of them would hear anything complimentary from Noah's lips.

Noah came to Lindsay and declaimed, "Was this the face that launched a thousand ships and burnt the topless towers of Ilium? Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss."

"My name's Lindsay, silly," the uberbimbo deadpanned.

"Oh, me, me!" Izzy interjected, waving her arms to attract Noah's attention. "If you want topless towers burned, I'm your gal!" With her characteristic rapid-fire chatter, the motormouthed redhead added, "Actually, they don't really need to be topless. They don't even need to be towers, come to think of it. Really, if you want to burn pretty much anything, I'm the chick you want to talk to."

"Dude," Geoff said to Noah, "You picked the wrong chick to butter up with fancy talk." The urban cowboy didn't know Noah's reference to Helen of Troy (said to have been the most beautiful woman in the world) but he correctly surmised that it was a reference to something that was supposed to be flattering. "If you'd been here when Lindsay arrived, you'd understand," Geoff explained.

Noticing the murmured chorus of agreement, Noah concluded that Lindsay's arrival must have been something "special". As the contestants waited for the boat to return, Geoff drew closer to Noah and told the bookworm about the uberbimbo's entrance, but nothing would be gained by repeating it here.

The boat returned and decanted a sturdy-looking girl of African descent. She was dressed simply, in jeans and a T-shirt that might have come from a mall kiosk. She was one of the stouter girls in the troupe, but not truly fat. She wore her shoulder-length hair in a fine weave, with the strands pulled back in a ponytail.

"Our homegirl, Leshawna!" Chris announced to the camera.

Turning to said homegirl, the host greeted her in schoolboy French, for Leshawna was the show's token francophone. Born and raised in Montreal, she was fully bilingual, but French was her first language, and she would occasionally lapse into it when she was angry or afraid. On more than one instance during the course of the competition, she would find it necessary to ask other contestants to "pardon her French", literally as well as figuratively.

As this minority "double play" strutted down the dock toward the other contestants, she called out, in a booming voice and a jive turkey manner, "What's up, y'all? Leshawna's in the house! Feel free to quit now and make it easy on yo'selves, 'cause I came to win!"

"And the rest of us didn't?" Noah smirked to Heather, who happened to be the one he was standing closest to.

"Lame," Heather pronounced, as the homegirl reached the leading edge of the crowd.

Cocky though she was, it quickly became clear that Leshawna was also friendly, with an eye for the boys. "Yo, baby, how's it shakin'?" she asked with a wink as she passed Geoff. Not waiting for an answer, she came to D.J. and offered a high five, saying, "Give me some sugar, my brother."

"How's it hangin' Red Dude?" Leshawna asked Tyler, with a hand sign and a wink suggesting that she might be open to the possibility of getting to know the jock better. Coming to Cody and Harold, the jovial homegirl demonstrated her ability to walk and chew gum at the same time by fist bumping Cody with one hand and pinching Harold's butt with the other.

"Where did you learn English?" Noah asked in a tone that suggested he wasn't really interested in the answer. "From 1970s 'blaxploitation' movies?"

"Excuse me?" Leshawna demanded in a tone that implied, "You really do not want to go there."

Undeterred, the bookworm snarked, "The producers will probably manipulate the editing to turn us all into stereotypes, but you seem intent on saving them the trouble."

"What did you just say to me?" the homegirl asked, rolling up her sleeves to reveal biceps that were probably bigger around than Noah's thighs. "Oh, no you didn't! I'll show you stereotypes, sucka!" she added as she advanced on the bookworm, with the apparent intention of beating him to steaming pulp. It was all that Bridgette and Eva could do to restrain her.

"Easy, girlfriend," the straining Eva hissed through gritted teeth. "Flying off the handle is my shtick."

"Okay people, settle down," Chris called down the dock, having noticed the altercation but not the words that led to it. "There'll be plenty of time for infighting later."

"Whatever," Leshawna said to no one in particular. She stopped trying to approach Noah, which was Bridgette and Eva's cue to release her, although the girls kept covert eyes on the apparently volatile homegirl until they were satisfied that the incident had truly blown over.

Leshawna, for her part, cast a sidelong glance at Noah and saw that the bookworm had turned his attention back to the end of the dock, awaiting the next contestant. Having apparently made his point, he now seemed content to ignore Leshawna, so the homegirl decided to let the matter drop.

The next boy off the boat was clearly an ax man—a guitar player. He was dressed casually, his most remarkable garment being a semi-camo shirt featuring short, camo-pattern sleeves but a solid, light greenish torso. Emblazoned on his chest was a black handprint, the significance of which he never bothered to explain. He wore a large backpack in lieu of luggage, and carried what could only be the case for an acoustic guitar.

His manner was laid-back and unaffected. His black hair, longer in the bangs than elsewhere (the better to cover his high forehead), went oddly with his green eyes, which is not to say that the effect was in any way unpleasant. Like Geoff, he sported a cleft chin.

"Our 'wandering minstrel', Trent!" Chris announced to the camera. Turning back to the "minstrel", Chris said, "Glad you could make it!"

"Great to meet you in person, Chris!" Trent replied. "I'm a big fan of your work. Not to be a suck-up or anything, but I still think you got robbed when you didn't win Best Supporting Actor for Badminton: The Movie."

"Ah, a connoisseur of great cinema," Chris declaimed, offering a fist bump which Trent happily accepted. "I can see that we're going to get along great."

Trent finally looked past Chris, and immediately wished he hadn't.

"This is it?" the musico asked incredulously.

"You got it," Chris replied affably.

"But there isn't even a stage," the perplexed axboy pointed out.

"Actually there is," the host corrected, "but that's not where most of the competition is going to be."

Seeing that Trent was about to say something else, Chris cut him off. "Long story, but we're on a schedule. I'll fill you all in after everyone gets here, so how about you go to the end of the dock and wait with the others?"

"Okay, then," Trent said uncertainly.

Walking down the dock toward the other contestants, Trent quickly scanned the crowd. There would be plenty of time to get to know everyone, he thought, so he was mainly sizing up the girls, to see if any appealed to him enough that he should try to stake an early claim.

He found one.

Stopping beside Gwen, Trent smiled at her. "Dark as night and pale as moonlight," he said, with frank admiration in his voice. "It works for you."

Gwen quickly looked away. In truth, she found the sincere admiration in Trent's voice—so very different from Noah's faintly theatrical tone when the bookworm had compared her to a Greek goddess—deeply flattering, but it was too soon. Being something of a loner, she'd never had anything resembling a boyfriend before, and precious few admirers, so she was unsure of how to proceed; and it wouldn't do for anyone to think she was easy. The safest thing to do, therefore, if not the most satisfying, was to retreat into her shell.

Whoa, Cody thought as he looked toward this pair, for he had overheard Trent's remark. I can't believe I didn't notice that Goth chick before.

The boat approached yet again, with the 11th and final girl standing at the prow and waving politely.

"Our Ms. Do-it-all, Courtney!" Chris announced.

Chris offered Courtney his hand as she stepped off the gangplank, for her profile suggested that she would be appreciative of such a gesture without merely accepting it as her due or interpreting it as condescension. Sure enough, Courtney politely thanked the host for his gratuitously chivalrous gesture, although she seemed to have little to say to him otherwise.

Courtney was not the spectacular beauty that some of the other girls were, but nevertheless managed to turn her share of heads. She spent a good deal of time outdoors, judging by her well-tanned skin and the touch of sunbleaching in her shoulder-length, chestnut-brown hair, which she wore loosely.

Courtney did not appear to be especially fashionable. She wore a short, lightweight grey sweater over a more expansive off-white blouse, the combination bearing an unfortunate resemblance to a chambermaid's uniform. At least her calf-length, olive green pants didn't reinforce that image.

Courtney also wore high-heeled sandals, but even with this enhancement was one of the shortest contestants in the troupe. That meant little, though, as the others would learn quickly enough. Napoleon was short, too.

Courtney joined the other contestants and engaged in polite introductions with a number of them. The girl knew how to work a room. When she revealed later in the competition that she planned to run for public office one day, that revelation would come as a surprise to no one.

Courtney's glad-handing and amiable chitchatting ceased abruptly, as did all other conversation, when the last contestant arrived.

The 11th and final boy was, for want of a better description, a god among men. He had a ripped physique—not the exaggerated muscle definitions of a bodybuilder, but perfectly toned and proportioned manliness—that rippled under his tight T-shirt. (He also wore old, nondescript blue jeans and sneakers, but none of the girls noticed those until later.) His shortish hair was straight, glossy and raven-black. His skin was a flawless bronze, his teeth a flawless white, and his eyes—oh, those eyes—beckoning sapphire wells that a girl could drown in if she wasn't careful, and maybe even if she was. In short, every girl present desired him on sight.

The boys' reactions to the new arrival were mixed. Some were disdainful of the "pretty boy"; some admired his ripped physique, knowing that a guy didn't get that way without a lot of work, whatever his natural gifts; and some saw a dangerous rival who might damage their own chances of hooking up with someone. Nobody was concerned that the newcomer might easily recruit girls into alliances, but that was only because everyone still thought that the coming competition would be a talent contest, rather than an elimination game.

Chris introduced Justin, for that was the name of this unearthly vision, and conversed briefly with him, but none of the girls noticed anything more than his name. Justin's voice was unremarkable, for the Creator does not suffer true perfection in mortals.

As Justin concluded his business with the host and moved to join the other contestants, it quickly became clear that he was aware (for how could he not be?) of the effect he had on others. Indeed, the way he walked seemed to be not so much "walking" as the continuous, flowing striking of a series of poses. As he passed the girls, Sadie fainted dead away, and more than one other looked ready to follow suit. When the Incredible Hunk reached Lindsay, his "runway walk" came to an abrupt end.

Oh, wow, Lindsay thought, suddenly feeling weak in the knees yet unable to tear her gaze from that sapphire abyss that was Justin's eyes, a guy as hot as me. Never thought I'd see the day. Could he be The One?

Oh, wow, Justin thought, suddenly feeling weak in the knees yet unable to tear his gaze from that cerulean abyss that was Lindsay's eyes, a girl as gorgeous as me. Never thought I'd see the day. Could she be The One?

Chris whistled sharply to get everyone's attention. "All right, dudes and dudettes," the host announced, "now that we've introduced everyone, we need a cast photo for Marketing. I want you all to come out onto the dock, right about to where I'm standing now, and arrange yourselves however you like. Just make sure we can see everyone."

As a cameraman traded his video camera for a still camera and began to set up on the prow of the yacht, Chris directed traffic on the dock to ensure that the 22 teenagers were packed closely enough for the camera's field of view to cover everyone. The shorter contestants (mostly girls, naturally) sat in the front row, in a variety of poses. Most of the others knelt or stood, with some leaning in toward the center of the camera's field of view. Owen and D.J. stood in the back because they towered over everyone else.

With everyone packed in together, the decrepit old dock was sagging alarmingly, especially around the titans in the back. As Chris took up a position in the foreground, intending that the cast shot should include a headshot of him, the contestants were listening nervously to the noises issuing from beneath them. In their minds' eyes, they had vivid images of the decaying dock collapsing and dumping them all into the lake.

The cameraman took his sweet time preparing. When he was finally ready, he called to everyone to smile. Most of the teens managed smiles, despite their misgivings.

The cameraman called for a second picture, then a third. By this time, most of the contestants were convinced that the dock would fail at any moment, but the ancient timbers were apparently stronger than they looked. Or felt. Or sounded. When the cameraman was finally finished, the teens gratefully and hurriedly quit the dock for the safety of solid ground.

As the yacht left the dock for the last time, Chris led the contestants through a short stretch of woodland to a clearing dominated by a large campfire pit. There were 11 tree-stump seats to one side of the fire pit, and the host invited his charges to take seats if they wished.

"Some of you," the host said, "have asked why we're at this crummy old summer camp instead of the five-star resort that you were expecting. The short answer is that your ability to adapt to unexpected twists is one of the things you're being tested on."

"But what does that have to do with a talent contest?" Trent asked. More warily, he added, "This is a talent contest, isn't it?"

"Actually, no," Chris replied. "Despite what you were told, this competition is actually an elimination game."

It was all Heather could do to stop herself grinning from ear to ear. While she was confident that she would have done well in the talent contest that everyone had been expecting, she was even more confident now, for she was an aficionado of elimination game shows. They might as well write me the check now, she thought with elation. Living in this lame summer camp is going to be worth it.

After pausing briefly to let his revelation sink in, Chris continued. "In a few moments, you will be divided into two teams. Every three days, your teams will compete against each other in various types of challenges. The winning team will get a reward, and the losing team will have to decide which of its members to send home. Eliminations will be by plurality vote. In the event of a tie vote, I'll decide how to handle it. There is no set tie-breaking procedure.

"Any questions?"

Katie raised her hand and asked, "What's a plurality?"

"Do you know what a majority is?" Cody asked the "thin twin" in turn, before Chris could respond.

"Sure. It means more than half."

"Well, a plurality is similar, except that you don't need more than half. You just need more than anyone else has."

"Okay," Katie said, with a nod of her head.

"Somewhere around the midpoint," Chris continued, "or when one of the teams gets too small, the teams will be merged, at which point it will be every camper for themselves."

"Camper?" Lindsay asked.

"You're living at a summer camp, so you are now officially campers," Chris explained. "At the end, the last camper standing will win the grand prize of one hundred thousand dollars.

"We'll mostly be running on a three-day cycle. The first day will usually be downtime, so you can just be yourselves for the cameras. Today is an exception, because you have to get oriented and settled in. The challenge will be on the second day, with the voting and elimination ceremony on the third day. There will be a few cases where the elimination is on the same day as the challenge, but we've tried to give you the extra day whenever possible so you'll have time to consider your decisions, because you don't get mulligans here."

"What's a mulligan?" Lindsay asked.

"It's a golf term," Harold explained. "Basically, it means a do-over. Its origin is unknown, but the story I've heard is that a foursome compensated their carpool driver—named Mulligan—by giving him two shots off the first tee."

"Fascinating, Harold," Chris said in a tone suggesting that he wasn't the least bit fascinated. "Now, when I call your name, I want you to stand over here," the host continued, indicating a space to his right. "Beth… Cody… Gwen…"

The dumpy farm girl, the science geek and the Goth did as they had been instructed.

"Heather… Justin… Katie…"

The dragon girl, the Incredible Hunk, and the skinny girl-child likewise took up positions at Chris' right hand.

"Leshawna… Lindsay… Noah…"

The ample homegirl, the brainless blonde beauty, and the bookworm took their places with their new teammates.

"Owen… and last but not least, Trent."

As the man-mountain and the axboy joined their new teammates, Sadie's eyes widened in horror.

"There must be some mistake," Sadie cried desperately. "Katie and I have to be on the same team! One on one is one thing, but we're never on opposite teams. We can't do it!"

"It's true," Katie added, her own eyes wide now that the awful truth had sunk in. "There's no way we can play tough against each other! It's like having to play with one hand tied behind our backs. How can we help our teams like that?"

"Not my problem," Chris replied unsympathetically.

"It's so unfair," Sadie complained, tears welling in her eyes. "You're just setting us up to get kicked off first!"

A sudden thought seemed to strike the butterball, and she regarded the host with narrowed eyes. "It's because I'm fat, isn't it?"

Chris' seemingly permanent bland smile vanished. He had shown irritation a few times before; but now, for the first time, he looked genuinely angry. "If you play the 'oppressed minority' card on me again," he warned darkly, "you'll be out of here so fast it'll make your head spin. Capisce?"

Realizing that Sadie had provoked the host to the point where he might do something rash, the clones said no more, but looked sadly at each other, resigned for the nonce to one or both of them being early outs.

"Don't sweat it, hon," Leshawna said as she gave Katie's shoulder a light, reassuring squeeze. "It'll be all right. When this game is over, you'll still be tight, right? Besides, you can be tough without being mean."

"Yeah, I guess so," Katie sighed, accepting Leshawna's reassurance but not really convinced.

Chris turned to the newly constituted team. "As I was about to say, before I was so rudely interrupted," he said, with a quick warning glare at Sadie, "You are now the Screaming Eagles!"

An intern planted a battle standard in front of the Eagles: a red banner with a silhouette of an eagle, wings back and talons outstretched as if to grab some terminally unlucky gopher.

"Eagles," Noah observed disinterestedly. "A popular, traditional mascot."

Chris turned back to face the remaining 11 teenagers, some of whom had now claimed seats recently vacated by members of the Eagles.

"Now, when I call your name, I want you to come up and stand over here," the host said, indicating a space to his left.

"Bridgette… Courtney… D.J.…"

The surfer girl, the diminutive dynamo, and the dusky brickhouse took their places at the host's left hand.

"Duncan… Eva… Ezekiel…"

The fauxhawk-crested delinquent, the dour musclegirl, and the homeschooled farm boy did as they had seen their new teammates do.

"Geoff… Harold… Izzy…"

The urban cowboy, the beanpole, and the manic redhead likewise did as they had been bidden.

"Sadie… and, last but not least, Tyler."

The butterball and the jock of all trades joined their new teammates, Sadie with a dejected look across the way to Katie.

"You," Chris said to the second team, "are now the Killer Muskies!"

The intern now planted the Muskies' battle standard, a green banner sporting the Muskies' logo: a slim, torpedo-like fish, wheeling about and with its jaws agape, its mouth filled with large, needle-like teeth.

"What's a muskie?" Sadie asked.

"It's short for 'muskellunge'," Harold began.

"Do you know what a pike is? The fish, not the weapon?" Izzy asked before Harold could continue. Not waiting for a response from Sadie, Izzy explained, "Well, a muskie is the biggest, baddest type of pike. They can get as big as a man, sometimes. They're ambush hunters that skulk around and when they see a tasty little fishie, they dart out and it's down the ol' muskie hatch. Bye, little fishie!" The motormouthed redhead said all this in slightly more time than it had taken Harold to say, "It's short for 'muskellunge'."

The teams assigned, Chris led the campers to the camp proper. As they walked, Duncan sidled over to Courtney.

"Hey, Princess."

"My name's Courtney. I would prefer that you call me that… Duncan, is it?"

"Yeah. Anyway, teamie, we have to keep Malibu Barbie and Iron Klutz apart at all costs."

"Okay, I assume that by 'Malibu Barbie' you mean Bridgette, but who's 'Iron Klutz'?"

"Tyler," replied the Juvenile Hall alumnus. "The guy in the red track suit."

"Why would having them together be a problem?" asked the puzzled princess. "They both seem nice."

"Nice isn't the problem," Duncan explained. "The problem is that they're both majorly clumsy. Put them together, and they'll be a disaster waiting to happen. If you hadn't been one of the last people off the boat, you'd understand. I don't know what McLean was thinking, putting them on the same team."

"Thanks," Courtney replied uncertainly. "I'll keep that in mind."

Reaching the camp, Chris motioned to two large structures with the campers' luggage piled in front and said, "These are your cabins. Boys have the one on the left, and girls have the one on the right. Now, some elimination games keep the teams separated between challenges, but we don't have that kind of budget, so you'll be able to mingle with your rivals if you're into that sort of thing.

Katie and Sadie's spirits rose noticeably at that. They might be stuck on opposite teams, with the likelihood of being early outs, but at least they could still do what BFFs do between challenges.

As Heather and Lindsay headed into the girls' cabin to stake early claims to the best beds—ideally something with a view of the lake, if such was available—Geoff cast what he thought was an unnoticed eye toward Bridgette and called, "Yo, Chrismeister! Will there be a chaperone in this facility?"

Chris replied, "You're all 16 years old, the same age as—"

"I'm only 15," Sadie corrected, raising her hand to be sure the host noticed her.

"That's true," Katie confirmed. "Her birthday's not 'til almost Midsummer."

Chris did not acknowledge the Bobbsey Twins directly. "As I was saying," he began testily, with a glare at the clones who were getting on his last nerve by this point, "you're all 16 years old or will be turning 16 during the course of this competition, which is the same age as a Counselor In Training at a regular summer camp; so, apart from me and my aide, whom you'll meet later, you'll be unsupervised.

"You've got one hour to get settl—"

A tremendous scream suddenly erupted from the girls' cabin. This was no mere, "Eek! A mouse!" scream, but the scream of a girl in mortal peril, and with an ungodly set of lungs into the bargain.

For a moment, the campers were stunned into inaction. Recovering their wits, the teens ran for the cabin. Chris shrugged his shoulders and headed for the main lodge.

The hour was growing late, so Brett's mother left off her tale and suggested that he prepare for bed.


NOTES:

* The invocation that begins the interior story also begins The Kalevala (as compiled by Elias Lonnrot and translated by Francis Peabody Magoun, Jr.), which is usually described as the Finnish national epic but is really more a collection of traditional songs arranged into something resembling a continuous story. In the modified version presented here, TDI character and place names replace the original mythic Finnish names.

* A "clew" is a ball of string, yarn, etc.

* Chris' theme song is "I'll Make a Man Out of You" from Mulan.

* When Total Drama Island (then called Camp TV) was in development, the show's original premise (alluded to by Harold upon his arrival and Lindsay in the first challenge) was that the contestants had been duped into believing that they were finalists in a national talent search. This reimagining retains that original conceit.

* Writing the contestant introductions as if the reader has never heard of Total Drama Island is a stylistic point, done in part because one of the author's competition story pet peeves is that too many writers treat the intros as a chore to be got through as quickly as possible instead of a chance to make memorable first impressions and get a running start on character development. Most of the longer introductions expand on the canon version but are otherwise similar.

* The phrase, "of little note nor long remembered" is a reference to The Gettysburg Address. The pertinent line is, "The world will little note nor long remember what we do here today…"

* Signing a contract in blood is a traditional part of the procedure for selling one's soul to the Devil. Gwen suspects that she has died and gone to Hell.

* Because the Storyteller is Canadian, she mainly uses metric units of measure.

* An "evil twin" is a device that cybercriminals set up near a Wi-Fi hot spot to intercept Internet traffic, usually for the purpose of stealing passwords or personal information.

* The phrase, "but that is another story for another time" is not merely a narrative flourish. Whenever this phrase appears, it foreshadows an incident in a later chapter that will, indeed, be told in the fullness of time. Some of these "other stories for other times" are told only a few chapters later, while others are not told for 20 chapters or more. This device is taken from The Sword of Shannara, where the phrase "but that is another story for another time" is a catchphrase of the Druid, Allanon whenever he mentions something that touches on the origin of the Elves.

* Harold is introduced with the full genealogy typical of medieval Icelandic sagas, befitting his status as the canon franchise's master of arcane lore. These genealogies were actually useful to the sagas' original audiences. Since most major figures of the sagas were real, well-documented people, with some few appearing in multiple sagas, contemporary audiences could recognize family characteristics from these genealogies, deduce character from the quality (or lack thereof) of the pedigree, and fit the person into a known historical context.

* "The Great War" was the original name of World War I.

* Owen is bigger in this story than in the original. The canon Owen weighs 296 pounds (134 kg) and appears to be about 6 feet tall (180 cm). The Storyteller, however, describes him as being at least 2 meters (6'7") tall. To keep him suitably fat with that extra height, this Owen weighs 396 pounds (180 kg).

* The Bobbsey Twins were the protagonists of a series of children's books written between 1904 and 1979. Despite their physical differences (for they were fraternal twins) they were basically duplicates of each other.

* "Katie" is a traditional diminutive of "Kathleen", and "Sadie" is a traditional diminutive of "Sarah". How do people get to "Sadie" from "Sarah"? Probably the same way they get to "Peggy" from "Margaret".

* The description of Lindsay as "Cytherean" is a reference to the Greek goddess Aphrodite. The Goddess of Sex (as she was known to the ancient Greeks; it was the Romans who shifted her portfolio to romantic love) was often called "the Cytherean" because one version of her backstory holds that she rose from the sea near the Greek island of Cythera.

* The canon version of Ezekiel's entrance also has Chris describing Ezekiel's parents as "freaky prairie people". The author interprets this phrase as code for "Bible thumpers", especially since "Ezekiel" is a Biblical name. This story's characterization of Ezekiel omits his canon counterpart's social ineptness, because that is an aspect of the "home schooled" stereotype that the author considers unworthy of perpetuation. Because most parents who homeschool their children do so for religious reasons, religiosity replaces social ineptness as an aspect of Ezekiel's archetype. (He's still a sexist, though.)

* Lindsay and Sadie's reaction to Ezekiel is a reference to their canon phobia toward bad haircuts, which this reimagining retains.

* The description of Tyler as the "jock of all trades" is, of course, a play on "jack of all trades". As applied to Tyler, the description invokes the unspoken part—"master of none".

* Ezekiel's remark, "guh-dunge" in reaction to Tyler's crash is a reference to the comic strip, B.C., originally by the late Johnny Hart. In that strip, "gdunge" is the onomatopoeia word for a collision. Given B.C.'s increasingly religious content in Hart's later years, it seems like a comic strip that Ezekiel's bible-thumping family might be attracted to.

* The moniker "Red Jock" for Tyler is a play on "Red Jack", another name for Jack the Ripper.

* The line Noah speaks to Lindsay is a famous quote from Christopher Marlowe's play, The Tragicall History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus(commonly rendered as simply Doctor Faustus).

* Skipping over repetitive content with the phrase, "but nothing would be gained by repeating it here" is a staple device in the Mardrus & Mathers translation of The 1,001 Nights. The original and some translations repeat such content because Shahrazad (Scheherazade) is trying to fill time.

* Leshawna is a francophone (i.e. a person whose first language is French) because a scene in a later episode requires that one of the campers be from Montreal. Leshawna was chosen because her name, while not actually French (it is, in fact, distinctively African-North American), at least sounds French.

* Chris' description of Trent as the troupe's "wandering minstrel" is a reference to the song, "A Wandering Minstrel, I" from the Gilbert & Sullivan operetta, The Mikado. This song is also Trent's theme song in the author's compilation, Total Drama Island, by Gilbert and Sullivan.

* "Musico" is the Italian word for "musician".

* In the original, Courtney was the only contestant whom Chris helped off the boat. So it is here.

* The initial composition of the teams is the same as in the original. The contestants are called to each team in alphabetical order.

* The team names have been changed because the author never liked the name, "Killer Bass" and didn't want to change one team name without changing the other.

* The canon states that all the contestants are 16 years old, but here they have all just finished their sophomore year of high school. This is similar, but allows for 15-year-olds with summer birthdays (i.e. Sadie). The canon actually alludes to this with the revelation that Katie has a driver's license and Sadie doesn't.

* Each chapter ends with a cliffhanger instead of an elimination ceremony, ala The 1,001 Nights.