Do you live to play? Or play to live?
The year is 2037. The Soviet Union never fell, and much of Europe has been consolidated under the totalitarian Union of Friendship. On the tiny island of Isola, seven people have been selected to compete in a forty-eight-hour test for a top-secret intelligence position. One of them is Anna Francis, a workaholic bureaucrat with a nine-year-old daughter she rarely sees and a secret that haunts her. Her assignment: to stage her own death and then to observe, from her hiding place inside the walls of the house, how the six other candidates react to the news that a murderer is among them. Who will take control? Who will crack under pressure? But then a storm rolls in, the power goes out, and the real game begins. . . .
Combining suspense, unexpected twists, psychological gamesmanship, and a sinister dystopian future, The Dying Game conjures a world in which one woman is forced to ask, “Can I save my life by staging my death?”
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.06(w) x 7.75(h) x 0.71(d)|
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Copyright ©2017 Asa Avdic
A first step toward the Union of Friendship was taken following the Wall Coup in 1989 and the unrest that ensued. Sweden and Finland have been under a state of martial law and the alliance of defense since 1992. Norway followed later on. On February 17, 1995, the parliament of the Protectorate of Sweden declared itself a full member of the Union of Friendship. The Western bloc does not accept this declaration and many UN countries still consider the Protectorate of Sweden an independent country. The Protectorate of Sweden has de facto and de jure control over its entire territory, but it is simultaneously subject to the common laws of the Union of Friendship, which preempt local statutes. The International Court of Justice in The Hague does not regard the country’s incorporation into the Union of Friendship to be a violation of international law.
The Protectorate of Sweden is no longer a member of the UN and left the former European Communities before its dissolution.
The Protectorate of Sweden is bordered to the east by the Protectorate of Finland under the Union of Friendship, to the west by the Protectorate of Norway, and to the southwest by Denmark, where the border has been closed since 1992. The capital city of the Protectorate of Sweden is Stockholm.
International Encyclopedia, 2016
Stockholm The Protectorate of Sweden March 2037
One afternoon, the unit secretary came into my office.
“He wants to see you on the fourteenth floor of the Secretariat Building.”
“He wants to see you!”
The unit secretary looked extremely excited. Her thick glasses bobbed on the tip of her nose and she frantically shoved them back up, at which point they immediately slid down again. I could understand why she was so worked up. It was rare for those in the Secretariat Building to take an interest in our activities, much less in one of us personally. When I returned home from Kyzyl Kum for good, the Chairman had sent a bouquet of flowers to the office, with my name spelled wrong on the card, so I assumed they didn’t care. Apparently I was mistaken. This made me feel both flattered and anxious. “When?”
She looked at my wrinkled shirt for one second too long and appeared to be weighing something. “You have time to go home and change,” she said, then turned on her heel and walked off so quickly that I didn’t even have time to pretend I wasn’t offended.
Three hours later, I was plodding through biting wind and freezing rain across the courtyard to the Secretariat Building. Great sheets of half-frozen sleet were blowing straight sideways and whipping at my face, only to suddenly change directions and attack from the other side. It was one of those March days where everything is gray and wet and cold and the light is never more than a hope. There had been many such days that winter. It was mentioned each day on the news that we had never had so few hours of sunlight as during the past year. Maybe it was emissions, maybe it was climate change, maybe it was both. Or something even worse, but of course they didn’t say that on the news. That was the sort of thing people talked about only when they were sure that no one else was listening.
The building towered up ahead of me as I ascended the stairs, as if I were walking into the maw of a giant whale, and the wind nearly hurled me through the doors. Inside the foyer, I signed in at the reception desk, received a visitor badge, was passed through various security doors, handed over my coat and purse to the guard, and was shown to an elevator. The walls and ceiling of the elevator were covered in smoke-colored mirrors, which made me feel painfully self-conscious in my brand-new jacket and bland, old-lady booties from the off-the-rack clothing chain closest to my office. The jacket fit well, but it was made of an itchy, tight material that made me start sweating even before I got off the elevator. My feet were damp and cold and my tights were sagging. I had put on makeup in the hopes of appearing less haggard than I felt, but I suspected that it had achieved the opposite effect. The rain had made my eye makeup run and washed nearly all the cheap powder from my cheeks; what was left was flaking over the eczema on the bridge of my nose and at my hairline. I felt out of place, like I was wearing a costume.
The first thing that struck me when I walked out of the elevator on the fourteenth floor was that the sound was different, more muffled. The floors were covered in thick, wall-to-wall carpeting, which made it nearly impossible to walk in heels without stumbling. This was a floor for men. Dark wood, chrome-plated steel, large green plants: scaled back, expensive. The walls, the floor, and the ceiling were imbued with power. An air-conditioning unit hummed nearby; it sounded like a distant helicopter. I didn’t quite know what to do with myself; there was nowhere to sit, no art to pretend to study. A door opened and an elegant older woman came out. She said my name and asked me to follow her. I trailed her through the corridor and noticed that despite her high heels, she moved across the soft floor with confident, quick steps. She opened a door at the end of the corridor and let me into a conference room with a dizzying view.
“Coffee? Tea? Water?”
“Coffee, please, black.”
She nodded and made a little gesture with her hand, as if to give me permission to take a seat, and then she left me on my own. There was a sucking sound as she closed the door behind her, as though a vacuum had just formed in the room. I found myself standing in the center of the room. Each detail, from the door handle to the baseboards, looked well planned. It felt like I was doing violence to the coordinated interior just by virtue of being in the room. Just as I was about to pull out a chair to sit down, the door opened again and the elegant secretary showed the Chairman in.
He was a tall man with thick hair and old acne scars on his face, and even though he wore an expensive suit, which must have been either imported or tailor-made, it looked oddly wrong on him, as if someone had dressed up a statue. I had met him once before when he came by for a tour of our unit. I remember the way we all stood lined up next to our desks, like orphans waiting to be adopted, as he walked around with the managers and inspected the work area and the staff. The mood had been tense and forced during his visit that time, and it felt more or less the same now. He took a few steps toward me and extended his large hand.
“Anna Francis, so wonderful to finally make your acquaintance!”
He looked at me, and as he did, I understood why it was that, despite all of his power, people often spoke of him so warmly. His expression was absolutely open and welcoming; it made you feel noticed, like you were the most important person in the whole world. As if he truly thought it was absolutely fantastic to meet me. I very nearly believed him.
“The pleasure is all mine,” I managed to say.
The Chairman waved toward the chairs at the round table, and as I took a seat he walked around the table and sat down across from me.
“First off, I would like to take the opportunity to thank you for your fantastic efforts in Kyzyl Kum. Splendid, simply splendid,” he said with such emphasis that I wondered if our conversation was being recorded. He went on: “I hope you know how pleased we are with your work. The Minister sends greetings as well. Delighted ones, of course. We haven’t had such a good reputation for many years. A humanitarian superpower and all of that. Just what the doctor ordered; we all think so. And of course we’re glad to have been able to support you in your very, very important work, Anna.”
“I’m very grateful for the opportunity,” I heard myself saying, while at the same time I realized that this wasn’t getting off to the best start for me. We were only a few minutes into our meeting and the Chairman had already gotten me to thank him for the opportunity to thoroughly destroy myself and my life for several years. He was clearly very clever. I started to wonder why I was really there. He leaned across the table.
“Anna, what I want to talk to you about is strictly confidential. What I am about to say must under no circumstances go beyond you and me.”
He looked me straight in the eye as if to verify that I truly understood what he was saying. I did. I had spent enough time with the junta and the military in Kyzyl Kum to know that this meant, If anything gets out, we’ll know you are the leak, so I nodded. Yes, I understood. He went on, “Anna, have you heard of the RAN project?”
I nodded again, feeling even more ill at ease. The RAN project was one of those projects everyone had heard about, but no one really knew what it was. Judging by the massive web of secrecy surrounding it, it also wasn’t the sort of thing you wanted to know about. One time in Kyzyl Kum, one of the soldiers had mentioned a case that had been taken on by the RAN group, but when I started asking follow-up questions he just looked troubled, maybe even scared, and changed the subject, so I let it go. There are some kinds of knowledge you don’t necessarily want to be privy to.
“I know it exists, but I don’t know what it is.”
The Chairman shook his head disapprovingly. “Well, naturally, we would have preferred that neither you nor anyone else knew even that much.”
He leaned a little farther across the table.
“Before I go on, Anna, I need to know: can I depend on your discretion? If not, this meeting is over.”
I swallowed and considered my options. There weren’t any.
“Of course,” I said. “What is it about?”
The Chairman looked pleased and placed a folder on the table. Where did that come from? I thought in confusion. I hadn’t noticed a briefcase, and the table had been empty when we entered the room.
“Anna, you’re here today because I want to ask for your help. As you realize, it has to do with the RAN project. I won’t burden you with too many details; only a limited number of us have insight into the group’s work, and as it stands now . . .” The Chairman leaned back and sighed before going on: “As it stands now, the operative arm of the project has been beset by a defection. The simple fact is, we are one man—or woman—short.”
The sentence hung in the air and my mouth went totally dry.
“I am very grateful for your faith in me, but I’m really not sure whether I’m . . .”
I cut myself off when I noticed the Chairman’s astonished face. He stared at me for a few seconds with his eyebrows raised, and then he burst into loud, hearty laughter.
“No, I’m not suggesting that you should become part of the RAN group! No, dear Anna, I’d have to say we have other candidates with . . . well, different qualifications. But I could use your help during the recruiting phase.”
I felt incredibly embarrassed, the way you do when you respond to a wave and then realize it was meant for someone standing behind you. I swallowed my shame as hard and fast as I could and tried to move on.
“How can I be of service?”
The Chairman clasped his hands in front of him.
“As I’m sure you understand, we are looking at several candidates right now, each one extremely qualified in their own way. And what we want to do now is test them in a high-pressure situation. A little field exercise, you could say. That’s where you come in, Anna. You have a great deal of experience in confronting and evaluating people under extreme conditions. You are used to assessing strengths and weaknesses. You know how far people can go, and you also know when they’re at the end of their rope. This knowledge of yours is quite unique, Anna. Not many people have it.”
The flattery warmed me, even though I knew it was part of the strategy. I was supposed to feel indispensable and needed, and it was almost a little embarrassing that it worked even though I saw through it. I said nothing, waiting for him to continue.
“So what we were thinking is that we will carry out a little stress test. We’ll toss our top candidates into an authentic situation in which you can evaluate them. See who shows leadership qualities, who thinks strategically, who is diplomatic, and who doesn’t live up to expectations.”
I still didn’t understand what he was getting at.
“What is it you want me to do, more specifically?”
The Chairman gave a brilliant smile.
“Oh, it’s really quite simple. I want you to play dead.”
So that was the Chairman’s masterful plan, which he proceeded to lay out for me. A faked murder as a stress test. And this was how it would happen: the candidates for the position in the RAN project would be isolated on an island under the guise of participating in the first phase of recruiting, group exercises, and preparation in advance of the final tests. I would be presented as one of the candidates. The team would also include a doctor with experience in crisis management. Sometime during the first twenty-four hours, the doctor and I would stage my death (“At first we were thinking suicide, but I think we’ve settled on murder now,” the Chairman said in a tone that suggested that he considered himself flexible and accommodating), and once I had been declared dead by the doctor I would turn to observing the other participants from what the Chairman called “a hidden position.” My task would be to evaluate how the candidates handled my dramatic demise. Who took initiative, who thought about security, who was the first to come up with a theory about what had happened, and so on. After forty-eight hours, the exercise would be terminated, everyone would be brought home, and I would hand in a report about each of the candidates to the RAN project leadership. All contact would be carried out under the greatest discretion via the secretary of the RAN project. “What we’re really interested in is your intuitive judgment,” said the Chairman. “We can perform deeper analyses of the candidates later; for now, it’s your gut feeling we want to hear about above all.” I felt terribly uneasy when the Chairman was finally finished with his explanation.
“I’m sorry, but . . . doesn’t this seem excessively cruel?”
I thought of all the executions, mock executions, and kidnappings I had seen in Kyzyl Kum and how they affected the people around them. Experiencing another person’s death inevitably seemed to leave traces, whether or not it later became clear that the victim had survived. The Chairman gazed sagely at a point behind me as if the answer could be read there.
“Anna, I can assure you that it’s not excessive cruelty guiding me here. The members of the RAN group are responsible for important things. Many lives. Placing a person who couldn’t handle it in such a situation would be excessively cruel, both for the person in question and for the security of the Union. But I certainly understand how you feel, and to a certain extent you are right. Cruel, yes; excessively so, no. But I’m glad you are aware of how serious this is, because this is also why your assessment is so crucial. The fact of the matter is, we must know who can handle the pressure. All of the candidates will be offered all the support and help they require in the form of psychological expertise and crisis management. This goes for you as well, of course. And naturally, you will also receive appropriate financial compensation.”
He named an amount that made me lose my footing for a second. I would never get anywhere near that sort of money, not even if I won the Union Lottery several times over.
“And besides the money—why would I want to do this?”
The Chairman gave a friendly smile.
“Well, Anna—be honest, what else would you do?”
Either he was an extremely skilled manipulator, or else he was taking a chance. Whichever it was, it worked. Because that was the thing: my job was meaningless, I couldn’t return to Kyzyl Kum, and I was a stranger in my own family. With the kind of money the Chairman was offering, perhaps I could make a fresh start. Take a year off. Travel somewhere with my daughter, to a place where it was warm and calm and undemanding, try to build up a life again, fix what was broken. Or we could buy a house in one of the bedroom communities outside the city, a house with a garden. Siri could go to a good school; I could work in some local administration office, pick her up at school on time, bake buns, braid hair. I could be someone again. Part of my own life. I suddenly realized how terribly much I had lost in the past few years, and how close I was to losing absolutely everything. My throat tightened and I could feel a burning sensation behind my eyes. I swallowed and looked up at the ceiling to keep myself from crying; to do so there and then would have been disastrous.
The Chairman went on as if he had read my mind. “Anna,” he said in a gentle voice, “I know things have been difficult for you. If you do this for me now, you have my word that you will never need to do anything else in your whole life. Not unless you want to.”
I kept staring up at the molding on the ceiling. It was the exact same color as the wall; only the tiny shadow underneath revealed that it was there at all. The Chairman waited a second or two, as if to see if I was going to say something of my own volition. And then there it was: “And we would also consider forgetting those . . . unfortunate incidents in Kyzyl Kum. They were never really investigated, if I recall correctly?”
His tone was mild, but his words landed like blows. I should have known this was coming, and yet I was unprepared. I tried to get control of my facial features before I met the Chairman’s eyes. We looked at each other for a few seconds, and then it was settled.
“I need to talk to my family.”
“How long will the assignment itself take?”
“We leave at the end of the week. Then there will be two or three days max on the island.”
“And after that?”
“Then you hand in your reports.”
“And then I’m free?”
“Then you’re free.”
The Chairman rose. He opened the door for me and we walked into the hallway together.
“I need your answer by lunchtime tomorrow at the latest. My secretary will be in touch.”
He shook my hand, squeezing until my knuckles creaked, and fixed his eyes on me one last time.
“I’m counting on you,” he said.
Then he turned on his heel and vanished down the hallway as I stood there watching the retreat of his large, rectangular back. Just as I stepped into the elevator it occurred to me that I had never been given any coffee.
I met with the secretary of the RAN group a few days later to get the information I needed prior to the assignment. He was a small man, thin and short, with strangely bulging eyes and a large nose. He looked like he might tip over forward with eyes wide open at any moment. It was cold in his office, and it smelled like nicotine and tar, so I could tell that he ignored the no-smoking rule and snuck cigarettes by the window. He gripped my hand with an almost audacious strength when we shook, as if he wanted to yank it free and run off with it. The secretary introduced himself as Arvid Nordquist.
“Oh, like the coffee from the olden days?” I said, mostly to have something to say. He stared at me as if he had no idea what I was talking about. Instead he walked over to the short wall of the rectangular room, where he spent a long moment fiddling with the code to a large gray cabinet and took out a hefty stack of papers and folders, which he then dumped onto the table in front of me with a thud.
“Everything you will see in here is strictly confidential. The information must not leave the room, and you may not write down any notes, at least none that you take with you. If you need to leave the room to use the bathroom, you must lock the documents up again. Anything you remove from this room will be stored only in your mind; we can’t risk any of these documents ‘walking off.’” He made quotation marks in the air with his skinny fingers. His expression was accusatory, as if I was already guilty of unforgivable violations of confidentiality.
The following hours passed slowly and began with a run-through by the secretary. He showed me nautical charts, maps, and drawings of an island by the name of Isola, which was very small and situated all on its own at the very edge of the outer archipelago. The only way to reach it was by private boat. There were only two structures on the island: a boathouse and a main house. But the main house was a very unusual building. On the surface it looked perfectly normal: two stories and a basement that contained a medical station. But the house contained more than met the eye at first. There were small corridors sketched into the walls between every room; they were large enough for a person to stand in, and the secretary explained that there were tiny holes in each wall. A person could observe what was going on in the house through the walls.
“So that’s why I was given this assignment, you couldn’t find anyone else thin enough?”
It was meant to be a joke, but the secretary looked at me blankly and then continued to present the blueprints. A thought struck me:
“Wouldn’t it be easier to use surveillance cameras than to sneak around inside the walls?”
The secretary shook his head. “We prefer not to retain any documentation from these sorts of assessments. Tapes can certainly be erased or locked up, but they can also be forgotten, purposely or not. They can be abused.”
He pointed at a hatched area under the basement.
“And here, under the medical station, there’s a subbasement: the Strategic Level. That’s where you will spend nights and compile your reports when you’re dead. You and the doctor are the only ones who will have access to that part of the house.”
“Who’s the doctor?”
The secretary smiled for the first time.
“Katerina Ivanovitch, medical doctor and an expert in trauma psychology at the College of Defense. I can tell you she is a very trusted person who has worked closely with the RAN project from the start. You are in very good company.” Judging by the secretary’s expression, he had greater faith in her than he did in me.
“The door to the Strategic Level is opened and closed with a code lock. You’ll find the code in this envelope. You and the doctor will be the only ones with access to it. Be sure to memorize it well. Like I said, no notes.” He rose from his chair.
“Now I’ll leave you here with your homework. I’ll come get you in a few hours.” The secretary left the room. I sat down and stared at the nautical charts, the maps, the blueprints in front me and wondered what I’d gotten myself into.
Excerpted from "The Dying Game"
Copyright © 2017 Asa Avdic.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
1. The Chairman makes it clear that Anna Francis must either accept the assignment or risk having her actions in Kyzyl Kum investigated. Would she have accepted even without this threat? Why or why not?
2. Does Nour love Siri more than she loves Anna? If not, why does she treat them so differently?
3. Why does Henry bow out of the Kyzyl Kum project?
4. Anna feels like a failure after returning from Kyzyl Kum, yet the other guests on Isola don’t seem to view her that way. Was this the first inkling you had that Anna might be more respected than she seems to think?
5. When they first arrive on the island, the candidates all appear competent and confident in their own abilities. Was their later behavior consistent with your initial impression of them?
6. Anna and Katja note Jon’s sexist behavior in waiting for the women to set the table. Have you ever witnessed something similar?
7. Which of the candidates impressed you most? Why do you think each was chosen?
8. In Anna’s place, would you agree to be “murdered”? What might have happened if she changed her mind before Katja drugged her?
9. Were the sexual assignations between Anna and Henry and Jon and Franziska an anticipated part of the Chairman’s plan?
10. Is Henry only on Isola because of Anna’s attraction to him? How does he feel about her?
11. After Anna finds Katja’s body, whom did you first suspect of foul play?
12. While Anna Francis believes her sojourn on Isola was a complete disaster, she passes the Chairman’s test and earns a position with the RAN group. In his eyes, what did she successfully manage to do?
13. Did the Chairman deliberately set the Secretary up to take the blame? Or was he simply a convenient fall guy?
14. Is Henry really dead? If not, who benefits by pretending he is?
15. Is reestablishing a relationship with Siri worth the risks that Anna takes?
16. The paradoxically named “Union of Friendship” echoes the language of George Orwell’s 1984. What are some other instances in which Advic echoes the dystopian classic? Are there any other books that The Dying Game echoes or evokes?