Congratulations @Fronzizzle for your excellent story. The entries were all really good this time around but this one stood out from the rest. Thanks again to the other authors that entered and all the forum members that voted. Contest winners can send me a PM for the next contest theme. I'll be using your suggested theme for the next contest planned in April. The Game [2,443 words] The master of ceremonies stood in the middle of the room, rummaging through the drop box. His ratty top hat from the thirties didn’t match the rest of his neat, manicured look or his twelve hundred dollar Brooks Brothers' suit, but tradition demanded he wear it. Ever the showman, he dug through the box longer than necessary until he finally produced an envelope; a hush fell over the small but buzzing crowd. Holding the envelope over his head, the host slowly spun a complete circle, giving him time to lock eyes with various audience members, engaging them. Using his index finger, he tore the envelope open with a flare and removed the paper within. Tossing the torn envelope aside, he read the word printed on the paper, a smile forming on his handsome but weathered face. “Tonight’s topic is….the zoo!” he bellowed a little too loudly for the small venue. The crowd erupted, a mixture of laughter and disbelief; it was a rather silly topic compared normal, but it would make the festivities more interesting if the contestants were up to the challenge. As the murmur died down, the audience settled in. Most had glasses of wine, though some chose cocktails instead. It wasn’t necessary for anyone to turn off or silence their phone, for all electronic devices were strictly forbidden. Situated in what used to be the library of the once-famous McHugh House on the southern tip of Grosse Ile, a million dollar renovation left the room with the appearance of a coliseum, though on a much smaller scale. The stadium seating, with capacity for sixty people, surrounded a small center stage area. Interrupting the seating on one side was a small tunnel that led to other parts of the residence. A couple of helpers finished preparing the stage area, placing four extra large tarps such that they covered the entire floor. Once the tarps were in place, three white, plastic lawn chairs were brought out and placed in a triangle pattern, two of the chairs facing each other and the third staring at the dead space in between. Each chair was given a small matching table. Mr. Johnson – not his real name, of course – came out of the tunnel to a smattering of boos and catcalls. This was his fifth game and much to the audience’s chagrin, he was undefeated. Before taking his seat, he looked around at the faces watching him. Though there was a nearly perfect mix of males and females, they all looked the same; middle-aged, white and well-off. Digging deeper, most were independently wealthy, bored and slightly insane, or at the very least out of touch with reality. And, just like him, all had a small omega symbol with a lightning bolt above it tattooed on the inside of their left elbow. The chances of a non-member stumbling upon the same design and location for a tattoo were beyond remote; an outsider was not going to get in. After Mr. Johnson selected one of the two chairs facing each other, his opponent for the evening emerged to whistles and applause, the crowd sounding much larger than it actually was. Weston Bilkin, a proclaimed self-made millionaire that stumbled into his fortune. Cocky and arrogant, he chose to use his real name. In his mid-forties, he was significantly younger than Mr. Johnson, though his frail frame and receding hairline made him look much older. He, too, looked around the audience before sitting. Seeing friendly, familiar faces, he added waves and blown kisses. He had been in their position many times, having witnessed the game on nine previous occasions; he had never played, though, and despite the high stakes, was looking forward to the contest. Mr. Johnson sat quietly and shook his head as Bilkin acted like he was on the set of a TV talk show, playing to the crowd, smiling, waving and even shaking the hands of people sitting in the first row. Did the man have no idea what was about to happen? How had things progressed to this point, he wondered? What had happened to his original group? How had a social experiment he designed degraded into...this? As a waiter took drink orders from Mr. Johnson and Bilkin, the two helpers reemerged with the third “contestant” for their game. An old Hispanic man of indeterminate age was slowly walked on stage and sat in the final chair. He had been bathed and shaved and dressed in a nice tailored suit but it wasn't possible to clean up years of hard street living; he was another member of Detroit's homeless population. Taken from the street under the cover of darkness and brought here for entertainment, his disappearance would go unnoticed like all of the others. The old man sat perfectly still, in his own little world, staring at nothing, his eyes hollow and face scarred. Mr. Johnson wondered if it was just the administered drugs that caused the nothingness in the homeless man, or something else. Beatings? Torture? Some combination of all? In the beginning, all it took was a small drug cocktail centered on ketamine, followed by hypnosis, to put a patient under. But as the group grew larger and others forced their way into leadership positions, that method was deemed inadequate; now, much stronger drugs were being used, many with significant long and short-term side effects. During that same time, what was once a thought-provoking look at the human mind devolved into a twisted game meant to satisfy the morbid curiosities of those in attendance. Even worse, the rules were always changing, skewing in favor of the macabre. Mr. Johnson didn’t know what to do. Go to the police? He’d spend the rest of his life in jail; he was as complicit as the rest – perhaps more, considering he was the one that started everything. Back then, it was done on a volunteer basis and nobody ever died, but he doubted that would buy him much leniency. Plus, he only had a couple of names to offer up as anonymity was a key part of their little society. No, going to the police wouldn’t solve the problem. It might put a damper on it for a short time, cause some legal issues for a few and result in a new location but eventually, the society would be back up and running as normal. Instead, he did the only thing he could think of – try to save them one at a time. He preferred not to look at the subjects, but in this instance he couldn’t stop staring at the old man; he looked familiar. Mr. Johnson thought that he might be the same subject from his first contest a couple of months ago. If that were the case, though, he should have been released per the rules of the game. Apparently, another change was made. If he was right, the old man had spent four or five months in captivity. What horrors had he endured during that time? Even if he lived through the game tonight, would he go back to being a prisoner? Or would they finally release him, sending him back on the street more damaged than before? Even if Mr. Johnson won, the subject lost. He briefly wondered if it was even worth trying; the most humane thing might be to throw the game, put an end to the old man’s suffering… But then he saw his opponent. Still preening, acting like a jackass. A life hung in the balance, and all this Bilkin character could do was smile and wave and have a grand old time. He didn’t value life; he should pay with his. A waiter emerged from the tunnel, carrying a large tray. Making the rounds, he set something on each of their tables. For Mr. Johnson and Bilkin, it was their drinks and a small envelope with their names on it. For the homeless man, it was much different; a Glock G19 semi-automatic handgun, complete with silencer. Next to the gun was placed a ten bullet magazine. Transitioning from host to judge, the emcee ditched the top hat and replaced with a long black robe and replica powdered wig. Taking his seat in the front row, he addressed the contestants. “Mr. Bilkin, you are on offense and will have fifteen seconds per statement. Mr. Johnson, as requested you are on defense and have…well, you know the time frame you’ll be working under. Mr. Bilkin you will begin. Please open your envelopes to get your words, and remember that today’s topic is the zoo.” Both contestants did as instructed, tearing open the envelope and removing a small index card with one word printed on it. Upon reading his card, Bilkin spoke. “Many animals don’t have the serenity they desire in a zoo, there are too many people present.” Upon hearing the trigger word, the homeless man picked up the Glock off the table, loaded the magazine and racked the slide back, putting a bullet in the chamber. Everything was done slowly, deliberately; it was as if he was loading a gun for target practice, not a matter of life or death. He held the gun to his temple, ready to squeeze the trigger. Before he could, Mr. Johnson spoke. “The reason that zoos are so popular is because of the diversity of animals present.” The homeless man, hearing the deactivation word, lowered the gun and ejected the bullet from the chamber, letting it fall to the ground. He ejected the magazine and set both back on the table, as before. A slight groan briefly swept through the crowd. It was Bilkin’s turn again. “Many biologists are against keeping certain animals in zoos, instead preferring them to have the peace and serenity of nature.” Once again, the homeless man reached for the gun, installed the magazine and racked the slide. As before, Mr. Johnson quickly spoke. “To properly support all of their animals, a zoo needs to have a wide diversity of ecosystems and habitats.” The homeless man ejected the bullet, removed the magazine and set them both on the table. Round two was finished; another moan from the audience. For five more rounds, the pattern repeated; Bilkin would activate the subject, only to have Mr. Johnson quickly neutralize him. After each successive round, Bilkin got more nervous, more anxious. He started stuttering and taking longer to form a qualifying sentence. The audience, noticing the change, shifted. The booing and groaning reached an apex after round four; now, the crowd was neutral but quickly turning on Bilkin. Round eight started; Bilkin was covered in sweat, unable to think. He had two more rounds to complete his task or…no, he wasn’t going to think about it. “Some animals find serenity by avoiding people and spending their time away from the boundaries of their cages or pens.” A few boos rang out from the gallery as the homeless man reached for the gun. “Weak, but I’ll allow it. Tread carefully Mr. Bilkin, that was very similar to a previous sentence,” the judge admonished. Before the homeless man could even rack the slide, Mr. Johnson spoke. “One of the reasons it’s so expensive to operate a zoo is because of the diversity of food required to feed the various animals.” No groans or complaints this time, and even a few cheers. Just like that, the homeless man ejected another round. The unfired bullet spilled to the ground and rolled to the edge of the tarp next to the other ones. Eight rounds completed. One round left, just one more chance. How had he gotten such a ridiculous word? And a topic of the zoo? Not politics or religion or…no, he couldn’t waste time, he had to come up with something. How much of his time had passed? Five seconds? Ten? He was counting down in his head Five…four…three…two… “The serenity of nature…is…um…the serenity of the animals is more important than…is a more important aspect than the people that want to see the animals so…animals shouldn’t be kept in cages.” The judge jumped up and screamed, “Prohibere!” Stop. The homeless man stopped in mid-motion, twisted in his seat, his hand already on the gun. Eyes open and unblinking, he looked more like a wax figure than he did a person. As a fail-safe, words were implanted that would basically shut the subject down; they chose Latin so that a contestant wouldn’t unintentionally use them during the contest. “I’m sorry Mr. Bilkin,” the judge said with an evil grin, “but you didn’t use the word zoo. You know the rules. You lose.” Mr. Johnson watched as the color drained out of Bilkin’s face. He tried to speak, but only managed to stutter and stammer; even that was drowned out by the crowd’s cheering. Eventually, he slumped back into the chair, head down, accepting his fate. Turning toward the homeless man, Mr. Johnson leaned forward in his seat and spoke quietly. “Initium.” Start. It was – from what he remembered – the reactivation word. Putting a subject in suspension was probably the most dangerous thing they did, if it was possible to rank such things. Too often, the suggestion to stop couldn’t be countered, especially if left in that state for too long; during the initial trials, they had lost more than a few subjects this way. Much to Mr. Johnson’s relief, the homeless man started moving again, picking up where he left off. As he lifted and loaded the gun, Mr. Johnson muttered the deactivation word one last time, causing the old man to eject the ninth bullet. This time, though, he didn’t eject the magazine or put the gun on the table; still gripping the gun tightly, he rested it on his lap instead, his finger on the trigger. Quickly removing the wig and pulling off the robe, the emcee-turned-judge-turned-emcee donned the top hat again, leapt from his seat and shouted, “Ladies and gentlemen, your winner for the fifth consecutive time…Mr. Johnson!” The crowd, already roaring its approval, broke into a vigorous applause; some even whistled, and on his way out the tunnel, Mr. Johnson was pretty sure he even saw someone give a fist pump. Turning to Bilkin, the emcee spoke again. “Thank you for playing, Mr. Bilkin.” The only response he received was a slight nod. Now addressing the homeless man, the emcee said, “Occidere, unus a sinistris.”Kill the one on the left. One more time, the old man raised his gun, only this time he aimed it a Bilkin...and there was nobody to stop him from pulling the trigger.