Cardiff. London. The cameras caught me wherever I went, capturing my every action in detail. My life was no longer my own, but a movie that people watched and wondered how it would play out. Last month, Tessa Stone was a thirty year old nobody. Single and with no dependents. That was all they really wanted from their contestants. It was easier if the person was a loner where nobody would really miss you if you signed out of life and lost the game. This Tessa Stone was now a fighter.
Pressing my bloody and bruised body up against a wall, I tried to ignore the tiny remote cameras whizzing around like flies. It was just my luck to run into a Clan neighbourhood. They weren’t really interested in whether or not I succeeded. No, they just wanted a piece of me, their violence caught live on telly as a show of dominance over their rival Clans. I’d got into a fight with three Clansmen, their attacks vicious. Stabbing one in the leg, I managed to fight off the other two and run. Only I ran straight to my competitor, the one called Hal Dancer.
“Only one of us can live,” Dancer called. He was somewhere in the old ruined church, but the howl of the wind made it hard to make out where exactly. I risked a look over the wall at the empty shell of the church, a wrecked symbol of a time long past where religion had the masses enthralled. Too dark to see anything. If this was to be our final battleground, I’d give them a good show. He knew we had to end this. Endless days on the run, trying to keep from being recognised, had worn us both down. When we were spotted, crowds would flock to see us. Some towns cheered us on, others threw rocks. It all depended on who they were betting on, of course. I was more popular in the South, so I had fled as far that way as I could. There were always actors within towns that would give away our position to the other, else we would end up at opposite ends of Britain. So we had both been pushed together over the last month.
It was no good trying to fight the Game.
“How much do you want to live?” I called back. Looking at my watch, I saw we had a little over an hour for one of us to kill the other before the network terminated us both. We’d had a month to hunt each other down, but I’d refused to play along out of a mix of rebellion and fear. There were those who were too quick to cast me out for the Networks. First my landlord evicted me, then my bank froze my accounts. Circumstances soon made me a true Runner. Assisting a Runner was punishable by death, so there was no one to turn to. Injuring a Runner was worth money and there were hungry people in the Subs. There were more enemies than there were friends.
But Clansmen were the dangerous ones. The network always made sure we were chased into these areas when the ratings began to fall. It was also a good tactic, hoping a Clansman would go too over the top and kill the competitor. “We could join together, you know?” I called out. “We can run together until they bore of finding us.”
There was silence for a moment, broken by the wind and the sound of gunshots in the distance. “They’ve already found us,” Dancer called back. “There must be a few million viewers watching. Don’t forget to smile to the cameras.”
He’d started to go insane, I thought, pulling the cold metal of a knife from my belt. Keeping low, I edged around the wall, closer to the church. “You know when they sent me my target I couldn’t help thinking you were kinda cute.” I peered around the wall, looking in the shadows for movement. “What did you think when you saw my file?”
His response came quick. “That I had to kill you as quickly as I could.” Some bricks fell from the church, giving away his position at last. “You know there’s Clansmen heading towards us, don’t you? If I don’t kill you, they will. Or do worse.”
I laughed, showing him he wasn’t going to psyche me out. “Come on, Hal,” I teased, “you were an accountant before this. Hardly a born killer.”
“You were a nurse, Tessa,” he called back, his voice coming from a different position. Damn, he’d moved! “You save people, you don’t kill them.”
Pushing my back to the wall, I sat with my eyes closed and tried to remember that better life before the Game. Had I not been one of the masses who tuned in each month to watch another pair fight it off through Britain? My heart had raced in those last moments when they finally came together after a month of following each one trying to survive in a hostile world. You all had your favourite player you’d hope would win. Was I a favourite? Opening my eyes, I looked over at a camera hovering at my face and glowered dangerously, hoping my face would fill a few million screens. My final close up, I thought.
“So why don’t you come out and show yourself?” I called. “I’m right here, not going anywhere. You’re bigger and stronger than me. What challenge is a woman to you?” Checking my watch, I saw the final hour ticking down. The sound of fighting Clansmen drew near and I realised even if I won, I’d still have to survive them. It was hopeless.
“I’m here in the church. Come in and find your salvation.” He broke into manic laughter and I knew the last of his sanity had finally snapped. He was now truly dangerous. Getting to my feet, I leaped over the wall and made a run for the church across broken gravestones of the forgotten dead, hoping Dancer didn’t have a gun aimed at me. Clearing the graveyard, I headed for the church door that was open a crack in a sick invitation for me to come to my doom.
“Not until I’ve had a little fun,” a man said from behind. Spinning round, I faced a Clansman. He was big, his face full of scars from years of fighting. This was no stranger to violence. My hesitation brought him on top of me and he threw me to the ground. The wind was knocked from me, but before I could roll to safety, he was on top of me. I felt the cold, sharp tip of a blade run down my face. It was light enough to tickle and the Clansman’s face drew close to mine and he took a deep intake of air as he smelt me. Uselessly, I tried to push him away. He was too strong and I was tired.
“Yes!” The Clansman hissed. “A little fight is good.” He grabbed my hair and pulled my head back. Whimpering in pain, I bit my lower lip, determined not to scream. “You might beat him,” he said. “Cut him real bad. Probably just bleed to death in less than an hour.”
Turning my head away from his face, I said, “You kill a competitor before the time is up, they’ll come for you.”
He laughed. “Reckon he’ll have a chance to kill you once I finish.” His blade edged down my face towards my throat. “He might even last long enough to be rescued.”
Locking eyes with the Clansman, I said, “Make sure he doesn’t last, if he kills me.”
The Clansman laughed. “I can do that!” His hand holding my hair moved down my body and I went rigid, closed my eyes and prepared for pain. Only it didn’t come. The Clansman suddenly collapsed on me. His body crushed me and I pushed uselessly at him as he dribbled blood on me. Over his shoulder, I saw Hal Dancer looking down at me, a bloody knife in his hand.
He fell to his knees and smiled at me. “Couldn’t stand by and watch him hurt you.”
With great effort, I pushed the dead Clansman off me and got to my feet. Dancer’s side was covered with blood. His hand clutched at the wound, but the blood trickled through his fingers. I didn’t think he even had an hour left. Grabbing my knife, I went to him and knelt in front of him. “After a month of hunting me, you decided to save me?”
Dancer smiled and looked at me. “I’ve had a revelation, I suppose. Church does that to you.” He winced with pain and fell to his back, gasping for breath. “I was never a killer. Neither were you.”
I wiped a trail of blood that ran down his chin. “No one ever really is,” I whispered to him. “But I guess this proves that anyone can become one.”
Dancer coughed and more blood came up. “Then prove them wrong.”
Checking my watch, I saw we were well under an hour until the show was over. Dropping my knife, I cradled Dancer’s head in my lap and stroked his hair from his eyes. It took another ten minutes for him to die. There was nothing I could do to save him, so I stayed with him until his last breath was done. Around me, the cameras floated and got their final shot. The Game was over and I had won, not having killed a single person. The Government had once again hushed the masses with their bloodsport and two new players would be randomly selected for next year.
“That’s all, folks,” I mumbled at the nearest cameras. “That’s all.”