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FICTION on the WEB short stories by Charlie Fish

by Charlie Fish 2004

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Cult or Godsend?

The Alpha Omega phenomenon

Scholarship, leadership, honesty, courage, resourcefulness, loyalty, philanthropy, compassion, broad-mindedness and boundaries. The guiding principles of the notorious Alpha Omega sound harmless enough, but rumours of its dubious moral foundations abound.
     BT Media Award-winning journalist Natasha Brown called Alpha Omega a "dangerous breeding ground for anarchists, perverts and despots". Reverend Zatarga of the West Midlands Lutheran Church has claimed that Alpha Omega members confided dark secrets of disrespectful debauchery and heathen hedonism within the club.
     However, much of the damning hype surrounding Alpha Omega - popularly dubbed the first British frat house - ignores its phenomenal beneficence. Since its establishment just over three years ago, the Birmingham chapter of the house has poured hundreds of thousands of pounds into schools, Student Unions and the City Council.
     Its reputation alone has served to nearly double the number of students applying to West Midlands Universities, and the media buzz has helped put Birmingham firmly back on the map as Britain's second city and the hip place to be.

     Most remarkably of all, Alpha Omega members seem to possess a supernatural propensity for success. James Jackson graduated from Aston University two years ago as a member of Alpha Omega, and his self-built novelty cigarette company "Fortune Fags" has already made him a millionaire.
     Another Alpha Omega member, Ryan Bennett, has rocketed to celebrity status thanks to his notorious TV sex gameshow, "Fantasy Funds", and has recently received planning permission to open an "adult" theme park in Lichfield.
     As long as Alpha Omega continues to be so secretive about what goes on behind the doors of its grand Bristol Road building, it remains hard to judge whether the West Midlands has sold its soul, ceding moral integrity to reap success, or whether the scaremongers are just exaggerating out of jealousy at not being members themselves.
The future: an Alpha Omega sorority? Page 9

Alpha Omega
Bristol Road House

William Maurice Bail
4 Tiverton Road

Date as postmark

Dear Mr. Bail,

As you may already know, Alpha Omega is a fraternity house serving the Higher Education Institutions of the West Midlands. It exists to foster the area's most exceptional male students in order to help them maximise their potential, according to Alpha Omega's ten Guiding Principles.

Alpha Omega has recognised you as an extremely high-calibre student, and would like to invite you to an interview. If you are successful at interview, and the subsequent character assessment stage, you will have earned admission into Alpha Omega, and therefore all of the financial, educational, industry and social support you could wish for during the rest of your time at University, and for your future career.

Details of the interview time and place are enclosed.

Yours Sincerely,
Alpha Omega

Will Bail knocked on the door of the intimidating redbrick building, craning his neck to take in the two large Greek symbols embossed below the eaves: AΩ. No answer. He checked his watch and tried the door. To his surprise, it gave.

He crept timidly into the darkness, pausing to let his eyes adjust. A reception lounge. Empty. A row of smiling faces in black and white along the left wall. One door.

Will seeped inside, closing the heavy door behind him. He noticed the plaque, 'Interviewees Please Wait Here', so he did. After a while, he sat. Another man came in, wearing jeans and trainers, and sat. Will was a man of few words, but he felt he needed to say something to acknowledge the newcomer.

"Are you here for the interview?"

"Yes." A smile.

A slender woman poked her head around the internal door. Will frowned.

"OK, guys," she beamed, and disappeared behind the door again. The two strangers followed her in, as did Will, his eyebrows arched.

A modest room, lights along the walls not the ceiling, pillows and beanbags strewn everywhere. No chairs.

"Make yourself at home," grinned the woman, throwing something to Will. A cold soda. The other man had already claimed a beanbag and a drink.

"This is Tom," indicated the woman, and the man nodded. "And I'm Sue. I'm training to be Head of Staff of the new sorority. Relax, Will. Let us explain why you're here today."

Will slumped among a pile of downy pillows, slightly perturbed that his fellow interviewee had turned out to be an interviewer. He cracked open the soda absentmindedly.

"Congratulations, Will, for getting this far," continued Sue. "Only students with the greatest potential are selected for the opportunity to become members of Alpha Omega."

"You're a man that knows how to work hard and play hard," said Tom, seriously. "Alpha Omega wants to cultivate that, to take it to the next level."

"Alpha Omega will challenge your assumptions of what you can and can't do," buzzed Sue excitedly. "The possibilities are limitless; the journey's the stuff of fantasy."

Tom elaborated. "We try to let go of the restrictive assumptions, the rules and mores that hold people back. We live by the ten Guiding Principles. They give us our morality, our drive. They give us the upper hand. Do you know the Guiding Principles?"

Will nodded. Sue went on, wide-eyed. "We can't explain the full meaning of the Guiding Principles to you with words; we can't teach you how to think beyond the box by just telling you. To explain how the Guiding Principles affect your life, to test your faith that you are the master of your own destiny, you must go through the character assessment. A kind of initiation."

"In a few minutes, we'll send you back home," explained Tom. "You must tell everyone that you failed the interview -"

"Was that the interview?" Will queried.

"We don't need to interview you, Will, your academic track record and your entrepreneurial flair speak for themselves," said Tom. "The real test will be in the character assessment. You'll go back home today, and you'll tell everyone that you didn't get in to Alpha Omega. Expect a plain red envelope through the post; open it in total confidence. It'll be the first of your tests. Don't let on anything about the tests to anyone. You should know that we'll deny all association with the tests; each is hand delivered so it can't be traced back to Alpha Omega. If you talk, we'll claim that you're lying to discredit us."

"The tests are hard," Sue confided. "We affectionately call them 'Dares'. Each Dare is presented in the context of one of the Guiding Principles. An opponent has been chosen to compete against you; only one of you can win. If you complete more Dares than your opponent, you'll be offered membership to Alpha Omega, and your life will change forever."

"We're looking for people with a compatible moral outlook," explained Tom, "so if you feel uncomfortable with what the tests are asking of you at any time, stop. Alpha Omega is not for you. Meanwhile, you must wear this at all times. If you take it off, you risk forfeiting your golden opportunity." Tom held out a small silver pin badge. He indicated his right ear; "It'll help us to keep track of how you're doing." Will noticed for the first time that Tom was wearing an earphone. The badge was a bug.

Sue summed up. "You must prove to us, and learn yourself, that there is no limit to what you can achieve. Then you'll have earned a place in Alpha Omega. Good luck. Any questions?"

Will was slightly fazed. He paused for a moment to assimilate the information in his head. Then he nodded and took the badge. He turned to Sue and asked, "Who's my opponent?"

"You know him. Mark Radford."

Will looked up and down the corridor outside his bedroom and, satisfied that he would not be disturbed, he locked himself in. He sat on his bed, pulling out from under his pillow the red envelope that had dropped through his letterbox that morning.

"I've received the first Dare," he whispered into his pin badge, feeling instantly foolish. He rolled his eyes at himself and ripped open the envelope.

Welcome to the first part of your character assessment - good luck

Guiding Principle Number One: Scholarship

All members receive support to help them study and work hard
Prove that your scholarship knows no bounds
Achieve the highest grade of your class in the next essay

Now please destroy this note

Easy if I put my mind to it, thought Will, except that Mark Radford is doing the same essay. Could they somehow work together and both beat the challenge? No, they were at the mercy of the marker. It would have to be a battle of wits. He felt a surge of excitement that he would be competing against an elite student for such a prestigious prize.

The essay deadline was three days away. Will had already researched the subject and prepared for the essay, he had been planning to write it the following morning before his two o'clock lecture, but he knew he would have to work extremely hard now to beat Mark Radford.

He decided to get an early night so he could go to the library first thing in the morning, but before he slept he had a couple of deliveries to make. He grabbed the red envelope, ran downstairs, lit it with the lighter that was kept in the kitchen by the hobs and watched it burn for a few seconds.

After disposing of the burnt Dare, he lifted three large crates of beer out of the chest refrigerator in his back garden, loaded them into his car and drove off.

'24X' was the name of his alcohol delivery service. An enterprise he started at the end of last year, 24X had kept enough money rolling in so that he had never needed to take out an overdraft or a Student Loan to cover his living costs. He only sold booze by the crate, not individual cans or bottles, which meant that he could claim his customers were making wholesale purchases, and therefore the normal alcohol licensing laws did not apply.

So as soon as the pubs and off-licences shut, Will Bail's phone started ringing. With around twenty thousand undergraduate students in a three-mile radius, Will made very good business. He had been investigated by Customs and Excise, and - to their immense chagrin - it was concluded that there was nothing they could do to stop him. Will reckoned it was only a matter of time before they invented some way to prevent him doing business, but hopefully not before he sold a few franchises.

He made his first delivery of two crates, and stopped outside the second house to call his friend Nick and ask him to take the 24X night shift tonight. He would have dropped off the booze and been in bed within twenty minutes, had a stranger called Annie not answered the door.

"H-hi," stammered Will, trying hard to look at her eyes rather than her left arm, which was covering her bare chest. She was wearing nothing from the waist up. She smiled, radiating charisma.

"What do we owe you?" she asked, cocking her head. She held a chequebook in her free hand.

Will told her. She laughed sweetly at nothing in particular and started writing the cheque. She leant the chequebook against the doorframe and positioned her arms so that the tips of her tantalising breasts were blocked from Will's view - and, despite himself, Will was definitely viewing.

"Whom do I make it out to?" she glanced at him questioningly.

"W-William Bail," he noticed her shimmering fawn eyes and the crate he was holding felt like it weighed nothing.

"William, hi, I'm Annabel. Call me Annie. Do you want to join us? We're playing Truth or Dare," she handed him the cheque and took the crate. For a fleeting moment, her bosom had been in full view. This was entirely intentional, of course.

For an instant Will's brain listed all of the reasons that he should say no. If he got drunk tonight, he would not be able to concentrate on his essay through the fug of a hang over; he would be jeopardising his chances of getting in to Alpha Omega. If he had a few beers he would not be able to drive home; he would have to fork out for a taxi, or worse, find himself half-awake in someone else's lounge with a carpet in his mouth. Most embarrassingly of all, he was bound to make a fool of himself in front of Annie; he had never been good with girls when they were fully dressed, let alone half-naked.

Will's brain was so convinced that he should refuse the offer to join Annie's party that by the time it reached the end of its list it expected him to be halfway back to his car. Unfortunately the message had never got from Will's brain to his legs - it had been intercepted exactly halfway.

"Call me Will," he smiled, stepping inside. Annie walked ahead. Will devoured the sight of her naked back.

"I brought another guy to even up the playing field!" chirped Annie as she entered the lounge. "His name is Will; he's the booze delivery guy."

The lounge was typical of a student hovel; everything from the wallpaper to the plant on the windowsill looked like it had been neglected since the psychedelic Seventies. It gave the impression that it would resolutely resist even the most determined clean, yet it radiated friendliness and welcome. Also, typically, there were five young adults sitting on the floor in various states of undress.

Annie put down the crate of beer. "Will, this is Amanda, Dave, Gemma and Frank." The group gave Will a warm alcohol-fuelled welcome, which he reflected with a wave. Annie sat down, gesturing to Amanda to move up so Will could fit in. They were playing 'Jenga', and each of the wooden blocks of the precarious tower had something handwritten on it. Truths and dares.

Will did not know where to look. His eyes kept straying towards the three stunning girls wearing six items of clothing between them. Frank caught his eye briefly and gave him a knowing grin.

Will cracked open a beer from his crate and watched as Amanda, a tall and shapely brunette modelling scanty black underwear, carefully pulled a block from the base of the tower and read it out. "It's a truth. 'What's the furthest you've ever got with someone of the same sex?' Um..." she giggled. Will took a generous draught of his beer. "I've snogged a girl, and felt her tits. Like, at the same time. That's it!"

She looked at Annie as if seeking approval, then she giggled again, shrugging her shoulders and replacing the wooden brick atop the tower. It was Will's turn.

"I'm guessing you've worked out the rules?" cooed Annie, teasingly. Will nodded with a smile at the corners of his mouth. He leaned forward to free a piece from the middle of the tower. It teetered ominously, but didn't fall.

"'Name everyone you've ever had sex with'," said Will, continuing without hesitation: "Jenny and Sarah." As he returned the block, Annie flashed him a curious smile, which instantly morphed into an impish grin. To Will's shy delight, that's not all she was flashing.

She plucked a brick from the tower effortlessly and read it out. "'Snog the player to your right.'" She feigned surprise. The rest of the group chuckled mischievously, and Will tried not to break into a sweat.

Before Will could say anything, Annie was upon him. He barely had time to react, let alone savour the sensation of her soft lips warming his, of her pert breasts brushing his chest. Suddenly she was gone and focussing on the next player. Will sat there for a full ten seconds before recovering his expression from stunned gormlessness; anyone would have though the wind had changed.

Meanwhile, Dave had fulfilled a dare to down a can of beer, receiving a round of applause from the group (he was clearly relieved not to have had to remove his last item of clothing), and Gemma was poking and testing the tower.

"It says 'Demonstrate your favourite sexual position on the player of your choice'. I choose... Annie." Annie got up, faux reluctantly. "You can be the guy."

Will stared at the two most gorgeous girls he had seen in his life getting intimate. He realised his jaw was open, so he used it as an excuse to take a very deep swig of his beer. In a desperate effort to distract his eyes for at least a few seconds, he attempted small talk with Dave.

"Uh... so how do you know Annie?"

"I don't really," replied Dave, "I'm the pizza man."

A residual alcoholic haze shielded Will's attention from his lecturer the following afternoon. Will's mind drifted. He worried about his vital essay, for which he had not yet done any more work; he pondered the weighty prospect of competing for a place in Alpha Omega, with an equal mix of excitement and trepidation; he relived the crazy night he had had last night; but mostly, he thought about Annie.

Annie was burnt into his consciousness like an image burns onto a computer screen - even when he was thinking of something else, her ghostly image hovered at the fringes of his perception.

They had all ended up naked last night, drunk enough so that it didn't matter. The truths and dares had eventually started repeating themselves, but seemed far more risqué when undressed. Will had tried not to let his ardour for Annie show, although the beer had occasionally distracted his senses - he hoped she hadn't noticed. He could not help but gaze at her, well and truly intoxicated.

Nothing had happened between them, of course. That's not what the game was about. When tiredness consumed its first victim and Amanda went to bed, Will had made his excuses, not wishing to outstay his welcome, and gone out to sleep in his car.

He had only woken up an hour ago. He had not yet had time to subject himself to his variety of trusted hang over cures. He would have to sober up swiftly if he was going to make good progress on the essay today. He looked around the lecture hall for Mark Radford. No sign of him. Will snapped his head forward as he realised that the lecturer could clearly see how little attention he was paying.

Will stared into middle space for a while, hearing the lecturer but not listening. He needed to see Annie again. Such a bizarre and captivating girl. She had been the ringleader of the Jenga game, accepting Will and Dave into it as if she had known them for years. Frank, Gemma and Amanda lived with her, and each of them seemed to worship her in their own way.

Late last night, Dave had confided in Will that he had fancied Annie for months, always making sure he was the one to deliver pizza to the house when they ordered, hoping Annie would answer the door. He admitted that Annie had probably cottoned on to his infatuation, and seemed to be ordering pizzas more often just to tease him. Then, yesterday, she invited him in. He was just as bemused, and delighted, as Will.

Will was just musing along these lines, sporting an expression that made it look like he was trying to solve a Rubik's cube, when the lecture finished. Suddenly a panic overwhelmed his thoughts; he had to get to the library and work on his essay. He gathered his things and bolted out of the room ahead of the crowd.

In the corridor, a notice caught his eye. He read it three times before it sunk in; he could barely believe his luck. Relief flooded through his veins - the essay was cancelled. The subsequent essay would not be due in for over a week, so Will had lots of time to study and beat Mark Radford - but for now, he could rest. His pace slowed and became lighter as he changed direction to avoid the library for now.

As Will descended the stairs to leave the building, Mark Radford came out of hiding and removed the fake essay cancellation notice.

Will was puzzled, a few days later, to see a plain red envelope on the floor by the front door. He realised that it must contain the second Dare, although he was still studying hard, even skipping lectures, to make sure he accomplished the first one. He seized the envelope and went to lock himself in the bathroom so he could read it.

Your character assessment continues. You failed the previous challenge, meaning that your opponent is now beating you by one point, the score being 0-1.

Guiding Principle Number Two: Leadership

All members are given the opportunity to network with the country's leaders
Prove that your leadership knows no bounds
Stage a demonstration or protest, involving at least 200 students, regarding any current issue that affects students, by Saturday

Now please destroy this note

How could he have failed the first Dare? The essay deadline had not yet passed; how could Mark Radford have beaten him if he had not yet handed in his essay? His mind raced. Perhaps he had the deadline wrong. Perhaps there was another essay that he didn't know about.

He panicked for a moment - maybe he had misread the notice about the cancellation of the first essay. No - he remembered it clearly. A handwritten note saying the essay was cancelled. It had been unambiguous; there had been no conditions, exceptions, reasons...

He re-read the Dare, memorised it, and destroyed it. He needed to check the essay deadlines with his tutor. He needed to speak to Mark Radford.

He hurried to his first lecture, stopping off at his tutor's office on the way, but his tutor was out. As soon as he entered the lecture hall, he spotted Mark. Will and Mark had barely exchanged two dozen words since they met nearly a year ago; mostly hellos in corridors. But today Will was determined that Mark would not leave the room without him.

When the lecture finished, Will waited by the door and tried to catch Mark's eye. Mark seemed oblivious until he found his exit firmly blocked.

"Hello, Will," he said, blankly.

"We need to talk."

Mark seemed to sigh. He looked left and right, then whispered conspiratorially, "Not here, we may be overheard."

The two of them walked downstairs and out of the building without saying another word. They took the scenic route back towards the student village.

Eventually, Mark ventured, "Did you get the second Dare?"

Will turned to him angrily. "Did you sabotage me?" He had not meant to be so direct, his suspicions were not necessarily true, but then he always had been economical with his words.

"You mean the 'essay cancelled' note?" Mark smiled. "Yeah. That was me."

Will, slightly shocked, turned to Mark for an explanation, but he offered none. He just smiled and walked on.

"That's... cheating!" shrilled Will, suddenly livid.

"Not cheating, Will, just thinking outside the box. Using my initiative," mused Mark. Will could not work out whether Mark intended to sound so patronising. "The stakes are high, you know."

Rage bubbled up within Will's stomach, and he tried to fight it back. He groped around for a positive thought to calm himself. The bugs. The people at Alpha Omega heard everything they said. Sue, Tom, or whoever else was listening in at that moment will have heard Mark's confession and would surely rectify this injustice. Will swallowed his anger with great effort.

"I - it's..." he started, choking on his words. He paused to collect his thoughts. "Mark. I think this'll be easier for us if we co-operate. We have to organize a demo for the next Dare. Let's do it together rather than trying to rally two hundred students each." It had been a great effort, but the peace offering had served to relieve some of Will's tension.

Mark did not reply immediately. He looked thoughtful for a while. Eventually, he turned to Will with what he took to be an insincere smirk.

"OK. Let's do a protest against tuition fees. A march through the city centre this Friday. Most lectures are finished by Friday afternoon, and by the time we get there people will just be coming out of work so it'll be really visible. I'll print up the publicity and book coaches to pick people up from the Student Union, you contact the other Universities and get the relevant permissions from the council. We'll meet again after tomorrow's lectures; that'll give us three days to distribute publicity."

Will had to admit that he was impressed. He doubted whether he could trust Mark, but he tried not to let it show as he nodded his assent. A silence hung in the air for a moment before Mark spoke up again.

"See you tomorrow, then," said Mark, and walked off towards his house.

As he walked to his lectures the next day, Will was genuinely surprised to see that Mark had already been busy plastering the campus with large banners proclaiming: 'TUITION FEES PROTEST - MEET AT SU FRIDAY 2:30PM'. He did not let that dispel his intrinsic suspicion of Mark, but it did seem as though Mark was going to help him this time.

Will waited patiently for the lectures to finish, then felt an unexpected surge of excitement as he walked over to Mark to discuss their mutual conspiracy.

"I saw the banners," said Will.

"I put them up this morning," explained Mark, stopping to scrawl a large advertisement for the protest on the lecture hall whiteboard. "I booked some coaches as well, enough for two hundred people. I managed to get funding from the Union, so we won't have to collect any money from anyone to cover costs."

Will was quite taken aback at Mark's eagerness and willingness to co-operate. He felt like he needed to prove that he was equally committed to the cause. "I got permission for the march, and I spoke to the Presidents of the other Student Unions. I'll try and get funding from the West Midlands Area NUS if the SU's won't pay."

"Good idea," Mark encouraged. "You can be in charge of supervising Aston Uni and UCE; make sure they get their publicity out and their coaches booked. I'll deal with Birmingham Uni. We'll meet again tomorrow if you like."

Again, Will nodded his assent silently; Mark smiled and disappeared.

On his way home, Will occupied his mind wondering what to make of Mark. He had a bad feeling about the man, but maybe it was unfounded. His deliberations never reached a conclusion, because at that point he spotted Annie coming out of a hardware store.

"Hi!" he called.

Annie turned, flicking her dark hair over her shoulder and giving Will a bright smile. Will imagined it in slow motion, like a film. He caught up with her, frantically trying to think up something to say - he had never been good at small talk. Annie saved him the trouble.

"I'm in a bit of a hurry," she said, breathlessly. "My stalkee and his housemates are out for once, so I've got to grab my chance. You can join me if you like, it should be fun!"

"You're stalking somebody?"

"He wrote that awful graffiti across the side of the library. I saw him do it and I followed him home. Now's my chance to get him back."

Will did not know what to make of this, so he decided to play along and see how things panned out. He quietly followed Annie along a road, through an alley, across a park, then suddenly she stopped.

She pulled a can of spray paint from her bag and started shaking it. "That's his house," she indicated for Will's benefit, "and this is his car."

By the time Will had worked out what was going to happen, it was too late; Annie had already started spraying the car. Will was dumbfounded, frantically looking all around him to see if anyone was watching this vandalism. He panicked with vicarious guilt, subconsciously stepping away from Annie to dissociate himself from this madness.

Meanwhile, Annie carefully sprayed a message on the car, making sure to hit every single part of the vehicle from the bonnet to the spoiler, without apparently worrying about who saw. Will could not bring himself to say anything; neither could he bring himself to run away. The message went on, Annie seemed in no hurry, and Will's discomfort grew; he could feel the embarrassment in his stomach.

The message was clearly legible: 'I GRAFFITIED THE LIBRARY'. As a finishing touch, she drew a circle on the windscreen as if to frame the driver, and a generous arrow from the words to the circle. Then she stepped back to admire her work, turned to Will with a huge grin and shouted, "Run!"

The two of them pelted up the street, hearts and adrenalin pumping enough to keep them going for several blocks. Eventually they collapsed, half-hiding under a large oak.

Will could barely breathe, his chest burning. He coughed a couple of times to clear his throat. He looked at Annie with an expression of mild disbelief. He fought back a surprising urge to laugh.

"What was that about?" he asked through heaving breaths.

Annie giggled breathlessly, putting her hand on Will's knee. "My hobby. Just a silly thing."

"Getting revenge on petty criminals? Are you a superhero?"

"No!" she laughed. "That was my first time. No, I - well, it's embarrassing really. A bit of a fantasy. Films and foreign countries."

Will was intrigued. He didn't let her shrug it off. "Go on."

"It's nothing," she said, dismissively, but she met Will's eager eyes and let them persuade her to explain. "I just always wanted to do stuff that you normally only expect in films and foreign countries. You know, like making things happen. Helping people out, giving them an experience they would only have dreamed of. I like surprising people, people I don't even know. I surprise myself sometimes. You can learn a lot about yourself. You really don't need to do much to make someone's day."

Will smiled. He was not sure if he really understood, but for now he took it at face value.

"Well," she continued, "I didn't make that guy's day."

"I can't believe you did that."

"It was terrifying. Let's eat."

She got up and started walking back towards the main street, beckoning to Will with her eyes. Will did not object.

That Friday, Mark stood up in front of all the students at the last lecture of the day to announce that everyone should, "Meet in the Union Square for the tuition fees protest in half an hour!"

By this time Will had decided that Mark was not going to sabotage at least this Dare. He had been very helpful, even digging up a journalist from the Birmingham Post who had agreed to meet them for an interview before the march.

When Will and Mark arrived at the Union Square, they were pleased to see that a substantial crowd had already gathered. Mark borrowed a megaphone from the Student Union and used it to thank everyone for waiting.

More and more people gathered, many of them just stopping to see what the crowd was about. By 2:30 there were easily two hundred people assembled, some of them with signs and banners: 'Grants not fees'; 'Debt is a four-letter word'; 'NOT FEES-ABLE'.

The crowd started to grow restless as time passed. Ten minutes passed, then ten more, and none of the coaches had turned up. Mark stopped shouting down the megaphone and turned to Will.

"I'm going to go and check on these coaches. You'd better go ahead to meet our media contact at three and organise the other Unis when they turn up. I'll follow on as soon as I can, if there's a disaster with the coaches I'll tell them all to get the bus. Keep in touch by phone."

With that, Mark disappeared into the Student Union building. Will felt a pang of nervousness that their plan would not work out, but he quickly buried it. They clearly had the support of the students, so it would be a successful protest whatever happened.

Will acted on Mark's suggestion and drove into Birmingham ahead of the horde. He arrived about ten minutes late for the meeting with the journalist that Mark had organised, and to Will's annoyance she was nowhere to be found.

A host of students from the other two Universities were already there, waiting at the bottom of New Street for the word go. Will explained to the leaders of each group that another few coachloads of students were on their way. He then called up Mark on his mobile to find out how they were doing.

"Hi Mark, did the coaches come?"

"Oh, there's been a change of plan." The voice was so sly that Will was instantly worried. "We're going to occupy the Vice Chancellor's house instead. Much more impact. You go on and march without us."

The bottom fell out of Will's stomach. His mind flashed back over the last few days - Mark's eagerness to put Will in charge of the smaller Universities; Mark's banners that said 'protest' not 'march'; the meeting with the journalist timed as a last-minute distraction technique. Did the journalist even exist? Mark had planned the whole thing! There were never any coaches booked. Will had been well and truly duped, and he was furious.

"You lied to me, didn't you," he fumed. "Again."

"I'm playing the game, Will," said Mark icily. Every word made Will want to hurt him more. "If we co-operate, neither of us can win. Enjoy the march." He hung up.

Will's rage turned into panic. His mind raced. Without the contingent that Mark had stolen, there were far fewer than two hundred students assembled. How would he complete the Dare now? A volley of options ran through his head within a couple of seconds: he could tell the others to start marching because the rest of the students were having difficulties getting here; he could go and join Mark's protest and claim it as his own; he could run away and hide in his bed and give up on this whole stupid thing...

Will looked at the paltry crowd of marchers, frantically weighing up his odds. There were about a hundred of them. Then Will saw something that brought him right back down to earth. For a moment he swore he spotted a familiar face in the crowd. He was sure he had seen Tom, the man from the Alpha Omega interview, hiding in the crowd, keeping a quiet eye on Will's progress.

Will bit his lip with tempered determination and held up his phone. For the next twenty minutes he called every University and Higher Education institution in the county, trying to scrape together some last-minute support. When the march finally started, only an hour behind schedule, Will spent the whole time trying to count how many people were there. He was not sure if he had made it.

When Will opened the third red envelope two days later, he read it with renewed anger. Mark's swindling ways had thwarted him yet again.

Your character assessment continues. You failed the previous challenge and your opponent succeeded, meaning that your opponent is now beating you by two points, the score being 0-2.

Guiding Principle Number Three: Honesty

All members are honest with themselves and each other - without lies there is no freedom, but there is never deception between members
Prove that your honesty knows no bounds
Let one close friend and one close relative read your most intimate diaries - confess your deepest secrets to them in order to accept yourself, by Wednesday

Now please destroy this note

It incensed Will that Alpha Omega claimed to hold honesty so dear, and yet they rewarded Mark's dishonesty. Will re-read the Dare to memorise it, and his anger congealed into determination. The only way he could get back at Mark would be to beat him, and here was a Dare that Mark could not interfere with. With such a tight deadline, Will thought optimistically, Mark might be so pre-occupied with his continuing occupation of the Vice Chancellor's house that he would not get time to complete the Dare, let alone having time to turn his obstructive streak against Will again.

Will burned the Dare, and noticed a message from his friend Nick tacked onto the fridge. It was a 24X order with an enigmatic postscript: 'they wanted you to deliver it, not me'. Will read the note again and realised that the delivery address was Annie's. He left right away.

Annie answered the door fully clothed this time.

"Having another party?" asked Will, handing over the crate.

"No," chimed Annie, "actually, I just wanted to see you."

"Will you do me a favour?" asked Will, after a moment's hesitation.

"Sure." A sweet smile, more with her eyes than with her lips.

Will took her by the hand and led her out to his car, leaving the crate of beer behind. He drove her back to his home and escorted her up to his bedroom.

"What kind of favour have I agreed to?" she giggled, looking at the bed, her concern about Will's intentions only half-pretended.

Will had no idea how he was going to broach the subject. He longed to tell her everything about Alpha Omega, about the Dares, but he knew he could not if he wanted to stay in the game. Instead, he was going to divulge his deepest secrets to her for apparently no reason at all. Fortunately, this kind of thing very much appealed to Annie, who thought reasons were mere formalities. He chose a tack.

"I like you," he said, sitting her on the bed and meeting her eyes. "I want you to get to know me. I want to get to know you."

Annie waited for a punch line.

Will continued, "Let's play Truth. Forget dares, let's talk."

Annie shifted uncomfortably for a second, gauged Will's expression, laughed, and decided to play along.

"OK," she said, jumping on to the bed to sit more comfortably, "you start."

"Um..." Will searched for something harmless to kick off with. It felt awkward; he needed to start with something. "Have you ever been in love?"

"All the time. I think I fall in love too easily, but each time, when I look back, it doesn't look as good as it felt when I was in it. So I don't really know if I've ever been in love actually. Real love. You?"

"No. Maybe. No."

"How do you know, right?"

"I've never pictured myself spending the rest of my life with someone before," Will said, looking away from Annie. "Your turn."

"Have you ever had anal sex?"

"Yes," Will flushed. "You don't waste time, do you?"

"Me too. Never sober, mind. Your turn."

Will remembered a question from the Jenga game. "What's the furthest you've ever got with a woman?" he asked, his expression betraying sincere curiosity.

"Oh, all the way. How far can you go, after all?" she giggled girlishly. "What's your biggest regret?"

A lump started to form in Will's throat. There was only one thing that made him feel that bad, and he had never admitted it to anyone. It was as if he hoped no-one would remember if he never mentioned it. As he spoke, each word wrenched at his insides.

"My godfather died, and I asked my mother's friend to be my godfather instead. She wanted me to; I didn't even like him, really. I didn't think anything of it at the time. Then my parents split up because my Mum was sleeping with the guy." Will's eyes welled up, and he swallowed his emotions. It felt like it wasn't him speaking the words. "It was so stupid, really. It's like an insult to my real godfather's memory. He killed himself before I was old enough to really get to know him. I regret that."

Annie was awed, not least because that was the most she had ever heard Will speak. Her expression conveyed a deep respect for Will's candour. The conversation was no longer a game, now she really wanted to know more about him. She felt like she should console him somehow, reassure him that it didn't matter, but she knew that nothing she said would alleviate the regret he felt.

"When did your parents divorce?" she asked.

"Two years ago."

"Have you ever forgiven her?" Annie asked, her eyes glistening with concern.

Will knew that she meant his mother. He nearly did not answer. Eventually, he said, "Yes. But I never forgave him." Talking about this had not relieved any of his hard feelings; instead it had brought them to the surface. He wanted to change the subject. He used the game as an excuse.

"My turn. What drugs have you tried?"

Annie looked thoughtful for a moment, then realised that Will had asked her another question. "What?"

Will repeated the question. Annie made a pact with herself to bring up the subject of Will's parents again later, and maybe drunker. She wanted to explore him, let him confide in her. "Drugs?" she said, "Weed, of course. I used to do a lot of E's, but not anymore. I did cocaine once or twice."

"Cocaine?" asked Will, surprised.

"I'm not proud of it. That's it though. Well, apart from caffeine, a few cigarettes and copious amounts of alcohol. On the subject of alcohol, shall we have a drink?"

The conversation went on like this for hours, catalysed by White Russians and Jack Daniels. The two of them discussed everything, from their most embarrassing childhood secrets to their adult sexual perversions, from their ex girl and boyfriends to how many children they wanted to have. Will discovered that Annie had once been arrested. Annie discovered that Will had once appeared in a pornographic magazine. Annie did not believe in God; Will instinctively avoided cracks in the pavement; Annie had had four one-night stands; Will was an avid Tom Lehrer fan. Their topics meandered until the early hours of the morning.

The subject of Will's parents came up again towards the end of the night, and Will pulled out an old journal he had kept at the time his parents were splitting up. He read most of it out to Annie, and let her read the rest.

"Did you ever show this to your mum?" asked Annie when she finished the last page.

"No," replied Will. "But maybe I will now."

"She means well. The road to hell, I guess."

"I can see it inside me to repeat her mistakes. It's not that I hold any of it against her, it's that I'm afraid for myself. I have the same, human, selfishness."

"You're an amazing person."

Will met her fervent brown eyes and held them for a few seconds. "You'd better get home," he said, eventually. "Your housemates will wonder where you've been. By the way, I meant to ask you, are they in on your films and foreign countries thing?"

"No, you're the first person I've ever told."

Will smiled. He offered to drive her home, but she politely refused, preferring to walk so she could see the stars.

Will lay on his bed after Annie had gone, staring at the ceiling. After a while, he got up and started writing a letter at his desk. Hours later, as the sun was coming up, he signed off, tucked the letter into the first page of his journal, wrapped them in packing paper and wrote his mother's address on top.

Your character assessment continues. You completed the previous challenge and your opponent failed, meaning that your opponent is now beating you by one point, the score being 1-2.

Guiding Principle Number Four: Courage

All members are willing to risk everything to stand out and succeed
Prove that your courage knows no bounds
Beat your opponent at a game of any sport from the official UK Athletic Union Banned and Dangerous Sports list, by Sunday

Now please destroy this note

Will could barely believe his luck, that Mark had failed the previous challenge - a potentially easy one. He wondered what Mark had to hide. He was on his way to the Vice Chancellor's house, where the occupation had entered its seventh day, to discuss the latest Dare with Mark.

The list of dangerous and banned sports was intimidating; from BASE jumping to bullfighting, from stuntboarding to streetfighting. But Will was less scared about the sport, and more scared about how far Mark would go to win.

All of the windows of the Vice Chancellor's house were boarded up, and there were banners hanging from the upstairs windows proclaiming the evils of tuition fees. Will could not see any activity around the premises; things had quietened down since the first few days. Outside the front porch stood Mark.

"You're late, I was about to call you," Mark complained as Will approached.

"How did you get out?" asked Will. "I thought all the doors and windows were blocked."

"They are. We can't have the police forcing entry, can we? Not that they would, they'd be too worried about causing damage to the place. No, we've found alternative routes in and out. You don't think there've been two hundred students in there all week, do you?"

Will ignored Mark's condescending tone. "How are negotiations going?"

"They're not backing down yet. At the moment they're merely offering not to press charges if we leave, but we want more than that. If the proposed merger with Aston goes ahead, the University will save enough in administration alone to pay half of every single undergrad's tuition fees, and form an independent political party based on providing free University education. Yet they're proposing to spend the money on staff pay rises and a posh new hall of residence aimed at squeezing wealthy international students dry."

Mark was about to continue his diatribe, but he cut himself short as if he was ashamed at being passionate in front of Will.

"Why didn't you do the last Dare?" asked Will.

"No time," snapped Mark, as if it was none of Will's business. "I'm still beating you hands down. While we're on the subject, I propose streetcar racing."


"For the Dare, the dangerous sport, streetcar racing. You in your car, me in mine, through the city centre at dawn tomorrow. From outside the University to the end of the Aston Expressway. First past the line - or last one standing - wins."

Will was ready for something like this. "No way." He looked at Mark, wondering what lethal tricks he might have had planned. "I have a better idea. Roof jumping. Free running. The Alpha Omega building is ideal, and if they're listening they'll know to let us onto the roof at half five this afternoon."

Mark raised his eyebrows, apparently impressed that Will was standing up for himself. He froze his expression for a few moments, as if calculating, then cautiously agreed.

Will skipped his last lecture in the hope of getting to the roof of the Alpha Omega building early so he could scope it out. He arrived at the daunting redbrick edifice just before half four, curious to see whether his invisible overseers really had been listening diligently enough to know that he had an appointment on the roof of their building.

As he tried the door, which was open again, he remembered his so-called interview; how enthusiastic and persuasive Sue and Tom had been about the merits of joining Alpha Omega. He realised now that he felt a little less sure of the integrity of their moral outlook; he was bitter that they had let Mark cheat his way through so far.

Will wandered in through the empty reception lobby, with the rows of smiling photographs watching him, and went through the only other door. The interview room had been cleared of beanbags and pillows, even the small drinks fridge was missing. A door had been left open at the far end of the dimly lit room, so Will went through it. He found himself in a long corridor dominated by a luxurious stairway. Before he started climbing, he tried a few of the doors out of curiosity, but they were all locked.

He leapt up six flights of stairs and past many dozens of locked doors. On the top floor, he could hear distant voices above him. He followed them to find a ladder leading through an open trapdoor in the ceiling.

As he clambered onto the roof, he was taken aback to hear a rousing cheer coming from a crowd of people somewhere above and behind him. A crowd of Alpha Omega members had gathered to watch Will and Mark; they were spectating from a safe, inaccessible height atop an astronomical observatory.

Will was heartened to see them. Mark could not commit any foul play under their watchful eye, and perhaps Will could talk to them and try to explain to them that Mark had not deserved the points he had scored until now.

Will's uplifted mood was dampened when he saw that Mark was also on the roof, already practicing some jumps. He watched as Mark sailed over a large ventilation duct, then apparently jumped off the end of the building, attracting another cheer from the onlookers.

By the time Mark had climbed back on top of the roof, Will was waiting for him. "Hey, you're early," breathed Mark. "Well, I got some practice in, so let's do it. I propose -"

"I need some practice too," interrupted Will.

"Oh, well, go on then," Mark made a sweeping motion with his hand, "don't let me stop you."

Will suppressed the urge to tell Mark what an annoying, pretentious idiot he was and turned away to survey the roof. The roof was far from flat, with vents and gaps and structures creating the perfect aerial obstacle course, all framed by a panoramic vista of Birmingham.

Will walked over to peer past the edge of the roof from where Mark had just jumped. About a metre and a half below was a wide platform; the top of a fire escape that ran down the height of the building. Will gathered his resolve and jumped, experimentally. He landed with a metallic clang, thinking that before the next jump he should stretch his muscles to avoid spraining something.

Another loud metallic clang echoed beside him. Mark had followed him.

"I'm just practicing," Will complained.

"So am I," Mark replied, menacingly.

The two of them climbed up the metal ladder to the rooftop. "Don't follow me," ordered Will, "I need to practice."

Will stretched, self-consciously, while gauging the likelihood of making it over the mesh of a large vent set into the roof. He judged it feasible, so he ran at it full pelt, launching himself upwards at the last moment. He landed dramatically, performing a semi-voluntary roll, but without injury. He got up and the crowd cheered. He looked back smugly to see Mark execute exactly the same jump and land easily beside him. The crowd cheered even more loudly, obviously impressed.

Will refused to be fazed; he did not react to Mark's childish psychological intimidation. He started running again, vaulting over a railing to land on a large metal duct. Without stopping, he ran along the length of the duct and jumped up across a two-metre gap to grab the railing on the other side. He pulled his body up over it and scrambled back onto the roof. The crowd went wild.

Will watched as Mark completed the same run, without an iota of hesitation. The volume of the cheers increased.

"Right," breathed Mark, still slightly crouched from his last landing. "Enough practice. Let's play." He paused for a moment to focus his energy, then dashed across the entire length of the roof, more or less in a straight line despite the numerous holes, obstacles and pitfalls on the way. Will followed him, using the unlikeliest of stepping stones, and flying over the most precarious hazards with astonishing faith in the next foothold.

As he approached the final leap, he was momentarily distracted. Mark was standing ominously where he planned to land. Will tried to stop, but the momentum was too much; instead he half-heartedly made the jump. He made it, but only just. Only his toes landed at first, before he bodily collapsed onto the roof at Mark's feet. It hurt - he thought at first he might have cracked a rib - but he tried hard not to let it show. He stood up and tested his legs. A frisson of pain crept up his left calf.

The shock of the fall swelled inside him, then dissipated, but he projected an impassive expression throughout. He was not seriously hurt. The audience on the observatory was deathly silent.

Mark looked Will in the eye, unsmiling, then turned his head leadingly. Will followed his gaze.

The Alpha Omega building was not rectangular from above, but had several large serrations along one side, each about four metres across. A lip on the edge of the roof reduced the gaps by about half a metre, and the remaining chasm was what Mark and Will were looking at now. A cold sweat itched through Will's skin.

Mark ran. Will's stomach tensed up as he watched Mark gather speed, hop onto the lip at the edge of the roof, and cast himself into mid-air. For the space of a breath, there were six storeys between the ground and the soles of Mark's feet. He cleared the lip on the opposite side and landed with a roll. He let the momentum of the roll lift him into a standing position. He flashed a smug smile to Will as the Alpha Omega members collectively gasped in awe.

Will was briefly stunned. He glanced at the Alpha Omega members up on the observatory and gathered his thoughts, trying to ignore the dull pain in his left leg. He gritted his teeth and focussed on the jump, trying not to think about how terminal the drop would be if he failed.

A countdown in his head reached zero several times before he started the sprint. The adrenalin masked his pains completely, and for a moment he felt confident about the jump. But in the corner of his eye he saw Mark walk casually towards the place he intended to land. Distracted, Will aborted his jump, but he was dangerously near the edge when he made the decision.

He thrust his leg out to slow himself, and it skidded full speed into the lip of the roof, breaking loudly. His eyes full of fear, he saw the unnatural bulge in the lower leg of his trousers stain red.

The agony kicked in and Will wailed. He was only vaguely aware of Mark slinking off uncomfortably, of the Alpha Omega members urgently climbing back inside their observatory through the telescope slit. Will was left alone on the roof, screaming in pain, although no-one could hear him.

A few minutes later, two people hovered over him, helping him onto a stretcher.

The first thing Will noticed when he arrived back home after finally being discharged from the hospital, was a red envelope in his doorway. He looked at it with distaste, and decided there and then that he would quit. He did not want to be part of Alpha Omega if they rewarded behaviour like Mark's.

The night that Will got home from hospital, Mark coordinated the largest student coup Birmingham had seen since the Sixties.

The University of Birmingham has its own mini power station, used as a backup and top-up generator. It is also used, even to this very day, to heat vast quantities of steam, which gets distributed around the older buildings on campus for use in the central heating system. This distribution is achieved through a network of subterranean steam mains, each of which requires its own maintenance tunnel. The upshot of this is that underground passageways connect most of the buildings on campus.

Most students are totally unaware that you can get from the Maths building on the east side of campus to the Medical School on the extreme west side without ever surfacing. But Mark had done his research. It was through these tunnels that he had secretly been trafficking student protesters to and from the Vice Chancellor's house. And it was through these tunnels that he sent his army of two hundred angry students to take over the entire University.

When professors, students, visitors, janitors, and everyone else arrived on campus the following morning, they found themselves locked out. Almost every single building had been commandeered overnight, yet apparently without any picked locks; without any forced entries.

Mark waited a whole day at his lonely vantage point atop the library, indulgently watching the chaos that ensued as everyone realised what had happened, before he reopened negotiations with the Vice Chancellor.

At four in the afternoon, Mark disappeared into the library and after about ten minutes, reappeared at the front door of the Vice Chancellor's house, as if by magic. The boards had been removed from the door, and for the first time in over a week, it lay open. Various television cameras and microphones were clustered around the doorway, having been tipped off by Mark earlier in the day, eager to record what he had to say.

Mark gave them a couple of soundbites about the concern that tuition fees, combined with the government's target of fifty percent of the population going through higher education, would bankrupt the country. He promised them that negotiations would be brief, and the result would be a newsworthy victory for students countrywide.

The Vice Chancellor arrived, red with rage, and stormed through the journalists. Mark let him in, followed him through, then shut and locked the door.

The Vice Chancellor ferreted around his house, inspecting the walls and furniture to see if any damage had been done. Mark strolled past him into the lounge and offered him a cup of tea.

"This is my house, I'll get a cup of tea when I want to! You have absolutely no right to intrude!"

Mark sat down, nodding to the Vice Chancellor to do the same, and indicated a piece of paper that lay on the table between them. It was a contract that proposed to resolve the situation altogether.

The Vice Chancellor, shaking with fury, did not sit down. Instead, he picked up the contract and ripped it to shreds without reading it. "Do you honestly believe that you have the power to deliver me an ultimatum? You're not even in a position to negotiate! You're a criminal, and you shall be punished as such!"

A flicker of nervousness crossed Mark's face before his stolid arrogance took over. The Vice Chancellor took a deep breath to steady his nerves, and started pacing the floor, skirting around Mark in a subconscious tactic of intimidation. Mark opened his mouth to speak, but the Vice Chancellor pre-empted him.

"Tell me, what do you plan to do if I don't agree to your demands?" asked the Vice Chancellor, stopping to stare Mark down. Mark went to answer, but the Vice Chancellor interrupted him again. "Burn the University down? Start breaking things until we submit? Take over the whole of Birmingham?

"No. I imagine you'd just planned to continue your occupation, and alert the country to these injustices by way of the paparazzi outside. Did you think I'd let you continue? You've caused immeasurable inconvenience to thousands of students and members of staff, wasted a phenomenal amount of time and money, you're in danger of alerting people to what you've proved to be a considerable security threat by using those tunnels, not to mention committing criminal damage, trespass and burglary. Give me one good reason why I should not have you arrested."

The Vice Chancellor did not wait for Mark's answer. Pacing again, he continued. "Let me tell you. You and all your associates will cease this occupation, you'll leave quietly, and you'll absolutely refuse to talk to the media about any of this. If I see one story in the papers that makes us look bad, if I hear one breath about those tunnels, if any one of your associates defaults on their tuition fees, if I find one thing in my house damaged, if one department janitor has a bad day because one of your henchmen pissed on a rug - I'll make sure that each and every one of you is arrested and expelled. When I'm convinced that you've met those requests, then and only then, we can talk."

With that, the Vice Chancellor turned on his heel and left through the front door. Mark sat in silence for two minutes, then left the house himself. He pushed his way through the gaggle of journalists, saying only one thing:

"Negotiations are continuing."

With the weight of the Alpha Omega character assessment lifted off his mind, Will resolved to spend some more time with Annie. The next time he saw her, she was chatting with a scruffy looking man in a local café. He was going to leave them to it, but she caught his eye through the window and beckoned him to join them.

"What happened to your leg?" asked Annie as Will sat down next to her, leaning his crutches against the table.

"Don't ask," replied Will, though Annie's expression betrayed that she intended to. Will held his hand out to Annie's unkempt friend and introduced himself. The grubby man did not respond.

"This is John," smiled Annie. "You may recognise him. He sleeps in the train station. He asked me for some change so I thought I'd buy him lunch." Will's hand retreated, his face flinching involuntarily.

"Oh, don't worry about him," giggled Annie, "he's just had a bad lot in life. He used to run his own shop you know, a stationers."

"Some vandal burned it down," croaked the tramp. Will winced as the breath of alcohol reached his nose. "Then the insurance company went bankrupt. Couldn't pay for my daughter no more. I used to be well off, now no bugger'll give me any respect. And you two think you can make it all right by buying me a sandwich."

Will was taken aback, but Annie seemed unfazed.

"I used to be well off," the beggar repeated.

"What's the best thing that's happened to you since the fire?" asked Annie. The tramp hiccoughed, burped out some foul-smelling air and leant back to scratch his testicles.

"Nothing good has happened since then. It's all been downwards." A waitress arrived with two sandwiches, and Annie offered to buy one for Will, but Will declined. The tramp starting eating his sandwich vigorously.

Annie rephrased her query. "I understand that you've had incredible bad luck since the fire, but tell me three good things that have happened." The tramp wolfed down the last of his meal, and farted. Will tried not to show how repulsed he felt.

"I heard my ex lost her job," mumbled the tramp spitefully. "That made me feel good."

"That's one thing," coaxed Annie, "what else made you feel good?"

The tramp picked at his teeth and chewed his crusty nails. He seemed briefly thoughtful, his eyes softened.

"I got to meet my daughter's foster family. They were a nice bunch." The tramp's bitterness flowed back, "They wouldn't let me see her though, bastards."

"Would you like to see your daughter again?" asked Annie. "Would you like her to see you again?"

"Not like this," snapped the tramp, on the defensive. "No-one wants to see a man like this."

"What would you like to happen before you saw your daughter again?"

The tramp looked pensive. He took a raspy breath, then leapt up, letting his chair clatter to the floor. "Is that it?" he said too loudly, swaying. "You want me to tell you the cure to all my problems, so you can go away and fix them with one easy answer? Get a job? Get a life? Well, you're not going to do... that..." His speech faltered, and he left.

Will's stunned silence persisted. Annie turned to him with a wide, confident beam and said, "Work in progress. So, tell me about your leg."

Over the next week, Will and Annie spent an increasing amount of time with each other, and while they weren't together Will used his spare time to create a business plan for 24X franchises. Alpha Omega had been relegated to the back of his mind; he rarely gave it any thought, although when he did he found his feelings to be surprisingly conflicting. He felt heavily disillusioned at Alpha Omega's apparent double standards, but he still believed deep down that an organisation so undeniably successful must ultimately reward doing the right thing.

So when another red envelope dropped through his door, his curiosity was aroused. When he noticed that it was significantly thicker than the others had been, he picked it up, along with the previous one that he had been ignoring until now. He assumed that Alpha Omega had realised he had given up, and this was a letter to say that he had failed the character assessment.

He hobbled up to his bedroom with the two envelopes and opened the thinner one; the one that had arrived first. It said:

Your character assessment continues. You failed the previous challenge, meaning that your opponent is now beating you by two points, the score being 1-3.

Guiding Principle Number Five: Resourcefulness

All members are granted almost infinite resources and are expected to make the most of them
Prove that your resourcefulness knows no bounds
Appear on national television, by the end of the month

Now please destroy this note

That explained why Mark had concluded his occupation so dramatically, thought Will; it was an attempt to get on national TV. There had been no news of the occupation on television, so Mark must have failed. Will felt a spiteful rush of bitter pleasure at that thought.

Will opened the second, much thicker envelope. To his total astonishment, a pile of fifty-pound notes spilled out. He guiltily stuffed them back into the envelope and read the accompanying slip of paper. It was another Dare.

Your character assessment continues. Both you and your opponent failed the previous challenge, meaning that your opponent is still beating you by two points, the score being 1-3.

Guiding Principle Number Six: Loyalty

All members must be absolutely and eternally loyal, for the organisation cannot exist without its members
Prove that your loyalty knows no bounds
Return this money to the organisation immediately

Now please destroy this note

Will instantly knew that there was no way he was going to keep the money. It would feel like stealing. He took it out again and counted it. He could barely believe how much cash he was holding. One hundred crisp fifty-pound notes. He could live for a year on that. But it felt criminally dishonest.

However much he did not want to play Alpha Omega's game, he would have to return the money. With that decision, he gathered up his crutches, took the two envelopes out to his car and drove to the Alpha Omega building. He tried the large front door, but it was locked this time so he posted both envelopes, both Dares and all of the cash through the door. He swallowed hard as he heard the paper hit the floor. Five thousand pounds. He lifted the flap of the mail slot in the door to try and see the money on the other side. Then he silently chastised himself, let go of the flap and walked away.

As he limped back towards his car, calmer, Will noticed Mark walking towards him. He tensed up again.

"I thought you'd given up," teased Mark.

"I have," explained Will, "I just thought I'd better tell them."

"Oh good," said Mark, mockingly, "I'll keep the money then."

Will, avoiding further conversation, ducked into his car and drove away.

On his way home, he decided to stop by Annie's. He ached to tell her about Alpha Omega, about Mark, but he still felt like he had to keep it secret. As if although he had decided Alpha Omega was not for him, he did not want to spoil the game for anyone else.

"Hey, Annie," he said as she answered the door.

Her expression was earnest. "Will. Just the man I wanted to see. Come on upstairs."

She led him to her bedroom, which was covered with cardboard signs and banners, sporting slogans against tuition fees. She very deliberately put her index finger to her lips, gesturing Will to be quiet.

"I'm writing a couple of letters," she said, casually. She was clearly not writing letters. She rolled her hands over themselves, signalling Will to play along with what she was saying.

"Er... who to?" asked Will, uncertainly. Annie gave him a thumbs-up and proceeded to take off her top.

"To some people in prison, just for the curiosity of it," Annie continued, casting her top aside and pointing at her bra. "Some of them are very lonely, they appreciate the correspondence."

Will was mightily confused, but as soon as he focussed on what she was pointing at, rather than her breasts, it all became suddenly clear to him.

"This guy I'm writing to now killed four people. Well, he didn't mean to kill all those people, he only meant to scare his boss."

On the strap of Annie's bra, just where she was pointing, was a small pin badge just like Will's. An Alpha Omega bug. Annie was being recruited into Alpha Omega as well. She took a scrap of paper and started writing on it. Will realised that she wanted to talk to him about it without being overheard by the bugs.

"That's terrible, isn't it? But kind of exciting to find out about his motivations, how he feels."

Will read Annie's message. AΩ want me for sorority. Saw your badge - they want you too? He wrote an affirmative reply. Annie started writing again.

"His boss was bullying him really badly, you see, and blackmailing him. He just wanted it to stop."

Have you been doing the Dares? I'm on the second. I'm running a protest on the back of your march and that occupation. Is that why you ran the march? Will nodded.

"The last straw came when his boss fired him for inappropriate sexual behaviour towards female staff members. A lie, apparently, but the damage was done."

How are you doing? What Dare are you on? Will explained to her in writing why he had decided to quit.

"So he gave up trying to defend his name and cut the brake cables in his evil boss' car. The boss was hit side-on by a family in a Volvo Estate on the way out of the car park. Four people died."

Don't quit! Don't you realize what they're offering you? You will win in the end if you play by the rules.

"Poor guy got ten years minimum. Shall I put some music on?"

Will was so engrossed in the written conversation that he hadn't realised Annie was asking him a question.

"What kind of music would you like?" tried Annie.

"Oh," started Will, "something loud."

When Will arrived home the following morning, having slept on Annie's couch, he noticed another red envelope in his doorway. He took stock of his feelings about Alpha Omega. Even after all of Annie's persuasion last night, he was vacillating. He did not want to be a part of Alpha Omega if the only way to do it was to be dishonest and sabotage his opponent.

Yet why should that stop him completing the Dares fairly himself, regardless of his opponent's behaviour? If they chose to reward Mark's foul play, then Alpha Omega was not for Will; but if Will completed the Dares fairly and Alpha Omega chose to offer him membership rather than rewarding Mark's skulduggery, then he would be happy to accept under those moral terms.

He subconsciously touched the silver badge on his chest. He had never taken it off. He decided to consider the next Dare and, if possible, complete it in a way he considered totally ethical. If that was good enough for Alpha Omega, Alpha Omega was good enough for him.

Your character assessment continues. You completed the previous challenge and your opponent failed, meaning that your opponent is now beating you by one point, the score being 2-3.

Guiding Principle Number Seven: Philanthropy

All members understand the importance of sharing their good fortune, and financially sustaining the organisation itself

Prove that your philanthropy knows no bounds

Donate £1000 of your own money to any charitable cause, by Thursday

Now please destroy this note

Will was disgusted to see that Mark really had kept Alpha Omega's £5000. He felt his anger at Mark boil up inside him, but he suppressed it. Thanks to this Dare, thought Will, at least some of that money should end up going to a charity.

It was Monday, so Will had four days to try and raise £1000 to donate to charity. If he could not do it legitimately, he would not do it at all. The obvious opportunity that came to mind was selling some 24X franchises. He would have to adjust the business plan to justify asking for a larger initial deposit, and he would have to step up a couple of gears to get people interested quickly. Not just interested, but committed enough to hand over money.

It would be difficult, but he decided to go for it. He spent the next four days working almost exclusively on the project. He even had to send his apologies to Annie for missing her protest against tuition fees. As a buffer in case the deals were slow going through, he arranged with his bank manager an extra £500 overdraft, and he put his stereo up for sale on eBay.

By Thursday, he had collected the deposit on two franchises, as well as selling his stereo, to raise just over £700. He took the balance out of his bank account, plunging him into the red, and transferred one thousand pounds to Annie's favourite charity.

It felt good, a real achievement. He tried to ignore the fact that he had given himself a huge amount of work by selling his first two franchises in such a short space of time, and in such disparate parts of the country. The buzz he got from this accomplishment renewed his determination to beat Mark into Alpha Omega.

So when the next Dare arrived, in its taunting red envelope, he was ready and eager to put a positive spin on it.

Your character assessment continues. Both you and your opponent completed the previous challenge, meaning that your opponent is still beating you by one point, the score being 3-4.

Guiding Principle Number Eight: Compassion

All members are empathic, considerate and respectful of people from all backgrounds and lifestyles
Prove that your compassion knows no bounds
Save the life of any person, by Wednesday

Now please destroy this note

Will's mind, still on a high after beating the previous challenge, set to work thinking up ways to save a life. It took him three minutes before he hit on the simplest possible idea. He hobbled out to his car and drove into town.

Twenty minutes later he was sitting in the reception lobby of the blood donation building. His blood would be used to save someone's life, therefore meeting the terms of the Dare. A young nurse approached him.

"Good morning," she said, brightly.

"Hi," charmed Will. "I'd like to give blood, please."

The nurse's face fell slightly. "I'm sorry, you won't be able to give blood today."

"Why not?"

The nurse indicated the cast on his leg, and explained that he could not donate for at least six months after breaking a bone. Will kept trying. No, he couldn't donate plasma, platelets, leukocytes, erythrocytes, or even marrow today, although he could sign up for the register.

Will looked deflated.

"You can donate sperm," offered the nurse hopefully. Will flashed her an exasperated expression.

Discouraged, he headed home. He racked his brains for another solution, and a sinister thought occurred to him. There are very few opportunities to save someone's life, unless you first put it in danger. He immediately discarded the idea, but a creeping fear remained - what if Mark had the same idea? Who would he choose as a victim?

On an anxious impulse, Will stopped off at Annie's to see if she was in.

"Hi Will," she called, appearing at the door before Will had even left his car, "I was trying to call you."

They exchanged meaningful looks. They both wanted to talk about their Dares. They needed to find a pen, paper and some privacy. They went up to Annie's bedroom and attempted stilted small talk while Will scrawled on a piece of paper: Need to save a life. How, without putting life in danger?

Annie's eyes lit up. She grabbed Will's hand and led him back out to his car.

"Didn't you want to speak to me about... something as well?" asked Will, mouthing the word 'Dare'.

"It can wait. For now, trust me. Town centre, cabbie!"

"What are we doing?"

"Do you know what belaying is?"


"Take us to the rockface by Millennium Point and I'll show you."

When they arrived, Annie and Will got kitted up and went over to the climbing walls. Annie borrowed the attention of an instructor, who belayed for her on an easy climb.

When she had abseiled back down, she gave the loose end of her rope to Will. "It's as easy as that," she explained. "Put your end of the rope through here, and here, and feed it through here, then make a figure of eight knot, and a stop knot, like this. When I fall, make sure you have the rope down here, otherwise there's nothing stopping me from tumbling to my doom. Easy."

With that, she tested the rope and began to climb the tallest wall. Will belayed frantically, trying to keep enough tension in the rope to stop her if she should fall, still a little unsure of what he was doing.

By the time she got halfway up, Will had got the hang of it, and was craning his neck to see how she was doing. She was very high now, and tiring, struggling to get past a slight overhang.

Annie's pace had slowed down, so the belaying was easy now. Will's mind relaxed, and his eyes wandered. He found himself staring at Annie's rear end, tight in the harness, as she nimbly pulled herself further up the wall.

Will felt a stirring in his groin as he pulled another stretch of rope in, then Annie slipped.

She let out a girlish shriek as she fell a couple of metres before Will reacted and pulled his end of the rope down sharply, catching Annie in mid-air. She giggled as she dangled, spinning slowly. The instructor, who had been supervising, helped Will let her down gently.

"You saved my life!" smiled Annie when she touched down, giving Will a hug.

That night, Annie enrolled Will's help in completing her third Dare - confessing her deepest secrets to a friend. They sat on Annie's bed, working their way through half a crate of beers, having the kind of conversation you never want to finish.

Will basked in Annie's attention, in the rawness of her intimate secrets. He felt daring, he felt like all of the social boundaries he had spent his life being afraid of were dropping away, until he could be more honest with Annie than he was with himself. He held her to himself, stroking her hair, and listened.

After a few hours, and a few beers, Annie got up and started shuffling through the books and papers on her desk. She produced a tattered diary, and handed it to Will. She kept talking as Will started reading, a stream of consciousness recalling a series of events and memories from her life, heavy with nostalgia and sometimes embarrassingly revealing.

Annie's diary read like a fairytale. She leapt from one dream to another, each page a new mission of goodwill. Films and foreign countries. She seemed to think that anything was possible, that if she believed in something hard enough, she could make it happen. Her imagination seemed endless, and her drive was inspirational. She got an idea in her head of how to help somebody, how to please a stranger, and she just did it. Often it didn't work, however hard she persisted, but she did everything with such pure innocence that no-one was ever worse off.

One entry read:

Finished proofing Denny's autobiography today, suggested some cuts to get it down to reasonable length. Went to the residential home to give it back to him, he was very surprised & pleased. Don't think it's publishable, but will send it to a few people in case. Must remember to get some properly bound copies for his family. Also spoke to Will again today. Must get to know him better.


Had a breakthrough with John today. He came to have lunch with me and spoke about his daughter's foster family. Also got letter from Alpha Omega, v. unexpected. They want me as a founding member of new sorority. Can't believe my luck! Have to beat Susan Topher at some 'Dares' to qualify. Feel a bit guilty at denying her, but I really want it.

With Annie's soothing voice still marinating Will's mind, the final entry in her journal really caught his attention. It read:

Worked it out! Will is going for AΩ too. Hi Will, if I get the same Dares as you, you'll be reading this soon. I wouldn't have shared these journals with anyone, but somehow I don't mind sharing them with you. I want you to know me. I find you fascinating. I hope you don't think I'm too crazy or pretentious with all the stuff I've done. I want to focus on you next. You're my next project. So if you hate that, forget it, and I hope we can be friends. If not, then please let me fall in love with you. I'm probably in your arms now, on my bed. I'm probably talking because I'm nervous. I probably won't know that you've reached this entry, so surprise me. Please, kiss me now.

Will hesitated. He pretended to keep reading for a moment, Annie's voice washing over him, wrapping him in warmth. He had already made his decision, he had made it long ago, but he waited, savouring the last few seconds in anticipation of surrendering to his love for Annie. He kissed her. At last, he kissed her.

It was still dark outside when Will woke. He wasn't sure what had woken him. It took him a while to orient himself, to take in the sight of Annie asleep next to him, the touch of her skin, the lustful smell, the sound of his mobile phone ringing...

He answered it with a croak.

"Hi," came the reply, "I'd like to order a crate of beer please."

"Sure," strained Will, taking down the address for the 24X order, his brain not yet fully in gear. He looked at his mobile when the customer had rung off. It was four o'clock in the morning. Far too late to call Nick and ask him to do it.

Will sighed, allowing his eyes to close for a few more seconds before swinging himself out of Annie's bed. She stirred.

"I have to make a 24X delivery. I'll be back in half an hour max."


Will pulled his clothes on and slunk resignedly down to his car. He always kept a few crates in the boot to save him having to go and pick them up if he was out. They kept cold enough during the night.

It was quite a long way to the delivery address; somewhere he had not been before. After stopping to check on the map, he found the street, although the number seemed to be for an industrial estate rather than a house. That can't be right, thought Will. He drove into the estate to check, intending to call the customer back if it was the wrong place.

But sure enough, there was a huddle of three men wrapped up warmly against the cold that appeared to be waiting for him. He pulled up beside them and rolled his window down.

"24X?" he asked.

One of the men looked at the other two, then nodded.

Will opened his door to go out and get the beer from the boot, but he never made it. As soon as he stepped out, two of the men grabbed him and threw him to the ground. Will's fight or flight instinct immediately kicked in, but with a broken leg, he could do neither.

The two men started kicking him in the ribs and head, and stamping on his flailing limbs, while the third man watched, glancing over his shoulder occasionally to make sure no-one else was around.

Will suddenly thought of Mark, and he tried to study his attackers' faces to see if he could recognise them, but they were partially obscured by hats and scarves. He couldn't be sure.

They kicked Will more viciously until he curled up into a ball and stopped struggling, then one of them produced a knife and demanded his wallet, his car keys and his mobile phone. Will tried to oblige, but his hands wouldn't obey against the cold and the pain, so his attackers helped themselves. Two more devastating kicks were delivered, and Will was vaguely aware of someone calling for an ambulance, repeating the address of the industrial estate.

Blue flashing lights woke him up before he even realised he had been knocked out. The solid tarmac beneath him felt incredibly uncomfortable; the cold was biting, numbing. Some people started fussing over him, moving him and lifting him, but he couldn't focus on anything but the pain.

In the ambulance, on the way back to the hospital, travelling quickly but silently, some concerns overtook the pain in Will's mind.

"My car was there," he said.

A disembodied voice replied, "There was no car at the scene, sir. What's your name, sir?"

"Annie is waiting for me. Please call her."

"What's your relationship to Annie, sir?"

Will derived some small pleasure from the answer. "Girlfriend."

Three hours later, Will's pain had been measured and quantified as two broken ribs, seven stitches on his chin and a fractured thumb. Also, his fingers and toes would hurt for a while as he warmed up, as he had suffered mild exposure. He had been told to rest in the hospital for a day while he waited for his broken leg to be recast.

Annie came to visit as soon as she heard, her face creased with concern when she saw her heavily bruised boyfriend. Her first two questions were:

"Are you OK?" and, written on a piece of paper, Was it Mark?

Will shrugged in answer to both.

It was a sinister thought - that Mark may have arranged to put Will's life in danger just so he could save it, by calling the ambulance, for the sake of the Dare. Will knew that Mark was prepared to bend the rules to win, but Mark was no Hollywood villain. Surely he had his limits. Will could not bring himself to believe that Mark would take it this far. That seemed like sheer paranoia; it must have just been a coincidence.

Annie met Will the following morning to escort him home from the hospital. After another day of convalescence, the next Dare arrived at the weekend, a few days before the deadline for the previous one, which meant that Mark must have already saved someone's life too. It was still not clear whether it was Will's life Mark had 'saved', or if the attack and the Dare were completely unconnected.

Your character assessment continues. Both you and your opponent completed the previous challenge, meaning that your opponent is still beating you by one point, the score being 4-5.

Guiding Principle Number Nine: Broad-mindedness

All members play at least as hard as they work, and are given the opportunity to have as much fun as they can imagine
Prove that your broad-mindedness knows no bounds
Have sex with seven different people, by Saturday

Now please destroy this note

The stakes were too high. There was too much to lose. Will couldn't face it. It seemed almost ridiculous; it could all have been for nothing. He destroyed the Dare. He wanted to see Annie, to speak to her about his frustrations and fears, without being afraid of the bug in the pin badge. But he was ashamed to admit to her that he wanted to be free of Alpha Omega, and the desire to join it. He was ashamed to admit that after all, he intended to quit.

He didn't tell Annie about the latest Dare, although it weighed heavily on his mind. They went to the cinema together that afternoon, and Annie could tell he was preoccupied. She asked him what was wrong and he avoided the question, indicating the pin badge bug. They could talk about it later.

But Annie had other plans. They sat in the back row at the cinema, which was quite full. Just as the film was beginning, Annie reached up inside her top, apparently adjusting her bra, and produced the little silver pin badge bug. She attached it to the cinema seat and indicated to Will to do the same.

Will shook his head and signalled to her to watch the film. She ignored him and got up to leave. Will sat there alone for a minute, vacillating. Then he removed his pin badge and attached it to the cinema seat next to Annie's. He quietly followed her out.

"Doesn't it feel good to have some privacy?" smiled Annie when Will joined her outside the cinema.

"If they realise, the game's up," Will protested. "They won't let us in."

"Nuts to Alpha Omega for now. We need to talk. They won't be able to tell, anyway. As far as they're concerned, we're watching the film. I bet they're not even listening - they've certainly got you paranoid enough about it not to bother actually listening anymore."

They went and sat in a fairly secluded corner of the bar next to the cinema. Will's mind started buzzing, getting ready to articulate his feelings. He opened his mouth to speak, and closed it again, unsure where to start.

Annie saved him the trouble. "Will," she asked, soothingly, "what's your ambition in life?"

The question was unexpected. Will had to clear his mind and think before he could provide an answer, even though the answer was truthfully, "I don't know."

"I know what you mean," Annie admitted. "Nor do I. But how do you live your life? What's your philosophy? How do you make your decisions?"

"I guess..." Will thought, "I guess I've always wanted to be successful."

"Go on," Annie coaxed.

"I mean, most people believe in these great intangible barriers in life, like they can't afford things, or they don't have the ability for something, or work can never be fun. I've always wanted to make sure I rise above them, they're just illusions. I think you can do whatever you want."

"What do you want?"

"To be successful. Just that. To be in the position that whenever I want to do something, I can just do it. If I want to write a book, I can just do it. If I want to start a record company, I can just do it. It's not only about having time and money to do it, it's about the attitude too. Anything's possible. That," Will affirmed, "would be freedom. That'd be the most fun in the world."

Annie nodded. She waited. For once, she would be the person of few words.

"Oh, right," Will said, responding to Annie's silence. "You think my ambition fits in nicely with Alpha Omega." He said the words childishly, as if he was just giving voice to something that was patently obvious anyway.

"Well, you're wrong. Alpha Omega's not for me." Annie didn't flinch. Will found himself continuing his monologous argument. "If they're still considering Mark, then their values are not compatible with mine. I feel almost betrayed that they put me through so much risk, wasted so much of my energy and time, for something that's not what they promised me. Something I actually don't want."

"Listen to yourself!" scolded Annie, quite heatedly. "You're making up the most ridiculous excuses! You're putting up the same imaginary barriers you wanted to avoid! You're not angry with Alpha Omega, or even Mark, you're angry with yourself, for being ready to quit. Of course you want to be a part of Alpha Omega - you can't pretend you don't want it just because it's hard to get. Or because you're afraid of getting there. That what it is - it's not that you disagree with their values. All you know about their values is those Guiding Principles, and I know you agree with those. You're just afraid."

"But," Will interjected, "Mark -"

"If Mark is really that bad, then you have to try even harder to keep him out of Alpha Omega. And if Alpha Omega turns out to be full of people like Mark, then just leave. At least you'll have that option. If you quit now, you'll have no option at all."

Will sat back to soak this up. The two of them exchanged glances, and softened. Will took Annie's hand.

"You sound like a recruiter for Alpha Omega," Will joked. Annie laughed gently. "But you're right. I'm afraid, and I'll tell you why." Will went on to tell her what the latest Dare was. Annie seemed briefly stunned.

"You have to have sex with seven people? In a week?"

Will nodded. "If I have to choose between Alpha Omega and you, I find it much easier to make up ridiculous excuses to ditch Alpha Omega." There was a pause. Uncharacteristically, Will felt like he had to fill it. "If that's their definition of broad-mindedness, what do they do for fun? Whore orgies? How far does it go? Do you have to do drugs to be broad-minded?"

"You're making up the worst possible scenario again. How are you to know unless you go and find out for yourself? Alpha Omega is such an incredible opportunity; it'll put you in a position to be successful in life, which is exactly your ambition. It'll give you all the opportunities and support you could possibly wish for. More than you could ever get on your own. And you're so close - this is the penultimate Dare."

"I'm not going to choose Alpha Omega over you."

"No, I'm saying you don't have to," reassured Annie.

Will looked at Annie disapprovingly. "Are you suggesting we suspend our relationship until we've both been through the Dares? That wouldn't work. The whole point of the Dares is that they embody the kind of lifestyle we're going to be expected to continue within Alpha Omega."

Will's gaze locked with Annie's for a few moments. He imagined her to be deep in thought, although really she was rucking up courage. "No, I have a better idea." She leant forward. "I'm going to have to do this Dare soon too, so let's do it together."

Annie explained what she meant, and they went back to the cinema. Will could barely concentrate on the film.

Five days later, Will was checking his face in the mirror. The stitches on his chin were still there, but they were almost invisible. Only a tiny scar would remain. He took a deep breath to test his ribs. Not bad. He examined the unobtrusive splint on his thumb. He tested his leg, scratching his new streamlined cast out of habit. He could walk easily without crutches now. He felt relatively fit. He felt sexy.

He felt nervous. Tonight, he and Annie had made it their mission to have sex with seven different people. Well, six other people. Will had done his preparation. He had trawled through several sites on the Internet dedicated to partner swapping or swinging, and invited a handful of people to join him and Annie at a special kind of club up in Redditch.

He had been surprised how very alive the recreation was. He had assumed swinging had died with the Sixties, but it seemed to be more popular than ever - just less public. Perhaps even more surprising was that most of the people he met on the Internet were not ageing hippy key-swappers, but young professionals.

The idea of it had been turning him on all week, but now that the night was at hand, his arousal turned into nervousness. He looked at himself in the mirror one more time, unconsciously biting the inside of his cheek. Then he scooped up his and Annie's invitation to the club, a bottle of wine (the club was not licensed, it was bring-your-own-Dutch-courage), and a handful of condoms, and he went to meet Annie.

Annie looked spectacular. She was wearing a long shimmering red dress, with lipstick and high-heels to match. And, as she whispered in Will's ear while they were in the taxi, that's all she was wearing.

The club was set back from the street, hidden and unobtrusive. It looked closed as they walked up to it, until a smiling bouncer in a tuxedo opened the tinted glass door for them and welcomed them in.

"First time?" he asked, friendly.

"Yes," grinned Annie, "we don't really know what to expect."

"Just relax and enjoy yourselves," said the bouncer reassuringly. "You can do as much or as little as you like."

They walked into a reception lounge, and showed the woman behind the front desk their invitation and some ID. They were asked if they wanted a tour of the premises while it was still early, and they said they did. Another lady was called over and introduced as the owner of the club.

"Hi, my name is Sadie," she said, leading them along a corridor into the main room of the club. It looked like a miniature nightclub, with seats and tables surrounding a dancefloor. "Glad you could make it, it's always nice to see new faces. This room is called the Lounge. It's just like your average nightclub, and that's how you should treat it. Bar's over there, but it doesn't sell alcohol. You can put your bottle of wine behind there and they'll serve it to you through the night."

"How many people do you tend to get in?" Annie asked. At the moment, the club was almost empty.

"Not many on a Friday night," Sadie replied, gesturing for them to follow her down a small open stairway into a mezzanine room full of sofas. "About forty or fifty. Sometimes three times that on a Saturday. This room here's called the Bedroom. The lights get dimmed about ten o'clock and from then on it's a hotbed of activity. There's these sofas, a couple of beds, and a few little hidden alcoves for you to go, with whoever else you pick up on the way. This is where it all happens, so come in here with an open mind. Be polite, mind, and considerate. You've read the House Rules, haven't you?"

Both Will and Annie nodded. They had been printed on the invitation.

"Right. They're important. Come on back down." Sadie led them to a room beneath the Bedroom. It was full of oddly shaped leather furniture, chains and intimidating wooden structures with handcuffs or belts attached at convenient junctures. "This," she said dramatically, "is the Dungeon. Not everybody's cup of tea, but don't be afraid to come and experiment. No-one will put pressure on you to do anything you don't want."

They walked back through the Lounge to the other side of the club, and to another small stairway. This one went round a corner so they couldn't see where it led.

"Down there are lockers and the Jacuzzi. There's also a sauna and a series of very small theme rooms, like couples only, women only, anything goes, or whatever. There's signs to indicate the rules for each room. Make sure you know what you want before you go into one of those. I can't show you now though, because past this stairway it's a nudist zone. No clothes. Hence the lockers."

"Where do we get a locker key from?" asked Annie.

"Just ask for one at reception. Five pounds deposit. Right, hope you enjoy yourselves tonight, then. Good luck!" With that, Sadie disappeared.

"What do you think?" asked Annie, obviously excited.

Will felt utterly terrified.

They sat down with a glass of wine each, and watched as people started to arrive. From where they were sitting, they could see down the stairs into the Bedroom, where the lights soon dimmed. Will watched in horror as a thickly made-up forty-something year old woman in a red PVC dress cut way above her knees pulled off a bald man's trousers and plunged onto his lap.

The bald man's head rolled as his penis disappeared into the PVC dress, then reappeared, then disappeared... Will could barely believe what he was seeing. And then it was over, and the woman got up and snapped her dress down with a crack like the signature sound effect of a monster in a horror movie; she was ready to move on to her next victim.

"I'm not sure about this," Will confided in Annie.

"You're just nervous. I don't blame you; it's kind of weird. Look at that, though, doesn't it turn you on?"

Will looked. Across the room, two gorgeous young women were kissing, their partners watching in awe. The women seemed totally uninhibited and passionate, pressing themselves against each other and running their hands down each other's smooth, arched backs as if they ached to rip off each other's clothes.

After a while, they separated and turned their attentions back to their boyfriends, licking and grinding. Before long, the foursome had left to find somewhere a little more private.

Will's nervousness started falling away, his brain suddenly operating from about a metre further down his body.

"We don't have to do anything if you don't want to," offered Annie. "We could just find a private alcove in the Bedroom and have sex with each other. I'm sure that would technically count as having sex with the other two dozen people in there. They'd be in the same room, after all. Or..." Annie's voice went sly as she refilled Will's wine glass. "If you're feeling brave enough, we could ask that couple to join us."

She nodded her head to indicate the couple sitting next to them. The man was about thirty, with black hair and a kind face. The woman was slightly younger, with glowing blue eyes and flowing strawberry blonde hair, which perfectly framed her generous bosom. She noticed Will looking at her, and she smiled at him.

Will's mind was made up.

The next morning, Will woke up replaying images from the previous night in his mind. They had done everything. Watching other people have sex close up had been a bizarre and remarkably erotic experience - it was something usually kept so private. Even watching Annie have sex with another man, seeing her get sexually aroused from every possible angle, was an extraordinary turn-on.

Best of all, everyone they had met had been totally normal. Curious, kind, nervous and horny, all of them. Just like Will and Annie. Will had very much enjoyed the freedom of sharing sex with these people, of feeling able to do what you desired with whoever desired you, rather than living the typical lie of pretending to only desire one person.

And as soon as he turned his mind to images of Annie touching the strawberry blonde girl, he woke her up to start again.

The two of them spent the whole Saturday in bed, chatting and sleeping and making love. Their conversation meandered wildly, but kept coming back to one single focal point. Alpha Omega weighed heavily on their minds. They spoke in whispers to confound the bugs in the pin badges, which were on the floor with their clothes.

"Do you think everyone in Alpha Omega will be really conceited?" asked Will. Annie's head was resting on his shoulder and he was gently stroking her hair.

"You mean because they've proved that they stand out above so-called normal people?" Annie joked, absentmindedly entwining her legs with Will's. "No. I think any feelings like that would be forgotten because you'd be surrounded by people who stand out at least as much. I think it's very exciting. The selection procedure ensures only the most successful and motivated get through. Success and motivation breeds success and motivation, so those kind of people all working together must be incredibly powerful."

"The kind of ruthless, boundless people that are willing to make things happen," Will mused.

Annie shifted her weight on the bed. "You're still really not sure about their ethics, are you?"

"Not if Alpha Omega is full of Marks."

"You're convinced he's evil, aren't you? Not just a bit naughty, but real Bond-villain calculated evil. What's he actually done wrong?" Annie didn't wait for an answer. "OK, he played a couple of harmless tricks on you at the beginning. Mean, but effective - he got ahead after all. And then the roof jumping, he beat you fair and square. You let yourself be intimidated. He didn't break your leg, you did. You're lucky you didn't do worse."

"And the mugging?"

Annie hesitated. "You don't know for sure Mark was behind that." She said it without conviction. Alpha Omega was desirable. It was bewitching. The Dares were a competition for a great reward, but they were still only a game. It was scary to think someone might take them more seriously than that. Perhaps that was the intention. For them to be taken more seriously. There could be no stronger test of character than when truly everything is at stake.

Just over a day later, Will was once again standing outside the intimidating redbrick Alpha Omega building. He was cold and scared. He was a few minutes away from completing the final Dare; from discovering whether or not he had been successful. He hoped the ordeal had been worth it. He checked the time - two minutes to midnight. Any moment now, Mark would stroll up and punch him in the face. Or stab him. Or worse.

He pulled out the final Dare, in its provocative red envelope. He had not destroyed it this time. In a fit of sentimentality he had wanted to keep it, as a souvenir. He read it again.

This is the final part of your character assessment. Both you and your opponent completed the previous challenge, meaning that your opponent is still beating you by one point, the score being 5-6.

Guiding Principle Number Ten: Boundaries

All members operate without limits, recognising that anything is possible and that they can do whatever they want, but only within the boundaries of morality
Prove that you know your bounds
Meet with your opponent outside the organisation building at midnight tonight and decide, by any means, who should get the last single point - if no agreement is reached, no points will be awarded

Now please destroy this note

Will returned the Dare to its envelope and pocketed it again. He hopped a bit to keep warm. His leg was functioning almost normally now. He checked the time again; only thirty seconds had passed. His mind was swimming with grand moral questions about Alpha Omega, questions he would ask them if he had the chance. Don't the Dares incite people to do wrong? Where are the lines drawn? With such an imposition of moral values, is Alpha Omega trying to be a religion?

He checked the time again. One minute to go, and still no sign of Mark. He wasn't sure what he was going to say to Mark to try and get the last point. He was so convinced that Mark would play dirty and not give him an opportunity to speak, that he hadn't prepared an argument. He had more urgent things to say to Mark anyway. He wanted to find out for certain what Mark was playing at. Was he responsible for the mugging? How far had he been prepared to go? And why?

Thirty seconds left. Maybe he just wouldn't show up. If no agreement was reached, no point would be awarded, and Mark would win. That sounded like Mark's kind of thinking. Will hugged himself against the cold, focussing on the vapour of his breath, counting down the seconds in his head.

With ten seconds left before midnight, Mark emerged from the mist, walking towards Will with a sinister air of confidence. He stopped half a metre from Will, facing him square on like a wall. Will was vaguely surprised to see him.

"I won," he said, simply. A pause stretched into the deathly cold.

"Did you mug me?" Will asked.

"I won, Will," Mark repeated, ignoring him. "If I refuse to agree who gets this last point, the score ends up in my favour."

"Answer my question," insisted Will, his contempt for Mark already warming his blood.

"Listen to me," snapped Mark. "I won, but I'm not satisfied with that. It feels like too much of an anticlimax. So I want to give you a chance. I want to give you an opportunity to get the last point. That'll make it a draw, so you might still have a chance of getting in." Mark indicated the door of the Alpha Omega building. "The ball's in my court, so I'm going to set you a Dare of my own."

Will instantly hated the idea of pandering to one of Mark's little power trips. And he shuddered at the thought of what Dare Mark might have planned for him.

"If you complete my Dare successfully," continued Mark, "the decision of which one of us succeeds will be up to Alpha Omega - however they choose to settle a draw. If you take any other course of action, you lose. If you try to argue, you lose. If you walk away, you lose. If you fail the Dare, you lose. So, if you still want to join Alpha Omega, you've no choice but to hear me out."

Every instinct was screaming at Will not to surrender to Mark's ultimatum, but nothing would be gained from that. Fear of what Mark would have him do welled up inside him, but he could not submit to fear now after coming so far. Will swallowed his pride and distracted his emotions for long enough to say:

"Go on."

Mark smiled. His chest swelled as if absorbing his new authority. He paused smugly, then said, "My Dare is simple. Punch me as hard as you can, right in the face. Hurt me as much as you want to. Knock me out. Kill me if you have it in you. That's all you have to do."

Will was totally taken aback. His fists clenched immediately, and adrenalin catalysed his heartbeat, but he held back.

"Come on," coaxed Mark, "it's a freebie. You want to hurt me anyway, I know you do, and you certainly want to get into Alpha Omega. Your only chance is now. All you have to do is mash me into a bleeding pulp, and you win."

Will's biceps twitched at the thought.

"I deserve it, don't I?" Mark jeered. "For deceiving you with that note about the essay, for humiliating you in front of all those students at the march, for breaking your leg on that rooftop. I'd have been happy if you'd jumped right off the edge. And you were saying something about being mugged..."

Will's rage blistered inside him, contorting his face and poisoning his mind.

"Hit me right now, you stupid coward. What would Annie say if you had to tell her you failed to get into Alpha Omega because you were too much of a wimp to hit Mark Radford? Oh, I know about Annie. There aren't many students that don't know about Annie. She's been around, you know. Well, she is a great shag isn't she?"

That was the final straw. A frenzy of fury exploded through Will's nervous system and he coiled up to break Mark's face. But the punch never came. The back of Will's mind shrieked out to intercept, using Mark's own words: What would Annie say? Indeed, what would she say if Will had to tell her that he had beaten up his opponent? What would she say when he had to admit to her that he had compromised his morals and submitted to Mark's sedition? He summoned up all of his willpower to absorb his wrath - it hurt almost as much as if he had delivered the punch against himself.

"No," Will said, dropping his fist. "I won't."

Mark looked surprised. Then relieved. Then happy. Not smug, but happy in a warm and open way, as if a fašade had suddenly fallen away and he was a different person now. "Well done," said Mark, with none of his usual bitterness. "I thought you were going to do it. Would have been a shame."

Mark's words sounded genuine. Will found the transformation utterly baffling.

"First, let me apologise for everything," said Mark. "And second, let me congratulate you. You passed the final test - you completed the last Dare successfully. The challenge was boundaries, morals, and you just resisted the sorest temptation to abandon yours." Will could not believe what he was hearing. What was Mark talking about? Was this a trick?

Mark continued. "You did the whole thing successfully. We tested you pretty hard, and you passed with flying colours. Welcome to Alpha Omega."

Will's thoughts burned in his head. Mark had referred to Alpha Omega as 'we'. Mark was already a member. Mark had always been a member, keeping watch while Will did his Dares. Testing every aspect of Will's character. And now Will had passed that test, and Mark had revealed his true identity. Will was stunned.

Mark walked over to the front door of the Alpha Omega building and knocked on it. The door opened to a crowd of people waiting expectantly and talking in whispers. They greeted Mark as an old friend. Tom was there, the man who had interviewed him. And next to him Sue - where else had Will heard that name? Sue? Susan? Will also recognised a few people from the observatory on the rooftop; they had been watching when Will broke his leg. Now they smiled at him, and started clapping. The rest of the crowd quickly joined in, cheering and shouting out Will's name.

Mark stepped back out and beckoned for Will to come inside. Will's mind was racing. He had so many questions, along with some unsettling answers. He had so much to tell Annie. He felt numb as the truth and its consequences started dawning on him. Alpha Omega was as ambitious, as fearless, and as unstoppable as Will had ever feared or hoped.

And now, he thought, he was part of it.

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