Life in Missoula, Montana.
I wrote this for a contest on Anotherrealm.org. The subject was "Reality TV" and the word count had to be less than 1,000 words. I don't think it's my best story, but they liked it enough to publish it, so I was psyched.
Nick Stamos followed the show's producer past cables, lights, and other equipment. They stopped at the top of a wide set of concrete steps that led down below ground level. Nick looked past the stairs to the fence. It was eight feet high, reinforced chain-link. Beyond that was the area called the Dead Zone.
"Stand here until your interview," the producer said. "It's all pretty simple, just follow directions."
The producer walked away, and Nick could see a cameraman off to his left, zeroing in on him. Something in Nick's stomach flopped and flapped. He pretended to stretch. The cameraman was making him nervous. The thought of being interviewed was even worse. Here he was, about to enter the Dead Zone, and he was more scared of the interview than anything. He knew that he would stammer, fumble for words, and look stupid in front of about a million TV viewers across the country. Nick looked over his shoulder at the land beyond the fence. He saw grass growing up to his waist, tall shrubs, and scattered, scraggly trees. In the distance, there was the shell of a ruined building overgrown with plants. It would be like that all the way to the take out zone thirty miles east, on the shores of Lake Texhoma. If he could make it there, he would be one of the few winners. Ninety percent of all the participants who went in died in there, but to Nick it was worth taking a chance. The prize for surviving five days in the Dead Zone was five thousand dollars in silver coins, 99.9% pure. Since the crisis, that was a small fortune. You could spend silver in any of the twenty seven recognized territories in America.
His eyes followed the high fence as far as he could see. Somewhere further down, there were two other contestants, waiting, like he was. He wondered who they were. Would they want to link up and work together? Sometimes contestants found each other and teamed up, but sometimes they betrayed each other, or used their fellows for bait. Apparently that's what made reality TV so compelling.
The producers liked contestants with big personalities. Men who growled and flexed, women who shook their fist at the cameras. Contestants who had made up their own personas were the best. Elaborate costumes, nicknames, those were TV gold. More people watched. They bought more merchandise, more of the advertised products. The most popular contestant called himself The Eradicator. He had a whole outfit: camouflage pants, black jacket, headband and t-shirt with his name in big letters. He did one-armed push-ups and scowled at the camera while he was waiting for his interview. Great TV. Nick just stood there, pretending to stretch so he didn't feel like he was just standing there. The only thing that identified Nick was his t-shirt. It was dark blue with an orange cow skull on it with 'Republic of New Texas' written above it. The producers liked the tie-in. His personality might not draw people in, but New Texas had nearly a million people, all of them potential viewers if Nick survived for a while.
The cameraman was a few feet in front of him now. Nick noticed the producer waving his hands in the background. He flashed all ten fingers at Nick three times in succession: thirty seconds. Nick felt his hands shaking. He clasped them in front of him, then cleared his throat, suddenly afraid it would fail him. The cameraman backed away from him, and then Nick heard the announcer's voice.
"Ladies and Gentleman, this is Zombie Survival Challenge! Our first contestant hails from the Republic of New Texas. He's five foot ten inches, one hundred ninety pounds, welcome Nick Stamos!"
The camera was on Nick. The pounding of his heart reverberated through his whole body. He raised one hand in a half-hearted wave, not knowing what else to do.
After a few seconds, the camera went off, and then the famous Christine Carlson stepped in next to him, microphone in hand. A short, mousy woman scurried up and did something to Christine's hair. There was a brief flurry of activity and then everything went calm. Christine stood up straight and threw her chest out. The producer pointed; it was time.
"Nick, you're about to enter a territory of six hundred square miles containing an estimated four thousand zombies. What's your strategy going to be?"
"Uh, yes, Christine, My plan is to, ah, not worry so much about finding the treasure chests, or the bonus weapons. I plan to, um, travel light and just concentrate on staying alive."
"Okay, Nick, now it's time to choose your weapon. What'll it be?"
A model in a clingy, red dress wheeled out a long metal rack full of weapons. The rack held a crossbow, a compound bow, some axes, a war hammer, and a few different kinds of swords. Nick looked over the swords. The katana was tempting, and the scimitar looked pretty lethal, but he reminded himself to stick to his plan.
"I'll take the machete," Nick said.
Nick watched the nearest monitor while the other two contestants were announced: a musclebound guy in black leather who chose the two-headed axe, and a short-haired woman from the city-state of Telluride who chose the crossbow. A technician came over and adjusted Nick's helmet cam and tested his microphone. The man clapped him on the shoulder and wished him luck. Nick's heart was pounding. He stood looking down the stairs into the blackness, wondering what he had gotten himself into. In a few seconds, he would go down the stairs, pass under the fence, and come up again in the Dead Zone. Seconds ticked by. Finally a voice in his ear said "Go, Nick." Nick let out a long breath and descended the stairs.