Your name is Rose Lalonde, and you are almost a high school student. Almost, in this sense, means not quite. You’ve still got just a few months of middle school left before you graduate and head to high school.
Which means you’re a few months away from candidacy into the Program.
At the moment, you’re heading to see a relative of yours. At your side is your friend, neighbor, classmate, and fellow sewing club alumni Casey Salamancer. She’s graciously volunteered to come with you, and you appreciate it. You didn’t have much interest in doing this by yourself.
“Volunteered” might be the wrong word, actually. Casey was at your house when you received the news, and she insisted on coming along for the inevitable visit. You’ve kept things deep on the down-low as best you can; if you didn’t, Jade and John and Dave would tag along. Then other people would come. Before you knew it, it’d be a whole class field trip, all twenty-nine of you going to see Roxy.
Going to see the Lalonde family murderer.
Okay, it isn’t her fault, nobody is going to blame her. The only choice your cousin made was to kill or be killed.
She chose the former. About thirty classmates of hers chose the latter.
You don’t blame Roxy, not for a moment. You just...you don’t know. You guess it’s just kind of strange to go see a girl, just a couple years your senior, who has taken another person’s life. Maybe several lives.
You like to read about serial killers and, as Dave refers to it, “grody fetish stuff” like that, but you’d never like to meet one. Depending on how many people she killed to win, Roxy might be a serial killer under the phrase’s literal definition.
The hospital is gleaming, polished white. Say what you like about the bureaucracy, at least they appreciate cleanliness enough to enforce it. You tell the receptionist, with her pink scrubs and caked-on makeup and her forced smile, that you’re here to see Roxy Lalonde. You tell her that you’re her younger cousin, and you want to talk with her.
The forced smile leaves the receptionist’s face, and she escorts you and Casey up three flights of stairs. When you reach Roxy’s room near the end of the hall, she gives you a short piece of advice.
Don’t do anything to upset her, she says, before heading back downstairs.
You peer into the room, and there she is.
God, she’s a mess. Her injuries are long since healed, as she’s been in this hospital for months. Apparently, she was in critical condition after the game, and nearly died in the process.
The thought that it might have been more merciful to let her die runs through your head, but you shake it out.
She’s lost twenty pounds if not more since the last time you saw her. Roxy had never been a particularly big girl; like you, she was slender, albeit with a bit more baby fat than you ever had. That fat is long gone, replaced with a literal hollowness to go with the figurative hollowness she now possesses.
The “winner” of the game sees you enter and smiles. Her smile is littered with gaps from broken and lost teeth, and is even further from an indicator of actual happiness than the one the receptionist bore.
“Hey, Rrrrrose,” she says, slurring your name as if it got stuck in her throat. “Good to ssssee you again...been a couple centuriesssss...”
There’s something wrong with the way she’s talking. You raise an eyebrow, trying to figure out the cause of it. It’s only when you walk inside the room do you figure it out.
This place smells like a distillery. Roxy’s drunk off her ass.
“Hey Roxy,” you nod after a moment’s hesitation. “How, exactly, did you manage to get booze into a hospital?
“By exploiting the kindnessss of others, how else?” Roxy’s toothless grin widens, and she puts a hand to her temple. “The nurssses think I’m this poor fucking boo-hoo baby who needs her bottle, and I’m too old for boob milk.”
You hear Casey rustle uncomfortably behind you. You’re used to Roxy’s crass demeanor; at least that much about her is the same.
You look at Roxy with disapproval. “Roxy, you were always able to control yourself before.”
“Oh, don’t try and politic my feelings.” Roxy snorts and wipes her nose. “It wasn’t a lot of ffffun, y’know. I spent a lot of time getting my ass kicked. I nearly died, like, eight times. I think I’ve earned a drink or forty.”
You don’t say anything. You walk a bit closer to Roxy. Casey makes some kind of weak protest, but does nothing to stop you.
Roxy puts her hands behind her head and reclines in her bed, smirking at you like you’re something vaguely amusing. “You’re actually disappointed in me, aren’t you...?”
“Am I?” You bite your lip. Are you?
Yeah, you suppose you are, a little. You knew Roxy was a fan of booze before her session, but she had also known how to handle her liquor. That seemed to be gone; she had stopped liking alcohol and started relying on it.
It’s kind of pathetic.
You weren’t going to say that, though; you couldn’t imagine what Roxy had gone through. She had nearly died, as she said; she didn’t need a lecture from you.
“Are you alright?” you finally ask after about twenty seconds of having no response. “I heard you were in a pretty precarious condition, but you seem...fine now.”
Roxy’s response was to pull her left leg out from under the covers. Her fingers trace down the long, pale, wasting limb, down to a pinkish-brown scar on the back of her knee. It’s deep and large and ugly and it makes a slight shiver run down the length of your spine.
“That’s nnnnnever going away,” Roxy says quietly. “Ever. Evvvvery time I walk, it’s going to hurt. Be like that until the day I die, or get my leg cut off, I guess.” She can’t even keep up the fake smile anymore.
You force yourself to keep your eyes on the scar. You’re afraid to ask, exactly, how she got it. Finally, you take a deep breath. “I’m sorry.”
“What are you sorry for? You didn’t give it to me.”
“I understand the opinion that we shouldn’t apologize for things that aren’t our fault,” you say, letting your eyes travel up from Roxy’s leg to her empty eyes. “I just don’t agree with it. I’m sorry this happened to you, Roxy.”
Roxy sticks her tongue out and blows a raspberry at you. “Don’t worry about me. Worry about yourself, Rosey. You’re eligible for this, almost. Worry that you’ll end up like me. Worry you’ll have to kill one or all of your friends, like...like that cutey back there.”
Casey’s eyes go wide, and the color drains from her face. You growl, your hands balling into fists. You’ve been trying really hard to stay civil, but Roxy’s not making it easy.
“That won’t happen,” you say icily. “Most kids don’t go into the program. You’re the exception, not the rule.”
“True,” Roxy shrugs. “Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t conssssider the possibility.” She reaches under her bed and pulls out an opened can of cheap beer. Putting it to her lips, she takes an unhealthily large swig of the swill, a brown trail of it leaving her mouth and dripping onto her gown.
You glare at her in disgust, and she notices. Lowering the can, Roxy swallows and blinks at you. “...Want some?”
You turn around to leave. “...Come on, Casey,” you say. You have nothing left to say to your cousin.
She apparently has something to say to you, though. With a speed you weren’t expecting, you hear her stand up behind you, and with a strength you weren’t expecting, she turns you around and grabs your arm.
“Don’t think I’m joking around just because I’m hilariousss,” she whispers in your ear. “Do you want to die, Rosey? Or do you want to live? Because you can’t win the game if you don’t want to live.”
“Fine, Roxy,” you say, trying not to show how uncomfortable you are. “What do I have to do?”
“Trust no one. No one, not even your best friends. You can be allies, but...nnnever drop your guard if another person is near you. And never show mercy to someone who tried to kill you. Ssssave your bullets...as much as you can. If you have a choice between fighting and running, always run. Fires are a great way to give away your position.” Roxy hesitates a moment for her final tip. “And if sssomeone is slowing you down, even if they’re your friend, leave them behind. Only one of you can make it out alive. One. You get me?”
“I get you,” you say. “Now let me go.”
You feel the vice-grip on your arm loosen, and Roxy trudges back to her bed. “Good luck, Rose,” she sighs, lying back down.
“I haven’t been selected for the program yet,” you say, joining Casey at the door.
“Good luck not being chosen, then. And if you are chosen, good luck winning. Heheh. Hahaha! Ahahaha!”
You glare at disgust at the cackling Roxy, then you and Casey leave the hospital room.
“Rose,” Casey manages about a minute later, while the two of you are on the elevator. “Do you...do you think they’ll actually select us?”
“No,” you say soothingly. “Roxy’s...Roxy’s crazy. Don’t worry, our chances of being chosen are very, very slim. Trust me.”
You are still Rose Lalonde.
Nine months later.
The rest of your ninth grade class are heading up into the mountains for a “special surprise,” as your teacher told you. The bus is new; a little different than the usual ones you use to drive places.
It’s rather loud in here; everybody is hanging with their friends. You, for instance, are with your good friends John, Dave, and Jade. Normally, Casey would have joined the four of you, but she’s in the back making googly eyes with Cody, her boyfriend. You’d never tell her it, but you’re pretty sure they’re only dating because they’re the two most awkward people in your class.
John and Dave are talking about the usual goofy stuff they talk about: soccer, movies, music. They’d probably be talking about girls, too, if you and Jade weren’t here.
“You think this is team-related?” John asks, his front teeth sticking out. John, along with Casey, is one of your oldest friends. Physically, he’s pretty solidly built: short but surprisingly muscular limbs on a thick, slightly-pudgy mid-section. He’s been like that for as long as you can remember, and him taking up soccer a couple years back hasn’t done much for his baby fat.
“I hope not,” replies Dave. “These mountains are in the rocky ass-crack of the world. I don’t want to play up here, that’d be stupid. The Skaian Tigers against the Inbred Academy Sisterfuckers. I bet three quarters of the team has got, like, weird webbed feet or whatever.”
Dave’s a tall, long-limbed guy who runs faster than nearly anyone else in your class. His face is long and thin, too, as is his mouth. His eyebrows, meanwhile, are huge, thick, bushy, and hilarious. Rather than shave them off, he chooses to hide them behind a pair of sunglasses; technically against school policy, but nobody cares much.
John scowls at Dave. “Great, now I’m afraid that we’re going to run out of gas and somebody is going to find us. Do you have any idea how purty my mouth is?”
“Absolutely beautiful,” Dave mutters, looking around the bus. “I’m really in no mood to play.”
“I don’t think it’s a game!” exclaims Jade. “Look, coach isn’t here. Neither is teacher.” Jade’s another old friend, one of an excitable temperament and a volume control problem. It earned her several disciplinings when she was younger, but that did very little to remedy the problem. The schools eventually accepted that this was one thing they wouldn’t be able to change.
She’s the shortest of the four of you, a lot like John physically: short-but-strong legs on a soft middle. She’s also bustier than you, but that isn’t saying very much.
“Also, if none of you have realized, we didn’t bring any of our equipment.” You raise an eyebrow at your friends. “No uniforms, no balls, no shoes. We’d have to play in our school uniforms.”
Dave flares his nostrils, as he is prone to do when he realizes you’re right. He basically never stops flaring his nostrils. “Rose, nobody cares about the equipment but you. You are literally the only human being on the planet who gives a shit.”
This is actually fairly true, as you are the team’s equipment manager. What this translates to is a marginally more impressive resume and technical membership on the soccer team in exchange for very little work. Mostly, you just sit and read during practice.
“Something the matter, Dave?” Jade asks. “You seem kind of tense.”
“I don’t know, something about all this is giving me bad juju.” Dave looks out the window as you drive farther and farther into the mountains. “There’s nothing so far out here. If there’s a town, it’s gotta be only a couple hundred people, tops.”
John scratched his head and shrugged. “Maybe it’s like a nature thingy? We’ll have to draw pictures of birds and try not to eat poisonous mushrooms and fun stuff like that?”
“That’s little baby crap. We haven’t done anything like that since primary school... dunno. Maybe.” Dave sits back, his arms crossed.
There is several seconds of silence before Jade speaks up. “Great, now I’m nervous! Thanks a lot, Dave, you jerk!”
Dave raises his hands in mock surrender. “Easy there. I’m sure it’s nothing.”
“I agree with Jade. You’ve gotten me somewhat worried, Dave,” you say. It’s the truth. Now that he’s been talking about it, you’re kind of curious as to the point of this expedition is. “I’ll go ask the bus driver where we’re going. If he doesn’t tell me, we hijack the bus and start a savage band of mountainous raiders.”
“I’ll go with you,” offers John, “for both of those things.” The two of you stand up, him just a couple inches shorter than you, and start walking to the front of the bus.
John stops about halfway up the rows, between the seats of Tavros, Aradia, Sollux, and Feferi. “Rose. Why is the bus driver putting on a gas mask?”
“What?” You look at the driver and, sure enough, he’s pulling on a black breathing apparatus. As he straps the mask to his face, he reaches under the dashboard of the bus and presses something.
There’s a faint-but-audible hissing noise, and the walls of the bus begin secreting a thick, colorless mist.
“Rose, w-what’s going on?” says John, looking back and forth frantically.
“I’m not sure,” you say, feeling your heart begin to try and force its way out of your chest. “But I intend to find out.”
Pushing your way past the clamoring students, you start to make your way to the front of the bus. It’s then that you’re hit with the fact that you are more tired than you’ve ever been in your entire life.
Seriously. It’s like you haven’t slept in a week. Your feet feel like they’ve been shackled to the floor, and your eyelids begin to get pulled down against your will. Yawning, you manage one or two more steps before losing your balance.
On your way down, something catches you. With barely open eyes, you look and see the transfer student, Pandora Merriett, her cheeks puffed out.
She lowers you into her seat, then punches the window. Nothing. Her elbow smashes into the window next, but it bounces off like the windows were made of something much sturdier than glass.
The last thing you hear before everything becomes darkness is the white-haired girl muttering “damn it, not again...”
You are now the bus driver.
With all the subjects neutralized, you hit the button under the dashboard. The fans begin to spin, sucking back in all the sleeping gas. While you wait for the air to become breathable again, you spin the wheel, turning the bus around.
Finally, with the air clear, you take a small radio off the dash and put it to your mouth.
“All subjects subdued and accounted for,” you say. “Bringing them to the testing site now.”
“...How do they look?” the voice on the other end asks. You turn your head to look at the thirty subjects.
“Honestly?” you say after a moment’s thought. “I think they’re going to tear one another to pieces.”
END OF CHAPTER ONE