The game master swung around to face the crowd in the stands. His big, bulging belly, wobbled with every move, threatening the imminent pop of that middle jacket button.
"Ladies and Gentlemen! Are you ready!?" His voice boomed over the stadium microphone.
"In just a few moments, we will receive the call!" The crowd bellowed with excitement, their roars tearing through the stadium as they bared their teeth. The game master's pupils dilated.
He fed off of their hunger. His inflated fingers gripped the mic stand harder, a sneer creeping across his face as he peered down at the prisoners.
Prisoner 8-0-8 raised his hand to shield his eyes as he looked to the game master on his podium. His chains clinked together, reminding him that freedom was a privilege that he had lost.
They felt heavy on his wrists and left sores over time that festered. The sun battered the stadium ground. Its scorching rays illuminated the prisoners like actors on a stage.
It was hot, too hot. The air suffocating, carrying the smell of dried blood and sweat. He tried to reconcile in his mind how it had come to this. "Had it all been worth it?" he thought.
"Murderers!" cried the game master, fuelling a scream of elation from the ravenous horde. "Only one can survive!" he growled.
'Murderer'. Prisoner 8-0-8 had heard this word for seven years. Murderer. They said his car had been found at the scene of the crash. They said it was his car that killed him.
They said he had been driving. The word echoed in the prisoner's mind. Murderer. He looked at the distorted shadow of his body stretching towards the exit. "Am I a murderer?" he asked himself.
A question that had played on record, scratching at his mind. Over time the disbelief and doubt had poisoned his soul.
Prisoner 8-0-8 could remember nothing of that night, save the alcohol, the fight with his editor, and the police forcing entry into his home,
handcuffing his blood-stained hands to an enslaved future. "But murderer?" the prisoner thought. Once again, he battled his mind to revisit the past. He knew he had been getting close.
The corruption and scandal of the establishment, he could have published it all. There would have been nowhere for them to hide. But his editor refused. He thought 'it wasn't the right time'.
He remembered feeling rage, disillusion, even suspicion. He remembered shouting. He remembered drinking the whiskey. No, wait, he drove home first. Then he drank. But he was at home.
He drank at home and then slept. He was sure he drank at home. A sudden squeal from the microphone shot through his head forcing the prisoner to hunch over in shock.
"Sorry folks, just a bit of feedback there", the game master chuckled. He tapped the mic a few times to reassert his authority over the rogue instrument.
"For those of you who are here on your first visit, the rules of the game are simple!
" He performed to the crowd, the sun's glow bathing him in a blinding light that contrasted against his entirely purple suit which was, at least, one size too small for him.
"When the phone rings, I will be given a name. That name decides in which direction the prisoners must run. Now, for those of you who are keen-eyed, there are two prisoners and two directions."
Prisoner 8-0-8 looked ahead of him at the boy who was standing less than two meters away, trembling, from the heat or fear the man could not know. Prisoner 8-0-9.
"Is he a murderer? He's just a child." He was the antithesis of Prisoner 8-0-8. The boy was thin, pale, couldn't have been older than 20. He looked weak.
"I wonder how fast he can run?" the man pondered.
"One direction" the game master continued, "leads directly to freedom.
" He motioned towards the exit door that faced the desert marketplace just miles ahead, bustling with life and energy, driven by the need to survive the harsh nature of its environment.
"The other direction, well, you get to live another day, until it's your turn to reach for liberty", he jeered.
"Now, in both directions there is a button, see?" The game master stretched his arms like a fat scarecrow pointing to the two stone poles at opposite ends of the stadium.
They both had large red buttons on top.
The heat from the sun distorted the air to make it look as though they were swaying, taunting, no, daring, the person to come near and touch their scalding surface.
"Whoever can reach and press their button first, gets to live. But the other will be blown to tiny, little, pieces.
" The game master stretched each of the words out, his mouth twitching with pleasure at the reality they represented.
"As you all know, those who enter the prison system have an implant put in them on arrival.
That implant gives us the power to, BOOM!" he shouted, his arms flayed open, mimicking the explosion of a bomb, "blow them up if they try to escape!
" He screamed and the crowd followed suit, every single one of the spectators, leaning in, desperate to watch the tragedy that would unfold.
"The scientists call it 'instantaneous human combustion'" the game master mocked, "but I call it, justice!".
The horde was almost uncontrollable at this point, clambering over each other to get a closer look at the prisoners who would test their fate. "Let the games begin!" he announced.
Prisoner 8-0-8 looked towards the exit, the floor in front of the open doors strewn with blood. He struggled to comprehend the enormity of the minutes that lay ahead.
He struggled to know whether this was a fate owed to him, whether this was justice. He was angry at his mind.
His mind which had always been an ally, had always led him to the truth, was now his enemy. It's silence the ultimate disloyalty.
Suddenly the game master's hand shot into the air. The entire stadium froze. The crowd noiseless. The anticipation palpable. The phone was ringing.
The game master moved slowly to the phone box, savouring every moment, shooting rapid glances to the crowd as he played them in the palm of his hand.
The phone clicked and he raised it to his ear, "Okay" he said.
He slid to the front of the podium, moved his bloated lips towards the mic, his black moustache scratching at its surface, "Prisoner 8. 0.
", he inched closer still, his voice so quiet it was barely audible, "8".
The chains dropped abruptly with a clang that shook the arena. The thunderous roar from the masses released adrenalin that coursed through every vein of the prisoner's body.
He felt cold and hot at once, his extremities tingling as terror gripped his muscles and propelled him towards the exit. The man was running.
Every move meticulously driven by a mechanism to survive.
One stride after the next, fear drove him to freedom. His body knew what to do and his role was to surrender to it. So he did.
As his feet pounded the bloodied ground, his surroundings began to transform with every thud. His vision switched from stadium to forest road and back again.
He looked ahead and concentrated on the exit as the warm blood dripped down his forehead. Blood? The man refocused, almost tripping over as he glanced back at the boy.
He saw the tyre marks on the road, where the dried blood had stained the stadium floor. The man swung his head back around. Refusing distraction he fixed his eyes on the exit. He was so close.
He could almost touch the door, his door, his front door. His bloodied hands stretched out in front of him, still holding the whiskey bottle. He stopped dead in his tracks.
His chest collapsed, unable to take in another breath. His eyes widened as every memory he had erased played out in front of him like the reel of a horror movie.
He smelt the alcohol on his breath. He saw himself snatch the car keys from the valet tray in a fit of fury.
He slammed the car door shut and took another swig of whiskey before reversing out of the driveway.
He felt the pain shoot through his hands as he hit the steering wheel, screaming, furious that every sacrifice he had made to get the truth out had been for nothing.
He saw the car veer onto the road where the offices -
The hairs on his arms stood on end. He watched the car swerve to try and avoid him but it was too late. He remembered coming to, his forehead bleeding, whiskey bottle still in his hand.
He clambered out of the car pushing the damaged door open.
He saw part of his editor's bloodied arm from behind the front of his vehicle; the broken watch, a present he and his ex-wife had given to his boss before she had left him. He wasn't moving.
Nothing was heard but the sound of the car blinkers. He felt the dread, the confusion, creep into his throat squeezing his windpipes shut.
He remembered looking at the bottle, his car, and back at the bottle. He remembered the sound of his feet hitting the paved road with such force that he thought he might break the ground.
He was running as fast as he could back home, his body taking control. He remembered the taste of sweat and blood on his cracked mouth. He tried to scrub the evidence off of his hands.
He tore the stained shirt off of his body. He remembered waking on the floor to the sound of banging on the front door, the shouts of the police calling his name, "Clay! Clay Talman!".
He remembered being handcuffed, chained to an enslaved future.
The relief pierced his soul, liberating a pain that seized every cell in his body. The mirror in his mind shattered into pieces and he saw himself: a liar, a coward, a murderer.
He looked ahead, freedom just one red button away. The smells of spices and warm bread from the market place travelled on the wind, enticing him to take one step further.
He moved his hand shakily to the red button, the heat scorching his skin as he placed it on the surface. He turned slowly to look at the boy. He watched him desperately scramble towards the pole.
Clay's breath was slow. He whispered the word, "murderer" as he pushed his fingers down on the red button.