We’d gathered in a circle at the center of the room. I was excited at the prospect.
For all the obnoxiousness that Joyo seemed to represent, he had done a decent job of rounding (almost) all of us together and directing us into a single group so we could talk. I didn’t like the way that he’d decided to appoint himself the pseudo-leader of our growing gang so soon after arriving — not that I wanted the position myself — but I didn’t really care. I was glad someone had done it. In a situation like the one we were in, I preferred the formality of a larger group.
Not everyone had been swayed by his pushiness, however. There was one holdout, still sitting against her metal door and working her way through her choice of Jewish-American literature.
Joyo yelled out from across the room.
“Last chance, Martha. I ain’t gonna say it again. Damn thing to do, make yourself a target this early on.”
Staying silent and not moving her eyes away from the page, Martha raised a thumb up in the air, indicating her approval of how things were proceeding. Joyo grumbled.
“Well, you heard her, folks. Our first victim, if anyone would be so kind.”
Cornea chuckled, trying to break the tension.
“She probably just doesn’t see the point in getting together yet, that’s all.”
Dot answered for him, softly tapping her forehead twice.
“Think about it, Captain America. We’re still missing five. We don’t want to have to redo introductions every time somebody new walks in.”
ZB elbowed me again, whispering into my ear.
“With the hat like that and the foresight demonstrated so far, he might be from Alabama too, By. You should chat with him. Maybe you can swap sister-fucking techniques.”
“What’s with you and shitting on Alabama?”
Her eyes darted.
“They know what they did.”
I sighed. The penguin had decided to stand next to me while meeting back up, Martha apparently not having served as the me-replacement ZB had been hoping for. I noticed that Martha did a smart little thing where she ignored people who intentionally trying to provoke her. I envied her conviction.
“You’d be a lot more tolerable if you cut down on the edginess by like, ninety-percent. Can you manage that?”
“But what about my fans, By? I’ve already set their expectations so high.”
Closing her eyes in mock offense, she put her flipper over her heart. The twisted theatrical machinations only a thespian could manage.
“How could you be so cold?”
“You already did that pun. Twice, I think.”
She rolled her eyes and stuck her tongue out at me again as Joyo pointed to himself, demanding that we all go around and re-introduce ourselves. Dot and ZB had no problem openly insulting him to his face, but we all ended up complying regardless, the obvious logic of Dot’s earlier objection discarded from the public consciousness.
I used the opportunity to try to commit everyone introduced so far to memory as best as I could, factoring in both what I’d already learned about them and whatever new stuff they told me as we went around the circle. There were a few people I’d yet to really speak with, so it wasn’t as if I minded the repetition all that much. Again, info was info.
We counted off by door order, clockwise, starting with the first door to the right of the large one without a number.
For door one, I needed no reminder. That was ZB Popsicle, my dumb redheaded Watson (not by choice). She’d made it hard to forget. Feathered and furious. A recent high school graduate, and as best as I could guess, not someone very popular with anyone beyond ornithologists and fellow improv comedians. She had said the code to unlock her room was 0029. (I didn’t know if they were important — they probably weren’t, in all likelihood — but it wasn’t like it cost me anything to try and commit them to memory. As soon as I got the chance, I’d write them down.)
Door two had yet to open.
Martha was our third, who I included despite the fact that she wasn’t inside the circle. Pink sweater, more than a little past chubby, and so far as she’d decided to present herself, an avid reader. Not the most social of butterflies. My age, and seemed to be keeping a tight lip about whatever it was that she did for a living. (A tight lip in general, really.) Her code was 1419.
Four was Dot. Sweatpants. Nose-flicking. Scary eyes, tired-looking, intimidating. Dark wavy hair. She hadn’t told us what her job was either, but she’d mentioned starting towards (but not finishing) a degree in music theory, so that might’ve been an in if I needed something to chat with her about later. She said she’d forgotten her code number.
Out of door five had come Dr. Cornea Skinner, or Corn. 29 years old. By far the biggest of us, with a flowing robe of a hoodie draped around his humongous frame. Buzzcut. 0610. An anesthesiologist, or so he claimed; thinking it over, I was beginning to have some extra sympathy towards Dot’s earlier doubt of his profession. (How could a doctor afford to take three months off work? Weren’t they known for being practically the busiest folks around?) Beyond that, it was tough to get any particular read on him. His personality bounced, unstable, wavering between overly happy and oddly smug, although he’d gotten along with everyone so far without much issue.
Six was absent.
Quote was the seventh among us, and probably the most normal. (That said a lot about the group as a whole, taking into account that she’d shown up in cosplay.) She said that she was a computer engineer, and aside from having taken an interest in Dent (alongside Corn), hadn’t done anything to attract any real attention towards herself. She came across as pleasant and intelligent, and if she had some freaky side to her personality that would’ve otherwise rendered her an oddity, she was doing a great job of hiding it. 0122.
(As a side thought, I really liked her short hair. When I was around thirteen and my puberty-ridden body decided to try and permanently imitate a deformed giraffe, I’d chopped off most of my hair in a fit of height-fueled angst. It didn’t fix my problems. As it turned out, that had the effect of making me look sporty, which implored nearly every kid and teacher I knew to ask me questions where the last word was either basketball or volleyball. I’d kept it long since then, but pixie cuts still held something of a special place in my heart. I could’ve seen myself going for a second try at some point during my thirties.)
Next of course was Zeezrom, from the eighth door. It was impolite to think, but Mormon was basically him in a word, his religious affiliation an excellent way to give an instant picture of how he’d presented himself to us. (Real people obviously weren’t reducible to a single belief they held, and I was sure that he was more complex than that, but it was an easy and irresistible categorization.) He was… honest, if I had any way of making his bigoted opinions sound palatable. Basically lacked a chin. For his faults, he did come across — although I was sure ZB would’ve disagreed — as genuine, and I did mostly take him to be well-intentioned. He looked to be around nineteen, and considering his age and the fact that he’d probably been indoctrinated into his beliefs since birth, it was difficult to be too resentful. (Then again, I wasn’t gay, and “nice intentions” might not have mattered as much to someone who was.)
Nine had yet to arrive.
Polycarp was ten. We’d yet to speak, and I didn’t have much of substance to say about him that didn’t involve how sad he looked or more lazy visual comparisons to Mr. Rogers. Red cardigan, bright blue eyes. I’d have to draw further conclusions once we’d actually talked, since he seemed reluctant to speak much with us all together in a group. (I had managed to draw his code number out of him, however. 5409.)
Perhaps the nuttiest-looking of our group, Dent was the person who’d come out of door eleven. Two literal dents were plainly visible on his body, framing both his head and chest as damaged. He wore shiny, silver-studded pants and a purple Hawaiian shirt, forming some sick abomination of fashion, and that was before one factored in his egregiously cryptic facial tattoo. He had formed a fast friendship with Corn and Quote, which was surprising to me, but they’d all apparently hit it off over a shared fascination with his face.
I’d yet to directly speak to him, as had all of us who weren’t Corn and Quote, but I hadn’t needed to in order to recognize how loud he was. Almost everything he’d said to the two of them had been a half-yell, and even though I had trouble making out exactly what he was saying in light of all the other people talking, I could still always tell that he was. The dude lacked volume control. (Luckily for me, he was right next to me, door-wise, which I took to mean he’d be standing right next to me during the trials. Lovely.)
In the circle, he said his code number was four-two-something. When I pressed him on it, he said he couldn’t recall the last two digits. He looked at me like I was an idiot for caring.
“…Lemme ask you a question, By, if you’re going to keep bothering us for these stupid room codes.”
Closing his mouth, Dent slowly dragged his tongue over his top row of teeth before continuing on.
“Why the hell do you care?”
“It’s information. Information is good.”
Dent raised his head up and squinted, his eyes scanning all the players. They lingered for a moment on all the males they came across, eventually settling on Zeezrom.
A finger went out.
“My name is Zeezrom.”
“Rad! Don’t care. Question for ya.”
Zeezrom looked at him, not looking miserable but not smiling, either. The unbending optimism he’d entered with had all but evaporated.
“How big’s your dick?”
“I’ll repeat myself, Zeezo. What — and I’m impartial, by the way, so you can use whatever system of measurement you prefer — is the exact length and girth of your phallus? I don’t care what unit you go by, but I want hard numbers. You know what I mean by that, right? Hard numbers.”
“I mean no disrespect, but I’m not-”
Dent snapped both his fingers twice in rapid succession; the noise was maybe the loudest sound I’d ever heard a pair of fingers produce.
“Rad! Okay, okay. Shut the fuck up. I don’t care.”
He turned in one rapid motion, firing another finger towards Polycarp.
“Redman! Give me your dick size. Same rules as stated above.”
“No problemo, then! Strait-”
Turning back to me, he grinned, wagging a finger.
“But By, why would you want me to stop? I’m gathering information.”
I barely resisted the urge to groan. I got his point, but it was stupid.
“That’s a false equivalency.”
I saw Dot yawn. Quote and Corn shared a glance between them and looked at their new choice of friend with concern, although neither said anything to stop him.
Dent shrugged, still grinning like a madman. The lines on his face squirmed around with the corners of his lips.
“You’re trying to extract meaning out of a fucking guessing game. If you had even the tiniest inkling of a reason as to why we might need to remember the codes, then I might agree. But you don’t.”
“I assume that it probably won’t be relevant, but I can’t know that for sure in advance. In light of that, it makes sense to collect as much info was possible.”
“Yeah, but only if that info collection doesn’t cost you anything. You’re prioritizing numbers over talking to people. I think you’re a goddamned weirdo, dude! Nobody trusts people who ask for that shit all the time.”
ZB spoke up on my behalf, pointing at Dent.
“People who live in glass igloos shouldn’t throw stones, jackass.”
“You calling me a weirdo? A penguin is calling me a weirdo. That’s rich.”
“Yeah. That bother you, fucktard? Or are you at a loss for words?”
Dent made a clicking noise with his tongue, turning his head to the side. Corn and Quote giggled, although both patted him lightly on the back in a show of support.
Unsure of what she’d said to make him shut up and wanting to totally break off from the subject, I continued my mental checklist, re-introducing myself formally to the group. (I didn’t mention my job, and thankfully anyone who cared to ask already knew.)
Twelve of course was me, By Menachem. I didn’t need to expound much on that.
Door thirteen, right to my immediate left, was Strait. He was an odd character, and by far the most gleeful of our band thus far, his giant smile having only wavered since his arrival to briefly scold me and give me a short lecture on the nature of consent. I liked him a lot, though. Assuming he wasn’t exaggerating himself too much, I could’ve seen him as someone I’d have been friends with in real life. He was a happy little dude in a happy little wifebeater. He’d forgotten his code too, although he said it definitely ended with a one.
The fourteenth and fifteenth doors were the last of the ones that had yet to open.
Finally, out of door sixteen had come Joyo Karna, both the newest and tallest member of our gang so far. He was Indonesian by blood, or at least he’d told us as much in the circle, although he made it evidently clear both through fashion and repeated statements that he identified only as American. His clothes were expensive and fancy, and he was loud and obnoxious, even if not in the same way that Dent was. If it wasn’t for himself, he might have been very attractive.
Speaking in a bold Texan accent, Joyo was trying to present himself as some well-dressed executive type, but it came off more like a smarmy used car salesman. He looked like he wanted to sell us something that didn’t work. (Since he claimed to be both a personal fitness trainer and a “self-employed business owner”, I got the impression that hunch wasn’t too far off the mark.)
I was annoyed by how much he reminded me of my mom.
When asked, he said that his code was 7777, but nobody believed him. ZB vocally disapproved of his bullshit.
“Oh, fuck off.”
He laughed at ZB’s response, still smiling.
“I ain’t lying, Poppy. That’s what it was. Must be an omen.”
He laughed — entirely by himself, I noted — and ZB opened her mouth to say something else (presumably laden with profanity), but was interrupted by the metal creaking of yet another door opening.
It was the sixth.
Earlier, in an obnoxious feat of self-delusion and grandeur, I had made a mental note to myself saying that I was the most “traditionally-attractive” of the women who’d arrived so far. It was a dumb, vain thing to think, and it appeared I was being punished for it, the most recent girl to arrive so phenomenally beautiful that she seemed able to give everyone else body image issues just by virtue of her existence.
It was hard to explain, but she somehow managed to look perfect from both conventional and unconventional standards at once. Her beauty was universal; regardless of what any individual’s personal preferences regarding physical appearance might’ve leaned towards, I doubted anyone could’ve honestly denied the fact that she had it going on.
It was her face more than anything (not that her figure wasn’t itself approaching perfection). It was even, delicate, correct. Her cheekbones connected to everything else in just the right way, her lips and nose curving and protruding out in the most desirable ratios, a pair of bright blue eyes gleaming at us as we took her in. Her blonde curly hair fell down a little past her shoulders, fluffing itself up in the nicest way possible.
She was shorter than me by a fair bit, ending up somewhere around five-eight, so still tallish for a woman. Agewise, I figured around twenty-five, twenty-seven. She wore a long purple dress, pretty but more plain than seemed appropriate for her, along with a pair of cute brown flat-footed sandals. They looked comfortable. Functional.
She looked serious, each step she took exuding intention and purpose, her mouth pulled into a stern, knowing frown. I’d have been lying if I said I wasn’t more than a little intimidated. She had an air about her, not necessarily that she thought she was better than us, but that she could beat us into nothing without even having to exert herself.
(It was a common subconscious misconception, among those not freakishly tall, that tall people did not get intimidated by anyone shorter than them. That was a load of crap. If anything, it was scarier, because being tall and still feeling insecure around others meant that you knew just how full of shit you really were.)
ZB didn’t appreciate the grumpiness. Denying the newbie both an ice-themed greeting and the chance to introduce herself, she opened up with a question.
“What’s with you?”
The woman broke off from her serious expression for just a moment, slightly raising an eyebrow before immediately reverting back to the rigid countenance she’d entered with. I wondered what it was she’d been surprised by, then remembered that ZB was a penguin.
Oy. I’d gotten too used to it.
After taking another few seconds to glance at the rest of us, she answered, putting one hand loosely on her right hip. Her voice was softer than I’d been expecting.
“…I’m annoyed. Had to brute force my way through the puzzle. Drove me nuts.”
Confused, I spoke up.
“Sorry, what do you mean? We all had to do that.”
She raised an eyebrow again, although much higher than she had the first time. Most everyone around the room nodded to back up what I’d said.
“You all guessed it?”
Dent scratched the back of his neck.
“I did eventually, after searching through the room several dozen times and trying to find ways I could wrangle a four-digit passcode out of the word ‘guess’. But guessing wasn’t — obviously that wasn’t what I tried first.”
“…What, you think there was another way of getting the codes? Lady, nobody told you this yet, but we all got different pin numbers. They just wanted us coming out at different times.”
She shook her head.
“If they wanted that, they would have set the doors to open randomly at different intervals. The puzzle had a purpose; we just failed to find out what that purpose was. There might have been a secret code, in addition to whichever one we guessed to leave. One that granted some secret benefit to whoever was able to solve it. Someone among us might even be lying about having not received it.”
I interjected. I wasn’t fond of the idea of jumping in to defend Dent, but I had some issues with her thinking.
“But the chance of someone guessing a code like that would have been exactly the same as someone guessing the code to open the door regularly. The system wouldn’t be able to distinguish between someone who solved the puzzle for the secret code and someone who just guessed it under expected circumstances.”
“It might only work if you guess it within a certain number of attempts. Perhaps if one failed to solve it via the puzzle, then only the code to leave normally is guessable, and the other one automatically disables itself after a few failed attempts.”
“…And why is it so unbelievable to think that it was just a guessing game? None of this is even remotely substantiated.”
“I’m not saying that the secret code theory is based on anything beyond conjecture, at least for the moment. But it stands to reason that the puzzle existed for some reason beyond letting us out separately.”
She tilted her head at me ever-so-slightly, but didn’t change her expression otherwise, still as stern-looking as she’d been at the start.
“…Because that would imply needless complexity. As I’ve established, if the gamemakers simply wanted to let us out at different times, randomly or not, there were multiple ways of achieving that without going through the trouble of outfitting our doors with electronic keypads. As we’ve all presumably been given keycards in which to use to re-enter our rooms later, the addition of having to guess room codes on top of that adds a lot of unnecessary work for everyone: us, the gamemakers, and the viewers, whom all this would have to be explained to. I am assuming that the gamemakers would not so early on violate a basic principle of game design.”
I had a response to that.
Her eyes narrowed.
“I am operating under the assumption that the people who created this game are functionally competent.”
“…Are you implying that you think they aren’t?”
“Don’t know. I mean, I hope so. It’d really suck if they aren’t after all the dramatic build-up. That being said, I don’t have a clue, and I don’t like the idea of trying to draw hard conclusions about the nature of the situation on shaky foundations. Who knows? Maybe there is a secret code. Maybe the gamemakers just suck. Maybe, despite all our inclinations to assume otherwise, there isn’t any discernible meaning behind it. As much as you might want to, you can’t always reasonably expect for every question to have an easily explainable answer. It’s entirely conceivable that there just happens to be a few elements of sub-par game design.”
She was unimpressed.
“On paper, that’s a cute sentiment, but repeating ‘why’ a million times in response to any given hypothetical demonstrates the rhetorical abilities of a five year old.”
Ooo. Pretty kitty had claws.
“Or, y’know, anyone with a basic understanding of the scientific method.”
She chuckled, but didn’t smile.
“I’m not sure you understand it yourself, honestly. Regardless, an expectation of consistent game design in this situation is very reasonable. So far, we have been given fair reason to assume that this game takes place in a very controlled and well-planned environment. Do you disagree that that is probably the case?”
“And do you disagree that it is also probably the case, that if in fact this is well-planned, that there is likely a reason for the existence of the number codes beyond the gamemakers just happening to have screwed something up?”
“…So why are you arguing with me?”
That was a simple question with a complicated answer.
The full response would’ve been something along the lines of, “I, as an absurdist and a writer of mystery fiction, fundamentally reject the notion that every minuscule detail within a story needs to have some grandiose secret explanation behind it, and I kind of have a chip on my shoulder about it due to prolonged arguments with weird people on the Internet who disagreed with that idea, so shut up”, but I suspected that she might not find that very satisfying.
I paused as I thought how to best rephrase that in a way that didn’t make me look like a giant lunatic in front of eighteen million people. Thankfully, Quote saved me, clearly even more desperate than me to change the direction of the conversation.
“Here’s an idea.”
Everyone turned to her. She froze for a moment under the attention, but recovered quickly.
“…Maybe, the codes are there for psychological reasons. Like, they don’t actually have any technical purpose, but they just want us to obsess over them, so we start arguing instead of focusing on the important stuff. Y’know, to the point where two people are willing to start a ten minute debate with each over the nature of human knowledge before they even learn each other’s names.”
Both my and the woman’s face began to relax at the same time, each of us apparently just as embarrassed about what had occurred.
Well, I had assumed that was probably what she’d been embarrassed about, but she soon brought her finger to the edge of her chin and bit her lower lip, looking slightly disappointed in herself.
“I really should have considered that.”
Caroline looked at us with eyes no less steely than the ones she’d first greeted us with, even if they had mellowed out a little. I’d already apologized to her for getting heated, and she shook my hand without issue, although she seemed confused as to why I was apologizing at all. As best as I could interpret, she wasn’t the type to get easily offended.
I began to consider the possibility that her previous harshness had not been meant as a personal attack.
“Caroline Plite. Caroline as you’d spell it normally, and then P-L-I-T-E. Plite.”
“I’m a psychologist. I’m open to sharing more details about my personal life, but only as they become relevant.”
She paused, as if waiting for something. It took us all a second to realize that she wanted us to introduce ourselves again.
ZB had no trouble saying it.
“…Yeah, look, we just finished up formal introductions. Not doing it again; life’s too short for this crap. I’m pretty sure we only live like, eight months or something.”
Cornea gave her a questioning look.
“It’s… penguins definitely live longer than that.”
“…Why didn’t you wait to do the full introductions until everybody walked in?”
We all looked at Joyo.
“…Oh, don’t toss this on me. It ain’t a bad thing to learn someone’s name a few extra times. Y’all got sixteen people here; you’re gonna end up needing to remind somebody of your name at least a few times during all this. I’m just having us get it over with at the start.”
“It’s fine. I don’t need formal introductions; names will suffice. Although… I think I have a happy medium, if you’d be fine with it.”
We asked her to clarify. She gave a weak smile, the first I’d seen from her.
“Icebreakers are unpleasant, but there is one I’m fond of, for when you’re in a large group and need to memorize people quickly. You say your name, and then you describe yourself, but only using one word.”
Caroline shook her head again.
“The catch, though, is that the word must be a noun. If you allow for adjectives, you tend to get words like ‘helpful’ and ‘adventurous’, which are about as useful as you’d expect them to be. The word chosen can be your career or whatever else, but it has to be in the form of a noun. It’s a more useful way of having you identify yourself — much more objective.”
There was some brief conversation among us over whether or not her icebreaker was in any way useful, but it seemed about twenty minutes faster than having us sit through our introductions again, so we just decided to ram through it. (Someone shouted about what we were doing to Martha, and she refused to participate, once again signing to us that she’d get mixed up in things after everyone else had come into the picture.)
“ZB Popsicle. One. Uh… Penguin.”
“That’s Martha. She’s three. I’m guessing she’d go with Reader.”
“Dorothy, or Dot, or whatever. Door four. Sleeper, I don’t know.”
“Corn. The fifth door. Anesthesiologist. If any of you ever need an explanation of what that is, just ask. I like talking about it.”
“Quote Amaya. Fake name, obviously. Seven. Reluctant Optimist.”
“Caroline, she used two words! That’s cheating!”
“…Realist. No, wait. Um… fine, whatever. Programmer.”
“Zeezrom. Eight. Happy Believer.”
“Zeezrom did it too!”
“Polycarp. Real name. From the tenth door. Imperfection.”
“Is that a noun?”
“Yes. It’s not really in the spirit of the game, though. He just took the adjective he wanted and added a suffix.”
“No one said that wasn’t allowed.”
“Machado. Dent Machado. Eleven. Give me a second to think.”
“Fuck off, penguin. Artist.”
“It’s your tattoo, dude.”
“By Menachem. That’s B-Y, real name. Twelve. Absurdist.”
“Is that a sex thing?”
“I thought you would go with your job.”
“I thought she was going with Giraffe.”
“I’ll flick you again, dipshit. Don’t think I won’t.”
“You shouldn’t even joke about doing that, Dot. And again, I’m Strait.”
“I doubt it.”
“No, no. Like the river!”
“Like the river?”
“Yeah, like a Strait, you know. S-T-R-A-I-T.”
“I’ve never heard of that before.”
“It’s a thing, I promise! And thirteen, by the way. Student.”
“Joyo Karna. Sixteen. Winner.”
Having finished, Joyo took a breath, and we all looked to the newest member of our group. It was still small enough to the point where it was hardly even worth remarking on, but she’d kept her grin.
“Caroline Plite. Door Six.”
She looked me right in the eyes. I wasn’t sure why me in particular, but then she said it, and I knew.
I felt my stomach churn.