2.06

“It’s pretty simple, once you get down to it.”

Cornea had already withdrawn his finger, but all the accusatory intent it carried still floated precariously around me, suspicions raised.

Lovely.

“There are medical explanations, sure. They’re not impossible — hopefully I’ve established that much after talking for this long — but they sure are implausible. We can bring up nanobots and implants and secret pseudo-extralegal drug doses until the cows come home, or we can simplify everything and call By a liar. In situations like these, I’m inclined to lean towards the latter.”

“Because I made a mistake? I’m not going to say that it isn’t super sketchy that I got Sludged so early on in the way I did, but c’mon. Be a little charitable.”

That wasn’t an argument — or even that good of a emotional persuasion, really — but I didn’t have one to seriously offer in its stead. I was not a mole, but what I had done was excruciatingly suspicious, and had it been anyone else, I would’ve been quick to point (literal) fingers as well.

Still, I had to force myself to respond, even if it was just going through the motions. It was impossible to deny something without looking at least somewhat suspicious, but it was better than the alternative of not trying to deny it at all.

“It’s more than one thing,” said Caroline. “You found the panel, you found the Sludge, you just happened to squeeze it in the right way to have it break on you and only you. It’s all very… convenient.”

“…Hypothetically, say that I was a mole; how does that even factor into this conversation? I was still put to sleep by the Sludge, right?”

“You might have been faking it,” said Dent.

Cornea shook his head.

“No, she was out. Arm drop, sternum rub, rapid eye movement. I wasn’t poking around for show.”

That’d be fun to watch on TV later, Cornea prying my unconscious eyelids open in front of everyone. That’s what I’d really come for, honestly. The mystery solving was just incidental.

Corn trotted out the finger again, waving it as he stuffed yet another strawberry into his gaping maw.

“However, if we assume that By was a mole, then it all becomes much easier. She could’ve taken a slow-acting drug before or during our time in first room and then ran to the panel as soon as she felt it start to take effect.”

“…The vote, then. If I’m a mole, why have the vote? The gamemakers and I could’ve planned things out so that I get Sludged, but that there also wouldn’t have been the issue with the rules, so I stay in without a fuss.”

“Credibility,” said Caroline. “They take some legitimate risk in having a mole get taken out early for an attempt at boosting her reputation as a trustworthy figure.”

“Because this is making me come across as so trustworthy, right?”

“Attempts fail, sometimes. And that’s assuming they didn’t have safeguards. You could have multiple moles, several voting with you, some encouraging others without necessarily siding with you openly. Look at Joyo.”

Joyo looked incredulous.

“The fuck are you talkin’ about? I didn’t even vote for her!”

“No, but you were loud and obnoxious enough in your opposition to have potentially convinced several others to switch sides. You at least cemented a few people further on her side, if the reactions of Dot and Claim are to be taken seriously.”

“Oh, fuck off. I ain’t a mole.”

“…It’s possible. Regardless, this line of questioning can’t go much farther in the moment beyond everyone deciding to place extra suspicion on By, assuming she has nothing else to say in her defense.”

Everyone looked back at me. There were some responses I could make — flimsy ones, for the most part — but it was probably better to just end the discussion as quickly as possible. Caroline had finished by emphasizing the fact that there were multiple people worthy of distrust, and as much as the spotlight was still directed at me, I at least figured that I’d have ranked higher than Joyo on a poll about trustworthiness. I could earn back more trust later, but pushing back so hard against everything at that moment wasn’t going to settle well in people’s memories.

“…I don’t, I guess.”

There was a short pause — most of the others had expected me to offer more of a fight, I figured — but it was broken by Lu, who I had yet to hear speak. Her voice was even lighter and more childish than her appearance hinted at, soft and bubbly to the point of almost coming across as unnatural. The permanent smile didn’t help.

“By, can I ask you something?”

“…Sure, Lu.”

ZB leaned towards me. Her body language suggested that she might have been preparing to whisper, but she spoke more than loudly enough for everyone to hear, Lu included.

“Ignore her, By. She’s pretending to be nuts. It’s the worst gimmick here.”

“I’m not pretending to be anything, ZB. My friend is…”

Her eyes rolled up again for a moment, coming back down after another short flicker of rapid eyelid flickering.

“Okay, sorry. My friend says it’s fine. It’s okay if you don’t believe, ZB. Nobody needs to argue right now.”

She turned back to me, carefully adjusting her tiara as she did.

“My friend wants to know why you opened the panel in front of everybody. If you realized that it existed, why didn’t you wait until when you were alone to try and open it?”

“…I was just really excited. That sounds like a shitty defense, but finding a big secret like that in front of everybody made me stop thinking about strategy. I was the second person to arrive, and I was there for longer than almost everybody else, so I by that point I was desperate to find anything.”

“…So if you found something secret while in a group, you’d share it with us right away? That’s what my friend wants to know.”

“…Probably, yeah.”

She beamed.

“Great, By! That’s so great. Can I see what you stuffed inside your pockets?”

Her tone of voice didn’t change, but the maliciousness was more than evident through meaning alone. Already caught and not wanting to go through the hassle of everyone demanding to see it, I retrieved it without argument, placing the four folded pieces of tinfoil on the table.

“Is there Sludge in that?” asked Quote, who looked at me with what felt like real suspicion for the first time since we’d met. That hurt, a little. Caroline and Corn had managed to drag in some of the more hardcore members of the party into their anti-By campaign, but Lu’s current gambit was doing much more damage. Even ZB and Strait were giving me looks, now.

What a first day.

I opened up all four pieces and flattened them out, clearly showing off to everyone that they were empty.

“Not a drop. It’s just tinfoil.”

“Why, then?”

“For transporting any Sludge she finds later, I assume,” said Caroline. “If it comes in plastic capsules similar to the original and actually is an anesthetic, having a safe way to move it around would be very important. Tinfoil would be a very optimal way of doing so.”

“No, it’s…”

I sighed. Unlike the first time I found something cool, I’d gone out of my way not to reveal it to the group, but that hadn’t worked, so I wasn’t left with any other option aside from showing them. There might have been some weird lies I could’ve made up about what I was planning on doing with it, but that wouldn’t explain why I had been secretive, so coming clean was all I had if I wanted to save whatever shreds of face I had left.

“I’m not sure if this’ll work, but when I saw the tinfoil, I wondered if I could use it like this…”

I took two of the four large pieces and wrapped them around my bracelet, pressing it tightly and clumping it down against my wrist. I waited for a moment, not expecting anything to happen.

Nothing did.

“Oh, I get it,” said Corn. “You thought the bracelets operated via signals sent from somewhere else in the facility. If the bracelets end up having Sludge in them that pops out whenever you break a rule, you could wear the tinfoil to block the signals and circumvent the consequence.”

“Wouldn’t that be against the rules?” asked Quote.

“…I mean, it wasn’t stated to be,” I said. “But that’s not why I picked up the foil, though.”

I took the other two pieces and opened up the new layer of bracelet I’d made, sliding them in the thin space between my skin and the bracelet instead of just surrounding the latter. With the bracelet completely isolated from both my body and the outside, I closed it all up again and waited a few seconds.

The tinfoil shifted slightly, the bracelet releasing and opening back to the way it’d been when Mr. Dogsi handed it to me. I pulled it off together with the tinfoil in one smooth motion, dropping them both on the table.

“Not a doctor, but people’s bodies constantly produce electronic signals or whatever, right?”

“EKG.”

“Yeah, that. Since the bracelet clamped down on me the way it did after my skin touched it — and for all of you too, I’m assuming — it gave me the impression that it was set to do so after having made contact with a human body. The best consistent register of that is probably EKG, so I figured that if it did run on that, and you managed to block it, it might be set to come off.”

“But how did you come up with the tinfoil idea?”

“Tinfoil blocks electromagnetic waves, at least to an extent, so you can use it to make something like this ineffective. I read about something similar in a story once. When I found it in the kitchen, I decided to go for it.”

(Bullshit, but nobody cared anyway. Little fluffy white lies were fine if they kept me from looking like too much of a giant loser.)

We argued back and forth for a while after that, most everyone trying out the tinfoil for themselves after seeing that I’d been able to do it without it counting as a rule violation. I was annoyed that I’d been forced to do it front of everyone, but it was nice to see my theory confirmed. Beyond the added suspicion of me seeming to know more about the mechanics of the game than should have been reasonable (which was more really the fault of unoriginality in game design than it was of me being particularly smart or insightful), it did add several very odd factoids that we were forced to go over.

If the bracelets could be taken off, that suggested that they weren’t how punishment for rule violation was doled out (assuming the gamemakers weren’t that shortsighted). Rule 28 stated that players who broke any rules would be eliminated instantly.  If that was the case, and it wasn’t the bracelets, how was it handled? Would the gamemakers open the nearest ceiling panel and start firing Sludge at them with a paintball sniper? Something like that would work, but it seemed really impractical.

I didn’t want to keep my bracelet off, and neither did anyone else, and by the time we wrapped up both our talk and dinner everyone had put theirs back on. If our hunch about punishment violation was correct, then none of us had any reason to assume that not wearing them brought us any sort of advantage (at least not yet).

(On a more emotional level, I liked having it on, especially after the vote. It felt like confirmation of the fact that what I was doing was real; having it off felt dirty, in a way.)

We left the kitchen, a few of us taking along snacks as we headed back towards our bedrooms.

To my annoyance, everyone grabbed some tinfoil.


“Um…”

As a group, we peered down the single escalator that led back downstairs. It was still going up, even if at an absurdly slow pace.

We’d made a mutual agreement to turn in for the night and fully explore the rest of The Facility in the morning, and after a quick stop to the Health Wing to check out the bathrooms, that’s where we had headed.

Did they just want us to chug back down it? With how tall it was, I wasn’t sure how comfortable I was with that. Part of it was my thing with heights, but it didn’t exactly seem like the safest thing in the world, especially with how long it went on for…

“Here,” said Caroline.

She pointed to a small screen about the size of a smartphone mounted onto the side of the stationary railing. Like the screen on the wall of the Dining Room, it listed a small explanation about how its room worked. A small pink button lay just beneath it.

  • Any escalator in The Facility is capable of operating in either available direction and stopping completely.
  • To change the direction of this or any other escalator, simply press the pink button located near the top and bottom of it.
  • For safety reasons, the direction of any escalator will not change or stop if any players are riding it at the time the button is pressed.

After reading it aloud, Caroline pressed it once, which stopped the escalator. As stated, a subsequent press made it go in reverse, and she cycled through everything two extra times, making sure there weren’t any extra or faster modes of operation we might have been missing out on.

We rode it to the bottom, me feeling marginally more comfortable than I did going up (but not by a lot). Once we made it, more than a few of us had gotten the same idea, and we sent a lone bracelet up to see if it would let us change directions as it rode.

It did not.


I was back in bed.

Once making it back to the first room, we had all agreed to go to sleep. I was sure that more than a few people were intending on breaking that rule to explore The Facility overnight and try to find some Sludge, but as much as the temptation appealed to me, I didn’t want to risk leaving.

My room, was much as I might’ve disliked it otherwise, was safe, and that couldn’t be said for the vast majority of the rest of The Facility. People could enter my hallway without any issue, but the bedroom itself required my keycard to get inside of, and the rules banned people from Sludging me while inside anyway.

I wasn’t against taking risks, but after what I’d been through, I figured that it probably wasn’t worth it. I’d been given a reprieve; it was better not to waste it with more carelessness.  (I was a little scared, too. With how hyped everyone was, I wouldn’t have been surprised if someone got offed on the first night. Better to play it safe.)

Still, falling asleep was proving to be difficult. Getting drugged twice had thrown off my sleep schedule, and getting back into it was not easy while in a new bed. I’d already tried killing time by fiddling around with the electronic number lock again (it was completely off, registering nothing) and examining the limited options available on my bracelet, but neither provided me with much entertainment or extra knowledge, and I’d spent at least a half hour staring at the ceiling in thought.

Partially pulling myself out of the nice blanket they’d provided me with, I suddenly recalled that I’d forgotten to update the book. Turning to the side, I picked up my backpack, fishing it out.

THE DM BOOK

It wasn’t much more than an old composition notebook of potential answers listed in no particular order, but I brought it along anyway, not liking the thought of being away from it. Without turning the lights back on, I wrote Dent’s full name on the current page, where it rested beneath Danger Mouse and Deutsche Mark. It had been awhile since I’d updated it, but it was still nice to finger through the worn pages. I usually much preferred typing to writing stuff out, but when it came to making lists, I had a preference for paper. I’d written about thirteen-hundred possible entries for what it might have stood for, and although I never expected to get any sort of real clarification on which was correct, it was oddly cathartic to have them all jotted down somewhere.

On the first page, D’s name was listed at the top, although I’d dropped even the vaguest notion of it being him a long time ago. He never would have done it. 

After returning the book to its place and tucking myself back in, I thought about D. It had been a ridiculously long time since we’d been away from each other, and if the game continued for more than a week, it would’ve been our longest period of separation since meeting. It was crazy to think about it, what a big piece of my life he’d been. Not that I didn’t want that.

I eventually got to sleep, although it took a long time. I could manage to get to bed easily if I had him or a surgical-grade anesthetic, but without either, it was tough.

I missed having him next to me. Most people wouldn’t have thought it just by looking at him, but he was an excellent cuddler.

2.05

“There’s no such thing as a simple surgery.”

Hold, as it turned out, was not the only one among us who liked to lecture. That was fine, given the circumstances. More info was good, and between each fistful of strawberries, Corn was happy to provide us with as much as he was able to.

“In day to day life, people like to throw out terms like routine procedure; those don’t exist, not really. Obviously there are a great number of commonly performed surgical operations — people are always going to need appendectomies and knee replacements — but the idea that there are any surgeries so simple as to not carry any risk is a product of fiction. Whenever you decide to put a person under and mess around with the inside of their body, danger is always a factor.”

He stuffed another big strawberry inside of his mouth, slicing it in half with his back teeth once and swallowing the two parts whole. He did chew as he ate, but very sparingly, and the mental image of Hold or Joyo having to heave him up for the Heimlich had popped into my head more than a couple times throughout the meal. When he had still been on the little ones, I could’ve sworn that I’d seen him down a few without biting at all; the real greatest mystery of the night might’ve been how he’d managed to make it so far into dinner without choking to death.

“There are minimally invasive surgeries, and we’re close to the point where we soon truly might be able to say non-invasive, considering new advancements in biotech- but we aren’t there yet. And because all surgeries are invasive — as in, a literal invasion of the human body — significant risk continues to exist. Young, healthy people can and do die after procedures as normal as tonsillectomies, because complications are real and frequent and dangerous. Whenever a surgery can be reasonably avoided, most good doctors will try to.”

He yawned, using the opportunity to grab another enormous strawberry and pop it inside his mouth. It took three bites, which tied for the record.

“Infections, shock, rapid blood hemorrhages, pulmonary embolisms, wound dehiscence, and plain old medical error, just to name some of the fun things that can go horribly, horribly wrong. You might have heard jokes about doctors accidentally leaving scalpels or medical equipment inside patients before sowing them back up, but that’s a real thing that actually happens with some regularity. Sounds silly, but with hundreds of tiny pieces of medical equipment being used and passed around during any given procedure, that shouldn’t be a big surprise.”

I saw Quote wince.

Corn looked around the table, and I saw him briefly gnaw on his lip, making a face that suggested that he realized he’d let his preamble go on for slightly too long.

I could relate.

“…However, complications relating to anesthesia are comparatively very rare. Stuff happens relating to that arena too, of course — allergic reactions and problems with older patients especially — but it’s a rare occasion to die because of problems directly relating to surgical anesthesia in particular. And when it does happen, it’s almost always because of individual error or misinformation.”

Another strawberry, and a loud sigh from ZB.

“As a whole, all of medicine is a very messy and unclear science. That’s a given, considering the inherent complexity involved in trying to deal with the human body, but anesthesia as a sub-field could be said to be much more stable and settled than much of the rest of it. That’s not to say that there isn’t a whole world of advancements left to make, but we-”

“Get to the fucking point,” said ZB.

Corn gave an awkward smile, showing teeth. They were stained red.

“…The reason for all that, anyway, is that anesthesiology is much more precise and exact than almost anything else that can be done in medicine. When I ready a patient for a surgery, regardless of whether its general or regional, there are many factors that need to be accounted for in order to provide treatment: height, weight, sex, age, medical history, you know. But if I’m truthfully given that information and have the correct background to interpret it, there isn’t anything stopping me from applying a block or administering the right amount of propofol or whatever derivative we need to be using instead. When administered by a competent expert who has been adequately informed, anesthesiology is staggeringly safe. It requires an extremely delicate and continuously monitored balance by staff, but it’s safe.”

Claim held up a finger to signal for Corn to pause, writing something down.

ISN’T THAT WHAT KILLED MJ?

“Propofol?”

Claim nodded.

“It is, yes. But he was abusing it as a sleep aid. It’s a very common general anesthetic — probably the most common, as a matter of fact — but not one intended for much use outside the OR. Again, it’s extremely safe, but only when administered in the correct dosages and intervals. That’s a large part of the reason Sludge is so ridiculously impossible. There are very safe and effective drugs that can put people to sleep as quickly as the gamemakers say Sludge can, but the idea that we’d all share the same exact proper dosage is so implausible that it borders on the supernatural. What might serve as a safe dose for me or Hold would likely outright kill Lu or Strait. Unless magic suddenly becomes real, an effective and fast-acting anesthetic that’s impossible to overdose on isn’t happening anytime in the next few centuries.”

Corn ate another strawberry, Strait awkwardly scratching the back of his neck.

Lu didn’t seem as bothered by the comment, her bright smile continuing unheeded. I hadn’t noticed her doing it up until that point, but her eyes from time to time would roll back up as far as she could make them, showing almost all white for several seconds before coming back down as if nothing had happened. It was… unsettling, especially given the juxtaposition with her otherwise childish demeanor and gleeful expression, but if anyone else was seeing it they weren’t commenting.

It was noticeable, so I probably wasn’t being unreasonable in guessing that she’d been doing it during the time when I was out, and that everyone else had already gotten used to it. I wasn’t sure how they had.

Tourettes, maybe? That seemed like a decent explanation, but the tic was infrequent and irregular, happening maybe every minute or so and not consistently. I had taken a few long looks at her around the time of the vote and when we were reading the rules, and I’d never caught her doing it then.

I didn’t know much about Tourettes or similar conditions, that being said. Was there a set length for how long someone had between tics? Could that length differ? I honestly didn’t have a clue.

(One of the most annoying aspects of the game, I was beginning to discover, was the fact that I couldn’t look up the answers to any random questions I wanted to know as they popped up. As I was discovering, I wasn’t just dependent on the Internet for an income; it might as well have been my second brain in terms of how much I relied on it for information. Hopefully the aforementioned Computer Room would have a WiFi signal…)

“Even ignoring that, drugs that work as fast as Sludge do exist, but only intravenously. Skin contact and digestion are much slower ways of administering medicine; even if you dipped both your arms in a vat of liquid cyanide, it’d probably take longer than thirty seconds for it to kill you. The dualistic nature of Sludge is just as improbable, as well. All medicine works in degrees; there’s no way you could have some magic universal dosage amount that suddenly makes a drug go from completely ineffective to one-hundred percent potent. It just doesn’t make sense.”

On the face of things, what Corn was saying fit together. I didn’t need a full medical lecture to suspect the impossibility of a drug like Sludge existing (although it was nice to get as a bonus). I couldn’t lend it absolute credibility, as was my rule, but I was damn sure of the truth of his explanation.

Or I would’ve been, anyway. Good-sounding scientific explanations from experts were high up on the list of sources that I naturally gave intellectual credence, but I’d also gotten Sludged myself, and that fact seemed to supersede it.

I didn’t think that personal testimony was anything close to ironclad (a weird mindset for a person literally playing a real life courtroom murder mystery simulator) but I had to lend my own experiences some credit. My skin had been exposed to Sludge — and nothing else, at least as far as I had reason to suspect — and it knocked me out in less than a minute. That history didn’t jive with what he was saying.

“Okay,” said Caroline. “I figured. But then how do we explain what happened to By?”

“I have two theories,” replied Cornea.

I got the sense that Caroline had set up that question with the intention of trying to answer it herself, but she’d paused for just long enough for Cornea to actually jump in with a response. She didn’t protest it, remaining calm and composed as he went ahead with his explanation.

“Firstly, the vitamin D shots.”

No freaking way.

Prior to the start of the game — both immediately before they put me under and during some of the many cell phone talks I’d been made to have with various producers and managers — my health had been a frequent topic of concern. Not that mine was at all worrisome. I wasn’t crazy athletic, but I had never once gotten sick as an adult (despite occasional online claims to the contrary), and I didn’t have any allergies or similar concerns that I could’ve imagined affecting my ability to participate.

What they’d been worried about, they said, was my health during the game, along with everyone else’s. They’d asked me a lot of questions about my personal medical history, which had been annoying, but did help to reassure me that much more that I hadn’t been signing up for an actual death game. Not absolutely, obviously… but still, it made me feel better.

(That said, a shadowy killing organization would have also had a vested interest in making sure that I was fit to play; you probably didn’t want your death game contestants suddenly dying of something as lame and anticlimactic as basic illness. Where was the drama in that?)

One central concern and talking point had been vitamin D. Because of the prolonged effects of being indoors for three straight months, we’d been given vitamin D shots as a precaution- or what I thought were vitamin D shots at the time, at least. I’d never absolutely accepted that — heck, I’d joked with the lady giving me the shot about it actually being poison or something — but come on. That was too stupid of an explanation.

“I’m assuming it was the same for all of you, but I had to sign a extra paper before they gave it to me,” Cornea said. “It was short, and even at the time I noticed the specificity of the phrasing. They never particularized that it was just the vitamin D, if you recall. It said that you give them the right to administer to you…”

He paused, trying to recall the right wording.

“…With whatever shall be necessary in order to guarantee your health and participation during the game,” finished Polycarp.

“Exactly,” Cornea nodded. “It’s not inconceivable — and I say this all while speculating on a branch of medicine that is very far away from my area of expertise — that they actually injected us with a large amount of some type of durable, long-term nanobot. It could conceivably be made to carry a large amount of a strong, normal anesthetic inside of us for a long time, not being administered until we get hit by the Sludge, which serves either as some type of trigger or as an estimated marking point for the gamemakers.”

“A marking point?” asked Quote.

“That’s what I think is more plausible. We already know that they have world class quality cameras all over the place; I think there’s a good chance they might be using that to their advantage. They could keep track of where all the Sludge and players are in real time and remotely activate the hypothetical nanobots whenever players are exposed to what looks to be about two teaspoons of it. That makes the rule about it being exactly two teaspoons a lie, but reality television is known for fudging little things for the sake of convenience. With a careful system of monitoring, they could probably get it close enough to the point where it wouldn’t matter.”

“But they told us that it was just vitamin D,” I said. “Beyond that, all we were given before the game was the drug that put us to sleep during transport, unless…”

Before I finished the sentence, I realized what his answer would be. Caroline spoke up again first, wishing to reinvolve herself.

“That’s what they told us about, yes. But that might not have been everything. Since they had the contract, they could’ve given us more of whatever they wanted to while we were unconscious. It’s admittedly sketchy, but probably not illegal, as far as these things go.”

We heard a breathy noise from across the table, halfway between a gasp and a peep, like someone had started to form the first syllable of a shout and then had to stop.

The noise’s creator had been Claim. We all looked at him, and Zeezrom asked if he had something to contribute, but he shook his head. His posture had tensed up, shoulders straight and at full attention.

Breaking the silence, Caroline spoke up.

“We were informed in advance that the gamemakers would be actively trying to mislead us, and our main contracts were signed with that explicitly stated. Giving us an extra drug while unconscious doesn’t seem to go against that, especially if it’s one that can’t harm us physically and would be required for the game to function as normal.”

“Well, I’m not sure about that,” Cornea replied, Caroline once again looking like she’d meant to continue after her pause. “It’s a legal gray area. Most of the time, I don’t think you can sign a contract agreeing to forfeit your rights, and that probably wouldn’t change here. Administering drugs without a person’s consent or knowledge outside of the context of an emergency is a big no-no, and even with this being kind of a unique situation, I’m not so sure how far you could stretch the idea of that type of implied situational consent. I don’t know much about the law — and this is for entertainment, not medicine — so any comparison I could make to my normal workplace regulations aren’t going to be totally analogous. Still, it’s not as satisfactory of an explanation as I’d like.

I saw Claim’s chest loosen up again, releasing a weak but audible sigh.

“It was your theory,” said Dot.

Cornea grinned, again showing off his crimson-colored teeth.

“I know, but it wasn’t my main theory. That one’s a lot simpler. You know, Occam’s Razor and all that.”

Dot rolled her eyes (coincidentally at the same time as Lu, for what were presumably different reasons).

“And what would that theory be?”

A fat finger stained with red stretched across the table, pointing at me.

“By’s a mole.”

“I’m not,” I instantly shot back. From beside me, ZB giggled.

“The lady doth-”

“Shut up.”

2.04

Oy, no.

Claim as an interdimensional time-looper with an imaginary friend was a bad one, although the ski mask/suit combo did really help to sell the concept in my head. The guy sure dressed like the type of dude who spent his time messing around with the space-time continuum.

It was a stupid concept, and that wouldn’t have changed even if I had done the work of seriously fleshing it out. Yeah, not as dumb as the ending to Space Attorney, but still pretty bullshitty and unfair. The second Knox Commandment was probably the worst one to break, all things considered. Suddenly allowing for the existence of the supernatural tended to piss people off.

(On top of all that, Gloria was such a dumb name for ZB. She wasn’t a Gloria; too regal. I wondered why I’d chosen that one in particular…)

I looked further around the table, coming up with more stupid endgame scenarios. It was fun.

Caroline Plite, as the mastermind. As it turned out, she was actually DM, and she’d been stalking me for years prior to the game, infuriated by an anti-rationalist comment I’d once made online and long ago forgotten about. After covertly inventing a general AI and propelling herself to the high status of secret tech-billionaire, she’d designed the game as a way to put me through the same torture she felt that I had inflicted on my readers. All the other players? Her robots, of course.

Quote, then. After being driven mad from a decade of playing the same videogame over and over, she decided that she’d make a videogame of her own — my reality. In truth, the whole game — along with everyone inside it, me included — were simulations, all of our brains and emotions and histories nothing more than ones and zeroes repeating inside a digital prison. In truth, she’d restarted the simulation millions of times, each reboot altering our personalities and appearances as she saw fit, enjoying the experience of torturing beings she incorrectly saw as without true consciousness.

Zeezrom. Mild mannered and polite on the surface, but in actuality, a cloned spy sent from Salt Lake City to infiltrate the game. Following his arrival, he was ordered to hijack the airwaves in order to spread hypnotic religious propaganda, with the intention of making the entire world nice and Mormon. If everything went according to plan, by the time December rolled around, there wouldn’t be a single coffee shop left on the Western hemisphere.

Cornea. A medical expert who predicted the rise of an artificially created superbug that would wipe out humanity. He set up the game in an effort to keep a small amount of individuals safe among the Armageddon soon to ensue, determined to preserve life as best as he could manage. The Facility wasn’t actually a game show, but it wasn’t a prison either; it was our sanctuary, the last safe place left on Earth.

Martha. A disgruntled ex-reader still angry about the ending to Space Attorney.

Lu. A young girl having a nightmare, dreaming us all up.

Hold. A deranged serial killer with plans to punish us all for what he deemed to be our sins.

ZB Popsicle. A hyper-intelligent penguin pretending to be a human (pretending to be a penguin).

I snorted. Hyper-intelligent wasn’t the best choice of words.

Regardless of how much fun it was, there wasn’t much value to what I was doing beyond entertaining myself. It was neat to place myself back in the shoes of a hack author, but I was practicing for something I knew I didn’t want to do anymore. I had eschewed that type of thinking a long time ago.

Amelia was wrong, I’d already decided. Good authors didn’t trick their audiences; at least not in the way that those kinds of cheap, unpredictable twists tried to. That was what I thought.

Yeah.

But that wasn’t what I had always thought.

If an impartial observer had been able to observe my dream with Amelia, they might have assumed that I’d only let myself slide over to her position at one single point in my life, during the ending of Space Attorney. That I’d only done what I’d done because I was pressured and unprepared, and that under other circumstances, I would’ve been better.

Maybe that was a little true, I guessed.

But not really.

Space Attorney failed utterly as a piece of writing, and it did so for many, many reasons. The characters were disjointed, inconsistent, and unrealistic. The pacing was horrid, somehow both too slow and fast to hold people’s interest. Every “solution” to each mystery was either insulting obvious or offensively out of left field, and people got sick of it fast — the ones who’d been able to get past my awful prose, anyway. 

However, the greatest crime — apart from the ending — was me.

The biggest difference between a web serial and almost any other type of medium came down to audience interaction. A normal author didn’t have to deal with mini-Q&A sessions between every chapter, but someone writing parcel by parcel on the Internet lacked that luxury. Once a certain baseline of popularity was hit, people always weighed in, as was the design, with questions, comments, and criticism.

On one hand, for a responsible writer, that was awesome. You got to see what people thought about your stuff as you wrote it, and that was an astounding advantage, both as a motivational tool and as a way to see what to hone in on. If people liked or hated character X more than a writer had anticipated, that could be accounted for, their importance in the story boosted or cut down as needed. Problems with phrasing, pacing, and poor writing habits could be fixed in real time, a community of individuals able to point out issues someone may have ever failed to even notice present within their own work. When used correctly and knowledgeably by those who truly wanted to see a story get better, the gift of interactivity helped to accomplish just that.

Of course, that interactivity had a negative side, of which I’d already reflected plenty on. Aside from the perils of a DM type scenario and everyday bad faith criticism, there were always people who’d try to abuse that direct contact to move the serial into a direction more suited to their views. They came in every variation imaginable: rationalists, ultra-rationalists, anti-rationalists, racists, optimists, misanthropes, weebs, anti-weebs, memers, anti-memers, libertarians, gamers, communists, crypto-fascists, socialists, pro-ladderists, pro-stepladderists, misogynists, misandrists, neoreactionaries, theists, agnostics, atheists, anti-theists, anti-anti-theists, anti-anti-anti-theists, centrists, and folks who seemed to know way too much about age of consent laws…

There were a lot to name.

But, as was important to note, the audience was not the only part of the equation, and they certainly weren’t the only ones who could damage the discourse (and the serial, by extension). I had power, too.

And god, did I abuse it.

Sometimes, especially as I’d gotten further and further into it, I started messing with my audience for nothing more than fun of it, just because I could. That sounded pathetic, and it was, but to the mind of a teenage idiot with a burgeoning god complex, the idea of tricking a small readership into believing something false was the coolest thing imaginable.

Once, after one of the rarer occasions where I’d posted a chapter to generally positive reception, I told everyone in the comments section that I’d gotten pleurisy. I was in the hospital, I’d said, but that didn’t matter. I was still endeavoring to get every chapter out on time, and I would, illness be damned. A tiny little thing like not being able to breathe wasn’t going to stop me from adhering to my schedule.

That had been a lie, of course. I hadn’t gotten sick since I was a little kid, not even once.

Why would I have lied about that? What did I possibly have to gain, beyond the satisfaction of knowing that a small amount of people on the Internet might have given me undeserved and unneeded sympathy?

Nothing. But that was all I’d wanted. The small amount of fans that did enjoy my early work believed what I’d said, and they’d wished me well, and that was astounding to me.

Those morons.

They had listened and accepted without question, without doubt, without hesitation. I told a lie, and then many, many more, and they kept believing me just because I’d written something that they liked to read. Even the proud rationalists and the ultra-rationalists did too, because hey, they were there to question the story, not the author.

The author would never lie. They knew that much. Absolutely.

Of course, it wasn’t like those types of lies mattered. If anyone had ever found out the truth, they’d have laughed it off.

“Why would I have ever questioned a statement like that? It wasn’t as if I was losing anything by wishing you well in the comments. If some dude in an elevator told me that his name was Jeff, I wasn’t going to demand to see his ID; I’d simply accept it, like I would for anyone else. If he broke out into a fit of giggles the moment I left because he was really named Raul, that was more indicative of him having mental problems than it was of me being a crappy mystery solver.”

But I knew it didn’t matter! That’s what had made it fun. The meaningless of it.

Still, the better lies were the ones that did matter, because that’s what bothered people. The more obvious ones especially.

Space Attorney — like Ionia of Illumination — was a biweekly serial, posting a new update every Wednesday and Saturday, typically somewhere around two to five thousand words in length. I did sometimes do bonus chapters, but that was more at my random whim than anything else. Once, after a bonus chapter, I wrote that I was changing my schedule.

“Until further notice, the chapter schedule will be changing. Temporarily switching to a three chapter per day format, starting tomorrow.”

I still remembered it very clearly, how someone in the comments section or our chat group had asked for clarification. They were confused, as could be expected, but instead of thinking me a liar, they tried to figure out how they could fit what I’d said with reality. Anything to rationalize it away; the simplest explanation (and the correct one) was the only idea that no one had been willing to suggest.

“They’ll be extra short, I’m guessing.”

“No. The chapters will continue to be normal length.”

Absolute, unmitigated bullshit. How would that have been possible? What, did I have a backlog taller than I was? How could it even be reasonably conceivable that someone as hacky as me could commit to writing upwards of ten-thousand words a day?

It wasn’t like I’d said that and thought even for a second that it was possible. I never even tried. I made the claim, stopped looking at comments, and came back at the normal time next Wednesday, one single normal-length update in hand.

“What about the extra chapters?”

“What extra chapters?”

And so on, all original comments and references to extra chapters wiped away like old dirt. It did nothing but erode trust and slightly disappoint the small amount of people on the planet who might’ve cared, but at the time, I saw nothing wrong with it. As Amelia had essentially said, what did I owe them?

They were babies. If they whined about it, honestly, who gave a shit? That’s what babies did. They cried.

That was a idiotic way of looking at it, but it was sincerely the way I’d seen it back then. Most teenagers probably went through a phase of thinking that they were better or smarter than everyone else, but most (mercifully) weren’t given a platform from which to piss on others from. (If only I’d been as lucky.)

Maybe that was a chunk of the reason why I liked shitting on people who saw themselves as smart so much. It bugged me because I used to be that person, and that wasn’t an easy thing to accept. It was the artistic equivalent of a middle schooler wearing an eye patch and claiming to have secret dark wizard powers that no one else could understand.

God, I was a fucking loser.

I shook my head. I could hate myself and toy around with second-rate psychoanalysis and shitty imagination sequences later. I still had a game to play.


It was interesting, seeing what everyone had asked for.

The large fridge and cabinets in the back of the kitchen contained a laundry list of typical kitchen staples that everyone probably could have made a meal out of, with our individual fridges holding only what we had asked for. There wasn’t anything stopping anyone from taking food outside of other people’s fridges, although all were so fully stocked that it hardly even mattered. A small screen mounted to the wall near the back of the room listed the rules to The Dining Room, including the helpful fact that the fridges were set to be restocked daily at midnight.

Out of my fridge, I’d pulled out a few bottles of kombucha and a jar of fresh unlabeled kimchi, which I’d dumped into a bowl and almost immediately started digging into. There were enough food and ingredients available for me to make just about any dish I’d ever heard of, but the sentiment among the majority of us seemed to be grabbing whatever could be eaten on the spot. We were hungry.

(Among our scramble to check everything out, I made one detour, spotting out of the corner of my eye a large roll of tinfoil sitting inside a cabinet. When it seemed like no one was looking, I ripped up a few large chunks of it and folded it up inside my skirt pockets, hiding the roll itself deeper inside the drawers. As excited and surprised as I was to have found it, I’d have to wait until I got back to my room to try it out and see if it’d actually work.)

The request paper we’d been given said that we could specify brands, and I’d neglected to, not thinking it to be that big of a deal. Generally, without me having asked for any particular variety, one might have assumed that they would’ve gone for the cheapest available options.

Nope.

Any blind person who’d listened to the sixteen of us go at it might have assumed we were having some type of freak mass orgy, at least going off our inability to stop loudly orgasming our way through every bite. Part of that was the fact that we’d had nothing beyond chips for a full day, but even past that, god, the food.

It was the best kombucha I’d ever had, bar none, fizzy and sour and sweet in exactly the way it was meant to be. The kimchi was no different; the cold stuff that came out of the jar was somehow better than any version I’d ever had prior, either prepared with care at home or from a good restaurant. Everything I ate was fresh and delicious and perfect, and it stood as even more unbelievable to me than the literal dome I’d just walked out of. Did they have a conga line of gourmet chefs hidden inside the walls?

Most everyone seemed to feel similar about what they were eating, our momentary breaks between mouthfuls serving as opportunities only to breathe and moan about how amazing everything tasted. (Only Claim refrained from eating, for obvious reasons.)

A few dishes stood out as extra interesting, beyond mine. Strait had offered me some sweet-tasting gourmet kettle corn in exchange for a sip of my “apple cider”. I accepted, providing ample warning that he probably wouldn’t like it, but he pressed on, just barely keeping it down. He was sitting to my immediate right, and I almost threw him an empathetic backpat as he coughed and tried wiping the taste of one large sip out of his mouth, thankfully remembering his thing about touching.

Most of the group’s attention was split between Soso and Joyo, who each served as either end of the snobbishness spectrum.

Soso was the only one who had chosen a dish with any preparation beyond pulling it out of a fridge and dumping it onto the plate, and was therefore last to start eating, bringing her dish to the table after fiddling around near the stove for awhile. It was maybe the only thing at the table that smelled stronger than my kimchi (if the repulsed faces of my cohorts were anything to go by). It wasn’t a bad smell, though, dense and earthy.

She’d boiled some green noodles and doused them with oil, cream, chopped asparagus, and a thick layer of bent black flakes, the combination of which had us all leaning closer in fascination and jealousy. She offered no explanation after bringing her meal to the table, but Quote smiled at her, asking her to tell us what she’d made.

“Just some noodles.”

Dent wiped some guacamole off his face.

“What’s that shit on top?”

Dot, who was next to Soso, sniffed at the air and answered for her.

“…Truffles? I originally thought that scent was just truffle oil, but that smells like the real deal. Did they actually give you real black truffles?”

She gave a small nod before eating, taking small, careful bites in stark contrast to everyone else (she didn’t want to smudge her lipstick, I realized). I was somewhat fascinated with the way she ate and behaved, her movements slow and controlled without coming off as snooty. She came off like either a very socially anxious person trying to be graceful, or a very graceful person pretending to be socially anxious. (Regardless of whichever it was, she was doing a good job.)

“Fuck,” said Joyo. “You people are goddamn pretentious.”

He unwrapped another greasy cheeseburger, tossing the yellow paper behind him on the floor.

“You better not leave that there,” I said.

“I won’t, don’t worry. But I ain’t gonna worry about cleaning up in the middle of a meal.”

I raised an eyebrow. Dent laughed.

“He’s just being a sore fucking loser; don’t worry about it. These fuckers would’ve given us anything. You could’ve asked for gold-encrusted ice cream, if you’d wanted it, and they probably have given it to you. And this retard-”

Quote elbowed him.

“…And this loser asks for fast food. And now he’s being a giant fucking baby, because he realizes how much of a dumbass he was. He had all the power in the world, and he wasted it on cheeseburgers.”

“No, I’m just not a fucking snob.”

“Nobody’s accusing you of that, bud. Hell, I’m sure you got your fans. Ronald probably loves you.”

Joyo smiled, taking another greasy bite and chucking a fry at Dent’s head, barely missing his top hole.

“Fuck off.”

Dent grabbed a fistful of tortilla chips from the bag he was holding and aimed, a decisive voice and outstretched hand cutting him off.

“Stop,” said Caroline, looking at Dent. “He probably chose that on purpose so he could create more opportunities to antagonize. It’s just a distraction. It’s stupid, sure, but there’s about ten million things here more deserving of our attention. Speaking of…”

She looked across the table, at the seat to the left of Quote and Dent, our doctor swallowing what might have been his twelve-thousandth consecutive strawberry. He had a popcorn bowl filled with the fruit in front of him, and I’d unconsciously watched him work his way through them all with the same intensity that I’d have lent a car crash. He’d started with the wimpiest strawberries first, and by the time she brought up the question was only left with the plumpest and reddest of the class, his face not too different in color or proportion.

He made it clear that he was listening to her as she spoke, but did not look her in the eye, his attention split evenly between her and the remainder of his meal.

“I was an EMT in college, and I know more than a fair share about drugs and the administration thereof, but you’re clearly the expert, so I’ll defer. Cornea, taking all knowledge of even the most revolutionary methods of anesthesia into account, from a scientific perspective, is the existence of a substance like the one they describe even remotely possible?”

“Of course not,” Cornea said.

He plucked and ate another berry, stroking several chins. A thin line of red juice slipped out of the corner of his mouth, falling.

“Something like Sludge could only exist in the realm of fantasy.”

Interlude 2A: The Quitter

Everyone had sat down at the table, including The Being responsible for everything.

It watched them, the other fifteen, aware of all.

By took her third sip of her drink. It was kombucha. It had been kefir the previous time, and the last time before that, and the time before that, and the time before that, and the time before that, and the time before that, and the time before that, and the time before that.

Before that time, it had been yakult, but then before that kefir again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again, and again.

It was kombucha that time, however. Which was an interesting accident. The very first time it had been kombucha too, and also many, many times since, although not always or often.

The Being could remember every detail of every time with perfect clarity. It was glad that the others couldn’t. They had the same souls, and it wasn’t as if they were replaced with others after every go around; it never would have done it if that had been the case. They’d never stopped existing, not even for a moment. All The Being did was change, not replace. It had never birthed anyone, and it had never killed anyone. It had only changed. Some details changed often, some rarely, and some never at all, at least so far.

But it was always different. No time had ever been the same, or even close to the same. With as many variables as there were in the universe, such a thing was impossible.

The Being accepted, as it always did, that it needed to do it again. The period that it had worked out long ago stretched from the moment Gloria exited her door to the fourth sip that By took at the Dining Room table. It wasn’t as if The Being needed all that time in order to know that it had failed to succeed — it knew everything from the moment it awoke back inside the first room — but if it didn’t wait for enough time to pass, not enough would change. It didn’t know why. That’s just how it worked.

All that needed to change, it knew, was one certain variable. If that one variable left the equation, everything else could function, the game could go on, it could end. It had seen similar variables change, but never the one that needed to. Technically, The Being didn’t know if it was even possible for it to change. It might have been one of the variables that never changed, if there really were such things.

The Being hoped that it wasn’t. Then it was all for nothing.

Then it would never stop.

It began charging in preparation, not saying anything or revealing the truth of how it felt to the others as they talked and ate and laughed and planned for a game that would almost surely not happen anytime soon. It wouldn’t have mattered, of course, but The Being preferred it that way. The Being had done it many, many times, more times than was possible for anyone else — almost anyone else — in the room to comprehend, and it never got easier. It hated what it had become, what it was forced to do.

But there would be release, one day, if all went well.

While it prepared, it spoke inside of its head. It spoke to its friend, its best friend, the friend it longed to see and be with more than anyone else in the universe.

The Being’s friend did not actually exist, of course, and the Being knew that well. But it could pretend, in the long interim.

“Buddy, this isn’t it. I’m not feeling it.”

The Being’s friend only said one word, the one it had expected to hear.

“I’m sorry, buddy. I know. I’m sorry. We have to keep going.”

Its friend, as kind and brave and loyal as ever, repeated the word twice.

“I wish I knew. We’re just unlucky, I think.”

The Being looked at their target.

“It’s not as easy as we want it to be. And being direct doesn’t work, I know, I’ve tried. And it’s too risky, I think. I’ve told you that before.”

It repeated the word.

“I love you too.”

One final repeat. Not the full word, but enough.

“Okay. I’m ready. I’ll go. She’s about to take the fourth sip, so I’ll go, like always. I love you. I love you so much and someday it’ll happen, and then it’ll all be worth it.”

And The Being retreated, taking everyone back with it.

2.03

Food.

Oh, how I’d missed it.

Everyone who had poked their heads into the doors leading to the other wings described long hallways with at least two doors plainly in sight, but the Dining Wing had just one at its end. Predictably, it led to the Dining Room.

When I had signed up for the game, they’d requested a surprising amount of information from me. They had wanted the typical flurry of personal identification documents that any person applying to a reality television show should have expected to need to produce, but it went beyond that. I — and everyone else, presumably — was given a laundry list of questionnaires to fill out, asking me to describe every preference and personality aspect about myself imaginable, up to and past the point of absurdity. My favorite things to do, my fears, my earliest memories, my taste in men… the whole process had been weirdly dystopian, and I’d lied my way through more than a good chunk of it.

(Which, in hindsight, was pretty pathetic. “Yeah, I’ll give you guys my Social Security number and let you lock me inside a giant tech-prison for ninety days, but you must be delusional if you think I’m telling you anything about my pet turtle.”)

I was 100% honest when they’d wanted to know my favorite foods, though. “Best efforts will be made to provide you with your meals of choice,” the paper said. At the time, I didn’t know how serious that promise was, but walking into the dining room, I got the sense that they’d really meant it.

The Dining Room was big. Not anything close to half-a-baseball-stadium big, but well past what would be needed to reasonably feed sixteen people on a regular basis. It was in the shape of a long, vertical rectangle, the first three-fourths of the room serving as the Dining Room proper and the remainder in the back as our kitchen.

Like every other part of the facility we’d come across, the room itself was metallic and sterile, shiny black and blue walls lit up from bright lights that activated as we walked further into the room. Many small two and four person tables had been scattered against the sides of the room, all bolted down to the floor.

A giant round kitchen island sat in the perfect center of everything, sixteen fixed bar stools surrounding it. ZB and Lu both ran to them together, each picking one and gleefully spinning themselves in place. The stools were far enough from each other and the base of the table for them to swing out their legs without hitting anything.

Along the walls of the kitchen area, sixteen sections of the wall had been partitioned off, eight on each side. They all had large brass handles and engravings of our names, and they’d been arranged in the same numerical order assigned to us by our doors. In the very back, a large amount of dining appliances had been built into the wall, including fancy looking ovens and stoves, a dishwasher, and several microwaves and sinks. Various shelves and cabinets had been left open around them, including what looked to be one filled with assorted utensils and cooking supplies.

At the same time as most of the others, I found my section of wall and slid it open, revealing another cabinet and what looked to be the entrance to a fridge alongside it. I opened them both together and came close to drooling.

Damn, they’d meant it.


I remembered the first time that I tried kombucha very, very well.

It was about three weeks after my twentieth birthday, and I’d just come out of a long rough spot. College hadn’t turned out to be the magical paradise I’d made it out to be in my head, Dad was having some money issues, and D had just finished dealing with a particularly bad series of encounters with some dirtbags who’d driven up to Lakewood to try and make a documentary about him.

After he said no, they’d spent the better part of a week secretly following him around with cameras, which naturally took its toll. D didn’t get angry at them — it was D, after all — but it still bummed him out. It took a long effort from the two of us to convince him to report it to the police, and by the time he had begun to open up to the idea, they’d gotten the footage they’d wanted and left town. A trailer was posted online days later to a reception of hundreds of thousands of views, and although he didn’t say much about it, it was easy to see the way it tore him up inside. It was the first time he’d gotten any significant media attention since he was in high school, and one of the only occasions I’d ever seen him so wounded over a problem that wasn’t someone else’s.

Even after all that, he still said that he didn’t want to report them. New Jersey wasn’t a two-party consent state, but they’d stalked him enough to scrounge up over ninety minutes of usable footage; that had to be a crime somehow. I remembered the two of us just screaming at him about how what they did had to be illegal, how he would be so completely and absurdly in the right about going after them, legally or otherwise. We were angry, and he was just sad, and somehow we were madder about the fact that he wasn’t mad himself than we were at the actual injustice of what’d happened.

“They were misguided, By. Of course I’m upset about it, but people like that… people don’t do things like what they did without being very broken inside. Getting the police involved isn’t going to do anything beyond breaking them further. Look, I wrote them a letter. I’m not saying that’s going to magically change everything, but they’ll read it, think about it a little, and they’ll grow, slowly but surely. They’re young. Some young people need time before they learn to fully consider the feelings of others.”

We screamed even louder. They were older than he was, grown ass men and women who’d spied on and filmed an absolute stranger for days on end. 

The reminder didn’t phase him. He just looked down at us and squeezed our hands, smiling.

“And I’m lucky enough to already be surrounded by amazing people who care about me, even as young as I am. There’s a great chance that they weren’t, to do things like that. Why not pity them?”

It was his best trick. You’d say something to him — anything — and he’d find some way to deflect from it and turn it into a legitimate compliment. Most of the time, it was a wonderful social tool, but in the moment I was too angry to appreciate it.

They’d gotten away with their crime only because D was such a ridiculously good person, and it bothered me so much. I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The dirtbags who’d done it had monetized the video, and I was sure they would give the money they were getting from his discomfort ten million times the consideration they’d ever have given his letter, which was without a doubt as well-worded and polite as one could get.

People could be so shitty, when they wanted to be.

Internally, I was already well aware of the fact that I was going to drop out, and that coupled with everything else and what had happened to D was driving me nuts. Space Attorney was also still fresh on my mind, and life felt empty in a way that it hadn’t in an exceedingly long time. For the first time since I could remember, I didn’t like being around other people.

I wouldn’t have gone so far as to say that I was depressed, but I wasn’t that far from it either. There were things to look forward to — I already knew that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with D, for instance — but they always seemed to be muted by the negatives. I could go out with him wherever and love him and cherish our time together, but he’d always have to check every bush and corner and secretly wonder if someone was trying to make him feel like an animal again, to reduce him down to his most basic characteristic.

It was like that for everything. Sure, maybe the local school system would start to give a fraction of a shit to the point where Dad wouldn’t have to waste what little extra cash he did have on buying basic classroom supplies, but even if they did they’d just find some other way to fuck him over later. Maybe I’d somehow figure school out for myself, but then what? The market wasn’t exactly clamoring for tall pretentious losers with liberal arts degrees.

My future didn’t look like an unending cloud of misery, but I couldn’t see much good in it without also imagining how it would all be eventually spoiled, and as a whole I was starting to teeter over the edge of cynicism.

Ionia kept me from falling.

For a long time — over eight months, in fact — virtually nobody read Ionia of Illumination. My writing had improved dramatically both before and as I wrote it, and in terms of how the serial itself was coming out, I was very happy. I was improving, and I could see it, and it was a rope to cling onto amidst all the other shit life happened to be throwing towards me. Even if everything else was shit, I could always get the next chapter out on time. I could always make it at least okay. (Sometimes, heck, it was good. And that good stuff was happening more often and with more consistency, and that made me happy.)

But, if I was being honest, that didn’t matter. It was very easy for me to tell myself that I was only writing for myself — as most writers probably did at some point — but that was bullshit. I wrote stuff for the same reason that most everyone wrote stuff — because I wanted people to read it.

And nobody was. I had three views a day, two votes on the website where they ranked web serials, and a comment section more lifeless than the Dead Sea. I’d disintegrated whatever miniscule audience I had following the ending of Space Attorney, and picking one back up was proving to be more challenging than I’d thought. It took two months of writing before I got my first comment (a spambot). The frustration of getting less attention after doing what I could clearly see was better work was awful, but I kept going, assuring myself that it’d pick up eventually.

By some miracle, it did.  

A popular misconception regarding fame — even dumb bullshit Internet web serial fame — was that it happened slowly, over long periods of time. That was incorrect. For the most part, popularity arrived in large waves; all it took was the right person recommending someone’s serial on a message board or a big-shot author tweeting something out about how they liked what they were putting out, and then boom, a real readership was born.

That’s how it happened for me. Some famous vlogger who’d gotten big eating MRE rations mentioned my serial offhand during a Q&A session one day, and that’s all it took. Less than a week later, I’d made it, more or less, in the way that I’d originally wanted to. I hadn’t yet gotten to the point where I was sitting in front of literal cheering crowds of fans, but I had a consistent flow of comments, votes, attention, validation. It was all I’d ever been aiming for.

I liked to pretend that it wasn’t about that, but of course it was. I was a writer. That’s all those losers ever wanted. Tasting success didn’t make all my problems instantly go away, but it made all of them so much more bearable. 

I could have kept doing that forever.

The first day I woke up to messages in my inbox — hundreds and hundreds of beautiful, mostly all nice and not nitpicky messages — I got so giddy that I ran out of my house in excitement. I wasn’t going anywhere specific, but I somehow ended up in a grocery store, and I decided that I’d buy one ridiculously silly and frivolous thing to celebrate. After looking around for awhile, I settled on a big glass jug of kombucha. I had no idea what it was, but it was pricey and pretentious and stupid-looking, set aside in the aisle of the supermarket with all the other expensive stuff that I never would’ve thought about buying otherwise. It was absurd and colorful and dumb, and it looked like magic celebration juice to me (from the perspective of a twenty year old still not allowed to buy alcohol, at least.)

I paid for it in cash and was barely three steps past the cashier before I pulled it out and took a swig, expecting a taste similar to sweet apple cider.

I spat it out. (It wasn’t rancid, as I later learned. Kombucha was an acquired taste.)

Regardless, it was a good feeling, and not unlike what I felt when I pulled out a tall, prepackaged bottle from out of my assigned fridge, taking a big gulp and not having the slightest trouble keeping it down. I had a lot of kombucha since my first, the price point becoming a lot easier to justify after I’d discovered just how lucrative legalized online begging could be for a moderately successful author online.

It tasted great.

After finishing my first mouthful, I heard a yelp, ZB spinning off her chair and hitting the ground with a hard thud. 

Just about everyone laughed.

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

[Arc 2: Derivative]

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 waiting.”

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.