“What the fuck is she doing?”
From the doorway, ZB pointed at Soso, who was still resting with her eyes closed on the row of swivel chairs she’d pulled together.
I looked away from the computer and stopped in the middle of my sentence, realizing the significance of what I’d almost said. It wasn’t a fact that I’d ever given absolute credence, but if what I’d appeared to have seen in The Movie Room or what I was seeing then was accurate, Soso would’ve doing something that was, by all given information, impossible.
The sudden realization knocking us upside our heads, Dent shouted.
“She’s the mole!”
“How the hell did we miss that?”
At the call of loud shouting, Soso opened her eyes, gently but immediately turning her head to face us.
Corn pointed, barely giving her a chance to sit up straight before diving right into the accusations. A few of us, myself included, raced to the rules listed on our watches, wanting to ensure that the wording confirmed our suspicions. (It did, as best as I could tell. Rule twenty was very clear.)
“Soso, while we were watching the movie, you looked like you were sleeping.”
She gracefully avoided meeting any of our eyes, lacking anything even in the same realm as genuine confidence.
“You aren’t allowed to sleep anywhere outside your bedroom. It’s against the rules. But you haven’t been Sludged or eliminated, best as I can tell. Do you have an explanation?”
She muffled something, looked down at the floor.
“What? I can’t hear you.”
“…Sorry. I wasn’t sleeping.”
“Yeah, no,” said Dent, rolling his eyes. “You didn’t move once during that whole movie. Don’t fucking lie. You’re the mole. That has to be it.”
“I wasn’t. I’m not.”
“So you sat in the dark through a two hour long film, perfectly still with your eyes closed? That’s the bullshit you want us to buy, right?”
“Here,” said Quote, cutting Dent off. “We all just watched the movie, didn’t we? If she was listening to it, then we can quiz her on specific quotes to see if she remembers.”
“I’m not sure that’s a good metric,” I said. “It’s Spirited Away. A lot of people have seen it, and a lot of those people have seen it more than enough times to memorize key parts. Not that crazy to imagine her having sat through plenty of rewatches before, especially if she didn’t care enough to watch it again.”
“I never saw it.”
“Oh, fuck off,” said Dent.
Quote elbowed him, motioning for him to tone it down. (Strait was looking at Soso at the time, thankfully enough for Quote.)
Dent listened, amazingly, taking a breath to calm himself down. (So far, I loved the coordination of Corn and Quote when it came to taming him; with their guiding influence, it wasn’t impossible to imagine a future where he didn’t feel the need to shout out every other sentence. With him set to be next to me during the Sludge Trials, that was something worth hoping for.)
“Well, we can try, at least. If we want to try to establish trust, it’s better than nothing,” said Martha. “Soso, what is Haku’s true name?”
“You didn’t watch it either,” Dent pointed out.
“It’s been a little while, but I don’t have any issue recalling it. My memory’s generally decent when it comes to things of this nature.”
Soso shook her head.
“No, I… I never saw it, including now. I wasn’t listening.”
“So you were sleeping?”
“No. I don’t… like movies. I didn’t want to watch, and I didn’t want to listen, so I closed my eyes and…”
She started muffling again.
“Soso,” Quote said, looking more sympathetic than suspicious. “You need to speak clearly, so we can hear you. Just take your time. It’s fine. No one is going to shoot you if you get it wrong.”
ZB flipped her palms up in amazement.
“Are you seriously defending her? She pretends to be all girly and nervous and that’s all it takes? A bat of fucking eyelashes?”
Quote bit down on her bottom lip.
“…There’s aspects of the situation worth defending, from her end. More importantly than anything else, unless it’s time-delayed or something — and the rules specify that it’s not, if the word ‘instantly’ is worth listening to — Soso didn’t get eliminated. If we want to say that the reason for that is because she’s a mole, that implies that the mole made a super obvious mistake very early on, and that’s… not impossible, but it definitely stretches belief.”
“Why? She might’ve been tired. She might be one out of several moles. Maybe she’s the mole that they set up for us to find early so that we wouldn’t think to look for more. That’s fucking crazy, yeah, but so is literally every goddamn thing here. I don’t know if you guys went to The Soft Maze yet, but shit, dude.”
“I’m not a mole. I’m…”
Soso exhaled very slowly, looking down at her hands, which had begun to tremble, if just a little. She’d been very visibly uncomfortable every time the group’s attention had lingered on her so far, and that effect only appeared to amplify after heavy suspicion was added to the mix (assuming that she wasn’t acting). Either way, having been in her shoes myself, I didn’t envy her.
“…I have trouble relaxing, sometimes. I do… they’re called mindfulness exercises. They help me calm down. I close my eyes and let my mind rest. Like… thinking nothing. That’s what I was doing.”
“…You were meditating for two hours?”
“It’s not exactly that, but… yeah? I got a full night’s sleep, and I wasn’t tired, so it wasn’t like I was afraid of accidentally falling asleep after closing my eyes. I just don’t like movies and I don’t like computers and I’d rather just do my exercises instead of looking at more screens. I’m not…”
She exhaled again.
“Here,” I said, trying to lighten the mood and redirect the conversation. “I know someone can help us settle all this.”
After flashing a cheesy smile and vomiting out the worst jokey sarcasm I could manage, I turned back to the keyboard, not actually expecting an answer.
Since the start of the game, has Soso slept outside of her bedroom?
There was another moment of silence, and then we all turned back to face Soso, whatever trust she’d managed to earn back incinerated with nothing more than a few keystrokes.
Is there a mole within our group?
Is By a mole?
Is Soso a mole?
Is there a reason why you answered one specific question regarding Soso but so far have refused to answer any other person-specific question either about her or anyone else?
Are any of the men in our group moles?
“You’re doing great!”
Are any of the women in our group moles?
Is Corn actually an anesthesiologist?
Is Lu actually an adult?
Is Zeezrom actually a Mormon?
Is anyone in the group lying about their stated profession or background?
Are we in Nevada?
Are we underground?
“You’re doing great!”
Is any part of this facility underground?
Does the escalator have some sort of trick to it, beyond what could be reasonably expected from a normal escalator?
Did By know about the secret panel prior to finding it?
Did anyone know about the secret panel prior to By finding it?
Did the gamemakers administer a secret drug to any of us while we were unconscious?
Does the Sludge work via nanobots?
Does the Sludge work via implants?
Does the Sludge work at all?
Has anyone found any Sludge yet, beyond By’s initial encounter?
“You’re doing great!”
Is there a secret element to this game?
Is there a secret element to the codes we guessed at the beginning of the game? Do they hold any significance beyond opening our doors?
Will you ever again answer any question that involves providing information on a specific player?
Will you ever answer any question that assists us in solving a Sludging?
When answering questions, do you treat some players differently than others? Are there instances where you would answer something for one player that you might not answer for another?
Do you have any specific bias against me in particular asking questions?
Will you ever answer any question that allows me to better understand the parameters of what I can and can’t ask you?
Are you able to answer any question with anything other than N/A?
“Okay, I’m done.”
With the tiniest of indignant huffs, Caroline pushed herself and her swivel chair away from the table, making room for the next person to try. Based on what I’d observed so far about how both her and VedsiChat seemed to operate, I wasn’t that surprised to see that she wasn’t able to string much out of it.
The problem was obvious. Caroline, at her core, cared about significance. VC — at least as far as any of us could tell — did not.
“You’re doing great!”
We’d all gone about twice, the thirteen of us in the room cycling through and taking turns trying to strangle something useful out of what we’d been given. We weren’t having much luck, outside of an initial burst of answers; if one of us tried graphing a pie chart to show how often we were getting each of three possible answers, not applicable would’ve represented an offensively large slice.
According to those who’d come to join us after ZB discovered our location, Caroline had gotten up and woken up her half of the group early so we wouldn’t permanently split ourselves up due to disjointed sleep schedules. Working together, they’d managed to wrangle up most everyone, save for Dot and Polycarp.
ZB said that Dot outright refused to leave her room, still wanting more sleep, while Polycarp said that he needed about an hour alone to finish up whatever he’d been in the middle of. (I’d made a mental note to take extra caution the next time I was around him; his reasons for staying in might have been totally innocent, but I wasn’t going to risk it. If he’d located some Sludge during his nightly escapades, he could’ve been planning something. The same went for all the others, naturally.)
“You’re doing great!”
Although not with us, Joyo was supposedly also up, making breakfast for everyone. While playing a game revolving primarily around ensuring that a mysterious foreign substance didn’t enter my body, I didn’t see myself eating anything that Joyo had been allowed to be alone with for even a second. (Still, it wasn’t like I was going to complain about him not staying with the group. Any Joyo-free moment, I had begun to learn, was a blessing onto itself.)
It was Zeezrom’s turn again, and he didn’t seem too hopeful about his chances of finally cracking the code either, not doing much beyond repeating previous questions with his own tiny spin on them. By that point, that’s what most of us had been reduced to; the way VedsiChat functioned was a mystery onto itself. None of us had much doubt about the fact that we weren’t talking to some type of souped-up chatbot; whoever was at the other end might not have been Ms. Vedsi, but they were almost definitely sentient. (And, as far as we could tell, a giant prick.)
When it came to answering questions, VC had many almost-consistencies, but no true ones. It usually wouldn’t respond when we tried asking it anything about any player in particular, but it had no problem answering my one joke question about Soso. Aside from that, it was mostly random, for the most part only answering the most trivial and meaningless of questions possible. (“Are fishsticks delicious?”, for example, got a “Yes.”)
The closest thing to an absolute law one could ascribe to it was that it went out of its way to be unhelpful. I couldn’t blame those of us who’d stopped caring about it.
“You’re doing great!”
“Can you please shut the shit off?” yelled Dent.
AGAIN, IT DOESN’T TURN OFF.
“Then stop playing,” said Caroline.
Claim shook his head.
I LIKE SOLITAIRE.
“You’re doing great!”
I saw Dent’s eyes burst with contempt, only the presence of Quote and Corn serving to restrain him. It was… a little funny, in all honesty, but I couldn’t blame him for getting so annoyed. We were all sick of it.
For anyone watching later on television wanting to judge us for getting so aggravated over something so seemingly minor, I’d run them down the list of facts we’d discovered about D-Solitaire after Quote examined it during her second turn.
- D-Solitaire, as stated on the opening screen of every terminal inside The Computer Room, was a solitaire application. It “functioned”.
- As also mentioned, D-Solitaire allowed players the gracious opportunity to switch background colors, even during gameplay. The three options given stretched far and wide across the rainbow palette of artistic diversity: green, lime green, and puke green.
- Trying to choose lime green crashed the game. Somehow, not switching to puke green would also crash the game, although only on the fourth card movement. (If a person made three moves on green, switched to puke and made one more, and then went back to green, the effect could avoided while still allowing them to enjoy normal green for the rest of that game. The reasons one could have for doing all that, presumably, were limitless.)
- All the visual assets in the game: the cards, the starting menu, and the putrid smiley-faced rendition of Mr. Dogsi that perpetually hung in the bottom-right corner of the screen, were very visibly produced in Microsoft Paint. (If the quality was anything to go by, probably by a small, limbless child.)
- The symbols on the heart and diamond cards were indistinguishable by sight alone, requiring a player to guess which was which every time they wanted to try and place them down.
- D-Solitaire aimed to delight more than a player’s sense of sight; it offered two lovely sound effects, both of which sounded indescribably wonderful coming out of the crisp built-in speakers of a piece of hardware that had been outdated over a decade prior to my birth.
- The first sound — a shrill beeping that lasted for about a full second — activated whenever a player tried placing down a card in a location where it wasn’t allowed to go. (Of course, due to the added challenge of the diamond/heart lookalikes, this was not at all uncommon.)
- The second sound was Mr. Dogsi himself, who made sure to tell the player that they were “doing great” whenever they managed to place a card correctly inside the foundation. Coming out of the speakers, the three words he had recorded for us — the only three words — were just marginally nicer than the sounds my pet turtle made when masturbating by humping his little turtle penis against the grass in my backyard.
- (No, not a joke. For a good while, Kafka had really been into grass-fucking.)
- Both sounds, whenever activated, played at random volumes, alternating between a soft whisper and an ass-shatteringly loud boom. Hilariously enough, that made it impossible to get used to! Ha, ha.
- Near Mr. Dogsi’s face, there was audio button. Pressing it didn’t lower or disable the sound, but it did crash the game.
- Only two people in our group had any continuing interest in the game following our brief examination of it, Claim and Soso, the latter curiously watching as the former played on another computer across the room from where we were VedsiChatting. Neither had cared one iota for trying VedsiChat themselves; presumably, anytime away from D-Solitaire was wasted.
- Claim was very, very good at D-Solitaire. Even factoring in the technical troubles he might have been facing otherwise, he was averaging a winning game every four minutes or so.
- Because of that, the noises never, ever stopped, a flood of varying beeps and YDGs soon to devour our souls.
- Nietzsche was right. God was dead.
- (Yeah, so he was more referring to idea that culture no longer needed the idea of a deity as opposed to the literal death of the creator of the universe, but the analogy held because that noise needed to stop or I was going to lose my fucking mind.)
Ignoring it as best as I could, I turned back to watch Zeezrom. He was working… whatever angle he was going for. We’d been at it for some time, and we were getting to theories on the level of “maybe it only replies when you use a certain letter enough times”.
And we went on, beginning our third cycle, Corn going, and then Lu going, and then Martha going, nothing happening beyond more and more and more beeping/Dogsi. The rules said he could only go on for an hour, and maybe it had been that long, but time didn’t seem to exist anymore, beep, beep, beep. After having spaced out for awhile along with everyone else, I took a look back at the screen, seeing where Dent had landed us.
Is the escalator actually pink?
“You’re doing great!”
“Nope,” I said, standing up. “Nope. No, no. No. This is over. This needs to be over.”
“Yeah, I think we might’ve exhausted this particular avenue,” said Caroline.
“Really, wow,” said ZB. “That’s… no way, Caroline. You’re so smart, gosh.”
“…Maybe we could go get breakfast,” suggested Martha. “I don’t think there’s actually a time limit, and he’s already made it clear that he’s not going to stop. And… I’m a bit peckish, by this point. I’d rather not starve to death listening to… this.”
“You aren’t in any danger of that, Marthy.”
Martha looked away from ZB, not seeming especially hurt but clearly annoyed by ZB’s continued motormouth. She didn’t respond, but Quote was fine with saying something herself, filling up the awkward silence that had been brought on by ZB’s unnecessary insult.
“…That’s not cool, ZB. Look, I don’t care about the puns, but you can’t-”
Ignoring Strait’s equally passionate plea for her to stop and apologize, ZB pushed her way through the group and waddled out the door. She made sure to slam it.
“You’re doing great!”
“I don’t want her alone,” said Caroline. “We already have Joyo, Dot, and Polycarp out by themselves, and three is enough. Someone needs to bring her back. If not her, one of the others.”
Dent snorted air through his nose.
“Who gives a shit?”
“Strategically, in a game where all of us can be eliminated at once for failing to correctly solve a Sludge Trial, a player acting dangerously is a problem for everyone. If she gets herself eliminated in a non-solvable way, that’s everybody’s concern.”
“…So go yourself,” said Dent.
“No,” said Caroline. “I don’t like being around her. Besides…”
“You’re doing great!”
“There’s really only one person who she gets along with.”
The communal bathrooms were the first rooms to be found after entering The Health Wing, the pair of doors immediately to the left of its entrance.
They were huge (well, the women’s bathroom was, at least), a few sizes larger than the locker room at any giant high school or chain gym. There were benches, several rows of sinks and mirrors, and eight green stalls for us to use; in the miraculous instance where every woman in the game suddenly needed to go at the exact same time, they were prepared.
Most of it was just wide empty space, though. Walking to the very end and arriving at the toilets, I noticed a pair of yellow webbed feet sitting inside the third stall from the right.
“You’re kinda being a perv, By. Didn’t you say you were getting married? Or was that just for the cameras?”
She caught me off guard. It took me a second to start putting words together.
“…Did you seriously see me trailing you? I was like, 99% sure that you didn’t look back.”
“You’re tall; it makes you stomp around like a motherfucker. If we’re in the girl’s bathroom, it was either you or Martha, and I didn’t expect her to come running after me. Not that she could.”
“I’m kidding, dumbass. Mirrors. Anyway, I’m trying to shit. Go away.”
“ZB, there aren’t any cameras here.”
“I… know? That’s… y’know, hence the shitting.”
“Well, I mean to say, it’s just us.”
“…So you were being a perv? By, I’m flattered, but not really the time. Come back later, maybe. I dunno. I know what I said, but I’m not really into giraffes, generally-”
“Are you playing a character? I honestly can’t tell anymore.”
“Is this… like, not just the costume, but… you. Is it all a bit? They’re not watching us in here, and I can’t envision a single reason why making everybody hate you could be a strategy thing, so be honest.”
“By, I’m literally in the middle of taking a shit. It’s dangling. This really isn’t the time.”
“Considering that you’re wearing a full body penguin costume that you haven’t taken off, I’m both assuming and praying that you’re lying to me.”
Caught, she grumbled a bit before standing up and coming out to face me. I hadn’t noticed yet, but her face looked especially exhausted, the presumed effects of at most a few hours of sleep not helping her out very much.
“What the hell do you want?”
“Just… look, couldn’t you be, like, a little bit less of an asshole? The puns and the ice jokes are one thing, but… that was just legitimately mean, Zetta.”
She rolled her eyes.
“By, it’s reality television. That’s how people act. Are you five? What did you expect, everybody to be best friends? That’s not how this works.”
“…Maybe, but… I mean, no, it’s not. A lot of these shows are semi-scripted, I’m pretty sure, but that wasn’t. You just called a girl fat on international television, no prompting, no forewarning, with full intention of being mean.”
“She is fat.”
“Okay, but… you insulted her, pretty rudely. You didn’t need to bring that up.”
“She’s pretty fucking rude herself.”
“I spoke to her alone this morning. She’s a little introverted when it comes to most things, but she’s an okay person. And you started stirring up shit for no reason. She took it as a real insult, and everybody saw that. It was nasty.”
“I don’t care what she took it as. I… just fuck off, honestly. Why’d I even vote for you? Fuck, that was stupid.”
“Can I ask, honestly; are you trying to get people to hate you?”
She started walking past me, and I side-stepped in front of her, taking advantage of our difference in size.
“Answer the question. If you say yes, whatever, that’s fine. But I want to know.”
“Are you being an asshole on purpose?”
She looked at me like I was being obtuse.
“I’m not being an asshole! I’m just fucking around! You know I’m just fucking around!”
“So no. Okay.”
She paused, drawing in a long breath to stop herself.
“What do you want, By? I didn’t do anything. I called her fat; newsflash, she’s fat. If she chooses to take that literally, hey, maybe it motivates her to eat one less chocolate bar. And I don’t want to be friends with her, and I really don’t care what you or her or anyone watching at home has to say about me. I want money. I’m here because I want money, and I want to enjoy myself. That’s it.”
“You’re… look, maybe you’re messing with me so I feel sorry for you. I don’t know, and maybe I’m the idiot for bringing it up, but… why not just tone it down? The penguin thing is…”
I swallowed, forcing myself to say it.
“It’s kind of funny, in a surreal sort of way. The puns too, mostly. But… why the personal attacks? With Joyo, I’m like 99.99% sure that he’s trying to be the heel, but I don’t really get the same impression with you. I saw. You liked it when Strait laughed at your jokes, and you liked it when I traded one back with you. If you apologized to Martha and cut out the shit-talking, I’d honestly enjoy being around you. If this isn’t some crazy fourth-dimensional chess type thing, then you’re mutilating yourself socially for literally no reason whatsoever.”
She tried to speak up, but I didn’t let her, continuing on.
“As a person, I like you, ZB. Even being as young as you are, someone who shows up to something like this in a penguin suit is someone I find genuinely interesting. I know this is a game, fine — Sludge me later, if you want — but can’t you stop being an edgelord so I could feel comfortable calling you a friend?”
“I’m not an edgelord.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“…Okay, maybe I’m a little edgy. But…”
She took another long breath, cranking up her head and tediously dragging her hands down her face. Exhaling, she started to relax her scowl.
“Fine, okay. You’re right. I’m sorry. Look… I’m eighteen, I’m on TV, I’m excited. I got a big, big, group of friends back home, we talk up a lot of shit, and everybody there knows I’m fucking around, so I’m used to that sort of thing. I got too into it, and I forgot that you guys aren’t from that. Sorry. I’ll apologize to her, too. It’s…”
She looked off to the side, shrugging.
“It’s just improv, y’know?”