1.02

“…Right, but if she can’t use magic, then she’s by definition not supposed to be at a school for witches. I don’t understand how you can squeeze a plot out of this, even with the mystery element.”

I regretted listening to D. The torture of trying to explain a story I’d written for the Internet in real life was not an experience I wanted to go through.

“It’s not about the magic, Dot.”

“No, no. I get what she means, Dorothy. I used to read J.K. Rowling as a kid, and I’d always stop in the middle of a page and say, ‘Wow, I sure wish Harry didn’t have any powers, and that Ron murdered Hermione as part of an elaborate death game, and that instead of learning magic and having rad wizarding adventures Harry just sobbed and spent fifty pages roaming the halls of Hogwarts for her killer.’”

I wished that the rest of them hurried up. I was ready to start killing.

The penguin kept talking anyway.

“And going beyond that, I always thought that the format of Harry Potter was a little screwed up, too. Who the hell wants to ram through a book in a few sittings when you can experience it the way it was meant to read, broken up into tiny disjointed chunks posted intermittently over the course of years. That’s how you immerse yourself in a good story!”

Theater kids, man. Dirtbags, the whole lot.

Dot, who was beginning to worm her way into my heart, reached out and gave ZB a harsh flick on the nose. Surprised that someone had actually come at her with physical retaliation, ZB recoiled, almost tripping backwards over her webbed feet.

“A little too far, ZB. Don’t make fun of people’s art. That’s very personal stuff.”

ZB rubbed her nose with both flippers, giving Dot a childishly angry stare. It was pretty funny.

“You made fun of it too.”

Dot looked off the side.

“Yeah, but just a little.”

A moment passed as I thought about how best to change the subject, but providence smiled upon us, another door swinging open. We all turned in unison to greet the next competitor. Door seven.

She popped out of the room with much less fanfare than Dot or I had, only slowing down a little as opposed to stopping completely as she took it all in. She was of average height and build, not too different in figure from Dot, although her clothes were much closer to something a normal person might wear.

It still was however, at least in a fashion, a costume. She had hair short enough to be subsumed entirely by a red and white ball cap. She wore a thin black sleeveless undershirt, and a pair of long red baggy pants, her small hands covered by a set of fuzzy gloves colored the same shade of crimson.

Unlike our hideously pale trio, her skin was darker, sunshine seeming almost like something that might not incinerate her on contact. From a small distance, I guessed that she was Hispanic, and that theory was proven correct as she started to come closer. I noted her posture as she walked. Her neck dipped forward and her shoulders slumped slightly, a less than ideal posture that I suspected had something to do with excessive screen usage. (Not that I was one to criticize in that department.)

Strangest of all, on each ear she had one half of a pair of green metal antennae, both of which I assumed were actually headphones of some fashion (or at least made to look like they were). A green scarf wrapped around her neck completed the effect, and put all together it led me to think she was cosplaying. I wasn’t quite sure who, but it was definitely a character I’d seen before, although from where was a mystery.

Her scarf fluttered a bit as she turned her head slowly in all directions, her eyes scanning the high ceiling, the doors, the grooves along the floor, Dot, and then myself. Unsurprisingly, they finally stopped at the sight of ZB, going wide.

If there was anything that I could appreciate ZB for, it was that her penguin suit served as an excellent distraction from my height. In any other situation, I would’ve been the thing for a stranger to stop and gawk at, but she’d happily volunteered for the role herself. For all her sins against basic social norms and web fiction, I wanted to hug the shit of that stupid little bird for that. It was the best gift she could have given me.

“Hey! Ice to meet ya!”

Never mind.

“Quote.”

Somewhat incredulously, Dot questioned the fourth member of our group, not quite understanding her explanation. The new girl didn’t seem to mind repeating herself, however, her wide eyes still having trouble working themselves away from the clutches of ZB. Our penguin couldn’t help but squirm happily from the attention. (If this was how she handled three people, I was struggling to comprehend how she’d deal with the tens of millions that’d be watching both on TV and online once the show started airing in the spring.)

“So that’s the name you’re going with and the character you’re dressed up as?”

“Mhmm.”

Dot sighed.

“I mean… is everybody here going with a codename?”

My earlier objection had been disregarded.

“Seriously, that’s my real name. It’s not hard. Two letters, no codename. By.”

“…Sure.”

ZB must have noticed the face I made in response to Dot’s sarcasm.

“You need to let this go, By. Humans like Dot here aren’t equipped for this. Only those of us able to brave the icy Arctic winds can truly understand what it’s like. Accept that.”

“Look, I…”

I clenched my fists for a short moment before releasing them, taking in another deep breath. It didn’t really matter all that much if they didn’t believe me. (Or that penguins lived in the Antarctic.)

Their reasons for thinking that I was lying made enough sense; most people who were invited to play the game were probably theatrical enough to want to try to make themselves look cool, given the chance. (Try of course being the operative word in that phrase. We were dorks.)

At least from a perspective of a television executive, didn’t giving every player the ability to make up a name and wear literally whatever they want seem a bit short-sighted? A game where everyone tried to act like the protagonist seemed like it could come off as… insufferable. I didn’t come there just to play Big Brother, as much as social politics interested me.

Well, it was the first time they’d held the game, so it made sense that everything not make complete sense, and I had better things to focus on anyway. We had a new player, and with her came any delicious information she might have been able to tell us, either about herself or her observations thus far.

I turned to Quote, who looked a little confused to have been thrown out as a topic of conversation so soon after having arrived. She’d taken off her hat to wipe some sweat off her brow, revealing a black pixie cut. It was cute, suiting the soft contours of her face well.

“So, Quote. Tell us about yourself.”

She brought her hand to the back of her neck, likely reflexively. Her eyes met mine and that of the others only occasionally, darting back to the doors and walls around us as she needed them to.

“Well… what would you want to know?”

“Whatever you think is relevant? I mean, hometown, hobbies, school or work… the basics. What are you comfortable sharing?”

She rubbed the back of her neck again.

“Again, I’m going by Quote. I’d give you my real name, but that’d kinda defeat the purpose of having the nickname in the first place, so, uh, sorry. In terms of my personal life, I…”

She paused to clear her throat.

“…I graduated from university about two years ago — computer engineering — and I mostly do freelance programming work online. I make small phone applications for commissioners… stuff like that.  At first, it was just something to do during college and then to pay the bills until I found a stable job, but I liked it more than I thought I would, so I started taking it seriously. I’ve been keeping at it for awhile, so I can charge a pretty penny by this point. Nice to make my own hours and work from home, too.”

I could relate it that. It really was.

“I’m from rural Virginia, so things are cheap. And on top of that, well…”

Quote grinned.

“…I’m pretty good at video games.”

There was another quick moment of silence.

“Which ones?”

“Uh… I’m guessing you none of you are familiar with it, but I’m a big fan of the game where the character I’m dressed up as is from. Cave Story. Old free eight-bit style platformer. I’ve been speedrunning it for awhile.”

ZB squinted.

“Speedrunning?”

“It’s when you play a game over and over and over again, trying to beat it as quickly as possible to improve on time. It’s… really, really terrible, which is probably why I love it. And, well, I don’t mean to brag, but…

She stretched out her hands as far as they would reach in front of her, folding her gloved fingers together with an audible crack.

“…I’m pretty damned good. When it comes to Cave Story, I’m actually the number one player in the world, going by time. Not that anybody else really speedruns it anymore, to be fair, but still.”

“Ay, I can relate. I’m the number one penguin in the world.”

ZB pulled out her keycard again, holding it up near her face so we could all see it. It still had the number one on it, and unsurprisingly, it still wasn’t funny.

Another nose flick from Dot.

“Shut up.”

“Hey, you better watch it! I might tempted to peck back next tame. I’m not a tame bird.”

Dot shrugged her shoulders, smiling.

“I need to get these out of the way now. When they give us the full rules, I’m thinking that there might be something in there about not touching the other players. If that’s the case, I’d be kicking myself the entire time knowing I wasted a perfectly good chance to make you suffer.”

Quote and I both blew a little bit of air out of our noses. ZB, who didn’t seem to find it quite as laughable, just grunted, folding her flippers together indignantly.

“We’re still subject to the law, though. That was assault. I could sue you.”

Dot snorted.

“I mean it. I know bird law.”

“Go ahead. I’ll have a lot for you to come after me for once I claim that ten million.”

“…The producers won’t like it. Who’s to say that they aren’t already about to come running out the corner? Four guys in dark suits might come out right now and haul you straight back home. We won’t even have to ice you.”

Dot tilted her chin up, extending her whole arm arm out all the way down to her index finger, pointing it straight at a row of camera dots mounted on the curved wall. (I was somewhat envious that she’d found an excuse to point and yell at something so early on. With all the terrifyingly embarrassing practice I’d done in front of my bathroom mirror posing and pretending to confidently point out a contradiction, I was so ready for it.)

“Hey! Game people! You gonna take me out for that?”

We all waited in bated breath for some time, but there was no response. No men came running out of the large door without a number, or from anywhere else.

“They’re just taking their time. That’s all.”

“Seriously, you know that this place has got to be loaded with speakers, right? If they do announcements when we find the bodies, it’d have to be. If they were going to send anyone or punish me, they’d already have yelled to me on the speakerphone. ‘Don’t touch the dumbass in the penguin suit, Dot. Stay right where you are. We’re coming.’ They don’t give a shit about a little bop on the nose. Makes for good TV, at least if it’s bothering you this much.”

ZB stayed quiet for a moment, but soon sighed and stuffed the key card back into the hole in her wrists before reverting back to her usual jokey demeanor.

“…Nah. You can’t bug me. I’m an ice queen.”

She looked up,

“And you — you’re a little less chill than I thought, Dot.”

Quote interjected, presumably hoping to change the subject. I was glad for it.

“You know, ZB, I was wondering. Does that stand for anything?”

“What, ZB?”

“Yeah.”

Not taking them out of her flipper sleeves, she twiddled her two index fingers together.

“Nah. I wanted to pick a cool name, and initials, well — can’t think of anything cooler than initials.”

“Oh. Huh.

ZB dropped back to a glare. It was considerably more serious than the one she’d given Dot, even factoring in her strong threats of litigation.

“You have a problem with that?”

Quote put her hands up in submission.

“No, no. ZB does stand for something that I’m aware of, so I was just curious it was a coincidence or not.”

“What does it stand for?”

“Zettabyte. It’s a quantity of data. I think it’s… what, ten to the twenty-first power? Can’t remember exactly how much a Zetta is, sorry.”

The penguin processed the new information for a moment, her lips curling back up into a smile.

Zettabyte… Zettabyte Popsicle. Yeah, that’s good. Sounds dystopian, like I’m an ice robot with the knowledge of the entire universe crammed inside my head. A penguin, sure… but a robot penguin. That’s metal as fuck.”

She turned back to Dot and I, not thanking Quote.

“You heard that, right? It’s Zettabyte. You can still say ZB, since initials are cool, but that’s what it stands for now. Zettabyte. Don’t forget.”

Dot put her hands on her hips and rolled her eyes, and I found myself scratching the back of my head from sheer awkwardness. Regardless of whatever they’d had planned for the rest of the game, the producers had done a fantastic job finding the biggest weirdos they were able to get their hands on.

(I liked to think that I was somehow an exception to that, but c’mon. I might’ve been dressed a hair more normally than the other three, but I couldn’t say that I didn’t belong. I was in my element, the land of the mystery-solving murderous morons.)

Another door opened. Eight.

“Oh, look at that. Testosterone.

Dot was right; we’d finally gotten ourselves a guy.

Out of the four girls who’d arrived so far, it probably wasn’t terribly inaccurate to say that I came across as the “neatest”, as asspainingly arrogant as that might’ve sounded. Compared to the other three, I was less scraggy and seemed to generally stand out less (height notwithstanding), at least while wearing my relatively plain orange blouse and skirt combo.

The most unique point clothing-wise for me was likely a pair of light blue kneesocks that I’d been gifted from a good friend. They were cute, and I loved the design on them, dozens of tiny smiling turtles printed in a repeating horizontal pattern throughout its entire length. Otherwise, a thin bronze-colored chain necklace hung around my neck, although it didn’t have any special design or meaning beyond the person who’d gifted it to me. If the four of us had gone to a job interview at that moment and been hired off looks alone, I was the only one who might’ve been considered, at least if going by traditional conservative office standards.

However, both in terms of outfit sharpness and apparent employability, our fifth player trounced me. His clothing was, for lack of a better term, immaculate. Shiny black dress shoes, a fully buttoned-down white-collar shirt, a tight leather belt, a black tie. He was clean, neat, and perfectly adjusted — perhaps too much so, not a speck of dust or dirt to be seen anywhere on him.

He was short and thin, and although it was a thought that I’d never vocalize or even hint at, far from physically attractive. He was also on the younger side, at around the end of his teenage years with ZB, and his face reflected that. Puberty hadn’t done him any favors. A swarm of acne had invaded his dark face, and he lacked anything resembling real muscle. His curly hairline, while not anything close to balding, had begun to recede a little, although what remained had been so neatly managed that I was tempted to assume that he’d wasted some of his precious personal item space on a comb.

Especially damaging to his looks was his chin — or rather, lack thereof. Without exaggeration or offense, it might have been the weakest jawline I’d ever seen, and one that even the confident smile formed after seeing the four of us couldn’t salvage.

He was familiar. As with Quote, it was an outfit that I had seen somewhere before. It wasn’t any character or person in particular that I recognized, but his overall look, which I was sure could be traced back to something I’d known about. I would’ve probably figured it out in a few more seconds of thought, but ZB beat me to the punch. I blamed it on the fact that he’d been missing his shiny black name tag, which was usually their most recognizable feature.

ZB literally jumped in place at the sight of him, her mouth breaking out into the widest open smile I’d yet to see show itself on her face. She was so ecstatic to see him that I almost assumed she’d found her long lost brother, but the real reason soon became clear. As she extended a flipper and pointed right at him, she squawked with a pitch high enough to shatter glass.

“Mormon!”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Dot briefly raise her hand in the direction of ZB’s freckled nose, but she withdrew it before anyone else was able to notice, deciding not to go through with it.

That was fair enough. ZB had been right, after all.

There were several ways to describe the verbal assault that ZB cheerfully inflicted on Zeezrom following his arrival, but the most accurate was without a doubt bullying. Zettabyte had started to evolve beyond ice puns by that point, trying to dig down and attack us with personal insults. I got the impression that the harshness of her attempted takedowns originated more from social ignorance than true malice, but that didn’t make her come across as any less of a dirtbag.

She fired off so fast that the rest of us had barely been able to slide in our names and introduce ourselves in the short moments that she tried coming up with more material. Predictably, her jokes had a single target, his religion. They weren’t clever or original, and the punchline never changed.

“…Because — you’re a Mormon!”

Zeezrom continued to stand with a smile throughout her onslaught, not reacting very much beyond patiently waiting for her to get it out of her system.

It was a good effort, but I kinda wanted to let him know that it wouldn’t work. I’d known her for long enough — an agonizing twelve or so minutes — to know that she could go on like that forever.

In spite of her viciousness, unlike the other times that ZB had picked fun at somebody, the three of us seemed much less eager to step in on his behalf. A future viewer might have mistakenly gone on to assume that it was because a group of girls felt awkward about defending a guy, but I didn’t think that was the answer, especially going by the awkward side-glances Dorothy and Quote kept giving each other. The real reason was much simpler.

Religion made people weird.

Maybe that sounded like it was meant to be derogatory to the religious, but that isn’t what I’d meant by the thought.

Religion was one of those things, the stuff that many people had trouble talking or thinking about without getting into a weird mindset. And I meant that from both sides. It was difficult to have anything approaching an objective conversation about it; since so many people had such strong feelings on the subject, any discussion it might have been brought into was almost guaranteed to turn into a verbal boxing match.

Personally, it wasn’t like I didn’t have strong opinions on it either, as much as I might’ve liked to pretend that I was a perfectly unbiased and 100% objective source of human wisdom. Some time ago, around my mid-to-late teens, I’d come to the conclusion that I almost definitely didn’t believe in a higher power, and almost absolutely didn’t believe in the teachings of any flavor of organized religion. That had been based on a lot of self-searching, reading, boring philosophy videos on the Internet, and a seemingly endless number of long conversations with D, who obviously enjoyed discussing it with me.

Aside from a lack of supporting evidence, the problem of evil — particularly the problem of natural evil — had probably been the thing to throw me over the edge, in the end. I’d read a lot of apologetics and counter-apologetics, and I found over and over that only the latter had been able to win me over. They had the better arguments. They had the better foundations for evidence. More than anything, they had that all important question, which they trotted out whenever possible — “Why do you believe that?”

It was never really answered. (Never well, anyway.)

Although I didn’t believe in them either, I could sympathize with deist or pantheistic ideas, but organized religion was too much for me to swallow. Moral problems and logical holes abounded in them, and it wasn’t just that I saw that their ideas could be disproven; they were contradicted. Passages in holy books went against other passages only pages apart. Prophecies went unfulfilled. Miracles turned out to be vague, meaningless, or fake. I’d read much about supposed origins for Cold Minute, and as convincing as the event itself might have been at hinting at some sort of a metaphysical or paranormal side to reality, there never seemed to be any reason to link it to any religion in particular. Sure, we might not have understood why it happened, but that didn’t make the explanation a specific deity.

Was I an atheist, an agnostic? I knew that I’d never say that I absolutely didn’t believe in God, even a particular one, because that would have gone against my epistemic code. Some people online said that made me an atheist, some said it didn’t, and deciding that I ultimately didn’t care about what term I used to describe myself, I stopped worrying about it. I knew what I believed. Maybe there was a God, and maybe even one as described by a mainstream religion, but if there was I didn’t think that I’d been given any reason to believe in it. So I left the tiny possibility open and moved on with my life, feeling freer.

From the perspective of someone who wrote web serials for a living, religion was something one had to be careful of how they handled, if at all. I had written some dark stuff during my time as a writer, and there was no shortage of topics and gritty scenarios that I had no problem portraying, but religion was generally a theme to steer clear of if one wanted to write words on the Internet and avoid igniting the ire of anyone. Besides God, there were a few of those, generally speaking: politics, economics, whether or not seesaws could be considered viable murder weapons. Those things weren’t spoken about, and for good reason. They made people weird.

Besides, even if somebody did write about those topics in a way that was sensible and fair to all those involved, I couldn’t imagine how they could seriously expect to do so and not come across like a pretentious idiot.

God, I thought. For how much I might have fucked up on the ending to Space Attorney, at least I’d never injected theology into it. Nobody ever would’ve wanted to read a murder mystery series where the characters sat around and argued about religious philosophy. That would’ve been insufferable.

I shook my head, needing to act. As secular-leaning as I was, I also didn’t believe that it was right to shit on people in the way that ZB was, even if Dorothy and Quote didn’t feel comfortable butting in themselves.

(Besides, D was going to be watching. I didn’t want him interpreting my silence as passive approval.)

I tapped her on the shoulder and told her to stop. Apparently having assumed that I was joking, she grinned, but soon formed a frown after I repeated myself more slowly. She turned to Quote and Dot, as if to see if they would back her up, but they said nothing, continuing to awkwardly look at the floor.

“Oh, come on. Hell, I’ll even apologize for talking shit about your writing, By. That wasn’t ice of me, I get that. But this dude, I mean…”

“You mean what?”

She blushed, turning to him.

“Hey, Zeezrom. Lemme ask you something.”

He smiled politely, not letting us know if her insults actually had affected him.

“Sure, ZB. Shoot. Dialogue is good.”

“Are you really a Mormon?”

He re-adjusted his tie, his smile not letting up.

“I am, yes. I’ve been a member of the Latter Day Saints my entire life. And I’m quite happy about it, all jokes aside.”

”That’s a little convenient for you, isn’t it?”

“Without a doubt! It’s a privilege to have been born into the church.”

She rolled her eyes.

“Not what I meant, bud. I meant in the context of the game.

He turned his head slightly.

“I’m not sure what you are getting at.”

“…This is a murder mystery game, Zeezrom. You know that first word, right? Murder?

“I believe so, yes.”

“And Mormons — the few I’ve had the displeasure of meeting, well — they’re the most white bread people on the planet. There was a chick in my chemistry class, a Mormon; I think she told me that her parents wouldn’t let her watch Spongebob. Seriously. These are grown adults who see Disney songs as risque. Folks who won’t let their kids watch The Little Mermaid because they think she’s a seashell bikini-wearing whore.”

“…We believe in trying to consume media that doesn’t focus on certain aspects of the human condition. It’s easier to avoid sin when you don’t watch something that glorifies it.”

“So why the hell are you here, Zeezrom? If you don’t believe in watching murder mysteries, how can you be in one? I mean, hell — they were pretty clear on the fact that everyone who was scouted would have some type mystery-related experience, right? Surely you’ve read a few murder mysteries in your life, which I doubt ol’ Mr. Smith would approve of.”

“…You’re painting me into some kind of caricature, ZB. We’re not that bad.”

He brought his hand out, making a sharp snapping motion.

“…And frankly, I can promise you that I’m not going to let this stuff bug me, so don’t any of the rest of you worry about that. I’ve knocked on doors before, I’ve heard the jokes, the mean words. Sing the words from that musical, if it’ll make you feel better. I know what I believe. I’ve found truth and happiness and meaning within the Church, and I’m content because of it. But are you, ZB? I don’t know many happy people who greet a stranger with insults. For a girl in a penguin suit, you aren’t as cuddly as you first look.”

“Penguins aren’t cuddly. They’re cold.

She raised her chin, undeterred by his speech.

“…But, hey. Nice deflection on my accusation. Might’ve worked on one of the humans.”

“Which accusation would that be?”

“You not really being a Mormon.”

“And on what grounds do you raise that accusation?”

She pointed again, directly at his chest, and I felt a twinge of jealousy. It seemed like everyone but me was getting to do it. (At the first trial, I told myself. At the first trial. I’d point like a madwoman.)

“As I’ve said, a Mormon deciding to participate in something like this doesn’t make much sense. But even beyond that… sure, you got most of the missionary outfit right, but where’s the name tag? You guys always came by our house back where I used to live, and you always had those shiny black name tags.”

Zeezrom chuckled.

“Am I required to wear the official outfit to meet your Mormon standard?”

“If you want to say that you are one, then yeah, I guess so. It’s setting off my BS radar.”

She turned to the rest of us.

“None of you find it fishy that the only part of the getup he’s missing is the one you can’t buy at Goodwill?”

Quote butted in.

“In fairness, they said we get to choose our own names, right? Zeezrom, I’m sure that isn’t your real name.”

“It’s not.”

“Right! So if he’d worn it, we’d know. He just wanted to keep it under wraps for the coolness factor, like the rest of us. That’s fair.”

Zeezrom smiled.

“Oh, my real name is Layton. I’m not trying to keep any secrets from you all.”

Quote bit her lip.

“C’mon, dude. Trying to stick up for you, here.”

ZB laughed.

“See, that’s the bullshit niceness I’m talking about. Guy pretends to be a Mormon, acts super nice, gets you to trust him — bam. He whacks you. It’s not the dumbest plan in the world, his execution’s just shit. Think about it. If you came in here acting crazy nice and overly honest on purpose, everybody’d suspect you instantly. If you do it and dress up like a Mormon, that gives everybody a cozy little explanation they can file away in their heads to justify it, and you still get an easy trust factor over everybody else. I don’t care if you drop down your pants and show me the magic underwear, you aren’t a Mormon.”

Dot’s eyes squinted as she listened, soon rewidening.

“That’s… not a terrible point, penguin.”

“Well, of course not. I am number o-”

Dot cut ZB off mid-sentence with another nose flick, the key card she’d brought back out of her flipper sleeves falling to the floor.

Zeezrom didn’t like that.

“Hey, please don’t get physical.”

Dot turned her head towards him.

“She can take it, I promise. This is our strength training routine. You should see her when she’s up against the walruses.”

ZB finished giving her nose another two flipper rubdown. The ends of it had turned a bright red.

“That’s three charges of assault, now. But more importantly…”

She turned her attention back towards Zeezrom.

“I’m right. You aren’t a Mormon.”

“I am, ZB. You’ve already made it clear that you won’t respond to evidence or a reasoned argument, so I’m not sure how I could prove it to you.”

I tried to change the subject.

“It doesn’t really matter, does it? Either way, you clearly aren’t going to trust him.”

“…Fine, then. Screw it. Say he’s a Mormon, alright?”

She pointed a finger at his chest again, leaning in close.

“How do you feel about gay people, Zeezrom?”

His eyebrows raised for a moment, quickly settling back down.

“I love everyone.”

“Not my question. How, about LGBT people, do you feel? Say I grabbed By by her tall-ass shoulders and had my way with her, as us penguins are wont to do. Morally speaking, how would you judge that?”

Without turning her head, she pointed an arm towards the wall.

“Remember, Zeezrom. Lots of cameras. This is gonna be on TV, the Internet. What was it that it had said on all those papers we filled out? First season projections of, what, eighteen million households per episode? Maybe it was bigger, I got a bad memory. You can’t be that much older than me. Do you even have a job yet? Do you ever want to find one outside of Utah? Because you just showed your face and what might be your real first name on TV, and if you permanently attach those to a statement too many people with less than six wives find problematic, you might find that difficult.”

“…We tend to frown on forced relations.”

“Consensually, then. I consensually start making love with By, right over back in my room. She begs me for it. She loves it. We have a great time, and she walks around for whole rest of the game in a daze, not able to think about anything other than getting another lick of The Popsicle. What’s your take?”

My father had a great catchphrase which ran through my head often, and which I found particularly appropriate in the moment. “I don’t know why any of this is happening, but I bet the answer is stupid.”

As if sensing that I somehow wasn’t pleased to have an edgy teenage penguin vaguely hitting on me through the subtext of a religious debate on Mormonism, Quote gave me a sympathetic squeeze to the shoulder. It helped.

We watched the strawmen dance.

“Not my place to judge.”

Right, but if you had to say whether or not you believed that it was appropriate going by the religious texts and doctrine that you claim to subscribe to, do you have any reason to believe that your God is cool with that? If asked, would you tell us that you didn’t think we were doing anything wrong?”

He took a deep breath. All of us were looking at him.

“I think you already know the answer to that.”

Dot spit on the floor.

ZB just laughed.

“See! That’s what it always boils down to, right? You talk up all this crap about how happy your BS is, how good it makes you feel and act, and then you get asked the most basic question about how it actually plays out in the real world and you try to dodge until you can’t anymore. And then obviously what you believe is crazy and restrictive and unfounded and insane, so you try to minimize as much as you can. But it’s still there. Tell me, how long is it that I’d burn in Hell for if I married her? Forever, right? It’s forever.”

“You don’t go to the outer darkness for the practice of homosexuality alone. I’m not sure you understand what our conception of Hell is, ZB. It represents a total and complete rejection of God after having possessed full understanding of his existence and nature. That’s not easy-”

“I mean, past the eternal torture part, I’m not sure what there’s to get. Two chicks shack up in the same igloo, they deserve to burn for eternity. That’s the concept.”

“Look, it’s a sin. I’m not gonna sugarcoat that. I’m not afraid to admit it either, and I shouldn’t be, regardless of whether or not modern society agrees. But I’m not some monster because I believe that. I honestly see that as the word of our Heavenly Father. Hatred of the individual has nothing to do with it; people who act on those urges are loved and treasured by Christ as much as anyone else.”

“Oh, fuck you. It’s 2023. Grow the hell up.”

“Stating the current year isn’t an argument in favor of something.”

“Neither are imaginary golden plates, but here we are.”

Neither of our two grinners were grinning anymore, and Quote and I watched Dot silently glare at Zeezrom, who continued to try and defend himself. While ZB’s passions had been helpful in revealing a bit about what he was like, they seemed to prove her initial theory wrong. Had Zeezrom been pretending in order to gain sympathy, it was unlikely that he would have been willing to throw it all away in order to defend something he had to know many of us would openly resent him for.

Secretly, a tiny bit of me loved the conversation they were having, although I’d never have admitted that. Something was so horribly entertaining about watching the worst representatives of opposing ideologies argue with each other. (That wasn’t to say that I didn’t basically completely stand with ZB on this, even excusing her euphoric pigheadedness. Years of managing a fan community online had pushed me to strive towards a level of obstinate progressivism most liberal art professors would have found preachy.)

“Well, darn. I apologize, Zeezy. Guess you are a Mormon. Good thing you don’t mind throwing your convictions away for a shot at ten million bucks — just when it involves homophobia. And climate change, I’d reckon. That’s kind of a soft spot for me, as you can probably guess. We kinda need the ice.”

“Okay, that isn’t a fair point. I’ll admit, my family didn’t necessarily approve of my participation in this, but me being here isn’t comparable to me partaking in something that promotes sin. It’s not…”

He paused to cough.

“…It’s not as if we’re actually going to kill each other.”

2 thoughts on “1.02

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