[Arc 1: Justification]
I was, believe it or not, the second player to arrive.
The only one to beat me to the punch stood in the center of the empty circular room I had found myself in, and she raised a flipper over her head, waving me over. She was wearing, of all things, a penguin suit.
“Hey! Ice to meet ya!”
I groaned, although not too sincerely. Even from a distance, I could see the grin on her face; she’d been holding that in for awhile. I wasn’t one for puns, but if that’s how she wanted to make herself known to me, I wasn’t going to hold it against her.
As I closed the stainless steel door behind me and walked towards her, I began to take her in, cheap Halloween costume and all. She was a fair bit shorter than me — not that that really surprised me — and other than her face and a small tuft of fiery red hair poking out from underneath her yellow forehead-beak, the outfit covered all. She didn’t look particularly big or small, but it was hard to get anything close to a decent approximation of her actual figure, the suit oversized to the point that she was practically drowning in it.
Cheap might have been an understatement; it looked like something I could’ve bought at Party City for twenty bucks. She had yellow webbed feet and restrictive-looking flippers covering her up to her fingertips, although I saw slits in them near the wrists, presumably made to let her hands out as needed. She looked far too satisfied with the way I was examining her, grinning at me like a madman. It was weird.
Her skin was pale (maybe due to her wardrobe choice, I joked to myself), and her face was slathered in freckles. She was young, or at least she looked it. Couldn’t have been older than twenty, and even that was pushing it, although I had never been the best judge of age.
It was a cute getup, though. Something I might have worn for some Halloween party once, maybe. Or then again, maybe not. Funny for a joke, but I doubt most people could wear that for more than a few minutes without starting to sweat like crazy. Hard pass, Miss Penguin.
“…You know you’ll be wearing that for three months, right?”
She replied in a joking tone, but it wasn’t a bad point to think about. The rule had been that we each only got to pick one outfit, and that we’d only have it to wear for the entirety of the game, so one might be weary of choosing a penguin suit knowing that it’d be all they’d be able to have on for a literal season. Of course, that wouldn’t apply if someone intended on getting out of here sooner than that…
I felt a sudden distrust for the smiling redhead staring up at me. Was she a potential killer? Hard to tell, especially with just the two of us.
If that was her plan, strategically speaking, the suit wasn’t a terrible idea. You could hide stuff in it reasonably well without anyone noticing, and depending on how you behaved with it, it might have been a great way to get people to take you less seriously. (For instance, greeting the first person you saw by doing your worst Mr. Freeze impression.)
Of course, that didn’t come without cost; it also painted a target of suspicion on her back the size of Everest. I mean, considering the type of game we were about to play, I’d be plenty suspicious if I was meeting her even without the suit, but I’m sure it was having an impact.
Originally, I’d also thought about wearing something a little more crazy than a skirt and a nice blouse, but that was more for aesthetic purposes. As a homage, I’d almost gone with a hoodie, and then a full blown suit and tie, but D, ever sensible as he was, had talked me out of both.
“You’ll want to keep it simple,” he had said. “Why draw all the attention to your shirt? Make a show with your words, not your looks. I mean, you’ll already be doing both without trying, but…”
Honestly, what a dirtbag. Giving me advice on how not to make an ass of myself on national television and complimenting me on my appearance? Irredeemable.
While I was staring the penguin down, she was doing the same to me, her eyes having darted from my feet to my forehead at least half-a-dozen times. I had a good feeling what was coming next, and I tried to prevent it.
“Nice to meet you, by the way. I’m By.”
“Yeah, same. That’s, um…”
She paused, not breaking her stare.
“…How tall are you?”
“Take a wild guess.”
“Oh, c’mon. That’s not fair.”
“You haven’t even told me your name yet.”
She grinned again, pointing a bent flipper at her chest.
“Well, when I heard that we could pick our own codenames, I decided to go with something totally original, y’know? ZB Popsicle, I decided. Thought it sounded cool.”
I ignored the pun.
“Yeah, like the letter Z, the letter B, space, and the frozen dessert. All one name. I’m going for a general ice theme here, you can probably tell. At first, I was thinking Icicle instead of Popsicle, but I changed my mind right before I signed the contract. Either would’ve worked fine, but, well. You know how it is with us penguins.”
“…Is ZB short for anything?”
“Nope. Just the coolest-sounding two letter combo that I couldn’t find any other people really having used up on a Google search. What about you? By, you said? How do I spell that?”
“Like… the word?
“Like the shorter word, yeah.”
She paused again.
“And what’s that short for?”
“…And why’d you pick it?”
“You might call BS, but that’s my real name, actually.”
She stuck out her tongue.
“You’re right. I do.”
“…How old are you, ZB?”
ZB retracted her tongue, but remained jovially defiant. She’d gone from playfully coy to painfully annoying in about the span of a minute. If she kept it up when the rest of them started to arrive, I wagered that she might have reason to fear becoming an early victim. Poor little penguin.
“Are you seriously gonna stand there and question the maturity of an emperor penguin? Well, if you feel that now is the time for personal questions, then I still want an answer to my first one.”
I rolled my eyes.
“I’m tall, ZB. That a good answer?”
“Not good enough, I’m afraid.”
Verifying my claim, she took another look at me, making an especially dramatic show of it, bobbing her beaked head all the way from the floor to my forehead.
“Rounding up or down?”
I sighed, again.
She chuckled to herself.
“Sorry, sorry. I’m being too much of a bitch today. Blame my nerves. I’m sure you get this kinda crap a lot, right? I should know better, being a dirty ginger and all. Everyone on the playground probably gave you shit, too.”
She looked down at the floor, somewhat guiltily.
“Oh, and eighteen. As of just a few weeks ago, lucky me. I like to think of this as my birthday gift.”
I hadn’t pictured her as being that much older than that, but it still surprised me to hear her say it. At 23, I had thought that I’d be one of the younger players, although my sample size of one didn’t seem to agree with that. After thinking it over, it did make sense. Most people who had three months of spare time to devote to something like what I was participating in probably couldn’t have been too old…
Shaking my head, I decided to further examine the room I was in. To put it simply, it was big, empty, silver, and round, the metal walls curving off to form what looked to be a nearly perfect circle. Sixteen small steel doors — one of them being the one I came out of — stood equally apart from each other, each one presumably made to house a contestant. They were numbered, big blue digits printed or painted across the doors, mine having had twelve.
In addition to the small doors, there was a larger one set in between door sixteen and one, which had neither a number nor a doorknob, let alone any other discernible way to open it. Above the grand door rested a large military style clock, which informed us both that it was 07:48am. Aside that was a electronic day counter, the words “Day 1” flashing out in big red letters.
Otherwise, there wasn’t much worth mentioning. The room was lit by a series of small lights built into the ceiling, and hundreds upon hundreds of small shiny holes dotted the walls, all of which I already knew to be cameras.
“Think this is gonna be the room where we do it?”
“Oh, for sure. Look at the floor.”
I did as she commanded. The floor had a number of circular grooves in it, some much larger than others, and it was slightly uneven in certain areas, small lines separating the various sections. The largest circle in the center took up around sixty percent of the floor.
“See? I figure that the courtroom’ll just rise out of the floor once it needs to. It’s a pretty smart setup, actually. I mean, it’s nothing compared to the architectural perfection of an igloo, but for something made by lowly humans, it’ll do.”
“Yeah, I’m going to need you to stop doing that. Forever.”
“Then you’ll have to kill me, By. Come on. You know how this works.”
I looked up at the ceiling, recalling something.
“Technically speaking, penguins don’t even make igloos. Don’t they just, like, huddle together for warmth?”
“Don’t believe everything you read, By.”
I managed to resist the urge to roll my eyes again, but she wasn’t making it easy for me. I imagined what this’d be like to watch on TV once I got back home, especially if one of us ended up doing the other in later. Prime foreshadowing material, right there.
“How long have you been in here?”
“I came in at 7:27, so not long before you. I already checked the doors, if that’s what you wanna ask about. None of them are open except for mine, and that’s only ‘cause I already came through. I assume that yours is still unlocked as well, but I think we’ll have to wait until the others come out before things continue on. The big door’ll probably open up once everybody’s makes it.”
“Behind my door, there was a hallway and a tiny little room for me, which is where I woke up. Same for you, right?”
She turned to me, both her eyes suddenly wide.
“…No? There’s an arcade behind mine. Or at least, it looks like an arcade, buncha games and neon lights and stuff. I woke up on a lounge chair near this freaky claw machine thing.”
“Wait, seriously? Can I see it?”
“Just messing with you, sorry. Same as you described, hallway and a little room.”
I knew the game hadn’t started yet, but I already felt in the proper killing mood, for whatever reason. I wasn’t really sure what to make of ZB yet, but to her credit, she certainly was a motivator.
When I’d first woken up in my room, there hadn’t been much inside of it. There was a small mattress, a desk with a keycard on it, and a backpack with my pre-approved personal items, but little else.
In addition to how sparse of furniture it was, the room had been almost mockingly tiny — my home’s bathroom was bigger, and that’s not because I lived in a big house. (I assumed that part was intentional. I was aware of the rule that said that we couldn’t just camp out in our rooms for the entire time as to avoid being eliminated, but having such small and unappealing rooms naturally encouraged us even more to leave them and explore the facility. It was just good game design, as much as it screwed with my natural tendencies towards claustrophobia.)
It had only taken me a minute or two of searching before I wanted out, which led me to the locked door. It had an electronic lock on it, which requested a four digit pincode. My only hint — if you wanted to call it one, anyway — was a note somebody’d taped to the door.
So that’s what I’d begrudging done, and I apparently happened to luck out, since my code turned out to be 0239 (and I’d thankfully decided to go by odd numbers first). Since it seemed we were only coming out one at a time, I guessed that we all had been given different codes, presumably in an effort to make us all come out in waves as opposed to at the same time. I ran my theory by ZB, flashing her the pink keycard I’d gotten with a twelve on it.
“Oh, yeah. Same here. Mine was 0029, though. And I got one of those nifty cards too.”
With a confident grin, she retracted her arm from her sleeve and brought it toward her torso, only to have it pop back into place a moment later. As she moved her arm back through the flipper to fill it back up, she slid a card through the hole near her wrist, palming it with her other flipper. The whole movement was surprisingly smooth, somehow, and I almost would’ve found myself impressed if not for how objectively lame it all was.
God, I realized. She’d practiced.
Her card was pink as well, sporting a one.
“See? Even they get it, By. Penguins are number one, now and forever.”
I was about to slam back with a witty retort, but I was interrupted. One of the doors behind me had opened. Coincidentally, it was only three doors away from the one ZB came out of, number four.
The girl who stepped — or more like shambled, really — out to us in many ways looked like she’d never actually woken up. Her arms hung loosely against her sides, and she took small meandering steps forward, stopping once to let out a half-yawn. For whatever tiredness she was feeling, she had a small smile on her face.
The ends of her hefty lime-green sweatpants covered up her shoes and dragged against the floor as she walked, an equally comfortable-looking hoodie accompanying it. Unlike the one I’d almost gone with, hers was totally original, coming along with a cute black and green checkered pattern that covered all of it. She’d kept the hood down, which allowed her long dark wavy hair to flow to her shoulders, looking the slightest bit scraggly. Bed hair.
Her eyes had thick, dark circles around them, and she was somehow even more pale than ZB. By the nature of my job, I spent a lot of time indoors, and I certainly wasn’t somebody who could run around and brag about my glowing complexion, but compared to those two I might as well have owned a tanning salon.
After taking a quick look around the room and the two of us, the girl wiped the sand out her eyes and squinted, making sure she was seeing correctly.
No, sweetie. You were right. It’s a penguin.
As she took another step forward, ZB elbowed me, whispering harshly.
“She seems chill.”
“It says Dorothea on my driver’s license, and most people call me Dorothy, but whatever’s fine. Dot’s cool too, if you’d rather go with that. I’m not picky.”
I liked Dorothy almost immediately. It was tough not to. Shitty penguin puns aside, she was a very chill person, and I appreciated that. Anyone willing to introduce themselves to an audience of millions while wearing sweatpants was someone that I wanted to be friends with. Generally speaking, I’d always noticed myself naturally gravitating to people like that, people who stood quietly on the sidelines and valued comfort over aesthetic design. I wasn’t really one of those people, but I liked them.
And she seemed so relaxed, for lack of a better term. All three of us were smiling, but ZB and I were still visibly shaking from the excitement of finally being in front of the cameras, our nerves unsettleable. But Dorothy stood in front of us with a calm smile, scoping out the room and explaining how she guessed the code as if she was asking to buy a subway ticket. She spoke in a near-monotone, and from demeanor alone I suspected that more than a few future viewers would go on to assume that she’d done her fair share of psychedelics.
Still, cool and nice didn’t translate to trustworthy, as much as I might’ve hoped for it. I wasn’t in a situation where morality or amiability seriously reflected how people would act, and until proven otherwise, it was best to assume that she’d knock me out of the game without mercy. I had to act like that little grin held sinister plans behind it, because for all I knew, it did.
“…So. Penguins, then. That’s… that’s definitely something.”
“Got something against penguins, Dorothy?”
She slowly raised her hands up in mock compliance.
“No. ‘Course not.”
“Glad to hear it.”
ZB turned her head to the side and furrowed her brow, apparently remembering something.
“Oh, right. I’m ZB Popsicle — that’s a Z and a B and the dessert, so you know — and this sexy little skyscraper is By.”
Dorothy took a moment to look me over.
“I believe it.”
“No, no. That’s her name. B-Y.”
ZB elbowed me again, pulling herself way too close to my ear.
“You know, we were having a real good thing with the two letter squad before she showed up.”
Dorothy put her hands in the pockets to her hoodie, looking off at a door.
“Didn’t realize most people were going to be going with codenames.”
I bit my lip.
“That’s my real name.”
Dorothy raised an eyebrow.
“…That stand for something?”
For what must’ve been the fifth time in fifteen minutes, I sighed.
Eventually we got to talking a little more seriously, ZB only deciding to interject with a bad joke every forty seconds instead of twenty, and they each told me a bit about themselves.
ZB graduated high school less than a few months ago, and had yet to apply for college or get a job — according to her, playing the game was her way of taking a break before entering the real world. I didn’t press her on it, but I got the striking suspicion that she was banking on winning the prize money in lieu of entering the workforce. I wished her luck with that plan, but I wasn’t going to make it easy for her. That was ten million dollars; I wasn’t backing down out of pity. (I would’ve been just as happy to have been there without the cash incentive, but that’s not to say that my pupils weren’t constantly on the verge of turning into floating dollar signs.)
More interestingly, ZB said that she’d been the president of her high school improv club, which helped to explain away a good chunk of her personality. By that point, high school to me wasn’t more than a blur of sweat, regret, and insecurity, but I still remembered the cliques fairly well. Goths and jocks and preps never gave me much trouble, but good lord, the thespians.
I didn’t know what it was about doing theater/drama/improv that destroyed a human being’s ability to function properly within society, but I knew that it did, and as a general rule I while in school stayed far away from anyone involved in said activities. I didn’t do that to be cruel or dismissive; it was a self-defensive mechanism more than anything else. If someone took offense to that, I’d tell them to check out the latest live show brought on by the Ricola High Young Thespians Club before getting back to me.
She said that she thought that she was scouted for the game because she and some friends once made a video making fun of a Saw movie. That made enough sense, I guessed.
Dot, on the other hand, had surprisingly little to say about herself. She was 27, so a fair bit older than me, and a fellow college dropout.
“Music theory, but just for a semester. Hell, not even. College wasn’t for me.”
She didn’t offer up any explanation of what she was doing otherwise, which I took to mean that I wasn’t supposed to ask, but my naive little penguin friend had yet to learn the nuances involved in discussing employment, so she went ahead and did it for me. Dorothy responded by staring at her with tired eyes, letting out another small yawn.
She chuckled at her own joke, although not very jovially.
“I make a mean egg drop soup, if that’s what you mean.”
With Dot having made it clear that she didn’t plan on continuing, ZB froze, for the first time briefly unsure of how to make a joke about what she’d heard. I’d wanted to ask about why Dot might’ve been invited to play the game, but I didn’t want to push it. Besides, I’d probably have the chance to find out later.
Ultimately, our mini-Q&A session hadn’t been that productive, but it was better than nothing. Info was info.
Of course, I didn’t take any of what they’d told me about themselves at face value, but that was less of a game strategy and more a natural habit of mine. A big thing with me had always been not believing in any claim completely, regardless of the circumstances. Never assume anything — that was practically my personal mantra. My dad influenced me a lot in that regard.
Maybe that sounded pretentious or impractical, but it really was how I tried to approach thinking about most situations. I was always willing to acknowledge that there were a lot of things in the world that were probably or almost definitely true, but I always tried to walk around with at least an inkling of doubt in my mind towards everything. There was always — at least hypothetically — a chance that any truth claim could’ve ended up being incorrect, so how could I ever have been absolutely sure of anything?
That generally wasn’t a philosophy I ran around advertising, though; it tended to be misinterpreted. For a classical example, I could’ve brought up my favorite French dweeb, Descartes. He was the first loser to point out that absolute certainty wasn’t really possible, at least in the way most of us typically want it to be. He used the example of an evil demon constantly watching over someone and screwing with their perception of reality, like making them think that all circles were squares or that the sky was a giant bowl of pudding. One might say that sounds ridiculous, and that someone would be stupid to think that something like that was happening without any evidence, and I would’ve agreed with them — but that isn’t the point of the exercise.
Maybe, it was the case that the sky was pudding, and that the things the person thought were clouds and blue emptiness (or the reflections of tiny molecules in the atmosphere, whatever) were just tricks made by the dirtbag demon. That almost surely wasn’t the case, and since they didn’t have any evidence to support it, they probably shouldn’t have thought that it was — but, if they were being intellectually honest, they should’ve been forced to admit that nothing could have ever disproven that claim either. Maybe the demon just hid all the evidence. The person couldn’t ever know for sure, right?
That didn’t mean that I should’ve gone around living as if nobody I knew was real or that nothing mattered; instead, just that I always wanted to be cognizant of the fact that reality could be challenged. I had seen people be incorrect about things, and I didn’t want to be incorrect about things, because that often led to bad outcomes. Was ZB an actual improv comedian? Considering how unfunny she was and how little she’d have to gain about lying about something like that, almost definitely. But that was my personal rule — I had to remember the almost.
Dot brought me back to reality, finally breaking a long awkward moment of silence. (I was a tad disappointed; going over the basics to an introductory level philosophy class in my head always made me feel smarter than I actually was.)
“So, By. Me and Miss Feathers here have already embarrassed ourselves enough, and you almost look like a functioning adult, so tell us whatever it is that you do.”
“I’d prefer not to.”
“Oh, come on. You’re worried the chick in the penguin suit is gonna shit on you for it?”
Well, it was my time to try and stutter out an answer. I took a deep breath. Originally, I’d planned to lie about it, but as with my hopeful hoodie dreams, D had talked me out of it.
“You stink at lying, By. Why wouldn’t you want them to know what you do? You’re already a Shiksa, you know. You need something that’ll make you stand out as a competitor. Height doesn’t count.”
The dirtbag, keeping me honest. After that, I couldn’t lie even if I wanted to, knowing that’d D would be watching it all once it aired next year.
“Um… I’m a writer.”
They both seemed a little surprised by my response. I could hear the gears turning into ZB’s birdbrain as she tried to find a way to poke fun at me for it.
“What do you write then? Penguin erotica?”
“Well… that’s a little difficult to answer. You ever heard of web serials?”