High Ratings
rating: +7+x

After what seemed like years, Mark woke up.

It hadn't been for lack of trying. Several times, he had felt light pound against his eyelids, desperate to get in. The piercing, searing sensation running through his head only served to make his sleep that much more confusing as he rose to his feet, disoriented and stumbling. The room was a blur, but he could make out cracked concrete, patches of mold, and an aged, decaying musk that burrowed itself into his nostrils.

Mark had no way of knowing how long he was unconscious for. Everything that had transpired before waking up in a small, locked concrete room faded away like smoke into the air. Only gradually did thoughts and senses return to him, most of them doing so suddenly and without warning. The pressure in his head ratcheted up, causing him to lurch forward a few feet, palm a nearby wall, and vomit. He smelled what he thought was breakfast in a puddle on the floor.

With the few seconds of reprieve throwing up had bought him, Mark snapped his head around the room, his gaze eventually falling on a rusted metal door with no handle or keyhole. A small pane of glass, no bigger than a textbook, rested in the middle of it. He approached it and tried to look at the exterior hallway, but the lack of light made it too difficult to discern anything useful. A shadow quickly moved across one of the walls, coming into view as a particularly large, healthy rat. Exasperated, Mark fell to his knees, his back hugging the door.

The only thought that broke through his piercing migraine was that he had been kidnapped.

How? He asked himself silently, eyes still circling around in search of anything notable. Why would anyone do this to me? I don't know anyone that would -

Images flashed in front of him. Ted, his wife's boss. Always looking for ways to dig his nails into their marriage. Always seeing how far he could push himself onto her before Mark stepped in. Always asking her to coffee, or lunch.

But is he capable of…this? Mark continued to question himself, running through every scenario and eventuality his mind could conjure up. When things began to finally make sense - when a logical, plausible theory came to him - a mechanical hum bounced around the room before evolving into a high-pitched screech, then finally radio static. A man, or what he thought was a man, started to speak.

"Stand up."

Mark didn't reply. He didn't know who this person was, or what they were planning to do. For all he knew, they were making sure he was still alive so they could kill him themselves. He carefully rose to his feet and approached the source of the noise, uncovering a small speaker fixed to one of the walls.

"Stand up now."

The inflection grew more intense. Given that he saw no other realistic ways to escape the room, Mark decided to bite. He cleared his throat and spoke in a shaking, strained tone.

"Who is this? Why am I here?" Mark inquired, allowing a little too much anger to seep into the words.

"All of those questions will be answered in time." He thought he heard the voice chuckle at the end of that sentence, but attributed it to his deliriousness. "For now, I need you to listen to me very carefully, and do exactly what I tell you to do. If you don't, there will be…consequences." The venom dripping from that last word was audible, and succeeded in shutting Mark up.

"In ten seconds, the door to your cell will open. You are to step outside. On the floor in front of this room will be a camera, several batteries, and a microphone. You are to insert the batteries into the camera, turn it on, and turn on the microphone. Do you understand?"

He felt bewildered. Lost. "Why? What is -"

"Stop." The voice interjected. "Don't ask questions. Just do what I say."

Almost on cue, the metal door swung open. Mark took several steps outside of the room. Sure enough, all of the items the voice had described were there, resting on the floor. A dried, red liquid coated the handle of the camera. Mark did his best to not run through the possibilities of what it was.

"Insert the batteries into the camera and turn it on. I will let you know if your feed is coming through."

He obliged. The camera flickered to life and began recording.

"Good, we see your feed. Now attach the microphone to your shirt."

Once again, Mark complied. He spoke into it several times as a test.

"Reading you loud and clear." The voice paused; Mark heard somebody rifle through what sounded like a stack of papers. "Okay, now before we begin the game, I'm obligated by law to read a legal statement on behalf of my company."

Frustration bled into Mark's mind. "Game? What the fuck are you talking about?"

"We'll get to that. First, I need to -"

"No, fuck this." Mark dropped the camera onto the floor and approached one of the speakers. "Tell me where the fuck I am, right now!"

At first, he heard nothing. An eerie, almost unsettling silence washed over the hallway. Then, one voice, followed by several others. They talked something over, some of them speaking in a language Mark didn't recognize, before he heard one of them - the voice that had spoken to him already - clear its throat.

"I'll keep it simple." The irritation was palpable. "You're competing for your life. Do what I tell you to do, and you might go home. Or don't. In fact, I honestly want you to ignore me and fuck yourself over. Confusion is like…salting the meat."

Mark's migraine returned to him as he attempted to process what had just been said. Reluctantly, but swiftly, he picked up the camera, refusing to address his new observer.

"Good." The voice picked up a sheet of paper. "Now, the legal statement."

Minutes passed as terms he had never heard before were repeated in a cold, clinical tone. Death and dismemberment, loss of time, and prizes were terms that stood out to him. He took it in stride, pleading for the end of a nightmare that seemed endless. The voice finally finished and asked him something - it took a few seconds for Mark to process it, partially out of fear and partially due to the severe pain still rocking his head.

"Once again, I'm asking if you understand."

Mark nodded. "Yes."

"Excellent, then we can begin." The voice chuckled. "For what it's worth, I admire your tenacity. I hope you make it through this. But, well…stronger men have failed."

Mark jumped at the sounds of hundreds of metal doors opening simultaneously. The thunderous applause of a crowd filled the building through the speakers attached to each corner. For a final time, the voice spoke. It licked its lips, as if relishing a taste only it knew of.

"Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, all the way from Pennsylvania, it's Mark Hawkins!" Loud cheering continued for what seemed like hours. "I could give a big old speech, but you've heard it all before. Without further adieu, let's get thing started! I think this one will be especially entertaining."

Before Mark could pin down what exactly seemed off about that last line, an unnatural, feral crying met his eardrums. He could hear footsteps from around the corners. Something, something close, was running.

The audience cheered. Something unspeakable, something awful ran at him from across the hallway. And, for the final few hours of what he knew to be his existence, Mark never stopped running.

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