Prologue Two: Ready

Her hands in a tight clasp, she drew them under her chin, silent and still with expectation. Clear-painted nails dug into the backs of her hands, at times her jaw clenching with distaste, or relaxing with approval.

She watched.

Her hands rediscovered their easy position on the arm-rests, a slim leg took its time to cross over the other. With an exterior so calm, it was hard to imagine that this was a woman who had viciously clawed her way to the top, that this one human being possessed a mind that endlessly assessed, calculated, evaluated. Her co-ordination of life circumstances reaped success, and nothing less.

What an expressionless face. It periodically became either innocent and open, or empty and cold. She wore white from head to heel; a blouse with a dash of ruffles across the front; loose suit-trousers with an ironed seam down the front of each leg; an ivory waistcoat fitted over her torso; bone-coloured high heels of a staggering height. A sweep of sandy blonde hair was curled back into a tight bun, such a light shade of blonde that with her attire, it also appeared a creamy white. The only feature that took away from her typically innocent appearance was the large black sunglasses that stole any expression from her face. Still, scarlet lips drew attention to her mouth, the only dash of colour against the white canvas.

She watched.

They were lined up along the beach and drenched in sweat – the youths, the projects, the prodigies, the candidates. They ran through the drill again and again, the same sequence of offensive movements, kicking up a cloud of sand with each step. Mixed martial arts had been cemented into their minds and bodies.

The unbearable heat of the sun made them all appear to be underwater, or behind a curtain of gases. Their eyes squinted against the sun, their bodies weakened in the heat. The youths would begin to relax, become the slightest bit lazier with their movements, until the Captain strolled by, gripped their neck and threw them to the scorching sand with a single hand.

“Get the fuck up. Start again.” he spat. “EVERYBODY START AGAIN!”

The Prodigies immediately became clearer and decisive with their movements; hit, hit, clench fist, kick, flying kick. Punch, punch, kick, spinning kick. La dee da dee da. The Coordinator drummed her fingers boredly on the armrest of her chair. She took a sip of iced punch; the coolness of it improved her mood. Her hidden eyes, however, never left the youth, never stopped assessing their progress. Third year running. Maybe she’d been doing this too long. Never mind. Assess. Calculate. Evaluate.

The projects strained to keep up, fatigue and dizziness threatening to make their bodies give up. Prowling along four rows that made up almost sixty prodigies, the Captain pounced on every Prodigy that even hesitated, stumbling for the briefest of a second, and brutally tossed their bodies to the sand before ordering a repeat of the sequence.

“Just watching them makes me thirsty.” she murmured. Surrounding her chair, the four soldiers that made up her personal guard roared with brute laughter. The Coordinator smiled at her own joke but the sounds of the soldiers’ laughing turned it bitter. She felt mildly disgusted by their bloodthirsty eagerness. She could appreciate the stubbornness and defiance that came with years of training for the military, but she had no care for savagery. With the thought, she turned her eye to the Prodigy known as Lani Lenoir, without a doubt the most savage prodigy of this year’s selection, the girl who’d kill without question, who would do whatever was necessary to stay alive. The Coordinator hadn’t yet decided whether she yet liked or disliked this. Such a tool of destruction could run wild and prove to be more damaging than useful.

The Government Official cleared his throat. “Excuse me,” he began.

From underneath her umbrella of palm trees, her eyes continued to scan the line of adolescents, dressed in their customary clothing, a black Lycra suit with a blue streak down the side. Other times they were permitted to wear a white tank top and khaki shorts. All wore plimsolls. This year was full of groups of people who knew each other and came from similar regions, unlike the previous two years. The Captain had warned her against it, but she had a feeling this would bring different results out of the Final Field Assessment Battlegame. The harvest from the last two years were serving well, but their mental stability was more than rocky. Who knew. Maybe this lot would be different.

This year they had quite a mix; Knight brothers, four brothers with similar physique selected for the same year; Asjana and Romeo, sweethearts from the start and no doubt the first two dead; Lola Lenoir, Lani’s twin – the gentle twin; Raven Darko, this year’s natural leader. Sixty-four prodigies were chosen every year but she always knew each one by name, looking over their files constantly until she had it by heart. She didn’t like to suppress their personality. She found it fascinating. Sometimes those she least expected to do well far exceeded her expectations. There was so much potential that the Coordinator hungered to keep them all, make them all fight as her army of Prodigies. But obviously, with so many youths taken against their will, that would horribly backfire. No. As always, only the strongest, the others would die to keep SEP a secret.

“I can’t do it!”

As soon as the cry issued, the Coordinator snapped her head to the source of the noise and sat up straighter. Everyone; the Prodigies, the soldier patrolling around them, the Coordinator’s guards – all looked in the same direction. From under the shade, Government Official Harris exclaimed and began to walk towards the sound when two of the Coordinator’s soldiers placed firm hands on his arms and shoulders to halt him.

One of the older girls had collapsed onto the sand and the Captain was bounding towards her like a hellhound, teeth bared and eyes blazing. Her fellow prodigies had paused their training, grateful for the distraction that gave them a short relief, fearful for her certain punishment. They wiped their brows breathlessly, fighting the urge to crowd around and help her – the last time they did that, the Captain grabbed the nearest Prodigy and used him to knock down the rest like bowling pins. The Prodigy’s name had been Khalil, and his back had been fragile ever since.

The Captain harshly shoved all of the kids out of his way and with a steel grip he had the screaming girl by the hair, lifting her high off the ground like a trophy, a shining example of failure. “Stephany,” The Coordinator murmured, leaning forwards further. Stephany. Seventeen. Athletic to a degree. Past hobby was cheerleading. Home region was well-protected with no savage attacks from the Predators so far. Interesting. Perhaps those who didn’t yet fully understand that threat had less motivation to train. It was November. She’d been training for nine months. Has she not built up the stamina by now?

Maybe she’d made an error in selecting her.

“The next motherfucker to drop will NOT get back up. Ever.” the Captain said, blood rushing to his face, matching the fury of his eyes. Fear rippled through every single one of them; lips trembled, arms shook, shoulders tensed. Stephany was screaming with agony, tears streaming down her face. “Now do the sequence AGAIN!” he roared, flinging Stephany to the ground and pacing the lines again. “AGAIN, AGAIN!” Stephany whimpered on the sand for no longer than ten seconds before forcing herself to her feet. Not because it was easy or because she wanted to, but because she knew what the consequences would be if she didn’t. The Coordinator was quite proud of her for that. She found herself smiling as she watched them bleed, burn and sweat in the heat while she sat in the coolness of the forest bordering the beach, listening to the birdsong, surrounded by a breeze so sweet, it almost felt sinful.

“Excuse me, Miss... Coordinator.” Official Harris said firmly, though his voice was thin with shock. “I think we need to have a talk. These youngsters, as brilliant as they are, are obviously trained within an inch of their lives in the blistering heat... as for that... that man, your Captain... his methods are completely unethical – and insane!”

“YES!” the Captain screamed, his face full of glee to watch the sequence executed perfectly, with such precision, that it could’ve been one mind controlling all fifty-something bodies at once. Over and over again. It took every ounce of strength in them, but with it came a silent understanding between all of them that the sacrifice had saved all them another three hours of pain. The Coordinator’s eyebrows pulled together slightly, only slightly, a millimetre at a time. Fifty... fifty-what? She should’ve known the number. There’d only been a couple deaths. She should’ve known how many were left.

She was getting tired. A mind cannot function at its best when tired.

She leaned over to slip off her white high heels and her fingers held onto them as she stood briskly. Enough of this. They had to be ready now. They had to be.

“We’ll talk in my office, Official Harris.” she said in a light and musical voice, before setting off into the heat with soldiers in tow, one of them slinging his rifle over his shoulder to open the Coordinator’s enormous, enveloping parasol.

“Finally. Some of you fools are actually putting in some work. Get your filthy behinds in the showers. Dismissed!” the Captain’s bawl made the teenagers collapse, but on seeing the Coordinator, changed his orders. “ATTENTION!”

The Prodigies halted and folded their arms behind their backs in salute. The Coordinator nodded, gesturing for one of her personal guard to move closer with her parasol. “I’m so pleased, Prodigies!” she sang. “You’re almost there! Tomorrow is your very last day of training, and you’ve all come so far. Go shower, dress, eat, relax. After tomorrow is your final test and you must be ready.” She took a moment to meet eyes, and eyes and eyes, as many pairs of eyes as she could, establishing her authority. She knew she terrified them more than the Captain, because they didn’t really know what she was capable of.

She smiled again. “Dismissed!”

Military soldiers stood in front, beside and behind the entire group, guiding them back to their living quarters. She assessed the Prodigies’ faces. Tired. But still determined. They weren’t broken. Yet.

“I just don’t understand how they can learn anything in these conditions...” Official Harris mumbled. The Coordinator pressed cherry-red lips together. The fool was beginning to irritate her.

As the Captain approached, she gave him permission to stand under her brilliant-white parasol with a beckoning of her hand. He was a six foot monster of a man. Leathery skin and stone muscles covered his whole body and the sight of him alone was the perfect image for a nightmare. He removed his cap, showing short dark hair that shot upwards, and waved himself with it.

“Heh. So. Training finishes in two days. This should be fun. By the way – Merry Christmas Eve.”

“And to you.” she smiled, gesturing for them to walk. Official Harris hurried to keep up behind them, panting, his brow pouring sweat in the sun. “I’m impatient to see who my new champions are, Captain.” she sighed. “I want this year’s program to be over so that I can go back to the mainland and see where we stand with these Goddamn monsters.”

“So...?” the Captain prompted. “You think they’re ready?”

“They’d better be, or they’re going to die.” she said shortly. “Prepare the Battlegame.”

“ Young ladies. Young men.
Your lessons have been cancelled.
This is the final test.

There is only one rule for the BATTLEGAME – kill.

The only way any of you can leave this fortress
is if you are one of the last three to survive the GAME,
so locate randomised weapons across the Island to help your plight.
There is a time limit.
If there are more than three people left alive when it is up,
all of the remaining survivors
will be killed.

You are free to forfeit the BATTLEGAME at any time;
this will result in your immediate death.
If you are unfortunate, your body will forfeit for you.

Do yourself a good deed – grab two companions, and start
cutting, hacking, sawing, strangling, squeezing, decapitating
and mutilating anybody and everybody that crosses your path.

Day One of the BATTLEGAME has commenced. ”

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