It was circulated on the train by some of the other contestants that Mr. John, who was apparently the Senior Supervisory Judge, had zero humour for anything but his own jokes (which were terrible), a strict adherent to the rule book (probably a good thing for me), and thought one-man teams were extraordinarily distasteful (damn, I’m in trouble).
The other candidates chattered around me, and I leaned back, shutting my eyes, listening to them. Plans of fortresses and tree houses drifted about. They exchanged lists of tools they had brought, without any concern about their potential opponents listening in for their nefarious purposes.
My ears perked up when the caught the scent of a seven-man team. I focused on that chatter, but they were only comparing the one-man team to them. No useful data.
I started to drift to sleep, until I felt someone standing over me. I opened my eyes. A short and skinny Asian girl stood next to a medium height and skinny Anglo-Saxon. She held out her hand, and I shook it.
“Something I can do for you?”
She shook her head. “Something we can do for each other.”
I sat up, intrigued.
“You’re the one-man team.”
I didn’t nod.
“We’re a two. We want to propose an alliance.”
The guy held up his hand. “More like a non-aggression pact.” To this I nodded.
They were Zeke and Yin.
I looked around us. “Do you want to go somewhere a bit more quiet to talk?”
Zeke nodded. “That’s probably a good idea.”
I stood and led them further back along the train, into the storage cars. We stopped in front of my locker. I pulled my keys out from the lanyard around my neck, unlocked the doors, and we stepped inside. I latched the door behind me.
It was a decent size storage locker, and numbered boxes lined all three walls.
“Go ahead and sit on a box, you won’t do any harm to it.” I sat on one side, and they the opposite.
Zeke and Yin glanced at each other, and then Yin spoke. “A Non-Aggression Pact is exactly what we’re looking for. To put it bluntly – we’re not building a fortress. We’ll be setting up a tent or a lean-to whenever we stop, and plan to keep on the move. We won’t have any aggressive opportunities, but we figure it’s the best defense, as long as they don’t find us.”
Zeke stepped in. “Since you’re the only single, and we’re the only double, we thought it’d be best and easiest to appeal to you first.”
I nodded. “I can accept that.”
“We’re just looking to survive to the final round. Beyond that, we’re willing to surrender to you.”
I nodded again. “May I ask two more things of you?”
Yin nodded. “What is it?”
“Give me an idea what are you’ll be in. If someone confronts you, I can get there and either help get you out or be there to ‘capture’ you.”
“And the other?” Zeke asked.
“Information on the other teams.”
He nodded. “May we ask your plan?”
I glanced at the numbers on the boxes around us, and pulled out a list from my pocket. “Open the box Yin is sitting on.”
She stands suddenly, and looks down at it. Zeke leans over it, and I pass him a box cutter.
“Don’t worry, I’ve got more tape.”
He nodded, and cut it open with one draw. Inside was a shovel, packed in paper, along with two air tanks. I reached into a corner and pulled out a roll of packing tape, tossing it to him. Zeke caught it, retaped the box, and handed both back to me.
Yin whispered, astonished, her eyes bright. “Tunnels.”
“And hollow trees. It’ll take them a while to find me, if they ever do.”
“All these boxes?”
“Drills, some piping, other types of shovels, and more breathing equipment. Plus a secret weapon.”
Yin pouted playfully. “You’re not going to tell us?”
I grinned. “Ask me again after we get through the building round. Then maybe I’ll show you how to use it.” Yin’s jaw dropped excitedly.
Zeke held out his hand, and we shook on it. “You’ve got yourself a deal.”
“You too. Good luck friend.”
“Same to you.”
We walked out together, and the travel car’s occupants looked up at us, whispering. They’d labeled us as the one and two man teams.
I held up my last three fingers.
They grew animated again.
Zeke and Yin waved as they disappeared into the crowd. I retreated back into my locker to study my maps.
I had double-checked my boxes, and was resealing the last one as I felt the train slow. Shortly after it stopped, Yin came back and knocked on the closed door, letting me know we had arrived.
I made sure the box was sealed, pushed it against one of the other piles, closed the box opener, dropped it in my pocket, and tossed the roll of tape in a corner. I’d given explicit instructions that none of my boxes were to be opened without my presence and permission, even by a judge. I closed the door and locked it behind me, before following the other candidates off the train.
“Leave all your baggage on the train. It will be brought off for you later, or you can come back and get it yourselves, after orientation,” the conductor said over the station and train speakers.
I was glad my pockets were many and deep – all of my “carry on” luggage was already stored away in my pants.
Signs, arrows, and guides, some of which were Judges, and others just staff, got us all moving towards the auditorium and meeting hall. I was among the last to leave the train, so I found myself walking with those Judges, as they followed the mass and detected anyone trying to abandon the group and redirected any lost strugglers. I listened to them as we walked, but none of them seemed familiar.
Mr. John, the senior-most Supervisory Judge, was fruitlessly trying to quiet the group as I and the last of the candidates and judges walked in. They joined him up on stage with those already up there. His face was beet red.
The other judges only muttered between each other, watching the crowd as they sat in the row of chairs behind Mr. John’s podium. Finally, one of them stood, walked to the very edge of the stage, and shouted:
“HEY! ANYONE STILL TALKING WHEN I SIT DOWN WILL BE DISQUALIFIED!”
The sound died without a flicker like lights during a power outage; no brown-outs for this crowd. As he turned to return to his seat, Mr. John turned aside.
“Thank you, John-Paul.” I glanced at him sharply.
He just nodded curtly, and returned to his seat. I watched him while Mr. John began.
“Thank you for coming. As most of you already know, my name is Mr. John. Seated behind me are the seven Supervisory Judges who will be accompanying the seven teams that pass successfully the Preliminary Elimination round. If you have any questions, they are your resource. Any rule infractions or violations will be ruled on by one of them and myself. I hope it doesn’t come to that.” He chuckled.
One of the candidates towards the back, near where I was seated, whispered to his neighbors. “Mr. John is a terrible MBS. Go ahead and sleep. If you want, you can always get one of the other judges to summarize it for you.”
“What’s an MBS?”
“Most people say Massively Boring Speaker, but I call it something else...” He whispered it even more quietly, and the kids around him broke into laughter. It wasn’t really funny, and I was too busy watching John-Paul, to listen closely to Mr. John anyways. Mr. John glanced up at the noise and scowled. They hushed up real quick.
“I’d like you to treat them kindly – they volunteered to be here – and are here for you.
“John-Paul,… Robert,… Alex,… Sam,… Paul,… Alicia,… and Emma.” They stood briefly, individually.
“You all have received rulebooks, and I hope you all have made certain to go through them all thoroughly.” One of the candidates started snoring dramatically. Mr. John glanced over at Robert, who stood, climbed off the stage, fished them out of one of the front rows, and escorted him out. Robert returned shortly twirling the former candidate’s ID badge on his index finger.
“As I was saying. I dearly hope you’ve read it, but I still feel I need to go over a few things.
“First, a reminder that all drugs are banned from the property. If you require prescription or over-the-counter medication, you must inform a judge. No alcohol.
“Secondly, no bladed weaponry. No knives, saws, arrowheads, et cetera.
“Any violators will be disqualified.
“Also, nobody may leave the property without explicit written permission signed by two judges. Are there any questions thus far?”
A smartass in the front row raised her hand.
“Is the most abused drug in the US banned?”
Mr. John opened his mouth to say yes, but John-Paul got there first. “No, you can still have caffeine.” He stood and walked to the edge of the stage. “Sugar, sports drinks, energy drinks, and caffeine will not be regulated by judges. But if you ingest too much, it’s your own damn fault.” He shrugged.
Mr. John looked proud as if he was the one who had answered the question, even though he had been moments away from banning caffeine. “Thank you, John-Paul. Anything else?”
John-Paul sat down on the edge of the stage with his legs hanging over the edge, and Mr. John frowned. It was fairly obvious they did not get along very well. I kept my eyes on John-Paul.
“None? Alright. Next order of business. The first round will begin in two days – the day after tomorrow. Until then, no students are allowed on the game property. You have tomorrow and the rest of today to get your things off the train and reviewed by a judge. Any contraband items will be confiscated. Depending on your behavior you may or may not get them back.
“Tomorrow evening, we will meet back here. The following morning, Stage One will begin and will last for two weeks.
“You are dismissed.”
The candidates, except for a very few, erupted from the auditorium. Mr. John, with a few words to the other judges, returned to his office and quarters.
After most of the crowd had left, I saw John-Paul still sitting on the edge of the stage, as well as some of the other judges, who spread themselves out so candidates could ask them questions more easily. I spotted Zeke and Yin, but didn’t call out or wave. They had climbed to the front row and were listening to other people’s questions.
I stood from my seat in the back row and walked quietly up to the second row, sitting in a chair directly across from John-Paul.
Gradually, the candidates and judges dwindled away until it was just myself, Zeke and Yin, and John-Paul. Zeke and Yin stood, stretched, and greeted me as they left. John-Paul looked up at me. I still couldn’t remember.
“Is there anything I can do to help you?”
“Sure.” I stood, walked calmly to the end of the row, and back to him, this time in the front row, sitting back down. “I was looking for someone.”
“Well, I don’t know many of the candidates yet, just a few of those that were up here with questions a couple of minutes ago, but if they’re faculty, I can definitely point you in the right direction.”
“They’re faculty, I think.”
John-Paul shrugged. “Besides me, I don’t think there’s anyone else here with those initials. Why?”
I grinned at him.
He stayed quiet, confused.
I stood, held out my hand, and he shook it. “My name is Ace.”
He dropped my hand, surprised, tried speaking, gave up, and rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
“Unfortunately, I don’t remember you. You look familiar, but I can’t place you.”
He nodded. “That’s alright. It was quite a few years ago. Still, I’m glad you made it, and it’s nice to see you again. Anything I can help you with?”
“Be my Supervisory Judge, when the time comes.”
He nods. “You the one-man team Mr. John was complaining about?”
“Yes. The two man–”
“Yeah, he wasn’t terribly happy about that either. Were those the two that just left?”
I nodded. “We’ve got an NAP going for now.”
“That’s a good idea. You got your plans all set? I heard the survey team talking excitedly about you, but they wouldn’t tell me what was up.”
“I asked them to keep quiet about it. They were very helpful though.”
“Good. Well, we should probably get going. Would you like a hand with your equipment?”
“That’d be wonderful, thanks.”
John-Paul hopped down off the stage, and we walked back to the train together.
Most of the other candidates had left unloading for tomorrow, so the depot was relatively quiet. I led John-Paul into the storage cars to my locker, and let us in. He stood quietly in the doorway for a long moment, before stepping within and looking around.
The boxes were only numbered, not labeled, so he did not take long. “Is there anything I need to be extra careful with?”
“Everything is already packaged tightly, so there shouldn’t be any problem. Just don’t drop anything.”
He nodded, and we started building a careful pile out on the decking. When the locker was empty, I made another count of the boxes. Every last one was accounted for. Good.
“Where are my quarters before the game?” I asked John-Paul.
“A small cabin close to the edge of the clearing.” He walked into the depot and returned with two push-carts. He started loading one cart, and I followed with the other.
“I would like to be done with this tonight.”
“Don’t worry, Ace. It will be.” Our carts full, he led me through the lines of other cabins, to the very last one. “If you want to start bringing these inside, I will go get the rest.” He turned, leaving both carts – fully burdened – with me.
“Don’t you need–”
“Don’t worry, there are plenty more carts, tonight at least. That won’t be true tomorrow when everybody else is set on settling in.” He jogged back to the depot, and I started unloading and bringing them inside.
There was very little furniture within the cabin, only a bunk bed, a small dresser, a small cast iron stove, a small washbasin, and a large ragged rug. I pushed them all except for the stove into one of the front corners, because it was cemented in place with the steam pipe fixed above it, and rolled up the rug and tossed it on the bottom bunk. The boxes I lined along the walls, keeping them mostly in order. They covered the windows, but the single, bare light bulb swaying gently above me was more than enough light, as I didn’t plan on spending any more time in here than necessary.
Before I knew it, John-Paul was standing in the middle of the cabin, leaning against the stove, watching me count the boxes one more time, matching them against my list. I folded the list for what would be the last time that night, and slid it back into one of my pockets.
I turned to him. “Thanks for the help.”
“Not at all, it’s my pleasure. You’ve made me very curious though: you keep checking those boxes as if you expect one to grow legs and walk away.”
“It doesn’t hurt to be cautious, especially with one judge already against my choices.”
John-Paul nodded. “Would you let me–”
“Glance into one of the boxes? I think not! And don’t be asking Zeke and Yin either. You’ll have to wait until inspection.”
He sighed, shaking his head. “Alright.” He walked to the door, opening it, and stepping out. “Don’t forget about the meeting tomorrow night. And then the game begins the next morning at dawn.”
“Thanks for the help.”
He nodded and walked away. I stood in the doorway for several long minutes, watching and listening to the camp in the darkness, before turning and going to bed.
I tossed and turned for a few hours, unable to find a comfortable position. Finally, I opened the box with my sleeping bag and bedroll, climbed onto the roof of my cabin, and shortly fell asleep on my back, gazing upward at the dome of stars.
The sun found me easily up there, bright and early, much earlier than I usually wake. Quickly much too warm in my down sleeping bag, I climbed out and sat on top of it, shading my eyes and watching the camp come to life.
I spotted Zeke among the early risers, but Yin looked to still be in bed, as well as most of the other candidates. Mr. John was up, as well as the female judges.
My stomach growled distastefully, and I surveyed the buildings and cabins laid out before me. With a fair idea of the camp, I climbed down, brought my bedroll and bag back inside my cabin, locked the door and went in search of the dining hall.
After getting directions from one of the judges (not Mr. John, as I was going to do my best effort to stay out of his direct attention), I finally managed to find it wandered inside.
The dining hall was a long and narrow building, filled with long tables and benches. At the far end from the entrance was the kitchen and serving area, and from there came the homely smell of pancakes, bacon, eggs, and sausages. Since the preserve was closed to the public for the duration of the game, and was only open to candidates and faculty, the check-out queues and registers were closed and barren.
I made my way over to the servers, piled three pancakes on a plate, a square of butter on top of them, two sausage links to the side, a fair serving of maple syrup over them both, and a double order of apple juice on the side. I carried my tray over to a table in one of the corners, sat, and watched people trickle in as I ate.
When I finished, I sat there, still watching, until the noise level rose beyond my liking. I sorted and stacked my dishes in the tubs near the exit, and walked out. A lot of candidates were rushing about, some socializing, most carrying boxes of equipment from the train, as those who had risen earliest had monopolized the carts. I was glad I’d done it the previous night. Plenty of boxes were dropped, toes trod on or rolled over, so I dodged the cabins and walked the long way around to my distant cabin. Time-wise, it was a shortcut, and I welcomed the exercise the circuitous route brought me. Still breathing heavily, I climbed back on my roof with my bedroll, a notepad, and a book, entertaining myself between the pages and the madness below me.
I descended from the roof around mid-afternoon, when the traffic between cabins had slowed and calmed considerably, pulled a case of a four empty water jugs from one of my boxes, filled them with water and ice in the dining hall, grabbed some food, and returned to my roof until dinnertime.
Mr. John came sneaking around my cabin soon after I returned. He tried the door, and upon finding it locked, tried going around the back and peeking in the windows. All he saw were the sides of boxes that I’d piled against the walls, covering the windows. I watched as he tramped back around to the front and walked off, not thinking to look up and catch me watching as he glanced around, acting paranoid. I grinned to myself as he walked away.
As the sun descended below the trees I climbed down once more, and headed to the auditorium. I was several minutes early, and there were still plenty of empty seats, but I again took a seat in the very back row.
John-Paul caught my eye and nodded; he was already seated on the stage, again with his dangling over the edge, chatting with several candidates in the front few rows. Mr. John was behind his podium, flipping through a series of note cards. A few of the other judges were chatting on the stage, the rest hadn’t arrived yet.
Slowly, other candidates started trickling in, and the noise level rose audibly. When eight o’clock finally rolled around, Mr. John called for silence, and the candidates quieted with none of the nonsense from last time.
Mr. John got started. “I hope everybody got settled in alright. Tomorrow morning, Stage One begins, and your performance there decides which seven teams go on to play and compete.
“Please remember: Stage One is for constructing your fortress, nothing more. Attacking other teams will result in immediate disqualification. Do I make myself clear?”
A “Yes Mr. John” rumbled through the crowd, clearly bored and wanting to get going.
“At dawn tomorrow morning, the judges and I will assemble on the far side of the camp, closest to the forest. Those who wish to get the earliest start, may meet us there. Stage One will last for two weeks, after which all the fortresses will be inspected by a judge, and the seven best will go on to compete.
“We will take any additional questions until ten, and then we will hopefully see you all in the morning.” Mr. John stepped back from the podium. Most of the candidates stood and left, and Mr. John took off after seeing how few students remained.
I stood, preparing to leave myself, when John-Paul caught my eye, and shook his head. I sat back down and waited. By nine-thirty, the auditorium had emptied to just the two of us, and he climbed up to the last row.
“Anything you need, Ace?”
“Nope, I’m all set.”
“Then I’ll see you in the morning.”
“We’ll see. I might not make it.”
His eyebrow rose. “Thinking of sleeping in? I didn’t think–”
“Oh, no. Quite the contrary, actually. I’ll be getting up extra early. Mr. John never said the game starts at sunrise, he said it starts tomorrow. I’ll be heading across the field after midnight.”
His eyes grew wide. “You little devil!” He grinned. “I bet no one else will have thought of that. And if they don’t see you...” The implications were dawning on him.
“Hopefully, Mr. John will think I slept in,” I filled in. “Or that I chickened out.”
“Do Zeke and Yin know?”
I shook my head. “But they won’t believe I’ve deserted, so I’m not worried. If anything, they’ll just attribute it to another trick up my sleeve.”
“Alright.” He shook my hand. “If I don’t see you in the morning, I’ll see you in two weeks.”
“Not at all. Glad to see someone get one up on Mr. John.” He yawned. “I hope you have a good night.”
I laughed. “I certainly will. You too.”
We walked out of the auditorium together and then went our separate ways.
I returned to my cabin, and changed my clothes. After pulling on new cargo pants, boots, t-shirt, hat, and draping a towel over my shoulders, all of them black, I filled my pockets with snack bars, hung several still frozen water bottles from my belt, and grabbed a prepared black duffel. I left my cabin, locked it, and got down on the side of my cabin closest to the forest. It was right on the very edge of the camp, so I had an unobstructed view. Undoubtedly, several hours after I left, other candidates would be standing right here, waiting for the sun; but for now, in the deepening night, the view was only mine.