There was an old Mitch Hedberg joke that I had once heard about escalators. I wasn’t able to remember what it was, but it definitely made me laugh when I’d first listened to it. To distract myself as we were brought further and further up, I kept trying to remember it, hoping the effort would calm me down.
Ironically, I wasn’t the best with heights. I wasn’t one of those people who’d start shaking in fear the moment I stepped into a glass elevator, but they didn’t fill me with warm and fuzzy feelings either. It wasn’t a phobia I was particularly eager to broadcast, especially in front of teasers like ZB, because just about everybody and their grandma found it hilarious to rag on the idea of a freakishly tall person who wasn’t comfortable once past a certain height.
(My argument, of course, would have been to point out how well-founded that fear actually was; if a tall person ever tripped, they had a lot more time to build up speed before hitting the ground. The bigger they were…)
In fairness, the escalator we were on wasn’t as bad as it could’ve been, even considering how absurdly long it was. It fed immediately into a upward tunnel, thinner but not unlike escalator tunnels a person would find leading into any typical subway station. Since it was walled off from both around and above, it didn’t give the full impression of rising elevation in the same way an open air one would have.
But it was long, both literally and because of how excruciatingly slow it was, much more so than a regular one. I wasn’t one for reasonable estimates, but ten stories high was a conservative estimate. We could see the exit from the bottom, but just barely, the light coming around the bend not more than a small blip in the far distance.
With the escalator seemingly set to move as slowly as it possibly could, a viewer might have expected us to have rushed to get to the top, but even with our stomachs growling we stood patiently in place and waited as a group for the machine to take us there. Part of that might have been how unorganized we were, but the real reason was that we were still shellshocked from the sheer size of what we were witnessing.
Scattered discussion began almost as soon as we got on, everyone immediately confused.
“Are we underground? They couldn’t have built all this just for the game.”
“It could be a refurbished metro station.”
Zeezrom shook his head.
“They don’t have subways in Nevada. Heck, they don’t have basements in Nevada. Utah, New Mexico, Arizona, Texas… pretty much the entire American Southwest isn’t built for that; the ground’s almost all rock. You can get one, if you’re rich… but it gets crazy expensive. And that’s only if you’re talking about sandblasting beneath a house or something. Building something this deep underneath a desert would be one of the most ambitious construction projects in human history, if even possible. Right, Hold?”
Hold nodded. I saw Dot squint.
“Why ask him? He’s not an architect. Neither are you.”
“Well, I’m from Utah, and Hold mentioned that he used to live around Texas sometime after By passed out, so I figured he could back me up on that.”
“Not lived,” corrected Hold. “Traveled.”
“So what, then,” said Dent. “Are you saying that we aren’t really in Nevada?”
“I don’t think they can outright lie to us,” I said. “Misleading us or withholding information is one thing, but I think they’d be opening themselves up to legal trouble if they just made stuff up. Besides, there’s plenty of things they could have lied to us about already if they were going to go in that direction.”
I said that, and I did mean it, but it wasn’t anything close to an absolute statement. Every new little oddity or inconsistency pushed me the smallest bit closer to the conclusion that our situation had already gone beyond a simple TV show, but I pushed the thought out of my mind as much as I could, not wanting to seriously acknowledge it. The gamemakers very likely wanted us to start thinking like that, at least subconsciously. Paranoia pushed people to do things they wouldn’t normally do otherwise, and if there was any group on the planet with experience in manipulating the emotions of others, it was the folks who made reality television.
I wasn’t going to let them get to me. (That wasn’t an absolute statement, but I was going to pretend, dammit.)
“We might just be above ground, then,” suggested Quote. “That’s plausible, right? It could be a mix, too. Half and half, or whatever ratio. Some underground, some above.”
Once again, Zeezrom shook his head.
“Okay, but regardless of the state, any twelve-plus story building is going to cost a ridiculous amount of money. And it isn’t like you’d need something like that for a game like this, so the idea that they’d build a new one just for it seems a little… far-fetched. It isn’t impossible, but…”
“Maybe it’s an illusion,” said Caroline.
Almost everyone turned back to stare at her. Aside from Joyo, she was the last of us to have gotten on. From behind her, he chuckled.
“…How? We can see the top and the bottom, and we’re clearly movin’.”
She shrugged, scratching her left hand.
“I don’t know. I’m only bringing up possibilities.”
“Well, try only openin’ your mouth when you have something useful to say, alright? I know that can be tough for psychologists, but do your best.”
Caroline didn’t respond, staring blankly at the stainless steel wall and sliding her fingers against it as we moved. The conversation continued in pieces for the remaining few minutes — someone notably pointing out how there was only a single escalator, as opposed to two side-by-side — but little else was accomplished by the time we reached the end. Despite Joyo’s frantic whines from the bottom for us to either move out the way or begin walking up ourselves, we stood still until we saw Lu go over the top before us, when we began shuffling quickly to close the gap.
Unsurprisingly, we were met with another long hallway.
ZB’s scream boomed throughout the giant room that the second hallway fed into, producing the exact triple echo effect she’d probably been hoping for. Taking the incredible size of the room into account, I wasn’t surprised to learn that it had such great acoustics.
It was, without exaggeration, one of the largest rooms that I had ever been inside of, maybe around half the size of a baseball stadium. It was formed in the shape of a perfect dome, the gray ceiling curving out from the floor upwards into a perfect half-sphere. I couldn’t see any slots for panels on the ceiling, but it was too far away for me to really get a good look at.
Discounting the big pink door that we had entered from, six equidistant red doors lined the sides, each with a thick bold letter painted on the front, A through F.
In addition, one final door — big and pink, like the entrance — stood on the exact opposite side of the circle to where we were at, a large number two painted on it. The one we had come out of had a zero; presumably, they represented floor numbers. (If they were accurate, we were on the “first” floor.)
Still smiling, Hold turned to face Caroline, who had requested his attention. She had taken off one of her sandals.
“Could you please throw this into the air as high as you possibly can? Aim close to the sides, if possible, but don’t hit the wall.”
Hold obeyed without question, launching her footwear higher than I thought I would have been able to fire an arrow. Her sandal didn’t seem even remotely aerodynamic, but his giant arms effortlessly sent it at least one-hundred and fifty feet into the air, and it fell back to the ground with a distant smack soon after.
“Searching for screens?” I guessed.
While sliding her sandal back on, she nodded.
It was a good attempt, but room did seem legitimate, as difficult as it might’ve been to believe. It reminded me of a missile silo, if at least by shape, although I somewhat obviously had no business in trying to seriously make the comparison.
Unsurprisingly, there was more immediate discussion about where the hell we’d ended up, but the rumbling of our stomachs and Lu’s inability to stand still forced us forward. Splitting into small groups and agreeing not to leave the room yet, we walked around and tried out the doors. All opened without trouble, save for the second large one, and scrawled beneath the big two in smaller letters was a short message explaining why.
“That probably means that we won’t be able to go inside until after the first trial,” said Cornea.
“Not if the trial ends up being a suicide,” pointed out Caroline.
“Ah. Since that’d only be one, you mean. And we’ll need two gone.”
“Likewise, if two people violate the rules before a trial, we could reasonably expect the door to open without one. That’s only if our initial assumption about the way the door works is correct; it could just as easily be a code or secret message of some sort.”
I took a deep breath, barely resisting the urge to roll my eyes. I would’ve been a hypocrite if I got too annoyed about someone bringing up unnecessarily obvious contradictions, but knowing her background, it made it all so much worse for me.
I was biased, yeah. Prolonged exposure to smug assholes on the Internet had turned me into the kind of weirdo who went around champing at the bit for a chance to tear people down for perceived pseudo-intellectualism. I didn’t like the idea of describing myself as smart or exceptionally intelligent — both because I wasn’t and humility having been the desirable quality that it was — but I also had something of a secret fetish for wanting others to feel dumb.
Maybe that wasn’t the best way to describe it; more specifically, I wanted people who thought they were smart to learn that they weren’t. Or if I didn’t want that, I sure liked watching it.
That was part of the appeal of any good mystery, right? To be a criminal and expect no punishment was to invoke the sin of hubris, and watching a detective solve a crime and humble someone who thought they were clever enough to break the system was about as cathartic as fiction got.
Plus, hell — sneering at people who decided to crawl up their own asses was fun. The best response to fart-sniffing pricks was always going to be laughter and righteous disgust. In my mind, the only thing more fun than pointing at a murder-mystery culprit was pointing and laughing at a self-indulgent nitpicking douchebag.
I wasn’t being fair by applying that label to Caroline, though, as reluctant as I was to admit it. Sneering — a good proper sneer, anyway — was contextual. Even if it wasn’t always to my tastes, being slightly too eager to correct someone during a conversation wasn’t worthy of mockery, and in full honesty neither did anything Caroline had done up to that point. She’d never bragged about her IQ or done anything to earn the title of ultra-rationalist, and it wasn’t like she’d gone on long speeches about the necessity of recognizing “logic” as the only guiding human principle before vaulting into long comment chains flirting with eugenics and ethnic nationalism.
(Seriously, being a public figure on the Internet got really fucking weird.)
No, as much as she’d demonstrated so far, Caroline was just a dork. She was a different brand of dork than I was — one either more or less socially aware than me, depending on how a person wanted to look at it, and probably one with snootier tastes in online fiction — but a dork nonetheless. That wasn’t a crime.
(Or maybe it was, and that was the actual answer to where we’d all ended up. Dork jail.)
If I wanted to be fair to her, and I did, I’d have to hold off on sneering. It probably wasn’t an unhealthy thing to do in moderate amounts, as long as a person didn’t go seeking it out or targeting folks who didn’t deserve it, but neither of those applied to that situation. Caroline wasn’t an evil person. None of us were, probably. (Well, save for Cornea and Dot. Sweatpants were downright diabolical.)
The other doors also had extra messages printed in smaller letters, each detailing what lay behind them: “Recreation Wing”, “Health Wing”, et cetera. After some searching, Dent’s trio pointed us all towards door D, appropriately titled as the Dining Wing.
Lu seemed to be operating within her own little world, but she still followed us as we all entered, yet another long hallway awaiting us.