Battle Royale: Beyond Blunderdome

A Daria fan fiction
by Canadibrit

(Note: the branch-off point for this alternative universe immediately precedes "Jane's Addition".)

"Hey, look on the bright side; we live to fight another day!"

Daria Morgendorffer looked at her best and only friend and took the can of soda she offered. "Talk about your smoky grey lining."

"It's a gift." Jane Lane smirked, opened her can of soda with a deft flick of her hand, and parked herself on the bed next to Daria. "And anyway, you gotta admit that today was all kinds of interesting."

Daria raised an eyebrow as she turned to her friend. "Well, after that kid with the eyebrow ring goosed Ms Barch, Chemistry was a bust. Economics was cancelled because Mrs Bennett got mugged last night. English lasted for fifteen minutes until O'Neill was forced to read through one of Andrea's poems -- and the last time I saw vomiting that prodigious was when we watched The Exorcist. And History turned into a study hall when Kevin's latest attempt at an answer pushed DeMartino into a full day's work for the ophthalmologist."

Jane seemed curious about something. "Do you think his eye would have really started dangling by the optic nerve?"

"While an interesting intellectual question, Jane, not one I particularly want a practical answer to." Daria sipped from her soda. "Besides," she added, "I get my recommended daily dose of gore from a far more sanitary source." With that, she grabbed the remote control from Jane's bedside table and switched on the TV.

It blinked up a surprisingly grim and serious scene, considering the programme. A candid shot, taken from hiding, of a wooded country road flanked on both sides by soldiers. All of them were armed, and all of them were hard-faced. The powerful microphones carried by the hidden reporter picked up the sound of a motor approaching, and the camera swerved to get a better view of the road, not to mention the approaching jeep. Four soldiers, equally heavily armed and grimmer than those on the road, were in the van, two of them flanking...

Jane bounced off the bed and leaned up closer to the screen, peering at the teenager guarded so jealously by the uniformed men. "Holy cow, Daria, she..."

"Shhh..." Daria leaned closer herself, not for a better view but to hear better. One of the soldiers was speaking.

"Christ," this faceless man said, turning to the equally faceless man on his left, "the winner's a girl? Go figure."

"You know what they say, man," the other man replied. "Hell hath no fury, and all that..."

And then the camera went back to the girl, who looked at it as if she were actually seeing it ... and she smiled. It was the most chilling smile that either of the girls had ever seen. It had no kindness, but a dim demonic cruelty. Fading afternoon light glinted orange off her glasses, completing the image. The girl had seen hell, and come back with a taste for it.

The picture disappeared, replaced by the eye-on-target logo. "These days, detention really is a killer! Lord of the Fly-Girls, next on Sick, Sad World!"

Jane looked at Daria, her face slightly stunned but very assessing. "You know, maybe I've been working on Escher reproductions for too long, but that girl looked kind of like you."

Daria frowned, thinking it over. "The blood-soaked hair, the tattered clothes, the satanic grin... Okay, I'll give you the grin," she sighed at Jane's smirk. "I'll be honest with you, Jane; I can't see it."

Jane shrugged it off; she'd moved on to another, deeper topic. "This was on before. Last month, I think." She turned to Daria with a worried look. "There was something... Did you hear about Fielding Prep?"

"That would indicate an interest in things coming to pass beyond the confines of my room." But curiosity niggled, and she resisted it for an impressive three and a half seconds before asking, "What about Fielding Prep?"

"Well, Trent knew a guy who knew a guy who was going with a girl from Fielding -- I think it was to annoy Daddy or something. Anyway, she went out on some field trip. Never came back."

Daria shrugged. "I don't see anything particularly sinister about that. The girl could have lost all interest in slumming when she found a guy that 'Daddy' could approve of and a significant bribe in the form of an allowance increase."

Jane scowled. "This guy that knew this guy that Trent knows thought of that. Asked around. Turns out that a lot of kids went missing. About forty of 'em. Went out on a field trip, never came back. I wonder if this 'killer homeroom' ... this 'Battle Royale' thing Sick, Sad World keeps reporting about ... is as bogus as the rest of the garbage they come out with."

Daria shot Jane a concerned look. It wasn't like her to take trash television so seriously. "Jane ... if this thing was in any way genuine, don't you think a more ... legitimate programme or publication would have picked it up? Like The New York Times or 60 Minutes? Hell, even the Lawndale Sun-Herald has more credibility."

Jane made a noise that sounded like "hrmph" and let the subject drop. But neither of them could quite tear their minds away from the idea for quite some time. Well, at least until Trent woke up an hour later and started rehearsing, when the quest to save their eardrums drove all other thoughts out of their minds.

*          *          *          

A few days later, Angela Li made an announcement on Lawndale High's overused PA system. There was a field trip in the offing; something to do with a careers exhibition. Ms Li was surprisingly vague about the whole thing, given that her students, if pushed into suitable, high-flying careers, would reflect their glory onto the school that had (supposedly) guided them on the first steps towards such heights.

"Forty students were chosen for this ... this exciting opportunity. So all members of the junior and sophomore class should please check the bulletin board for your names. Permission slips will be sent directly to your parents. Thank you, and gooooood luck!"

When they heard that, sitting in Mr DeMartino's still-teacherless classroom, Daria and Jane looked at each other, a little puzzled.

"Good luck?" Jane's puzzlement almost looked suspicious. "What the hell would she have to wish us luck about?"

Daria raised an eyebrow; Jane was her friend -- first, best and only, unless you counted Jodie and maybe Mack...

Away with that thought, Morgendorffer. That way lies popularity. Ick.

...But all the same, sometimes her wacky mid-paranoid tangents got a little out of hand. Her best weapon in the face of such deviance from the intellectual straight-and-narrow was good, hard-headed sarcasm, so she said, "Not winding up as petroleum dispensation engineers or McDonalds customer services reps."

"Or accountants," Jane added with a smirk. Good; the paranoia was only skin-deep, and probably for their shared amusement, after all. All the same, maybe they should give Sick, Sad World a rest for awhile. Break out the old "Animal Maulings on Home Video" as a sort of blast from the past. Look at some real messed-up footage for awhile and put that JFK-style conspiracy stuff on hold. Try to wipe away the heebie-jeebies that 'killer homeroom' had left them both with.

Daria put that little video marathon on her mental agenda, just after cruising past the bulletin board in order to ensure that her name was on the field trip list. It was always nice to have proof positive that whatever God might exist still liked using her as Its favourite punch-bag.

*          *          *          

Sure enough, the following Monday found her crammed on a bus with 39 other students, only 3 of whom she willingly shared a planet with, much less a bus.

The bus was surprising. For their other field trips, Ms Li had sent the sophomore class out in one of the school buses. Easier on school coffers already feeling the strain of "High Security for High Performance", Daria figured. This time, however, the students and the chaperoning teachers had been ushered into a comfortable looking Greyhound-style bus that came equipped with seat belts, armrests, a 'bathroom' at the back and overhead luggage racks. Daria and Jane shared a look as they boarded, taking a seat towards the middle.

An hour passed. Mr O'Neill, serving as one of the chaperones, sat in the back and tried to play word games with the cheerleaders, who seemed to think that a teacher trying to be 'in with' the students was kind of cute. It didn't look to Daria like O'Neill was trying for cute, or even education -- he looked like a man on a desperate quest for self-distraction. It was only half-working; even Brittany was beating him at Hangman, because Mr O'Neill seemed incapable of keeping his eyes on the paper, much less his mind on the game. He kept glancing out the window, biting his lower lip and looking away again, congratulating the teenagers on their victories while they squealed and had their self-esteem well and truly boosted. At least he was managing part of his job.

Everything else was utterly typical of a Lawndale High field trip ... or, in fact, any high school field trip. Towards the front of the bus, Kevin and most of the Lawndale Lions football team were yelling and cheering and throwing things. At one point they'd tried singing "99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall" but, much to the relief of most of the rest of the bus, the intellectual demands of counting backwards became too much before the 85th bottle was taken down and passed around. Tori was holding court somewhere towards the back, near the cheerleaders; her occasional gestures towards various bus seats hinted at their occupants' social position at the moment, and a great many students watched her out of the corners of their eyes. The Fashion Club sat across the aisle from Daria and Jane, much to their annoyance; Quinn deflected her admirers with practiced ease as she tried to do something about Stacy, who was slinking out from under Sandi's thumb by waving a decidedly! battered and probably unfashionable Polaroid camera around. It was fortunate for her that Sandi had her hands full trying to lure the fawning boys her way. And of course, Tiffany was staring at the window on her side, admiring her ghostly reflection in the glass. So only Quinn noticed when Stacy nervously turned to Daria. "Um ... hi ... D-daria?"

Jane leaned over to Daria. "The Fashion fiends know your name. And are vying for your attention. It's a slippery slope, but soon you'll be eyebrow-tweezing and colour co-ordinating with the best of 'em."

Quinn was more abrupt. "Stacy, what are you doing?"

Stacy looked meekly at Quinn. "Well, it's just ... it's kind of a neat trip, and I wanted to ... to make a scrapbook... And I thought ... well, Quinn ... you see, she is your sister and ev--"

Quinn bent over Stacy with her face contorted into a very unattractive snarl. "Stacy, not so loud! You want everybody to know?"

Daria raised an eyebrow, then decided to go with it. It stung, being disowned in public by her own sister, but she was used to it by now. Besides, she didn't really want to be associated with her flighty, fashionable little sister anyway. Not really. "Yeah, Stacy," she added in her normal deadpan. "Do you want everybody to know?"

Jane, with her unerring instinct for troublemaking, smirked and jibed, "I think I want everybody to know. The ruination of a work of art, free for the watching; it'll take the Mona Lisa aeons to decay, the way they keep care of it in France..."

Quinn, livid, hissed, "Okay, okay, shut up!" She turned on Stacy. "Why are you bringing this up here? I mean, come on, Stacy..."

Stacy, surprisingly, stood her ground. "Oh, it's not like I'd tell anybody, and I'd hide the pictures -- only I'd ever see them, I promise! It's just ... I want my scrapbook to be something ... you know, real."

Daria and Jane exchanged a look. It was perhaps the deepest thing they'd ever heard one of Quinn's little friends say. It was nice to see that at least one of them had something that vaguely resembled a soul, but all the same, it was a little bit surprising. Quinn seemed surprised too; she looked at Stacy like she'd come to school with a whole new haircut, one she wasn't sure was fashionable yet.

Jane took the initiative, dragging Quinn out of her seat and shoving her up next to Daria. "Take the picture," she urged. "Come on; haven't you ever heard of candid photography?"

Stacy raised the camera.

Quinn, conditioned to seek maximum photogenicity, smiled.

Daria, despite herself, produced a small Giaconda smirk.

The flashbulb went off, blinding them all, and they all heard the little squidgy whine as the camera spat out the undeveloped picture.

"What are you doing, Quh-winn? Standing next to the fashion deficient, I mean."

Panicked, Stacy shoved the picture at Jane, who took it. Quinn, probably the quickest thinking member of the Fashion Club (at least by Daria's definition of the term), straightened her spine so that she struck an almost regal pose. "Now, look, you two. Now you have that picture for reference. You can sort of ... model yourself on someone truly fashionable."

Stacy turned doelike eyes on Sandi. "I would have called you, Sandi," she simpered, "but I didn't want to interrupt you or anything. You looked like you were really doing well with Will and I..."

Sandi looked suspicious, but she obviously saw no holes in the logic. "Well ... if it was in accordance with Fashion Club guidelines..."

The triumvirate known as the Three Js surrounded Quinn, panting and fawning like puppies. "Can I get you anything, Quinn?"

"If you're hungry, I have a bag of chips in my backpack..."

"Are you tired? You can lean on me if you want to relax..."

Quinn wore her gracious smile like it was a well-chosen accessory as she turned to her admirers. Stacy smiled a silent thanks at Daria, and more of one at Jane, and went back to her photo opportunities. Daria and Jane looked at each other, and then Jane raised the picture. In the time it had taken for Quinn and Stacy to pull that snow job on Sandi, it had developed, showing the reluctantly smirking Daria, Quinn (who still managed to look her best even in a shoddy Polaroid) ... and, in the background, the sapphire sparkle of Jane's eye, half-hidden by black hair.

Jane snorted. "Well, that's a gyp. All that trouble to organise the picture and I'm barely in it."

"So you're going to give it back to Stacy, then?"

"Are you kidding?" Jane clutched the picture to her chest. "This is a collector's item! Not to mention the blackmail opportunities! I mean, this is a picture of you two looking happy in each other's company, and you know my discretion doesn't come cheap."

Daria glared at her friend, muttering, "You have to sleep sometime, Lane..."

Some unknown time later, Jane was given a rude awakening when her head was bounced with numbing force against the window. She was right, Jane thought, blinking at the dusk-darkening sky outside. I guess I do have to sleep sometime...

And so, apparently, did everybody else. Daria slept like a corpse, hands folded in her lap and back ramrod-straight. When Jane scooched past her and into the aisle, she saw that everyone had fallen asleep. And, despite the jouncing of the bus and the uncomfortable and undignified positions they were in, none of them seemed ready to wake up. Jane didn't know why she had; she was terribly woozy, and it took everything she had not to pass out. But it seemed strange, how everyone on the bus had fallen asleep ... and so soundly, too, like they were...

Like they're drugged or something...

She staggered and fell to her knees in the aisle, and the noise alerted the people at the front of the bus. The driver simply shrugged, but the woman standing at his elbow turned around and looked at her ... through a gas mask. It was simple but almost futuristic; a sort of glass or plastic faceplate. This meant that Jane could, despite slightly blurred vision, identify the woman who stepped down the aisle and raised a truncheon, and see the vindicated little smirk Ms Morris wore as she brought it down squarely on Jane's head.

Then, for the second time that day, unconsciousness blinded her.

*          *          *          

As people started waking, the panic spread like a brushfire. The only thing any of the forty students knew for sure was that this was not the field trip they had in mind. Daria looked around and took stock of her surroundings as the other did, and with the same amount of panic. It was a dusty, dingy old classroom that looked remarkably like their English class back home, right down to the battered chairs and desks -- the few that remained. It was so close to familiar that the little differences -- the lack of chairs, the dust, the horde of terrified teenagers -- grated on Daria's last nerve.

A gasp from some kid cowering at the back of the room called everyone's attention to the other little differences. There were two people that no one had ever seen before, one boy and one girl, sitting on tables at the back of the class. Neither looked at their fellow students ... prisoners ... whatever it was they were. Which gave the Lawndale kids carte blanche to stare at them.

The boy, facing the windows and looking out at the night, was of middling height, with tidy black hair and an angular face. He wore khakis, a black sweater, sneakers and a large paisley bandanna wrapped around his forehead. A different Daria in a different situation might have made a "Li'l Rambo" remark. His eyes were green and faraway; he could have been meditating, or watching a singularly boring movie. Jane leaned over to Daria and hissed, "Hey, I think I've seen him at the Zen once or twice. I'd say he was cute, but..."


Dismissing the entire idea of this boy Jane thought was cute despite the surreal situation, Daria turned her eyes to the girl. At least, she was 75% sure that the other stranger was a girl, but it was difficult to tell. The thin, wiry figure was completely hidden beneath a voluminous, stained, hole-studded grey sweater and a battered pair of black jeans. The off-brown hair had apparently been hacked into that short, shaggy, uneven mess by a pair of rusted gardening shears by a blind epileptic caught in the grip of a grand mal seizure. Steel-framed glasses, held together by Scotch tape and what looked like bent paper clips, framed a thin, strained face the colour of skim milk. Only the face gave away her gender -- despite its pallor and its emaciation, it was fine-boned, with full lips and sea-grey eyes that were almost pretty ... and, to Daria, almost familiar. Jane leaned over to her again. "She look familiar to you?"

Before she could even shrug, heavy footsteps from outside caught everyone's full attention. They all wheeled to face the door ... and when it opened, soldiers poured into the room. At least half of the girls screamed -- Daria heard Quinn's voice among the screamers. But when the influx of soldiers stopped and one last man entered the room, everybody screamed, even Daria.

The man ,wearing faded warm-ups in the blue and gold of Lawndale High School and a damn near murderous expression on his face, was Anthony DeMartino.

"Good evening, class!"

DeMartino's pseudo-civil greeting to the hijacked students shook Quinn Morgendorffer hard enough to make her take a closer look at her situation. She had noticed the dingy, ugly classroom and the nearly cute guy looking out the window and the fashion mistake in the other corner; now she noticed herself. Her unconscious movements brought her close, not to her friends, but to Daria. This surprised her; she knew that this was an admission to some tie to the class brain, which was tantamount to social suicide. But the closer she got to her cool, composed big sister, the safer she felt. Anyway, Daria had always protected her. Maybe not in the little things; maybe she had announced to the whole school that they were sisters and told embarrassing childhood stories about her at that one party and always made all those comments that were probably insults that she wasn't geeky enough to get ... okay, Quinn had to admit that the last few years had been a protec! tion-free zone where Daria was concerned. But some instinct told Quinn that, when whatever DeMartino was up to went down, Daria was the one to be close to. Not weenie Stacy or dim Tiffany or Sandi who always seemed so two-faced and kind of nasty, when Quinn really sat down and thought about it, but Daria.

DeMartino was talking; the others were sitting down. It occurred to Quinn that listening might be a good idea, and she sank down on the floor about halfway between Daria and the small knot of Fashion Club, breaking free of her unaccustomed thoughts and tuning in to a teacher's speech for the first time.

"This," he barked, "will be our final class together, one way or the other, so I expect you all to do me the courtesy of paying some attention Ms. JERICHO!"

With that, he picked up a chalkboard eraser and threw it, overarm and very hard. It connected with Tori Jericho's head; she broke off her whispering and whimpered, shielding her head with her hands. Brooke, the recipient of whatever Tori had considered more important than this impromptu history lesson, stood up and opened her mouth. Omigod, Quinn thought, pressing a hand to her mouth, she's not going to yell at him, is she?

One look at DeMartino's set, half-crazed face told Brooke how bad an idea defending Tori Jericho would actually be, and the cowed girl sank to the floor, scooting away from Tori like she had some icky disease. DeMartino looked at her for a minute, then addressed the group again. "Before we begin this final lesson, I would like to introduce the new additions to our class. Tom Sloane..." he pointed to the boy, who didn't look away from the windows, "... and Lynn Cullen." He pointed at the fashion mistake now, who rolled her eyes a lot like Daria did when people called attention to her but never looked at anyone. "Be nice to them ... if you reprobates even know the meaning of the word."

Be nice to them? Quinn was stunned. Like we're supposed to be nice to them! I mean, half the time we can't even be nice to each other! Then she stopped; her silent shout had brought images of the Fashion Club meetings, where Sandi would snipe at her (not like Daria did, but like she really meant it, way down where it counted) and crush poor Stacy (no wonder she was such a doormat; she never got a chance to shine, and who knew who Stacy could be if Sandi ever let up) and ... well, Tiffany was just Tiffany; there was no way she could get hurt with words so Sandi never bothered trying...

Mr DeMartino was writing something on the board. Quinn pulled herself away from her weird thinking and looked at the board. It said B.R. Act. "Now, class. Would any of you care to speculate on what this Government Act involves?"

Quinn looked around. No one was saying anything; most of them just tried to make themselves look small, like any kid who didn't know the answer to a tough teacher's question, but Daria's weird art friend Jane looked like she knew the answer and just didn't want to say it. Quinn wondered why ... then she saw the look Daria was giving her and knew.

"This particular Government decision," DeMartino continued, "was instituted after it became abundantly clear that the youth of this benighted nation were becoming irrefutably derailed. When they combined that fact with the residual effects of the unwashed MASSES copulating like beasts in heat -- namely, overpopulation -- the snakes in the Government pit started scrambling for a solution. That solution came from our erstwhile enemies in the Land of the Rising Sun." He stared at his class; most of them looked as blank as Quinn felt. "Japan." When he said that, his voice was edged with contempt. Quinn didn't know how he could be so high and mighty; the only non-geeky thing about Japan was Hello Kitty and sushi, which everyone knew was the hot thing right now.

"Japan's Educational Reform Act, a decade old this year, was instituted in our country five years ago, and in that time, it has proved useful in combating both of the problems I mentioned. In any given year, fifty classes would be chosen to participate in what the ground operatives referred to as..." He pointed at the board. "...Battle Royale."

Quinn heard Daria's art friend gasp, saw Daria turn to her with wide, terrified eyes, and edged closer to them both, hoping DeMartino wouldn't notice her. The instinct born of nearly a decade's worth of social climbing compelled her to stick with the people who knew the game, because they'd be able to win and, if she was lucky, let her cross the finish line with them. And never mind that the look on their faces told her that this was not a game she wanted to play. There was a quiet rushing sound; a different sort of girl would have wondered if they were near the sea, but Quinn was a veteran, and she knew that sound better than she knew her own name; that was whispering. Someone hadn't taken the hint.

By the stern set of their teacher's shoulders, he knew that sound too. He did not look towards it, however; he walked over to one of the soldiers, bent, and...

It happened too fast. One minute, DeMartino was hunched over a soldier's ankle, and then he was standing, facing the class, and Tori Jericho was sprawled out on the floor with a knife sticking out from the formerly unblemished space between her eyebrows. Quinn heard screaming, heard her own voice in that horrible chorus as they all backed away from the corpse of their former classmate, and over it all, she heard her teacher's voice hiss, "My apologies. That was against the rules. I'm not allowed to kill." Then he stepped towards Tori's body and pulled the knife out of her head, eliciting a briefer, quieter bout of shrieking.

Quinn knew she wasn't very smart, but even she caught the emphasis in the sentence. Despite herself, she had a horrible sinking feeling that she knew what that emphasis meant, and was left to ponder it as the screams died.

"However", DeMartino went on, walking back towards the board, "consider that a practical example of your objective. You see, this is Battle Royale. Your assignment is to kill each other off until only one of you survives. Take your inspiration from the ruthless and underhand excuses for soldiers known as the Viet Cong. Take that to mean that nothing is against the rules." He paused, letting that sink in.

Well, as far as it was going to. Quinn didn't know about the others (Stacy was hyperventilating; Daria and her weird art friend looked ... not scared, exactly, because scared was of stuff you don't know -- maybe 'horrified' was a better word; Tiffany looked like she always did, like the lights were on but nobody was home), but she could only get part of it. She didn't understand the stuff about the Viet Cong (didn't he climb the Empire State Building or something?) and she could only understand half the words he used in context, but she did get the main gist of the statement; they were supposed to kill each other. He couldn't be serious. He just couldn't be. Wasn't killing people against the law, or whatever? Well, maybe 'rules' and 'law' mean the same thing now. And he said the Government made this happen ... but that was too big to grasp.

Jodie Landon, superstudent even now, raised her hand, then jumped to her feet. "Mr DeMartino," she said, voice trembling, "you can't be serious. I ... I don't understand. I..."

DeMartino looked at her steadily. "You, Miss Landon, are not the only person to express such sentiments. Mr O'Neill, for example, was dead set against the game."

The soldier men were wheeling in a cart or table or whatever. Something was on it, a something covered in a white sheet. DeMartino turned and walked over to the sheet. Daria and her weird art friend turned their faces away, like they knew what was going to happen next. Quinn thought she knew too, but she couldn't believe it.

When DeMartino pulled the sheet away, revealing the bloody, bullet-riddled corpse of Mr O'Neill, she had to. The kids screamed again. That Jane girl put an arm around Daria's shoulders, gave a squeeze, then rubbed at her eyes, like she might be trying not to cry, or something. Jodie staggered and nearly fell over; Mack rose to a crouch and grabbed her, helping to the floor and hugging her tight. I wish someone would do that for me... Quinn thought, now feeling really sad as well as really sick.

"Now," said DeMartino, with no sadness or gladness or any other -adness in his voice at all, "he's just dead." It was almost like something Daria would say, but not quite. Daria'd never be that mean. Not when there was really a dead person. She was almost nice to people when that Tommy whoever got crushed by a goal post. Omigod, this is real; I didn't think ... Tori ... well ... well, DeMartino was always going to be one of those teachers who takes a gun into class one day, but a teacher...

The Government let him do this. The thought was sinking in now, big and black and nasty as it was for her pink and fluffy brain. The Government wants him to do this...

"We will now view a short video on the rules. of the game. Perhaps sound bytes will ensure the message penetrates."

But, at least in Quinn's case, it was already starting to. Out of the forty-one people left in that ugly old school in the middle of God-knew-where, forty of them were going to die. Only one person was going to be left. Turning to the TV screen with a cold and sinking heart, Quinn started processing the fact that she was probably not going to be that one.

It was Val on the screen. Val, as in Val. Val, dressed in a tight orange top with the letters B.R. emblazoned across her sagging breasts, a pair of unflattering black hot pants, a camouflage-print army cap that was almost obscene in its jauntiness, and boots not unlike Daria's own. Despite her terror, Quinn found herself thinking, My God, will that woman ever admit she's not going to see her teens again?

"I am Val. As in, Val." Her grin was wide and frenzied, like a chimpanzee on crack. "And I'm here to tell you the right way to fight a Battle Royale; courtesy of the B.R. Act Committee!"

"Bully for the B.R. Act Committee. No, wait; bully is the B.R. Act Committee."


"I know, the grammar's appalling, but..."

There was a dull thump, and Quinn, who was also a veteran little sister, recognised it as the sound of Daria's elbow meeting that Jane girl's ribs. Good. Daria was bright enough to know to keep her mouth shut.

"You," continued Val, "are the lucky class chosen for this year's Battle Royale! Congratulations!"

There was a pause, like that Val woman expected them to thank her from over there in her nice safe little TV studio, where the most she had to worry about was the heat from the stage lights melting her trowelled-on makeup and showing her age. Maybe she did expect it, or DeMartino did, but it wasn't going to happen. The only sound from the terrified assembly was Jane again, tunelessly singing that Kylie whoever song that they played on VH-1 sometimes. "I should be so lucky; lucky, lucky, luh-uck." She croaked the last syllable, which was full of pain; Daria'd used that nasty elbow-jab again.

"You're on an island that looks something like this." An image appeared beside Val on the screen -- a topographical map of some island Quinn had never seen before ... but then, she always hated geography. It was shaped like a teardrop, and Quinn knew that Daria'd think it was fitting or ironic or whatever. "It's about six and a quarter miles around, but we evacuated everyone, so the whole place is yours! It's been divided up into zones; your teacher will broadcast updates every six hours..."

Here, DeMartino paused the tape briefly. "For those of you flunking your math courses -- Kevin -- that means four times a DAY."

As DeMartino started the tape again, Quinn heard Kevin say, "Th-th-thanks, M-m-mister D." God, what a moron. He's never going to graduate. Then she remembered that she probably wouldn't graduate either, because she wouldn't live that long, and the contempt slid off her face.

"...about which zones are becoming danger zones. Now, if you're in a danger zone, you really want to get out of it fast, because..." She laughed, a grating little titter. "And I guess now's the time to explain those collars you've got on."

Quinn's hands flew to her throat, and they found an ugly steel thing hanging there. It wasn't tight enough to chafe or anything, but it was bulky and clunky and made a really nasty sound when she fiddled with it; a clinking noise that she dimly associated with those ugly manacle things she'd seen those guys wearing in that Robin Hood movie. She realised she was violating every Fashion Club accessory rule Sandi had ever made up. Then she remembered that she wasn't the only one -- Sandi and Stacy and Tiffany were wearing them too. And she also tripped over the knowledge that it wouldn't matter because they were all probably going to be dead in a few days anyway. She hated knowing that; it was like leaving a big bulky bit of furniture in a dark room; you always thought you knew where it was, but you kept falling over it anyway, no matter how hard you tried to avoid it.

"Now, I know they're a little ugly and everything," Val went on, "but they're waterproof, shockproof, permanent, and really useful. They let us track you -- find out where you are and what you're up to. And there's an explosive charge in them, so if you stick around a danger zone, or causing some kind of trouble ... well, we can find you, send out radio waves, trigger the collars, and ... boom!"

Everybody gasped, even Daria. Quinn was used to accessories being a little dangerous, like if you had a necklace Sandi didn't like, she might say all this bad stuff about it and make you feel so bad you had to get rid of it, or if she did like it but didn't want you wearing it, she might do the same thing and when you stopped wearing it, you'd find her wearing one just like it, or she'd even maybe steal it out of your gym locker but you could never prove it... She also remembered, dimly, about kids in ghetto schools in big cities or wherever killing each other for their sneakers. But this was the first time she'd heard of an accessory itself being able to kill you.

"Oh, and they also explode if you try to rip them off, so could you please not do that?"

And then Daria's weird art friend Jane started to laugh. It wasn't a nervous titter or that hysterics-laughing that Stacy sometimes did; it was a real laugh, like someone'd told her a really good joke. Daria didn't like that, though. She faced that weird art girl and hissed, "Jane..." Then Daria's weird art friend stood up, and Daria did too, grabbing her by that awful red shirt she insisted on wearing and trying to drag her back onto the floor. "Jane, don't..."

"But this is fantastic!" That weird girl was still laughing; how could she still be laughing? "Forty-two kids enter; one kid leaves. Just like they said on Sick, Sad World!" Then she spread her arms wide like a circus ringmaster. "Ladies and gentlemen! Welcome tooooooo ... the Blunderdome!"

A couple of kids laughed. Most of the rest of them were too scared to; Daria was one of those. Quinn didn't understand the joke, or even how she could joke at a time like this. DeMartino didn't look like he thought it was funny either. He gestured to the soldiers, who grabbed the girl by the arm and dragged her away from Daria, bringing her to face DeMartino, who looked at her like she was a broken TV or something. Then he picked up a remote control -- not the one he'd been using on the TV, but another one, and pointed it at her neck, pushing a button.

And that ... that thing on her neck lit up and started to beep, and the soldiers let her go and stepped back. Way back. Quinn looked up at Daria, who looked absolutely petrified. "Jane...?"

Jane looked scared too, but a different kind of scared, like she knew what was going to happen ... knew there wasn't anything she could do about it ... but was afraid of it anyway. But when Daria took another step nearer to her, and the collar started beeping faster, she looked a different kind of scared again. She held out a hand, palm up like a traffic cop, and shouted, "Daria, no!"

Daria froze, but stretched out a hand again. The collar was glowing brighter, and the beeps were getting closer and closer together. Jane stretched out her hand a little further, took Daria's hand, and squeezed it once. Then she let go and stepped away; other kids scattered out of her way. The beeping became one long beep...


For what felt like the longest time, Quinn couldn't see anything but what happened. How Jane's head had gone far too far backwards, how blood had sprayed... A dull thump registered, and she blinked the images away. What she saw when she finally managed to stop seeing Jane die was almost scarier than watching it in the first place.

The thump had been Daria, falling to her knees next to Jane, brushing blood-soaked black hair away from a pale, pained face. Then, to Quinn's absolute horror, Daria buried her face into the back of Jane's red shirt and started to cry.

But ... but Daria never cries...

That was the defining moment; when Quinn finally realised the game was real. The two deaths hadn't made it real for her, and neither had DeMartino's weird speech about Vietnam or the ugly collars. What made it real for her was the sight of her normally composed sister's tears.

Daria couldn't see anything. There was too much red. Red from Jane's jacket, pressed to her eyes; red in a spreading pool soaking Daria's knees; red behind her eyes as the scene replayed itself -- as her logical mind tried to make sense of what had happened to Jane.

Red mist hanging in the air like a cloud.

Jane's glazing blue eyes, like marbles in alabaster.

And now ... she was crouched on the floor with a surprisingly smoky red obstruction before her eyes. What was that? After a moment, she worked it out; the red was Jane's jacket. The cloudiness ... tears coated her glasses, because she was crying. And she was crying because...

Jane... Mr DeMartino...

New red; this time rage. Anthony DeMartino had murdered her only real friend. For the first time in her life, words and thoughts left her mind in mass exodus as something far more primal took up residence in her head. And the next thing she knew, she was on her feet, straining against a firm circle of arms. And Quinn's voice drilled into the red haze; "Daria! No, Daria, he'll get you too! Please don't!"

Daria didn't exactly relax, but she did stop struggling. After a moment, Quinn's arms loosened, though they still clutched the back of her jacket. Daria didn't try to disengage her little sister; instead, she stood ramrod straight and glared at DeMartino. She didn't know what her face said to him, or even what she intended to communicate to him. All she knew was that, after a long moment, it was DeMartino who turned his eyes away, grumbling, "If you would kindly resume your seats..."

Quinn dropped like a rock, hands still clenched on Daria's jacket so that Daria had to drop with her or have the staple of her wardrobe ripped right down the back. As Daria settled into a comfortable position, Quinn buried her face into Daria's back, obviously having seen enough. DeMartino went back to the front of the room, pointed the other remote control at the TV, and gave Val back her freedom of movement.

"Okay, one last rule; there's a three day time limit," she piped, holding up three overmanicured fingers to illustrate the point. "If more than one of you is still alive at the end of the three days, all the collars self-destruct, and no one wins. So let's fight-fight-fight for the old blue and gold so that doesn't happen, okay?"

DeMartino paused the video again, looking at his class again. "Any questions so far?"

Daria hadn't expected there to be any, so the raised hand surprised her. DeMartino waved a hand at the boy with the eyebrow ring, who stood up. "If I survive," he asked quietly, "can I go home?"

"Of course;" replied DeMartino. "Provided, of course, that all of your cohorts are dead."

The boy with the eyebrow ring glared at him and sat down again, running a hand through his short blond hair. Jodie raised her hand next, and DeMartino nodded to her. "Why us, Mr DeMartino? Why this class?"

"Our miserable band of so-called students were chosen by impartial lottery. In turn, Lawndale High's students were submitted for the programme by our esteemed principal, who felt that willing participation in such a high-echelon Government project would add honour and glory to a school starved for such things."

Jodie left her hand up. "Another question, Mr DeMartino?" He nodded again. "Why are you doing this?"

"I was selected on the basis of my military background." His face told them that he would say no more on that subject, and Jodie put her hand down again.

A moment later, the door bashed open and two more soldiers entered, wheeling what looked like large metal cages. Stuffed into each were a number of mid-sided backpacks in military green; it occurred to Daria briefly what a shame it was that she wasn't as fashion-conscious as her sister, because it might please her how well those matched her jacket. It also occurred to her that she must be in shock to think such things, but she knew she had every reason to be, and that she wasn't alone. Also that it would wear off far too soon, and she would have to think about this clearly.

And oh, Christ, he's switched Val as in Val on again.

"Okay, I'm going to start a roll call. When you hear your names, you come up and get a pack." On the screen, she approached a table upon which one of the backpacks lay, its contents spread out neatly. "They've got everything you need ... but of course, you've all got your own stuff. Now, the girls might need some ... ah, personal things ... so you'll all be allowed to take them -- now, isn't that fair?" She smiled in a way that was probably meant to be winning. "Okay, here's what you'll get." And, adding to the surrealism, Val pointed to each pack item in turn as if she was one of those "The Price is Right" bimboes. "Food and water ... a map and compass ... and a weapon. Not just guns or knives, either, so check it out when you have a chance." To illustrate her point, she picked up the weapon that had come with the sample pack -- a two-handed axe. She turned to the camera and grinned to illustrate just how lucky this pack was.

Daria felt more than a little nauseous. The prospect of being given a gun or a knife and being required to kill people was bad enough, but to wield an axe... She had joked about killing her peers countless times, but even then she had only mentioned the more bloodless methods, and she had never, ever been serious. She honestly believed that these people were wasting their lives and not worth her time, but actually putting an end to a life that wasn't hers... Hell, even taking her own life would be spitting in the face of something, probably... Even at the best of times, she couldn't explain it, and these weren't optimum conditions for spiritual questions. All she knew was that she couldn't. Without Jane, she wasn't even sure she could function, let alone fight every instinct she had in order to slay her peers.

She realised that she had as long as it took Val to get to the 'M's to figure it out.

"Boy 1 -- Black, Joseph!"

"H-h-here!" He got up, and for a change didn't even spare a look at Quinn Morgendorffer as he stepped towards the soldiers. One threw a dark green backpack at him; he caught it with an ease born of years on the football field, and walked out with his head held high.

"Girl 1 -- Blum-Deckler, Tiffany!"

Tiffany stood up gracefully and crossed the room as if it were a catwalk. Daria wondered if the dim but pretty girl even realised that this so-called "game" was an actual threat to her life. Then again, she was having a hard time believing it herself. When the bag was thrown at Tiffany, Tiffany let it go right past her, dropping to the floor a meter from her feet. Under normal circumstances, Daria might have indulged in a small smile at the similarity between this scene and the ones that had taken place throughout volleyball games at Lawndale High; as it was, all she could do was remember that Ms Li's quest for honour and glory in the name of Laaaaaawndale Hiiiiiiigh was the reason she'd be running for her life in a few minutes. Tiffany picked up the bag and almost sashayed out.

"Boy 2 -- Butler, Matthew!"

Matthew Butler was a good-looking boy with sandy hair and expressive hazel eyes; what they were expressing at the moment was sheer panic. He jogged for the door, fumbled the bag, managed to keep hold of it and ran, whimpering, out the door.

"Girl 2 -- Buck, Lisa!"

The pretty cheerleader in the corner clasped hands with her nervous, wide-eyed friends, then got up and ran for the door. Daria noted with a certain amount of gladness that this girl had no qualms about breaking a nail; she grabbed the bag on the fly and left without even slowing down.

"Boy 3 -- DeWitt-Clinton, Theodore!"

Ted, face the colour of old Brie, slowly uncurled from his fetal heap on the floor. He got to his feet and shuffled like a zombie to the front, where he stopped. The bag hit him hard in the chest, and he staggered, almost fell. He turned, near-dead eyes scanning the room ... and when those childish eyes came to rest on Daria, she was hit with understanding like a blackjack to the skull. He was asking why decent people were doing this, how on earth this could happen in America, when his world had suddenly become an unholy cross between Lord of the Flies and 1984 ... and he was asking her. She realised a lot of people's eyes had turned to her that way -- some because they valued her opinion, some because they had nowhere else to turn ... most because she, of course, was the Misery Chick. Ted was asking for that second reason, eyes desperate for an answer.

An answer that she didn't have. She looked down at the floor to avoid his face, and he lowered his head and walked away.

"Girl 3 -- Chapman, Dawn!"

Every school has the fat girl -- the really fat girl. Dawn Chapman was Lawndale High's. She got through her ungainly, waddling existence by shutting her more graceful fellows out behind music of uncertain genre pumping from an ever-present set of Walkman headphones. Or maybe not ever-present; they were gone now, hidden away in her backpack. She scrambled upright, ran for the door, and when the soldier's bag came her way, it hit her square on the top of her head. She reeled, dropped to her knees, then grabbed the new pack and scrambled upright again. No one could watch her graceless exit.

"Boy 4 -- Feldman, Skylar!"

The handsome young man stood up with an insouciance that could have passed for genuine under all but the closest scrutiny ... meaning Daria's. What Daria saw was a little boy who didn't understand that Dad's money wasn't going to buy him out of this, the way it had bought him out of so many other situations. He stalked to the door, collected his bag, and left like the whole thing was some frat party he'd got bored with.

"Girl 4 -- Chase, Elizabeth!"

Beth was considered the smartest of the cheerleaders, and right now, she looked the most wary, like she knew the score. She didn't take the hands of her fellow cheerleaders; simply stood up, stalked to the door, caught her bag and ran.

"Boy 5 -- Garfield, William!"

A boy so anonymously good-looking he was nearly faceless stood, shot a look around the room that could have meant anything, grabbed the bag he was offered and jogged out.

"Girl 5 -- Clarke, Angela!"

Angie grabbed at the hands of the two nearest cheerleaders -- Brittany and Nikki -- squeezed once, then let go and stood up. The soldier threw the bag at her, striking her in the chest with it (I wonder how that'll go if he tries it with Brittany, some sick part of Daria's mind commented). Angie spared a last moment to give a wavery smile to the rest of her cheerleading team, then fled.

"Boy 6 -- Grey, Jeffrey!"

Jeffy did throw a look Quinn's way; it held more pleading than any he had ever given her. Quinn, her face buried in the back of Daria's jacket, didn't even see it. Jeffy's shoulder's slumped, then rose. He squared his jaw and walked up to the soldiers. He held out his arms and the soldier threw the bag into them. Something in the military man's gaze broke Jeffy's hard-summoned nerve and he shuddered, then ran.

"Girl 6 -- Cullen, Lynn!"

The thin, hard-faced girl with the glasses and the bad haircut uncurled and jumped down from the desk she'd been sitting on. She sauntered through the room, casting an assessing eye over the remaining Lawndale students, and nimbly caught the bag thrown at her, stopping as she intercepted her pack. She and the soldier locked eyes for a moment, and it was he who broke, shuddering and turning his eyes away. She turned and walked out, unhurried and very calm.

"Boy 7 -- Hayward, Corey!"

Daria remembered, as the boy took his feet, that Corey had been seated next to Quinn during the assembly to celebrate her and Jane's early graduation from the Self-Esteem seminar. He'd been wisecracking throughout it, trying to impress her. He seemed all out of wisecracks now, concentrating all his efforts on keeping his legs from trembling as he made it to the front of the room, caught his bag on the fly, and vanished like smoke.

"Girl 7 -- Griffin, Sandra!"

Sandi stood up, and something in her face made Stacy cower into her corner of the room. Quinn looked up briefly, then buried her face in Daria's jacket again. Sandi wove through the students with a luxurious lack of haste and let the bag fall at her feet. She cast a scornful glance at the soldier as she retrieved her prize without spoiling her manicure. Then she left.

"Boy 8 -- Kay, Taylor!"

One of Quinn's dates -- as good-looking and anonymous as the rest. He barely stopped to catch the bag as he removed himself from the room.

"Girl 8 -- Hecuba, Andrea!"

Daria had never seen Andrea in any state but semi-composed piss-off. If Andrea's reaction to this was any indication, she never would. She clambered to her feet and stomped out, catching the bag tossed her way as an afterthought.

"Boy 9 -- Mackenzie, Michael!"

Mack rose to a squat, then grabbed Jodie's hand and gripped tight. "I'll wait for you." Jodie nodded, and Mack stood.

As he crossed the room, Kevin pumped a fist in the air, shouting, "All right! Go, Mack Daddy!"

Mack shot him a hard glance ... then sighed, letting it go. Maybe life seemed to short too quibble over such a little thing. He missed the backpack when it came his way, scooped it up, then left the room at a not-quite-run.

"Boy 10 -- Mahoney, Zachary!"

As the boy walked forward and collected his gear, Daria wondered why Girl 9 had not been called. Then she looked at the corpse of Tori Jericho, lying in a pool of her own blood not far from Jane, and shuddered. Now she knew who Girl 9 had been.

"Girl 10 -- Landon, Jodie!"

Jodie bounced to her feet as if spring-loaded, stalked to the front of the room, grabbed the gear as it was hurled at her ... then stood for a moment, staring at the soldier. Then she threw the bag at his head and ran from the room with a sob.

"Boy 11 -- McLean, Michael!"

Daria didn't see this boy go; her eyes were closed, her head bent towards the floor. Jodie's departure had been hard enough, but she knew alphabetical order, and she knew that Girl 11 would not be called. Alphabetical order had Girl 11 lying face-down on the floor in a pool of her own blood, same as Girl 9. The knowledge of that absence hurt her more than she'd thought possible.

"Boy 12 -- Nolan, William!"

The blond boy with the eyebrow ring stood up, scanned them all suspiciously, then walked to the front stiffly. He caught his bag and left, never increasing his pace.

"Girl 12 -- Little, Alice!"

This was the secondary fat-girl with the curly red hair and looks just striking enough to serve as a 'ringer' in Claude and Romonica's little Amazon Modelling recruitment drive. She minced to the front, fumbled the bag, dropped it on her foot, stifled a whimper, then stood and minced out. She waited until she was outside the door to start running, but the silence in the former classroom allowed them to hear it when she did.

"Boy 13 -- Paterson, Jack!"

A tall, beefy boy with his hair shorn into an unflattering crew-cut and a face which reminded Daria painfully of her dim but friendly father stood up. Daria watched him step hesitantly to the front and wondered, What do Mom and Dad think about this? She wondered how many people Helen Morgendorffer had called, how many favours she'd called in, before someone bigger and more pushy than her had talked her down. She wondered if her father'd had a heart attack over the disappearance of his girls. She also wondered if, on that basis, either of them were still alive.

"Girl 13 -- Miller, Karen!"

As the thin, mousy girl with the Alice-band and the cardigan stepped forward, Daria did her internal roll call again and realised that she would probably be next ... and she still didn't know how -- or even if -- she was going to proceed. No matter how hard she tried, though, she still couldn't make her brain come up with plans to even save her own life, let alone take anyone else's.

"Boy 14 -- Peers, Scott!"

Daria Morgendorffer turned to her sister, gently disengaged manicured hands from the back of her jacket, and looked into her face. "You know I'm next."

Quinn's face showed that she knew no such thing, and didn't want to hear it. "Daria, I..."

"Girl 14 -- Morgendorffer, Daria."

Daria squeezed Quinn's hands, once. "Take care of yourself," she muttered. She spared one moment more to look at the lifeless lump of meat and bone that had once held her best friend. She saw something clenched in her hand -- not the one she'd offered to Daria at the end, but the left. She leaned over and pried the still-supple fingers open, disclosing the Polaroid Stacy had taken of them. Without sparing it a glance or even thinking much about it, she pocketed it. Then she stood up, walking to the head of the room as she'd walked through school hallways and classrooms all her life; head high, eyes front, giving no quarter. A soldier threw a bag at her, and she caught it with surprising ease. Then, without knowing why she even bothered, she threw a look back at the room. She saw her pale, terrified sister staring at her as if she were already dead, haunting them all from the spirit world or something equally romantic. She saw the remaining students (more than half of the! m, by her quick calculation), most of them not looking at her at all, lost as they were in their own unaccustomed thoughts. And she saw Jane, still lying face-down on the floor. The pool of blood around her had stopped spreading.

Daria faced forward again and walked out, and her mind was devoid of ideas for her survival, and her heart devoid of any hope at all.

*          *          *          

Daria didn't know how long she'd been outside. She'd walked a ways, she guessed, because now she was sitting on a low hillside, trying to think but failing. Her mind was empty, and for some reason that didn't scare her as it should have done. It was shock, maybe. Yeah, that sounded right. Shock, and grief, and the knowledge that, whatever she did, she was going to die. She found that, while she had no will or strength to deprive her classmates of their sport by doing their job for them, she didn't much care that she was going to die.

After all, what was there to lose? Jane ... Jane lying on the floor with her throat blown open. Whatever happened, even if she did survive, she'd know the only reason she still drew breath was that 41 people had died. She couldn't live with that kind of knowledge. By rights, she should just kill herself, spare someone the grief and effort ... but she found she couldn't muster up enough strength to do that. Better to just sit here, let someone come along and...

Someone staggered out of the trees off to her right. She turned her head to look with the bland thought, That was quick...

It was Andrea. But something was wrong with her. One hand fluttered at her neck, and Daria noticed the expression on her face through the sweat-streaked makeup. The semi-composed piss-off was gone, replaced by wide-eyed, lip-trembling shock. Obviously this horror-struck girl had no intention of killing anyone, least of all Daria, who sat up a little straighter and said, "Andrea...? Are you...?"

Andrea dropped to her knees about five feet from Daria, who looked closely at her. That look proved that it wasn't only horror that had struck Andrea. There was a crossbow bolt sticking out of her neck. With a final, fearful blink at her former classmate, Andrea pitched face-first onto the ground, and there was another student dead at Daria's feet.

Daria was still staring at Andrea's body when there was a whistle and a meaty *thock*. Daria blinked at Andrea's back and noticed it had changed; another crossbow bolt stuck out of it. Daria looked up -- whoever was up there with the crossbow was going to be the one who took her out of the game, and not a moment too soon. The last thing she wanted was to see more people die.

Except, when her eyes finally caught the thin, gibbering, jittering form of Charles "Upchuck" Ruttheimer the Third, she almost changed her mind. There was no honour in being killed by the class pervert. But, she decided, seeing him step forward a little and train the crossbow on her, Any port in a storm. She leaned back a little, stretching her body out to give him a better target, as well as probably the last masturbation fantasy of his life...

"Daria! Daria, is that you?"


Survival instinct grabbed at this one last reason for Daria to keep herself alive. Quinn wouldn't last five minutes out there alone; if Sandi didn't get her, one of the many guys who'd wanted more in that movie-burger-backseat deal than she'd allowed them would. She was the big sister, and it was her job to protect Quinn when the going got rough, and never mind the sibling rivalry bullshit that could be indulged when times were non-threatening.

Bottom line: If she died, Quinn'd go soon after, and that made Daria responsible. If she couldn't kill anyone, she couldn't deprive Quinn of her only real chance at survival, because it amounted to the same thing.

And Upchuck's crossbow had changed position. It now had a jittery lock on a spot three feet to Daria's left, and ten feet above. Quinn's voice had come from there.

"Quinn, get back!"

Another whistle-*thock*, but the *thock* was hollower this time because the arrow struck wood. Apparently it had gone through Quinn's shirt and a part of her arm first, because Quinn's high screech of pain and fear filled the night and nearly drowned out the sound of the arrow's impact. Daria scrambled to her feet and lunged for Quinn, bearing her to the ground as another crossbow bolt struck the tree.

"Daria, what's going on?"

No time to answer. Daria grabbed Quinn and hauled her upright. "Now run," she ordered.

For one of the few times in her life, Quinn obeyed Daria without a thought, allowing herself to be led through the trees, not once complaining about her heels or her hair or the sweat. They seemed to leave their childhood enmity behind them, perhaps to keep Andrea's corpse company.

Upchuck had, in his own way, been clever. He had found a relatively quiet spot with good cover, set up with his crossbow, and sniped anyone who came near. Or that was his intention anyway; Andrea, all in black as she was, had been a fluke. He'd seen something white and fired.

He wasn't sorry about Andrea, though. He couldn't afford to be. His father was into the corporate rat run; he knew the meaning of kill or be killed, and had taught his son. With an insane giggle, he realised that his father had never expected him to take those lessons this literally.

He was worried about having missed Daria. Quinn wasn't going to be much of a threat, but she'd presented herself as a target. Daria ... thought that way. It wasn't the sort of think she shrank from. She would be very, very good at this game, that was the Chuckster's opinion. He didn't want to face off against her when she had her weapons out and her mind on the task at hand. Which is why, rather than keeping his good, safe spot on the high ground, he broke cover to follow the delectable but deadly Daria and her little sister. He was so intent on his task that he lost his footing halfway down the hill and lost the crossbow as he tumbled end over end down the hill. Now all I need is a Jill and this'll be complete, he thought crazily.

When he landed at the bottom of the hill, it took him a moment to regain his mental balance. He sat up and looked around for the crossbow. It wasn't lying on the ground near him anywhere. Upchuck started to panic. He was a scrawny, untrained weakling with no physical co-ordination whatsoever, and never his mind his suave, debonair lines and attractive eyes. He needed a weapon. He started grovelling around in the leaves, digging his hands through them in the hopes that it had just buried itself somehow.

"Hey, man. Upchuck, right?"

He looked up. That overhandsome, overobnoxious, unchivalrous rich-boy Skylar Feldman was standing on the path, inspecting his crossbow with a marginally impressed expression. Upchuck snarled at the boy as he looked up from the crossbow and said, "You made out better'n me, man. They gave me a..."

Upchuck didn't want to hear what Skylar Feldman had been handed by those psycho soldiers. He wanted his crossbow back. Needed it back. He launched himself forward, hands outstretched for Skylar Feldman's neck. He couldn't have given a coherent reason why, but every fibre of his being wanted this boy dead. He would laugh as he choked the life out of him.

If he ever got that far...

Skylar, in total shock, staggered backward, fell, and his finger squeezed the trigger. The bolt hit Upchuck square in the chest, piercing his heart. It was a mercy; he never felt the pain.

Skylar Feldman stared at the crossbow in his hands, then at the body at his feet. At no time had he felt that this was real. But now he had killed someone. Fine, it was just that pencil-necked pervert Upchuck, no big deal, really, but they threw you in jail for stuff like this, unless Dad had connections or something. And even then you got punished big -- your allowance got cut or you got real grounded or had to do community service or some bullshit. But now he'd killed someone and it was okay.

It was real.

It was also too big to think about right then. He had to get out of there. Some instinct told him to get away from the scene of the crime, and never mind if it was really not a crime anymore. He just had to get away. So he spared Upchuck's miserable skinny body one last look, then turned and ran like hell.

*          *          *          

Daria and Quinn finally stopped running, and Daria pushed Quinn to the ground. "Are you okay?"

Quinn stared at Daria, eyes eating up her pale face. "I ... I ... I dunno. I mean, he got me, but I don't hurt so bad ... well, not outside, but ... but Daria, I..." She struggled for a minute, obviously not sure what she was trying to say, and then just blurted, "I thought I was popular, Daria!" Then she burst into tears.

Daria felt her control wavering. She had almost let Upchuck kill her, she had watched Jane die, and she found herself in a situation where she had three days or less to live. And now, on top of everything else, she seemed obliged to comfort her sister, whose primary concern was what this meant to her popularity. Her mouth moved independently of her brain, saying, "You are popular. People are dying to be seen with you nowadays." Her brain registered her words, and she started hating herself. Quinn sobbed harder than ever, plastering her hands over her face, and Daria forced her mind to come up with something ... well, something. "Look ... Quinn ... your popularity may be a disadvantage here. Everyone knows you; when they think about their fellow Lawndale students, you're one of the first names that comes up. So when they start thinking of which students they have to take down to win the game and go home..."

Quinn lowered her hands from her face; her face was drawn and tortured, but she had at least stopped crying, so Daria felt thankful for small mercies. "Daria ... I don't want to die. I..."

Daria sighed. "Let me see your arm. Survival won't do you any good if a scar mars that delicate skin." Quinn looked at her strangely, and Daria, surprised at herself, raised a small smirk to show she was kidding. Quinn managed a weak smile and held out her left arm. The crossbow wound was little more than a graze, but Daria reached beneath her green jacket, tore off a strip of the burnt-mustard shirt beneath -- it would serve as a bandage -- and then reached in her pack. She wasn't sure if she could trust the water here, and the wound, however shallow, should be cleaned. After all, dodging the bolt itself wasn't going to do Quinn any good if she died of a related infection.

Her hands touched metal, and she drew back, shocked at the sensation. This must be her weapon. She still needed the water, though, so she took a deep breath and stuck her hand back in the pack. She happened on the metal object immediately and pulled it out ... and the sight of it nearly shocked her into dropping it.

Quinn looked at it, almost incuriously. "What's that?"

"My weapon, I suppose." She held it up and watched the play of the moonlight on the metal. "I'm seeing a pot lid being about as useful in this game as I am myself."

Quinn blinked, and then dug in her own pack. She pulled out a set of binoculars and frowned a little. "Boy, Daria, I'd have thought you could use these more than I could. I mean, you're the one who needs glass in front of her eyes to see."

Daria lowered her head and blinked hard. Quinn looked at Daria for a moment, noticing that her older sister was close to tears for the second time that... She pressed a hand to her mouth, realising how close her comment had been to something that Jane might say. And never mind that it wasn't anything remotely like what Quinn might say; she'd hurt Daria and she'd been really good to her since this mess started. "Oh ... I'm sorry..."

Daria swallowed and started digging in her pack again, still refusing to look at Quinn. She pulled out a bottle of water (unlabeled, she noticed; no one was looking for a sponsorship deal out of this atrocity) and took Quinn's arm, pouring the water over it. "I'll clean this up, and bandage it."

"But then what? Daria, what are we going to do?"

What were they going to do? Even if Daria somehow managed to keep them both alive for the three days they'd been given to enact this 'Battle Royale' ... even if they managed to elude and kill all remaining 40 or less students, including those two strange 'transfers' who looked more than a little dangerous ... they would still be two, and if more than one survivor was left after three days, they'd all die.

Daria went through all the options, thinking more quickly than she had since she had regained consciousness in that old classroom. She didn't really care right now if she died; she'd only been concerned for Quinn during Upchuck's little sniper stunt. If she could keep Quinn alive until the end, she would feel no qualms about ending her own life to make sure at least one of their parents' daughters came home. And if she couldn't ... well, then she could still die with a clear conscience, knowing she'd done the best she could.

"What we're going to do," Daria said, "is try to keep as far away from trouble as we can. We'll stand a better chance of staying alive that way." After a moment's thought, and another moment to swallow all her misgivings, she suggested, "We might stand a better chance in a group. Maybe your ... friends? Sandi seems ... a survivor type."

Quinn turned to her, eyes full of scornful disbelief. "Daria, are you nuts? I'm not going anywhere near Sandi! I mean, we hang out together and everything, but it's not like I trust her! She might..."

The scorn on Quinn's face evaporated, leaving confusion and fear. Daria, sensing that Quinn needed to be alone with her little revelation, just tied the strip of orange shirt onto Quinn's arm. After a moment, she said, "What you're going to do is try your best to stay alive for as long as you can. And what I'm going to do is help you do that."

Quinn looked even more scared at Daria's statement -- or Daria's omission, maybe. Daria, sensing it but not wanting to enter into a discussion, put the half-empty water bottle back into her pack so she didn't have to let Quinn read the truth in her eyes. Quinn was going through enough.

*          *          *          

Five boys surrounded her, taunting and jeering, one of them waving an Uzi. The dumb fuck. She knew this game; had played it most of her life. Big show of strength; flash the weapons they didn't have the guts to use, goad the enemy to further intimidate. They played this game the way New Zealand played rugby, with a huge Maori war cry. What they never understood was that this game was more like poker.

"Hey, four-eyes; Mommy can't afford new glasses? Or she just knows you aren't worth it?"

"Who cut your hair? The Lawnmower Man?"

Great. Someone here knows fine literature. No; probably watched that dumb-ass movie.

Cold metal touched her temple. "We know what you are, freak!" That was the guy with the Uzi. He was holding it on her, standing nice and close.

"You're some kind of spy!" A big boy, this one, with a strawberry crew-cut and a slightly vapid expression. Go for him first. Take him down. He's their muscle and losing that will scare them.

"Ol' Popeye put you up to this, didn't he? DIDN'T he?"

Voice to her left. She was no longer looking at them, only listening, pinpointing them.

"What've you got here?" Clueless Crew-Cut was digging through her pack and pulling out the weapon she'd been issued -- a paper fan. Some weapon. There was laughter; someone smacked her upside the head with the fan. Not nearly hard enough. They're scared green. Good.

"How many do you think you're gonna bag with this, four-eyes?"

She stepped backwards, snapping her head and upper body to the left. Not even she knew how it happened (thinking costs valuable moving time), but Uzi-boy's right arm was now trapped between her right arm and her upper body. Her hands flew, covered his, forced him to squeeze the trigger; her body swept from left to right, dragging Uzi-boy's arm with her. Boys screamed and toppled; screamed and died. She wrenched her body away from Uzi-boy, dragging his weapon with her. He tried to run away, screaming. She shot, aiming low, and raked him diagonally across the back. The screams stopped before he hit the ground.

Girl 6 looked at the weapons the boys had left behind. Crew-Cut had a dagger; she stuffed it in her boot. A couple of hand grenades; very useful, so into the pack with them. The Uzi, of course, and another handgun; Colt .357 revolver. Good enough for close combat. And ... a nunchaku. With a slight sneer, she tossed it over her shoulder and walked away without a backward look.

Game on.

*          *          *          

Jodie and Mack's position on the cliffs was far enough away to avoid seeing the death of the five members of the Lawndale High football team. But that blessing seemed small to them; because of the echoes, they had been able to hear the whole thing more clearly than they'd wanted to. As captain of the football team, Mack knew all of those voices, even the ones who had only screamed. He'd never been particularly fond of Bret Strand, and Corey'd been every inch the smart-mouthed little prick, but he'd got along well with Mike and Jack, and Rich was the only other black guy Mack knew about in Lawndale. While it didn't exactly make them friends by default, it gave them a common ground upon which to build. Overall, he'd liked them, and he didn't think any of them had deserved the death it sounded like they got.

Jodie was looking over the cliff, shoulders slumped. "If you don't... If you don't want to do this, Mack..."

He knew what 'this' meant. On the walk to the cliffs, they had agreed without words on 'this'. He put a hand on her shoulder and squeezed. "I ... I guess I just wish there was another way."

"There isn't." She looked up at him, and her eyes told him just what a curse intelligence could be. "I've thought about it. They'd blow the collars even if we could get off this island. And if we even try to stay here, we'll get sucked in the game. We might have to kill our friends ... or they'd kill us ... and even if we managed to stay alive, then it'd be us two and..."

She lowered her eyes, and Mack knew what she was thinking. In matters of survival, people changed. And what would happen if they came to the end and the collars activated on them both? Would one or both of them go primal? Try to kill each other? And if one of them succeeded, what weight of guilt would that one carry? Yes, ignorance was bliss, and intelligence could be a curse; it let you see just what kind of corners the world painted you into. "We've played a lot of games, Jodie," he muttered. "Football, Debate, that whole social thing..."

Jodie's shoulders stiffened. "Maybe it's time we stopped playing their games. I can't think of a better one to boycott." With that, she threw her bag over the edge of the cliff, watching as it fell and burst open on the rocks below.

We'll do the same, Mack thought, and looked at Jodie again, knowing from her shudder that she felt the same. A thought occurred, an idea that might make things easier, and he dug in his soldier-issued backpack for the second time. He pulled out his sorry excuse for a weapon -- a headband -- and held it out to Jodie without a word. She nodded and closed her eyes; he tied it over them. Then he kissed her, and turned her so that she faced the cliffs.

"I'm glad I'm not doing this alone," she whispered. "And I'm glad it's with you."


She gave a wan little smile. "Romeo."

He put his left arm around her, holding her upper arm tightly; his right he raised to hide his face in the crook of his elbow. Then he took two blind, shambling steps towards the cliff edge until he felt empty space in front of his feet. And then they jumped.

And never was there a tale of more woe...

*          *          *          

Stacy Rowe would have agreed with Daria on one thing, if she knew the thought had crossed Quinn's sister's mind; Any port in a storm.

The building she'd chosen to hide in was little more than a tool shed, standing deserted in what seemed an inimical setting. She'd almost screamed when she saw the two corpses hanging from a nearby tree, and almost vomited when she recognised one of them as that sort-of cute weird boy that half the school thought she was going out with -- Ted something. But she'd managed not to do any of those things and had holed up in the shed with the simple yet comforting thought, Any port in a storm.

She treated the entire night as a storm. She'd heard so many crazy and terrible things out there. There had been gunshots, and screaming, and she thought that maybe the night, and all the blood and the awful things that Mr DeMartino had been saying ... well, maybe it'd just driven everyone a little crazy. Things would look better in the morning; Stacy knew that from experience. She went to bed most nights a little bit panicked, thinking about what she'd said wrong that day ... but by the time she woke up the next morning, things never looked quite so bad. Maybe it was the sun. Sun from the east made everything look so pretty and fresh, like there was no such thing as a yesterday.

That's why Stacy kept pictures. She knew she wasn't a great photographer, and she'd never get to be a good photographer (not until she got out of high school, anyway, and maybe decided not to go to whatever school Sandi and Quinn and Tiffany were going to, so she could make her own decisions and maybe -- scary but wonderful thought! -- find out who she was under all the fashion), but she liked pictures. The ones on photo paper lasted so much longer than the ones in her head.

And now, hiding under a table with her flashlight hooked to it so it hung like an overhead light, she looked at her school trip Polaroids. Fine, the 'school trip' turned out to not be like the others, it had turned into one of those 'brown acid' trips that her father sometimes talked about after a few beers, but the getting there had been fun. It wasn't like her mother always said; getting there wasn't half the fun. This time, getting there was all the fun.

She didn't have the one she'd taken of Quinn and that brainy older sister she was so afraid of people knowing about, and that was a shame; she thought that one would have really been something special. But there were others; some were kind of fun. There was poor Mr O'Neill, playing Eye Spy with a group of smiling cheerleaders. There was Kevin, watching Jack Paterson belch out the Star-Spangled Banner and laughing fit to bust. There was Sandi (and oh, Stacy was so proud of this one) looking pissed off as those J-guys and about three others swarmed around Quinn, who smiled and ... held court, or something.

And there...

She looked over the next half-dozen shots with a wistful, forlorn sort of smile, one filled with disappointment. She had never understood what happened there. Not even Quinn's sister and that poor art-girl had been able to explain it to her, or maybe she was just too dumb to understand...

There were footsteps outside. Stacy let out a muted squeak of terror even as she reached up for the flashlight and turned it off, and then the door flew open. Someone Stacy couldn't see -- backlighting from the dim moon -- shone a flashlight into the room and, eventually, shot its blinding beam directly into Stacy's eyes. Stacy screamed, throwing a hand up to shield her eyes while groping for her weapon with the other. She pointed it at the intruder and triggered it.

Well, the sparks were pretty, and the snap-snap-snap-snap was kind of scary ... but a tazer wasn't much of a range-weapon, and even someone like Stacy knew that. The flashlight beam held on the cowering girl, and a voice Stacy was sure she knew said, "Stacy? Is that you?"

Stacy stopped pressing the button on the stun gun, but she didn't lower it as she asked, "Who's there?"

The figure turned the flashlight towards its own face ... and revealed the leisurely smirk of Sandi Griffin. Stacy produced a sigh, but felt none of the relief that went with it, and she only lowered the tazer a little. "S-s-s-sandi?"

"So," Sandi drawled; "are you going to, like, kill me with that thing, or something?"

Stacy dropped the tazer all the way, at least six years of obedience training overriding every instinct in her body. "Oh ... oh, gosh, Sandi, no! I..."

But Sandi was giving her low, amused chuckle. Stacy guessed Sandi was kidding, and finally relaxed a little. Sandi was ... well, she was a lot of things, but her sense of humour sometimes wasn't all that great. "Can I come in?"

Stacy was a little surprised that Sandi bothered to ask; she never had before. But she managed a smile and a nervous, "Sure, Sandi!" Sandi sat down, looking at Stacy with weird eyes. "So that's your weapon, huh?"

"Well," Stacy demurred, "I guess it's really not that much..."

"Oh, I don't know," Sandi said, picking it up and looking at it. It made Stacy more nervous, Sandi having a weapon... "It's pretty fashionable, if you think about it. I hear all the stars have them in L.A., now that the big purse is back in..." She triggered the stun gun, sending off sparks that reflected in Stacy's wide, frightened eyes.

"Well, I..."

"Oh, are these the little photographs you were taking on the bus, or whatever?" Sandi reached for the pictures and looked at them. Stacy noticed that she didn't let go of the tazer while she did it, either. "So many of Bret Strand ... are you still, like mooning over him? Stacy, you do know that all that whining about a boy who doesn't, like, appreciate you is a definite fashion don't?"

Stacy scooted away from Sandi unconsciously as she stammered, "W-w-well, n-no one even knows I..."

"But I know, Stacy. And I'm going to have to put you on permanent fashion sabbatical."

Stacy watched, frozen, as Sandi dropped her precious pictures and reached for something in her belt. She was still staring when Sandi pulled a sickle and buried it into Stacy's neck. She tried to scream, but all that metal was blocking her windpipe.

"You see, Stacy, this is what you never understood," said Sandi, and even though Sandi's face was right by her ear, the voice seemed to be coming from a long way away. "You have to be ruthless. And I'm not going to give up and die like those complete losers outside. Their faces are, like, purple and everything and I'm not going to die all ugly and stuff. And I'm not going to die like you."

Stacy dimly realised that Sandi was standing behind her now, so that when she grabbed the sickle (like she was doing now) and pulled it all the way across her throat to tear it open (there was pain, but from so far away as the world went grey and then started to darken, like a Polaroid in reverse), Sandi would have no bloodstains to contend with.

*          *          *          

When dawn finally came, 28 of the 42 were left alive.

*          *          *          

At six o'clock the next morning, PA speakers all over the island started blaring Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Run Through the Jungle". Thinking the whole thing terribly geeky, Sandi Griffin woke up, stretched, and stepped out of the little cabin. She'd dumped Stacy's body outside, just under the corpses of those two geeky kids who'd hung themselves, so she could get a good night's sleep without smelling Stacy if she started to stink, or whatever.

Creedence faded, and Mr DeMartino's voice replaced it. He sounded unspeakably cheerful for that hour of the morning as he said, "Good morning! It's oh-six-hundred and it is time for the first update! So what follows is the list of your fallen comrades! Girl 8 -- Andrea Hecuba! Boy 15 -- Charles Ruttheimer the Third! Boy 13 -- Jack Paterson! Boy 11 -- Michael McLean! Boy 20 -- Richard Winstanley! Boy 17 -- Bret Strand! Boy 7 -- Corey Hayward! Girl 10 -- Jodie Landon! Boy 9 -- Michael Mackenzie! Boy 3 -- Ted DeWitt-Clinton! Girl 13 -- Karen Miller! And Girl 18 -- Stacy Rowe!"

Out on the cliffs, drenched in bright sunshine that was almost obscene in light of what they'd just heard, Quinn Morgendorffer stopped in her tracks, then dropped to her knees. "Omigod..." she breathed. "Stacy... Oh, poor Stacy..."

Daria knew how she felt. She was trying to keep it in perspective, but it was hard. She reminded herself that having to face Jodie or Mack or even Ted, who she'd sort of (but not really) dated just the once, would be more than she could have stood. It didn't help, because she found herself wondering how they'd died, as Quinn must be wondering how Stacy had met her untimely end. She somehow couldn't see any of them participating, and she wondered if they had chosen the easy out. It would fit; the Jodie and Mack she knew couldn't face the idea of murder. She was almost proud of them, in a sick, mournful sort of way. Ted she was less sure of, but she didn't think a boy who hadn't even chewed gum until his mid to late teens could kill anyone. So she was almost proud of him too.

Quinn, though, probably couldn't think that far. All she knew was what Daria herself had known when Jane was killed; that she had lost a friend. So Daria knew how much Quinn was hurting, but she was helpless in the face of it; she had her own griefs and confusions to deal with. So she was reduced to simply squeezing Quinn's shoulder in a mute gesture of comfort and compassion.

"Now, the danger zones for the morning! Have the sense to mark your maps appropriately!" Daria dragged out her map, and Quinn did the same thing, but slowly, as if in a daze. "From six-thirty until nine-hundred hours, B-5! Repeat -- B-5!" Daria made a note on her map, and noticed they were in B-5, but at least they had time to move out before the area became an official danger zone. "From nine-hundred until twelve-hundred hours, I-9! Repeat -- I-9!"

As Daria and Quinn hastily scrawled on their maps, DeMartino went on to say, "I realise that the loss of friends will weigh heavy, but hang in there! Carry on!"

The speakers blared another chorus of "Run Through the Jungle", then fell silent. Daria and Quinn took the song's cue.

About a half-hour later, they reached a beaten-down dirt track. "Maybe we should walk on this," Quinn wheedled. "I mean, I don't want to complain or anything, but these heels are just wrong for forest stuff."

Daria checked the map again; they were well out of the current danger zone and miles off from the next one. "I think we should sit down; take a rest. We've been moving most of the night, and..."

A rustle off to the right alerted them, and Daria shoved Quinn back into the trees as Kevin burst onto the path. He was waving a hand-axe like a man swatting flies, advancing on Daria in short, ungainly steps. Daria wasn't sure if Kevin was serious, if he even knew how to kill someone with the hand-axe, much less if he intended to, but she couldn't take the chance. She had to stay alive for Quinn's sake. She dug around in her pack blindly, never taking her eyes off her attacker.

Her hand touched metal just as Kevin grinned wildly and rushed, the axe over his head. Daria backed up the hill, making him work just a little bit harder so she had time to pull out her so-called weapon. When he finally brought the axe down, it skated harmlessly across the metal pot lid she'd brought up like a shield. Kevin frowned a little, as if puzzled by the turn of events, and then swung again. The axe blade caught on the handle of the pot and Daria pulled blindly backwards, hoping to disarm him. But Kevin wasn't the Lawndale Lions' quarterback for nothing; he pulled back, and his greater strength toppled them both over. As Daria rolled down the hill, seeing very little as her glasses slipped, she thought, Well, so much for that idea...

It took a moment of lying winded on the road to realise that the killing blow she expected hadn't come. She blinked, and raised herself up on her elbows. Kevin was crouched in the road, holding his hands up to his head, groaning in perplexed agony. Daria couldn't see why at first; the change was too big and fundamental. Then she saw the change; the hand-axe was sticking out of his head, just over his left eyebrow. Daria scrambled to her feet and stepped back. There was a rustle in the trees behind him, but she only raised her eyes for a second to spy a flash of blue and gold vanish into the forest; her eyes and mind were caught by more important things. Kevin had finally managed to stagger to his feet, and Daria, not believing he could still move, and really not believing the question that was about to come out of her mouth, nonetheless asked, "Are ... are you okay, Kevin?"

Kevin sounded a little choked, but only a little dimmer than usual as he replied, "Sure ... sure ... s'cool, Mack Da--" Then he pitched forward onto the hard-packed dirt, stone dead.

Daria stepped back from Kevin's body, dropping the pot lid like a hot rock. She couldn't stop looking at him. More blood, and another dead classmate ... and she'd done it. She'd killed him ... hadn't she? And Quinn had seen her do it. Keeping Quinn alive was going to be a lot harder if Quinn decided to be afraid of her murderous older sister...

But when she turned to Quinn, she noticed that Quinn's eyes held no fear ... not that kind, at least. Quinn hesitated only for a moment; then she ran to Daria and took her by the shoulders, saying in a clear, loud voice that was almost calm, "It was an accident, okay? I saw the whole thing; it was an accident. You ... didn't ... kill him! Okay? So don't think you did!"

Daria looked at Quinn. She wasn't saying it to convince herself; Daria could tell. Quinn was saying it to convince Daria, as if she knew Daria needed convincing. Daria had no idea Quinn could be so perceptive ... but then, wasn't that all part and parcel of playing the social game? Quinn had to be sensitive to everyone's emotions and as many of their thoughts as she could grab -- all the better to manipulate you, my dear. And now Quinn was using it to Daria's advantage, knowing that whatever was to Daria's advantage was also to her own.

Whatever the reason, it was what she wanted to believe, and somehow, coming from Quinn, she could believe it. So she drew in a shaky breath, then let it out, letting as much of the guilt as possible leave her body with it. It had been a terrible accident, was all, much like the one that had killed Tommy Sherman. She hoped Kevin's demise didn't really make anybody think ... least of all her. Then she nodded at Quinn. "Okay." She thought about it, then realised she could say what she needed to say without too much pain, considering the circumstances. "Thank you."

Quinn smiled just a little, and Daria's heart lightened a little more. Quinn couldn't smile that way at a murderer. "Okay, now let's get out of here before anything else--"

A gunshot rang out, and Daria and Quinn jumped back from the middle of the road, away from the controlled explosion and the kid who'd caused it. They both stared at the skinny guy with the permanent scowl and the eyebrow ring, who held a gun -- Daria thought it might be a Smith & Wesson, but she wasn't sure -- trained on them. His eyes were cold and ruthless, but his hands trembled a little, as did his voice when he said, "I've heard the gunshots ... and the screams ... all night. You're all serious. Fine. I'm gonna get out of this."

With that, he fired again, but Daria and Quinn both sensed it coming and dived in opposite directions, the gun hitting the ground harmlessly between them. And then another shot, this one a lot louder, was fired from up the hill a ways, and the boy screamed as his left shoulder started oozing blood. All three students looked up to see one of the 'transfers', the black-haired boy, pointing a pump-action shotgun at the blond boy -- Daria now had the time to remember that his name was Bill.

"Fuck you," growled Bill, and ran at the other boy, firing blind. The 'transfer' pumped the gun with no apparent haste, then fired again, and there was nothing wild about it. Bill's chest simply exploded. Quinn dived for Daria and clung to her tightly, whimpering. Daria wished she had the luxury of indulging in the same weakness as she saw the 'transfer' approach, scooping up Bill's gun on the way. He pointed the smaller weapon at Daria and Quinn, keeping it and his eyes on them at all times as he edged over to Kevin's prone form. Bending, wary eyes still on the Morgendorffer girls, he yanked the axe out of Kevin's head and stuffed the handle in his belt. Then he barked, "What weapons have you got?"

Daria held out her pot lid, and Quinn groped in her pack, pulling out her binoculars. They held them out to the heavily-armed boy, feeling like mugging victims. The boy gave a derisive little chuckle and shook his head. "Keep them. If you don't mind me saying so, you're screwed enough even with those."

Daria winced and jerked her face away from the boy; she knew the truth of what he was saying, felt it in every move she made, but she didn't need him pointing it out, particularly not in such harsh terms. But she didn't cut into him, though she was the one known for the barbed tongue. Quinn, with her redhead's temper, did. "Look, you may be cute, but you have no right to be so ... so ... so mean or judgemental or whatever!"

Daria hissed in a breath and clamped a vicelike hand over Quinn's elbow. "Quinn, shut up," she hissed. "It's not a good idea to..."

"To piss off a man with not one but two guns. One with brains and one with fire. You might last a day or two. Especially if I offer you some advice."

Quinn tried to shake Daria's arm off, but Daria was giving no ground. "Go away, you freak! I mean, you're a killer and everything and you think we want your advice?"

The boy raised an eyebrow. "Ouch. Guess you're not going to take the first option. If you really don't want to play, though, only thing you can do is kill yourselves. Right now. Otherwise..." the boy shrugged. "Run. Don't ever stop running. And don't ever trust anyone."

"Principles I live my life by." Daria gave him her most deadpan expression, and sarcasm dripped from every syllable of her next sentence. "And I suppose we should be willing to take advice from Jack the Ripper at this point."

The boy looked at her speculatively, taking in her set jaw and stern eyes. Then he shrugged and turned away, giving them his back for the first time. Daria and Quinn watched him go, not sure what to make of the confrontation and not even sure they should be grateful for their lives...


The transfer turned back then, obviously as stunned as they were by the unnaturally amplified voice rolling through the trees.


Quinn raised her binoculars to her face and peered in the direction the voices seemed to be coming from. Then she turned to Daria. "It's those fat girls! That girl with the awful red hair who was in the modelling and that other one ... the really fat one!" And she offered the binoculars to Daria, who looked through them. Quinn was right; Dawn Chapman, ever silent, was waving her jacket, which was tied with what might have been a sheathed Japanese sword over her head while the other one, Alice something-or-other, yelled into a bullhorn.


Daria'd heard enough. This was the right way to go about things; maybe, just maybe, they could band together and turn their backs on this horrible game. At least they could die with their dignity intact. She stepped forward, but didn't get far before a hand closed on her shoulder. Surprisingly, the hand wasn't Quinn's. "I knew you were a little headstrong, but you don't look classically stupid," said the transfer.

"I think that getting through the next three days with the minimum of bloodshed is about as far from stupid as you can get."

"Calling for peace on an open hillside with no cover to speak of; now that's stupid," the boy insisted. "You go out there now, the same thing that happens to them is going to happen to you."

Daria glared suspiciously at the boy. "And what do you, in your infinite wisdom, think will happen to them?"

The boy didn't answer. The boy didn't have to. The automatic gunfire from the hillside occupied by the fat girls -- and the screaming -- was all the answer any of them needed. Daria, helpless against her own curiosity, raised Quinn's binoculars again.

Girl 6 had watched as the two fat girls set up camp on the hillside. Of course they're calling for peace, she thought. They're not in good enough shape to fight.

She allowed them to make their plea for peace. She figured that would bring a few more victims out of the woodwork. That would be a quick and easy way of upping her score. The more kills she notched up, the better she would like it. Eventually, though, the pleading optimism in the voice of the redhead became far too much for her to take. She brought out the Uzi and approached them from behind, gunning them both down. She stepped towards them, looking for more weapons to scavenge. The really fat girl had a katana, but the stupid ball of lard was using it as a flagpole. She tore the fat girl's shirt off the katana and slid it in her belt. The redhead's bullhorn was a complete waste of time...

The fat redhead was curled into a fetal position, groaning. Obviously the fat on the chick had kept bullets from any really vital organs or blood vessels.

Maybe not such a waste of time, then...

She picked up the bullhorn, blew into it a couple of times to test it, then kicked the fat redhead in the side so she rolled over on her back with a moan. Then she held the bullhorn to the girl's lips and waited.

The fat redhead looked into that thin, demonic little face and started to scream, the megaphone sending it flying like rabid bats over the island.

Then Girl 6 pointed the Uzi at the redhead's ample stomach and pulled the trigger.

Daria dropped the binoculars. She could still hear the echo of the gunshots, but she'd seen more than enough.

The female transfer had killed Dawn and Alice. After the first round of shots, the Japanese sword found a home in the girl's belt. The bullhorn she discarded, apparently considering it useless. And she was right, too, at least for the game she's playing. Girl 6 seemed to operate by culling the weak and scavenging the things she wanted. "She's a hyena," Daria muttered. "Great; welcome to Mutual of Omaha's Wild Snipe-Run."

The other transfer -- God knew what his name or number was, and frankly, God was probably the only one who cared at this point -- looked at her, nearly amused. "You don't approve? I thought women were closer to their primal instincts."

"My instincts," said Daria, her voice pitched to 'deep freeze', "would have led me over to those girls before it was too late. And to use the brains you so recently praised me for to help them figure a way out of the nightmare."

"That instinct would have got you not-so-nicely ventilated by that ... what was it you called her? 'Hyena'?"

"A small price to pay for a little civilisation."

"Well," said the other transfer glibly, "if you two are going to go around being bullet-magnets, I should go before there's a crossfire involved."

As he ran off, Quinn put her hands on her hips and blew her bangs out of her face. "That guy is so rude!"

Daria raised an eyebrow at her sister. "What was your first clue? The sarcastic commentary or the murder of Bill ... somebody?"


"Come on. Someone will have heard the gunshots. And it might be the wrong kind of someone."

"You mean there's a right kind of someone?"

"Quinn," Daria sighed, "shut up."

The exhaustion and resignation in Daria's voice frightened Quinn more than the prospect of bullets. Keep her sweet; she's the smart one. Piss her off and you might wind up all alone ... out here... Quinn gave a meek nod and they took the other transfer's second option.

*          *          *          

Sandi stalked back to her shed. She felt really cheated, and wanted to go find a quiet place to regroup.

Those two girls ... it was a perfect opportunity to get this stupid 'Battle' thing over with a little faster. After all, she could not feature spending another night in that stupid shed. It smelled weird -- and that was without the losers' bodies outside. She could bury them, or at least throw them off a cliff or something, but what the job would do to her nails...

But that fashion mistake had killed them instead, and Sandi hadn't wanted to face her. It was disappointing, being beaten to the punch by such an ugly little geek -- who was probably a brain besides -- but was she going to question a ugly little freak with a machine gun? Thinking that she obviously wasn't as stupid as some people thought she was, she stepped into the shed.

"Hello, Sandi."

Sandi wheeled. She knew that voice. "Hello, Brooke." She kept her voice very calm. It was surprising how easy it was to do, seeing as Brooke Wannamaker was pointing a gun at her.

Brooke saw what Sandi was looking at. "It's a Colt .45, Sandi. Is it a fashion 'do' or a fashion 'don't'?" Brooke took another step towards Sandi, gun still pointed at Sandi's midsection.

"Brooke, you should know that, unless you're a guy or whatever, any gun is a fashion 'don't'."

Sandi's hard-maintained calm finally broke Brooke. "You're not worried? You're not afraid of what I could do to you with this 'don't'? Because you should be, you evil, back-stabbing bitch!"

Brooke advanced as Sandi took another step backwards, this one an unconscious display of her fear. "Brooke, what is this? I mean, you're not going to..."

"Fire this thing?" Brooke's voice was shrill, nearly hysterical. "Put holes in you and watch you bleed all over those fashionable clothes of yours? Or maybe I should do your face!" She took two steps forward, and Sandi retreated until her back hit a row of shelves. "I could put holes in your face, make that perfect nose collapse, swell those perfect lips of yours, make you ugly! And let's see a plastic surgeon fix you then!"

Sandi's voice trembled as she asked, "What is your problem, Brooke?"

Brooke jammed the gun forward until it just touched the tip of Sandi's nose. Then she reached around and grabbed the sickle Sandi had jammed in her belt. "You should know, you bitch! You were going to get my face with this, weren't you?" She waggled the sickle in front of Sandi's eyes for emphasis. "You were going to make me look even worse. I did all that -- the nose and the liposuction and the stupid fucking injections in my lips -- and I did it for you! All so I could get you to notice me so I could be in your stupid Fashion Club! And did you notice? Did you care? No! And you were so eager to follow my lead, so goddamn eager! And then ... when it all went wrong ... did you stick by me? Did you even care?"

Sandi couldn't answer, but she couldn't really stop listening, either. She was finding out, much against her will, one of life's great truth's -- nothing focuses the attention quite like a gun in the face.

"Besides, it's no more than you've done," Brooke went on. "I saw Stacy outside, her throat cut wide open. Probably with something like this," she added with something that was nearly a smirk, waggling the sickle in front of Sandi's eyes again. Then she threw it over her shoulder, far out of Sandi's reach, keeping the gun trained on Sandi's nose. "I guess you just couldn't take the competition, Sandi. Really ... what's the word? Symbolic? Putting her under the losers. I bet you killed them too; what'd you do, Sandi? Bitch them to death? Made them feel so worthless that..."

At about that point, Sandi decided she'd heard enough. She had been reaching slowly into her pocket throughout Brooke's little rant; now she swung her hand, and the item she'd retrieved, out at Brooke. It was amazing the speed you learned, coping with two rambunctious little brothers who had a thing for hitting and no regard for who they did it to.

It was more of a caress than a blow; as it connected, she hit the trigger-button on the tazer and sent a burst of electricity into Brooke's right hand. Brooke screamed and involuntarily dropped the gun, and while she grabbed at her hand, Sandi bent quickly and came up even faster, with the gun pointed at Brooke's head and the tazer still clutched in her left hand. As Brooke had done with the sickle, she waved that tazer in front of Brooke's pain- and shock-widened eyes.

"This was Stacy's," Sandi smirked. "She thought it was a really geeky weapon; like the one they made me take. But this," she said, nodding a little towards the gun, "was what I really wanted."

"But ... but ... but..." Brooke stepped backwards a little, eyes flickering between the gun and Sandi's hard face. "But you said ... a fashion 'don't'..."

"I'm in a whole different game now, Brooke. One that doesn't need a club or anything stupid like that. It's called survival, and a good gun is a definite survival 'do'."

Brooke saw the truth in Sandi's eyes; fashion was still there, but popularity was taking a firm backseat to something a lot uglier, and a lot more dangerous. She turned to run, screaming, and so she felt the bullets hit her spine and lungs without even hearing the gun fired.

Just before she died, she heard Sandi say, "You know, you shouldn't have wasted your parents' money. All that surgery just showed that you could never be really attractive..."

*          *          *          

The introductory music was "Welcome to the Jungle", an old Guns n' Roses track. Daria wondered, as she motioned Quinn to stop and take a rest, who had ever convinced DeMartino he had a sense of humour.

"It's twelve-hundred hours -- high noon! Being voracious growing teens, you must be hungry by now. So why not take a bit of R&R from the slaughter and partake of the rations you were provided!"

Quinn and Daria dug through their packs, pulling out... "Beef jerky? Ewwwwww..."

"You were expecting maybe caviar and toast points?"

Quinn looked at Daria; it'd be so much easier if she knew when Daria was kidding.

"If it won't be too much of a detriment to your digestion, perhaps you'd like to spare a moment of respectful silence for the morning's KIA list!"

Daria sighed, as did Quinn. They had witnessed four deaths over the course of the morning; they didn't really want to hear about it again. That meant having to relive it. But it was being broadcast all over the island so, much like their participation in the Battle Royale itself, they didn't have a whole lot of choice.

"Boy 18 -- Kevin Thompson!"

"You have to admire him," Daria muttered. "He managed to give that news without a shout of glee."


"Boy 12 -- Bill Nolan! Girl 3 -- Dawn Chapman! Girl 12 -- Alice Little! And Girl 20 -- Brooke Wannamaker! An interesting tactic, calling for peace; however, if anyone had paid the slightest BIT of attention in class, they'd have realised that battlefield truces are often seen as a sign of weakness ... and exploited accordingly!"

Quinn looked at Daria again. "You paid attention in class. And you wanted to go out there! What...?"

Daria held up a hand for silence. That line of reasoning would lead Quinn to Daria's disregard for her own life, and that was the last thing she wanted Quinn to think about. Quinn tended to see herself as the heroine of any drama life threw her way, and if Quinn thought Daria wanted to die, she might do something heroic ... and misguided. And stupid.

"What follows is a list of the afternoon's danger zones! So perhaps you'd like to take better notes on this subject than most of you do in history! From twelve-thirty hours to fifteen-hundred hours, C-4! Repeat -- C-4! From fifteen-hundred hours to eighteen-hundred hours, A-6! Repeat -- A-6! Carry on!"

Daria, jotting the last danger zone of the afternoon onto her map, sighed. "An explosive and an alternate name for a fictitious plague. The irony content of the afternoon may just kill me."

Quinn shuddered. "Don't talk about killing, okay? Please?"

Daria closed her eyes. There wasn't anything she could do about her sense of ... well, not humour, but sense of the absurd, at least. And to deny herself her only outlet would probably drive her even farther out of her mind than she probably was already. She realised dimly that she must be a little deranged by now; after all, who goes through a night and a morning like the one she'd spent -- sleepless, threatened and surrounded by murder -- with their sanity intact?

Looking at Quinn's frightened, pleading face, she realised she had to do something to take that look away. Fear was not the most conducive emotion in the world to survival, being so close to panic. Swallowing several verbal barbs, she merely said, "I'll try to keep it in mind."

Quinn watched Daria closely for a moment, then nodded a little, wisely taking what she could get. Then, with a moue of distaste, she took a bite of her jerky. Daria, thinking despite herself that a repast of dried fruit, beef jerky and soda crackers beat the hell out of cafeteria food, did the same. After all, she didn't know when they'd get another chance at an uninterrupted meal.

*          *          *          

Joey Black, Jeffy Grey and Jamie White had always been together. They'd been a trio ever since kindergarten, and had made their way through their childhoods together. Not even their intense interest in the same girl had managed to separate them. So Robert Waldman wasn't surprised to hear their voices raised in unison as he approached the large farmhouse. What surprised him was the content: "One ! ... two ... three ... go!" Then grunts of exertion and the sound of something heavy hitting wood. Robert, figuring his team-mates needed him, broke for the farmhouse at a run.

He entered and stopped, a little confused. Joey, Jeffy and Jamie were midway up a flight of stairs, sweating over a gas-powered generator. As he watched, they started again. "One ... two ... three ... go!" And, sweating, they heaved the generator up another step and then rested.

The last thing he wanted to do was surprise them, they looked so involved. But they ought to know he was here. He cleared his throat and, uncertainly, said, "Sirs?"

Jamie, bracing the generator from below, started and then gasped in pain as the large hunk of metal slipped. Joey and Jeffy let out little yells and grabbed a tighter hold on the generator. Robert, full of remorse and anxious to make amends, ran up the stairs and helped Jamie brace the generator. He looked at his team-mates, and it was Joey who said, "Okay, ready?"

And all four of them counted off. "One ... two ... three ... go!"

The generator successfully manhandled up the stairs, Robert looked at the three Js. Surprisingly, Joey seemed to be the one in charge. "Hey, Robert! How'd you know we were here?"

"Well," Robert admitted, suddenly bashful, "it was my weapon, sirs." When they levelled questioning looks at him, he reached into the pocket of his jacket and showed what looked like a GPS device. Robert hit a few buttons on it and zeroed in on the farmhouse, and four red dots labelled B1, B6, B19 and B21.

Jamie looked impressed. "A tracker. Cool weapon, man."

"So what're you guys doing in here?"

Jeffy grinned. "Oh, Joey thinks he can get the power going. I think he's got a play he wants to run."

Only Joey seemed completely serious; there was something nearly military about him now. "Want in, man? We could use another set of hands."

"No, sir," he replied. "Thanks all the same, sir, but I ... I want to go look for someone."

His former team-mates looked at him with those questioning eyes again, but Robert kept his head down and his thoughts to himself. He was going to find her, but he wouldn't have time if he was out here running old plays with other football team members.

Then Joey shrugged, saying, "Your call, man; but if you find yourself at a loose end or something, c'mon back, okay?"

Robert nodded. With a last "Sirs", he dashed down the stairs and out the door.

Joey, Jeffy and Jamie exchanged looks. "Weird dude," said Jeffy.

"Who do you think it was he was lookin' for?" Jamie had always liked Robert. Like everyone else at school, Robert never called Jamie by his name, and maybe didn't know it any more than the others seemed to. But that was somehow okay when it was Robert doing it; Robert called everybody the same thing, basically -- 'sir' for the boys and 'ma'am' for the girls. "I mean, I know he was kinda into Brittany and now Kevin..." He pushed that thought away. Six Lions down already, and the first day wasn't even over yet. It was a real kick to the sac. "But he also hung around with that Kim chick on track..."

"Never mind that now." Joey's voice held a note of command. "Now let's see how this puppy runs."

Fifty yards from the compound, Robert paused for a moment to hear the dim roar of a gas motor and the voices of three boys raised in triumph. He grinned. "You go, sirs," he murmured, and ran on.

*          *          *          

Skylar Feldman ambled aimlessly down a dirt road, not much bothering with his map. He had seen no one since his encounter with class perv Upchuck, but was beginning to think that maybe he was haunted by the guy or something. He was thinking a lot like he figured the red-headed lech would. God, he was horny. He didn't know why; didn't care, either. He'd have paid money to run into Quinn Morgendorffer, if money was any good in this hellhole.

But then, maybe he didn't need money to get what he wanted here.

He turned a corner and saw an old building -- someone's old house, he guessed. And there was Kim Otano, sitting on the front steps, wiping sweat from her neck. She looked like she'd been running, and the flushed exotic face got him really stirred up. He'd always liked the look of her, and she was popular enough; she ran track, and she led the band, so he'd seen a lot of her at school, even though she was a grade ahead of him. He'd made a play for her. Maybe he could make that work for him here. "Hey! Kim!"

The look she fired at him was full of contempt. "What the hell do you want?"

"Thought you might want some company. It's kind of ... lonely, out here. Right?"

The contempt was still there; in fact, it was stronger now. She snapped, "If it's a choice between alone and you... Hell, I'd pick DeMartino over you, even now."

That got Skylar like a slap in the face. "Hey, fuck you!"

"Or that's what you told everybody, right, Skylar? That one night? Casa Alejandro, the Quarry, I slapped you blind and jogged home? When I got to school, they were all talking. And you think I want to deal with you?"

Angry and horny; what a weird combination. Kind of interesting, though. "Well, you've never 'dealt with' anyone else, have you? You want to die a virgin?"

She looked at him with growing incredulity. "You offering to correct the situation?"

Skylar turned on his most winning grin. "Yeah, well ... I'm a generous kind of guy."

But Kim was not won over; she was furious. "You sack of shit! We're all going to die, and you're out here thinking with your dick! Now fuck off before I decide you're dangerous and kick your ass." With that, she brushed past him and stalked off, heading towards the road.

Skylar -- or perhaps that part of him she'd rightly accused him of thinking with -- wasn't letting her go that easily. He ran after her, grabbed her by the arm and forced her to face him, then shoved the crossbow in her face. "This isn't like the Quarry, Kim," he pointed out, voice cracking. "I can make you this time."

She reached into the pocket of her jeans and pulled out a lethal-looking jack-knife. Flipping out the blade, she took a defensive stance. "You try anything, you're going to lose that thing you're so proud of, asshole."

It wasn't so much the threat; he had a range weapon and hers wasn't good for anything but hand-to-hand. It was the tone in which she'd made it, that coldly amused tone that told him that she wasn't intimidated by him, or impressed with him. Her tone made him realise that out here, he was nothing more than ... than an animal, fighting for survival. That's why he wanted the sex, with a willing partner or taken by force; so he could forget. And she'd rubbed his nose in it, and seemed to enjoy the stricken look that crossed his face. Horror became rage, and his finger tightened on the trigger of his crossbow almost unconsciously.

Whether he'd meant to fire or not, Kim had evidently seen it coming, because she managed to escape a fatal wound. But she couldn't completely dodge the bolt, not at that speed; it gashed her right cheek wide open, and Skylar stared with shock at what he'd done to that gorgeous face. Kim's eyes filled, not with pain, but with a burning fury that Skylar had never seen in any other girl, no matter what he'd done. With the scar, that look made her even more beautiful ... in the way that the panther must look beautiful even to the small animal it's about to eviscerate. That beauty scared him more than the jack-knife she held, and he broke and ran, not remembering that he could have just fired again, finished her off before she could retaliate.

That mistake, made in shock, was his last. He wasn't a sportsman; she ran track. It was no contest, and he felt her jack-knife rake against his back in a sizzling line of pain. He screamed and fell, dropping the crossbow. He grabbed for it but she kicked it out of his reach, stepping on his hand. His fingers crunched like breadsticks, and he screamed again. Then she did something he didn't understand for a minute; she straddled him, facing his feet, and sat on his chest.

Then she drove the jack-knife into his balls, and he was beyond understanding anything but pain. He didn't scream this time; he shrieked as Kim Otano drove the knife into his groin a second time ... and a third ... and a fourth. Then she rose to a crouch, turned around, and started stabbing him in the chest. When she delivered the first chest wound, he blacked out, and he died around the third, but she kept stabbing him with all her might, caught up in a bloodlust that was beyond words.

Kim finally stopped. Her arms ached and her cheek burned, but she felt cleansed. Sort of. The dirty bastard had laid hands on her, had wanted to rape her. She'd won out, and he'd never be able to do that to anyone ever again. She'd think about the consequences she would take upon her soul later. Now she just wanted to get away. She thought she remembered a river somewhere, and she had a change of clothes in her own bag. She could get the blood off and...

She felt the bullet pierce her shoulder a split-second before she heard the shot. She stifled a yell and staggered, whipping her head around to see Sandi Griffin, looking crazier than she felt and pointing a gun at her. Her track instincts kicked in and she fled, hearing Sandi coming after her.

And the crazy bitch is still shooting!

Kim heard three ricochets and felt a bullet tear through the meat of her hip, but after staggering, ran on anyway, trying to break a pain barrier that Coach Morris had never considered. She kept running even when she knew that Sandi wasn't following her anymore; she was determined to run as long as she could. She had a sinking feeling that this was the last chance she'd ever have to do so.

Robert found her a few minutes later. She was sitting with her back against a large tree, bleeding profusely from her left hip and right shoulder. The jack-knife was gone, dropped somewhere in the race against Sandi and the bullets. Robert sat down next to her, looked her over, and asked, meekly, "Are ... are you going to be okay, ma'am?"

Kim chuckled, even though it hurt. This was so like Robert, who'd been a friend of hers since about junior high. They'd gone jogging together every morning for about three years, and he'd never once tried to make a move, though he always showed concern for her well-being. "No. And y'know what? I'm kind of glad. I won't ... have to think about ... something."

"Who did this to you, ma'am?"

"It was Sandi." She remembered Sandi Griffin's lunatic eyes. "Watch out for her, okay? She's..." She struggled for air; she thought maybe Sandi'd got a lung. "...she's dangerous."

"I will, ma'am."

Kim looked at him, a horrible thought popping into her head. "You ... like someone ... don't you? I mean, really like someone." Robert nodded, a blush creeping into his face. "And ... and it's not me?"

Robert looked at her for a long moment, wondering if he should just say something she wanted to hear ... then apparently decided on the truth. Sheepishly, he said, "No."

Kim sighed, utterly relieved. "Then ... can you just stay with me? It won't ... be long."

Robert nodded, wiped at his eyes; he obviously didn't want to cry at a time like this. After a moment, Robert decided something else was required, some word of comfort. Unfortunately, words were not his strong point. After another moment's indecision, he blurted, "Ma'am? I just wanted to say ... I think you're really cool, ma'am!"

"Robert?" She couldn't get her voice above a whisper. "Thank you ... but don't ... call me ... ma'am..."

She let out a little puff of air, and then just didn't take another breath. Robert knew he could leave, go and find the one he was looking for ... but he couldn't find it in his heart to just leave her there, propped up against this tree, dead.

But all he could do, in the end, was lay her down, close her eyes, and move on. He had to pay attention to her last warning; he owed her that.

*          *          *          

In the warehouse, Jeffy and Jamie were seeing a side of the 'first' J they'd never even suspected. As soon as they'd got the generator running and the power in the warehouse was on, first thing Joey'd done was pull a laptop computer out of his bag. He plugged it in, hooked it to a phone line, and started typing at a machine-gun pace. Eventually, he stopped and gave a satisfied grunt. "Hey, it all still works. Cool!"

"What're we gonna do, though? You have a play, I guess," Jamie mused.

"Yeah, let us in on it, man!"

Joey ignored Jeffy for a moment, too concerned with trying to wipe the sweat off his neck. When he worked the area under the collar they'd stuck on him, his fingers found something that he didn't like, and he touched it carefully, muttering, "So that's their game..."

"What's up with you?"

Joey held a finger to his lips, giving a pointed look to each of his companions, then pointed at his computer. Taking the hint, they inched towards it, feeling very lost. The uncertainty turned to shock when Joey began to type.


Jeffy and Jamie looked at him, waiting for an explanation.


The other boys groped for their own collars, eyes widening in understanding. It was like something out of Mission: Impossible, but at least it made some kind of sense.


As he typed, Jeffy and Jamie frowned at the list that grew on the screen, waiting for it to come together in a way they could understand. They were starting to get the idea that maybe their friend was a hidden brain or something, and that maybe that wasn't such a bad thing. He seemed to know what he was doing, even more than Kevin, the clueless QB, or even than Mack. Even though it was another thing going weird in a world full of them, they felt comforted.

When they thought Joey was finished, they looked at Joey for confirmation. He nodded, and they nodded back, running for the stairs.

But before they started down, they turned around and took a last look at their friend ... and froze. Joey was typing faster than ever, his fingers a real blur now. Something about him was so focused, so powerful and beautiful, that Quinn would have made her choice among the Js without a thought if she'd seen him. A more educated person -- Daria or Jodie, or maybe Jane -- would have looked at him and thought of Mozart or Bach (or maybe Pollack in Jane's case). Jeffy and Jamie didn't have that advantage, but they didn't really need it. Their reaction was no less impressed for its simplicity. They simply watched him for a moment, awed and comforted, and then looked at each other and mouthed the word 'whoa'.

Then, feeling an even greater need to get him the things he wanted, they barrelled down the stairs to complete their mission.

*          *          *          

Over the course of the afternoon, Daria and Quinn fell into a relatively steady, mile-eating pace. They walked for half an hour, then jogged for fifteen minutes. It kept them moving at a good speed without winding them completely. After all, they had no idea when they might have to fight for their survival again, and they wouldn't stand a chance if they couldn't even breathe.

Mr DeMartino's next announcement came during one of their walking periods. Daria held out a hand to signal a stop as a few bars of the Offspring's "Come Out and Play" rang out through the speakers. Daria groaned -- the music selection was getting too pun-filled to bear. When it finally got the fade-out treatment, Mr DeMartino said, "Good evening!"

As she dug the much-folded map out of her pocket, Daria muttered, "Who does he think he is, Alfred Hitchcock?" She didn't get an answer from Quinn, but then, she didn't expect one. That was more the kind of thing Jane appreciated. As much as it hurt to think about Jane, it hurt more to just block that part out of herself.

"The casualty list for the afternoon is as follows! Boy 4 -- Skylar Feldman! And Girl 16 -- Kim Otano! You're slowing down! I expected better from you, as the subject isn't particularly academic! To add some incentive, the danger zones will shift every hour! From eighteen-hundred hours to nineteen-hundred hours, A-8! Repeat -- A-8! From nineteen-hundred hours to twenty-hundred hours, D-2! Repeat -- D-2! From twenty-hundred hours to twenty-one-hundred hours, C-3! Repeat -- C-3! From twenty-one-hundred hours to twenty-two-hundred hours, B-1! Repeat -- B-1! From twenty-two-hundred hours to twenty-three-hundred hours, E-5! Repeat -- E-5! And from twenty-three-hundred hours to the zero-hour, F-7! Repeat -- F-7! That is all!"

A few more bars of "Come Out and Play"; the last thing Daria wanted to do. Daria turned to Quinn, unsure as to whether she was going to say something comforting, encouraging or sarcastic (you never knew; maybe she could manage all three), and words died in her throat as she saw Quinn lying facedown on the grass just behind her. She got up and ran the six steps to her side. "Quinn?" Getting no reply, she dropped to her knees and shook Quinn's shoulder. "Quinn? Rise and shine; duty calls."

Quinn looked up and blinked blearily at Daria. "Huh?" It took her a moment to get with current events. "Oh," she wheezed, getting to her knees with an effort. "Sorry ... Daria. I ... I just don't feel too good." She wavered, unable to support herself, and collapsed against Daria, who wrapped an arm around her. "Just ... give me a minute ... and I'll be..."

Daria held a hand to Quinn's forehead. It wasn't the best way to judge a fever, but it didn't matter; pressing her hand to Quinn's forehead was like touching the side of a preheated oven. "Well, I know most of your dates never got you hot but I never dreamed DeMartino would do it for you..." She bit her lower lip, wishing like anything her personal censor would just kick in already. Fortunately, it didn't really matter; Quinn just blinked dully at her and leaned more heavily against her shoulder.

Daria ran her free hand through her hair, trying to think. There had to be somewhere to take a sick student on this island. The island had been evacuated, true, but people had once lived here, so there had to be a hospital or at least a doctor's office on it somewhere. She scrutinised the much-marked map and finally came up with a building that, according to the key, was a clinic. It was in C-4, and the odds were good that it wasn't going to be a danger zone again until at least tomorrow afternoon. She folded the map as best she could and stuffed it back into her pocket, then shook Quinn again. Quinn let out a heavy mumbling noise best rendered as, "Whass go'non?"

"Doctor Daria prescribes a short walk and whatever analgesics we can find that haven't passed their use-by date." With that, Daria helped Quinn to her feet and half-dragged, half-carried her eastward.

Five minutes later, half-measures just wouldn't cut it. When Quinn fainted altogether, Daria wound up dragging both their packs by the arm straps and carrying Quinn like an oversized teddy-bear backpack.

The clinic didn't look particularly promising, either, with its peeling paint, dirt-streaked windows and sagging roof. There was a chicken pecking around in the weed-choked front lawn, and the gate she had to kick in to get into that yard was filthy, the hinges clogged to near-immobility with rust. But as she'd said earlier, in much worse circumstances, any port in a storm. She staggered towards the building, wondering with what almost felt like her usual wry humour how someone who dieted as much as Quinn did could still be so damn heavy.

Something snagged her ankle; it impeded her movement, but she couldn't feel it through the sturdy leather of her boots. As she looked down to see what it was, she noticed a dim rattling noise, and followed the cord she'd nearly tripped over to a rock-filled bottle hung over the porch railing. That only barely had time to register before the door of the clinic opened and the boy transfer student stepped onto the front porch, aiming his shotgun at them. Then he blinked and lowered the gun ... a little. "Hey. Pot Lid." After a brief pause, he added, "Nice backpack. Makes a statement. Impressive without being gaudy."

Daria was slightly satisfied to note that, despite the fact that she was unarmed and overburdened, and he was pointing a shotgun in her general direction, her glare still withered the boy.

Despite the dark dreariness of the clinic's interior, Daria had the distinct impression that she should have been enjoying the little hiatus. There was reason here, something resembling order, and a decent imitation of safety. But Daria had the curse of an intellect, and she knew that resemblances and imitations were not to be trusted.

She was, however, not about to look a gift-horse in the mouth, and let the male transfer treat Quinn, albeit under her extremely watchful eye. He was giving a very good impression of someone who knew what he was doing as he fed Quinn pills and laid a cold compress on her forehead. "She feels better already," he finally said. "Looks like those use-by dates are a little pessimistic."

"How do you know about all this stuff?" Daria's voice held more than a little suspicion.

The boy shrugged. "A member of my family's a doctor -- well, training to be one. Ripley's."

Daria raised an eyebrow. "Ripley's?"

The boy smiled a little. "Believe It Or Not..."

Daria sighed. While she didn't know, like or particularly trust this boy, at least she wasn't the only one who maintained a certain sense of humour to keep sane. "If you're going to make bad jokes at me," she said, "you could at least tell me your name."

"Tom Sloane."

Daria frowned. She knew that name, she was almost sure of it. "Isn't there a Grace, Sloane and Page in--?"

He nodded. "Just on the outskirts of Lawndale. Fielding Prep."

So much for reason and order, she thought, while her mouth worked of its own volition, saying, "But ... I got the distinct impression that Fielding Prep already did this. The evidence points that way..."

Tom reached up and untied the paisley bandanna, showing why he wore it -- an ugly scar, probably made with a sickle, or something with a curved blade, cut a horseshoe shape across his forehead. "Yeah. Yeah, we did. I won." To his credit, he didn't make it sound like something he was proud of.

"So much fun you wanted a replay?" Damnit, where is my self-censor when I need it? Then she thought on it. Have I ever had one?
But Tom took the question seriously. "Not 'wanted'. Needed. It was a mixed thing, just like yours. All different age groups." He swallowed. "My ... my sister was in it with me."

Unable to help herself, Daria looked at Quinn, who was sleeping peacefully. "Your ... sister."

"Yeah. Elsie. We made it through to the third day. We'd ... we'd talked about it; what would happen ... after. We didn't want them to do it, and we ... well, I didn't want to survive if it meant her having to die and she said the same thing. So we figured ... we'd do it together, when the collars started. We both had a gun. She'd shoot me in the head and I'd do the same for her ... at the same time, y'know?"

Daria did know. She could almost see it, except she was in this Tom's place and the unknown Elsie looked like Quinn. She swallowed, trying to control herself, and nodded for him to go on.

"So it happened, and I shot her and..." He swiped at his eyes, though Daria saw no tears. Not yet, at least. "...She never ... she didn't. And when I did it, and she didn't ... she smiled. And then she..."

Now there were tears, and Daria looked away, her eyes finding Quinn again. Quinn was awake now, and looking at Daria with knowing, horrified eyes. Daria shifted her eyes to the floor, unwilling to add more weight to what Quinn thought she knew. "So," she finally said, "why... Why would you put yourself through that again?"

Tom swiped at his eyes again and looked at her. "I wanted to get into the game with my eyes open. See if maybe there wasn't a way to sabotage it. I'm a white preppie boy from the right side of the tracks, but being a Republican from the cradle doesn't necessarily mean I like the system. Not when it does this to people. And ... I guess I want to know how Elsie could smile like that when she knew she was going to..."

"I think I know."

Tom and Daria both looked at Quinn, who'd propped herself up in bed, looking at Daria. Her eyes were accusatory and locked on her elder sister as she said, "I guess you might have been a pain, cos all older brothers or sisters or whatever are a pain, but you were her brother and you looked out for her and all that stuff. And I guess she loved you and everything and didn't want to see you die. So she made sure you wouldn't." Quinn blinked hard, and her voice cracked a little as she added, "She wanted to make sure that one of you got home."

Daria knew that Quinn wasn't stupid. That was the frustrating thing about Quinn. Behind that fluffy, fashion-obsessed exterior lived a mind. It obviously wasn't screaming to get out, but it did sort of sneak out around the edges, mostly in her chosen field of sociology and behavioural science -- the study of popularity, in short. Quinn was an expert in manipulation because she understood people; through careful observation and study, she had become an authority on what makes them tick. She used it to her advantage but hid the intellectual side of it from herself to preserve the not-so-gentle fiction that she was not, in fact, a 'brain' like her sister. Daria preserved the fiction because, despite herself, she liked a clear field. It was bad enough that her sister was the pretty one, the popular one, the social one -- being the smart one made Daria special, and she wanted to keep it that way. She had to have something.

But she never thought she'd really hate Quinn for being smart the way she did right now. She was afraid that Quinn, having figured out her intentions, would sabotage the only hope of getting at least one Morgendorffer home safe. Daria wondered why, just this once, Quinn couldn't have stayed stupid for her own safety.

Tom watched the two sisters look at each other, and his face was unreadable as he said, "Well, this is your lucky day. Well, if you look at it the right way," he hastily added, flagging under two death-glares. "See, my first priority is to sabotage this game. I figure the best way of doing it is to make sure more than one person survives this time around." Then he smiled, shrugged, and added, "You'll do."

The flood of hope that went through Daria was so unexpected that she barely recognised it, let alone what to do with it. "You mean ... you're going to help us?"

"I could find somebody else, I guess," he replied, still with that little smile, "but that would mean going out there and risk getting shot at. Why should I go to all that effort when you're so convenient?"

Despite the setting and the situation, despite even the memory of Jane saying she thought this guy was cute, Daria found herself returning the smile. There was hope, and that counted for a lot. Maybe both Morgendorffer sisters could go home.

"Is there anything to eat around here?"

Tom looked at Quinn with a smirk that was equal parts contempt and fondness. "Well, I knew that stuff would work on a fever, but I didn't think it could cure anorexia. I'll be in medical journals and everything."

Daria surprised herself by laughing a little.

"You cook really well!" Quinn's voice was slightly muffled by a mouthful of rice. "I thought all you rich kids had maids and cooks and everything."

Tom shrugged. "Rich kids also get very bored. I watched the cook. Picked up a few things. Came in handy."

Daria looked at her bowl, filled with an unattractive but palatable mixture of rice, jerky and canned corn. "Meet the poor man's Martha Stewart."

"No, I don't think the blouses would suit me."

"So do you have a plan?"

"Well, sort of, but I need some information first."

Daria quirked an eyebrow at Tom. "What's that?"

"Well," he said with a little smile, "your names might be a start."

She gave him her Mona Lisa smile. "I'm Daria, and the human trash compactor over there is Quinn."

Quinn looked up from her bowl and grunted a dim protest through a mouthful of food, which got the other two smiling a little wider.

"Okay, now you have names, and you'd know our serial numbers if you were paying attention last night. All that's missing is rank."

"After a full day in the woods, I think..."

Daria scowled at him a little. "Don't finish that sentence. The Princess of Pleather over there might have a stroke if she thought she was anything but summer-meadow fresh." Then she realised that she'd been sidetracked, perhaps deliberately, and steered the conversation back on course. "So what is the plan? If I didn't know better, I'd say you didn't trust us with it."

He looked at her for a long moment, his face suddenly expressionless. Then he rummaged in his pack, saying, "If it helps, I could trust you with this." He produced the handgun he'd taken from Bill Nolan and handed it to her, butt-first.

For a moment, she didn't take it; just looked at it. It was a Smith & Wesson, old but well-kept. All the same, it was a firearm and, when you got right down to it, the only thing it was good for was killing people. Accepting this thing would mark a turning point she wasn't sure she wanted to go anywhere near.

Tom noticed her hesitation. "Look, you got lucky with that guy with the football uniform..."

"I'm almost sure it would be none of your business even if I had."

Tom apparently didn't appreciate the humour. "A pot lid isn't going to do you any good if you run into someone really dangerous. Call it insurance."

Not really wanting to continue along this line, Daria took the gun, pocketed it and, with a silent prayer that she'd never have to use it, pushed it to the farthest recesses of her mind. "And if we do get separated?"

"We'll meet up at A-2. The First Unitarian Church of the Perennially Fucked."

Daria started to smile, but was interrupted by the faint sound of automatic gunfire from somewhere outside.

*          *          *          

Heidi Regan was running towards the clinic at top speed, finding out the hard way that, when you were about to die, your life really did pass in front of your eyes.

She was thick of neck and thick of body, but that was all muscle, mostly from field hockey, and she was not badly formed. That might have been why, on the run, she remembered the minor play she'd made on Kevin Thompson. Stupid, maybe; she wasn't anywhere near as pretty as Brittany, and there was a hierarchy anyway, but her feeling had always been that everything in life was worth a shot, if you wanted it -- or needed it.

Specifically, life itself was worth a shot, which was why she was currently running for her life, the deranged-looking skinny-ass transfer student right on her tail. Heidi didn't understand it -- the kid had no muscle mass, and her pale, anaemic look spoke of someone with no stamina whatsoever. Anyway, a crazy person shouldn't have the tenacity or attention span to track someone across a half a mile of woodland at any speed, and this girl didn't look like she had the sanity needed to string a sentence together. Then again, bumblebees aren't supposed to be able to fly either.

Eventually, Heidi registered that the only footsteps she could hear were her own. She stopped and turned around, thinking she'd finally lost the psychopath.

Unfortunately for her, she hadn't, and she saw the psycho's gun raise, felt the fire rake her chest, and then fell over. The pain was intense.

But not unbearable. She lay there for a moment, then crawled behind an old derelict car next to the decrepit building, patting her chest in amazement. "Oh," she whispered; it was a sound of wonder and thanksgiving. "Oh, thank God..." She pulled her blouse open; her hands slid over her weapon and she whispered, "Bullet-proof vest, thank God..."

She heard a *thump* from behind her, and turned around, looking up. The psychopath was standing on the roof of the car, grinning like a shark. Fading sunlight glinted off her glasses and made her eyes impossible to see. She reached to her waist and pulled, producing another glint of borrowed shine, now from a Japanese sword. Heidi scrabbled back, willing her legs to pick her up and carry her away from this grinning, blade-carrying lunatic. Her legs would not obey, and the psycho grinned wider as she leapt from the roof of the car.

The last sound Heidi Regan ever heard was the lethal *swiiiiip* of a swung blade.

*          *          *          

Daria, Quinn and Tom heard the entire thing from the clinic's interior -- the gunshots, the thumps and, most terrifying of all, the silence. The imitation of safety was becoming less and less convincing all the time.

When the silence had stretched to the point where even the normally composed Daria would have gladly screamed to break it, Tom began to move. He jogged over to the window, peered out, and cursed under his breath. Then he moved towards the table, grabbing a chair and hauling it one-handed towards the door.

Quinn was feeling the strain too. "What?" Tom didn't answer, busying himself with jamming the chair under the door handle. Quinn cranked her voice up to whining pitch; the sound that had annoyed Daria for over a decade was now tinted with a genuine note of panic that chilled her to the core. "What is it? What's going on?"

Tom didn't look at her, but around the room, apparently looking for something else with which to barricade the door. "It's the other one. Girl 6 -- Cullen, Lynn. The one who signed up for fun. Daria, help me with the table."

His second-to-last sentence hit Daria so hard that she didn't even register the last one. For fun? She knew her peers were cruel sometimes; she read the papers, after all, and knew what Klebold and Harris had done in Columbine. But to sign up for this ... for fun... The most horrible thing about it, she reflected, was how believable it was.

Quinn wasn't so introspective. "For fun? What is she, nuts?"

"Maybe, and maybe the idea of a crazy person with at least one gun being outside will scare one or both of you into helping me barricade the..."

The window blew inward, shattered by something that looked a little like a dark comet; round body, streaming tail. The comet-thing bounced off the table and spun on the floor for a moment, then lay still. Quinn, with the sharper eyes, took one look at it and screamed, turning her face away. Daria took a moment longer, unable to make her eyes believe what they were seeing. The comet-thing was a head, with longish hair so blood-soaked it was impossible to tell what colour it had been. The brown eyes, their colour fading to an ugly off-grey, were glazed and horrified. Daria looked into them, frozen, wondering why the mouth seemed so contorted. There had been no screaming, and the muscles in her jaw would have relaxed when her nerves were severed anyway...

Then she finally took in the fact of the grenade, stuffed into the girl's mouth like an apple in a whole roast pig.

Daria screamed, "DOWN!"

And then the world exploded. Daria, who had been in the process of turning away from the head and its Cracker-Jack-Box-from-hell surprise, felt herself slapped by a huge hot hand, and her feet left the floor for a full two seconds. Then she landed hard on the other side of the kitchen counter. She could hear Quinn's hysterical screaming on the other side of the room. Well, whatever else happened to her, her lungs are fine...

Daria got to her knees and rose slowly, peering up over the counter with a part of her mind telling her to record this moment for the time, if she survived this nightmare, when she wanted to write war novels, because this was how a grunt in the trenches felt.

The table Tom had requested her help in moving was lying on its side near a wall, facing the window. Tom was behind it, reaching for his shotgun, and Quinn was crouched in the corner, cowering and screaming. Tom looked over at her, calling, "You've lived with her. Any ideas on how to make her shut up?"

Daria's mouth acted before her mind even got a look in. "Threaten to announce she and I are sisters on this island's damn PA system." Then her brain took over and she called out as calmly as she could, "Quinn! Are you okay?"

Shrill with hysterics, hands pressed over her eyes, Quinn yelled, "That hockey jock's head just, like, blew the fuck up!"

"Well, so much for this bloodbath's PG-13 rating," Daria quipped. It was automatic; she was amazed despite herself. "I didn't even think you knew that word..." Fine, Tom'd used it not a moment before, but Quinn, who wouldn't even slow dance until the fifth date, seemed too ... well, innocent to use the word or even register it.

"Oh, shut the fuck up, Daria!"

Tom shrugged. "Well, she uses it well enough under duress..."

"STOP IT! Stop it right now because I want right the hell out of here right the hell now!"

"Now listen, General..."

Whatever Tom had to say to her was drowned out by the sound of automatic gunfire and breaking glass. The other transfer, Daria reflected as she dropped under the cover of the kitchen counter, had been well provisioned by the BR Act Committee. Then she remembered how the Smith & Wesson she was holding had come to her; from Bill Nolan via Tom. And Tom'd said 'at least one gun'...

Quinn's shrieks indicated that the former popularity princess of Lawndale High was quickly reaching her mental breaking point. "DARIA, DO SOMETHING!"

Sure; just as soon as I find a handy phone booth to change in, SuperBrain will be right with you. Daria almost had to bite her tongue to keep that one in, but she managed it, then tried to think. There had to be a way to get someone who signed up for this as a way to kill for kicks from shooting at a building.

Daria saw it, hated it, but thought it through anyway. The girl was killing for kicks. The girl knew someone was in this house, but she had no way of knowing how many people or how they were armed. Someone needed to play decoy, lead her far enough away from the house to let the others escape as well as to encourage her to look for other, easier targets. There was a back door, and escape from the house was conceivable, but Quinn was wearing heels and was probably still sick. Even if she wasn't, neither she nor Tom could get to the back door without putting themselves in the line of fire.

She raised her head again, yelling, "Tom!"

"Aw, Christ, not you too..."

"Take care of her! I'll meet you at the First Unitarian Church of the Perennially Fucked!"

"Daria, what are you talking ab--"

Before he could finish the sentence, Daria turned and fled, banging out the back door as loudly as she could to alert the shooter outside to the breaking away of an easy target.

Mom and Dad always worried a little about whether I was suicidal. If they could see me now...

Dusk was fading rapidly to twilight; the light in the sky was almost gone. Daria didn't need any light; she was running on predominantly open ground now; the parking lot of what had been some kind of industrial building once and was now a graveyard for large empty canisters containing God-knew-what. Daria didn't want any light either; she didn't want to see the face of her pursuer.

There was no question that she was being pursued. She could hear the footsteps behind her, moving fast. Daria pushed herself a little harder, begged herself to run a little faster, and found herself regretting all the times she'd refused morning runs with Jane. Never mind the sentimental aspect of that wish; if she'd done the cross-training thing, she'd be in a lot better shape, and her lack of stamina was something to really regret right about now.

She risked a look back over her shoulder to see how close the hunter was. It was a mistake. Girl 6 was far too close, and Daria's stagger gave the 'transfer' the opportunity to raise her Uzi and fire. Daria dived, reaching cover just in time. Bullets whined and squealed, ricocheting off the metal canisters Daria'd ducked behind, and Daria cowered. She'd gone perhaps a quarter-mile, and she was winded. She had no idea what to do next.

The gun, she remembered, and felt a wash of self-loathing. She couldn't kill anyone.

But, she realised, reaching into her pocket, she could fire a few warning shots...

Girl 6 didn't have the best view of her new target; the light was poor, and her glasses were fogged and still a little streaky, though she'd cleaned muscle-girl's blood off them as best she could. But a vague view was all she needed. Centre of mass. Aim for the centre of mass, right where the heart is. They'd never repeat a weapon, and a flak jacket isn't bullet-proof.

The green-brown blur broke cover, waving a gun that she obviously had no clue how to use. This could be interesting, she thought, slinging the Uzi over her shoulder by its strap and taking out the .357. Wait it out. Let's see what this one does.

The green-brown blur fired, a lucky shot urged on by survival instinct and desperation that caught her straight in the stomach. But she'd been prepared for it, rode with the impact -- not so different from the recoil of a big gun -- and kept her feet thanks to the bullet-proof vest scavenged from the muscly girl, which still reeked of blood under her oversized grey sweater. She smiled at the blur when she regained her balance and raised her own gun. She couldn't see facial expression, but she saw the set of the blur's body and knew she (probably a she; the brown blur was longish hair, she reasoned) was terrified, caught by her own fear like a deer in headlights.

More gunshots, this time from behind, and the concrete at her feet cracked. Your aim sucks, pal. She turned around to face the blur of her new target.

The blur was male, approaching at great speed, and shouting, "Run!" He obviously wasn't talking to her, and she turned back to her first target; the green-brown she-blur was running towards the cliffs. She brought the Uzi back to bear on the she-blur and fired, smiling in satisfaction as the she-blur grabbed her shoulder and dropped to her knees. Then she wheeled to face the oncoming he-blur.

He hit her hard in what she recognised as a very good hip-check, and she went flying, embarrassed and decidedly pissed off. Okay, He-blur is now a personal thing. He-blur grabbed She-blur, hauled her unsteadily to her feet as Girl 6 gained hers and aimed the Uzi, and then ... they seemed to vanish.

She took off her glasses and took another swipe at them as she stepped forward. When she put them on again, her vision was somewhat clearer, and even in the dim light, she figured out what had happened when she reached the cliff edge.

Jumpers. Morons.

Even so, she was taking no chances. She looked over, pointed the Uzi at the ripples in the water that marked the blurs' landing, and fired off a few rounds just in case. Then she shouldered the gun again, turned and walked away.

*          *          *          

When the sun finally set on Day 1, the official survivor count stood at 20. The night would bring more fatalities.

*          *          *          

There was, for a brief, shining moment, the hope that it had all been a dream. When she felt the mattress under her back and the covers over her body, she could almost believe she was waking up in her own bed. She'd dreamt anthropomorphic personifications of the holidays (or hoped she'd dreamt; she'd never been sure). She'd dreamed a whole musical version of a recent hurricane (extreme barometric pressure shifts apparently did weird things to one's mental balance). This could have been ju! st one more whacked-out dream, the corker of all her bizarre dream experiences.

But, no matter weird her dreams were, they left her with no physical symptoms. And her shoulder throbbed, as did her head. Nervously, Daria opened her eyes.

No, it's not my room. There are at least four more cracks in the ceiling.

The ceiling was stark white, as were the undecorated walls. The light could have suggested mid-morning or early-afternoon, depending on which way the window was facing. And a boy she couldn't recall seeing before was sitting in a chair in the corner, watching her. The boy was blond, cheerful-looking and, judging from his athletic build, had once been a member of the football team. When she struggled to sit up, he stood up and stepped over to the bed. "Hey, just chill, okay? You took a beating. I've seen gridironers out for days with a bashing like you took."

Daria sat up anyway, unable to stifle a sigh of relief when she could finally stop moving. Now everything hurt, a dull ache racing through her body. She scrutinised the boy again, and he wasn't getting any more familiar. "How long--?"

"You hit hard, you sleep hard. You've been out best part of the day. We figure it's Wednesday afternoon, around three, three-thirty."

Daria made some swift mental calculations; her body may not be up to quick movement, but her brain seemed to be working just fine. It had been seven, maybe eight when she'd gone off the cliff, she'd been out for the best part of nineteen hours. "I missed three reports at least..."

"Well, you didn't miss much," said the football player grimly. "Couple of our guys died -- Will and Matt were always on at each other at practice and on the field so I'm betting they went nuts on each other for real. Then a couple of kids I think went out with that pretty redhead Quinn. But I can't keep up with who she dates. That was about it."

Daria sighed with relief. Quinn was all right, and that improved her condition more than the rest had done. And the boy didn't seem ready to kill her; in fact, she vaguely remembered his voice as the one who'd tried to distract Girl 6. Maybe it was time to hold out something resembling an olive branch. "Sorry; I don't think we've been formally introduced."

The boy smiled, saying, "I know you; you're Daria. I'm Scott Peers; Lions defensive line."

Daria raised an eyebrow. "I didn't think I was that much of a household name."

"Hey, when I brought you in, Britt went bonkers. She was really glad to see you. Got me to bring you up here, patch you up. She also figured that ... well, hey, you're a brain. Maybe you could use that to think up a way off here. The girls are freaking."

Daria had a feeling she knew where this was going, and was beginning to wonder if she hadn't been better off with Girl 6 on her tail. "And 'the girls' would be...?"

"Angie, Nikki, Beth, Lisa ... and Britt, too, natch. The cheerleaders. Well, most of 'em." Scott looked out the window, not meeting Daria's eyes as he asked, "Look, I've gotta ask; what happened with Kevin? Nikki says she saw..."

Memory coshed Daria over the head; she remembered the flash of blue and gold , now recognising it as a cheerleading uniform. Hating to relive that whole nightmarish afternoon, Daria closed her eyes and said, "It was an accident. We fell down a hill and..." She couldn't explain it; all she could do was repeat, "It was an accident."

Scott nodded, apparently satisfied. "Yeah, that's what Britt said. Says you're a pretty decent person, for a brain and all. Kev ... well, he was okay on the field, but off he was kinda clumsy sometimes. So ... yeah, okay. Just ... y'know, Nikki, she..."

"Nikki perhaps watched Heathers one time too many?"

That got a weak chuckle. "Sorta, yeah. But she'll be cool once we explain. And see, that was smart, that joke you did there. You're a real brain, aren't you?" Scott looked at her, and Daria could see the tentative hope in his eyes as he asked, "So ... do you have a way off here?"

Daria considered carefully. While she was wary of almost everyone at the moment, this boy had saved her life, and that was a relatively good show of trust. And, unless he was lying to her, he was still working in a group, which meant he wasn't playing the game according to the rules, and that was a better show of trust. And Scott looked too clean-cut and All-American to lie. Actually, he didn't look quite bright enough to. (Same thing, she thought, and would have kicked herself if moving hadn't still hurt.) And, if she could trust them ... well, moving in a group would make them all safer.

Eventually, she said, "Sort of. I ... have to meet someone somewhere. Maybe he could use an extra few muscles. Actually, I should..." She tried to swing her legs out of bed and winced; her body had apparently gone on some kind of violent protest on the subject of moving.

Scott held a hand out. "Hey, hey, give it a few minutes before you go moving or anything. Be easy. The girls found some canned food and stuff and they're cooking; figured you'd be hungry."

At the mention of food, Daria's stomach growled, but the outraged muscles in her abdomen snarled them into submission. "Your figures are off, I'm afraid. I might be able to manage some water or something, though."

"Cool!" Believing her braininess would be the saving of him, he was puppyishly eager to please. Daria had a sudden inkling of what it was like to be Quinn. "I think there's tea or something down there; something with sugar'd be good; you need your strength up if you're getting us out! Just hang tight! Don't hurt yourself, okay?" He bounced to the door, turned a latch and heaved it open with an obvious effort. "Hey, sorry about the door," he shot back over his shoulder. "We can't find anything heavy enough to prop it and it locks on its own. So it's not that we don't trust you or anything." Then he left.

It's not that you don't trust me, but having me under lock and key is the only thing that made it possible for Nikki to sleep last night. Daria tried not to take it to heart; if she'd been them, she'd have probably done the same thing. Hoping she could trust them more than they could trust her, she leaned back against the headboard with a sigh. She was now stuck in a situation where action was not only unnecessary, but impossible, but now ... well, as stupid as the concept felt, she was almost bored.

I suppose it'd be too much to expect four cheerleaders and a football player to have a book anywhere...

Downstairs was like a picture of sisterly domesticity, Goya style.

A couple of the cheerleaders had thought to pack a change of clothes in case their cheerleading uniforms weren't right for the career showcase -- and what a joke that turned out to be. So Angie, in a nice knee-length skirt and a peach blouse, was bustling over the stove like the straight-A Home Ec student she was. The smell of canned tuna and fried onions filled air fogged with steam from a pot of boiling pasta. "Lisa," she called, "get the strainer ready! I think this stuff is done!"

Lisa, still in her cheerleading uniform, grabbed a strainer out of the draining board and rushed over to Angie's side. They crowded close together, talking in low voices and giggling. Beth Chase, in jeans and Lawndale High sweatshirt, crouched in a corner. Her watchful eyes were dark-ringed with lack of sleep as she glared at her companions with the utmost suspicion. Nikki wobbled on the sidelines, wringing her hands and shivering. When the door banged open and Scott barged in, Nikki and Beth both jumped, Nikki with a little scream.

Scott grinned at her. "Hey, chill, Nikki-babes! Only me!" He turned to Angie, who looked at him expectantly while Lisa drained the pasta. "Daria's awake. All's cool, but she's a little sore."

Angie sighed with exasperation. "I guess; she was out cold! You said you two went off a cliff!"

Beth, her voice blade-sharp, asked, "Did you ask the brain about Kevin?"

Scott looked a bit alarmed at her tone; his grin faltered, but didn't die entirely as he explained, "Yeah, I did. And she said just what Britt thought -- that Kev tripped over his cleats and it was all one big accident, like poor ol' Tommy Sherman. So y'see, Nik?" He turned to Nikki with a winning grin. "You can chill about Daria now; you should've listened to Britt in the first place!"

Nikki nodded nervously, still wringing her hands. "Yeah." After a moment's hectic thought, she said, "Oh, she must be hungry; I ... I feel kinda bad. I should ... go bring her something; tell her there's no hard feelings." With that, she rushed over to the stove, where Angie was mixing the drained pasta with a combination of tuna, onions and canned niblet corn.

Angie smiled. "Hey, that's great of you, Nikki," she beamed as she stepped aside, moving over to Scott. "Did she say anything else? I mean, she's a brain and I figured..."

Scott's grin grew wider. "Not gonna say a word until Britt gets here," he teased.

Lisa threw an oven mitt at him and joined Angie in a chorus of pleading and indignant shrieks. Beth just glared at him. And they were all too focused on the teasing, grinning Scott to notice Nikki opening her hands and unscrewing the small bottle she'd been hiding in her left.

Nikki didn't care what that Daria brain had told Scott. She'd seen everything -- okay, not very clearly, but she'd seen Kevin make a wild swing or two, saw them fall down the hill, saw Daria's shield-thing lash out and beat the axe right into Kevin's head... Daria was too smart to just accidentally kill anyone. If she was going to do it, she'd do it on purpose. And she was smart enough to lie.

When Scott brought Daria in, she'd screamed and hidden in the corner, even though Daria had seemed so little and beaten with blood all down her left shoulder. She sure didn't look like she could kill anyone, but Nikki's mother had always said that you couldn't tell and how Ted Bundy had looked like such a nice guy. She'd wanted to just leave Daria out there; they were safe in their lighthouse hideaway, and they couldn't bring in someone who'd killed someone. But Brittany had been adamant. "Daria's no killer," she'd squealed. "It must have been an accident! Daria liked my Kevvie! Everybody liked my Kevvie!" And Brittany, as head cheerleader, had got her way. Nikki'd spent a nervous night watching Beth, who never seemed to sleep, pace around the kitchen. Daria was behind a locked door, but brains knew things; if she ever got out, she might kill them all.

And now she was awake, and Scott looked like he was going to let her out, like he trusted her and everything. Well, Nikki didn't trust her. She was probably fooling with Scott, messing with his head -- it was something a brain would do -- and when she was out ... bang bang!

Nikki wasn't going to let that happen. Not to her, not to her team. She might not be a brain, but she knew how to use her weapon. She unscrewed the vial of potassium cyanide she'd been given and dumped it over the bowl of pasta she'd scooped out, stirring to mix it in. Just a few bites and they wouldn't have to worry about that brain anymore.

Nikki turned around with the bowl of pasta in her hands, and Brittany bounced in from her turn on watch, looking flushed. "Hi, guys! Like, is Daria awake yet?"

"Yep," smirked Scott, "and she's got a way out of here."

Brittany's face lit up. "Great! But tell me while I eat something, okay? I'm starving!" With that, she ran over and plucked the bowl out of Nikki's hands, setting it on the table and dropping into a chair.

"Hey, come on, Britt," Angie admonished. "That's for Daria!"

To Nikki's horror, Scott shook his head with a shrug. "She didn't think she could eat. I was just gonna get her some tea or something."

Brittany pouted sympathetically. "Oh, poor Daria! It's sad she has to miss this; it smells great!" While Angie squirmed with pleasure and Nikki just squirmed, Brittany started shovelling the pasta down, an appreciative smile touching her lips as she chewed.

"Now," said Angie, "tell us all about this plan of hers to get out."

Scott shrugged. "She didn't say much. I wanted to let her rest a little bit, y'know? But I'll get her that tea and she can have a few minutes to rest and then she can come down and..."

Brittany put a hand over her mouth. Her eyes were filling with pain, confusion and a dawning fear. Everyone looked at her. "Hey ... Britt?" Lisa looked worried. "You okay?"

Brittany's answer was a muffled squeak. Blood seeped through her fingers, and she lowered her hand a little, looking at it with horror as more blood dripped from her lips. Then she gagged and spat a whole mouthful of blood mixed with food out onto the table. The girls screamed and stepped away from Brittany as she gagged again, spewing more chunk-filled blood, and then dropped face-down in her plate.

There was a horrible ghastly silence. Beth, shuddering and wide-eyed, reached behind her, slowly; no one noticed. They were too busy staring at Brittany with varying degrees of horror.

After a moment, Lisa said, "Britt...?"

Beth snarled, "She's dead, bubble-brain."

That broke the spell. Lisa and Angie screamed and jumped back. Beth took the opportunity, grabbing the 9mm machine gun that had come in Brittany's pack and pointing it around the room. Angie and Lisa screamed again and backed up against the kitchen counters; Nikki only stared as she backed into a corner and slowly sank to a crouch on the floor. Scott held out his hands in the universal gesture of peace and said in a soothing voice, "Hey, Beth..."

"Don't you 'Hey, Beth' me, Scott. Which one of you did it? I knew this was going to happen; you're dumb but even the lowest animals have that whole 'kill or be killed' thing. Now which of you did this?" The gun swing and pointed at Angie. "You were the one who cooked that mess..."

Angie backed along the counter, hand trailing along the work surface as she snapped, "Hey, I would've eaten it too, okay, Beth? Now come on; we're a team! No one did anything!"

Lisa whimpered, "It could've been the tuna ... food poisoning..."

"Don't give me that crap, Lisa!" Now the gun swung to Lisa. "Food poisoning isn't like that ... but real poisoning is! And you seem quick with the theories..."

There was the click-clack, and Beth turned again to see Angie pointing a shotgun at her. Her shotgun, Beth noted with a half-sigh of disgust. "And what about you, Beth? You always hated Brittany -- thought she was stupid. You always talked about how she got on your nerves."

"Okay, pom-pom brain," Beth sneered. "Now how'd I get the opportunity?"

"You haven't been sleeping!" Lisa was shaking with rage now as well as fear. "You could have dumped poison in some of the stuff any time you wanted!"

"I have insomnia!"

"I don't want to hear about any of the weird stuff you do with your boyfriend!"

Beth's last nerve, already stretched to breaking point by sleeplessness and suspicion, snapped. "That's not what it means, you stupid bitch!" With that, she pulled the trigger and swung the gun across the room. Angie ducked and fumbled the shotgun. Lisa tried to duck but moved too slow; she dropped instead, screaming and clutched her side. Scott dived for her and only succeeded in getting in Angie's way when she fired the shotgun at Beth. He was dead before he hit the floor in front of Vikki, who stared at him with mounting horror, not believing what she'd started.

Angie was nearly puce with rage. "You're breaking up the team, Beth!"

"There is no team!"

They pointed their guns at each other and fired. The 9mm took Angie's throat out and she dropped next to Lisa, whose screams were dying to choked, gurgling whimpers as she bled out. Beth slumped against the counters with a gaping hole in her chest, the 9mm clattering to the floor beside her as her dying hands lost their grip on it.

Nikki sat there, hands over her ears, shivering, as Lisa weakly turned her head to look at her. Lisa looked sad for a minute ... then a glimmer of understanding hit her eyes and she whispered, so that Nikki could only just catch it, "Nikki...? You ... didn't ... did you?"

Before Nikki could answer, Lisa died, and Nikki was alone.

And in the sudden silence, she could hear hammering on the door upstairs. The brain was behind it, the girl she'd thought was so dangerous. Now Nikki knew who the real dangerous one was around here.

Daria had managed to drag herself out of bed when the shouting started; later, she wouldn't be able to figure out how. When the shooting started, Daria had hammered on the door for a full two seconds before realising how futile it was, and then just kept on hammering. She had to do something, after all.

Her thoughts turned to Girl 6, the hyena. That one scared her more than any of her peers, partly because she was an unknown quantity and partly because of what little she did know -- that she was in this willingly, that she was in it for fun, and that she was better with a firearm than any seventeen-year-old has a right to be. She wouldn't have put it past that one to just barge in and start shooting up the place, and everyone in it.

And I'm caught in here like a rat in a trap. If she comes up...

For some reason, that didn't stop her from banging on the door. I'm smarter than this, she told herself. Or maybe she wasn't -- she'd die in here eventually anyway, either through dehydration or at the end of the third day, when her collar exploded. And there was a chance that it wasn't Girl 6, or that, if it was, the cheerleaders and their pet jock would win out (not impossible; they'd have Girl 6 outnumbered).

Eventually, the shooting stopped and she kept knocking for another moment. Then she stopped and listened carefully to the footsteps approaching the room. They were slow and soft; she vaguely remembered that Girl 6 had been wearing boots. Wasn't her, then. Good.

The door opened, and Daria saw it waver for a moment as the person on the other side struggled to open it. Daria, some part of her mind screaming at her to stop being such an idiot, grasped the handle and helped pull it wide, letting the intruder in.

Daria couldn't remember the girl's name, but she'd seen her any number of times; cheerleaders were very hard to miss. This one had fluttered around Brittany like a cheerful, squeaking butterfly and was usually seen on the arm of the blond boy Scott. She always had a smile and a rosy tint to her cheeks that hadn't come from L'Oreal.

At least, until now. Her uniform was spattered with blood, and her face was pale and drawn. "I ... I ... I forgot ... that they were my friends... I let her..." The cheerleader paused, took a deep shuddering breath, and muttered, "It really ... makes you think ... doesn't it." Before Daria could say a word, the cheerleader fled.

Daria slipped through the door before it could slam and lock her in again and paused in front of it, undecided. Eventually, the desire for first-hand information won out over the urge to shake answers out of the cheerleader and she cautiously made her way down the stairs. The only thing she was sure of was that the gunshots had not been due to the intervention of Girl 6 -- that one left no survivors.

I forgot ... that they were my friends... I let her...

After seeing the bloodbath downstairs, Daria's mind went blank for a little while, hearing nothing but fading sneakered footsteps fade up several flights of stairs and the slam of a door. Then the cheerleader's words started filtering back to her.

It really ... makes you think ... doesn't it.

Daria put a few things together, came up with a terrible answer and dashed up the stairs as fast as her battered legs could carry her.

Too late.

It really ... makes you think ... doesn't it.

The bloody, corpse-strewn mess of the kitchen, and the shattered body of the cheerleader for whom Daria still had no name, did not made her think. All it made her do was throw up.

*          *          *          

Joey was so engrossed in his typing that he barely looked up when Jeffy and Jamie barged into the room. The former was lugging a huge back of lawn fertilizer; the other had a five-gallon can of gasoline in each hand. They both dropped their loads carefully and then threw themselves down on the bare floorboards, panting.

"Okay, man," Jeffy wheezed. "We got everything you asked for."

"We even swiped a truck to haul it."

Jeffy turned to Jamie, saying, "You never told me you could hotwire a car, man."

Jamie just gave his usual innocent grin, then turned to Joey. "So come on, man! What's this stuff for? What's the play?"

Joey raised his hand to the collar, blocking the front part that held the lights, the explosive charge and the tiny microphone. The others followed his lead. When he was sure they could not be heard, Joey said, "I got some ideas from my dad. He was one of those hippie people protesting 'Nam in the 60's ... and he didn't do the peaceful thing. He taught me all sorts of stuff -- how to make all kinds of stuff from other household things. Stuff that goes boom."

Jeffy and Jamie stared at him.

"I got some of it written down on my computer. Stuff I took off the Anarchist's Cookbook and things. Well, Dad said most of it was bogus, but some was only off by a little and he told me how to make it work. Anyway, with the stuff you got, we can make a whole lot of stuff happen."

Jeffy and Jamie stared at him.

"I know it looks like I've been sitting on my butt all this time, but the one thing I wanted to do was buy us some time. I found a hole -- not much of one, but a little one -- in their system and I'm gonna drop a little bomb into their computers. For a few minutes, they won't be able to see us or hear us or anything. And that's when we drive up in that car you hotwired and make it so they won't be able to see us or hear us at all. Ever."

Jeffy and Jamie stared at him.

If they could have articulated it at all, they would have asked where this young man had been hiding all this time. He was a football player, a great wide receiver, and popular with the girls (although, they would have amended, he never had a chance with Quinn) ... but he was a brain at the same time. How the hell had that happened? How had he hidden it from them for so long? And why had he? Sure, when they were kids, it was always Joey who came up with the games and ideas for rainy days, but they never would have suspected this.

The reason they couldn't articulate it was that they didn't, on reflection, care. If his plan worked, they'd be free, and they wouldn't have to kill anyone, or die themselves. When they were out of this tight spot, then they could ask him all those questions. For now, they'd help him save their collective butt.

"So, guys," Joey asked. "You with me?"

Jeffy and Jamie looked at each other. Then they looked at Joey again. It was Jeffy who said, "All the way, man. Just tell us what to do."

Joey smiled at them and started telling them the plan. Ten minutes later, they were all hard at work.

*          *          *          

Normally, Quinn had the knack of lounging nonchalantly anywhere; Sandi said that the truly fashionable could always make themselves at home on a string, or whatever. Not now, though. Now all she could do was pace wildly in front of the Episcopalian church on the northwest corner of A-2, the one that Tom guy kept calling 'the First Unitarian Church of the Perennially Fucked'.

Ewwww... I don't believe I said that word...

She'd actually said it several dozen times, in a very loud voice with a few other choice vulgarities thrown in for taste, when the shooting in the clinic had stopped and she finally realised where Daria had gone and why. That Tom guy seemed so smart; how could he have let Daria do something like that? He hadn't even tried to stop her or anything, just let her run off. God knew Daria couldn't outrun anybody, except maybe Quinn herself, but that was mostly because of the shoes. And the gun ... well, Daria couldn't shoot anyone any more than she could outrun them. Daria could be creepy sometimes -- she thought about all that dark stuff and read all those weird books and wrote all those weird stories -- but she was a good person. Maybe too good a person, if this is how the world really was now.

Quinn was now really worried for Daria, and that was weird. Quinn could remember being really annoyed with Daria a lot of the time, and scared of her a few times, but this was new. And a lot less fun than being annoyed with her. Quinn wanted Daria to be in front of her right now, so that she could be annoyed with Daria again. And maybe call her a few of the names she'd called that Tom guy.

That brought her thoughts back to that Tom guy, who was cleaning his gun and looking like he didn't care whether Daria came back or not. "How long's it been now?"

He didn't look at her. Quinn hated it when people didn't look at her when they talked to her. Even Daria usually looked at her, even when she was firing insults. "Figure it out yourself. Brush up on your math skills. This is a school field trip, you know."

"Aren't you worried?"

"She hasn't turned up on any of the announcements."

Oh. Those. She'd heard the announcements, listening with the avid interest she usually saved for FashionVision. She'd heard the two football players, the ones who were always yelling at each other. And Zack and Taylor ... she felt kind of sorry about them. She didn't like to think it, but she had a bad sort of feeling that she knew who killed them. Sandi had gone out with both of them until Quinn had shown an interest, and they'd put Sandi behind them like a white dress after Labour Day weekend. And the last one, the one that had just finished, named one of the football players and pretty much the entire cheerleading squad. Daria's name wasn't there, but she'd been gone so long... Wasn't it even a little possible that those people could make mistakes?

And it's going to rain, too. God, don't we get a break at all?

She couldn't take it anymore. She just couldn't take the suspense. Fine, maybe she would get shot, but at least she wouldn't have to wring her hands and pace around like a total weirdo anymore, worrying about Daria, who was supposed to be here, looking out for her little sister. With that, she squared her shoulders and stalked off down the path.

Tom's voice drifted after her, and now he sounded worried. "Where do you think you're going? We're a long boat ride from the nearest mall."

She stopped, took a deep breath and schooled her expression into one she'd seen a million times but never worn herself. When she turned and saw Tom shrink back a little, she knew she'd managed a good imitation of what she always thought of as Daria's 'go to hell' look. "I'm going to go and meet my sister. She's gotta be on her way here by now. You have a problem with that?"

Quinn was good at people's expressions; they told her when she needed to pour on a little more of the charm or when the puppy-dog eyes would be a better bet. Tom's face went through so many expressions so fast that Quinn could barely keep up. One told her he was a little afraid of her. One of them told her that he was a little afraid for her (maybe remembering that sister he wouldn't talk about now that they'd left that clinic place). That last one said that he was a little worried about Daria too, and that he sort of admired her guts. He didn't say anything, though; just went back to cleaning his gun.

Quinn turned around and walked away.

She hadn't been on the road five minutes when she ran into Daria, nearly literally. Daria didn't seem to be able to see where she was going, even though she was still wearing those awful glasses. She'd gone away running like hell with one gun jammed into her pocket; now, to Quinn's horror, she was limping heavily, using a shotgun as a crutch and dragging a bag behind her. Quinn ran to her and caught her by the shoulders. She wanted to stop Daria from walking; it obviously hurt her legs, but watching it hurt Quinn's heart more. "Daria? Daria, what happened?"

Daria looked up at Quinn, looking bewildered and near to tears. "I ... got away ... with help." After a pause, she said, "I saw ... what happened ... to the cheerleaders. They ... killed each other. They lost their minds." She paused again, frowning in a foggy attempt at thought, then added, "I didn't think they had enough mind to lose..." With that, she fainted, falling in a little pile of bruise at Quinn's feet.

The rain started as Quinn dropped to her knees beside Daria and wrung her hands some more, trying to figure out what to do. The bag Daria'd dropped had a few more guns in it, and boxes of bullets. Quinn didn't want to know anything about them; she just wanted Daria to wake up already.

"Hello, Quh-winn..."

Quinn's eyes widened before she even looked up. Oh crap...

She looked up. Sandi was standing there, giving this really weird scary grin that was nothing like her normal smile, which was designed to make her look her best instead of her most crazy. Quinn grabbed for the shotgun lying under Daria, not even sure what she was going to do with it, especially since someone as smart as Daria would never use a loaded gun as a crutch. It didn't matter; she couldn't get it free, and when she saw Sandi point a gun at her face, she knew she was going to die, probably in a really messy way that would let Sandi be the prettiest once and for all.

Sandi looked up and past Quinn, and the look on her face changed. The grin vanished and the eyes widened in shock and fear. As Quinn watched, bewildered, Sandi lowered the gun, turned, and retreated into the trees.

Quinn sat back on her heels. The whole thing made her brain hurt. Sandi had her, so why would Sandi run away like that?

Unless there's something really really really scary behind me...

Quinn turned her head so fast she fell, feeling mud seep into the seat of her jeans and not caring. Mr DeMartino was standing behind her, sheltering behind a plain black umbrella as he regarded Quinn and Daria with an apparent lack of interest. Quinn tried desperately to put all this stuff together into a picture that made any kind of sense and couldn't do it. All she could do was sit, block DeMartino's path to Daria, and wait for whatever was coming.

But all DeMartino did was gently lob his umbrella at the girls so that it landed a foot from Quinn. Then he raised an eyebrow and walked away without a word.

For awhile, the only sound was the rain. Quinn looked at the woodland Sandi'd fled to, then the place on the path that DeMartino had occupied, and then at the umbrella he'd ... thrown at her? Given to her?

Finally, the frustration exploded and she raised her face to the grey sky, screaming, "WHAT IS WITH THIS, ALREADY?"

Daria groaned, raised her head and looked at Quinn. "I warn you ... if a burning bush starts answering that question, I'm running like hell."

Quinn sighed with relief.

*          *          *          

In a barn somewhere near the centre of the island, Tiffany Blum-Deckler was experiencing many firsts. She had never been in a barn before. She'd never been really scared before. No one had ever wanted to kill her ... she didn't think. Well, actually, she did think, or she was trying to. Another first for her.

Tiffany tended not to think. Things seemed to work out a whole lot more easily if she just sat back and let them happen without getting overly involved. That line of reasoning had helped her survive the Fashion Club in-fighting without the threat of worry lines; she didn't try to make everybody happy like Stacy, choosing to side with whoever was nearest and let Sandi and Quinn fight it out between themselves. She acted without thinking, doing or saying whatever seemed easiest at the time, and usually, it all worked out.

When this whole messy thing started, what seemed easiest to Tiffany was to hide. Sometime during the first day, though, she started second-guessing herself. She felt out of touch for the first time ever -- she didn't say a lot, but that only helped her listen more, and she always knew which way the wind was blowing in the Fashion Club. Now she didn't know anything except, every once in awhile, that a bunch of people were dead. Which sucked, because she didn't know where they'd died, or how, or who had killed them. At school, or even just in the Fashion Club, she knew who was dangerous. Now she had no idea. So she started to think on the first day, trying to figure out if what seemed easiest was actually the right thing.

By the afternoon of the second day, her slow and rusty thought processes ground to a conclusive halt. If she didn't know where anyone was, neither did they, which meant they didn't know where she was. If she stayed out of sight, they couldn't find her, and if they couldn't find her, they couldn't kill her. People not being able to kill her was a good thing. So she was doing the right thing. Following the path of least resistance proved to be the best course, same as it always had. Buddhism had its perks.

"Tiffany? I know you're in here!"

Except for that whole not-killing-people thing...

The guy out there knew she was in here. He'd start looking through the barn, and he'd find her eventually. And when he did, the rules of this game said he had to kill her. Never mind that it was sooooo wrong; he'd do it anyway, because the whole game was wrong.

So I guess I had better be soooo wrong too.

She bounced up from behind a few bales in the hayloft, whipping out a Sig Sauer pistol and firing as soon as she saw her target. He yelped in pain and fell down; she'd hit him right in the chest.

If it had been anyone else down there, it would have served as more proof that acting without thinking was the best course of action. When she saw her target, she pressed her hand to her mouth, feeling something she only vaguely recognised as remorse. Another first for Tiffany Blum-Deckler.

Her feet carried her down from the hayloft and to the boy's side. She sat down on the ground beside him. Then, with a voice no less slow for being tremulous and tearful, "Robert?"

He smiled at her. He'd always done that, when he thought no one was looking. She wasn't allowed to have a steady boyfriend; Sandi always said so, and it was easier to just not have one. But she and Robert had gone out sometimes, and even when Tiffany was seeing someone else, she'd look across the cafeteria at him and he'd be smiling at her a little, like the whole thing was their private joke. And that's the way he was smiling now. "I ... thought I should come take care of you," he said in a weak voice. "I guess ... I don't have to..."

Tiffany let out a little sob. "I ... I didn't know..."

Robert was still smiling; he kept the smile even when he coughed and blood started running down his chin. "I know. It's ... it's okay, Tiffany."

Tiffany looked at him as he lay there on the floor and bled, then blurted, "How could I know it was you? You ... you didn't call me 'ma'am'!"

Robert stopped smiling at that, looked at her with serious eyes that were already clouding over. "I ... wanted ... to use ... your name ... at least once..."

Tiffany waited for him to say something else. It took her a long time to understand that he wasn't going to, but that wasn't because she was slow. Some things you just can't take in at first, no matter how quick you are. When she finally did understand, she was so shocked and upset that she couldn't even cry. This was beyond 'so wrong'. She didn't even have the words for what this was.

"Hello, Tiffany."

I think the Christians call it 'hell'.

Sandi Griffin fired without even giving Tiffany the time to turn around. It might have pleased her to know that her last thought was a joke that even a brain like Daria could appreciate.

Linda Griffin had always taught her daughter that sometimes, the only way to remind yourself that you're on top is to lash out at someone lower down than you. Sandi'd always taken it for a backhanded apology for her fits of temper and general parenting style. Now, walking over and looking at Tiffany's corpse, she could see how true it was.

It should be Quinn she was looking down on; Quinn with the bullet in her head. She wanted it so bad she could taste it. Quinn had been the thorn in Sandi's side ever since the red-headed attention-whore turned up at Lawndale High. Sandi's first line of thought had been that having a girl that pretty under her wing (and under her thumb) would assure her position at Lawndale High, giving her all of the prestige but none of the competition. A week in the Fashion Club was usually all it took to put the sycophants in their place.

It hadn't worked with Quinn. Sandi didn't know why, and had neither the brains nor the desire to. She just wanted her place back on top. And she'd been so close, and then DeMartino had turned up and taken it away from her. She took some consolation from the fact that DeMartino could probably hurt her in ways that Sandi wouldn't dare, ways that would destroy her manicure and ruin her clothes. But she'd still needed more. So she'd gone on the hunt and heard Tiffany's little conversation with that football player. Two-Face Tiffany, agreeing with her on everything and then going over to Quinn's side. Things were nuts enough in this smelly place without having to worry about which side Tiffany was going to be on today. Better to shoot Tiffany before Tiffany killed her. Of course, it could have been more fun if she hadn't found Tiffany armed and extremely murderous. She could have played Tiffany like she had Stacy, led her into a false sense of security, then shot her somewher! e like the shoulder or the leg and told her that the bullet made her look fat. Then shoot her in that useless head of hers.

"By the way, Tiffany dear," she muttered a little self-consciously, "those bloodstains make you look fat..." But her heart wasn't in it, and she was sorry she had said anything. Instead of dwelling on it, though, she bent and picked up Tiffany's gun. It was a nice new pistol, not like the one Sandi had taken from Brooke; it looked clean and modern. It looked fashionable, and a lot better than her own gun. She dropped the Colt .45 and picked up the Sig Sauer.

And then she heard footsteps behind her, and spun around.

Looking at the girl from behind, Girl 6 thought she saw something of herself ... particularly in how the girl discarded the older weapon for the new. The fashionable clothes were incidental; she had never believed that clothes made the person. It explained her manner of dress now as it had when she was ... someone else.

But when the girl turned around to face her, Girl 6 saw that the resemblance was only a very thin veneer. The choice of weapon had no intelligence behind it; the eyes were scared and self-serving, and wouldn't meet Lynn's own for longer than a split-second. Instead, they roamed over Lynn's ragged hair, the patched and misshapen glasses, the Kevlar showing behind the tattered remnants of the sweater she wore, the overlong jeans and unfashionable boots. This girl took appearance over all else.

The gun dropped from the girl's nerveless fingers, and Girl 6 grinned. That means she sees what she's up against. Recognises it. She has that much.

She decided she didn't had time for this bullshit. She thought she'd seen something; she'd been mistaken. She hadn't seen anything, and that fact didn't bother her at all. And to prove it, she raised her .357 and put two bullets directly between the girl's eyes.

*          *          *          

The mood in the warehouse was like the Lawndale locker room before Homecoming. Joey was sitting at his computer, bashing out a few last-minute changes to the plan while Jeffy and Jamie ran around gathering their weapons together. The boys were pumped and ready to play some serious ball.

There were differences, of course. Joey was the QB now, and the captain of their team besides, smarter than Kevin and Mack put together (though admittedly, Kevin wouldn't have added much). They weren't playing with pigskin now, but with Molotov cocktails and other explosive devices ... and Joey's last ace in the hole. And the stakes were a lot higher than the three Js were used to.

"We ready to play?"

Joey just nodded at Jeffy, took one last look at his computer screen and then hit Enter.

At that moment, the control room in the deserted school went insane. The screens on the wall stopped showing plans of the island and a few random red dots representing the remaining Battle Royale participants and started flashing up graphics of a roaring lion. The soldiers froze for a split-second, then started running around, bashing at keyboards, trying to regain control.

One of the soldiers, the one high-up on the CoC, dashed over to DeMartino, who was sitting in an armchair, flipping idly through a Lawndale High yearbook. The soldier watched him for a second, listening to his men panic all around him, then asked, "Could we get a little help here?"

DeMartino refused to look at the man. After a moment, the soldier walked away and joined his men in their bloodless little battle. He never noticed that DeMartino had never answered his question.

"How long we got, man?"

Joey checked his watch. "Five minutes, but with the truck, that's all we need. We'll blow the place sky-high and ... Game Over!"

All three boys whooped and ran down the stairs, heading for the truck, the outside world and victory.

She didn't know what the hell the three football idiots had to cheer about, and she didn't much care. The encounter with that fashionable animal had rattled her, and she wanted to get back on track as soon as possible. She got the blond in her sights and fired.

The shock on all three faces was so pleasant for her that she came out of hiding to finish the job. While doing it from hiding would scare hell out of them, the knowledge that they were being slaughtered by some skinny little girl would get them more. The guy with the brownish-red hair was diving behind the truck for cover; We can't have that... She shot at him, and his dive became a graceless tumble. The black-haired boy pulled out a shotgun and fired at her, peppering her chest with double-ought buck. She made out like she didn't feel it -- in her state, she barely did. Instead, she assessed her targets. The black-haired boy was behind the truck now, nerving himself to fire again. And in the bed of the truck was something she'd know anywhere, something she hadn't seen in what felt like a lifetime.

Bathtub explosives. So that's their game. Well, this isn't their game; it's mine.

She emptied her clip into the back of the truck, firing almost blind, wanting to eradicate the home-made incendiaries and maybe take the memories with them.

The truck blew sky-high, spitting flame and shrapnel. She dimly saw the black-haired boy -- pieces of him, at least -- bouncing off the tarmac, and watched as the building started to burn.

*          *          *          

"Where are we going?"

Tom and Daria had been trying to ignore Quinn for the best part of the afternoon. Admittedly, Daria thought Quinn was asking some very good questions, but there didn't seem much point in pestering him. It would be a waste of valuable breath, for one thing; Tom had been pushing them very hard since Quinn had dragged Daria back to the church. And despite Quinn's repeated whining and Daria's occasional reproving glances, Tom offered no elaboration on his plan. All he would say was 'keep moving'.

None of Tom's reticence deterred Quinn, though. Obviously feeling much better, she had breath to spare, and just kept using it to fire questions as they clambered up a hill on their way to God-knew-where. "Look, how are we supposed to help if you won't tell us what you're doing?" Tom ignored her. "Come on! What if you want us to ... to do something that we don't want to do?" Tom said nothing. "Are you going to say anything?"

"Keep moving."


Daria unbent enough to ask a question. "Are we looking for anything or anyone in particular?"

He didn't answer, at least not verbally. And whether or not she was the anyone in particular, Girl 6 came into view as they reached the top of the hill. Daria and Quinn froze, realising that they'd given Tom all the weapons they had, and sank to the ground to watch the showdown.

She fired on instinct, without even having to look, and Tom clutched his side, biting back a wince of pain as he dropped to his knees. He raised one of the handguns and fired at her, and it only forced her back two steps. As the hyena-girl advanced on them, Daria grabbed the back of Quinn's head and forced her little sister's face into her shoulder. She was positive she knew what was going to happen, and she didn't particularly want Quinn to see it.

Tom wasn't going to win this showdown; that was obvious. The grey sweater she had been wearing was only shreds and tatters now, and under it was the reason Tom's bullet hadn't hurt her -- a bullet-proof vest. Unless Tom got her in the head, there was no way he could beat her, and he seemed in too much pain to aim a weapon, much less fire it. He might recover, if given time, but she didn't seem the generous type. She walked until she was standing directly in front of him, a pistol aimed right between his eyes. She hesitated a moment, and her eyes flicked upward to lock with Daria's. Daria just stared the girl down, pressing Quinn's face tighter into the shoulder of her jacket. The girl's eyes took in Daria, and the back of Quinn's head, and the protective stance Daria had taken over Quinn. Then she raised her left hand to her chest and picked up a small, flat something that was hanging around her neck. She looked at it for a moment, then let it go as she lowered the gun. ! Without looking at Tom, she simply waited.

Tom couldn't move for a moment, but the expression on his face suggested it was more due to shock than pain. Then he raised his gun again and fired, putting the bullet where she'd been aiming on him -- right between the eyes.

It was a moment before Daria could move. When shock let go of her brain, she let go of Quinn, got to her feet and stepped cautiously over to the hyena-girl. Something about that entire exchange had made no sense, and leaving the game with no loose ends suddenly seemed very important. Tom had returned to the game because of the mystery of Elsie's smile; she didn't want any mysteries pulling her back into the nightmare.

Two questions came to mind. Why did the girl look so familiar? Jane had said she looked familiar, and in good light, she was starting to see the point. And why had she stopped? She'd had Tom dead-bang, but she'd looked at Daria and Quinn and entirely given up, allowing Tom to put a bullet in her head. She knelt by the body and looked into the thin little face, far less insane and predatory in repose.

You know, maybe I've been working on Escher reproductions for too long, but that girl looked kind of like you...
With her hair slicked down with blood, Daria recognised Girl 6 as the girl from the Sick Sad segment; the 'winner' of the most recent 'Battle Royale'. And Jane hadn't been working on Escher for too long; there were resemblances beyond having the same colour hair. Their eyes were an identical shade of grey and shaped very much the same, and the small smile was much the same. The face was thinner and paler than Daria's, but the laminated Polaroid around the girl's neck suggested it hadn't always been that way.

The photo reminded Daria painfully of the one still in her own pocket; the one of Daria and Quinn with Jane in the background. Four students were posed next to a bus similar to the ones that had delivered the Lawndale Students to this Lord of the Flies remake. A short girl with long black hair and clothes that looked more like black lingerie was blowing a kiss at the camera, leaning against a stout blond guy in a very familiar-looking grey sweater. Next to them, a skinny, awkward-looking boy reminiscent of Upchuck grinned cheerfully at the camera with his arm slung around the shoulders of a girl who could have been Daria's twin. She wore a purple jacket, her skirt wasn't pleated and she had no bangs, but that was the extent of the difference. Daria looked at the girl in the photo and the girl lying dead on the ground -- the face had changed a little and the glasses had seen a lot of wear, but that little smile was the same.

Daria dropped the picture and sat back on her heels, trying to encompass it. This girl was just like her, at least in looks; what had brought her to this? It didn't make sense ... not until she considered the friends. Her writer's mind conjured up a scene, far too clear for her liking: the quartet had been ambushed, maybe while the girl was on watch. She'd been hit, hurt, left for dead while the others had been slain. The girl had recovered to find her friends dead and... Daria remembered the wave of red she'd experienced when Jane had been killed, the one Quinn'd shaken her from. If Girl 6 hadn't had anyone to shake her from that state of mind, it was possible that she'd just lived with it, killing as a sort of a release and a revenge. Until the sight of Daria protecting a skinny redhead had perhaps reminded her of her essential humanity.

But if all of that was true, Daria realised, then everything Tom had told her was a lie. She looked up to confront him, and found herself looking down the barrel of his gun. Quinn was staring at them, frozen with panic. Tom was looking her almost sympathetically as he said, "I told you. Don't trust anyone. Even me."

*          *          *          

DeMartino heard the gunshot, closely followed by another, from the remaining active microphones. The lights for Girl 14 and Girl 15 winked out, leaving Boy 16 as the only active player. The high-CoC man gestured to two of his subordinates, snapping, "Get out to C-3. Check the corpses."

"No!" The men wheeled to look at DeMartino, who was slumped in a chair with the yearbook on his lap. He wouldn't look at them as he gave the orders. "This game is over. Please clear the island and leave one boat. I will escort the winner back to civilised society."

The soldiers frowned at him, but did what they were told. DeMartino gave his full disappointed attention back to the yearbook, lingering over one particular page.

A few moments later, Tom staggered in and sat across from DeMartino, his face bleak and pained. "It's done," he muttered.

DeMartino wouldn't look at him. "So it would appear." After a moment, he said, "But appearances can be deceiving."

Tom looked at him with a sullen expression and said nothing.

"We had a little incident here at Command Central earlier today. One of those hacker miscreants was into the Battle Royale systems." Looking at Tom with eyes full of accusation, he added, "For the third time this YEAR!"

Tom raised an eyebrow at him but kept his silence.

"As you continue to plead the Fifth Amendment, allow me to remind you of the history of this little game ... a little trip down memory lane for this old warhorse. During the current Battle, the hack was attempted sabotage. A similar incident took place during the recent Oakwood Battle. But while not one of your classmates at Fielding Prep could muster the courage or the skills required to perform active technological sabotage on the Command Centre..."

Tom finally spoke, muttering, "We just didn't have the tools."

DeMartino scowled at the interruption. "Be that as it may, some days after the Fielding Prep Battle, there was a hack. This one was a quick perusal of the systems data on the project ... including the function of the collars."

Tom cut his eyes towards the door and said nothing.

"You put on quite a performance for the microphones, Mr. Sloane", he went on. "You fooled the grunts quite admirably. But you're not fooling me."

Tom, eyes locked on the door, still declined to comment. DeMartino leaned forward and hissed, "There is more than one survivor."

Daria and Quinn came through the door, Daria holding a gun trained on DeMartino. DeMartino stood up and turned to face her. Quinn clung close to Daria and squealed, "Don't move! She'll shoot you, swear to God she will!"

Daria cut her eyes to Quinn and whispered, "If you're so sure of that, you shoot him..."

"No, that's alright, Daria," DeMartino said. "That was my intention."

There was a moment of complete silence as all three teenagers stared at the teacher. And then, in unison and in the same tones of complete incredulity, they hollered, "Are you nuts?"

"Quite possibly." DeMartino took the whole thing in his stride. "For quite some time now, I have been dissatisfied, not only with my futile attempts to teach the unteachable , but with the quality of my life as a whole. My options are to either continue this dead-end, thankless life and the constant pain it brings ... or to end the charade along with my life." He looked a little shamefaced when he added, "However, it appears that I lack the courage for suicide. My best hope was that I could find a student who would perform that particular office for me. I had hoped it would be you."

This was directed at Daria, who looked at him for a moment, then said, "Excuse me?"

"You have proved your worth in class, Miss Morgendorffer ... and now you have proven your worth in combat. I would like my worthless life to end at the hands of someone with worth."

Daria just stood there, gun trained on DeMartino, finger off the trigger, looking at him. It had been an insane two or three days, and it just kept getting weirder. She'd managed to avoid killing anyone in a situation in which she had been required to do so (except for the unfortunate accident with Kevin). It was the Students at the Dawn of a New Millennium poster competition all over again -- she had held to her moral code and gone her own way in the face of overwhelming odds ... and now she was being asked to abandon them again in an assisted suicide situation. She locked eyes with Anthony DeMartino as she had when the game began, and this time she knew what she wanted to tell him with her eyes. She was saying that she had absolutely no intention of killing anyone, including him ... in short, that he could go fuck himself.

DeMartino sighed and then, in a motion too quick to see, plucked Tom's gun out of his nerveless hands and pointed it at Daria. "I'm disappointed, Miss Morgendorffer."


For a moment, Daria had no idea who'd fired the shot, or who it had hit. She didn't feel bullet-riddled, but shock had robbed her of all other sensation, so she couldn't be sure. Eventually, she blinked and saw DeMartino lying on the floor with his throat blown out, and felt Quinn's hands wrapped around her own on the gun. They both let go at the same time, and the gun clattered to the floor at DeMartino's feet.

Silence fell as all three teenagers stared at the erstwhile teacher sprawled out before them as if they expected him to get up and carry on as normal. When a minute passed and the corpse didn't move, Daria and Tom looked at Quinn, who was still staring at the body, obviously unable to come to terms with what she'd done. Eventually, she looked over at Daria and, in a voice that tried and failed to be steady and reasonable, said, "Well, you weren't going to do it..."

*          *          *          

She was right, Daria thought later, as she watched Tom steer the boat. I wasn't going to do it, and he might well have been disappointed enough to do for me what I wouldn't do for him. I spent two days trying to save Quinn's life, and she ends up saving mine.

Tom turned to her, breaking her free of that irony-tinged train of thought. "You seem to be a fast learner. Think you could steer this thing on your own?"

Daria's answering nod was sad. Tom had been faltering ever since the encounter with Girl 6; he'd refused to deal with his wounds, and neither Daria nor Quinn had thought to do it. Now it was too late, and when Tom relinquished the wheel and started staggering towards the stern of the small boat, Daria followed him.

He lay down and made himself as comfortable as he could manage; Daria sat down beside him. "Hey," he said, smiling at the distressed look in her eyes, "I'm still a winner here. There's still more than one survivor. So much for Battle Highlander, huh?"

Daria tried to smile because he seemed to expect it, then just listened to his laboured breathing. Then, for something to break the silence, she asked, "Did you ... ever figure it out? About Elsie's smile."

A smile of his own was his only answer. The only questionable mercy was that, very shortly after, the tortured sound of his breathing stopped. It had been a hard sound to take but, oddly, Daria felt worse than ever without it.

When Daria returned to the helm, Quinn was standing there waiting. "You ... pushed him ... overboard?"

Daria shrugged and looked out at the open sea. It had been the closest thing to a burial she could give him.

"Daria ... we can ... I mean..." Quinn collected herself and started again. "We can't just go home and be, like, the way we were before. Can we?"

Daria looked at Quinn, decided that honesty was the best policy, and gave it to her straight. "No, we can't. I have a feeling that, once the word gets out about how the Lawndale Battle Royale really ended, there will be a lot of Government people trying to make sure that any evidence of their misadventure is eliminated. That means any participants in or witnesses to it. And we're the only ones who fit that bill for now. If we went to our parents, they'd be witnesses, because they'd have seen us."

Quinn, her wits sharpened considerably by the last three days, nodded miserably. "Yeah, I guess." After a moment, she asked, "We can't tell anyone anything?"

Daria simply shook her head and let the silence spin out. She'd considered any number of ways to anonymously let their parents know that they were still alive, but none of them were feasible. Letters could be traced by postmark; phones could be tapped. To her dismay, it also meant that she couldn't confirm Jane's fate to Trent. On the other hand, that might not be so hard for him or for the rest of the Lane family -- in their eyes, Jane would become just another one of the Wandering Lanes, walking the earth in search of artistic opportunity. If they never knew she died, they would never have to grieve. Daria spared a thought for the Lanes and envied them tremendously.

Quinn spoke up again, asking, "So what do we do? I mean, they took our lives away; we need something, right?"

Daria looked at Quinn, an idea having struck. "Well ... we're armed, we've been given a survivalist crash-course, and we have nothing to lose. You're right, Quinn -- they took our lives away. Ever heard the one about 'turnabout is fair play'?"

Quinn considered for a moment, then said, "Sort of. The one I always heard is that payback's a bitch."

Daria turned and stared at Quinn, who looked her older sister straight in the eye and smiled.



The first thing I should do at this point is give credit where it's due. The story -- the plot -- was nothing to do with me; I did not think this sick shit up. This is an adaptation of the film version of "Battle Royale" as directed by Fukasaku Kinji, screenplay by Fukasaku Kenta. (That itself is an adaptation of a novel by Takami Kenshun, but I haven't been able to find an English translation.) So anyone with any complaints about the unreality of the plot, blame the Japanese.

I took a few liberties in adaptation (for instance, the psycho who joins up 'for fun' really did join up for fun in the film, and some of the deaths and motivations have changed) but for the most part it's a blow-by-blow adaptation of the movie. I had a little problem with the 'transfer students', given that I wanted to stick to canon characters as much as humanly possible, and that's my excuse for throwing Lynn into it. She's not canon, but she's well-known and she makes a very good psychopath, if there is such a thing.

So I guess the first vote of thanks should go to THM, not only for beta reading but for introducing me to the film in the first place. Then Chad, who's responsible for getting me the laptop I'm writing on today. (The Craptop is dead; long live Yoriko.) Then Thea_Zara, who served as what you might call an alpha-reader and whose support kept me on track with this. Then the beta-readers in no particular order -- Austin Loomis, Robert Nowall and Lawndale Stalker.