With the divide between the rich and poor of Dilpena growing, alongside the numbers of homeless and unemployed, both those in power and the downtrodden need a way out. That's what the Immortal's Game is - your one lucky break. The longer you play, the more you gamble, the more you can win. But when she is thrown into the arena against her will, but turning it to her advantage, Jessica has to ask the question: can the Immortal be beaten at his own game?
The city wasn't a dystopia, Jessica decided, putting the book back onto the shelf and walking out the library with a friendly wave to the librarian who let her come in every day so that she actually had something interesting to do - it was just falling apart at the seams. The book had said that if a utopian, or perfect society was falling into a state of disrepair, then it was called a 'dystopia'. But Dilpena had never been perfect to begin with - crucial difference.
The streets were packed as people emerged from wherever to get something to eat. Jessica had spent too long reading, so she wasn't really surprised when she turned the corner onto Pitch Street to find that the queue for the soup kitchen was already two blocks long. She groaned inside - usually she was there way before anyone else, guaranteeing her a piping hot bowl of soup and an extra large chunk of crusty bread to wash it down with. But today, that didn't look likely. She would be lucky to get scraps. Nevertheless, she joined the line and leaned back against a crumbling brick wall, which looked like it just might hold her weight without collapsing.
An hour later, after shuffling forward painfully slowly for what seemed like forever, Jessica was finally near the front. Her stomach rumbled audibly at the smells that were wafting towards her from the kitchen. Jess smiled - she had been able to place the flavor of today’s soup from one sniff, and if was her favorite. Carrot and coriander - smooth but with a tangy kick. As the last person in front of her got served, she closed her eyes and stepped forward, savoring the smell as her mouth started to water - only to have the shutters slammed down in her face.
'HEY!' she shouted, recoiling back in shock, then started pounding the shutters with her gloved fists. 'WHATS THE BIG IDEA?'
Further down the side of the building, a window opened and a teenage boy leaned out of it - his face was familiar to Jess. His name was Tom Russcliff - he volunteered here three days a week during the lunch serving.
'I'm sorry, but we can only make enough food for so many people. I know it’s not fair, and we'd love to be able to do more, but everyone has their limits. As I said, I'm sorry.' His face looked downcast, but his heartfelt words weren't going to do Jessica's stomach any good. As everyone else started to disperse, she ran over too him, swapping her angry face for her 'hopeless homeless girl' face.
'Don't you have anything you can spare? Not even a little?' she asked in the cutest voice she could manage, clutching her hands together beneath her chin like she was begging. She saw worry in his eyes, but didn't want to overdo her act - well, only half of it was an act. He leaned inside the window - he was pleading her case with some of the other workers. He slipped off his window perch and started moving his arms around animatedly, but then he was shoved back by the head chef, an ugly old lady with a face like a prune and a look that could curdle milk.
'There's nothing more here, so get lost before we call someone down here to take care of you!' she shouted, spraying Jessica's face with spit, before slamming the window shut with a bang and bolting it. She obviously didn't realize that Jessica could see the half eaten loaf of bread in her other hand, with bits of orange soup dripping off it. That was the problem with this place, Jessica thought to herself - half the people are genuinely decent, and the other half are hell spawn.
She wandered the afternoon away after that incident, trying to find anything that might soothe her aching belly. She tried searching in the bins behind any big restaurant she could find, but the only thing she did find food wise was some apple pies outside McDonalds that were so covered in mould that even she wasn't going to risk it. Ever since the government had insisted on installing incinerators in most establishments to help fight the lack of space for landfill, it had been harder and harder, now nigh impossible to find food this way. But what else could she do?
That was all this entire world ever seemed to care about these days - either 'lack of' or 'increase in'. Two sets of two words that seemed to kick Jessica deeper down into the gutter every time she heard them. Lack of resources, lack of space, lack of shelter, lack of food. Increase in numbers of unemployed, of homeless, of deaths per capita. All things that seemed to be driving Jessica down instead of lifting her up.
And as she passed a couple walking in the opposite direction, huddled together both to help fight off the cold and to be affectionate, she heard another two words that sent a chill down her back - '...Immortal's Game...'
She kept walking for a few steps, then turned back and called to the couple. 'Is it coming on soon?'
The guy of the pair turned his head, flicking one of the tassels on his hat round as he did. 'Yeah, they got a new influx of contestants after the gov' said its going to start implementing those street sweeps its been talking about for months - so I'd keep your wits about you love, 'cos those feds are vicious.'
'Thanks, and don't worry, I can handle myself' she smiled, watching as the guy waved at her, then went back to talking to his partner. Once they were far enough away no to hear, Jessica groaned. The street sweeps were the homeless community's worst fear - they weren't going to be able to sleep easy for a long time. But right now, she had other issues on her mind. The games were about to begin, and she wasn't going to settle for watching it through the electronics’ shop window like the others might - she demanded a front row seat every time.
She ran out of the end of the alley, narrowly avoiding colliding with a mother with her baby in a pram, and stopped outside the local newsagents. Both the shopkeeper and the only other customer in the room had their eyes glued to the screen that usually showed the CCTV footage for behind the centre aisle, but had been reset for the games. Just another reminder of how big this thing was, Jessica thought, as the shopkeeper paid her absolutely no heed as she silently grabbed a few bars of chocolate, two packets of crisps and as many bottles of drinks as she could carry - five, it turns out - before glancing at the screen and running from the store. The timer to the start of the games had said 29:42 - almost half an hour to get to her seat. Piece of cake.
Her stomach grumbled, and she cursed herself. She hadn't had cake in a long time, and she wasn't going to get some anytime soon. It was best not to think about it.
Jessica moved the bottles she was carrying into the various pockets of her winter coat - the only thing protecting her from the chills the season brought - as she would need her hands free for climbing. Making sure that her fingerless gloves were pulled tight around her palms, she looked up to locate her destination and headed towards the gap in the skyscrapers that dominated Dilpena's skyline - that was where the Immortal's Arena was.
As she worked her way closer, the crowds grew to fill the streets, hampering Jessica’s progress. As she shoved people aside she took comfort in the fact that now she was just a face in the crowd – no one would care if they saw her, she didn’t stand out. Pulling her hood up over her head to hide her face, she looked exactly the same as any other homeless person trying to get in to see the games. They let a certain number of the public into the standing areas, but Jessica had found a better place than what they would settle for. There was no chance that she could afford one of the seated areas, or even more unlikely one of the executive boxes that were positioned as close to the action as possible, protected by triple-reinforced everything proof glass, and the boxes were lined with steel spikes – some of the more clever competitors used these to their advantage. But the layout of the arena, at least for the first stage, worked to HER advantage. The arena for the first stage only was shaped like a giant pit – the standing area was right at the very top, the seated areas were placed slightly lower down than that, and the boxes lined the edge of the bottom of the pit, with a slight gap beneath them so that it was easier to clean up all the blood and gore afterwards – they could just flood the pit and let it drain out. But during the first round, it made the perfect hiding place. She saw almost everything that was going on, and no one could see her because the box covered her vantage point. It was perfect.
It took her twenty minutes to traverse the almost identical corridors that ran beneath the arena – the complex was like a rabbit warren to her, and it was easy to get lost. But using marks she had placed here the first time she had found it – an idea that came to her when a large beefy man standing in front of her completely ruined her first trip to see the games – which included various scratches and sharpie marks, she slipped through an unlocked door into the scaffolding that held up the boxes. Rubbing her hands together, she quickly played einy-meany-miny-mo to choose a box and started to ascend. Minutes later she was comfortably perched on a small ledge, sipping one of her drinks and nibbling on a piece of chocolate. For her, this was as good as it gets.
There was a slight buzz as the announcer started to talk, then the crowds cheered. Jessica couldn’t hear what was being said properly, but she had memorized the speech as it was printed on the leaflet advertising the games which she kept on the inside pocket of her jacket:
‘The Immortal invites you to take the biggest gamble you could possibly take in your life – win riches! Fame! Glory! Earn your hearts desire, or for those who choose not to compete, come and watch those who do give it their best. No two games are the same! New competitors, new challenges, in the biggest venture of entertainment ever imagined – play the Immortal’s Game!’
Jessica chuckled to herself – there was no way you would catch her competing in the games in a million years. She didn’t have any special skills she could use, she wasn’t exactly in the best state of fitness – she doubted she would even survive this first part, the ‘gladiator stage’ – where twenty or so competitors are whittled down to around six to eight, depending on the will of the Immortal. It was one of the more popular days of the games – this and the last were the most widely watched and anticipated.
As the competitors walked slowly out into the arena, she noted the few that caught her eye – mostly the biggest, strongest looking ones, but also the ones that looked quick and light on their feet. More than once she had seen someone built like a tank bearing down on someone smaller only to end up on the ground with two or three knives impaled in their chest. And that’s just lovely.
This group didn’t seem like anything special – mainly the same as most of the other groups that went through. A few tough guys looking for glory or something, and a load of people who signed up out of desperation. Not that it mattered to the immortal, or to the spectators. Entertainment was entertainment according to them.
The crowd hushed as the announcer spoke his final words, a bell rang and the fighting began. Three of the group were dropped instantly by a gigantic brute with arms the size of tree trunks, leaving the crowd cheering before most of the contestants even had a chance to grab their weapons. Steroids weren’t banned in the arena, and from the look of the guy, Jessica thought to herself as she finished her first drink and opened the second, he had been packing them on for months in preparation. Well, it had paid off. Half a dozen more were felled once weapons were drawn – one staggered around with a spear through his gut before he fell to his knees then slumped to one side, dead as a doornail. Another flailed around on the floor, one hand partially covering his slashed throat, which was spraying blood everywhere until another competitor leaped onto him and put him out of his misery. But then the steroid-giant struck again, dealing out a backhand so hard it sent the man fling through the air until he slammed into the box Jessica was crouched under, the steel spikes piercing his flesh then breaking his bones with a crunch. He hung there limply, but it took another minute for him to actually die – Jessica could hear his raspy breaths through the muted cries of the crowd.
Jessica backpedaled, trying to flee from the bloody corpse hanging near her, but forgot where she was. Falling from the ledge, she caught her foot on one of the scaffolding bars, which span her around in midair. She was flipped this way and that, hitting off different poles and platforms on her way down. She fell against a ladder, her arm falling in between the rungs and wrenched out of its socket under the force of her momentum. She screamed in pain, even though she tried to stop herself as she knew she would be heard, and they would send people to investigate. Not nice people. Her arm slipped free of the ladder, and she fell the last few metres to the ground without hitting anything else. She landed with a sickening crunch, though this one wasn’t as bad as the one the steel spikes had inflicted.
Jessica lay there dazed, her vision going hazy, black spots appearing and vanishing rapidly. If she had been fully aware of what was going on, she might have heard the games end, the klaxon go, and would have realized that the staff would soon be coming down to clear out the arena, even if they hadn’t heard her scream. And she knew that she couldn’t be found there when they came. They would take her to the Immortal, who would deal out unspeakable punishments to someone who had snuck into the games. His games. And to someone who had no family, few friends, and no home to go back to. Someone who wouldn’t be missed. At all.
But she wasn’t fully aware. So she just lay there.