“That would require a lengthy explanation,” answered Mr. Dogsi. “To be frank, we still need to go through the rules, which will take awhile, so I’d rather not dwell on the why. The introductions have gone on long enough, don’t you think?”
His smile was about as overpowering as Ms. Vedsi’s scowl. An outside observer might have assumed that his unexpected friendliness would’ve encouraged us all to open up more, but it had the opposite effect; we were all too surprised to ask many questions. We hadn’t been expecting someone like him to end up being the host; heck, most of us had probably given up on the idea of a host showing up altogether, considering the trouble the gamemakers seemed to have gone through with the boxes.
Despite our confusion, no one had stopped to ask him any questions, aside from Joyo and Polycarp, of all people. (For the latter, I thought it was maybe the third or fourth sentence I’d heard come out of him.) Of all the possible questions to ask, he’d wanted Mr. Dogsi to spell out his and Ms. Vedsi’s names for him.
(That request hadn’t made any sense to me until he obliged, and then it became obvious. It was a cute little Easter egg, even if Polycarp himself didn’t seem very amused by it. If they were gonna hide stuff in names like that, though, I had thought they’d make them a tad less obvious. An anagram, at the very least.)
The second question that was asked, from Joyo, was the same one I would’ve raised. About me.
“All that really needs to be said is that we are in a difficult situation.”
I couldn’t stop myself from blurting out.
“…By, I’m not going to get into a full rundown of the rules until this has been settled, but there is one that must be made clear before we can continue. As some of you have already guessed, that pink stuff you made contact with — that sludge, as we call it — represents death.”
“As I said,” said Joyo. “It’ll be a fun ride home, By. Stay safe out there. Keep away from shiny wall holes and paintballs, if you can manage.”
“Not quite,” said Mr. Dogsi. “Not yet, at least. Under normal circumstances, direct contact with sludge would result in an instant elimination from the competition. However, for two reasons, the situation isn’t that cut and dry.”
“And those are?”
Mr. Dogsi smiled again.
“First of all, the game has yet to officially start.”
“We solved that puzzle and made it out here, didn’t we? That’s a start, right there. C’mon. She’s out.”
“Officially speaking, as per the rules, the game won’t begin in earnest until Ms. Vedsi activates your bracelets.”
Caroline raised an eyebrow.
“If the game has yet to start, why was it even possible for By to gain access to something that could eliminate us?”
Mr. Dogsi smiled, turning his head to a stone cold Ms. Vedsi for a moment before looking back at the group. They had some sort of weird Penn and Teller routine going on between them, and I got the impression Ms. Vedsi wasn’t going to be saying anything out loud anytime soon.
“That’s the second reason. The sludge that By found… was not supposed to have been there.”
I felt my face wrinkle with confusion.
“No sludge was intended to have been placed inside this room, the hallways, or your bedrooms. None of the sixteen of you were meant to have any access to sludge prior to the game starting.”
“…Therein lies the reason that this is so difficult. I am unable to elaborate on that.”
I spoke without thinking.
“So… someone made a mistake, then? It was an accident?”
“…I can’t answer that.”
Of course he couldn’t.
I froze, unable to articulate myself. Predictably enough, Caroline once again picked up the slack.
“And I assume you are unable — or unwilling — to provide the reason for why you can’t tell us that, correct?”
He nodded, still holding onto a small, nervous smile.
His claims did not make sense.
Was it one of us? Assuming that the knowledge demon wasn’t fucking with me and that the basic foundations of reality hadn’t decided to suddenly collapse in on themselves, the idea that one of us could have put the ball of sludge into the panel was very, very unlikely.
- Mr. Dogsi stated that none of us could’ve gained access to the sludge prior to our bracelets having activated, and that none of it was present in any of the three rooms we’d all gone through. If that was the case, and none of us had any of it, how could someone possibly have put it there?
- Even if someone somehow had gotten ahold of it, either via a separate mistake of the gamemakers or by having created it themselves via personal items they’d brought with them (assuming that could even be done considering the long list of banned items we’d been given), how could they have possibly have managed to sneak it behind the panel? The doors locked as soon as a person entered the main room and shut the door behind them, so assuming that no one had held their door open with an item, placed the ball inside the panel, and went back inside in order to reappear later once others had arrived, it would not have been possible for a person other than ZB to place the ball without me or someone else noticing.
- It was close enough to his door for Zeezrom to have placed it without having to had create attention while moving to it, but I was sure that I hadn’t seen him make any type of movement reaching towards it while leaving his door. Dot, Quote, and ZB had also watched Zeezrom enter, and none of them had said anything. Considering that he would have had to slide down the panel before putting it in, it would been way too long and complex of an arm motion for him to make without being noticed by four people staring right at him. The panel was between the space of door eight and nine, but it was much closer to the latter, and Claim would’ve had an even more difficult time making the motion while walking in, considering both the greater distance and number of people watching him as he came inside.
- The only person — besides myself — to have examined the sides of the room in any direct fashion was Caroline, who had checked all the doors to ensure they were actually locked. Since I was suspicious of her, I had carefully watched her do all of it, and she definitely had not placed it behind the panel during that time. Even when we’d all been split off into different groups, the room was large enough where we all would’ve immediately noticed someone running off to hug the walls (as they had with me), so anyone else doing it would’ve been called out instantly.
- How could have any of us known about the sludge, its properties, or the existence of the panel prior to having seen them? The title of the game we were playing might’ve hinted at the nature of the sludge, very slightly, but not nearly enough for someone to know how the game actually functioned. If there was someone among us who knew about it in advance, that would have implied the existence of a mole. (That might’ve explained Mr. Dogsi’s reluctance/inability to explain himself, but it also opened up a whole new can of worms for me to have to worry about.)
- Why? Even if one was able to explain away every other potential problem, what possible benefit did it serve to put the sludge in the panel so early in the game? Why not put it in later, when no one was around to see them? There didn’t seem to be any reason to need it there so early in the game, at least unless they wanted somebody out before the game started. But why would they have wanted that? It seemed to be the case that I — or whoever they were targeting by placing it there, if anyone specific — was not guaranteed to be eliminated if hit by the sludge prior to the game officially having started. Wouldn’t someone knowledgeable about the rules of the game be aware of the fact that putting the ball there wasn’t sure to eliminate someone? (All that wasn’t even getting into the issue of the surprising ineffectiveness of the method; had I not decided to squeeze the ball, I probably would have just pocketed it until I’d been told the rules and learned what I could use it for, giving me a weapon for later. Surely, if someone had intended to try to cause an elimination, they could have found a better method.)
All that didn’t make it impossible for it to have been one of the sixteen of us, only improbable. But, even so, what alternative did I have? That a rogue employee had put it in during construction without being caught? That Mr. Dogsi was lying to us, and that it had been intended to be there? That some malevolent supernatural entity was fucking with us?
…That it was an honest mistake, and I was committing the same sin of overexplanation that I’d that same day chastised Caroline for?
God, I hoped not.
“Ultimately, our current issue revolves around the fact that we have encountered a situation that the rules do not account for.”
“I have a solution,” said Joyo. “It’s really easy.”
“I have a better one,” I said.
“…I’m sure you both do, but we have already determined how the situation will be handled, and in a way that matches the spirit of the game. What must be acknowledged, above all else…”
I held my breath.
“Is that this game is not intended to be fair.”
Joyo grinned at me. It was wide enough to see molars.
In a swift motion fast enough to make my head spin, Mr. Dogsi reached into one of the many deep pockets lining the sides of his robe, pulling something out and aiming it directly at my chest. It was a pink gun.
I had a feeling I knew what was inside.
Gasps, exclamations, and a terrible ice pun filled the air, everyone close to me taking several steps back away towards the side of the room farthest away from where I was standing, almost assuredly more than was actually necessary. On instinct, I began to raise both my hands up in the air, only to put them back down after quickly realizing why it was pointless to do so.
“…That being said,” Mr. Dogsi clarified, slightly lowering the gun, “It isn’t intended to be unfair, either.”
“Oh, thank you.”
“Oh, fuck you.”
“…At the core, this game is very individualistic. It isn’t designed to allow the entire group to win. Still, the decisions of the group are extremely important, both for it as a whole and for the individuals who become separated from it.”
“A vote,” said Caroline.