I had literally hours until my two-week deadline was up to build a fortress from which I could survive the attempts of the other teams to defeat me, and the hole in my cabin was somewhere ahead of me. I stopped worrying about ferrying the dirt back out the other end of my fortress, instead reducing myself to scattering it inside my tunnels to be tossed out later.
The pinging grew louder, my cabin drew closer, until I knew I couldn't get any closer. It should be right here, but there was no tunnel, no transponder. I should have been right on top of it... I looked up slowly. It must be right on top of me. I speared my shovel upward, and if not for my mask and air tank I would have been breathing dirt; the ceiling fell down on me and soon after it, the transponder bounced off my tank. I turned them both off and cleared out the space so I would be able to make it back without a problem. Finally, I climbed up into my cabin, out from under the bed, and brushed myself off.
Someone was banging on the door insistently, and I could hear a siren sounding in the distance.
"Hold on!" I shouted, changing into cleaner clothes, and then opened the door.
John-Paul stood in front of me, flustered. "You're in your cabin this whole time? What took you so long to answer? The time is up to be working and I hope you have something to show for it."
"I was working hard. Don't worry, I do, as long as my judge is open-minded."
He caught his breath, leaning back against the door-jam, and smiled. "Mr. John is a little upset. It seems some of the judges have taken a liking to some of the candidates, and they've voted him out of assigning the judges as he liked."
"And you're among them?"
He tried to look innocent, but it wasn't working.
I smiled. "That's good news. I presume I'll be working with you then?"
John-Paul smiled back. "That's right. Now stop letting me dawdle and let's get over to the cafeteria before Mr. John finds more reasons than he needs to disqualify you."
Mr. John didn't need to silence anyone this time. The teams were waiting, whispering quietly to each other, nervous about having judges looking at the work they've done.
He saw John-Paul and I enter, and it seemed we were the last. The other candidates had returned in time to grab dinner before sitting, but I wasn't given that opportunity. I grabbed the closest empty table to the door and sat as Mr. John began.
"It seems we have an unexpected to change to the way things will be moving from here on out. Normally at this time, I would be assigning judges to groups and sending you out one team at a time to have your fortresses inspected and approved for the game. However, many of my judges have taken it upon themselves to examine the teams and inspect their fortresses, and I've heard approvals all around. Those teams that didn't make the cut haven't managed to draw sufficient attention to the judges, and those aren't even here.
"This game isn't for everyone, between hard work, teamwork, and duty-delegation, and some friendships can't stand up to that strain. Those of you that remain will continue on, and I hope for most of you that your friendships continue to hold.
"The judge assignments are as follows, and please join your teams as I read your names." The judges who sat behind him stood, all present except for John-Paul, still waiting beside the door.
"Team BLUE, your judge will be Sam." The woman on the left-most side of the stage descended and took her seat next to three girls, all smiling.
"Team EAGLE, your judge will be Paul." Paul left his second chair and jumped off the stage, sitting at a table right in front, with one girl and two boys.
"Team EARTHTREE, your judge will be Alicia." She nodded, found her group, and walked calmly over to two girls and a guy sitting at the next table over from Paul.
"Team GIBRALTAR, your judge will be Alex." Alex smiled, and she too joined her team, sitting close to the front.
"Team SAKURA, your judge will be Emma." SAKURA sat close to the back, Yin and Zeke, where their judge soon joined them. They glanced back at me for a moment, then returned to watching Mr. John.
"Team STOMP, your judge will be Robert." Robert looked surly, unsmiling though his team appropriately pounded their approval, five guys and two gals.
The stage was now empty, but Mr. John still had one last assignment. "And finally, Team WHISPER, your judge will be John-Paul." Most of the candidates turned and looked at John-Paul, as he walked behind me and put his hands on my shoulders.
"I'm sure all of you are eager to get started. Eat and sleep well, for tomorrow, the Elimination Round begins, and I hope you are all up to it. The Elimination Round will continue until only three teams are remaining." Mr. John switched off the microphone and stepped away from the podium, and the volume level of the teams talking rose quickly to fill the vacuum.
John-Paul started to sit next to me, but I stood before he could get too far down. "Would you help me grab some food? I'm not going to eat here and I need to replenish my supplies."
"Sure. Are we going back to your cabin?"
"Of course. I have no plans on socializing tonight, and I need to get you up to speed."
We walked side-by-side up to the kitchen, and into the back room, and I could feel most of the candidates watching us. The staff looked up at me, unsurprised, and had several boxes already set aside with WHISPER written on the side.
"What is this?"
"I told you there were some people in the background gunning for you. Some of them work in here. You already know about the survey team, but I thought the kitchen staff would like an opportunity to show their support too."
One of the cooks walked up to us, with several more looking on approvingly. "If you need any more food, don't hesitate to let us know."
I smiled and shook his hand. "Thank you."
The boxes were already loaded onto a pair of carts and the two of us passed out the back door and walked together to my cabin. I unlocked the door, let us in, and then unloaded the two carts. When they were empty, I pushed them back outside and then bolt the two of us in.
"So tell me, Ace, what is so special that had to wait until we were alone to share?"
I pulled out my inventory list and passed it to him, my mouth busy chewing my first decent meal in two weeks. His eyes grew wider as he scanned further down the list, but one item caught his eye that he had to ask about.
"What is the subterranean transponder for?"
I swallowed before answering. "Connecting two holes that were dug independently of each other."
"What do you mean?"
I gestured to my bed, and he looked at it, confused. "No, no, not my bed, under my bed!"
John-Paul slid over to my bed, crouching for a better look. The floorboards I'd pulled up earlier that day were still set aside, and he could see a dark hole descending below the cabin. "You've got to be kidding me!"
I shook my head. "That's why it took me so long to answer you. I wasn't technically in my cabin, but under it."
"How far does it go?"
"Into the playing field where my fortress waits."
John-Paul tried to speak, his eyes darting back and forth between me and the hole, trying hard to believe everything I've said and done.
When I finished my dinner, I packed up the remaining food and set the box aside. "If I remember correctly, there's nothing in the rules that says I have to stay off the playing field until tomorrow."
"Good. I'm going to head back down then. I have some work that didn't get done this morning. Follow whenever you're ready." I pulled out my dirt-covered clothes and air mask and tank and pulled them on.
He stood there, watching uncomfortably. "Do you have a spare set for me?"
"Of course. They're..." I patted my pockets, finding something missing, "Ah. You have my list."
"Oh, sorry." He passed it to me, and I scanned down it, knowing what I was looking for.
I found the list item quickly, and then the box with the right number, and John-Paul pulled it out of my stacks. I pulled the bunk bed out of the way as he pulled the tank onto his back, and pushed it against the only remaining empty wall, which conveniently place it so it blocked the door.
When I turned back, John-Paul smiled. "Whenever you're ready."
I nodded, climbed over to the hole and lowered myself slowly down into the darkness. As an afterthought, I switched on my red LED headlamp. When I reached the bottom, I turned and waited for him to finish descending, before continuing forward.
"While making the last push for the final feet of this tunnel, I didn't have time to shuffle out all the dirt, and that's first on my list. After that, there's a number of things that need to be done, including figuring out how to play offensively."
John-Paul didn't speak, just followed me back the the main hall in my fortress, which needed to be enlarged somewhat now that I was going to have someone else wandering these tunnels, but that should be scant hours' work.
I pointed upward, along the rope that hung from the ceiling. "That there is the main entrance. The rope is tied to a tree stump, the top of which comes off. It's at the top of a hill open to the sky, that is covered with undergrowth. That undergrowth is only a visual barrier and no longer a physical one, because I had to put all this dirt somewhere." I gestured to the two other tunnels leading off in opposite directions, left and right from us. "Those, so far, lead to two sentry positions, both of which are hollowed-out trees. The left one is shorter, but closer to the deer-path that provides the best access to this place. The one on the right is taller, provides a good view of the hill."
John-Paul nodded approvingly. "Where are you putting dirt now?"
"Out the second tree earlier, but with cabin access now, I can toss them in the field."
"Where would you like me?"
"Until I take care of the spare dirt, I have no activities that need to be supervised."
"That's not what I meant."
"Ace, I know you plan on playing this game honest, but I assure you that few others share that sentiment. Is there anywhere you need an extra set of hands?"
"Unless you know where to find SAKURA or know your way around a shovel, no, sorry. I play by the rules because I think by the rules." I shrugged. "I have Mr. John already against me just because of the number of people on my team, even though it falls within the rules. Playing outside of them could be a death warrant."
"I understand, Ace. But as I said, few others share that sentiment. Robert, of STOMP, is certainly helping those boys build their fortress. Alex is fair and probably keeping within the rules, and her team, GIBRALTAR, also has a fortress."
"As in on-ground fortification?"
"That's right. As far as I've heard, all of the others are in trees."
"Of course, but you already know what they're up to."
I nodded. "And what about me?"
"What about you?"
"Any rumors floating about me and my fortress?"
"Nothing so concrete as those."
I looked sharply at him. "Yes?"
"Emma did pull me aside before we split up. SAKURA has been spending their time sitting on their cabin roof going over topographical maps. They showed her the bug and intend on using it. She also confronted Mr. John about it, who told her that the survey team had the means to track it. I doubt I need to remind you that they are wholly rooting for you. Emma also knows about the Non-Aggression Pact."
"Do you know where they'll be staying early this early in the game?"
"That I do not, but Emma probably does. Do you want me to-"
"No. It's not an alliance, and I don't want to have anybody claiming we're a three-person group instead of two separate groups. However, I do want them to survive this round. I don't much care who the third group is, but I don't doubt it will be someone I wouldn't get along with well."
"Yes, most likely, though it could be anyone. As the largest group, they're most prone to be offensive, and I get the feeling Robert and Mr. John get along well, but it may as well be GIBRALTAR."
"Unfortunately, you're right about Robert and Mr. John."
I nodded and turned away. "I need to get back to work. If you want to feel useful, you can take one of the side tunnels and keep pushing them on in the direction they're pointed in. I was going to make that last wall sleeping and storage, but now that my cabin is connected to the network, that's hardly needed. If you plan on going anywhere, let me know so we can find a way that you're not spotted. I'm certain someone saw you venture into my cabin, and I don't doubt someone will be watching to see you come out. Mr. John may even insist on seeing the inside to be certain I'm not just hiding inside there."
John-Paul stared at me. "Damn, you're right. I should head out of here before it gets light, otherwise they'll be certain to think that of both of us."
I checked my watch and nodded. "Now is as good as ever. For once, I'll even join the group of candidates heading back into the forest."