2.02

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.

It didn’t.

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.”

“Same difference.”

“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.

Galápagos!”

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.)

“Hold.”

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.

ONLY 14

“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.”

She nodded.

“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.

2.01

They were fast.

Not fast, no. That wasn’t the right word.

Insane.

A few seconds after Mr. Dogsi threw his arms up in the air and yelled out the title, Ms. Vedsi ran up from behind him at full speed, throwing herself on top of his back. Before she started falling to the floor, she wrapped herself tightly around his torso with her arms and legs, coiling herself like some demented human snake.

They’d planned for that, somehow. Throughout the entire movement, Ms. Vedsi’s expression never veered off from her perfectly uninterested scowl, her showing off the same level of enthusiasm I’d have expected from a person doing their taxes. Mr. Dogsi was thin — almost repulsively so — but he didn’t even wiggle from the full force impact of another adult person latching onto him from a running start, continuing to stand straight with outstretched arms.

He said nothing and smiled as a panel opened above him and flicked down a rope that ended just in front of his chest. It all happened in less than several seconds, and he’d grabbed it and had the two of them pulled back up into the ceiling before any of us could react, an unknown force retracting the rope and our hosts along with it. The darkness of the hole in the ceiling swallowed them up whole, and it was covered a short moment later, the both of them gone.

“Holy shit.”

There were loud and muffled exclamations alike at the sheer what-the-fuckitude of what we’d just witnessed, but Caroline cut through it instantly, walking towards the center spot where Mr. Dogsi had been standing. She’d been the first to notice the small note on the floor. They’d left it behind for us.

She picked it up from the ground and gave it a glance. We watched her with bated breath.

“Check the watches. That’s all it says.”

She passed the note around, and she wasn’t lying, although I didn’t get to see it for myself. (Joyo got it sixth or so, and he ate it as soon as he did.)

At once, all went to work doing what the note told us to. As I’d already noticed, there weren’t any buttons on sides to adjust from, but the screen — still displaying a bright number twelve — did look like it might’ve been responsive to touch. I tried tapping and swiping, and just like with the panel, it responded when I tried sliding down. Someone shouted out what to do at the same time I figured it out, and we went on ahead, having gained access to a fairly simplistic interface.

There were four app-like icons for us to look through: time, players, and body information, although only one in particular stood out and seemed relevant for the time being. It was what I’d been waiting to see the whole day.

Rules.

I pressed it, chills running through my body. In one sense or another, seeing them lined like that gave me a final assurance that I’d made it. I took one last breath before reading, reminding myself not to etch them as absolute fact into my head. I’d already seen just how bendable rules could be, of course.

Into the weeds I went. 

  1. For the ninety-one day period stretching from October 1st to December 31st, all players, unless eliminated, will not be allowed to leave The Facility.
  2. Hidden throughout The Facility in varying quantities and forms is a substance known as Sludge. Sludge is an extremely potent anesthetic that has been created specifically for the game, and it will put a person to sleep in less than thirty seconds upon contact.
  3. Sludge is non-toxic, edible, impossible to overdose on, and equally functional regardless of the method of entry used. It can be ingested, drank, injected, inhaled, absorbed, or inserted into any available orifice. The size of the afflicted individual, the method of entry, and the amount used will not influence the effectiveness or amount of time before the effects of the drug take place.
  4. Sludge cannot “partially” work; it will either render a player fully unconscious or have no effect whatsoever. If at least two teaspoons make contact with the afflicted player, it will work; any less and there will be no recognizable result. Contact with that amount or any higher quantity will render a player completely unconscious for a period of exactly seven hours.
  5. For the purposes of the game, Sludge is death. Any player who has been put to sleep (hereafter referred to as having been Sludged) after the start of the game due to Sludge contact will be instantly eliminated and permanently removed from the competition.
  6. In order to win Game By Goop, a player must receive Permission to leave The Facility. Any player able to do this will become The Champion and receive a grand prize of ten million dollars.
  7. In order to gain Permission, a player must Sludge another player without being caught.
  8. Whenever a body is found, a Sludge Trial will be held to determine the murderer.
  9. After a player has been Sludged, their body will be left in place — unless moved otherwise by a player — for a period of exactly six hours. After that point, they will be removed from The Facility.
  10. If a body has still not been found after an hour, all players will be informed that a body exists somewhere in The Facility with the sounding of a Sludge Announcement Chime. Following that, if they are unable to locate the body in the five hours that remain prior to it being removed, all innocent players will be Sludged and the murderer will receive Permission without a Sludge Trial. The body will not be considered found until at least three players see it at the same time.
  11. If the body is located within the six hour grace period, a Body Discovery Chime will sound, and a Sludge Trial will be held immediately after the grace period ends. All players will have however much time is left of the six hours to investigate the crime scene and gather evidence. The faster a body is found, the more time players will be given to investigate. (For the sake of increased dramatics, players are encouraged — but not at all required — to withhold from sharing their full conclusions out loud prior to the start of the trial.)
  12. No player may be in the same room with a body when the six hour grace period ends and it is removed from the game.  (A timer will appear on a player’s watch designating the amount of time remaining whenever either chime plays in order to inform them of how long they have left.)
  13. At the Sludge Trial, all players will be given a chance to discuss the results of their investigation and vote for who they believe to be the murderer.
  14. If the majority of players vote correctly, the murderer will be Sludged and eliminated from the game, and the remaining players will be allowed to continue.
  15. If the majority of players vote incorrectly, everyone except the murderer will be Sludged, and the murderer will receive Permission.
  16. In the event of a tied vote between the murderer and an innocent player, the latter will be chosen, and the murderer shall receive Permission. Those who take risks deserve to be rewarded.
  17. A player cannot receive Permission if they have been Sludged. (Practically speaking, this means that a player cannot manufacture their own suicide, manage to successfully blame it on another, and still win.)
  18. If it ever becomes the case that ten or less players remain, some rules will be changed automatically.
  19. The game will continue until either one player successfully commits a murder, the ninety day game period ends, or until two (or less) innocent players remain after the conclusion of the last necessary Sludge Trial. If two innocent players remain at the end, they both will receive Permission (and two separate prizes of ten million dollars, which they will not be required to split). If the game ends due to the time limit running out, no one will win.
  20. Players are not allowed to sleep, even under natural circumstances, in any area of The Facility other than the bedrooms. (Players are not restricted to sleeping in their bedroom, however.)
  21. Players are not allowed to plan to split portions of their prizes, or to actually do so after the fact. Swift and severe action will be taken against those who do, including a contractual penalty larger than the prize itself.
  22. Players are not allowed to Sludge other players who are inside a bedroom.
  23. Players are not allowed to Sludge other players who are inside the communal bathrooms or The Sun Lamp Room. No Sludge may ever be brought into these areas.
  24. Every room in The Facility is under constant surveillance, with the sole exceptions of the bedrooms and the communal bathrooms, which are free of any visual or recording devices. No player may spend more than twelve consecutive hours in either of these rooms at once. (A timer will appear on a player’s watch designating the amount of time remaining whenever they enter these rooms. It may be reset simply by walking outside and walking back in.)
  25. Players are not allowed to Sludge other players after either a Sludge Announcement Chime or a Body Discovery Chime have been sounded. This restriction will last until the conclusion of the subsequent Sludge Trial.
  26. Players are not allowed to Sludge more than two others at once.
  27. Mr. Dogsi and Ms. Vedsi will never Sludge a player.
  28. Players who break any rules will be instantly eliminated without a Sludge Trial. The penalty will be applied as soon as the player breaks the rule, and all players will be informed that the person was eliminated for rule-breaking.
  29. If a player chooses to quit before the start of the eighth day, they will receive a heavy financial penalty as stipulated in their contract. Suicide by Sludge and rule violation — whether intentional or not — both qualify as quitting. (One player allowing another player to Sludge them does not, however.) Players are legally mandated to pay this financial penalty and will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law if any attempts are made to circumvent it after the fact.
  30. At the suggestion of a player or the behest of the gamemakers, Mr. Dogsi is empowered to make changes, clarifications, or additions to the rules whenever necessary or prudent. Players will always be directly informed of rule changes, and will never be punished retroactively for having disobeyed new rules before having come to know about them. When presented with situations not clearly established in the rules, Mr. Dogsi will use his best judgement.
  31. For further questions or desired clarifications about the rules, players are encouraged to visit The Computer Room.
  32. For laundry-related needs, players are encouraged to visit The Laundry Room. Laundry may only be done twice each day.
  33. The Facility has been designed in such a way as to encourage both creative murders and investigations. Do your best, everyone!

As we read, the room was dead quiet. Even the likes of ZB and Joyo had stopped talking in order to take it in, not one of us having any trouble recognizing just how important it was for us to completely understand what we’d been given. With so much money on the line, even the characters we’d chosen to play fell to the wayside.

We were playing to win, after all. (I hoped, anyway. Somebody who didn’t care about the rules might’ve not minded Sludging a bunch of us in a fit of passion. If he was being honest about not caring to win, Claim had an inordinate amount of power above us.)

I carefully read through it three separate times, not quite sure how to process everything all at once. It was a lot, and I had a million different questions, although some rose above others. The presence of some rules surprised me, and the absence of others I might have been expecting surprised me even more, but past that there was plenty to analysis to be had.

More than anything else, the boldness of how unoriginal they were being struck me as off-putting… not that I was going to complain about it. Considering what I’d written myself, pointing that fact out would’ve gone beyond hypocrisy; besides, in earnest, it wasn’t like I minded all that much. It was a fun concept, and not something too many people had decided to toy around with. Plus, with the chance to live it out for real…

That was something special.

Predictably, Martha was the first among us to finish, with Soso right behind her, both seeming to have barely even glanced at their watches before deciding to jump back into reality.

Other faces of note were Caroline and Corn, who seemed so utterly befuddled by the rules that it looked like they’d both just swallowed lemons. Dent and Quote also picked up on how lost their friend looked to be, and they each whispered something to him with soft concern, but he just shook his head and whispered one word back while continuing to stare at the watch. Corn’s confusion looked so profound that I wouldn’t have been that surprised to be told he was having a stroke.

“Well,” said Caroline, who sounded even more exasperated than she looked as she broke the silence. “This… we need to talk about this. Obviously, there’s not-”

“Hold up.”

We all turned to Hold, unsure of whether or not he’d been making fun of his own name. His stature allowed him to easily capture our attention, and he did not hesitate after having gotten it.

He was still smiling. A lot of the group seemed to be found of continually having long, unnatural grins, but his bordered on the uncanney valley and still refused to sit right with me. Strait’s felt very genuine, and both Joyo’s and Lu’s very rehearsed, but Hold’s expression existed in an uncomfortable middle.

The dude freaked me the fuck out.

And there I went again, judging people solely by appearances. Lovely, By. How astoundingly progressive of you.

…Man, I was kind of a bitch, huh?

“I’m aware that we’ll want to discuss all this, but for the moment, I’d suggest that we eat.”

I took another look at the clock, along with most of the others. It was 8:19.

With him having brought it up, I realized how hungry I was. Everyone else had at least been able to get some relief with the guac chips, but I hadn’t eaten anything since yesterday, and even if I hadn’t done much in the way of physical activity all day I was still ravenous.

“…That’s not a bad idea,” Dot replied, putting her hands on her stomach.

“I could go for food too.”

“We can talk about it over dinner. I’m sure they have a kitchen somewhere, right? We made all those requests for the types of food we wanted…”

I saw Joyo roll his eyes, taking a step forward.

“We got more guac chips, and if you’re still hungry after that, I think By left some Sludge on the floor under Dent’s towel. I’ll remind you all that they closed the door behind them after they came in. We’re still trapped here, and since we are, we need to talk about this. I ain’t waitin’.”

Lu ignored his statement of fact — just as I’d done, not believing him — and saying nothing, skipped happily to the front of the door Mr. Dogsi and Ms. Vedsi had entered through, easily pushing it open. The same gentle flood of light that had been there earlier flooded back into the room, and Lu continued to walk ahead, ignoring us.

We exchanged a few looks before rushing to follow her, a few people scrounging up the last few bags of chips. Joyo was the last one out, and his continued pleas for us not to postpone the discussion were ignored. Our need to eat was strong enough to overwhelm even someone who was competent at convincing others to listen to them (let alone Joyo).

With our princess leading the way with about a fifteen foot advance, we slowly tailed her down a plain long hallway, eventually arriving at a moving escalator leading up. It was colored pink, and it went on for longer than any of us could see at the bottom.

Not stopping or looking back, she stepped on, riding up.

We followed.

1.10

Silently walking forward, Ms. Vedsi pulled out a roll of pink duct tape from a pocket in her robe and began to apply it to the floor. With ease, she formed a long, straight line, cutting the room into two perfect halves before walking back to stand beside her companion.

Mr. Dogsi lowered the gun completely, dropping it to his side, although he didn’t put it away. In one hand was the gun, and in the other, the pink bracelet. Mine, maybe.

“We have a more sophisticated method of voting to take advantage of later on, but for now, tape will suffice. All she needs is a simple majority. If more than half of you decide that you think By should get to stay…”

He tossed the bracelet — my bracelet — into the center of the semicircle to my right, where it landed with a loud crack. (They must have been durable.)

“Then she stays. On the other hand, if half of you think that it’s perfectly right and fair to eliminate someone so early on…”

He aimed to the center of the second half-circle, pulling the trigger. A muted gunshot left behind a small pink splatter at the spot that he’d fired towards, dribbles and dots of brightly-colored goop symbolizing another long nap and the instant revocation of a chance at my lifelong dream.

“Then it’s bye bye, By.”

Yeah, asshole, no one had ever made that joke before.

“And if it’s a tie?” I asked.

“You won’t be voting.”

Duh.

Mr. Dogsi craned his head up, taking a look at the clock.

19:44

“Perfect, then. Just over fifteen minutes. We’ll have a buzzer sound at 8:00. Everyone save By must vote. If anyone other than her is standing on the tape when time runs out, regardless of the outcome, they will be shot.”

Claim took a step forward, standing on the line. Mr. Dogsi grimaced.

“Standing on the line will be interpreted as quitting.”

Claim took a step back.

There was a brief pause. Nobody else moved.

“You can, uh, go. Make your case, By!”

I stood in place, scratching the back of my head and trying to collect my thoughts. The whole situation had developed way too fast for me to adequately prepare myself.

I needed eight votes, which seemed difficult. How could I convince eight people to do something that was fundamentally against their best interests? If someone was serious about the competition, the opportunity to eliminate an opponent without having to do anything was incredibly tempting, and I couldn’t say that I would’ve definitely voted for myself to stay had I been in most of their shoes. How many people would seriously be willing to intentionally lower their chances of winning ten million dollars for a person they’d known less than half a day?

Strait was the first. He scampered over to the floor near my bracelet with a grin on his face, nodding at me.

“It’d be dumb to get out over something like that. Besides, you can’t leave this early. You still have something you need to say to someone, remember?”

I nodded back, smiling. Right. The apology.

ZB followed him, not saying anything (for her, a rarity). I couldn’t get a read on her, but I didn’t have time to probe into it. If she was with me, that was enough.

That was good, though. Two, right off the bat.

A third also came without any further prompting, taking me (and a few others, I could tell by facial expressions) by complete surprise. It was Hold.

“The hell are you doing, big man?” said Joyo, aghast. “We got a shot to knock somebody out for nothin’. You not interested in that?”

Before stepping over the line, the seven-foot hairless beast turned to Joyo with a smile.

“Not particularly.”

Three. That was even better.

My pool of potential supporters was quickly shrinking, however, more than a few individuals having moved close to the splatter in order to clearly mark themselves as against me. Joyo lead the cause — surprise surprise — but he was surrounded by five others: Polycarp, Zeezrom, Martha, Dent and Lu, the princess. All the rest straddled the line, thinking.

Zeezrom looked at me, speaking loudly across the room.

“You seem like a super nice person, By. It’s a money thing, though. I hope you don’t think less of me.”

“Fucking incredible,” said Joyo. “Apologizing. Let’s think about this. Is there one fucking person here who didn’t come here wanting to win?”

Silence.

“Then how is this a debate? If you all wanna win anyway, getting someone out now before they’ve wasted their time is doing them a favor. There’s no fuckin’ bonus prizes for anything but first. That’s what you said, wasn’t it?”

He pointed to Mr. Dogsi, who nodded.

“You know that’s not what it’s about,” said Quote. “We’re all passionate about this. It’s…”

She sighed, looking to Cornea.

“It’s not fair, as dumb as it sounds to say. Look, just going off stats — I know it’s more complicated than that in reality, but if you do — it’s… 6.25% if she stays, and 6.66% if she doesn’t. I can’t watch someone get screwed over for less than half of a percent.”

The doctor agreed, and they moved across the line, both staring at Dent.

“You said you wanted to work together, right?”

Dent looked at his two companions for a short moment, his face pulling into an expression that twisted the black lines on his cheek. He opened his mouth as if about to start protesting, but closed it and started walking, deciding that it wasn’t worth it. Quote and Cornea smiled at me, and I sputtered out a thank you.

Six, for nothing.

But I wasn’t getting any other freebies. if I was going to secure the last two, I’d have to be proactive.  

I pointed at one of the straddlers, who was standing still near the line. Regardless of whether or not he had been lying to us, I had some leverage on him.

“Claim! You said — um, well, not said, but — you told us that you were gonna try and quit. If you aren’t going to win anyway, and you already know that, you should vote for me to stay. Not doing that suggests that you do care about winning, wouldn’t it? If you want people to trust that they could come up and kill you without getting sprung up on, this is a great chance to prove it.”

Claim turned to me, pulling out the notebook.

WAS VOTING FOR YOU ANYWAY. JUST THINKING ABOUT SOMETHING.

He walked to my bracelet.

“Nobody’s doubtin’ you, really! There are plenty of other reasons why you might wanna see her go, right? If you’re leaving anyway, nothing’s wrong with not wantin’ to be the first out. C’mon, bud. Fuck, I’ll promise to sludge you tomorrow myself, if that’d seal the deal.”

YOU ARE VERY LOUD.

“Fuck you.”

:   )

Dot laughed.

“Oh, fuck it. Half a percent, I don’t need half a percent.”

After walking over, she patted me on the back and pointed to Joyo.

“You should thank him, By. He’s your best advocate.”

Eight.

I already pretty much knew what Mr. Dogsi was going to say if I tried to rush things, but I asked anyway. He gave me the answer I expected.

“The votes won’t count until 8:00. All players can move around freely until then.”

There were eight minutes left. If I could keep everyone who’d come to me on my side until then, I’d get to stay.

Big if.

I wasn’t handling myself in the best way possible, and I knew that; I’d started shaking again, and it wasn’t just because the cameras were there. The thought of getting kicked out that early terrified me, especially over something so stupidly preventable. That was the type of thing I couldn’t handle. That regret.

Quote had encouraged the others on my side to sit against the wall, which I realized she’d done to try and make me feel more comfortable. It did help psychologically; having everyone seated as far away as possible from the line at least made it seem like none of them were considering sprinting back towards the other side at the last possible moment.

Claim wasn’t sitting, although he was leaning against the wall next to the others. (He’d written a note telling us it would’ve hurt his back. I couldn’t know if he was being honest, but I didn’t have anything I could really do about it either way. Badgering him to sit down only raised the risk of him moving back across to spite me.)

On the other side, with the exception of Caroline and the goth — Soso, I’d discovered — everyone was standing in a loose circle right around the splatter, no one but Zeezrom looking guilty about it. I was fairly sure that Soso had just wanted to distance herself from Joyo’s continued hollering, but as for Plite, I had no idea what she was planning. Was she still thinking about switching over?

Because of my position, I couldn’t really keep campaigning for myself in the way that I wanted to. Strategically, it made sense to get more votes than the eight I already had in case one or more of them was planning on betraying me, but the simple act alone of attempting to scrounge up more would’ve implied that I was openly expecting one of them to do so, which might actually have made them do it. I was desperate, yeah — there wasn’t a person in the room who wasn’t well aware of that — but demonstrating that fact any further than I had to ran the risk of putting me even deeper in the hole.

That being said, more people was also good, and would anyone on my side really change their mind because they saw me wanting to improve my position? Surely they’d understand; all of them would’ve wanted to do the same, being in my position. They’d have to understand, right?

I took another breath, forcing myself to stay still. I was overstraining myself by trying to pretend I could read minds, and it wasn’t helping me think any better.

I let out a small nervous laugh. It would have been funny — in an absurdist way, at least — if none of what I was doing actually mattered. That might’ve been the case, honestly. Most of the group had probably made up their minds the second Mr. Dogsi explained himself; any deliberation they pretended to have beyond that was likely just as false as the characters we were playing. I was pretending that my actions had consequences because I didn’t want to acknowledge that they almost certainly didn’t. That everything had already been predetermined from the second I gripped the paintball.

I heard a voice. Someone seemed to have noticed my dilemma, and they wanted to capitalize on it.

“Mr. Dogsi,” said Caroline. “I have a question regarding the rules.”

He turned to face her.

“Yes, Caroline?”

“If it was written in the contract, I’m not able to recall it. Are players allowed to split prize money between themselves?”

Oh, the dirtbag. She wanted me to buy her vote. (I guessed I couldn’t have said that she wasn’t being rational, but…)

“No,” said Mr. Dogsi. “That is explicitly not allowed. It is forbidden for one player to plan to give another player a divided portion of their prize.”

“Alright, then.”

She looked me in the eye, saying nothing and then turning back to stand with the others. Joyo encouraged the goth to stand with the rest of them as well — probably for the same reason Quote had done it on my side — but she shook her head and stood still, looking down at the ground. She wanted to be alone.

Whatever. That was fine. I had eight. As long as I could keep that, I was fine.

I was fine.

I loved slasher films.

That made sense, right? It funneled back into that same obsession I had with mysteries and elimination games, that constant thrill of watching people get picked off one by one, never knowing who’d be next. Something was special about those kind of movies. Scream, Nightmare on Elm Street, Saw, Halloween…

They were great. (Well, not really, but I still liked them. Obviously people could acknowledge that a work of art was total shit while still enjoying it. People read my serials, didn’t they?)

My favorite slasher movie, as pretentious as it might have sounded, was what many probably would’ve considered the first ever created — Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. That movie messed with my thirteen year old self in ways that few movies ever had, before or since.

In terms of shock and suspense — which are basically the only reasons anyone wants to see slasher-type movies in the first place — Psycho couldn’t be beat. It wasn’t even a slasher-flick in the traditional sense, but it ended up destroying most of the movies it inspired by creating an incredibly fucky atmosphere of fear and confusion, not just through jump-scares and cheap tricks but by setting the tone. A person would’ve needed to see it for themselves if they wanted to know what I meant by that; I was the farthest thing from a film buff, and it’s not something I would’ve been able to describe well if asked about.

What freaked me out so much — and inspired me, I guessed — was the specific way in which Psycho messes with the audience. The first time I watched it, I’d already fallen in love with media that went out of its way to cleverly subvert and trick the audience — not in the way Amelia had described, but in the fair way, the better way. Earhart wanted to screw with the audience so she could demonstrate how above them she was; Hitchcock wanted to do it so he could share that wonderful feeling of what the fuck is even happening anymore, an experience as old and universal to humans as life itself.

There was a difference.

There were little things I loved about Psycho: the way it relies on the smaller details, the bone-chilling score, and the phenomenal acting from practically everyone involved.

But that wasn’t what fucked with me, though. That wasn’t what broke my dumb teenage brain the first time I saw it.

Right around halfway through Psycho — and this would’ve been a big spoiler, had I been telling it to someone — the protagonist dies.

That wasn’t allowed, I remembered having screamed at my laptop. It didn’t even matter that it wasn’t a mystery — you couldn’t do that! When an author made a certain character the focus on the story, when they specifically decided to choose that person’s perspective as the central guidepost for how things would be shown, they were making a promise.

“This character matters. This character has a purpose. This is the character that you can always feel safe with, because they represent your experience and your connection to the story. You have been allowed to follow them, so of course they can’t die — or if they can, at least not until the very end of the story.”

Fuck that, screamed Hitchcock, presumably between rounds of stalking his actors and figuring out new ways he could compare them to live cattle. Fuck that. Promises were meant to be broken. Audiences were meant to be betrayed. Art was a reflection of real life, and in real life, no one was safe. Maybe we all imagined ourselves to be the main character of some insane, neverending story, and that we all would end up going on forever, but that wasn’t how it worked at all.

Everybody died at some point. Yeah, maybe some people died with friends and family in a comfortable deathbed at the end of a long, well-lived life, but that wasn’t everybody. Some people died suddenly, meaninglessly, before they had gotten the chance to do basically anything. That was life, and life wasn’t fair.

Psycho was the quintessential example of a piece of media containing a false protagonist. It was a difficult trick for an author to pull off — execution matters a lot — but when done right, it carried that perfect flavor of cruelty and emotional devastation that people just couldn’t get enough of. In almost any piece of fiction, mysteries included, there was no character that most of the audience would relate more to than the protagonist. Because of that, there were few ways to evoke more emotion in an audience than dropping a piano on the MC before the story had even reached its halfway point. Regardless of whether it was handled well or not, it was sure to make people feel something.

Maybe that feeling was what I was experiencing, in some ways, when ZB decided to dash back across the line.

With six minutes left to go, I was bound to feel that something, too.

It was probably more painful for tall people to get on their knees than it was for short people, but that really didn’t matter all that much.

I wasn’t too proud to beg. Whatever reservations I had before about not wanting to seem desperate were gone. ZB wasn’t having it, though. At least not without her price.

She’d told everyone shouting at her — from both sides, Joyo and Quote, mainly — to shut the fuck up, and she stood standing above me, looking down. Her bowtie and forehead-beak seemed so much more intimidating from the floor, somehow, even with that same stupid grin plastered on her smug freckle-covered face.

I opened my mouth to beg again, but she laughed and told me to shut up too, before starting something of a speech.

“I figured something out about you, By. The type of person you are. Not many of them were here when you really went into it, but with what you write…

She paused, smiling.

“You’re the kind of dork who’d do this for free, aren’t you?”

She turned to Mr. Dogsi, pointing a maniacal flipper.

“Hey! Prick.”

He nodded, not seeming to mind the insult. Apparently, it was totally cool to swear at the host.

“You said we can’t split our prizes into portions, didn’t you?”

He nodded.

“…But there’s no rule against promising to give away all your prize, right?”

His smile got a little wider, as if proud of her for having figured it out.

“Yes. That’s correct, ZB. There is no such rule.”

She turned to me, her extended flipper less than a few inches away from my face.

“…Well, By? You know what I’m gonna say. If you promise to give me every last dollar they give you if you win, I’ll vote for you. If not…”

She ran her other flipper vertically across her neck, pretending to slit her throat.

“You’ll be sleeping with the fishes.”

She blinked.

“I mean, y’know. Just sleeping, really. I wanted to slide an ice pun, and penguins eat fish, so that’s like, tangentially related, I guess. This gets hard.”

I stared at her. Dirtbag.

“Give me an answer, By. And don’t be dumb. You have two options. Play for nothing — which again, I know a loser like you would be happy with — or don’t play at all.”

Amidst the screams and jeers coming from both sides of the room, I thought about it.

I had done some research before coming out. It wasn’t any easy thing to do, honestly. No one had ever made a reality television murder mystery game show prior to the one I was on — shocker — but that didn’t mean there wasn’t anything outside of the realm of pure fiction for me to study in order to prepare myself.

Reality television was freaky. There were any number of people competing on any number of game shows and competitions at any given point, and even if most of them were probably far faker and less complex than the one I was on, there were still lessons to be learned. Watching season after season of elimination-style cooking shows and quiz shows and survival shows and everything else made me realize some stuff.

Whenever someone loses one of those shows, regardless of the circumstances, they all had the same look in their eyes. It was a brutal look, them just learning what it’s like to fail with eyes of a nation on you, missing that final Jeopardy question or coming one too many votes high at the end of a Survivor episode. It’s the most horrendous type of regret imaginable — the type that the person will get to relive over and over and over — and I knew from personal experience that it wasn’t a feeling I could handle.

I’d always sucked when it came to dealing with regret, both regarding things that were in my control and things that weren’t: Mom, Space Attorney, that time I thanked an usher at the theater and said “you too” when they told me to enjoy the movie. The circumstances didn’t matter. Big or little, I’d always naturally internalized that type of stuff. Regret was my weak point.

So before I came to the game, I made myself a promise. I wasn’t going to play to maximize my chances of winning — I was going to play to minimize my regret. Because of that, neither of ZB’s options were acceptable.

If I straight up refused, she’d vote against me. I didn’t have any reason to think that she wouldn’t. ZB had attached herself to me, but she clearly loved the idea of being mean to a stranger more than that, and I was that stranger. She’d do it with a smile on her face, and she probably wouldn’t even feel bad about it. As soon as the sludge hit me, I’d feel the regret, and it’d probably continue long after I woke up and traveled back home. As much as I wanted the money, ZB was right; it didn’t mean nearly as much to me as the game did. There probably wouldn’t be a period of time longer than an hour for the next decade where I wouldn’t berate myself for having been so greedy and shortsighted, for having thrown away my only shot for the promise of money I wasn’t in any desperate need for.

If I agreed, I’d get to stay, but I’d spend the entire game regretting it, feeling even worse if I somehow ended up winning. It’d taint my victory, make it hollow. I’d spend every spare second calling myself an idiot and running alternate scenarios in my head where I’d done something else and didn’t have to sacrifice anything, probably to the point of near-insanity. I didn’t want to subject myself to that.

Worse, of course, was the excellent chance that ZB was screwing with me. Even if I did agree, there was a high probability that she’d stick out her tongue and tell me to get fucked anyway. In her beady little eyes, as far as I could tell, all of it might have been a prank or a test; regardless, I couldn’t risk it. Even if I lied to her — and I was an awful liar — she might have just been tossing me a hope spot so she could yank it away. That wouldn’t do.

I needed a third option. One that led to a road where regret was not a guarantee.

19:55

“What’s it going to be, By? Are you going to agree to hand over your cash if you win?”

“No.”

She looked at me in the eye for a moment before chuckling.

“So you forfeit. I just want to be clear, By. I like you. You’re a dork, and I’m okay with that. Even people as cool as me need sidekicks, and I don’t have any problem having one that accidentally fell inside a taffy-stretching machine. But I’m not bluffing. Do you think I’m bluffing? You know me well enough by now, don’t you? I love this shit. I have all the power right now. I can do anything.”

She called out to the splatter side.

“Any of you thinking about changing your mind?”

Quiet.

Again. I’m all you got.”

19:56

“…I can give you a reason. Not to eliminate me, I mean.”

“The only reason I wanna hear is ten million dollars.”

“It’s a good one.”

She smirked.

“You know what? Fuck it. Try me. Fuck the money too. That shit’s off the table.”

For the last time, she pointed her flipper at my face, her grin downright demonic.

“You want to stay here, By? You really want to fucking be here? Fine. Give me your reason. If you want to continue your existence here in this game, if you wanna have a shot in all this…”

She stomped her foot.

“Then you better have some damn good justification.”

19:57

For what might have been my final trick, I had a gambit. It wasn’t guaranteed to work, but in terms of minimizing regret, it was the best I could think up.

In truth, I don’t think ZB actually expected me to be able to provide her with a satisfactory answer. That’s because, in truth, there wasn’t one. If I wasn’t going to agree to give her my potential winnings, there was no honest, strategic reason for her to keep me around.

Like any of that mattered. Rationality was useless. She was ZB Popsicle.

Considering that, wasn’t the solution obvious?

“…The reason is that I need the money. Badly.”

She laughed, taking a step back.

“Sorry, wrong answer. That’s lame as fuck, By. Literal begging, holy shit. Pathetic.”

19:58

I looked at her with the most serious expression I could muster.

“…You don’t understand, ZB. When I say need, I’m serious. Without this cash, I’m ruined.”

Another laugh.

“What, spent too much money on raised shower heads?”

“A little before the game started, my identity was stolen. Someone online stole all my information, opened credit cards and took loans in my name, and it ruined me. The bank, well… long story short, I’m done, ZB. Without this money, without this game, I’m finished. Do you want to know why, ZB?”

ZB raised an eyebrow and took a tiny step forward. She didn’t understand what was happening.

“I don’t get what this is supposed to be. Again, I’m not giving it to you out of pi-”

“Do you know what the bank did, ZB? When I told them what had happened? When I told them that someone had stolen my identity — my very being — and used it to mercilessly rip my financial life to shreds? Do you want to hear it? Because I already know, and speaking truthfully, you’re the only one here who could possibly understand.”

19:59

She looked at me, squinting. She did not believe my story.

That was fine.

“…What did they do?”

“They froze my credit.”

She stared into space for a moment, processing. A second later, a sound halfway between a fart and a laugh escaped her lips, and she tilted her head towards the ceiling, looking exasperated.

“…Goddamnit, By. You’re such a fucking loser.”

She walked forward.

I heard a buzzer.

I tugged at the pink bracelet, my heart still not quite ready to settle back down.

I hadn’t been there to see it along with everyone else, but the others said that the bracelets squeezed tightly around their wrists as soon as they’d put them on, and I’d experienced the same, the mechanical pink wristlet adjusting itself to my proportions as soon as Mr. Dogsi had given me the okay to put it on. There was a touchscreen on the front, which I’d failed to notice on the other ones earlier, probably because it had yet to turn on. If there were any tiny buttons on or around the sides that activated it, I couldn’t find them.

Joyo had bitched for a long time, but in the end, he couldn’t argue with the fact that I’d gotten the vote. That didn’t stop him from cursing at ZB, though.

Funnily enough, I wasn’t angry at her myself, despite her almost having gotten me eliminated. Maybe it was just D finally rubbing off on me, or maybe I just stopped viewing her as a person.

After all, ZB was a bird, wasn’t she? If a pigeon decided to swoop in to ruin someone’s picnic, the person couldn’t solve the problem by arguing with it; they had to empathize. You had to throw a snack off the table, give it what it wanted.

Getting mad at a dumb bird for being a dumb bird was dumb.

“Well, I’m glad that’s settled, then. By Menachem will be our twelfth player.”

Mr. Dogsi looked around one final time, walking slowly to the center of the circle, Ms. Vedsi following him. She pulled out a small remote from her pocket, and as he spoke she pressed it, our bracelets lighting up with different pink numbers.

I took one last glance at the room as Mr. Dogsi prepared to formally announce it, everything finally beginning in earnest. Everyone was examining their bracelets.

One, ZB Popsicle. A dumb bird.

Two, Hold. A hairless beast.

Three, Martha. A misanthropic reader.

Four, Dot. A tired nose-flicker.

Five, Cornea Skinner. A wide doctor.

Six, Caroline Plite. A natural enemy.

Seven, Quote. A caring speedrunner.

Eight, Zeezrom. A devout Mormon.

Nine, Claim. A supposed quitter.

Ten, Polycarp. A sad person.

Eleven, Dent Machado. A total nutcase.

Twelve, By Menachem. An unmatched dumbass.

Thirteen, Strait. A happy dude.

Fourteen, Soso. A mysterious goth.

Fifteen, Lu. A little princess.

Sixteen, Joyo Karna. A loud prick.

“Welcome, everyone…

Standing in the perfect center of the room, he draped his arms out to his sides, hoisting them high up in the air for dramatic effect. It was too schmaltzy for me not to smile at.

“To the Game By Goop!”

1.09

“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.

“A… what?”

“…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.”

Joyo laughed.

“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?”

“That…”

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.

“What?”

“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.”

“What?”

“…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.

  1. 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?
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.)
  6. 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.

Fuuuuuuuuuuuck me.

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.

He nodded.

1.08

Someone had tucked me in.

I blinked, coming back to full awareness. I was once again staring at the ceiling of the tiny bedroom that I’d first woken up in. As I looked at it more closely, I saw that my earlier guess had been right. It did have secret little lines running across it, a place for a square panel to open clearly visible among the shiny metallic texture.

Ha.

I shook my head. That probably wasn’t my biggest concern.

What had happened? I quickly ran everything back through my head.

I’d signed up to play a experimental murder mystery game show, met a penguin, yadda yadda yadda…

The panel. I’d seen a panel in the wall. In it had been that ball. And in that

I pulled my right hand from out under the blanket. The sludge was almost entirely gone. A few droplets of it had managed to make their way to my right sleeve, where they had dried and left light pink spots, but that was all I could see left over from it.

That was likely a good thing, considering that it was almost definitely the reason I’d fallen unconscious in the first place. I hadn’t drank any of the water, and I couldn’t think of any other obvious mechanism for drugging me that wouldn’t have also affected everyone else. (I supposed it was technically possible that they had drugged all of us and that I’d just been the first to succumb, but I doubted it. Again, six-foot-two.)

Of bigger interest, how had I ended up back inside my bedroom? The doors to our hallways had been locked from the outside of the main room as soon as we’d closed them, and that included mine (I’d watched Caroline meticulously test all of them a little after Hold came in). If I had woken up there following my collapse, that would imply either that the others had figured out a way to open them or that the gamemakers had unlocked them themselves. I guessed that it was the latter, but even then, who’d brought me there? Was it the players? Had the game already started without me? Had they been allowed to start exploring the building in my absence? What was I missing out on?

Gah. Too many questions. One step at a time, By.

After taking a few more seconds to shake the eye dust off, I forced myself out of bed, pulling the remainder of the thick blanket off of me. The first time I’d woken up, I’d been sleeping on top of it, so I hadn’t really noticed, but it was legitimately one of the softest and most comfortable pieces of fabrics that I’d ever felt.

Which, I reminded myself, was clearly the most important thing for me to be thinking about. Fabric softness.

Giving myself two tiny slaps to the face, I moved back to the door, taking one last look around the room. Nothing had changed beyond where I’d left it originally, including the exact placement of the one-word note I’d ripped off the door my first time around. Also like the first time, I was still wearing my clothes, shoes and all, so I was ready to go. (My pink keycard, as I felt, was right where I’d left it in my skirt pocket.)

I still remembered my code (0239), thankfully enough, and I moved to the keypad to try and input it. It was off. No lights, even after pushing all the buttons.

Shit.

Briefly coming close to shitting myself, my hand dashed to the knob.

It turned, and the door opened. I looked out at the empty hallway again, sighing in relief.

…Had I been right? Was the door code seriously only intended to be used once? That’s the theory I’d argued for, sure, but seeing proof of it somehow made me less confident in it.

Whatever. I wasn’t going to complain. The last thing I wanted was to be locked in my room.

I took a final glance at my backpack before walking out, once again deciding not to take anything from it with me. Finished, I sped across the hallway and back to the main room, taking a deep breath before pulling the door back.

I saw thirty eyes.

(Well, twenty-eight. Claim had a mask on.)

I had become, believe it or not, the sixteenth player to arrive.

One of the many who’d beaten me to the punch stood near the center of the empty circular room I had found myself in, and she raised a flipper over her head, waving me over. She was wearing, of all things, a penguin suit.

“Hey! Ice to meet ya!”

I just stared at her. She walked over, the rest mostly glancing at me with faces that I was having trouble reading. Surprise, maybe?

I got the impression they knew something I didn’t.

“See, that’s what I said to you when you walked in here the first time, remember? You did it twice, so I repeated it. Like when they have identical scenes at the beginning and end of a movie, y’know?”

I wasn’t paying too much attention to ZB, more concerned about taking in my surroundings. A lot had happened in my absence.

On the floor, right near the spot where I’d fallen into someone’s arms near the eighth door, a small towel had been placed on the floor. I was fairly sure it was right where the plastic capsule had landed.

Easier to notice, four new green cardboard boxes had been spread out throughout the room, making five, all of which I assumed to have dropped from the ceiling in the same way the first one had. All were open, but I was only close enough to see one, which was filled with a number of small shiny unmarked plastic baggies. I saw a few of them scattered around the room and in people’s hands, Dent pulling a green potato chip from the one he was holding and stuffing it in his mouth.

More importantly, I saw the final two players, both of which must’ve come from either door fourteen or fifteen. They were both women, evening out the gender ratio. Coincidentally, they had by far the fanciest and most complicated wardrobes out of all of us, something I might’ve been able to appreciate more if they’d walked in before my collapse.

The first girl was dressed in an old-fashioned Victorian-style gothic dress, which had been dyed a beautiful dark purple. She had the general aesthetic of a reluctant goth, ample makeup on her face, including more than fair amounts of dark eyeshadow, foundation, and soft black-colored lipstick.  She had a dark bob cut, which highlighted a pair of cute, well-proportioned eyes, and a face that just worked. In the context of the game, I considered makeup a waste of precious personal item space, but I’d have been lying if I tried saying that it wasn’t paying off for her in at least one respect.

She was of average height, about my age, and Chinese (a guess at precise national origin I was much more confident in than I’d been with Joyo). Out of the two newcomers, my eyes had probably been attracted to her first because of her expression.

She looked like a deer in headlights, and while staring at me in particular, she looked terrified. I’d have expected someone wearing clothing as bold and attention-grabbing as hers to be among the more confident-seeming of the group, but at least going by body language, she might have been the least. As she examined me, she twiddled her fingers together nervously, the moving gray polish continuously grabbing my attention.

There was one particular article of clothing on her body that didn’t mesh with her overall aesthetic, a hefty pink bracelet-watch wrapped around her right wrist. Looking around the room, I saw them on everyone.

Everyone but me and ZB, anyway. (I guessed that she was wearing hers under a flipper.)

The last girl, who I didn’t get much of a chance to examine, did not seem like she belonged. She looked, as best as I could describe, like a princess. She wore an elaborately flowing blue dress, poofier and girlier than anything I’d ever seen outside of a Disney movie, a silver tiara and a long pair of white gloves stretching from her fingertips almost all the way to her shoulders.

She was black, thin, and tiny, smaller than all of us, her curly hair tied up neatly behind her in a tight bun. Strait had said something earlier about how obviously he’d have needed to be eighteen to play, but I struggled to see how the girl in front of me could have been thirteen, let alone of the age of majority. She didn’t seem to have any type of growth disorder either, looking like a perfectly proportioned child; her presence seemed to defy all expectation.

She had a giant smile on her face, and seemed to be one of the only people in the room completely at ease, along with Hold and Joyo. I noticed that she was also the only person in the room standing by herself.

I would have lent more attention to the oddity of such a young-looking person being there with us if it wasn’t all so much for me to take in at once. The bracelets, the boxes, both new players, the terrible sense of tension and anxiety that had built up in the room…

I had a sudden thought. If it had been long enough to justify giving everyone that many boxes worth of supplies, just how long had I been out?

Not that far away from shitting bricks again, I slowly forced my eyes to move towards the clock.

19:29.

Fuck me.

“It’s clever, you gotta admit. Symbolic, I figure, the start being like the finale. Like poetry. It rhymes.

“…I’d, um, like to think we aren’t close to the end of things just yet.”

“Well,” interjected Joyo, with the biggest shit-eating grin I’d seen on him yet, “We aren’t. You, on the other hand…”

My eyes widened.

No.”

I looked around at everyone, all of whom had been staring at me nonstop since I’d come back in. With my body, I was no stranger to being the center of attention, but that wasn’t the issue. As much as the focus was on me, when I turned to meet the others, I found almost none of them willing to meet my eyes.

Nobody wanted to say it.

Strait took a step towards me, awkwardly scratching at the back of his neck.

By…

I ignored him.

“The bracelets. Where did you all get the bracelets?”

Enjoying my distress, Joyo pointed in a box lying in the center of the room.

I ran over to it, Dot and a few others moving out of the way for me as I did. It was empty.

Joyo went on.

“About, oh, I dunno, a minute after you fall flat on the floor, this loud buzzer rings. We don’t know what it means, y’know, but then a second box drops, this time from a different panel. Gives us a message. Says to take Twelve back to her room. Says her door will be open, which it was. Says that she broke the game.

“We don’t know that,” said Caroline. “Joyo said that, but he ate the note that came with the box before anyone else could read it.”

“I ate it because I was hungry, that’s all. You accusing me of something?”

“Yes. Lying.”

“The door was open, Caroline. Unless you think I got magic powers, I don’t see how I could’ve-”

“Don’t assume that I’m an idiot. You could’ve easily told the truth about the door and misheld or misrepresented information about what it said in regards to By. Truth isn’t all or nothing.”

He laughed, looking at me again.

“Forget her for a second, By. Here’s what happened. We do what the note says, bring you to your room, tuck you in all nice and comfy. And then we wait for a bit, and Soso and Lu walk in around thirty minutes later… and a little while after that, bam. Box three. That’s chips.”

“Good chips,” said Dent, loudly crunching. “Guac.”

“I asked for fishsticks.”

“…After that, we wait. We tried waking you up, but your room locked us out again. This was a long, long ass fuckin’ wait, you gotta understand. A good chunk of these people are trying to drive me off the fucking wall. The bird doesn’t shut the fuck up. The degenerate doesn’t shut the fuck up. And that goddamn lunatic… ”

Joyo pointed to Hold. In response to the accusation, he smiled, amused.

“Well, you know. And the midget ain’t much better. But then, holy shit. Enough hours, and we get our fourth box. Just more water… but right after that, maybe about an hour ago…”

“We got the last box,” said Zeezrom. “It’s the one you’re looking at.”

“And in it?”

With a gross smile, Joyo held up his forearm up, gently tapping his watch.

“How many watches do you think were in the box, By?”

I didn’t want to hear it from him.

I turned towards Strait again. He wasn’t smiling.

“Is he lying?”

“…No, not about that. I’m sorry, By. There were only fifteen watches.”

Joyo laughed again, clearly enjoying his own theatrics.

“Now, let me clarify, because I want this to be crystal clear. The note said to put them all on, and we all got to it at the same time, so nobody better start some BS about how I must’ve grabbed one and hid it. Is that in contention?”

Silence.

“Good. Real good. Okay now, hun, let’s piece this together. Number one. We saw you collapse, and we were ordered to remove you from the room. In a murder mystery game, you collapsed on the floor, some mysterious pink liquid drugging you via skin contact.”

I stared ahead, out of words.

“Number two. They send us cutesy little bracelets, like the exact shit you’d expect players to be forced wear in something like this. But we don’t have enough for everyone. Just fifteen, one short.”

Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me.

“The order is to put them all on. Normally, this’d be an issue, and we’d probably have a debate about who’d go without one. But you — By — you ain’t in the room. So we all just get ‘em on without hassle. Now, if we assume that these bracelets mark us as players, and we know that you’re the only one without one, what does that make you?”

Fuuuuck me.

“That makes you a ghost, By. You aren’t a player anymore. You’re dead.

I couldn’t accept that. I didn’t want to.

“…If I was eliminated, they wouldn’t have let me back in here.”

“Right,” agreed Quote, who still was standing aside Corn and Dent. “We thought you were out, since they put you back in your room, but since they let you in again…”

Exactly,” I said, grasping on to whatever shred of hope I could find. “And I couldn’t be out. They didn’t even give us the rules yet. They’d… obviously they’d give us the rules first.”

As much as I wanted to, I wasn’t even close to breaking my rule. I hardly had a smidgen of confidence in what I saying, let alone absolute confidence.

Fuck that. Are you that dense? It’s that pink shit. That’s what this game is. You touch it, and you go down. That’s death.

“…Even if that’s the case, it- it wouldn’t have counted. The game didn’t start yet.”

He laughed.

“Oh, this is desperation. Wah, the game didn’t start. Wah, I didn’t get the rules. Good fuckin’ lord, what a load of crap. Imagine this as a real murder mystery. If you fall down before the first kill and trip on your face and die, that sucks, but God don’t come down and revive you and let you try again. If you wanted to play, you should’ve been more careful.”

“It was bad luck,” said Caroline. “Don’t attribute it to a fault of character or strategy. If you had seen the panel, you would have done the same.”

Joyo snorted.

There’s no such thing as luck. That’s a bullshit word losers invented to make themselves feel better. And you, By…”

He pointed at me.

You’re dead. And I don’t talk to ghosts.”

I didn’t believe that — not absolutely — but it wasn’t difficult to see his point. It wasn’t hard to see mine either, though. If I was out… why would they have let me back inside the room?

The whole incident was messy and confusing. The more that came up and the more I thought about it, the structure of the game didn’t make any sense to me. What were the gamemakers thinking? We’d been here for twelve hours with no explanation or guidance, and I’d been drugged, carried to a bed by a group of strangers, and then allowed back inside after a seven hour nap. What was the point of all that? Who the hell even planned something like this? Had they planned anything at all?

Yeah. That’s what I decided. Until I hear otherwise from the gamemakers, you’re dead. They’re the only people I’m listening to, whenever the hell they choose to show up. Nobody here decides shit.

I paused again, trying to rationalize some half-decent explanation for everything, but I was stopped in my tracks, the final door opening. It was the big double one without a number. For the final time, we all turned to face the newcomers, who both walked in as soon as the door stopped creaking.

There were two of them that stepped out, a man and a woman.

The woman was short, and the man tall, both of them disgustingly, almost impossibly thin. They had been done up perfectly in layers of makeup, their faces and all the skin I could see painted paper white, as if to make them both into full-body mimes. They both wore long, thick white robes, and as a final bit of decoration, each had a large perfect circle painted or tattooed on their foreheads. The woman’s circle was red, and the man’s was green, each about quadruple the size of quarter. Both of their robes had one thick line running down the center on it, each made to be the same color as their respective forehead-circles.

The bald man with the green circle spoke. The woman, who stood just inches apart from him, stared at us silently and introspectively, giving us a deadly serious glance through her thin-rimmed glasses. The man seemed much more casual, smiling and greeting us by name, as if speaking to a group of good friends.

“That’s where I beg to differ, Joyo.”

His smile widened. I noticed, dangling from the chalk-colored fingers in his left hand, a pink bracelet.

Mine.

“You’re all going to be deciding a lot of things.”

1.07

I was floating on top of a vast purple sea. It tasted like grape juice.

It was very late at night, but thankfully there was enough light to take a look around, mainly on account of all the various moons glowing brightly in the sky. There were at least seventy or eighty that I could see, all different sizes, most of them blue or yellow.

I maneuvered myself to float straight and craned my neck up as far as I could, peering off into the distance. After looking in all directions, I couldn’t see anything resembling ships or land, but I did see a small speck several miles off, something tiny rising just above the water. Deciding that I didn’t want to drown in Manischewitz, I started heading towards it.

I was still wearing all my clothes, and I didn’t have a hair cap, both of which made swimming more annoying than it would’ve been otherwise. After about a minute, I stopped to pull off my shoes, letting them fall into the depths without concern. I got the impression I wouldn’t need to worry about losing them.

Despite the extra weight, I didn’t have any serious trouble making my way through the sea of wine. I’d been on the swim team in high school, and I’d kept up with it since (albeit at a much less serious level). My favorite stroke had always been butterfly, as impractical and unpopular as it tended to be. (I was fine with freestyle and backstroke, but unlike a lot of my peers, I hated breaststroke. Even after so many years, I could never quite get the kicks right.)

The middle of the ocean was a terrible place to start doing the least efficient and most exhaustive style of swimming possible, but I found myself going with butterfly anyway. I didn’t feel worried about it, and for whatever reason, I didn’t get tired. I felt great as I slammed my arms together against the water and thrusted out my hips, propelling myself forward with a power and speed that seemed to defy all reason.

Before I’d had time to really process it, I’d arrived at the speck. It was a large stone platform in the shape of a flat circle floating about fifty yards above the ocean, a sturdy looking rope ladder hanging off the nearest side. The bottom of it met the waves, and I grabbed ahold of the first rung, taking a brief moment to rest before climbing up.

The platform was made of smoothly paved cobblestone, and as I reached the top of the ladder, I saw that the top-side of it had been nicely carpeted. Even with the additional height granted to me from the climb, I couldn’t make out any new land in the distance, but I did find something on the circle itself.

“Over here, By! We’ve been waiting for you.”

Far from me, a small round table sat directly in the center of it all, three vaguely humanoid shapes sitting around it. One of them waved me over, having softly called out to me.

As I approached the table, I got a better look at the three of them, all of whom were drinking out of mugs filled with an unidentified red liquid. A large pitcher containing more of the same rested on the middle of the table.

The first of the trio, to the right from where I was standing, sat an incredibly dirty and disheveled man of around sixty. He wore little more than a tattered rag stretched across his lower-midsection. His long gray beard was somehow covered with more grime than the rest of him, and his muscles were worn down to the point of atrophy. He looked broken and agitated.

The second, sitting on the left side, was probably the woman who had just called me over to the table by name. She was much younger than the man (although older than me), and much better dressed, wearing an old-fashioned brown jacket and a cute handkerchief that’d been wrapped around her neck. Her short red hair and bright smile did wonders for her face, and looking at her made me feel immediately welcomed.

An aviator’s hat had been placed aside her drink, which I took to be hers. I couldn’t exactly place why, but she seemed extremely familiar to me.

The last person sat in the middle, although it was somewhat presumptuous of me to assume that it was a person. At the very least, they were something with a drink placed in front of them, but they had been draped over with a thick white sheet, which made it impossible to see who exactly they might’ve been. They were moving a lot underneath the sheet, and small bumps rose and fell across the top and sides of it, more than seemed possible for a single person to make at once. While I tried figuring out what it was, a thin arm shot out the front and pulled the cup inside, only to return it to the table several seconds later.

From under the sheet, there was a faint sound, a rapid tapping noise.

An extra seat had been left out, but I wasn’t sure if it was for me or not. Still dripping wet, I looked at the women and apologized.

“…I’m sorry for ruining the carpet. I didn’t have any way of getting the wine off.”

The woman gave me an understanding smile.

“It’s fine, By. That doesn’t matter here.”

I paused, thinking about what she might have meant by that.

“Am I… dead?”

She laughed.

“Not at all, By. You’re just sleeping. This place is a perfect representation of the portion of your subconscious responsible for curiosity. Any of the individuals you might encounter here are people who you very deeply wanted to know more about. There’s more than the three of us, of course, but we can’t all pop in at once. It’s a small table, after all.”

“…Seriously?”

“Well, not really, no. Technically speaking, this is a regular dream. You’re just dreaming that you’re in a perfect representation of the portion of your subconscious responsible for curiosity.”

“Is there a difference?”

She shrugged.

“Probably not, in terms of how it affects the narrative.”

Thinking back, I realized why I’d found the woman so familiar. Someone who I had deeply wanted to know more about. My eyes widened.

“Are you…”

She smiled.

“See! I told you she would recognize me.”

The dirty man rolled his eyes. Ignoring him, the woman extended her hand towards me, offering a greeting and gesturing me to sit down.

“Amelia Earhart. Pleased to make your acquaintance.”

Most young people, during at least one point in their lives, find themselves suddenly and inexplicably obsessed with a particular subject. The length of the obsession can vary wildly, but almost everyone is guaranteed to get them, often times with said obsessions fading just as quickly as they came, and other times with them becoming more or less permanent.

I had gathered quite a bit of those, by that point. Some of the most obvious were murder mysteries and web serials, neither of which had ever gone away, but I’d had plenty of smaller and less life-altering ones too, many stretching back from when I was a little kid.

Probiotics. Dead letter mail. Judaism. Aspics. Capybaras. The Supreme Court, and the legal system in general. Epistemology. New Zealand. That one freaky Franz Kafka story about an execution machine that slowly carved a person’s crime into their back over and over until they died. Neopets. Stepladders.

One of the weirdest and most extreme ones that had ever gripped me, however, happened in the seventh grade. A lot of girls I knew went through weird phrases in middle school, be it goth or emo or horse or whatever brand of pubescent insanity their developing minds happened to latch onto. Me, though?

I went through an Amelia Earhart phase.

I didn’t know what it was about her, honestly. It wasn’t like I had any interest in aviation or mechanical sciences or exploration. I had just randomly cracked open a book one day about her in the library and found a tidbit about her life as a teenager in high school, where she reportedly had a very miserable time. She hadn’t been popular, and human sensitivity being what it was in 1916, her yearbook had chosen to caption a picture of her “the girl in brown who walks alone”.

It was one of the meanest things I’d ever heard, and after that, I felt weirdly connected to her in a way I couldn’t adequately describe. I wasn’t seriously antisocial myself, so it wasn’t like I had a good reason to have empathized with that so much, but I just did. I didn’t want to be her, and it wasn’t even that I identified with her; more than anything, I just admired what she’d made of herself. (I did cut my hair short around the time, however, which had more than a little to do with me wanting to copy her look.)

As one would expect, the mystery aspect of her disappearance only fueled my interest. I’d wished more than a few times that I could’ve spoken to her, both to know more about her life and what’d definitively happened to her when she went missing.

The whole thing faded after about three months, but I guessed that some part of the Earhart fervor had managed to survive within me, because I found myself starstruck to finally be in her presence. She was gracious about it, at least, not seeming to mind the way I tripped over myself to find the right way to greet the woman I’d read about fifteen separate full-length biographies about.

She put her hand on my shoulder.

“It’s fine, By. Relax. Everything’s going to be okay. Do you want a drink?”

I was suddenly holding a mug with the red stuff they all couldn’t seem to get enough of.

“…I don’t like to drink all that much. I get really terrible hangovers.”

She laughed.

“By, it’s kombucha.”

Surprised, I took a small taste. She was right.

“…You like kombucha?”

“I’m your mental construct, By. Of course I like it.”

“Oh, right.”

I took another sip.

“I’m sorry, though. I can’t tell you what happened to me.”

“…Is it a secret?”

“Not exactly. I would if I could, but I don’t know how I disappeared either.”

“Because it wasn’t really you, right?”

She nodded, smiling.

I pointed to the dirty man.

“…Who is he, then?”

“Well, that’s a little more difficult, since you’ve never seen a real picture of him to base his image on. Let’s just say he does his fair share of boulder-pushing.”

That made it easy.

“…Sisyphus?”

He grumbled.

“He’s not the most cheerful of companions, but we get along. I do have to ask, By — what question did you want to ask him?”

Sisyphus was one of the unluckiest bastards in all of Greek myth. Punished for his hubris, he was cursed by Zeus to push a boulder up a steep mountain for all eternity, the twist being that it’d roll back down every time he finally managed to make it.

During high school, I’d read an essay about him written by some depressing French guy, and it ended up influencing me quite a bit philosophically. The essay had made the argument that Sisyphus would have eventually found happiness by embracing the absurdity of his hellish situation, and although I knew he wasn’t actually real, I guess a part of me wished I could’ve met him to ask whether or not that was true. Was, in the end, Sisyphus able to find happiness?

At the encouragement of Amelia, I asked him. He slowly put his mug down, not looking very happy at all.

“Have you ever pushed a boulder up a mountain, By?”

“No.”

He glared at me for a moment before showing me his palms. They were more callus than flesh.

“Do these fucking look like the hands of a happy man?”

“…Sorry.”

Amelia laughed again.

“Don’t mind him, By. He’s just mad that he doesn’t really exist.”

“It’s… it’s fine. My fault. Though…”

I pointed to the last of the three, the mystery person under the sheets.

“And them?”

“Oh, him. That’s The Canadian.”

“The Canadian?”

Compared to Amelia and Sisyphus, his identity wasn’t nearly as easily deciphered.

She nodded.

“Today’s his work day, which is why he’s wearing the sheet. He’s a lovely person to speak to, but not if it’s his work day. You probably won’t be able to ask him your question, I’m afraid.”

“His work day?”

“Yes. He has a very particular schedule, you see. He works as hard as he can for one entire day, and then he’ll rest all the next.”

“That sounds very demanding.”

“It works for him, he says. Would you like to see him?”

Before I could answer, she pulled back the sheet, revealing The Canadian.

For the most part, he was a rather ordinary-looking fellow, his pale face and body nothing to comment on in either direction. His arms, however…

There were ten of them, all nearly twice the length of a normal arm, all but two bursting out from the center of his chest.

I realized why he’d been moving around so much, as well as the source of the noise he’d been producing. There was a laptop resting on his thighs, and his arms were directed towards it, him somehow able to type with all ten at once. He had a calm determination about him as he worked, and despite having never seen anything like him before, I didn’t feel unnerved.

If he noticed that we’d taken off the sheet, he didn’t say it, his eyes glued to the computer screen.

“You know who he is, right?”

I thought about it for several seconds, unsure. I was about to admit defeat when I saw him take a drink again from his mug with a spare hand. After he set it back down on the table, I noticed that it had a peculiar design, a cute little doodle of a pig printed on the side.

My eyes widened again.

“Oh. Oh.

“You got it. That’s him. The Canadian.

“That’s… oof. Wow. Can I…”

“I wouldn’t. He doesn’t like it very much when people bother him or call him by name, especially when he’s trying to work. I’d just come back another time.

“I… I know, but it’s not very often that I get flung into the meta-recesses of my mind. It might be awhile before I can get another chance.”

“I’m sure the wait will make it better. Besides, it’s not as if it’s really him, after all.”

I took another sip, eventually nodding.

“Yeah, I guess you’re right.”

Amelia and I talked for some time, drinking and occasionally poking fun at Sisyphus, who continuously looked like he was seconds away from flinging himself into the sea.

Eventually, she set her cup down, wanting to ask me a question. It caught me off guard. We had been talking about my writing, at the time.

“By, I’m curious. Would you ever write a story with an extended dream sequence in it?”

I thought about it.

“Probably not,” I said. “That seems like the type of thing that might be annoying to an audience. If I did, it would have to be done carefully, especially timing-wise. You wouldn’t want to put something like that after some dramatic cliffhanger. I’d probably also want it closer to the end of the story, if it could be helped.”

Amelia laughed again. It wasn’t like her other laughs.

More of a cackle.

“So, now you don’t want to bother your audience. Interesting.

“Hey, wait. That- that was a long time ago, when I wrote that.”

Sisyphus jumped in too. By his tone, I got the impression that we’d gone beyond a friendly chat over kombucha.

“That’s not an excuse, By. You hated them, didn’t you? That’s why you wrote that ending. That ending. God. What were you thinking?”

“…I was nineteen, okay? It was my first time writing anything. I didn’t realize how long it was going to get. I didn’t know I had to plan stuff. And then the one time I finally thought I had it figured somebody came and suckerpunched me right before I was about to see it through. It wasn’t like I was fucked up enough to actually plan that shitty ending out from the start. DM put me in a corner and I was inexperienced and didn’t know how to handle it. That’s not…”

I took a breath, unballing my fists.

“…It doesn’t matter. Why are you criticizing me about this? Nobody… nobody cares anymore. Nobody really cared back then, either. There are bigger problems in the world than the work struggles of some glorified blogger.”

They both grinned again. Amelia stared into my eyes, baring teeth.

“By, if we care, that means there’s at least one person who can’t stop thinking about it.”

“…Go away.”

“You know, you’ll never admit it, no matter what anyone says, but deep, deep down, I think the reason you can’t stop thinking about it is because you liked it. It was fun, wasn’t it? Fucking with your audience like that. Setting up the false pretense of solvability and laughing about it as they cried and whined that things didn’t go the way they thought they would. You should do it again. I know you didn’t with Ionia, but that’s over, so you’re free to pull another Space Attorney whenever you want. Your audience is so much bigger now, so much more expectant. Imagine how much you could screw with them.

“That isn’t…”

“More than anything, it’s about the power, isn’t it? Those who choose to consume media as opposed to creating it have already made the ultimate concession that they will submit to the ideas and imaginations of others. No matter what they say to the contrary, no matter how much they bitch and complain about wanting a good reason for why something happens the way it does, in the end they’re just children screaming out for a greater force to dominate them. And there’s nothing wrong with that, you should know. That’s just their nature. To submit. They crave it, the knowledge that someone else is in control of things.”

“You don’t… just…”

“When you try and explain things to them — when you try to justify what you’ve created — you imply that the people who read your work are equal to you. That they deserve an explanation. They don’t, and in their hearts, they know that. You’re already well aware of the fact that they don’t have a clue what they really want. They don’t want to sit across the table from a worthy opponent and think for themselves and be challenged; they want to be cradled, to be held and owned, to be reassured that nothing makes any sense and that the universe is unfair and nonsensical and that no one but you will ever understand them. They want to be stupid little babies that you hug and kiss and tuck in so they can go to sleep and keep being stupid little babies forever. They tell themselves otherwise, they’ll tell you otherwise, but they resent the fact that they have to think. They’d much rather you be their mother, so you can do it for them.”

“I told you to go away.”

“Tuck them in, By. That’s all they want.”

Finally listening to me, they obeyed, vanishing into red sand.

The Canadian remained, still hard at work. I guessed that he was hard of hearing. That was fine. I hadn’t really wanted him to leave anyway.

Sighing, I reached for my glass. I almost took a small sip before realizing that the cup was filled with more sand. I looked at it for a moment before tossing it as hard as I could to the side, where it landed on the floor, not reaching the ocean. The Canadian didn’t react.

I gave him another look. He hadn’t seemed to notice any of what had happened. I saw that his glass was still filled with kombucha.

“I don’t believe all that stuff she said, just so you know. That’s a bunch of reductive childish bullshit.”

I leaned back in my seat, staring at one of the larger yellow moons.

“…And I know it wasn’t good. When did I say that it was? I was a novice. God, I still am. But that’s what novices do. They suck. That’s the point.”

He didn’t respond. I wasn’t expecting him to.

“It was my first time. Nobody gets it right the first time, especially with endings. Endings are hard.

I remembered who I was speaking to.

“I mean, uh, not you. You’re an exception, obviously. But that’s rare, you know that. Most people stink the first time. And I just want to improve, that’s all. I just want to improve.”

I sat in silence after that for some time, listening to the sounds of his typing and the distant clashing of waves. It was nice. I thought about D, and then about someone else, wondering if the purple sea had any dolphins in it.

Eventually, he finished.

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.