Josh started crying first; it was a few tears, then it turned ugly. Jasper had never seen someone consumed by despair like Josh. Jasper crossed the room and sat next to him. Putting his hand on his back.
“You’re right. I don’t know. In fact, I’m scared as hell too. But we don’t have a choice in this. You know what happens if we want to leave or choose not to play. Elimination. I refuse to be an entertainment monkey, but I don’t want to die either. If what you’re saying is true, then we need to beat King at his own game. I was in the same boat earlier. One of my teammates found a way to get through the game. If it weren’t for her, I don’t think I’d be here right now either.”
“********,” Josh said, wiping his face. “I saw your game. You were the one who led them to safety. Sure, that girl may have started it, but you took it to the next level. You’re a leader, Jasper. I’m not.”
Jasper chuckled. “I don’t know about that. I got lucky. My path was clearer than the others. Even that was…”
“Was what?” Josh asked.
“Nothin’. Listen, I know this is the last thing you want to hear, but the games are gonna get tougher from here on out. You shouldn’t give them the satisfaction of seeing you break down. Show these ******* you’re not just here to die,” Jasper smirked. “You got this, man.”
Josh returned the smile. “You’re proving my point more, you know? Okay, I won’t give up. Not yet, at least.”
“That’s the spirit, buddy,” Jasper said, hitting him on the back. “Now, get up. The floor’s cold.”
Jasper went to open the door when he saw a woman standing in front of it. They both had shocked expressions on their faces. “Jesus!” Jasper said, trying to stop his heart from jumping out of his chest.
“Sorry, um, I’m looking for Joshua. Is he here? I’m Jasmine. We were in the same game, and I wanted to check on him,” Jasmine said. She was wearing the orange tracksuit Josh pointed out. Her short blond hair was in a ponytail, and her green eyes sparkled like emeralds.
“Uh, yeah, he’s…” Jasper turned around, and Josh had gone into the bathroom. “In the bathroom.”
“Okay, can you tell him I stopped by? I wanted to know if he wanted to partner again?”
“Hold on,” Jasper said, cracking the door. He hurried over to the bathroom door and knocked. “Hey, you have a visitor.”
“Really? Who?” Josh said, flushing the toilet.
“Um, come out and see. I’m not your doorman.”
Josh opened the door and adjusted his eyepatch. “Fine, so who…Jasmine?”
“Joshua!” Jasmine ran into the room and hugged him. “I’m glad you look better.”
Josh was stunned for a second but then hugged her back. “You didn’t have to come to check on me.”
“I know what that kind of fear can do to someone. A little too well, and I didn’t want you going down the same road. Are you busy right now? Can we talk?” Jasmine asked.
Josh looked at Jasper. “So…”
Jasper put his hands up. “No worries, I’m gone. Nice to meet you, other Jas.”
She gave him a puzzled look. “Oh, my name’s Jasper.”
“Really? Mined if I call you Jazzy?”
jasper smiled. “Sure, you kids don’t have too much fun, okay?”
“Screw you,” Josh said. “And thanks.”
“Anytime. See ya. You know where to find me if you need anything,” Jasper said, walking out of the room. He was going to go back to his room, but instead, he walked over to the elevator and pressed floor 10. The elevator opened, and Jasper went up. “Thank god no one’s in here. If I see one more masked person today…” As soon as he thought that, when the elevator door opened, he was face to mask with another masked man. This one had a red spade embedded on the front. His suit was black and red. Split right down the middle with alternating gloves. “Son of a…”
“Excuse me,” Jasper said as he tried to pass. The masked man shot his arm out. Stopping him in his tracks. “Problem?”
“Why are you here, Ninety-nine?” The masked man asked. His voice was deep but young.
“Let him pass already! He’s a friend,” Lance said, sitting outside his room, holding a book.
The masked man looked Jasper straight in his eyes before moving aside. Jasper looked him up and down before passing. “The hell was that about?” Jasper asked, pointing behind him.
“Ah, don’t mind him. He’s kind of like my bodyguard. Every gray has one. Well, I say every gray, but it’s only a few of us. It’s kind of annoying,” Lance said, standing up. “I didn’t think you would come.”
“Don’t have anything else to do. So, what’s your deal?”
Lance snickered. “My deal?”
“You’ve been all mysterious. The bad boy type,” Jasper shrugged.
Lance burst out laughing. “Is that what I am? Oh, man, you’re hilarious! I promise I’m not doing it on purpose. Come on, let’s talk inside.”
Lance opened his door and walked inside. “You can sit anywhere. I have snacks. Help yourself. I don’t like salty things, but they keep bringing me crackers.”
“Dude, you’re room is sick!” Jasper said, still in awe. Lance’s room was amazing. He had arcade cabinets, a large monitor, a minibar, a bed big enough to sleep a family of bears, and a monster-sized bookcase. “How are you able to have this?”
“You’re room doesn’t look like this? I thought everyone’s did. Huh.” Lance sat at his desk and grabbed an apple. “I guess I do owe you an introduction. My name is Lance Logan. Zone 9.”
Jasper’s eyes widened. “Zone 9? Whoa, I’ve never met someone that high up before.”
Lance tilted his head. “What Zone are you from?”
“2,” Jasper said quietly. “Now it makes sense. He’s rich, so of course, his room is awesome.”
“No shame in that. I’ve never met anyone from any Zone before a few days ago. My parents wanted to keep me…secluded. Homeschooled, no friends, and limited contact. My life in a nutshell.”
“Why so isolated?”
“My mother thought the outside world was a distraction. Anything and everything was corrupted. Her words, not mine. She said she wanted to “keep me pure,” whatever that means. I thought she was just doing it out of paranoia, but it was something else. Something darker. What I’m about to tell you doesn’t leave this room, okay?”
Jasper crossed his legs on the bed. “Yeah, I won’t tell anybody.”
“Okay, my family is ******* insane. But they’re geniuses. Every one of them. Everyone but me. I was born normal. Average. My grades were passable at best. It wasn’t until I was ten that they took matters into their own hands with my education. I was pulled out of school and lost contact with my friends. I should probably tell you my mother was a scientist for Zone 9. A brilliant one. She was a part of a team that was developing a new drug that increased brain processing power and speed. It had been approved for testing, so…”
“No,” Jasper said.
“Yep, guess who was pumped full of it?” Lance pointed to himself. “This ******* right here. The doses started small at first but then when the results were, how do I put this? Undesirable? They increased it. By a lot.” Lance pulled up his sleeve. “These numbers are how much they needed to give me. Instead of writing it down on paper, they wrote on me. To this day, I have no idea what they mean or how to interpret them. I’ve tried every decoder I know. Anyway. that was just the start of it. Test after test—day in and day out. When I got it wrong, it was either another shot or punishment, which could vary. Mostly pain, courtesy of my father. He was a psychologist. He “helped” my mother try to fix me. They actually made me think something was wrong with me. I never understood what I did wrong.” Lance laughed. “Was it because I wasn’t smart? They kept saying I was defective. Like I was a ******* robot. You know when someone gets a few grey hairs when they get stressed out? Well, I got more than a few.”
“****, Lance. I’m sorry.”
“Are you?” Lance asked. “Or are you sorry you had to hear it?” As if he was offended by his own words, Lance shook his head. “Sorry, that was uncalled for.”
“It’s okay. Don’t worry about it,” Jasper said.
“Trust me; I’ve done enough worrying for a lifetime. Now, what’s your deal?”
“Not much to say. I used to steal stuff, got caught, and now I regret it.”
“There’s more to it. Come on, man. I literally just told you my life story.”
Jasper took a deep breath. “A couple of years ago, I was on a job me and a buddy of mine had been planning on doing when he sold me out. All the while, my mom was trying to get a hold of me that entire day. Call after call. I ignored her. Only to find out she was…about to die. She was trying to call me from the hospital. I thought she was just wanting to know where I was, like always. I’m such a ******* idiot. Now, my brother hates me, my sister barely talks to me, and I’m still…” Jaser put his head in his hands. “I should’ve picked up the **** phone.”
Lance studied him. “Is that what you think? Do you really think you picking up the phone would’ve changed anything? Let’s say what’s really going on here. You blame yourself for her death. Somehow you think that if you had been there, everything would’ve been fine. Sure the guilt you feel might be gone, but she still would’ve passed. You need to come to grips with that. Jasper, who are you angrier at? Yourself, your family, or the world?”
“Can I say all three?” Jasper asked.
“Sure, and that’s okay. But blaming yourself won’t help. Heh, listen to me. I sound like my father. My psychologist is showing.”
“I guess your right. Still hurts, though.”
“That’s fine too—pain is one hell of a motivator. Trust me. Just depends on what you do with it. You want to know why I’m here? I’m here because I want to show my family I’m my own person. Not some experiment. I honestly don’t care about becoming King. I just want to prove to them and myself that I can get by on my own,” Lance grinned. “I think I’m doing a good enough job.”
“I think so too,” Jasper laughed. “Hey, so if you still need a partner. I’m your guy.”
“Right on. Let’s show the world what we can do,” Lance smiled.
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