Chip glanced down at the collar-tracking device. He'd taken it from Taiki's body, and in Chip's not-so-humble opinion it was one of the best weapons in the game. Taiki had been envious of the guns and the tanks, fearful of the monsters that crawled and fires that raged, but ignored the tools in his own grasp, and now he was dead like the rest.
Well, not quite the rest, Chip saw. One red dot continued to blink on his map, the sign of life that meant another collar like his was still live, counting down the seconds before—no. Why hadn't she made a move yet? Was she too wounded to journey back? Plotting something explosive that could reach him even from across the lake? Or had she miscounted, and thought she was the last one left?
It was impossible. Even for someone as smart as Melinda, there was no ignoring the red numbers.
When they'd first reached the island, the tiny lake in the middle had been frozen over, and the ice skates he'd found on the first day had been enough to let him maneuver his way across and pick over all that was inside. Some food that had looked half-edible—he hadn’t been expecting to live long enough to die of food poisoning, anyway—and a blue key that had let him into a fire station in C-3 on the mainland, before it became a forbidden zone the second night.
But once the temperatures had started to rise, he'd skated back and left the island-within-an-island and its stronghold behind. The fact that Melinda had set it up as her apparent base of operations seemed to be a good thing; if there was one thing class W4 had learned, it was to stay as far from her schemes as possible. Unfortunately, sometimes even that wasn’t an option.
While Maxwell had gone for a more traditional approach with his machine gun, taking out six of their classmates before getting trapped in a forbidden zone, and Riko had killed almost as many before she crashed the tank, Chip wasn't sure how many kills Melinda could take credit for. Only that it was probably far more than the number she'd been behind the trigger for, if there were any. Instead, she had set increasingly elaborate traps, luring their classmates deeper into zones that were about to become forbidden, or where crudely-constructed bombs were about to detonate.
Part of him wished he could claim some sort of bravery, that he had some impressive kill to his name, but he'd been too busy staying alive. After he'd seen Lucas tear open a crate only to be exploded by its contents, Alexey stumble off a cliff while desperately trying to figure out where his red key fit, and Michiko drink from a poisoned water bottle, Chip was too wary of any such gifts to accept them without seeing someone else try their luck first. Nor was he trying to stay too long around the students who had so recently constituted Mr. Sommerville's class W4. Thieves, spies, and murderers, that was what they were, given half a chance.
And apparently, Melinda was the best at it. He knew from school she was good with computers—very good—but had no idea that she'd learned how to build bombs, or all the rest. Then again, part of the propaganda of the Program was that the randomization of the weapons gave anyone half a chance, if they got lucky. Maybe behind the walls of the castle, she was saying the same thing about him. If she even realized it was him still out there. None of that would matter if he couldn’t get across. A few bombs smoldered around the edges of the lake, not even hiding their destructive potential. But beyond them were crates, and crates were made of wood, and wood could float.
He began to jog past them, the only thing stopping him from breaking out into a sprint being fear of something he would see around the corner making him need to change direction right away. One of those overgrown insects, or something burning? But nothing interrupted his path.
Okay, Chip told himself, so if he grabbed the nearest of the crates to haul with him, and it stayed in place and didn't drift off, and he got a second—
Stop panicking, McCallahan. When did you ever get anywhere by panicking?
And when he confronted Melinda, then what? He was unarmed, what chance did he have against her, after everything she'd done?
Okay, so I go find a weapon from Masaru’s body or somewhere. Then I come back and start pushing crates...
He kept running.
He ran, and he ran, until he came to another stand of trees; they grew too thickly for him to make out any signs of life. Beyond them was the forbidden zone where Susumu had died, in pursuit of a flickering light that had turned out to be one of the dreaded fire-monsters. And wedged between two of those trees was another box, the same size and shape as the rest.
He could not dislodge it, could not drag it away. In order to get at it from the other side, he’d have to cross over to the forbidden zone, and whoever had left it exactly there had to have heard the last announcement (and its annoyingly chipper music), telling them all that F-1 would soon be out of bounds. The box served him no purpose for building a bridge, which meant that he should turn around and go back, start counting to see how many boxes he really needed, start thinking smart.
Or was it there for just those times, when he’d lost everything else so why not give up on being smart, forget about purpose, too?
Tucking the tracking device under his arm, Chip knelt down. With sweating fingers, numbed to splinters, he tore open the box.
And there, buried at the bottom, instead of a weapon or a key or food, was a pair of flippers.
He ran back to the water as fast as he could, hurling himself into the lake. Part of him was not sure it would work—they were flippers, not escape-into-the-ocean-and-make-it-all-the-way-to-the-mainland plot devices, as the light on somebody’s device—Kaito?—had unfortunately demonstrated. Or was that just the administrators making a show of strength?
But despite his minimal training, he felt himself just buoyed enough to keep upright, doggy-paddling and heading for shore. A few prickly points of driftwood floated nearby, too unstable to build bridges between. Needing to avoid them made him almost grateful for his lack of speed, but the water was still incredibly cold, and the time crunch gave him an adrenaline shot that guided him to shore.
Only when he was almost at the inner island did he realize he’d left his supplies behind. Not that the ice skates would be necessary, nor were there any other doors that keys could unlock, but still, he’d liked that tracking device.
Of course, there were still no locks on the door.
“It’s over, Melinda,” he said, trying to make his voice bigger than his fear. “Come out.”
“Chip McCallahan?” she asked with obvious surprise, not looking up from whatever had consumed her attention within. “Is that you?”
“Yeah. I’m the last one.”
“You can’t be sure.”
“I am. That was my—Taiki’s weapon, a little screen that lets me track who’s still alive. There was only one collar.”
“Seriously? That’s an amazing weapon to have.”
“Maybe if you spent more time checking up on your victims you’d have gotten it first.”
“Kind of had other plans.”
In spite of himself—what else could he do?—Chip stepped into the castle-like building, instinctively ducking as he did, as if the threshold might be booby-trapped. You never knew.
Melinda, of course, had managed to acquire a working laptop and was typing furiously at it, an intensity of purpose matched only by the coolness with which she ignored Chip.
“Do I want to know?” he asked, slightly irritated. “I don’t want to know,” he decided before she could respond. “If you’re gonna kill me—”
“I thought you were threatening me,” Melinda reminded him. “And this is bigger than you. Bigger than us.”
“Bigger than you? What, are you trying to burn down the school like Tomoko’s gang or something?”
Melinda finally turned to affix him with a clear gaze and no hint of irony. “Something like that, yes.”
“Tomoko’s dead!” he raged, unleashing the emotion that had restricted itself just as surely as he had, forbidden zone by forbidden zone. “Her tank blew up before they could even get close to headquarters, so maybe you should think about trying to include other people in your schemes before you try playing hero!”
“Huh,” said Melinda. “Were they the tank from A-6 with the cut brake line or D-5 who just forgot how to steer?”
“D-5 was Riko—are you saying you sabotaged Tomoko and them?”
“It’s not sabotage if you don’t know what your enemies are up to, call it preemptive defense—”
“You idiot, Melinda, we could maybe have made it out! With your brains and Tomoko’s fire-flingers, I bet you could have taken that school down by the second night. If you hadn’t thought that the rest of us were too dumb to work with and booby-trapping everything before blowing off to go do your own thing.”
He had flung the accusation in anger rather than confidence, bitterness that they were all going to die on that stupid island, but it cut to the core; Melinda turned away, back to the laptop, and began typing at it again, that time more rehearsed, deliberative strokes.
“So what about you?” she finally asked, her voice trembling almost imperceptibly after the slight. “Why aren’t you dead—with Tomoko or the others?”
“After seeing what happened to Lucas, and Michiko and Haley and her punctured lifesaver and Shinobu and his compass that had him spinning him all four ways...” Was Melinda smirking to hear him go on about them? “I wasn’t enough of an idiot to open any funny-looking boxes, and I guess a tank’s just another kind of funny-looking box.”
“You opened one,” Melinda nodded, “you found my flippers.”
“Okay, so I’m a really big idiot, and I don’t bother for any of your small-time traps.”
“Your big idiocy, McCallahan, is working a lot better for you than most people’s intelligence.”
“It’s not going to matter.”
“And who have you killed?”
“Come on, no time to be humble, you’ve obviously seen my handiwork. Let’s hear about yours.”
“I...whatever,” Chip snapped. What business of Melinda’s was it that he hadn’t played the game the way they wanted? There was no point in trying with someone like her in the class, anyway. “You don’t tell me what to do.”
“Why are you here, then?”
“Like I said. The tracker device told me you were still here, and the game was—still going. You hadn’t tried to kill me yet.”
“I’ve been trying to kill you for most of three days.”
“You know what I mean.”
“So you decide to show up here, knowing whoever is still alive was very likely incredibly dangerous, got the element of surprise, and didn’t think to...bring a better weapon?”
“I haven’t exactly had a lot of time.”
“You really haven’t been playing, have you.”
“Surviving is playing,” Chip retaliated, “and by that measure, I’m just as good as you.”
“By some measures, you’re better,” said Melinda. “Here.” She ejected a floppy disk from the computer, then passed it across the table.
“Nerdy Chip,” he sighed. “Why do I always get stuck with this kind of thing?”
Ignoring him, Melinda said, “Forget the forbidden zones, forget the weapons, forget the infamy the so-called winner gets when this is all over. None of that makes the Program work. Why?”
“Uh, because of the...Digital Millennium act and the government being afraid of our generation?”
“I don’t mean the societal forces, I mean, within the Program. No matter how many killers there are, Maxwells and Rikos, human nature is full of decent people like Kaito and—” her voice shook again—“Tomoko and you. So why are all our classmates dead?”
“Because you’re a genius,” Chip rolled his eyes, “there you go, if all you wanted was my validation, you can have it.”
“Because of these.” Melinda reached down to touch the collar at her throat. “People aren’t hateful, not really. But give them something to fear, put them on the clock, and well...”
“Here we are.”
“So that’s what I’ve been up to. Trying to hack the Program’s servers, so that the collars wouldn’t detonate when the clock runs down. At one point I made enough progress to think I’d get there, but I can’t. Not in time for our class, anyway.”
“And...” Chip glanced down again at the floppy disk “this was more interesting than finishing off your win?”
Melinda forced a smile. “So I lost track of time.”
“That’s the worst excuse I’ve ever heard, seeing as how...”
“They’re right here, yada yada. So I thought my traps would take care of everyone?”
“Especially me, right? Nerdy McCallahan, what threat is he.”
She shook her head. “I just proved the administrators’ point. Anyone can set a trap. Not everyone can wait it out.”
“No one can set traps like you,” Chip found himself saying, and this time there was no eye roll with his praise.
Melinda pushed the disk towards him again. “You should go.”
“This could be messy.”
“Destroying the evidence I kind of get, but not if you want to take the data with you…?”
“If you hadn’t shown up—I’d have probably kept working through midnight, none the wiser, and we’d both be dead when these stupid collars blew, and I’d have no more pity for you than the others. But you must have kept hoping when hope was gone, enough to find the flippers. And for all your ‘big idiocies,’ I think you’re the only one smart enough to find something to do with this.” Melinda nodded down at the chip, and then from an upper shelf, produced a gun that Chip hadn’t seen when he came in. There was no telling who it had first belonged to, or what other damage it had wreaked; only his intuition that her plans so far had been bigger and smaller than pulling it. “You’ve earned this win more than I have.”
He paused a minute, parsing her, then froze. “No. No way, you can’t—”
“I’d like to see you try to stop me,” she said coolly.
As usual, she had most of the resources at her disposal. Chip had abandoned his skates and keys and tracker. Melinda had a gun, and only she knew what else the room held. Within reach, he could commandeer—the disk.
He dove for it, and held it up with pride. “There,” he said. “You try anything funny, I’ll drown your data in the lake.”
“Okay!” Melinda yelled. “Okay, no fast moves.” Nervously, she set the gun back on the table.
“Alright,” said Chip.
There was a nervous beat, then another, during which Chip tried to avoid looking at either timer, a task which had gotten twice as hard since he’d entered the castle.
“You’re not gonna take it?” Melinda challenged.
“What do I want with it?”
She rolled her eyes. “I could think of a couple things.”
“Okay, so you’re very clever.”
“I should probably just kill you now. Stop you from doing something very dumb, and let me get this out of here.”
“This is very dumb,” said Chip. “You’re trying to force the disk on me anyway, right? At which point I could do whatever I want with it.”
“Technically I see what you were trying,” said Melinda, “but if you admit that it wasn’t going to work, I’m not going to press it.”
Chip squeezed his eyes shut, biting back retorts. When he opened them, Melinda had picked up the gun again.
“You shouldn’t have to be alone,” he finally said.
He wondered how they would look on the tracking device. Two dots staring at each other from across the room, warily eyeing each other, backing away, and finally closing in on point-blank range. Melinda was buoyed by newfound resolve, and Chip by fear of losing his composure in front of her. “You don’t have to do this,” she repeated.
“Sure I do,” he said. “Nobody gets off this island with clean hands.”
She nodded. “You’re going to want to be careful about what computers you use that on. Don’t push it if it would endanger your family.”
“Are you kidding me? I’m not winning this stupid joke of a death game just to sneak around back home.”
“Even so. People’s families have been hurt for protesting—I’m worried about Mr. Sommerville, once he knew we were taken. Better to keep quiet.”
Chip nodded. “Is there anyone back home I can send word to? Your family?”
“If you give my love to my parents? Someday. Anonymously? Maybe it’s better that they don’t hear, not everything. And tell them to feed my pet paramecium.”
“Kidding. Whatever, they know.”
“Melinda, I’m sorry, it shouldn’t have been like this—”
“Skip it, McCallahan, the same could be said for any of the other kids out there.”
“Doesn’t make it not true.”
“Okay,” she said, breathing slowly. “Okay.”
They were almost exactly the same height. Chip held the gun to Melinda’s chest with one hand—even then, he could not imagine letting her brain come to harm—while his other arm wrapped around them in an awkward embrace. “Don’t look,” he said, as she flinched. He wanted to think that he wasn’t scary, but there was no avoiding the collars.
Melinda turned to the lake beyond, eyes open. “Go,” she said, “Bit Buster.”
“Me?” Chip blurted. Without ceremony, without proper initiation, without any joy in the puzzles he’d evaded, some spark of Melinda’s club lived on.
She nodded as the collars around them began to sound a warning, and Chip fired.
When they found him later, taking a helicopter out to the island-in-the-island, the Program administrators were quick to strip down the old school uniform he’d worn in class W4. The news programs snapped pictures of his dazed face, excitedly proclaiming that this was the latest ever to the deadline that an individual winner had been found; it had been six years since a game had ended without a winner.
No one looked to see that he was still wearing flippers. No one saw what left the islands concealed in them.
And as for the disk itself?
Maybe Melinda’s programming language was too far beyond Chip’s comprehension, and he never improved on it. Maybe he was found and disappeared by the government before he could make progress. Maybe the hacked version was released into the program, but was swiftly found and patched.
Or maybe, twenty-five years after Class W4 was taken, a group of three friends in the class chosen for that year’s program found themselves the last few alive and refused to kill each other, running out the clock. Only when the timers hit zero did they and the Program administration simultaneously discover that the collars had no power to detonate, and as word of the Program’s embarrassment began to spread, as trust in the government began to crumble, panicking bureaucrats looked into the source of the problem and discover that that part of the code hadn’t worked for almost a quarter-century. By then, Chip McCallahan had long since fled the prefecture, far beyond the authorities’ reach. And Melinda’s code was still spreading, evolving, timeless.