1.06

It made sense that someone had shown up in a mask. ZB came in wearing a freaking penguin suit, so a facial covering didn’t by any stretch of imagination make our newest entrant the weirdest person in the room fashion-wise. (That might have not even been ZB either, factoring in whatever the hell Dent was trying to do.)

The man (assuming they were one) who came out of door nine was a little shorter than me, and generally of average build, a respectable but not particularly impressive amount of muscle visible on his forearms and chest. He was wearing a brown suit and a red tie, although they were much less fancy and well-to-do than Joyo’s, slightly scraggly and oversized, as if to intentionally obscure the true size of his frame.

There was hardly a place on his body where I could see skin. He was wearing a blue ski mask that’d been pulled all the way down, and combined with his long pants and sleeves only his hands lacked cover. They were dark, less so than Zeezrom’s but more than Quote’s, and they showed what looked to be clear signs of age. They weren’t wrinkly or spotted, and I didn’t think they belonged to an elderly person, but they also looked far too worn to be owned by someone around my age. (Of course, that was all speculation; seriously trying to gage anything about him based off that wasn’t many steps above chiromancy in terms of usefulness.)

He was wearing a nice ring.

He’d gone out of his way to hide his face. Most ski masks I’d seen before had a hole for a person’s mouth so they could speak easily, but his didn’t, and he wore shiny reflective goggles under the mask to make sure none of us could get a look at his eyes or the area around them. Put together, the whole look wasn’t necessarily “creepy”, but it definitely wasn’t as cuddly and welcoming as an idiot in a penguin suit.

In his hands, he had a number of individually torn pages, along with the spiral notebook they presumably came out of. As he walked in the room, he straightened his tie before handing one of them to each of us, having several left over. Joyo and ZB both gave him something of a half-mocking greeting in reference to his mask, but he put one bulky finger in front of the space where his lips would have been and made a very soft shushing noise, gesturing us to read.

As he walked over to Martha, I gave it a look. There was a message on it written neatly in pen.

Hello.

I am only present as the result of a binding contractual obligation. I have no intention of trying to win or play seriously, and if not for the fact that said contract stipulated that I am not allowed to quit within the first seven days of the game without having to pay a steep financial penalty, I would not be here.

I deeply apologize for any inconvenience or annoyance this understandably might cause you. As much as I may have legitimate interest in participating, it does not currently align with my priorities in the way that it would need to in order to justify the time cost. Because of this, assuming that I’m still in, I will be quitting the game at the start of the eighth day. If any of you plan to eliminate someone prior to that point, I’d deeply appreciate it if you targeted me. You’d be doing me a great favor.

I can understand doubt, but I am unable to substantiate any of this beyond giving my word. I take no offense at skepticism, but I don’t see any way how I could provide convincing enough evidence, so I’m not going to try too hard.

Due to privacy concerns and a lack of desire to have my public identity associated with the game, I have elected to wear a mask. I will also not be speaking. If there is something that absolutely needs to be said, I can write it down for you.

If I am not eliminated first and I believe myself to be in possession of either evidence or testimony that will help reveal the culprit of another player’s murder, I will gladly reveal it. Hopefully that stands as encouragement to have me killed off as soon as possible.

I wish you all the best of luck, and I hope everyone has fun.

Thanks.

Claim.

There was a general murmur among the group as we finished reading and began to question the man who’d signed off as Claim.

(Incidentally, I noticed out the corner of my eye that Martha had put away the letter before any of the rest of us, despite having received it last. She was either as fast of a reader as she tried to portray herself or much more apathetic to the game than I had previously given her credit for.)

Caroline started off the interrogation. Everyone seemed generally content with letting her ask the questions, at least for the moment.  She fit the mold of an investigator.

“To confirm, Claim is a false name, correct?”

He nodded. ZB whispered in my ear again.

“This is lame, By. If he was going to do the shitty man in a mask routine, couldn’t he invest in something cooler than a big blue sock?”

“That’s a ski mask. People wear it when they go skiing. Of all people, shouldn’t a self-proclaimed Ice Queen know that?”

“I’m from Florida.”

Somehow, I wasn’t surprised.

Caroline went on.

“Well, from a cursory glance, I think we can identify several issues with your claims, Claim. None of them are necessarily defeating in themselves, but put all together, we have more than a healthy reason to doubt you.”

Still remaining silent, he pulled out his notebook, flipping to one of the pages near the start. I could see that he’d pre-written a number of common responses written in large markered block letters, three answers to each page. He pointed to the one at the top of the page he’d pulled up. He had apparently anticipated a reaction like the one he was getting.

I CAN’T PROVE IT.

“I know, I read as much in the letter. But I don’t just want to say that it might be wrong and let it hang; that almost sets the pretension that there’s about a 50/50 chance either way, and I’d rather that not happen.”

OKAY.

“First of all, from a meta-perspective, there’s the issue of you being here at all. I read the contract carefully, and the first week clause as you describe it isn’t incorrect, but I find it hard to believe that the gamemakers would have forced a vocally uninterested player into going through with it, even if the contract allowed them to.”

Vocally might not be the best word to describe it,” said Dot.

“Then I’ll specify. Claim, did you tell the producers that you didn’t want to play the game?”

He nodded.

“And did you tell them that you’d be quitting at the first possible opportunity if they did force you into it?”

Another nod.

“Was this a last minute decision, or did you tell them that well in advance?”

Flipping to the other half of the notebook, he wrote down his answer with a marker he’d pulled from his pocket.

ABOUT SIX MONTHS AGO. ALMOST AS SOON AS THEY CONTACTED ME.

“…I’m confused. You had signed a contract before they contacted you about joining?”

He wrote again, taking his time. There was a lot.

I SIGNED A CONTRACT A LONG TIME AGO STATING THAT I WOULD AGREE TO APPEAR ON AN UNSPECIFIED GAME SHOW. I WAS APPROACHED SIX MONTHS AGO WITH THE NEW CONTRACT. IF I DID NOT SIGN THE NEW CONTRACT AND AGREE TO JOIN I WOULD HAVE BEEN IN VIOLATION OF THE FIRST ONE.

“Why did you sign it the first contract, then? Especially one so vague?”

BECAUSE AT THE TIME I WANTED TO. LONG TIME AGO. CHANGED MIND.

Caroline turned back to face us.

“I’m too ignorant of the law to know if something like that is plausible, although I’m guessing it depends on the exact nature of what he claims to have signed. Long shot, I’m sure, but does anyone here have any legal experience?”

Silence.

“…You weren’t here for it, but as I already told Dot, I’m well versed in bird law.”

“Shut up”, moaned Dot.

Rising above ZB’s shenanigans, Caroline turned back to Claim.

“I struggle to see why they would want someone who openly states that they have no desire to be here.”

“Makes sense. Not that I really believe him, but the nuts who planned this would love that shit,” said Dent. “Think about it. A mysterious dude with a mask thrown into the mix who says he doesn’t wanna be here, that’s good TV. They wanna fuck with us. That’s how these things work, they fuck with us and we dance. You know that.”

Quote and Corn nodded along. Still eyeing Claim, Caroline went on.

“Regardless, there’s still plenty to be suspicious of. The letters you wrote were in ink. If you knew well in advance that you’d be doing this, why not have them typed up and printed before coming? Handwriting sixteen letters seems like a pain, and it isn’t as if pre-typed material was something we weren’t allowed it bring along with our personal items. I’d float the strong possibility that this was a last minute idea you decided to capitalize on after having already brought paper. You are thirteen out of sixteen, after all. If you solved the puzzle early, that’s plenty of time write things down after waking up.

I noticed how she said “solved the puzzle” as opposed to “guessed the number”, but I wisely decided not to bring it up again. I did have something to say, though, as miniscule as it was.

“He also would’ve needed to have brought the mask and goggles in advance,” I pointed out.

“Not a stretch. I’m sure more than a few of us brought things without knowing what exactly we’d end up using them for.”

She pointed at his notebook.

“Another thing. Why are you writing in all caps?”

SO EVERYONE CAN SEE.

“When you say that, you mean the cameras, right?”

Nod.

“If you have something against the game, why care about what they see? Why play along at all? You could walk in here and say nothing, you could stay in your room. At least until they make it clear that would result in elimination, that’s not explicitly quitting, is it? You could skirt around the financial penalty that way.”

NOTHING AGAINST THE GAME. JUST DON’T WANT TO PLAY. WANT YOU TO HAVE FUN PLAYING. WANT VIEWERS TO HAVE FUN WATCHING.

Finishing, he waved his right hand as if trying to shake something off it.

HAND HURTS. USED TO TYPING. BREAK. SORRY.

Convenient.”

I CAN’T PROVE IT.

“I never said that I expected you to,” Caroline said, gently scratching her left hand.

Dent spoke up again, wanting to clarify.

“I wasn’t defending him, just to make it clear. Obviously I don’t trust him. I can tell you all think I’m a fucking idiot, but I’ve cracked open a few books before. The guy in the mask is always the culprit; everybody knows that.”

I wasn’t going to say anything, but that wasn’t true at all.

Including a masked character at the start of a murder mystery was a relatively common trope, generally speaking, but they rarely ended up actually being the criminal. I wasn’t very fond of seeing them in fiction most of the time, and I’d purposefully written Ionia of Illumination without one. Covering up someone’s face was an easy way to assign false importance and intrigue to a character without really earning it; other than a few notable exceptions, it was only something a total hack would write.

If I had been reading a mystery and saw a character like that, it wouldn’t have automatically made me put the book down, but I would have definitely counted it as a strike. (Not that it was egregious or anything; it wasn’t that different than any other shitty commonplace mystery trope, like making amnesia a major plot point or having your main character be a mystery author.)

Thankfully, I wasn’t in a story, and as much as I wanted to object to Caroline’s logic sheerly on the grounds of ideological childishness, she was probably right. Occam’s Razor was not something that flourished within the realm of any good mystery story, but for the sake of the reality that we were living in, it almost certainly applied. Taking Claim at his word meant accepting the large number of logical oddities and strange coincidences that came with his story; all doing the opposite required was assuming that a total stranger would be willing to lie on national television for ten million dollars.

Not a tough call.

“…I don’t think it’s that crazy,” said Quote. “Weirder coincidences happen all the time. Either way, we’ll find out later, right?”

“I suppose,” Cornea chimed back. “But we’ll have to see.”

I prayed that hadn’t been an eye pun from our almost-ophthalmologist, but considering how he’d emphasized the last word, I doubted I was as lucky.

There was a sound. Together, we all turned towards door two.

The standard height of an American door frame stood at approximately eighty inches, or six and a half feet. Luckily for our newest competitor, the gamemakers had the foresight to make them larger than that.

Corn was big in the way that I didn’t know much about, but he, the man from door two, was big in the way that I did.

My guess was something just over seven feet. The others in the room had more reason to be surprised than I did, but that didn’t stop me from gawking too, if just a little. His body was more than enough to justify our shock.

It went beyond height. He was filled with more muscle than any of us, beating Joyo by a lot, his arms among the thickest I’d ever seen on anyone. He was dressed plainly, wearing a green polo and long black pants, his short sleeves doing a terrifyingly great job of showing off his bulk.

Discarding the sheer difference in size, he was built differently than Joyo, who looked like he’d worked hard to shave every possible trace of fat from his body. The man from door two had taken the opposite approach on his way to making himself into a monster, a strong but not too abundant layer of fat meshed on top of an impenetrable wall of muscle.

The usual comparison someone would’ve drawn in regards to a body like his was that of a bear or an ox, but those images failed on account of a particular eccentricity of his. He lacked, as far as I could tell, all body hair.

His arms were more bare than mine, not only looking like he’d shaved recently but as if he’d gotten a full-body wax followed by an intense round of electrolysis therapy. He had no beard, stubble, or even eyebrows or eyelashes, and what I could see of his shiny scalp looked equally as barren. He also one-upped everyone again so far in terms of paleness, white enough to briefly make me wonder if he had anemia. With everything taken into account, he looked more like a lizard than anything else, if not some member of the reptile family.

Dressed up properly, I joked to myself, he would have made a fantastic Ax.

He had one interesting piece fashion-wise, a hat. It was one of those old-fashioned style hunting hats, the type with the little flaps running down the sides. It was colored a blood red. He lifted it up a little as he entered and smiled at us, which served both as a polite gesture and a way of letting us know that the top of his scalp was just as bereft of hair as the rest of him.

His eyes danced as he came in, but they never fixed themselves completely on our surroundings, him seeming to be much more interested in the individuals occupying it. They stopped briefly at the sight of each of us, matching our glances with his. His expression was happy and relaxed, but through his gaze I could feel his presence lording over mine, analyzing me, watching me.

Judging me.

Hold had a voice deep enough to match his beastly frame, although he spoke softly and eloquently, exuding sophistication.

Joyo — who I’d caught looking annoyed a few moments after Hold came into the room — had tried greeting him with another furious handshake as part of some weird show of power, but it failed. He’d been unable to make Hold’s arm budge in the slightest, something that Hold chose not to actively acknowledge.

That probably made it sting more.

Following Joyo’s quick slink back into the crowd and an exchange of names, Quote had begun to talk to him. Most us were content to listen as opposed to getting involved (myself included, if I was being honest). He was intimidating.

“So, what do you do, Hold?

“I’m not the type to keep at any one thing for very long. At the moment, I work in recruiting.”

He tilted his chin up and to the side very slightly, still smiling.

“You could call me a headhunter, of sorts.”

“Tech industry?”

“No. Nothing any of you would be interested in, I’m sure.”

Uninterested in his personal history, Caroline interjected herself into the conversation.

“Your door code?”

“I was under the impression that those were meant to be secret, Caroline.”

“Some of us have taken that approach, yes. Are you going to be one of them?”

He paused. I wanted him to stop smiling.

“Which would you prefer?”

“You probably know.”

He paused again.

“5559.”

He briefly looked to a camera, then turned back towards Caroline.

“Do you think that matters, Caroline? That code?”

“It appears that we’ve given reason to think so.”

“I see.”

There was another long moment of silence.

Hold seemed to be many things, and I was desperate to find out more about who he was, but not enough to actually want to speak to him. It wasn’t as if I was afraid of him; I just… didn’t feel comfortable with him there, if that made sense. The feeling was one that would probably fade as I got to know him more, but going off first impressions alone, he made me anxious.

It was silly that I felt that way, of all people. After everything was over, D was sure to tease me about it. He had the right to, I supposed.

The last person I expected broke the silence. She was smiling; it was the first time I’d seen her do it, if I was remembering right.

“Catcher in the Rye.”

Martha had stood up from her corner (well, not a corner, since the room was a circle) and pointed at Hold, having taken a few steps towards the group. He looked at her, but didn’t reply.

She repeated herself.

“Catcher in the Rye, right? Salinger? The hat and the name, like Holden, the main character from the book. You did that on purpose. That’s nice.”

He stared at her for a moment, still grinning. He seemed to really like doing that.

“No. I’ve never read that book.”

She laughed.

“Sure, sure. Of course you haven’t.”

“I have not.”

Martha looked happy, only further amused by his denial.

“That’s a little difficult for me to believe. If it was just the hat or the name, sure, but with both together like that… that’d be crazy. Either of those things would be very uncommon by themselves, but with having both of them, you couldn’t have possibly meant anything else. Don’t lie, now.”

“…I don’t think it’s that crazy,” said Hold. “Weirder coincidences happen all the time.”

My blood ran cold. My head snapped to look at his door, along with Quote and Caroline, the three of us seeming to have been the only ones to pick up on it.

The doors leading to the hallways in front of our rooms were dense and metal, at least two inches thick and with no floor gap. There was no way — even if they’d put an ear right to the door — that an ordinary person would have been able to hear anything through them, let alone the exact wording used in a conversation on the other side of a room.

And even if he had somehow been able to do so, for how long? He’d only repeated something said ten or so minutes prior to his arrival, but there was no reason to assume that was all of it. He could’ve been listening for hours.

More importantly, why? Everything we’d shared with each other was already public information among the group — what possible benefit did he have to eavesdrop on a conversation he’d have been welcome to join whenever he wanted?

The others apparently oblivious, my eyes met Quote’s and Caroline’s, and we exchanged blinks of acknowledgement, wordlessly telling each other that we’d noticed. I saw too late Hold’s eyes darting to see the three of us doing so, and I cursed myself, feeling like an idiot.

I realized, almost immediately after he’d caught the three of us silently glancing to each other, that there was one purpose of such an exercise.

He’d wanted to see who’d been paying attention.

We soon broke off into small groups to chat again, Martha no longer isolating herself.

As earlier, I ended up with Strait and ZB. The Dent/Corn/Quote trio still was going strong too, the other eight formed into a supergroup mostly centered around letting Hold entertain them. After his initial entrance, he’d proven himself to be quite the crowdpleaser, happily passing the time by telling stories. At the moment, he was giving them a lecture on the invention of television, first explaining how it was that it functioned from a technical perspective and then on the life of the man who’d invented it.

Caroline ignored him, writing with paper and a pen she’d requested from Claim. (I snuck a look at it; it all had the code numbers we’d gotten so far, along with some other miscellaneous information. It was astoundingly childish of me, but it made me hope even more that they didn’t have any purpose. I loved the idea of her wasting her time writing them all down and trying to decipher an answer that didn’t exist. With so many people probably lying, it almost had to be a fool’s errand.)

Hold was animated as he spoke, much livier than he’d been upon entering. He thrived on the attention of the group, and his deep voice boomed, echoing through the room. He moved his body so much while speaking that it bordered on dancing. If he’d been quieter earlier, it hadn’t been because of a reserved personality; I got the impression he’d commanded the attention of large groups before.

“…Farnsworth ended up loathing his creation so much that he forbid his children from ever using it, in fact. He had watched his idealized image of a machine that could teach and educate humanity become something used solely for the purposes of mindless entertainment, and it stained his soul with regret. All that was before the seventies had begun, take note. Just past color, before they’d found how far they could push in terms of content. If he could see this…”

For effect, he gestured with both of his massive arms, sweeping them around the room.

“Imagine what he’d say, how he’d feel. He’d wanted television to be used as a tool to promote the wonder of knowledge, of reality. Instead, he got reality television.”

I rolled my eyes, focusing my attention back towards ZB and Strait. Puns were preferable to that. Thankfully, she was happy to indulge me. She hadn’t made any while in earshot of him, but now that she was away, she went to town on his baldness, making more than a few comments about his complete lack of plumage.

“…All I’m saying is that featherless birds don’t fly far, in the scheme of things. Maybe he should put a hold on his big fucking mouth before acting all cocky.”

Strait giggled.

“Do you do stand-up, ZB? You should think about it. I love that type of fake mean self-depreciative stuff, especially with the puns and all.”

“…It’s not self-depreciative.

“And you’ve really got the character down, too! You could go up on stage in a penguin suit, if you wanted to. I could see that. The Mean Penguin.”

He turned to me.

“You could see that too, right By? She’d be great, especially after some practice. I know comedy can be hard, but when someone’s got it, they’ve got it.”

He was fucking with me, right?

“…Yeah, um. Totally. It’s… unique.

“Absolutely! I’m not an expert or anything, but I’ve never seen anyone stretch so much material out of a single concept like that before. That shows a lot of talent.”

ZB stared off into space, apparently unsure of how to respond. Her brain had not been properly equipped to deal with genuine human positivity.

Instead of replying, she smacked her lips together.

“…I’m thirsty. We’ve been here for more than three hours.”

She cupped her hands in front of her mouth, readying herself to shout. Hold and Dent stopped leading their respective groups in conversation as she hollered at the ceiling.

“Hey! Game people! We’ve been here for three hours! I’m thirsty. Give us some drinks. I don’t want to die of dehydration waiting for the last two losers to show up.”

“I could go for something too, but I think we just have to wait,” I said, trying to calm her down.

“Fuck off with that shit. I’m thirsty. It’s basically lunchtime and I’m thirsty and I’m hungry.”

She pointed a flipper at the cameras lining the wall, everyone now staring at her.

“I command it, then! Open the big door! Get fruit punch and fishsticks out here in the next three minutes or we fucking riot!

There was another moment of silence before Dent screamed from across the room.

“Shut the fuck up!”

“Fuck you, Dent! I’m thirsty!”

Dot eyed ZB from the center, looking tired again.

“Just be quiet. I think we’ve already established that they really don’t give a shit about your personal problems. Squawking like a dipshit isn’t going to do anything.”

There was another noise, the sound of something turning and opening. There were only two doors left, fourteen and fifteen, but it hadn’t been one of them, and the noise hadn’t sounded like the other doors had, either.

We looked around for a moment, confused. Polycarp was the first to see it, and he silently pointed a finger up to the ceiling.

The three groups that existed were spread out among the half-circle closest to door fourteen and fifteen, mainly in anticipation of their arrival. On the other side of the room, at the farthest point from where any of us stood, a small square hole had opened up in the ceiling. It had not been there earlier.

Before any of us could react beyond muffled gasps, a large green cardboard box was dropped unceremoniously on the floor, surviving the drop with a massive smack. It sounded heavy. The hole had been covered back up almost as soon as it landed.

“Holy shit,” ZB said, staring down at her flippers. “I think I’m God.”

“Water.”

The one word note that we found inside the box was very matter of fact. It wasn’t fruit punch, but they had given us something to drink. In the box was sixteen unlabelled bottles of water, carefully sandwiched between bubble wrap, presumably there to ensure that they survived the fall.

“I mean, it’s a start,” ZB said, looking back up and unscrewing the cap to the bottle she’d picked out. “While you’re at it, lemme get some bird seed too. The good shit. Don’t cheap out on me now. I know you can afford it.”

“We shouldn’t drink it,” said Caroline. “Not until we know-”

“It says water. I asked for it, and they gave it to me, because I’m important. It’s that simple.”

“Okay, but-”

“Nope! Not letting this shit start.”

Shushing down any further attempt of a rebuttal from Caroline, ZB tilted her head back and drank, gulping down the entire bottle in one long continuous flow.

“There we go. Tastes fine, y’know, like water. Not Arctic fresh, mind you-”

“Even if that one ends up being alright, you have no way of knowing if they’re all like that.”

“Jesus, they aren’t going to poison us. Chill, lady. More for me, anyway.”

“Even so, I probably wouldn’t drink too much,” pointed out Strait. “There’s still no way of going to the bathroom.”

“I mean, that’s more of a concern for me than you, bud.” ZB shook her empty bottle, gesturing at Strait’s crotch. “You guys can just piss in ‘em, if it comes to that.”

“This is really depressing,” I said.

“Tell me about it. I wanted fruit punch.”

We eventually split back into groups, a few choosing to drink with ZB but most deciding to pass. I’d picked up a bottle for myself, but more as something for my hands to toy with. I was hungrier than I was thirsty, anyway, a fact that I had trouble ignoring after ZB had pointed it out. With it being 11:46 and us having skipped breakfast, it was getting tougher to stop thinking about it. I hoped the last two players hurried up.

We’d split back into the three groups we’d just been in, ZB proclaiming that she didn’t want to tire herself abusing her new powers.

I wasn’t focused on her, or even Hold anymore, who was in the midst of another lecture, now talking about various theories he’d heard regarding the truth about Cold Minute. That was actually a topic I had a great deal of interest in, but I had another focus for the moment, and it wasn’t the door codes Caroline couldn’t stop herself from staring at.

It bothered me how quickly conversation about the box had died off. Not because I thought that the contents were important; much more fascinating was the method of delivery.

The grooves on the floor were not meant to be hidden from us; in fact, they’d been obvious almost as soon as we’d entered the room. The ones on the ceiling, however, had clearly been made to be much less noticeable, none of us mentioning them until they’d first been demonstrated to be there. Once I saw the first one, I couldn’t stop seeing more. They were there by the dozens, squares of more removable panels, holes they could make and unmake at a moment’s notice. They had probably been in my room, too, and the hallway. I’d just failed to see them.

It was genius. They had a way to interact with us beyond the cameras, a way to drop stuff in whenever they wanted. All the gamemakers were probably right above us, plotting and planning, an entire additional floor having been created just so they could monitor us on-site.

More than anything, I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was another layer to all I’d seen, even more secrets for us to find, right there in that very room. If there were grooves in the floor and holes in the ceiling, surely there were more, right? Another secret panel to find. That made sense.

My eyes kept scanning the room in search of it, checking the walls and floor. I’d find it. I’d definitely find it. There had to be some secret panel in the room. There was a secret panel in the room. I knew it. I couldn’t prove it, not until I found it, but…

I smirked to myself, suddenly realizing that I’d broken my rule in the excitement. Fine, then. Probably. There was probably a secret panel in the room. I just had to find it.

I kept looking, staying mostly silent and occasionally muttering a half-hearted reply to whatever ZB was saying. If it was there, and I was almost completely sure that it was…

Boom.

It was about four feet up from the floor, just slightly to the right of door eight, almost perfectly across from where the numberless door stood. Too excited to care about keeping it a secret, I yipped out a weird happy sound and speedwalked across the room, feeling triumphant. I didn’t even care about how stupid I sounded. I was having too much fun.

“What the hell is with her?”

“You figure somethin’ out?”

“By, what’s up?”

It was a perfect little silver square about a foot wide, ever-so-slightly concave to the rest of the wall, but clearly there once I’d identified it. I pressed it, and it wobbled a little, suggesting to me that it was movable. A few seconds of trial and error later led me to trying to slide it, first across and then down, where it moved as if it’d been designed to. A hole opened.

A giant grin on my face, I reached inside to the claim my prize. It was…

A small pink ball, the size of quarter.

I held it in my open palm as they all crowded around me, everyone eager to see what I’d found.

“…Looks kinda like a gumball,” said ZB.

Caroline raised an eyebrow.

“You found that in the wall?”

I nodded.

“More like a paintball. Used to play it back home,” observed Joyo. “Look. You can see it slushing around inside, there’s a little air pocket. Might not be paint, but it’s damn close.”

“What’s do you think it’s for?”

I didn’t have a clue. Still…

“Maybe, if…”

Testing it, I applied some pressure to the ball from two sides, using my thumb and index finger.

It popped, lamely bursting onto me. I hadn’t been expecting that. It was weaker than I thought.

The contents of the ball, a bright pink liquid flurry, dripped across my right hand and wrist, some of it starting to drop onto the floor. It was cold and gross against my skin, and had a weird smell, not unlike saline. I could almost taste it.

The little plastic casing that had housed the liquid fell to the floor, a few remaining droplets having stuck to its inside.

Liquid wasn’t the best term for the unidentified pink substance. It was too thick for that. It flowed slowly, not quite a liquid but not quite a solid either, something in-between. It wasn’t paint, though, too heavy. It was closer to…

Sludge, I thought, having trouble choosing the best word for it. It was some kind of sludge.

“Fudge,” I said.

Everyone looked at me. They had been looking at my hand, which made sense because it was covered in pretty pink goo, but now they were looking at me. Why?

Quote looked worried. Why was she worried? Everything was fine. I’d found the secret.

I’d found the sludge.

“Are you… okay, By?”

“Minf finef. Jot ja fudge. Jis good. Fuuuuuudddge.”

“…Um.”

“What… what is she doing?”

“By?”

“Jot fudge, juys. Fum onnnn…”

“It’s the water! Fuck, I knew it!”

“She didn’t drink it. I was with her, she didn’t drink it. She didn’t even open it!”

“No, it’s…”

I took a step forward, laughing and smiling, my legs laughing with me as the funny stuff ran down my arms. Somebody yelled something, but I felt great. My eyes were heavy.

The floor, I think, jumped to attack me, but somebody blocked it with their body, shielding me in their arms.

“Fuuududu”, I informed my savior. I knew they’d get it.

Stuff stopped, and my eyes closed, and that was cool. I loved fudge and penguins and reality television, but sleep was nice too.

Never got enough sleep.

7 thoughts on “1.06

  1. I’m in the middle of a pretty awful case of pleurisy, which made doing the last round of edits on this tons of fun. Thankfully, it only hurts when I breathe or move or exist, so things aren’t too terrible. I’m happy to have a hefty backlog, although I didn’t actually have to dip into it yet, even this week. Psychologically so far it’s really been powerful to know that even if I was rendered completely unable to write I’d still be able to post updates for a fair bit.

    It’s also come along with terrible headaches, and it’s kind of difficult for me to think at full capacity; I’m bouncing between sanity and moments of staring ahead at the wall and drooling like an idiot for twenty minutes without doing anything. Let’s just say that I can really relate to how By seems to be feeling at the end of the chapter.

    I *think* I did a decent job of cleaning this up in terms of grammar/spelling/wording, but it’s very difficult for me to give it an objective run through in my current state, so forgive me if it’s actually a giant mess and I’m too nutty to have spotted it. I’ll definitely be giving this another look through once my brain starts working again.

    (Also worth nothing that I changed the name of the previous chapter. After some thought, I decided something else fit better with the naming conventions I have intended for the interludes.)

    Happy holidays.

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  2. Uh. Interesting.

    Well, finally it’s all but confirmed that the gamemakers have some weird shit going on, considering they seem to have just… drugged her? Or something?

    Not sure why they would put the paintball in such an odd location… or why any of this would happen…

    Ugh. I want to make theories and predictions but I also feel like I don’t have enough info to work off of. Well, whatever. Can’t wait for the next chapter! And I hope you feel better soon.

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      1. Oh wow, that autofilled my name. Um. Didn’t mean to post it like that… any chance you have a delete button on your end? Because I don’t see one and would rather not have my name out there…

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