When Natalie’s eyes open she sees nothing much through darkness but she can feel the panic in the air. She looks left and right, but she can’t make out even the slightest detail.
She takes in a breath, intending to call out to the darkness but she’s stopped. A click followed by a sudden flash of brilliant, white light as the room illuminates and is brought into view. She’s in a large room which looks like somebody’s elaborate living room. There are several comfortable couches including the one she’s slumped on, a large television screen mounted on the far wall which is turned off, a bookcase containing several hundred books.
And most intriguingly, seven other people scattered around the room with perplexed looks on their faces matching what Natalie assumes is on her own. Four men and three other women. One of them, a thin, young bearded man speaks up.
‘Where are we? Who are all of you!?’
‘I could ask you the same, mate!’ one of the women, a large blonde with an aggressive looking face pipes up.
‘Were we drugged!?’ someone shrieks.
Some bickering ensues and Natalie just watches. Most of the people in the room have now stood up and are pacing around. One of the men, an older man, waltzes around the room tapping at walls and saying there must be an exit somewhere. Another begins kicking at the walls. A young redhaired woman sits and openly weeps. She hasn't moved.
They are all stopped in their tracks when suddenly, some words highlighted in green appear above their heads.
“NO DATA AVAILABLE”
They all see it above each other's heads. Some look up to confirm if their own words are there, floating above their own heads but of course the words move as their heads do.
‘What is this shit?’ the thin, bearded man asks. ‘What does this mean?’
‘Let’s just calm down and try and figure out what’s going on here,’ the man who had been kicking the walls says. ‘Does anyone remember how they actually got here?’
Natalie doesn’t. She can’t even recall what she was doing before she wound up in this place. Looking around the room, she sees that everyone else looks as puzzled as she feels.
Suddenly, the TV screen lights up with white numbers.
‘It’s counting down!’ the thin, bearded man says.
‘No shit!’ the large, blonde woman says. And then her gaze shifts up to the top of the man’s head as she spots what Natalie has already seen. The “NO DATA AVAILABLE” message has disappeared and has now been replaced with something else:
‘What does that mean?’ the blonde woman asks.
‘What do any of these percentages mean?’ the elderly man asks.
Looking around the room, Natalie can see that each person similarly has a percentage lit up seemingly from nowhere hanging ominously above their heads. The elderly man who has just spoken has a number of 4%. The highest number belongs to a young woman. Natalie thinks she’s in her mid-twenties, hair made up carefully, wearing lots of make up, and she has on a top which reveals more of her breasts than Natalie would ever feel comfortable with herself. She thinks she is a shallow man’s typically attractive girl.
The young woman has found a large mirror, and is not looking at herself but at the green image floating above her head. Her mouth has dropped open.
‘35 percent!?’ she yells. ‘Why have I got the highest number!? That’s got to be bad, right? What’s going to happen to me!?’
‘Calm down,’ the elderly man says. ‘We have no idea what any of this is about yet.’
Natalie notices something, and decides it’s about time she spoke up. ‘Look. The numbers are changing quite a bit.’
Everyone’s percentages wiggle slightly back and forth. Nothing major – just one or two numbers up or down but it’s happening consistently.
‘Whatever these numbers are tracking, it’s live,’ Natalie says. ‘Someone’s got to be watching us.’
The man who had previously been kicking at the walls pipes up. ‘Hey! Whoever’s watching us! Get us out of here!’
He’s stopped by the TV screen. The colour of the numbers has turned red.
‘When did it go red?’ the blonde woman asks.
‘I dunno,’ the thin, bearded man says. ‘I just noticed it now.’
‘What does it mean!?’ the young woman wails. She’s now up to 40%.
‘Oh come on,’ the man who’d kicked the walls says. ‘It’s probably nothing. Just whatever our chances are of having fake tits.’
Nobody laughs at this but Natalie notices that the man’s number increases significantly. By the time the counter reaches “30:01”, his number is up to 32%.
When the counter reaches “30:00”, the redhead who has been sitting alone in the corner saying nothing collapses in a heap on the floor. The number above her head has turned to a red “1%” before it disappears.
‘What the fuck!’ the blonde woman shouts. ‘What’s happened to her!?’
The elderly man races over to the redhead. He checks her pulse.
‘Dead as a doornail,’ wall kicking man says. Natalie notices he’s keeping his eyes fixed on the mirror as he speaks. ‘Don’t worry, she’ll probably come back as a ghost.’
Even as the elderly man scorns him, Natalie notices that the wall kicker doesn’t take his eyes off of the mirror as his number increases once again.
‘This is seriously fucked up,’ the elderly man says. ‘Got to be the military, testing out some new weapon of theirs. Never did like soldiers.’
Natalie sees that the elderly man’s score drops significantly after saying this. He’s down to 2%.
‘It’s a game,’ Natalie says.
‘What?’ the bearded man asks. ‘What do you mean?’
‘She was eliminated,’ Natalie says, indicating towards the redheaded woman. ‘She had the lowest score when the timer got to thirty.’
‘We didn’t even know her name,’ the elderly man says. ‘We should probably know that kind of thing – might be part of it. My name’s Jeremy.’
The group slowly take turns introducing themselves. The young woman is Jenna, the wall kicker is Matt, the thin, bearded man’s name is Paul, the blonde woman is Donna, and the other man, who has been quiet, is called Brad.
‘Why was her score low, do you think?’ Brad asks. ‘She didn’t even say much. Is that why, do you think?’
Natalie understands why Brad is asking this, and watches him carefully as he continues talking and theorising as his score increases slightly. Matt, who has no doubt realised that they all seem to be a part of some sick, popularity contest interrupts him with an occasional joke that most find annoying. The squabbling continues until Donna points out that the counter has gone red again.
‘Oh,’ Jeremy says calmly. ‘It seems my time is coming.’
He’s at 1%.
‘Well before I go,’ Jeremy says. ‘I just want to say a big fuck you to everyone involved in this.’
The counter reaches 25:00, and Jeremy dies.
Natalie disturbingly does not see much sympathy from the others. At this point she’s sure they’re all just worried about themselves.
‘Every five minutes the person with the lowest score will die,’ Natalie says. ‘How do we stop it?’
‘There’s got to be a way out of here,’ Brad says, and he begins checking walls again.
‘What’s the hurry?’ Matt says. ‘Come on mate, lovely establishment this. A bit messy with the bodies, I admit, but fine apart from that.’
‘Don’t be an arsehole,’ Paul says angrily to Matt, but Matt just smirks back at him.
Jenna glances at the top of Matt’s head, and her own, examining the scores. She looks shocked when she sees that Matt is sitting at 34% while she is at 35%.
‘I’ll take my top off,’ Jenna says.
‘What?’ Donna asks, seemingly baffled. And then Natalie notices that Jenna is no longer speaking to anyone in the room.
‘If I survive the next round, I’ll take my top off.’
Natalie wants to throw up. What a revolting, mess of a human. It’s even worse when she sees that Jenna’s score begins rapidly rising. It soars through the thirties and up into the high forties in a matter of a few seconds. She takes a look at her own score in the mirror. 7%.
‘Oh for fuck sake,’ Paul snaps. ‘How could you even be thinking of something like that now?’
His score drops. He’s at 5%.
‘I’ll do it!’ Jenna proclaims, and she’s even smiling now. ‘And it’ll stay that way until I win.’
Win? Natalie thinks. Of course. If someone dies every five minutes, that will take them all the way to the end of the timer with just one person left. One person who gets to live. Gets to live because whoever is watching them has favoured them for whatever reason. For trying to be funny, or promising to show off her breasts, or god knows what else.
And then she thinks: how am I supposed to survive this? Even if she knows how to be funny in a situation like this, could she lower herself to that standard? She certainly won’t be offering to take any clothes off; she would rather die with dignity than come to that.
I need to understand the kind of audience that’s watching us, she thinks. What do I know about them? It’s probably a largely male audience, and the disgusting, superficial type who see women as objects. They’re very much not against fighting and war, seeing as poor old Jeremy’s score dropped so much when he insulted the military. How do I win this without degrading myself?
Her thoughts are interrupted by Paul, who has become extremely alarmed as he watches the countdown now nearing 20:00 with his number at 5%, the lowest number by a single digit, Brad being on 6%.
‘No!’ Paul shouts. ‘Don’t take me! Take him!’ He indicates towards Brad.
‘What the fuck, man!’ Brad protests. ‘Don’t try and shift it on me!’
‘I’ll do anything!’ Paul screams. ‘I’ll dance for you! I’ll get naked! I’ll...’
The timer reaches 20:00 and Paul falls to the floor, unmoving.
Natalie is now holding back tears while the others stand, saying nothing for a moment. She feels like weeping, not because she’s afraid or that there are people dying in front of her. She’s saddened by the people this sick game is making them become, she’s sad for how they’re dying.
Matt breaks the silence. ‘Well well, Jenna. You know what to do.’
Natalie is surprised when Jenna does nothing. She stands there with some tears of her own forming in her eyes.
‘Come on!’ Matt says with a broad grin across his face. ‘You promised your audience! Never let your audience down. First rule of showbusiness.’
Jenna glances at the mirror, but Natalie has seen it already. Jenna’s score is swiftly sinking. Matt looks pleased. He has a look on his face of someone who knows they’ve already won.
‘Fuck, Jenna,’ Donna pipes up. It’s the least aggressive Natalie has seen this woman look. ‘I think you’re gonna have to do it. Look at your score.’
Suddenly Jenna has an outburst. ‘Fuck my score!! And fuck all you watching this! I’m not taking my clothes off for anyone!’
Natalie is actually impressed, although the girl might have bought herself a few more minutes if she had just shut up for a while and thought about a strategy. Something Natalie is in the middle of. In fact, her mind would be racing trying to find ideas by now if she wasn’t so sure that there will at least be two people scoring lower than her by the time the clock reaches 15:00.
‘Shot yourself in the foot there, didn’t you?’ Matt grins.
‘Oh, fuck off you insufferable twat!’ Donna yells.
The timer turns red. One minute to go. Jenna’s score is at 14% and dropping.
Donna continues yelling at Matt while Jenna now sits on one of the sofas and buries her head in her hands.
She keels over when the clock reaches 15:00. Her score had reached 1%.
1%. That’s crazy. They really turned on her. We’re definitely dealing with a bunch of complete psychopaths here. What could I possibly offer them?
Brad, who is now in last place, pipes up. ‘Knock knock.’
Donna eyes him angrily. ‘Are you fucking serious?’
Brad forces a smile. He’s not as good at this as Matt is. ‘Ah come on, we could all use a laugh, eh? Natalie, knock knock?’
Natalie shakes her head. ‘I… I can’t. I can’t do jokes with you, I’m sorry.’
Matt steps forward. Natalie can’t remember the last time she’s seen him without that hideous grin. He’s comfortably in first place now. ‘Who’s there, mate?’
Brad looks startlingly relieved. ‘Erm… Boo.’
‘Boo who?’ Matt asks.
‘Don’t cry it’s only a joke!’ and the irony is, Brad is close to crying himself. Especially when nobody laughs and Brad’s score drops.
‘Erm...’ Brad’s voice is shaking. He’s panicking. ‘Erm… What do you call a sheep with no legs? A cloud! Um… Three men walk into a bar…’
Natalie watches on in horror as Brad continues reciting as many jokes as he can think of, becoming more agitated each time they fail. He continues trying as the clock ticks down and his score keeps dropping.
He falls to the floor at 10:00.
Three people left. For a few seconds, nobody talks. Natalie’s heart begins to race as she desperately tries to think of some way of surviving this. She’s in last place at 27%.
Donna suddenly hits the wall angrily with her fists. ‘I swear to god as soon as I’m out of here I’m going to track every last one of you down and kill you! You hear me!? You sick fucks!!’
‘You tell ‘em!’ Matt beams. Natalie wants to tell him to shut up but she’s afraid of the consequences.
Donna continues yelling up at where she evidently thinks the cameras are. While she yells, Natalie sees her score drop past hers and continue plummeting. At 05:00, she falls dead.
‘Just me and you now, babe,’ Matt smiles.
‘Don’t call me that,’ Natalie says. She can’t resist giving this horrid man at least a little piece of her mind.
‘Aww, what’s wrong, babe?’ Matt coos. ‘You jealous because you know I’m gonna win?’
Think, Natalie, think. What would the people watching want from you that you could give them? The kind of people watching, they obviously enjoy seeing people suffer. They like drama. They probably kept Donna around for as long as they did because she was so aggressive. They like to watch people being all violent.
He’s bigger than me though. Stronger.
I’ll have to distract him…
Natalie makes tears come to her eyes. She slowly turns to face Matt. ‘Yeah. I guess you’re right. You’re the winner. I’d probably vote for you myself.’
Matt now resembles The Grinch with the huge smile spread horribly across his face.
‘You don’t even look nervous, or afraid,’ Natalie says. ‘Look at you!’
As Natalie hopes, Matt walks towards the mirror. When he gets close enough, Natalie springs.
Clutching the hair of the back of his head in a vigorous vice grip, she somehow finds the strength to push his head forwards and smash it into the mirror which cracks instantly. The wicked smirk has disappeared from his face and she smashes it three more times before he collapses to the floor, blood raining down his face.
‘You’re a funny guy, Matt,’ Natalie says. ‘But me? I’m unpredictable!’
She kicks him in the groin. Matt yelps in pain. She doesn't need to look in the mirror to see her score; there are only two of them left now and Matt’s score is slowly dropping.
She looks over at the timer. It’s red already.
‘I’ll give him another kick in the balls if you vote for me!’ she shouts.
She needn’t make good on her promise now. But the show, it seems, has worked its ugly magic on her. She leans into Matt, whose wide eyes stare back at her.
‘Sorry,’ she says. ‘Nothing personal. Just the first rule of showbusiness. Never let your audience down.’