“Remember what we’re playing for,” I whispered.

“Of course,” Zander said, as he turned to look me dead in the eye.

Hazel twitched in the seat next to me, her legs tapping incessantly. Her fear was palpable – but I understood. The Game would determine our future.

In a flurry of practised activity, we were swiftly hooked up to electrodes. The Game-room had a clinical feel to it, and the technicians milling around almost looked robotic. A technician had given us five minutes to prepare ourselves for the virtual simulation. Five minutes before the simulation would be broadcasted and then cut off, giving people an appetiser, a slight nudge to subscribe to episode 6 of The Game. No pay, no entertainment. Everything had a price, including our rights.

“You think we’ll get enough subscribers?” Hazel bit her lip – a habit brought on by her characteristic nervousness.

“We have to,” Zander said, “we only win if there’s enough entertainment points.”

“And that can only come from self-serving subscribers that get off on our struggles,” I said, the bitterness in my voice taking me by surprise.

“Whatever it may be, we can’t give up. We can’t afford to lose entertainment points if any of us fail a challenge.” I knew Zander was worried about Hazel. Of the three of us, she was the most prone to a complete nervous breakdown.

Signing up to partake in the Game had not been a stroll in the park. We’d each had our brains mapped, and our strengths, weaknesses and fears, collected and implanted into the simulation. There was talk that an algorithm determined which team would be selected to play. The more desperate the team was- the higher the chance of playing The Game. The rich loved watching the desperate and boy were the three of us desperate.

“Hazel,” I whispered, taking her hand in mine, “remember what Synchrotunes can do for Jared. No more suicidal thoughts. No more depression.”

“You sound like a damn Synchrotunes saleswoman Aly.” Zander smirked at me but we all knew that the music made by Synchrotunes could alter chemical activity in the brain. It was now the “cure for the 2044 plague: clinical depression.”

“I’m just scared Aly. The stakes are so high for all of us. You’re playing for nanobot heart-surgery for your mum. And Zander wants an equal playing field.”

“Yeah,” said Zander. “I mean, I’m not as virtuous as you two – I’m playing for a memory-stimulating drug to keep my scholarship at Harvard.”

“Which you wouldn’t have to do if the whole of Harvard wasn’t stocked with a life-time’s supply of Memorem. What do those things cost – half your organs?”

“More,” said Zander, and I laughed, feeling the tension in the atmosphere dissipate just a little. Of course, that was short-lived as the theme song of The Game blasted out of nowhere, and the three of us were thrown into the virtual simulation.

“As you know, every single episode of The Game is different. Today, each Gamer plays alone, but individual entertainment points will be added to form the overall team score. Remember Gamers, failure of any one of the challenges will result in a reduction of entertainment points as determined by subscribers and of course, The Game creators. First up is Hazel.”

And then the hologram of Blue Callaway – host of the Game, disappeared from the sky, not before sending us a shit-eating grin.

“Funny how he chooses to appear from the sky. Who does he think he is, God?” I bit my tongue the instant I saw the stern expression on Zanders’ face. Got it, don’t diss the host.

“Hey look! It’s a parachute!” Hazel’s eyes widened as a miniature parachute fell into her hands. Attached to the parachute was a piece of parchment with sketchy writing.

“Read it, Hazel,” said Zander. “It must be your challenge.”

Hazel gulped, and tears sprang to her eyes as she read. I could see her fear and resistance kicking in, and when I grabbed the parchment from her hands, I realised why.

“They want her to watch her mum pick up a client,” I said. “And then she has to do the same.”

“No. No. It’s wrong. I can’t do it. Mum does it to support Jared and I. She’d die if she saw…”

“Hey, Hazel,” said Zander. “Prostitution has been legalised in SA for a while now. In fact, the entire world accepts it as a way to make a living. You just have to pick up a client, nothing more.”

“Hazel, none of this is real. It may feel like it is but everything is part of a simulation. You can’t forget that. You’re just an actress playing a part, OK?” I held Hazel by her shoulders and forced her to look into my eyes.

“But it would feel real to me. It already does – I feel like I’m breaking my promise to Mum…”

“You’re doing this for Jared,” said Zander. “For Jared and for our team.”

“I…alright. For my brother. For you guys,” Hazel brushed away the tears pooling on her cheeks and followed the arrows directing her to her challenge. I prayed that Hazel’s resolve wouldn’t crumble when the simulation began to truly conflict reality with make-belief. “Winners” of previous episodes of The Game never came out the same. The Game screwed with emotions in a way that left Gamers inexorably scarred.

“And now viewers…the creators of The Game have decided that each Gamer will be injected with a hallucination serum to test just how badly they want to win.”

This time Blue’s hologram stood directly in front of us, instead of hovering in the sky like some celestial being. His skin was irritatingly perfect, clearly untouched by the harsh UV rays. He didn’t feel the wrath of global warming. He didn’t see the less fortunate battling skin cancer, unable to afford treatment.

“Alyssa St Claire,” said a bespectacled man with thinning grey hair, “please come with me.”

“Zander Mathews, you are to follow me.” And just like that, Zander and I were separated, unable to formulate a game-plan.

Seated on a rock overlooking a tiny stream, I was given five minutes to make my decision. The messenger that had led me away from Zander was staring stoically into the distance, seemingly unperturbed by the words that had just come out his mouth. My challenge was to hop into a car, gun it past the speed limit and run over the first woman that crossed the road. The woman would be somebody either Zander or Hazel loved.

Nobody would actually die, but I wouldn’t know that once injected with the hallucination serum. In this simulation I’d be a killer; I’d feel like a killer, and even when the simulation was over, I would return home different, changed.

“Hey, I’ll do it. I accept the challenge.”

I punched in the navigation details that would set the car on a straight course. Modern technology allowed me the option of letting the car drive itself with minimal input. I’d just have to control the speed. With steely determination and adrenaline flooding my system, I pressed down hard on the accelerator. The speed felt electrifying. Exhilarating. It was just me and the car…until Zander’s grandmother began crossing the road.

My stomach lurched forward and I itched to slam on the brakes or yell at the car to stop. The car was voice activated, but my voice seemed to have lodged itself in my throat. All I could think about was my mother and the nanobot heart-surgery. It was a life, for a life I cared about more… But something inside of me snapped and at the last second I screamed “STOP!!!”

“You! You….you killed her!!” Zander wrenched me out the car, a murderous glint in his eyes. He was dazed; manic, almost as if he didn’t see me brake on time.

“They said I had to kill you. That I’d be blacklisted from every single university and college. B-but I refused because I would n-never take your life,” Zander said, laughing bitterly. “Now, I’m not too sure.” He picked up a gun that suddenly appeared in front of him, and shakily pointed it at me.

I closed my eyes. One second. Two seconds. Then the clink of metal hitting the ground.

“Unfortunately Gamers,” bellowed Blue, “two of you have failed, causing the entire team to lose way too many entertainment points. Sorry Hazel, next time choose a stronger team. That’s it folks, thank you for subscribing to episode 6 of the Game. Remember life’s a game – play on, play strong.”

Suddenly a man was pulling me away from Zander and Hazel. He said something about waiting for the “serum” to wear off. But all I could think about was Zander who seemed to think I was a monster. Maybe I was – I almost killed a sweet old lady. Before I could give in to the all-powerful drowsiness that was turning my eyelids into lead, I saw Hazel across from me, asleep in…lingerie?