Nice job. :-)
|Warning: This contains a violent scene at the end. It's not very descriptive, but you may find it disturbing.
A shrill bell cut through the air, shattering all thoughts of the students of room 894. The teacher, a tall auburn-haired man in his early thirties, closed his thin binder with a snap, turning his back to the class to erase the notes on the whiteboard.
The students rose to their feet, chattering excitedly and gathering up stacks of paper and pencils. They flooded the hallway, their voices blending in seamlessly with the cacophony of students from other classes. Lee Watari rushed toward the open doorway, attempting to squeeze through the throngs of people.
“Lee,” a voice singsonged from the rim of the mass. Lee pushed harder against the wall of bodies, dropping a pencil in the process. Other than receiving several dark looks, her efforts accomplished nothing.
A hand grasped the loose-fitting sleeve of her tunic, and Lee sighed as she allowed herself be led from the group. She came face-to-face with Cong, a brunette boy notorious for his freckles and slightly overlarge nose. “Lee, didn’t you hear me?”
“No,” she said, craning her neck to watch the waning line over his shoulder.
“Oh, okay then.” His countenance brightened a bit. “So, guess what?”
Lee bit back a sharp retort, still trying to catch a glimpse of the door over Cong’s shoulder. “Hmm?”
Cong bounced up and down on the balls of his feet, his hands clasped behind his back. He stepped closer, and Lee took a step back automatically. Cong’s forehead creased, a cluster of freckles trapped within the newly formed crevices. “Why did you just do that, Lee?”
“I don’t know.” She twisted a strand of her hair around her second finger. The doorway was still filled.
Stepping back once more, Cong scratched at his ear and threw a sideways glance at the window. Dappled light grazed his jaw as he spoke. “I’m…” He leaned forwards, bending at the waist. “I’m going to look for my parents.” His voice was a faint whisper, his breath hot against her ear, smelling faintly of peppermint.
Lee’s eyebrow rose at this, and she crossed her arms. “Sure, Cong. Let me know how that goes, okay? Or, maybe, how it doesn’t go.” With that, she pushed past the boy, making her way into the hallway of the Testing Center.
Five days later, flyers began appearing all around the Center, all with identical dark red backgrounds with white letters blazoned across the front announcing, ‘MANDATORY SEMINAR THURSDAY IN ROOM 803.’
The auburn-haired history teacher, Mr. King, made a formal announcement a day after the flyers appeared, during which he cleared his throat several times. “As you should already all be aware, Thursday is the day this seminar is to be held. You will report here at the usual time, then we will proceed to…”
Lee’s eyes glazed over as he droned on, her thoughts drifting. When was the next Game? If it wasn’t soon, she didn’t know if she could survive the week… The girl next to her began chipping away at her nails, the white flakes littering the white tile.
“…the final scheduled in three weeks- it’s scheduled to be on Friday- will be strictly on government policies,” Mr. King was saying, arms folded across the chest of his white tunic. A chorus of groans arose from this remark, and Lee joined in, not quite sure what she was protesting against. Holding up one hand to silence them, Mr. King turned to the whiteboard and wrote down several dates. “Next Thursday, we’ll have a review in class. Make sure you all study-“
The bell promptly silenced his voice, and he closed his mouth, gathering his binder in his arm and heading out the door before any of the other students.
As Lee filed out with the rest of the students, Cong walked beside her, having to skip a few times to match her brisk pace. “So,” he said, a bit breathlessly, “are you going to study for the final?”
“Yes.” Lee didn’t turn, though her pace slowed a bit.
“You really shouldn’t, Lee.”
“Yeah. When are we going to use this stuff, anyway? It is rather pointless, not to mention tedious.”
“Lee, do you… do you think that maybe our parents cared about us?”
Lee met his gaze, her face unmoved. “No.”
They walked in silence for the rest of the way through the endless hallways, until at last they reached Lee’s room. Before Cong could say a goodbye of any sort, he was face-to-face with her door.
The rest of the week passed by uneventfully, teachers reviewing trivial information for the upcoming finals and students nearly breaking under the stress. Lee, for her part, arranged a study schedule, confident that she would be prepared for the fast-approaching final. To her chagrin, Cong tagged along with her at every available break after class or before. He seemed quieter, though, becoming more subdued as the week progressed. At the end of one conversation, he murmured, ‘Is your spirit broken, Lee?’ She, of course, hadn’t responded to the outrageous remark, though it nagged her occasionally, for reasons she couldn’t quite name.
Thursday was met with incessant chatter concerning the seminar. Every hallway that Lee weaved through between bells was filled with clumps of students talking about…
Lee joined in the talk whenever opportunity was presented, determined to prove her superior knowledge despite the fact that she knew no more about the seminar than anyone else. One girl, who introduced herself as Lian, was particularly interested in what she had to say, agreeing with her after every prediction she made about what the seminar was about. Indeed, there were rumors abound, varying from the seminar being about getting new tunics (this was rejected immediately, since they had just had a fitting last month) to the outrageous idea of changing room assignments early.
The fourth bell rang, sentencing death to conversations on countless lips. Lee hurried to Mr. King’s class, arriving at the door just as a line began forming behind the doorway. Cong was- quite predictably, Lee thought- stalling at the back of the line, his tunic rumpled and his chestnut hair even more unruly than usual.
Lee bit her lip, glancing at the front of the line where Lian was gesturing for her to come, then to the back where Cong was. Abominable, annoying, absurd Cong, she thought. Still, she felt more reluctant than she would have liked when she joined Lian at the front.
Since their classroom and the seminar were both on the eighth floor, it was within minutes that they arrived at a room nearly identical from the one that they had just exited. Murmurs resumed as the door opened, revealing a carpeted interior with a three large tables arranged around a smaller rectangular stage. Lee could only see two of the tables clearly, since a boy in front of her blocked part of her view. From what she could see, however, two people were stationed by the surrounding tables, standing ram-rod straight, left hand folded, as customary, over their right. Rings adorned both of their left hands, sterling silver that gleamed in the light.
When a boy in front of her shifted to the left, another figure was revealed on the rightmost table, a contrast to the other two. He lounged in a chair, his head tipped back over the headrest and a condescending smirk playing upon his lips. While the other two appeared older, perhaps in their forties or fifties, he looked younger, only two or three years older than the majority of their class.
Mr. King cut through the clogged entrance and inclined his head at the three. The older two returned it, but the other merely broadened his smirk. Clearing his throat, Mr. King motioned for the students to sit at a table. Lian smiled at Lee and pointed toward the table with the lounging boy. Lee, who also felt drawn to him, shrugged a shoulder and weaved through the throng to the table. They were the first to sit, and Mr. King frowned at them from his place on the opposite side of the room.
Pretending not to notice, Lee folded her arms and chatted with Lian, who kept giggling and glancing at the boy on the opposite side of the table. Well, that’s definitely not obvious, Lee thought sarcastically, and tipped back in her chair, allowing the front set of legs to lift up off the floor. She closed her eyes, reveling in the freedom from work. True, she found solace in the constancy and consistency of the work, but it was good to have a break in the pattern every once in a while.
After a few moments, she opened her eyes, and blinked when she noticed that the boy was staring straight at her. When their gaze locked, he smirked once more, his slightly crescent-shaped eyes drawing up a bit at the end. Her own eyes narrowed. “Do you want something?” Lian nudged her in the ribs, but Lee refused to break off her staring contest.
The boy yawned, surprising her. Something glittered inside his mouth, though it closed before she could glimpse what it was. “I could have your name filed, you know,” he drawled, pale lips quirking.
Lian’s nudges became harder, more insistent. Sucking in her breath, Lee cast her a dark look before reclining back in her chair and surveying the boy. Why the hell does he look so damned amused? And is he only bluffing? Her pulse raced a bit at the prospect of being filed, but she attempted to keep her expression cool, disinterested. “Yeah?” she replied, voice neutral. “On what offense?”
Like a cat, he straightened the column of his spine, arching slowly and rolling back his shoulder with precise, fluid movements. Once he was done, he leaned over the table, so quickly that Lian jumped beside Lee. “Insolence,” he hissed, his lips curved. Tufts of too-long black hair stuck up in odd angles about his face, and his dark jade eyes were tilted slightly at a downwards angle. Lee recoiled, the legs of her chair hitting the carpet with a dulled thump.
With a self-satisfied smirk, he leaned back against the back of his chair and let his eyes drift shut. Once her fast pulse had settled, she was able to hear that one of the other two people standing when they had entered the room was speaking.
“…test to see if you can excel in a different environment. As you have already realized, there is a life after school-“
“Yeah, right,” murmured Lee, and saw, from the edges of her vision, the boy’s eyes snap open.
“-and, as such, you shall be expected to transition smoothly from one environment to another. The guide who is sitting at your table now will be monitoring your behavior in all work environments. My name,” the man said, gesturing to himself, “is Shing Zhao. This,” he gestured towards the woman who stood at the table beside him, and she inclined her head, “is Shu Fang Sun. And, finally,” he turned around, smile broad, “this is Sya Snomis.”
Repressing the urge to scowl at the thought that “Sya” would be their instructor for an undetermined amount of time, Lee scanned the occupants of the table, searching for a familiar face. Cong was sitting on Lee’s left, Lian on her right. Two other students were seated around the perimeter, and, of course, Sya. Lee’s eyes darted back to Cong. At that moment, his eyes were narrowed and his teeth bore at… Who? she wondered. He was looking at someone at the table, but, before she could follow the direction of his glare, Cong’s eyes had flicked to her, and his features softened before he looked back down at the table.
“Alright,” drawled Sya, his voice laced with sarcasm, “let’s all be good little kids and get to know more about each other. Let’s start with you,” he said, jabbing his left thumb in the direction of Lian. Lee’s eyes narrowed in on his ring finger… or, rather, ring-less finger. Why didn’t he have one?
“Oh, um,” Lian stuttered, blushing. “My name is Lian, and I-“
“That’s great,” cut in Sya. “Next person.”
A tall blonde girl next to Lian answered next, “My name is Fen,” she said in a condescending tone, tossing her hair. Fen looked expectantly at a small mouse-like girl beside her.
“I’m Shan,” she squeaked- quite appropriately, Lee thought. She was petite, with a small nose that quivered when she spoke. Her eyes were large and dark, the pupils dilated almost to the point of consuming the entire iris.
Sya’s eyes lingered on her a moment longer than necessary, his expression thoughtful. “Your name means ‘coral,’” he remarked dryly.
Her eyes widening, Shan bit her lip. “Oh, I, um, don’t know what that is, sir.”
The corner of his lip twitched. “Of course you don’t, Mousey,” he replied, his eyes already sliding to the next occupant. Cong appeared to be seething, his knuckles white as they gripped the table. It was so uncharacteristic of him that Lee became fully awake, eyes riveted on him.
“Well?” Sya inquired in amused tones, stretching his arms up over his head. Once again, Lee was forcibly reminded of his resemblance to a feline, and she bit back on a smile.
Cong finally met Sya’s eyes, a muscle in his jaw jumping. “Cong,” he spat, and the table shifted slightly in his grasp.
“Hey, cut that out!” Fen demanded irritably, her arms crossed. Cong made a growling sound in the back of his throat at her.
“Hey, hey…” admonished Sya. “Don’t take out your anger on others.”
Something’s wrong here, thought Lee, her gaze darting from Sya to Cong. But what? And was it Sya that Cong was glaring at earlier? Why?
Just then, the bell rang. Before they could get up from the table, Sya stopped them with a gesture. “Wait, I have to give these out... procedure.”
He reached inside a pocket of his tunic- since when have there been pockets?! Lee thought- and pulled out a bag with silver bands inside. “Here,” he said, handing them out. Lee felt the weight of the silver in her fingers and looked closer. Twin S’s snaked along the band. Wow, she thought, a bit breathlessly.
Her annoyance at Sya forgotten, she looked up at him to find him studying their reactions. “Thank you,” she whispered, mesmerized once again by the ring.
He looked at her, his gaze solemn. “Oh, I don’t think you want to be thanking me just yet,” he murmured.
A week passed, during which talk still hadn’t died down about the seminar. Or, now, their new lessons. They were to meet once a week in place of their History class. Lee found herself looking forward to the lesson, and, on the day it came, she and Lian were once again the first in line. This time, she gave no thought to the boy in the back, her mind dwelling on the prospect of the lessons. She took pride in her schoolwork- maybe she could even show her instructor up. That would wipe that annoying smile off his face.
When they arrived once again at room 803, they found the tables to be gone. The students paused at the door, uncertain of what to do. After a moment, the woman instructor, Shu Fang, stepped out from the corner. “My students stay in this room. Those who are assigned to Sya or Shing go to the rooms next door. Sya has the room to the right, and Shing to the left.”
As Lee and Lian backed into the hallway to locate their class, a cluster of students passed by them, filing eagerly into the classroom. “C’mon, Lee,” Lian said, pushing her forward. Stumbling slightly, Lee followed behind Fen, the tall blond girl from last week, and entered the room to the right. It was bigger than the one used by Shu Fang’s group, and, in the middle of the room, several black bags were piled up.
Sya lazed in the middle of the floor, his legs crossed and his palms propped behind him on the coffee-colored carpet as he tipped his head back. He stared at them as they entered the room, then stood and pulled at the bags until they were evenly spaced on the floor. Fen strode forward while the others hesitated by the doorway, until Sya glanced at them and gestured impatiently for them to sit down.
“What are those?” Fen asked immediately, bending to pick up a bag. Sya ignored her, and Fen, obviously realizing she wasn’t going to get an answer, dropped the bag and joined everyone, sitting pretzel-style in a circle. Lee glanced at Sya, only to find that his eyes were closed, and his expression, for once, serene.
Mousey fidgeted from her spot beside him, glancing at him repeatedly before looking away. After a few moments of silence, Fen leaned forward and poked him sharply on the arm. With a loud sigh that made them all jump slightly, he stretched and bent backwards to retrieve the bags. “These,” he explained, stifling a yawn, “are for all of you.” He grasped one by the top, the plastic crackling. “Here,” he said, thrusting one at Mousey. “And if any of you lose these, you’re in deep trouble. So just make things easier on yourselves and don’t do it.”
Sya handed out the rest, then watched silently as they tore the lace of plastic off and deposited it on the carpet, tearing into the bag. Like with the ring, there were many coos and gasps as the contents of the bags were revealed. Lee marveled at the sleek portable computer, turning it over and over in her hands, trying to take in the sight of all the buttons. She paused as the metal of the ring on her finger jangled with the metal of the computer, then flipped it back to its front. When she looked up, she found Sya’s gaze to be riveted on her face, an enigmatic expression etched across his features. She frowned slightly, not knowing what to make of it, when it dissolved from his face. “Alright,” he said, his voice rather flat. “These are called Mosins. Actually…” he paused, and his gaze once again flicked to Lee before flitting to the ceiling. “Write that down.”
All four dutifully took out paper and a writing utensil while he dictated the spelling. “M-O-S-I-N.” He paused here, then resumed speaking. “You’re going to have to remember that, and you are going to have to use this tool to… to…” He yawned again, and this time didn’t bother to stifle it. After rubbing his eyes to rid them of the gathered moisture, he continued. “-Use this tool to succeed not only in these lessons, but in your next phases of life.
“Speaking of these lessons,” Sya continued, his tone never once shedding its original inflection, “two weeks from today will be our first official lesson. You will each be assigned to go to a specific workplace, and will there be tested and graded on your abilities to adapt to that situation. After next week, this will continue every other week, until each of you has had the chance to attempt every job. Then, whichever area each of you receives the highest in, that will be where you will progress to, and eventually advance and, hopefully, excel in. Clear enough?”
At the word ‘graded,’ all four’s ears had perked up. When they nodded, Sya smiled. “Good. Now that that is taken care of, we can continue where we left off last time.” He nodded toward Lee. “Would you please introduce yourself?”
Feeling her ears grow hot as the eyes of the group swiveled on her, Lee nodded. “My name is Lee.” She left it at that, remembering when Lian had tried to continue and had been cut off. Sya nodded shortly, while the rest of the group turned their attention back to their Mosins.
After a moment, Sya began speaking again, his voice lighter than before, “So… we have Lian, Mousey, Fen, Cong, and Lee.” He smirked. “I think I like Mousey’s name the best, though.” The girl christened ‘Mousey’ flushed and ducked her head, her hair falling in a short curtain around her face.
Lee blinked. What had Mousey’s name been before Sya had changed it? She couldn’t remember… Discarding the thought, Lee nibbled at the skin that bordered her fingernail.
“So, here are your...” he dipped his hand into the pocket of his tunic, pulling out five pieces of folded paper. “…assignments,” he finished, darting his tongue out over his lips. He handed one first to Fen, then Lee, Lian, and lastly Mousey. He paused, holding the last paper in his hand. “Where’s Cong? Has anyone seen him?”
The four looked up, startled. Cong? Lee thought. He must not have shown up for class… “Maybe he’s sick,” Lian offered with a one-shouldered shrug.
After accepting her paper, Lee scanned it quickly. ‘THOUGHT ELECTRONICS: SET DESIGN,’ she read across the top. She systematically read it thoroughly from top to bottom, skimming over things she already knew. ‘INSTRUCTOR: SYA SNOMIS.’ His name is so weird… she thought. No one has a name like ‘Sya’… and for good reasons.
“Bring this with you next Thursday, and we’ll discuss-“
At that moment, the door burst open, revealing a wild-eyed Shu Fang. “Sya,” she gasped. “Th-the wall… another graffiti…. come quickly.”
Lee darted a glance to Sya’s face, and saw it was drawn in a scowl. “Stay here until the bell,” he ordered them, then stalked out of the room behind Shu Fang.
When the door had creaked shut, the four looked at each other. “What do you think she was talking about?” Fen asked, directing her question at Lee.
Lee shrugged, attempting nonchalance. “Something about graffiti…” After a moment of silence, she got up and crept to the door, opening it and peering through the crack. “No one’s there,” she informed the group that stood behind her.
It was Mousey that spoke up next. “You aren’t r-really going out there after he told us to stay, a-are you?” she stammered, nose twitching furiously.
Just at that moment, the bell rang, lighting up Lee’s face. “Won’t have to,” she grinned, then stepped out the door. None of the other classes were out yet, since students were still gathering materials.
“Oh, our Mosins!” exclaimed Fen. “Maybe we should go back and get them…”
“No,” Lee replied shortly. “We can come back. C’mon, let’s go see if we can find them.” Lian pushed in beside Lee, and together they all walked briskly down the halls, scanning them for any sign of Shu Fang or Sya.
Just when they were about to turn back, they heard voices drifting from an adjoining hallway. Making a quick motion for them to follow, Lee tiptoed up to corner and peered around it. Sya and Shu Fang stood about ten feet away, bickering. Shu Fang kept sending glances at the wall that Lee couldn’t make out. She moved out of the way so the others could also see what was going on.
She bit her lip, then sauntered out of her hiding spot, walking down the hall towards Sya and Shu Fang. Fen and Lian were arguing behind her, but she tuned them out, instead focusing on the wall that was swiftly coming into view. Black graffiti letters adorned the wall, and she squinted to make out what they said.
“What are you doing here?” Sya demanded upon spotting her.
“Oh… just walking…”
“Well, go get to your next class,” he snapped. Shu Fang frowned at her, making a shooing gesture with her hands. Obviously they aren’t in the best of moods.
“Will do,” she replied flippantly. Her pulse was racing, and she sent one last glance at the wall, making sure what she had read before was correct. Her suspicions confirmed, she jogged down the hallway, looping around to locate the room with her Mosin inside.
As soon as she was inside, the others crowded around her. “What did it say? The graffiti?” Fen asked eagerly. The others nodded, and Lian clung to her arm.
“It said…” Lee took a deep breath, trying to soothe her nerves. “‘Because Simon Didn’t Say.’ I think it was a warning.”
“… so, when Simon established the Testing center, he wanted to make it so everyone felt united, no matter what their position or station,” Mr. King explained, his hands clasped over his desk. “Thus, the Games were created. Every month, we hold a friendly competition, and the assigned teams are different every week. Can anyone explain what the rules of the game are? All of you, obviously, know how to play, but you’re going to need to explain how in writing for the final.”
Several hands shot up, and Mr. King smiled, revealing a dimple in his left cheek. “Good, very good. How about… Fen, you answer.”
The blond girl smirked, tossing her hair. “There are three discs, and three platforms. They are color-coordinated, so each disc has a different color, and each platform has a different color, and the colors of a specific disc will match one platform. The discs are grey, white, and black. You can tell the colors of the platforms because the top is a solid color- white, grey, or black- just like the discs. No one knows who is on what team, so everyone is, naturally, against everyone else. That’s because everyone gets an individual assignment. So, anyone who gets white would have to throw the disc on the white platform.”
“Very good, Fen. If you had written that on the test, you would have gotten it almost completely correct. Almost, but not quite. Does anyone know what she left out of her explanation?”
Fen huffed, leaning back in her chair with her arms crossed over her chest. Appearing amused, Mr. King tapped his fingers lightly on her desk. “It was very well done, Fen.” Thus mollified, Fen nodded at him and uncrossed her arms. Several giggles followed from the class, and even Fen smiled a bit.
The sudden sound of a door slamming shut startled the class, and one girl’s giggles morphed into a short scream. Cong stalked to his seat, his movements closely followed by the eyes of every member of the class.
Lee was quick to notice his busted lip and the bruise on his cheek. Her eyes then flicked to his right arm, where four bracelets adorned his wrist, arranged in order from darkest to lightest, the darkest band the one closest to his hand. He was scowling, refusing to make eye contact with any of them.
“Getting back to the Games, does anyone know what Miss Fen left out?” Mr. King deftly scanned the room. “No one? Well, then, take out your notes, because this will be on the test.” He waited until the shuffling of papers had died down, then continued. “Now that you all have come of the age to have revceived your Mosins and rings, the Games will become something more for you. Up until this point, you may have been able to take them lightly. But now, you play for one reason and one alone. You play for Simon.” Here, he paused, trailing his finger over a girl’s desk.
“In the Games, no one ever wins.” Pausing again, Mr. King waited until the scratching of pencils on paper stopped. “Winning does not exist- every victory is, in some way or another, a loss. You must always remember that. To think otherwise would mean your demise.” Mr. King wiped the perspiration from his brow and scanned the faces of the class. “Skepticism, hm? Well, that is to be expected. You’ll see what I mean, soon enough. Now that you all have your Mosins, you’ll be entered in the official games, and you’ll know what I am talking about.”
The bell rang, and, for once, the students left the class with something other than fragmented thoughts.
“Hey, Cong!” Lee called, jogging to catch up with him. His retreating form slowed, but he didn’t stop completely. She jogged a bit to catch up to him. “Hey, are you okay?”
When he turned to look at her, his eyes were glassy. “No, I’m not okay. No one in this stupid place can see what’s happening to him or her, except me! I thought…” He stopped to scrub at his eyes with the sleeve of his tunic. “I thought my parents would understand. But I found them… and they don’t even acknowledge me at all! This place... I hate this place… Lee… can… can you see what they’re doing to us? This… this… Sya and all the rest?!” The rims of his eyes were red, the irises bloodshot.
Lee shook her head slowly. “Cong, I have no idea what you’re-”
“Damn it, Lee! All of this… It’s just pitting us against one another. No one is united or any of the other crap they spew to back up what they’re doing. It’s all… lies. And… I’m so, so tired of it.” He broke off, and, for the first time Lee noticed how weary he looked, the dark black circles under his eyes, the condition of his tunic and hair.
“Cong…” she started, trying to think of something to say.
“Don’t even start,” he snapped, eyes flaming. “You’re just like the rest of them, Lee. Just like the rest of them.”
Then he turned and walked away.
“No, no- you’re doing it all wrong!” A voice snapped from beyond the tinted glass door of THOUGHT ELECTRONICS. “I don’t want the crowded beach scene… I want… flowers, a lagoon… Someplace tropical, but not so much so that the equipment manager faints in mid-shot. Get it right this time, Lee.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Lee demurred from her place outside the glass, dipping her head once again to the array of dials. As her eyes darted from one control panel to the next, her right hand twisted the sterling silver ring on her left index finger, circling in an endless pattern the letters emblazoned on the metal- SS. They were interwoven about each other like snakes, each never losing grasp of the other. At last, she stopped playing with the ring, though her fingers still lingered on its surface.
The tray in front of her was an off-white rectangle, with two squares on either side containing the various dials. In the center was a small red grid, the lines perfectly parallel and evenly spaced. A wave of dizziness passed over her as her hand hovered over the grid. Don’t mess up, don’t mess up, don’t mess up…
Her pale-hued eyes narrowed in concentration, then shut briefly just before her palm made contact. Instantly, the grid lost its previous color, flashing from one hue to the next in a matter of milliseconds. Her eyes shut tightly against the flashing display, but she didn’t remove her palm.
Every possible elliptical pattern known to man played across the lines of the grid axes, the patterns alternately arching and leaning into the lines across from them. Lee withdrew her hand after a sharp intake of breath. The colors and lines finally settled, so the lines were straight again, and the grid was a solid cerulean blue.
Lee’s eyes were fixated now on the door, her hands twisting, twisting, twisting the ring. The door, too, had changed color to match the blue of the grid, though it was more gradual, the color seeping into the glass from the center out. After the glass was completely submerged in cerulean, there was complete silence, pierced only by the soft hum from the grid tray.
Moments passed, and Lee straightened her prim white tunic before her fingers again found the ring. Her gaze never once wavered from the door, not even when it opened, followed by the procession of men and women in similar nondescript white uniforms.
A woman carrying a Mosin approached her, a small smile tugging at her lips. “Well done, Lee. I think we may just have our set.”
Lee breathed out a sigh of relief and laughed; releasing all the tension she had held onto earlier. Only then did she let go of the ring, and shake the other woman’s right hand.
Thirty minutes later, everyone had cleared out, leaving Lee alone to input a summary of her job in her Mosin.
“Nice job,” drawled a voice from behind Lee. She gasped, swiveling around. Sya smirked at her, pushing himself off from where he had leaned against the wall.
“Oh,” she said. “it’s you.” Then she looked back down at her Mosin, finishing her write-up. Just as she was nearing the end of the summary, she heard a soft click and the lighting flickered out. Lee looked up, squinting to see through the pitch.
“Sya?” she called. “Turn the lights back on, now.” After waiting a moment without response, she hissed through her teeth, thoroughly annoyed. “This isn’t-” A hand covered her mouth, effectively muffling any intelligible words.
She struck out blindly behind her, and felt her fist come into contact with something solid. A hiss issued from behind her, and the grip loosened. She struggled, and the hands let go of her mouth, latching onto to her wrist with alarming precision.
“Stop being so jumpy, Lee,” came the purr of an amused voice.
“Sya…” she seethed. “Let go of my wrist and turn the lights on.” Without waiting for a reply, she twisted out of his grip, massaging her wrist.
A moment later, light flooded the room, and Lee cringed at the onslaught. “Who do you think you are?” she demanded, taking a step closer to him. “I thought you were supposed to be my instructor.” With a grunt of frustration, she turned back around, pocketing her Mosin in her new tunic.
“Don’t you want to see what I brought you?” he queried, his voice laced with amusement. Frowning, Lee turned slowly back around, fidgeting with her ring again.
“What are you talking about?”
His smirk was clearly written across his face. “Hold out your hands and close your eyes. I was going to use the dark, but since you’re so jumpy…”
“Oh, shut up.” Lee smiled a bit, despite herself. She did what he said, taking two steps forward and closing her eyes.
“Hands,” he reminded lightly, and she thrust out her palms. For a minute, there was nothing. It seemed almost as if he were hesitating, and Lee fidgeted. Then, she felt him place something long and thin into her hands. She closed her fingers around it, exploring the object with her fingers. It was cool to the touch, and had several sheet-thin protrusions on the sides.
“You can open your eyes now,” Sya said, his voice sounding more distant than before. Lee did so, and could not stifle a gasp.
“What… what is it?” she asked, awe creeping into her voice. The long slender part was solid green, but the slightly spherical end was completely white, like the color of the tunics.
Sya smiled, and, for once, it reached his eyes. “It’s a flower. Which won’t make a difference to you at all, but…”
“A flower,” Lee repeated, running her fingers over the smooth surface. “It’s beautiful. Thank you.”
Nodding, Sya stepped backwards and sat in a chair in the corner. “So how was your day?” He brought up one leg on the chair and rested his chin on his knee while studying her.
She shrugged, her attention still on the flower. “It was okay.” She hesitated, unsure of whether to go on. “Cong went a little… psycho.”
Sya straightened, his eyes sharp. “Oh?”
“Yeah. Kept saying something about me being like everyone else or something. I don’t know. He made a good point, though,” she mused, fingering the leaves of the flower. “The Games aren’t really about being united at all, they’re really just dividing our loyalties so much that they stretch and eventually break.”
“You’re talking nonsense,” Sya broke in, his voice sounding false and his smile strained. “Do you… do you know where Cong is now?”
Shaking her head, Lee played with her ring again, tracing it first with her finger, then with the flower. “Haven’t seen him since his episode. I think he’s mad at me, but I’m not quite sure why…”
Silence ensued, and Lee looked up, eyes focusing in on the vacated chair that Sya had been sitting in moments earlier.
He was gone.
“Alright, settle down, class. Today, we’re going to review for the final. Everyone please take out your Mosins.” There was a flurry of movement as the class retrieved them. “Set them to projection-mode, like we practiced last week, and focus them on that wall over there,” Mr. King directed, gesturing towards the wall with the whiteboard.
Seconds later, squares of light began to appear on the wall, shaking slightly as students put them on the desk and fidgeted with the position. Lee had hers centered off to the left of the board, Lian had hers toward the center, right below Fen, and Mousey and Cong had directed theirs to the far right.
“Okay, we’re going to start out with a simple question. Everyone should know the answer to this,” Mr. King said meaningfully, his gaze sweeping the students. After clearing his throat, he started the review. “Alright, what is the name of our system of government?” Everyone bent over their Mosins, pressing the small keys for letters. A few people raised their hands, asking how to insert spaces.
“Alright, please reveal the answers on the projector screen.” Mr. King peered at the rapidly appearing answers on the board and nodded approvingly. “Good. The answer is ‘Simon Says.’ Very good, class. Now we’re all certain no one here will get below a one percent on the final.” There were a few snickers at this.
Just then, the door opened. A woman stood in the doorway, her arms crossed and her small eyes flickering over the faces of students. “I’m looking for a Lee Watari,” she sniffed, turning her attention to Mr. King.
Lee froze, her eyes widening. The Mosin dropped from her hand, clattering on the ground, the projection reversed so the words were backwards. For a moment, staring at her fallen projection, everything else melted away. Since the projection was near the ground, no one else had seen it. In bold letters, it read, ‘Syas Nomis.’ Her pulse flooded her ears, drowning out all other sound. And when you move the ‘s’… Sya Snomis.
Sya was Simon.
Everything after that ran together like the paints in a watercolor painting, the colors bleeding together. Except white bleeding into white didn’t make much of a change. The woman escorted Lee to a door and left, leaving her to her own devices. No, she thought. Sya’s devices.
Bile rose to her throat as she entered the room, only to discover it, too, had a hallway. It curved, first to the right, then to the left, then right again. When she reached the end, she found a small desk with a tall man waiting. He had long, bony fingers that clutched a Mosin, typing in a string of numbers.
He glanced up when she approached. “Oh, and are you Miss...” He flipped through a file, moistening the pad of his skeletal thumb with a flick of his tongue to flip the crisp pages. “Miss Lee Watari?”
Lee nodded, not even attempting to speak.
“Alright,” he said, his eyes moving swiftly over the file. “Nothing too serious here. You were just reported for… oh, never mind. You just need a Level One band.” He bent down to his desk and opened a drawer, withdrawing a light grey band and holding out his free hand for her wrist.
She proffered her left arm, and shook his head. “No, never the left,” he said. “That’s for your ring.” Numbly, she stuck out her right, and he snapped it on. “Alright, now, just make sure I don’t see you in here again. There are five bands in total, five levels. You do not want to be on the fifth level. Fifth level bands are means to the end. Do you understand?”
Lee nodded, and he seemed mollified. “Good. Then you can let yourself out the door. I think the bell is going to ring soon.” A smile lit his face. “And the next Game is coming up.”
Light blazed in the narrow hallway, making the whitewashed walls and marble floor almost blinding. Lee’s hands were folded as she walked through the corridor’s length, her eyes downcast and squinting against the glare.
A silhouetted figure brushed past her, stride brisker than Lee’s. “Ling,” Lee spoke, lifting her head. She cast a glance at the walls, then returned her gaze to the older woman in front of her.
Ling stopped in mid-stride. “Lee Watari,” she replied curtly. Silhouetted against the bright light, Ling’s every wrinkle and stray hair were made apparent.
Lee cringed, fidgeting with her left hand. Her eyes were averted, staring at a spot on the floor. “Do you know where the event schedule is for today?”
There were a few heartbeats of silence, as Ling frowned at the girl in front of her. Ling’s face was drawn, brow creasing. At last, she inquired, “You didn’t check it before now?”
“I-I,” Lee stammered. “I’ve just begun my new job, and-“
“Fine, fine,” Ling interrupted. “The room has a new password and a color code. Just give me your Mosin, and I’ll input the necessary information.” She stepped forward, left hand outstretched. As the sleeve of her tunic fell back over her arm, the ring on her fourth finger glinted, the ‘SS’ shining maliciously in the light. Mosin…Simon.
Lee stepped back suddenly, her eyes wide. “No, that’s okay, thanks…” Her hands were shaking, clutching her tunic tightly within white-knuckled fists. “I really have to be going.”
Ling’s eyes narrowed, and she advanced another step. A thin vein in Lee’s throat fluttered, pulse flitting in and out like the rapid beat of a butterfly’s wing. With that, she turned around, facing the hallway she had just come out of, and sprinted, never once glancing back.
A roar rose up from the crowd, drowning out the comparatively weak stream of announcements from the speaker. Only fragments could be made out.
“…monthly meet, hosted by Simon. Speaking of….”
“…new Mosins available at any….”
“…tension is mounting in the crowd, and it doesn’t seem…”
“…reminder that the schedule change for next month is…”
Lee was situated on the first row of chairs overlooking the event, her eyes half-lidded. When a trill pierced the air, she started, glancing around. The entire first row got up, movements in uniform. Stifling a yawn, Lee did the same, rolling her shoulders to loosen the built-up tension.
Assuming her position on the vacated field, she watched as three discs were placed on the line intersecting the middle of the rectangle in which the three teams were enclosed. One disc was white in color, another grey, and the last black. Three platforms were arranged in a triangle across the rectangle, the top of the platform the same shape and color as the discs.
The same trill used to end the last game sounded again. Lee ran forward with the rest, one patch of white lost among a colorless swarm. Discs were snatched from hands, and the deafening roar of the crowd resumed, yells without distinction or even words. It seemed almost a unified primal scream, a venting of emotions at nothing in particular.
Lee emerged from the sea, wild-eyed and panting from the exertion. The grey disc was clutched in her left hand, and her right held onto her side. She stumbled forward, facing the grey platform. Just as all the others did, she stopped, reluctant to make the final throw.
At that moment, a gasp escaped her, her gaze transfixed on something, or someone, in the crowd. “Sya…” she murmured, her gaze skimming over the throngs of people, but her eye contact broke when a body shoved into her with a harsh grunt, the disc knocked from her grasp.
Wincing, she gathered herself back up from where she had fallen on the floor, biting her bottom lip. She darted back after the disc, wrenching it from the grasp of a tall curly-haired man. With one final darting glance at the crowd, she threw the disc into the air.
At that moment, the crowd went dead silent, eyes following the trail of the disc as it ascended, then descended through the air…
And landed on the black platform.
That night, as she stared up at the ceiling of her room, she felt something nagging at her thoughts, keeping her awake. She lay in bed, lingering on the breath between dream and reality.
Just as her eyes began to drift shut, she heard the floor creak. Her pulse went on hyper drive, but she kept her eyes shut. Another sound, much closer, made her insides squirm. Then, when she felt the bed move, her eyes flicked open, and her lips parted in a scream…
Just before Cong’s hand came crashing down on them. The pressure of his hand made her lips graze across her teeth, drawing blood. It left a bitter taste in her mouth. She could only stare, wide-eyed, as he stood over her, clutching something dark in his hand. When she realized what it was, her hands flew to the hand covering her mouth, trying to pry it off.
He pressed down harder, and she surrendered to his death grip, settling instead for reaching for his other arm and trying to remove the severed Level Five band from his grip. It was much thinner and sharper than the others, and appeared considerably more lethal.
Cong pinned her arm to her sides. “Lee… stop… struggling!” he whispered heatedly. “Can’t you see I’m trying to save you?”
By now, tears were falling from her eyes, thick and fast, even as he kept babbling. “You’re the only one worth saving here, Lee. I’m sorry before that I said… that you were like everyone else. Because… because you aren’t. They all completely pushed me away. You didn’t.” He sniffed, wiping at his eyes with the hand that held the band. “You know about him, don’t you? Sya?”
Lee nodded her head slowly against his palm, feeling an odd sense of acceptance wash over her. Her body relaxed against the bed, and the crease in Cong’s brow smoothed out, freeing the freckles. “If I could, Lee, I’d… I’d destroy all of them. But I, I can’t. So, this is the best way.” He bent down toward her, his peppermint breath fanning across her face. “Sweet dreams, Lee.” He placed a brotherly kiss on her cheek and smoothed her hair before stepping back. Without another word, he lowered the metal in his hand and slashed it across her throat.
She choked, gasping, and thrashed on the bed, trying to grasp her throat and Cong held back her hands. And then, she finally saw past all the white ceilings, white tunics, black bands…
She really saw.
It’s true, she thought distantly. No one ever wins, because they know to win would be to disappoint Simon.
He wants to keep the game going.
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