Marcus Nylund was hungover.
It was a stupid ritual that he was suckered into every season, when the prep was all ready and assembled, the mentors selected, signed to NDA’s and rostered. When the kids were selected, the preparations for grabbing them set into motion, the location wired for sound and camera and checked, double checked, and triple checked for termites or other disasters that could ruin a shot. Routines and checklists that had been whittled down to a science and oiled to a fine-tuned machine gradually ended, until there was a full two day lull between preparation for the season and showtime.
And then the crew got drunk to celebrate.
Every season, Marcus promised himself up and down that he’d stop. He was turning forty next year, didn’t have the fortitude for the tequila and loud music that the younger interns and technicians had the stomach for. And every season, he found himself with a hot water bottle on his head, the kids’ excited early morning chatter and his wife’s soothing tones hammering at his skull.
So when Marcus strode through the doors of the SOTF studio, he did so with wrap around sunglasses on his ice blue eyes, a baseball cap over his salt-and-pepper hair, and an empty bottle of water clutched gingerly in his grip, to minimize crinkling.
Shannon, his personal assistant, met him at the door with her clipboard, her pantsuit pressed and neat in a warm red. Efficiently, she took the bottle from his hand, replacing it with a travel mug of what he assumed to be tea (it was always tea), and handing him a clipboard to hold in his other hand.
“Donald here yet?” Marcus rumbled around the gravel in his throat, sipping at the liquid while studying the results of the live camera test.
“He showed up a half hour ago. He’s going through the second sector - said there was an audio feed hiccup.”
“What kind hiccup?”
“Something about static?” She shrugged. “He wants to talk to you when you get settled in. Everything’s coming in nice and easy.”
“Good, okay. Messages?”
“Standard ‘rallying the troops’ bullshit. There are a few sponsors coming in on the second day to do a walkaround, but Mary’s sweet-talking them into delaying it until day 3.”
Marcus nodded, sipped again, nodded again. “Good morning, by the way.”
Shannon smiled back. “Not so, for you. Crew party?”
“As always. Tell Donald to meet me in the war room. I’ll need to see camera 3 and 16 myself - we may need to get the ground crew out there, reposition them.”
As Shannon walked away, Marcus stepped into the large room filled with desks, monitors, and chatter - dubbed the ‘war room’ by the employees - and surveyed his kingdom.
He’d been the floor producer for SOTF since the second season, when an independently funded livestream of African wildlife went viral on the web, bringing him and his crew at the time to the attention of the executives. They’d offered him a lucrative position, limited creative control, and the experience to change the world. An offer that he’d seized and held tightly onto for the remaining 14 years he’d been with them.
As floor producer, it was his job to manage every aspect of the show that the viewers would see: from commentary to audio and sound, from commercial breaks to what scenes the action took place in. Since taking the job at 25, he’d never taken a sick day, didn’t go on vacation, and aside from the four times a year he drank too much, was always at the peak of his game.
He descended the metal steps, taking the sunglasses off of his nose and sliding them into a breast pocket as he continued to review the camera tests. Slight blips on 3 and 16, a burst of what looked like static at around 4am last night in one of the indoor locations, all minor things that could be handled with a tweak from the war room or an adjustment of cameras on the ground.
A curse from the open door of the “oval office” - a windowed conference room that overlooked the war room, where Marcus normally made his den - had his attention, glancing towards it to see Donald working away at his monstrous machine. Donald had been working for Marcus since he was 17 and fiddling with live camerawork. Considered a wunderkind that could’ve done anything he had wanted, Marcus scooped him up to both design and coordinate the camera placements in Africa, as well as monitor them from a remote location. His modifications to the camera design were the reason that SOTF was able to run so flawlessly.
Donald had once taken a vacation, and Season 62 had occurred.
Marcus tapped on the doorway, stepping through and knowing to wait until Donald was finished his train of thought before interrupting. After a few moments of furious typing and clicking, Donald removed his sunglasses, rubbed his eyelids, and turned to look at Marcus.
“Bad news or good news?”
Marcus shrugged. “Surprise me.”
“Okay. 3 and 16 are not going to recover for the rest of the game without a bit of groundwork. They’ve got a loose audio wire which separates the ambient noise track with the live video feed, meaning we can’t undercut or adjust it for the black box pickup. Coupled with that, we’re going to be missing chunks of the sequencing which means that it’ll be near-fucking-impossible to build again when it comes DVD time.”
“Okay,” Marcus replied, waiting patiently. This was their routine: Donald would find a problem and speak about it as if the world was going to end, Marcus would wait it out before figuring out a solution. It had been this way ever since the show’s ratings had begun to fall.
“The good news is that it shouldn’t take more than a few hours to fix - six at most - so a DZ-and-drop can do it.”
Marcus rounded the table, glanced at the screen. “They’re both in the same zone?”
“We’ll fix it then. Are they static?”
“Eyup. The tracking ones all work - we just need the ambience for the wind and birds and shit for later cuts.”
“Alright then. If no mics in the area are damaged but those ones, we can make do for a little while. Ambient noises is more the editing team, anyway.”
“Fuckin’ a.” Donald sighed, leaned back in his chair, swivelled it towards Marcus. “Once more into the breach, huh?”
Marcus took a long drink of tea, shrugging. “Yeah.”
For a time, everything was black. Even as the students regained consciousness, there was no light. Some mumbled or shouted. Some cried. Some sat silent. They knew what was happening. They'd each been told, in front of their class or their parents or when walking alone through a hallway in school. They were to compete, to fight to the death on SOTF-TV.
They were to be stars.
Slowly, the lights came on, illuminating the area progressively, like a movie theater as the credits started to roll.
The room was a large rectangle, bisected by a pane of heavy-duty, bulletproof glass. On one side, the students sat in chairs, facing a stage. Their hands were bound behind them, their legs loosely secured as well. On the other, arena-style seating was filled to overflowing. The audience was silent; a security crew stood by to remove anyone disruptive. All around the room's periphery, cameras whirred, capturing the audience, the face of the students, the purple curtain on the stage. The lights stayed full for an uncomfortably long space of seconds. Prior to the broadcast, music would be edited in, and right at this point would come its climax.
"Attention, please," a man's voice said. It was loud, harsh. Most of the students quieted. A few did not. "Quiet in the house."
Now, a drumroll was audible. At its peak, the curtains snapped open, revealing a podium upon the stage, and, behind it, a man. He was clean shaven, with short, greying black hair. He wore a suit. Because of his positioning behind the podium, where he stood on a raised platform, it was difficult to tell that he was just under five and a half feet tall. Behind the man was a massive screen, and upon that screen was an aerial photograph.
"Hello, everyone," the man said. He was Patrick Buckley, and he'd handled the opening ceremonies for SOTF for nearly a decade now. His voice was smooth and controlled, and at his greeting, a cheer ran through the audience. He silenced it with a wave of his hand.
"And," he said, "a special hello to our VIPs in the front seats. Welcome to SOTF. You are to be our entertainment for the next few days. This is the most important moment of your lives. For many of you, this marks the beginning of the end. For one or two of you, however, this will be the moment which catapults you to greatness.
"You know how it works. Kill or be killed. Survival of the Fittest.
"I'm sure many of you are familiar with the amendments to our traditional setup enacted last season. The bulk of them will be carrying through, with a few changes. So, allow me to quickly explain."
The screen flashed to an image of different stylized animals in bright colors.
"Each of you will be assigned to a team, most of which contain five members. This team may not be changed. The people you are grouped with are your allies, your assets. They are the only ones you can trust, because they are the only ones who can survive with you. The teams will fight to the death. When only members of one team remain, they will all be allowed to go home. It doesn't matter whether it's one person or all five of you. You may remember that, last season, two teams got close to sending multiple members to Endgame. I'm hoping to see that actually come to pass this time.
"You will each wear a bandanna revealing your team allegiance, and a collar filled with explosives. Should you fail to wear your bandanna, or should you defy he directions you are given, the explosives will detonate. Aside from that, we'll share teams of killers and dead from time to time. You will be knocked unconscious and placed in our arena"—the satellite photograph returned—"and will have to find your allies on your own. Best to do so quickly, if you want to maximize your odds.
"You're not in this completely alone, of course. Each team is assigned a mentor, and each of them may consult with each of their wards once per twelve hours, timed based on our announcements. And, while we're on that note, it is my pleasure to introduce our new game announcer, Ms. Rhiannon Durrett. Some of you may know her better as "Ritzy Daggers". Let's give up a hand for her, and for our talented team of mentors."
The screen darkened, and spotlights came up. It was difficult to say when the figures had filed into the room, but a line of men and women stood in front of the screen, a few paces behind Buckley and the podium. Close-ups of their faces were broadcast on screens closer to the studio audience, but out of sight of the captive teenagers. The audience screamed its approval. The group stood, some shifting awkwardly, some smiling.
A few seconds later, the spotlights died. On the screen was a new picture, a Hispanic girl wearing a black coat. Around her left arm were tied ten colorful bandannas.
"Of course, those of you who watched last season remember that you don't have to play with your team if you don't want to, as one of our winners proved. We are, once again, offering freedom to the first student to achieve ten kills. Do bear in mind, you have to be first to the marker to go free, and any kills on your assigned teammates do not count."
The screen flashed again, showing a photograph of a large grey backpack.
"You will each be assigned a daypack containing food, a weapon or tool of some sort and an instruction manual if appropriate, various gifts from our sponsors, and some spare clothing. Any other belongings you brought have been removed. They'll be sent to your families. Families, hang onto this stuff. I'm told the memorabilia market is booming these days.
"That should be all you need to know. Be smart, be strong. Work with your teammates. You can make it out of here, and your life is looking pretty grand if you do. Best of luck, and give us a good show.
"Let the games begin."
And Buckley raised his hand from behind the podium, pulling a gas mask over his head. Throughout the room, a hiss was heard, gas pouring from vents. A few students struggled. Most accepted their fates. It didn't really matter.
A few minutes later, all was quiet and still. The audience filtered out. It would be quiet for a few hours, as the children were transported to their battlefield.
Then, things would really get rolling.
The First AnnouncementEdit
One of the perks of being the announcer Rhiannon had grown fond of was that she didn’t have to be cooped up in an office or any kind of building like the mentors did, so she was free to wander in and out of the resort as she pleased. She chose to leave often, knowing that the show would still be there when she got back. The resort wasn’t far from civilization, so she could grab the escort of the hour and have them give her a ride to wherever she wanted, and she could still be back in record time. Of course, she always had to keep herself updated on the show, but that’s what phones were for.
So now Rhiannon kept her mouth shut as she walked through the strip-mall, knowing that people mostly recognized her by her voice instead of her face. Came with the job, of course. She smirked a little as she watched SOTF on so many of the TVs on display in one of the shops, little kids smashing their faces against the glass window in awe of their favorite contestants, their parents all doing the same. They couldn't care less about her, as they watched a nude boy, flailing and screaming out for his daddy, die because he fell into a volcano in the midst of his panic.
“Looks like someone wanted to have a hot streak.”
Rhiannon turned away as one of the children perked up and turned their head left and right, searching for her. Not too many years ago, she could’ve enjoyed being an easy face to pick out of a crowd, and now she got her giggles by being a ghost. Ah well, too much fun could get risky anyway.
Now she skulked through a toy store, giving each little gadget and figurine a quick look-see before putting it back in its original spot. As the speakers wished her a holly jolly Christmas with a jingle bell rock, she looked towards the children waiting in line to talk to Santa, probably ready to ask for a DVD box-set of one or two seasons of SOTF, maybe a Kenshin Yamana robot. That was what she remembered getting for Joe when he was their age. Oh, now she felt old. Joe didn’t get by with just toys anymore; he was almost fully grown now, biding his time through high-school. She had always been awful about buying his presents early, but she always got them, and he had always been happy, and that was the important thing. She wouldn’t have even taken up being the announcer if she didn't know she would be home for Christmas. She was away now, but they couldn’t take him from her. She cuddled a raggedy doll and petted it as she turned her attention to a Christmas tree decorated in all its fancy, standing like a tower in the middle of the mall, dazzling the surroundings with its lights and big bright star.
This place even had an ice rink, bigger then the one back at the resort, and she took a moment to indulge her reminiscences, renting a pair of skates. She spun herself in broken eights and dented circles, her mind spiraling out and yet secure in its revolving state. She had thought she was so good when she was little, always bragging to her friends when they went to the ice rink, said the only reason she wasn't a pro was because that would be too lame for her. And now she was simply Dizzy Ritzy. She smiled again at her own joke, losing her concentration and falling on her bottom, still spinning. Rhiannon grasped her head and tried to slow the world down as her body did, not to much avail. She couldn't erase that small smile on her face though, even the queasiness in her stomach having some nostalgic effect on her.
And then, her phone was ringing with a song she had picked out just for business matters. She figured she might as well get a good song stuck in her head while she was bored to death.
"We need you back at the resort, now." Her boss, always right there to wreck her fun. "It's almost time for the announcements."
"Oh, shit, already? Twelve hours seemed a lot longer in my head." She hoped he'd appreciate the humor. He never did.
"Yes, well, it's not. We have to get it going soon. Delays aren't exactly great for keeping people's attention, you know."
"Yeah, yeah, I got it. I'll be right there."
Rhiannon slid her fingers across the screen, ending the call, and let out a small sigh. She looked out to the horizon as she wound back through the mall, already growing a bit tired of the whole back and forth thing she had going on. She had known what she was getting into, and she'd be lying if she said she didn't get some enjoyment out of it, but it was all a bit more demanding then she expected. However, a job was a job, and a job meant hard work. She looked towards her escort, so silently taking her wherever she wanted or needed to go that she'd forgotten the woman, even as she shadowed Rhiannon through the toy aisles and watched her skating.
"Hey, uh, what's your name?" she asked, suddenly, on a whim, as they pulled back into the parking lot of the building a few miles from the resort that had been commandeered as this season's HQ.
"Jordan." Jordan was a stone faced lady, not too young, not too old, always seemed to be keeping her eyes forward no matter what. Even now, when Rhiannon had tried to make something of a personal connection, she stood stern and professional, all business.
"Jordan, name a song you really like, and don't ask why."
"We Will Rock You, by Queen." Still, not even a single tiny crack from the ice queen.
Jordan opened the car door for Rhiannon, who stuffed a few dollars into her guide's breast pocket and gave her a small tap on the cheek, thankful for the ride, then made her way back inside the office building. Just because it was hard work, didn't mean she didn't already know how to cheat herself out of it. Rhiannon put on her headset as she sat down in her special chair, adjusting her microphone and her earphones, all the while paging through the library of songs on the computer in front of her. It held all the music she could imagine at her disposal, hooked up to hell and back, even better than what she'd had recording her shows. She looked towards the tech across from her, who was glaring at her as he counted down the seconds to air time. They were both aware of how closely she'd cut it.
5—She leaned back—4—relaxed—3—regained her posture—2—licked her lips—1—and began to speak into her microphone.
It started off low, slow... and then quickly rose to the rapid fire fever pitch of a showman. Ritzy Daggers was on the air.
"Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, allow me to be the first to congratulate you on surviving long enough to hear the first announcement of SOTF-TV season sixty-six. I'm your host Ritzy Daggers, here to bring you live - or rather, dead - updates about the state of the game.
So with no further ado, here's who bit the dust!"
Ritzy scanned her list, finding the first handwritten name.
"This year's wooden spoon award goes to Davis Todd. Turns out trusting someone to have your best interests at heart right after losing an eye... not such a good idea. Lisa Toner followed directly in ol' Davis's footsteps and took an axe to the chest for her trouble. A double kill is just the eyecing on the cake for Jewel Evans. Atta girl.
Meanwhile, one man's sight-seeing tour ended in tragedy when early contender for Season 66 'most flamboyant' Taylor DeVasher took a swan dive off the sunshine tower at the behest of Vahka Basayev. Remember kids, work hard, chase your dreams, and one day you too could be half naked on international TV.
Austin White made the wrong decision of hanging around Lucia del Pirlo, and just when they seemed set to become the best of friends, she wound up shooting him. To recap this one; just because they aren't shooting you now doesn't mean they can't shoot you in a few minutes' time.
Marcus Redder came up with one from the improv gang when he took a shard of glass to the neck of Eden Zahn and rapidly conducted a DIY tracheotomy. I'm told the patient did not survive but we made many fine advancements in the field of cutting throats with sharp objects.
To add to the ranks of those people that enjoy facing down loaded weapons a little too much, Isaiah Hall felt that he just had to get acquainted with Alice Young's crossbow. Spoilers; bolts are bad conversationalists, they are rude, will eat all of your food, and then leave without tipping.
Next to take a dirt nap: Lucy Williams chose the wrong man to tangle with when she got on Gabriel Munez's bad side, and the side of a sword that has sharp points that can quite easily perforate you if you're not careful. Lucy was not careful. Don't be Lucy.
Finally. Damion Castillo decided that man, this group just wasn't doing it for him. Too bad that there are few things clingier - or is that just paranoid - than gun-wielding nervous wrecks on Murdervision. Leah Bissard guaranteed that Damion wouldn't be going anywhere. Permanently."
Ritzy's finger traced down the list to the very bottom, the mostly scripted part. Like they'd let her choose this.
"That's not all kidlets... we're taking the Nature Walk and Daycare Centre off the map for now. Clear out of those places before you go kaboom, all right?
We'll be back with your regularly scheduled SOTF-TV action after this...
The Second AnnouncementEdit
Michael sighed as he logged onto the Season Sixty-Six website. The cursor moved across the screen efficiently and quickly; it was a well-practiced motion. He readjusted the way he was sitting on his chair, trying to get more comfortable, but to no avail. He had an office chair just like everyone else, but his was clearly one of the older, more beat up ones. Another kid had died, so someone had to go and mark them as eliminated on the website roster. That someone was him because he was an intern and—unlike Xavier, who had gotten lucky and been chosen to go on the show as a mentor—he wasn't anyone special. So now he had to do both his work and Xavier's. Michael had never found it fair; Xavier was a dick, but he got more opportunities because of his connection.
He flinched when he heard Sean swear at his computer. It happened at least three times a day, but the volume and anger always caught Michael off-guard. It was always Sean, too; the rest of the office was always very calm. One of his co-workers had told Michael it was because before a season started they didn't really have much to do. Just occasional updates to the website and articles about notable participants to keep the interest up. The hard stuff during a season, however, was their responsibility, and increased workloads and shift hours substantially. Sean hated it when things went wrong even when the office was calm, and since his computer was the worst in the office, things went wrong often. Now that it was happening during the busiest time of the year, his frustration was all the more palpable. Michael had grown accustomed to it, though, because Sean never really yelled at anyone apart from whichever poor IT tech happened to answer the phone. Shaking the distraction off, Michael went back to looking through the roster page.
His eyes skimmed over the page of the recently deceased student. Each roster page was the same: it had a picture, their name, their team, their school, a bio and, most interestingly, their Vegas odds. Everyone in the season had odds, and the combination of bets you could make was unreal—at least, that was what his boss had said. He had mentioned something about someone putting a joke bet on a decapitation one season and winning big because it was supposed to be so unlikely. Michael wouldn't have found it weird if there were people who made all their money off betting on SOTF-TV.
He glanced up from the screen as one of his co-workers walked past with a big grin on her face. He had a good idea where she was walking, too. A few seconds later the sound of light-hearted bragging and laughter told him his suspicions had been correct. The office had a pool every season, with everyone putting in a couple of dollars and getting a slip of paper with a participant's name on it. Whoever ended up with the winner got the entire pot.
The kid Michael had picked was still in the game, and he had a stream of them up in the background. He saved the website and minimized the window so that he could see how they were doing. They were currently just talking, nothing exciting. He sighed again. It didn't look like he had a winner. He pushed his chair out and made his way over to the water machine. The office was stuffy and the only real opportunity he got to cool off was when he went to get a drink. He was about to pour himself a cup when his boss walked over.
"Ah, Michael, there you are," David McNally said, smiling in his typical faux-apologetic way. "Ms. Ghoul wants some coffee for both her and Ms. Soshimoto, although she made the request that the coffee for Ms. Soshimoto also be delivered with a copy of her last album. So I'll need you to go out and buy that first."
Michael nodded and watched his boss walk away before rolling his eyes. He knew for a fact that both Ghoul and "Xylenz" made ridiculous requests for the fun of it. He also knew that Xavier did the same just because he now could. But Michael couldn't do anything about it because he was still just some intern. He went back to his desk to get his jacket when his boss circled back around.
"Actually, Michael, change of plans. Give them the coffee first and tell Ms. Soshimoto that you'll have the CD for her as soon as you can. But there's been two more deaths, so before you do that I need you to update the website." His boss handed him a piece of paper with the two names on it.
With yet another sigh, Michael sat back down, writing down the coffee request on his list of things to do. Updating the site was yet another petty annoyance, even if it only took a few minutes at the most. All he had to do was change a couple of lines of code and the kid would be marked as dead.
He looked at the piece of paper his boss had given him and saw the first name: Erik Lowell. His kid in the sweepstakes. Well, that was just awesome. Michael's day was just getting better and better.
"Up and at 'em, kidlets. It's me again: your forever loyal hostess, Ritzy Daggers, with the half-daily news. We have some more updates for you all about your fellow competitors, and I know you wouldn't miss out on that.
"Ready or not, here we go!"
Ritzy found a familiar name on the top of the handwritten list. The names she saw both built upon and and deconstructed the idea of there being an actual pattern to the game. You got one girl who made it look like the killers were just going to keep on killing, then you got some other kids who got kills just hours before dying like chumps. It was a fun thing to think about, the orderliness of the proceedings of what should just be hectic teenage rampage.
"Soon after, Matthew Weiss met his end when caught in the crossfire by his companion, Pia Malone. Don't feel too bad for them; chances are they were going to end up turning on one another eventually anyways..
"Next, Gabriel Munez provided an example of an early killer being an early out, having exhausted himself and not cared for his severe wounds. Keep up your cardio and practice not being a moron, and you guys can avoid a similar death.
"Not one to lay about, Jewel Evans continued her rampage by killing the not-so-innocent bystander Naomi Young followed by inspiring reporter Erik Lowell. It's too bad—in another life, he could have taken this job from me.
"Coming up second-to-last yesterday, Riley Parker was gunned down by Pia Malone while trying to beat a hasty escape. It doesn't really matter how fast you guys are—bullets are faster.
"And that's all there is to that, children. Oh, before I forget: make sure any of you in The Lānaʻi Hotel or The Palms Spa and Salon get out quick, or else your heads will explode! That's just bad for our ratings. Check ya later."
The Third AnnouncementEdit
Georgie turned her computer on as soon as she got home, busying herself with taking off her shoes and emptying her bag while she waited for it to boot up. She had an urgent appointment with a Skype call and a stream of Survival of the Fittest. After pouring the contents of her water bottle into a cup on her desk, she sat down and took a sip. She was getting excited and nervous just waiting. Somehow, she had managed to get through her trip to the center of town without anyone spoiling what was happening via text. It meant she got all the fun of finding out if anyone's scores had updated while she'd been out.
The call was going when her computer finally let her log into Skype. As she joined, she opened up a Firefox window.
"—s bullshit. There's no way anyone smart would have picked him."
That was Mark, then. He liked to gripe about people getting points due to "luck"; of course, he ignored it if he was the one scoring. In that case it was a smartly planned pick.
"Hey, Georgie. You were lucky to miss Mark's bitching."
"It's true, though!"
"Yeah, I never said it wasn't."
It was always the same, really; Mark would find something to complain about and Stevie would try and rein him in. It never went anywhere. Mark would find something else eventually, and the cycle would repeat.
"Oh, is my wife here?" came a high pitched squeal.
"I'm here, baby," Georgie replied, putting on her best girly voice. Lindsey was probably her best friend in the world. For some reason Georgie had never figured out, Lindsey had taken to calling Georgie her wife, even though Lindsey actually had a boyfriend. It was kind of weird but also charming at the same time.
"Oh god, my ears," Stevie moaned.
Georgie was busying herself with getting her streams set up and with booting up the fantasy league they were all part of. From what she had been told by the others, Stevie and Mark had been in a fantasy SOTF league for the last season when the teams had first been introduced. They said it was alright but kind of messy and not many people were doing it.
This time, they'd set up their own league and invited a bunch of their friends into it. It was surprisingly simple. You just made up a team name—her team were the Purple Platypuses because alliteration—and then you drafted five kids from all those in the season to make up your roster. Mark was probably complaining about the fact that Lindsey had picked Marcus Redder and/or Gene Steward, since they were the only guys she had. Mark was still top of the league, though. He had carefully constructed his team and it was showing. Although she had managed to swipe Vahka Basayev from him, which she had yet to hear the end of.
It hadn't exactly paid off though. He had only gotten into some confrontations and was still only on one kill. It was an issue because kills were where the big points were. Right now, Shadi and Laura were talking and Laura still thought Shadi was called Clarissa. Nothing exciting happening there.
"Right, I'm going to get a snack and go to the toilet." Mark said, his tone indicating that he was incredibly frustrated by what was going on.
"Not in that order, I hope," came Lindsey's immediate reply. Georgie couldn't stop herself giggling. It was always the same and had been for a good three years, ever since she'd joined SOTFNation, a fan-forum for Survival of the Fittest. There had been an awkward period when she'd just lurked in the chat room not really talking to anyone, until Lindsey had ended up forcing her to talk by continually asking her questions. Then she had claimed her as her 'wife'. After that she had ended up integrating with everyone else fairly quickly. Lindsey, Mark, Stevie, and Kieran were still the people she was closest to. It wasn't like everyone else was bad, but she just got on really well with those four. Stevie and Mark were like brothers with the way they always had a back and forth going. Lindsey was the loud one and Kieran was the quiet one who kept everything chill and made everyone laugh with how deadpan his jokes were.
"Oh, hey, guys. Just woke up. Did I miss anything?" a slightly slurred voice said.
"Nah, you're okay, Kieran. So how did your job interview go, Georgie?" Stevie asked.
Georgie put her drink down and clicked off the stream. She left the browser on Facebook so that she would be less likely to get distracted. The door to her room opened as her cat, Ty, pushed his way in. She leaned down and stroked him as he went past her chair and jumped up onto her bed. Once he was curled up on her covers she turned back to the screen.
"I think it went well, actually. It was kinda weird going into the back of—"
"There's a massacre!" Stevie yelled over her.
"OHSHI!" There was frantic clicking as everyone pulled up their streams or switched over their browsers to see what was happening. It was brutal. The different reactions were funny to hear. Lindsey said it was gross, Stevie didn't say anything, and Kieran just kept swearing under his breath. Georgie changed the tabs once the death banners finished appearing on the stream to check the league table. Then she started laughing. She'd gotten enough points to get into the lead. Mark was going to be so pissed.
"Alright, I'm back. What did I miss?" Mark had finally returned from whatever it was he had been doing. Georgie couldn't contain how pleased she was.
"Oh, nothing, just the biggest massacre ever."
"Huh?" She heard Mark click onto the steam and then onto the league table. "Oh, this is bullshit!" Then she started laughing along with everyone else.
"Hello, my favorite ratings reapers." Once again, the voice of Ritzy Daggers echoed throughout the resort, booming inside buildings and whistling through the trees from hidden speaker. "How are all of you this evening? I hope you weren't planning to sleep soon, as I know you're dying, some of you literally, to know what's what on the up and up. Let's not waste our time together, shall we?"
Ritzy's finger tapped on the microphone as she scrolled through the list again, giving an unintentional drum roll to the announcement.
"Showing us that the early birdy does indeed get the worms, Marcus Redder made Jaxon Street bite the curb and carved out poor little Angie Hart's still beating... everything. Well, maybe not everything, but you get the idea.
"Meanwhile, Vincent Holway and Vahka Basayev were enjoying a nice and peaceful morning, fishing down by the river where things started to get steamy... as Vahka decided he had enough of Vincent and stomped on his head until it was fish paste. Don't worry, kiddo; we've all had bad dates.
"On the slightly more serious side of things, we have Jewel Evans continuing her streak of double kills, blowing both Shawn Thornton and Sebastien Bellamy away, toppling their royal army along the way. A mad savage brings down an entire empire. Inspiring stuff.
"Less gracefully, Ashley Namath shot Caroline Leveson in the neck while the two were in a tussle. There's a saying about this. Oh yeah, don't bring stupidity to a gun fight. You lose every single time.
"Our pal Gene Steward strikes again by crushing—Ahahahahaha, holy shit, this will never not be funny to me, Jesus Christ—Bunny Barlowe's throat with the pogo pony stick. It could not be confirmed at this time if he was actually pogo-ing while doing so.
"All things come to an end, kids, and so too did Gene Steward, brought low by the ire of one Bella Bianchi. Maybe chicks with B.B. initials have vengeful instincts for one another, I don't know. Either way, she put an end to the pogo stick rampage before it got stale, and for that she has our thanks.
"Aaaand now we come full circle. Pia Malone decided to shake up her style and not shoot, but stab Genevieve Cordova, all while Genni spat on her. Poor communication skills, obviously. But hey, if you can't go with the jam, you're gonna get slammed.
"Finally, the curtain call of the night. Down at the Nature Walk, there's been a huge massacre. Laura Mason served as the pre-show to the whole thing, getting hit upside the head by Shadi Williams. Genesis Bradley-Baker was the showman of the afternoon, fibbing some hoohah about Christopher Schwartz wanting to kill her. I mean, he did shoot her, but she was lying about it at first, so shame on Ms. Bradley-Baker. Shadi Williams didn't feel like sharing the spotlight, and made Saachi Nidal extinct, same as the Jade Rhinos. Then, Erik Sheely decided to steal the spotlight for himself, killing both Eden Bishop and Shadi Williams with sheer brute force. Not too shabby for a cheerleader. Erik Sheely's time as the star was short, though, as Christopher Schwartz decided to remind him who really deserved first billing. With bullets. For the grand finale, underdog Christine Wallis went head to head with Christopher Schwartz, ending with them both dead."
Ritzy's spoke those words with her enunciation flagging only slightly. At the end, however, she let out a large exhalation over the speakers. Even Ritzy needed time to recover after such a mouthful.
"Alright... phew... okay. With that, kidlets... we're making the Nature Walk a danger zone... out of respect, and so... there's some stench when you go scavenging... and also the... Space Bam Alley, The Aqua-Museum, Lernean Beauty Parlor and Sunshine Tower... because we needed four more. Alright... have a good night... children...
"Somebody... get me... some fuckin' wate-"
The Fourth AnnouncementEdit
“Welcome!” Paul Gillette said brightly, spreading out thick arms to indicate the brightly lit, whimsically decorated lobby of the Survival of the Fittest headquarters. The targets of his jolly demeanor were eight men and women in business casual dress, each fully absorbed in burying his or her awe and excitement behind a mask of calculation.
The lobby was Paul’s pride and joy as official media relations manager of SOTF—the set up jab before the knock out punch of the War Room. He’d fought long and hard with Marcus Nylund to get a press area in the War Room so that he could show off the belly of the beast, as he called it—the buzzing hive behind what millions of people saw every day on their Satellite TVs.
The lobby itself, though, was no slouch: brightly lit; coloured in artistic splashes of purple, green, and lilac; and decorated in the posters of all sixty-five DVD releases of the previous seasons in moody, dark colours. On the far right of the back wall, an empty frame was displayed prominently, the words “Season 66 Winner(s):” engraved onto a brass plaque beneath it.
Paul beamed at his guests as they surveyed the room, and began his opening oration. He preferred to call it an oration, though Marcus Nylund called it “a load of horseshit.”
Paul didn’t like Marcus Nylund much.
“Ladies and gentlemen, you stand in the lobby of the official building of Survival of the Fittest, a television show that needs no introduction. Out of many prospective candidates, you have been chosen to tour our facilities in the hopes that you’ll seek—and discover—many opportunities to serve as partners, compatriots, and shareholders in our journey to push the envelope of television entertainment.
“I don’t need to tell you about the show itself, or the numbers that the program attracts. I will merely point you towards its facilities. Here at Survival of the Fittest, we house nine hundred employees ranging from packaging to editing to marketing, and every single step in the process from imagination to creation to implementation to transportation occurs right within these walls.
“As of last year, Survival of the Fittest has been primarily enjoyed stateside,” Paul continued, aiming his many teeth in the direction of a strikingly gorgeous Asian in a trim three piece, “but we are currently setting our aim even higher, far beyond our already substantial success. Even now, we’re beginning to gain footholds on an international stage, propelling the iconic SOTF brand to even greater heights.
“Now,” he carried on, beginning to walk backwards in the practiced, smooth gait of one who’d done this many, many times, “I understand that many of you may have misgivings due to the criticism that persisted throughout the last few years.”
Paul chose his words carefully—this had been written by a team of four writers, and fairly recently. He liked to play with the script when it came to the opening message, but when it came to delicate matters of company image, he preferred to let someone else’s neck be on the chopping block.
That meant reciting the script, line for line, word for word.
“But, as is demonstrated by our acclaimed Season 65, and our so far extraordinary Season 66, we here at Survival of the Fittest feel that our success and our innovation top any setbacks. However, we realize that there may be doubters among you.”
He stopped at the dual sliding doors that Marcus Nylund had hissed and spat and raised hell over him installing. Dual sliding doors, Marcus had argued, “made no goddamn sense for his work environment” and “served little purpose besides adding pomp where pomp was unnecessary” and “only added to noise pollution and distraction to the workers in the War Room”.
Paul had disagreed. He remembered his disagreement as valiant and true—heroic, even—when he patiently and eloquently explained to Marcus Nylund that the sliding doors added panache and flair for a dramatic, dynamic entry.
In reality, his disagreement had involved spittle, flailing limbs, stammering.
But he’d won.
“Allow me, ladies and gentlemen,” Paul said, relishing the moment, “to alleviate any doubt that remains.”
Turning, he flung the sliding doors open, and the lobby became filled with noise. Monitors took up the entire Northern wall, filled with cameras and rough edits of footage that was being shot live, sliced and picked apart, and sent to editing with less than a half hour turnaround. The floor was covered in workstations manned by men and women with headsets on, standing or sitting while typing and talking furiously, their hands occasionally reaching for drinks or food that they kept handy on trays beside their desks. Fresh-faced young men and women darted in between the stations, dropping off drinks, picking up empties, taking orders that were often mouthed and hand-gestured due to lack of time.
Among them floated Marcus Nylund, like a sharp-eyed spectre, clear of eyes and clear of mind. He leaned towards a workstation, laid a hand on its operator’s shoulder, spoke a few words. He signed documents, took a call, pointed emphatically at monitors. He moved about the floor, a general among his troops, barking orders and offering guidance.
Silence, reverence, awe stole over the gathered potential investors, and Paul had yet to experience a tour where it hadn’t. Paul’s smile became impossibly wider, more teeth seeming to sprout from his mouth and filling all available space.
“Welcome,” he said again, with relish, “to where the magic happens.”
This time, when the speakers crackled to life for the announcements, a quiet, slow, but clearly audible clap was the first sound broadcast. It was followed by a few long seconds of silence, calculated to let the mocking congratulation sink in just right.
"Well," Ritzy finally said in a drawled, cheery tone, "you lot managed to kill fifty other kids in two days. If I was a math geek, I'd tell you the percentages about that, but I think you all understand the point I'm getting at."
Ritzy leaned forward towards the mic, clearing her throat to make her voice deeper, more serious.
"It's down to the wire now, kids. We've got some slim pickings here due to how brightly you've burned on the first two days, but don't fade away just yet. Me and you, we still got a job to do. So, to spare no more time, let's get to it.
"We have an assortment of danger zone deaths to give the day an explosive start. Louise Luna and Dee Dixon were a couple of turkeys and died in the bowling alley, while Aidan Adelman floundered like a dead stingray in the aqua-museum. And so, hopefully, the generation of alliteration draws a little closer to its end.
"Just to ruin both the danger zone and alliteration streaks, Naomi Skye died due to lack of precipitation—I mean, dehydration. Way to be a total buzz kill, man.
"Brendan O'Toole took a much less verbal and much more physical approach to the OG crazy chick, Jewel Evans. It was kinda like David vs. Goliath with a height switch, and O'Toole fell down hard after getting a few hits in.
"Pia Malone wound up trapped in one of Vahka Basayev's... traps. Nailed it. Anyway, he was sad, she was sad, he ended up killing her, I presume he'll probably get her name tattooed on his ass if he gets out of this joint. Aaaah, young love.
"Jewel Evans is a restless woman. Noted pain-in-the-ass Asa Rosen was brutally axed in the head by Evans, and we all think it's been a little more quiet around here since. It's nice.
"Finally, Lukas Graves ran himself into an early—What's that? Oh. Fine. I've been informed I have made too many bad puns for the day..."
Ritzy made a teeth sucking noise, loaded with annoyance.
"Lukas Graves shot himself.
"Anyway, that's all for now. All the danger zones from yesterday are still in effect—That means the Nature Walk, Space Bam Alley, Aqua-Museum, Lernean Beauty Parlor, and Sunshine Tower in case any of you forgot. As an added bonus, we're also cutting of the Cabana Cul de sac, Lana'i Hotel, Bamboo Boardwalk, and Aloha Daycare Center. Have fun with that. Ciaaao."
The Fifth AnnouncementEdit
SOTF-TV was a grand illusion, smoke and mirrors and flash and sparkle, and as with any sort of showmanship one of the most important elements was timing. To the world at large, the entire affair was orchestrated with clockwork precision, advertising spots usually featuring contestants who merited attention, merchandise arriving as if by magic on the shelves soon enough after the season's wrap to still be desirable and current. Gaffes were rare enough to be notable, to actually be news to those who followed the show closely.
Helen Boettcher was one of the ones behind the curtains, and had been for years. She'd never had a better job. Her team had a process—not a perfect process, as she'd found the rest of the world expected, but merely a good-enough one.
The half dozen men and women under Helen followed the game constantly throughout its run, sleeping only briefly and in shifts, brainstorming merchandising opportunities and directing the focus of other, more specialized departments. They had a big board along one side of the office wall, and at the start of the game they wrote the names of all of the contestants across the top of it. As everything progressed, they erased the names of those who died without accomplishing much of marketable note and scribbled comments and possibilities under the others as they came up. Almost every contestant ended up with some sort of market presence, however minor, but the lesser-knowns weren't Helen's concern. Her team was paid well to determine the season's face, and to interface with all the licensors and sub-departments to make sure they were on the same page.
It was from her office that plans for Halloween costumes emanated. Cloaks would be big this year: green for boys, red for girls.
The process wasn't perfect. Sometimes the internet picked up someone otherwise utterly forgettable and they had to rush to capitalize. Sometimes the public just couldn't stand a kid who seemed to have everything going for them. Sometimes somebody won and wouldn't play ball come hell or high water and the PR people had to fight them over it or get the executives to lean on them to at least shut up and slip into quiet obscurity. Sometimes it was Season Sixty and there was just no salvaging the clusterfuck.
But right now it was all good. The bandannas were a godsend—iconic in their own right, they were cheap, easy to churn out, and their imagery could substitute for that of any individual member in a pinch while also providing an easy option for fans to unite around—and the game had plenty of highlights. Helen's team was just a little bit nervous about the fact that they were heading into the home stretch and nobody left on the resort had more than two kills, but she kept telling them to sit tight. Something would develop. It always did.
And so she paced the room, glancing over shoulders, peering at laptops, taking phone calls, shouting at the PR people or listening to the execs, moving from screen to screen and always waiting for that moment of brilliance, that witty quip that could emblazon every DVD case and t-shirt and bumper sticker, that perfect shot that could go on the cover of a notebook or the banner of the website, that little humanizing detail that could shape the entire push behind a kid. She drank mostly espresso and her eyes stung a little at most times even though the lights here weren't the harsh fluorescents prominent elsewhere—the creatives were allowed a very relaxed atmosphere, with padded chairs and screens of different sizes and even some books and comics, not that anyone had time to look through them while the game was on—and she worked out ways to make it all come together.
They were almost to the final ten, and then Endgame beyond. The board was almost full, covered in different messy handwritings, her own the worst of the lot. Morning was coming. She was pretty sure hadn't closed her eyes for more than a minute since the massacre at the Nature Walk.
That was a problem. Helen had to be fresh for Endgame. It was always one of the most important moments, one of the scenes everyone would tune in for and remember. She'd need to be ready to figure out how to spin it. So she said a few words to one of her subordinates and sat down in the biggest unoccupied chair and closed her eyes.
She would be ready, and Endgame would roll out smoothly, and they'd all get big bonuses for Christmas and a nice relaxing easy spell until the next season.
Unless it was a wreck, of course. Then her team would be staying late, figuring out how to sweep it all under the rug.
"Welly, well, well, how are all of you this fine evening? Alive, if you're hearing this, ahaha. Now then, you already know what I'm here to do, don't you? So sit down and listen up. This is how the most recent deaths went down:
"Amir al-Asad—boy, try saying that ten times fast—took his sweet time bleeding out after, get this, pulling on his leg. I wish I was pulling yours kidlets, but I'm not. Of course, the jagged hole he had it stuck in might have been a contributing factor. Just a bit.
"Vahka Basayev decided to go out with a bang, catching both Regina Aston and Michael Robinson with a beautifully thrown grenade, and then getting punched to death by one Yagmur Tekindor. Straight out of an 80's action movie, that.
"And that is the last of this morning's carnage. Right now, all of the danger zones from last time are still in effect, along with The Orchard, Beach, Mauna Loa Condiminum, Open Air Cabaret, World Oyster, Tour Guide and Transportation Centre, and Ice Palace. Yes, that is your claustrophobia kicking in.
"That's all for now. Later!"
The Sixth AnnouncementEdit
To say Reggie Harold, showrunner of SOTF-TV, was pleased was an understatement. Just two seasons ago, the show had seemed washed up, done and dusted, stuck in a rut, possibly even according to rumors—not credible rumors, mind, no more than whispers on the very fringes of the industry, but that was how it always started—ready for the axe. But now, now it had once more solidified its place at the top of the television food chain, all thanks to the team innovation. It was wonderful, really, how such a simple idea could cause such massive changes to the format of the show. It had instantly made it fresh again. They had avoided stagnation and pushed through into a new era. As far as he was concerned, they had found their new status quo. It made for much more interesting viewing, and it opened up an entire new marketing niche: team-based merchandise. Something to appeal both to those showcasing their allegiance and to the collectors who simply had to have one of everything. It was beautiful.
Harold shook himself from his reverie, held the scarlet tie up in front of his chest, and analyzed it in the mirror. It wouldn't do—it was too close to the color of blood. There had been problems last time he gave an interview wearing a red tie. He had been called a “Merchant of Death,” as if he was some sort of arms dealer. No, he couldn't wear the scarlet tie. That left the dark blue and forest green. After a few seconds of thought, he decided on the green. He had worn the blue tie to his last meeting and didn't want to be seen repeating himself. Green was also the diplomatic choice. He didn't want to appear to favor any of the finalists. Thankfully, the Jade Rhino's had crashed out much earlier in the season meaning, so he didn’t have to delve into something so informal as stripes or, worse, other patterns.
Looking over himself in the mirror, Harold knotted his tie into a Full Windsor. His hair was meticulously cut, perpetually neat—he even used a little bit of gel to keep it in shape, not that he’d ever admit it. His stubble was kept down to a respectable level, just enough to be interesting but not considered messy. His suit was crisp and freshly ironed; the tailor had delivered it to him earlier that day, along with five alternatives. He’d gone with a pale grey, nothing too fancy. At the end of the day, he was still running a business—best to leave the flash to the on-screen personalities. Patrick could have the loud suits; he excelled at that sort of showmanship. It was why his tenure hosting the opening ceremonies had been so long—the man showed no signs of flagging, unlike old Dahnke.
Harold glanced at the painting hanging behind his desk as he adjusted his cufflinks. The painting depicted the class of the first season of Survival of the Fittest. He was on his way to replacing it. It was something that had belonged to his predecessor. He had nothing against the man, but having an object in his office that wasn't directly linked to what he had done with the show felt like a blight. He had commissioned a painting of Season Sixty-Five's participants, split into their teams. A direct link to his legacy on the show. He would keep the Season One painting in the office, of course. But it wouldn't have the place of pride—no, that would go to the concept that had been brought in under his reign. A much more fitting image to represent him.
The interview he had was about something else he hoped to bring into Survival of the Fittest to help it expand. There was a more-than-solid foundation present in the key demographics. It was time they expanded to more niche sectors of the market and broadened their appeal. He hoped what they had planned for Season Sixty-Seven represented just that. It would be much more focused and themed; no more would the show feel so slapdash. The intercom on his desk buzzed.
"Your two o'clock is here, sir."
"Wonderful. Show them in." He lowered himself into his chair and rested his hands on his lap. It was time to outline his vision for the future of Survival of the Fittest.
"Hey, kids." Ritzy’s voice, as broadcast throughout the Resort, had more tin to it than normal—a product, she was told, of the storm. The techs assured her that the effect would be a bit odd, but attention grabbing. The verdict was still out on whether it would be dubbed over in post-production. "This is it. You're here. The grand finale. The climax. The big wah-zoo."
She clasped her hands over her face, took a deep breath, and blew a raspberry upon release.
"Here's who didn't make it:
"Anzu Sakamoto was already bleeding out, but she went and shot her own collar in a hissy fit, effectively blowing her own head off. It left her much more of a mess than if she’d just had a little patience.
"A few doors down, Norma-Jean Torkelson got sliced up by her own teammate’s sword. Zoe Walker didn’t get to revel in her ill-advised success for very long, though; Cathryn Bailey came along and gunned her down.
"In the last bit of action before the finals, Ms. Bailey also got into a shoot out with Tucker Hopkins, Isabel Santana, and Lucia del Pirlo. Santana killed Hopkins, del Pirlo killed Santana, and Bailey left del Pirlo to watch her walk out alive before bleeding out.
"And with that all said and done, who do we have left? Who’s still in the running for the grand prize?
"Why, the Cobalt Jellyfishes' Cathryn Bailey, for starters. Slow on the ball when it came to killing, you're still able to recognize that just because you couldn't race to ten, that doesn't mean you can’t brute force your way out. But you’ve gotten yourself pretty torn up in the process. Can you hold it together to take it all the way home?
"Of course, the violence is only one way to make an impression—just ask Anastasia Arcadia, from the Amber Eagles, who has been, above all else, a showman. Whether it's your gross-out antics or your half-baked soliloquies, you’ve kept the viewers—and our—attention. It may have been enough to keep out the real world, but can it win you the big one? Or are you all bark and no bite?
"For all the bombast of our first two contenders, some say less is more, a philosophy the Silver Scorpions' Corin Albanesi exemplifies. We've seen you strike out on your own, despite all your efforts towards keeping others on your side. Under nobody's thumb, you've cracked down piece by piece. And you know what we see inside that hard outer shell? I think it’s the qualities of a winner."
"On the opposite hand, we have Dougie Sharpe, from the Cyan Stingrays. Quiet, whipped by anyone with two x chromosomes, and now all alone. Failure. You said it yourself, Sharpe. Even your mentor said all you had to do was not lose. You don't have to win. But you can't lose. You think you can manage that, sport?
"And that leaves the turbulent twosome, the distant duo, the Golden Hyenas: Yagmur Tekindor and Jackson King. These two had teamwork so good they didn't even have to meet to work in tandem. Maybe Ross as a mentor rubbed a little good luck onto both of ya, huh? That would explain about as much as anything else. Let's just hope that whole team-killing deal skips a generation.
"But, that's all for the future, kids. Right now, anyone not in the Casino needs to schooch their asses over there in a hurry. Every other location is a danger zone, effective immediately. Good luck, and happy holidays from your favorite people at SOTF."