The first time we did it, I pushed her off a cliff.
I threw her into a pit of snakes the second.
She learned how to play by the fifth trial, when she lured me into a basilisk's lair.
It was then the chatelaine told us our purpose - our duty. We did not like it.
You do not need to think. You need merely play.
You need merely win.
I can hear it crashing through the trees behind me. Three steps later, I'm in the safe zone. The box bobs at the centre of the clearing. I relish the moment. The box stops in mid-air, spinning and opening when I reach the threshold. Honey-coloured light caresses my face - the reward!
"No!" she screams.
I force my legs to move. I lunge for the box but I trip over when a branch flies into my stomach. Crawling back up, I see her leap into the safe zone. She pads up, rock in hand.
"I hope you do not take this personally." Her voice is like syrup. "I know we are not allowed to fight in the safe zone but you must agree with me that I did not. The branch was thrown from outside."
She smiles and walks to the box. I leap up and dive for her legs. She topples and I lurch forward. Now the box is spinning so fast that a breeze kisses my face.
"Pandorus," she croaks. I ignore her.
"You don't want to go there," she says.
"I think I do."
The smile again ...
"If you take one more step," she wheezes, "you will die."
"I do not think I will." I place my foot forward and feel a rock crunch into my head. A hand lobs a blood-shiny rock at my chest. A grin swims before my eyes.
"I did tell you," she laughs.
"Pause." Comet-cold eyes survey the holo. "I want the Orchard up."
A 100-item pyramid of rewards flashes into existence. She gestures and a large grey cube with scribbles of lightning is magnified.
"Weapon: the Disassembler. Only one in existence," barks a gamesculpt. "Discovered in 2039 by Arch-Architect Four in Hong Kong ..."
"Yes, yes. I have heard of this. The Disassembler. Gamesculpt 008, the apple."
A golden apple pops up, blushed by light.
"There will be no need to explain this to me, gamesculpt."
Gamesculpt 008 snaps her mouth shut. The woman looks at the apple and thinks: "We are near completion. The stakes are higher than ever - and so the reward for winning must be greater than ever."
"Grapes of wrath." A bunch of deepest purple fruit materialises.
"Unreality liquid." A syringe of transparent fluid.
The grapes of wrath now look like plastic. The woman waves a lazy hand and they float into the holo-box.
"Play," says the chatelaine.
I wait a while in Limbo. Thankfully, the wound's gone. The part of the skull that caved in has rebuilt itself. My adult body is as unblemished as a newborn babe. I still don't know whether the chatelaine rebuilds our bodies each time we lose or just transfers us into a new one. Either way, she must be very clever.
A bunch of grapes beams at me from her hands.
"I have a reward for you."
The grapes disappear and reappear in my palm.
"Enjoy," she purrs.
To eat, or not to eat? Rewards are double-edged swords. The first battle's reward was reality liquid - pleasure. A fight to the death with three gorgons was the second reward - pain. The person who wins can choose to accept the reward or not. It's a gamble with high stakes. If I don't eat them, I'll be here forever. If I do, I might revel in incomparable pleasure or scream with excruciating pain.
The grapes are juicy and sweet.
It is only when I see the things wriggling under my skin that I know which type of reward it is.The Sanctum overlooks the Artifice, the immovable, indestructible sphere in which champions battle as proxies for their cities.
"The City of Commerce has been augmenting its champions. Issue a removal notice to its chatelaine," Arch-Architect 16 is saying to an aide as the chatelaine of the City of Ubiquity marches in.
She bows: "Arch-Architect."
"Chatelaine," it nods, "please."
When she is seated, the Arch-Architect shrinks to human size.
"I summoned you because you are the most incorruptible of the chatelaines," its water-like voice says. "There is a flaw in the Artifice. My aides have predicted that its usefulness as a mediator is coming to an end.
"This is surprising. Even to us. But logic is a human creation, and we know that humans are prone to failure. The ministries of our world - our cities - are crumbling. The Artifice can no longer serve as a proxy battleground. The City of Commerce has breached the rules most flagrantly by helping its champions. Truth attempted to bribe its chatelaine. Mercy pardoned a dissident purely because he had insider information on the champions of Concert," it continued.
The Arch-Architect seems worried - as close to worried as a century-level World mind can be.
"Even the City of Concert has spies here in our Sanctum. Ubiquity is the only city I can trust."
The Arch-Architect swoops down and grabs her, flash-growing to its true size. She breathes deeply and tells herself that she is safe in its hand, high above the Sanctum. Below, she can see the spires of the pre-Assimilation colony of Hong Kong.
"The Artifice is dying, chatelaine. The arena where our cities send their champions to settle disputes, instead of waging bloody war, is dying. Its existence has caused disease. And so we must contain and kill it."
She cannot contain herself. "Destroy the Artifice? But it is an Unvariable. It cannot be destroyed."
The thunder shaking her is the Arch-Architect chuckling.
"The Artifice was created for another world in another age long gone. We must remove this Artefact and build a new means to resolve conflict. We must move carefully, chatelaine. Its demise must appear to be an accident."
The winds are silenced and the Arch-Architect addresses the chatelaine in its human-level tone. When it is finished, it returns to normal.
"Our creators wished for the creation of the Artifice to usher in an era of peace and prosperity. They were certainly wise in realising that its destruction would do the same."
In front of them, the moon-sized sphere of the Artifice hangs in space, no longer immovable or indestructible.Effects of rewards don't wear off fast. I focus on my breathing instead of my wounds. It'll be at least three months before I'm fit to compete again.
"Reincarnation is authorised by the chatelaine herself," a man barks. "You are to retrieve the body of the neophyte champion and inject his mind into that. It does not matter that it defies regulation."
A mutter, then a sharp, clean pain as the needle sends me to sleep.
My new body is state-of-the-art. It has to be, for, the moment I wake up, I am in the arena and robots will be shooting at me.
I scramble down the gantry and pound through a landscape of metal staircases, platforms, elevators and burning lasers before I enter the safe zone. A gun is in my hand. I spot her before she sees me. A spike through the head when she lays eyes on me and the reward is mine.
"The apple, quick," the chatelaine snaps.
It's an apple - a golden apple. Its fragrance is gentle, beguiling, like a lover's kiss. The skin is pure, sun-licked gold. It's a beautiful reward.
And because of that, I refuse it.
Limbo seems a lot less forbidding when you're the winner. Staring back at me, she opens her mouth wide and bites into the apple. I wait for the screams, but they don't come. I look and instantly wish I hadn't.
She's laughing. She's giggling, as honey juice dribbles down her chin. She's smiling.
I go blank. The reward was pleasure. I stare and stare and stare. My chest is tight and I'm finding it hard to breathe. She keeps smiling. Then she winks at me.
The fury boils over and I hear myself howl and scream. I watch my feet throw me forwards and my hands grope for the half-eaten apple. The core crumbles into ashes the moment my fingers touch. I lunge at her, only to be swatted aside by a force.
I snarl and try to move, but a force field pins me down.
"It is not wise to kill a future ally.""Initiate sequence 0212. Prime absorption field. Combine all arenas within Artifice. Game simulation: pre-Assimilation Hong Kong. Reward: Disassembler. And notify the Arch-Architect about this," says the chatelaine.
"We are present."
"Of course. Gamesculpts: begin."The cities must be having a particularly heated dispute. Right after that game, we're informed that we have another one in an hour. We're shunted into a room on the edge of the Artifice, far from the arenas themselves.
She looks tired.
"The apple wasn't pleasure."
"It wasn't, knowledge isn't pleasure, Pandorus."
"The reward. It gave ..."
The door slides open and the wall pushes us out. We gasp.
"Welcome to pre-Assimilation Hong Kong, now a colony of the International Trade Empire." We're in an actual colony. It must be as big as the Artifice itself.
"The rules of the game have changed. There are now 16 of you in each game instead of two. Remember - the first to the box wins. May fortune smile upon you. Begin."
I shove down the street through hordes of people. There is no doubt where the box is. At the dead centre of the arena - where the claw-crowned skyscraper stands. Cars roll past in clouds of pollution as I charge through a thoroughfare lined with storefronts. H&M, Massimo Dutti. The sign says Queen's Road Central.
I grab a suited man and point, "How do I get to that place?"
"Uh ... you walk up there and go straight on."
The arena is larger than I thought because I've run a mile without returning to my starting point. It must be the size of the Artifice itself. I see no other champions around as I run to the building. I barge through the entrance and jump into an elevator.
"IFC management welcomes you," purrs a voice.
I step out the instant she steps out. Even in the safe zone, the silence is absolute.
"Don't open it, Pandorus."
I let out a bark of laughter. "You tried that on me once. It's not going to work again."
She limps over. "Don't. The apple told me what would happen. If you open that box, you will die," she whispers. She seems so tired.
"And why should I listen to you?"
"Because I'm the only one who knows what they're doing. The apple was the key, Pandorus. They wanted someone to know. Did you think that this would keep on going? Killing each other so our cities didn't have to fight at all? They want to fight again. They want us out of the way."
The box disappears and a cube crawling with lightning floats out. I raise a tentative hand to touch it.
"Don't, you will damn us all if you do!" She's crawling on the carpet. "Listen to me. That's the Disassembler. It's a weapon. It destroys everything within a one-mile radius and a touch is all it takes to activate it." Her flesh sags.
"What happened to you?" I murmur.
A grimace contorts her face. "I tricked you, Pandorus. The apple was poison. So please. You have your consolation - save yourself!"
I'm about to believe her, but then I notice that her eyes are purple. Just like grapes.
I touch the cube. And realise she is telling the truth.
Read the other entries to our 2012 Summer Story competition.
- The winning story, Eyes of the Departed, by 16 year old Lorenzo Chim
- Don't Mess with the Old by 13 year old Justin Yu
- I Should Have Listened to My Friends by 13 year old Charlotte Chan
- Dreams of fame turn to tragedy by 15 year old Chaang Vi Ka
- A love to remain forever unspoken by 15 year old Lorraine Ho
- The sad tale of a drowned ghost by 16 year old Gene Lin
- A prank goes out of control by 8 year old Anoushka Hemnani
- It will be spring by the time you awake by 15 year old Emily Archibald