Interlude 1B – The Absurdist

By Menachem had one irrational hatred.

It was a group of individuals whom she despised on instinct, worms of the lowest caliber, the dirtiest, sickest minds one could ever make the mistake of encountering online. They made up a particular subculture that had enveloped her life, surrounded her almost against her will, infecting everything she’d created and pushing her to depths she despised having been forced to travel towards. The worst of the worst, in all aspects.

The rationalists.

How had they been created? How was it that they’d arrived to ruin her life? Had she been speaking to someone ignorant to what a contemporary, internet-style rationalist was, she might have given them the following short history lesson of how they first came to be.

  1. Early during the course of history, a tribe of primitive humans sat around a fire in a cave somewhere, eating dinner.
  2. As they ate, Udd, the resident storyteller of the group, decided to tell everyone his newest tale in order to entertain them. As a whole, the tribe was quite fond of Udd’s stories, so they listened in with great eagerness.
  3. The story, as they soon discovered, was his best yet. It was interesting and original, doing a fantastic job of hitting a wide variety of emotional lows and highs. The characters in it felt like real people, the dialogue managed to be both captivating and even humorous on occasion, practically bursting with creativity at every turn. The tribe had never heard anything even nearly as good, and they laughed and cried along with the beats of his tale, not a single one uninterested in hearing it out until the end.
  4. After the story concluded, everyone cheered and clapped uproariously for Udd, who had outdone himself. As reward for his triumph, the leader of the tribe offered him both an extra large serving of lizard meat and his pick of any of the leader’s beautiful daughters to take as mate, but the humble Udd politely refused both.
  5. Instead, he spoke to the crowd, making a small request. He wanted feedback. The audience was initially surprised to hear this, as all thought the story was excellent, but Udd pointed out that it couldn’t have possibly been perfect, as no such tale existed. If his audience was able to provide constructive criticism on problems they might have thought to have heard within the story, it would’ve helped him to make his next one even better.
  6. Satisfied with the explanation, the audience happily agreed to his request, working hard to state things they thought might be improved upon.
  7. First, Grud commented on the grunts themselves, pointing out how there were a few notable occasions when Udd could have phrased a grunt better, and one in particular where he had used the wrong grunt entirely, another option having been much more appropriate.
  8. Krud, on the other hand, said that there was a minor plot discrepancy near the middle of the story involving the history of a minor character. It wasn’t particularly important and certainly didn’t ruin the story for him, but he said that it might’ve been something to change for the next time he told it.
  9. Lastly, Nudd stated that there were issues near the start of the story regarding the pacing. He thought it was strange that the story started with lengthy character introductions and odd metafictional commentary prior to any real action happening, even if he did find it slightly funny that the story had chosen to make fun of itself for doing so. He suggested shortening it down for the future or moving some of it to later in the story.
  10. Very happy for having gotten so much helpful criticism from his audience, Udd thanked them and began to sit down to work on his next story. However, before he could do so, he was interrupted, one particular member of the tribe pointing his finger at him and demanding that everyone give him their full attention.
  11. It was Yud.
  12. Yud, furious, told everyone that he’d seen a problem so egregious that it ruined the whole story. Everyone briefly went silent, including Udd, who was very surprised and saddened to hear that such a flaw existed.
  13. With a smug grin, Yud explained himself. As he pointed out, there was in the story, not only one, but multiple occasions in which the main character did not act in the most rational way possible.
  14. There was a brief pause, and Udd did not reply, unsure of exactly how he could. After a moment, someone else in the crowd asked Yud if that was all he’d had to say. He confirmed that it was.
  15. Yud was dragged outside and beaten to death with many rocks.
  16. In a just world, that would have been the end of things, but unfortunately Yud had earlier that same day managed to pass on his genes, convincing a woman in his tribe to mate with him on the basis of his exceptionally high intelligence. (As he told her, he watched ample amounts of Rock and Moldy, which certainly should have sufficed as evidence.)
  17. The woman soon bore Yud’s son, who was born only shortly before Udd’s first daughter.
  18. Eventually, after some time had passed, the daughter of Udd began telling stories herself, and the son of Yud began to see the same flaws present in her works that his father had in Udd’s. He tried to keep his extremely intelligent opinions to himself, but eventually failed, meeting a similar fate at the end of a large pile of rocks. Like his father, however, he had also managed to procreate.
  19. The cycle continued over the course of many centuries, the descendants of Udd telling their stories, the general public listening and providing positive and negative criticism, and the descendants of Yud pointing out the many ways in which the story’s characters failed to maximize utility. Many rocks were thrown.
  20. As civilization progressed, the world changed the nature of the stories, developments in philosophy and art and morality and technology affecting the way that the tales were told and received. (Methods of execution were also improved in the same way, rocks becoming spears and Brazen Bulls and Iron Maidens and even really big rocks which a person could be crushed completely with — much to the displeasure of the Yudians.)
  21. However, around a certain point, it became out of fashion in many places to have the children of Yud slaughtered simply for their obnoxious opinions. Instead, they were simply banished, usually after a small but fair bout of torture. Even further along, they only found themselves excluded socially, first from schools and places of work but then just from parties and good book clubs.
  22. The descendants of Yud celebrated their good fortune, even if they still found most people to have a strong distaste for their views. Still, they resented almost all the creations of Udd’s offspring and the popularity they received. Why, they wondered, couldn’t media be more rational? They knew the power of fiction, after all! If they were to shape the world in their image, it would require sufficiently rational fiction to guide it to that point.
  23. Someone unrelated, presumably regretting it later, created the Internet. Suddenly, the Yudians were connected, collected together, having been given a safe place where they could discuss all the various ways in which art failed to be suitably utilitarian.
  24. One of Yud’s many descendants, perhaps sicker than them all, wished to find a way to use this new tool to promote his twisted, rationally-minded worldview. In order to do this, he took a very popular book that he found to be especially irrational, and committing perhaps the greatest sin an author could ever have chosen to do, began to rewrite it himself.
  25. In this new version, the main character of the story acted not as had most of the protagonists of stories written by Uddians, but instead as a Yudian. They were absurdly rational, and the book worked to without any subtlety promote the author’s revoltingly empirically-driven worldview as much as possible.
  26. Despite the inherently horrific nature of such a concept, beyond all explanation, his plan worked. Although they had yet to reach anything close to the power they aspired to, the ideas of the Yudians — the modern day Internet rationalists — had begun to take root in the public consciousness. Many other rationalists, both new and old, began to write similar stories, both based on previous works written by Uddians and their own original fiction. They spread out, becoming bolder in their criticism, their agenda only strengthening with time.
  27. By Menachem started writing serials, and they all bothered her in the comments section about how dumb her characters were.

That’s really how it all happened. (Probably, anyway.)

Now, in fairness, By didn’t actually hate rationalists. Not really. As a general rule, what many rationalists claimed to want was very much in line with what she wanted. They were people who had a certain opinion of the world and a special methodology of thought, and she agreed with more than a fair bit of it, at least when it came to the basic stuff.

In a lot of ways, By was a rationalist, even if she purposely tried squirming around the formal title. The epistemic system she’d built her life around was very rationalist-esque, to an extent. She liked intelligent media — heck, she tried writing intelligent media. She didn’t like when people told her to watch a dumb shitty movie and “turn her brain off”. As a writer of fair-play whodunnits, a good chunk of her fans were rationalists or at least floated around that camp, and she was cool with that. When being a rationalist meant sometimes wanting intelligent characters or plots or settings or good explanations for why things within a story happened, By had no problem with them. She wanted those things herself, most of the time.

But within any group that existed on the Internet, there was a percentage of them far more vocal and extreme than the rest, and those individuals would invariably provide those who interacted with them with far more issues than the rest of the group combined.

For the rationalists, those were the ultra-rationalists.

If asked to explain the ultra-rationalist subgroup further, there was another hypothetical example By would have given a stranger.

She’d say, for the sake of things, that a person wrote a lengthy story about a girl with an unconventional superpower. Hypothetically, she would assume the girl had the power to control vegetables. Using only her mind, the girl could make vegetables move and dance like puppets to her heart’s content, altering their biology and combining them together to form giant vegetable monsters she could use to beat down her enemies with.

There were three types of stories a person could form from such a concept.

The first was simple. The girl, using vegetables, beat up evil people because they did things that were evil. Sometimes those evil people got powers, like some nutcase who could control fungus, but she beat him because her vegetables were bigger and stronger than his mushrooms and because she wanted it more. She believed in herself. She wished she could win. She got angry when he hurt her friends, so she made giant vegetable robots for herself and punched her problems until they were no longer an issue. She always won, because of will and hope and love and everything good in the world.

The second was complex. The girl, having the same set of vegetable-based powers as in the first version, also had an assortment of evil enemies who came to challenge her, many of whom had complex motivations and clever ways of achieving their goals. In this version, her will — as important as it might’ve been thematically — wasn’t enough to stop them. Brute force and chucking extra veggies at them after long-winded speeches about hope and friendship wasn’t enough to take her to her goal; if she wanted to save the day, she had to get creative, and she did so by whatever means necessary. If there was an invincible woman shielding her body with the power of titanium-grade tree bark, the girl couldn’t simply throw a truckload of onions on her; instead, she’d send carrot seeds up her nose, sprouting them inside her lungs and blocking off her air supply. A large part of the story revolved around using powers in innovative ways, the inherent limitations of her abilities demanding extreme creativity if she was to reach victory. Intellect was key.

The third was insane. The girl, despite having an assortment of villains threatening her way of existence, would instead go home and read a book about utilitarianism, eventually coming to the conclusion that she should use her powers only in the way that best maximizes utility. Instead of fighting crime, she would deduce, she should produce the most good by using and strengthening her vegetable powers in order to end world hunger. There’d be no mention of fighting evil beyond the girl’s mild disappointment in that she wouldn’t get to be a hero early on, but all such talk would be quickly replaced by her inner dialogue as she attended college for genetic engineering and managed to manipulate the world’s food supply in such a way to permanently cure all diseases and mental illness, thus ending the vast majority of future villains from ever needing to turn to evil in the first place. The girl’s actions would transcend so far past the normal boundaries of creative and intelligent solutions that anything resembling a story structure could not ever logically come to exist.

In By’s opinion, if someone did have vegetable powers in a similar real life scenario, that third route (or a superior approximation of it) would’ve been almost objectively the correct way to approach the situation. In real life, at least to her, it made sense to try to maximize good in the most intelligent way possible, so that would’ve been the right thing to do.

It also would have made for a dogshit story.

By was of the strong opinion that good fiction — well, really just most of the fiction she wanted to write — belonged primarily in camp two. Camp one was fine, and she’d read and experienced endless amounts of phenomenal media that’d fit into it, but camp two got her excited in a way that nothing else could.

That fact went especially so for mysteries; a mystery that was solved through anti-rational means tended to bother the audience greatly, and for fairly good reason. A mystery where the solution could not have been predicted beforehand was not one worth reading. (Generally — she was sure a person could’ve found a few exceptions somewhere, if they looked hard enough.)

The majority of fictional stories landed somewhere between one and two, with rationalists pushing towards category two as much as possible and idealists pulling back towards one. By tried sticking to something in the 1.75 to 2.5 range herself, usually. She didn’t have a problem with stories that ran close to three, maybe even not with ones that dipped inside it a tad, but that was as far as she wanted to go.

Ultra-rationalists, however — her greatest enemies — existed in perpetual agony with the knowledge that every story couldn’t be a category three.

Why, they demanded to know, couldn’t every character in her story have the intellect and snappy judgement skills of a general AI? In that most recent chapter of Ionia of Illumination, why did Ionia spend those fifteen minutes having an emotional conversation with her best friend? Didn’t she know she could have been spending that time learning computer science? Why didn’t all the villains just get therapy?

It’s a story, she’d always wanted to say back. Fiction. Flawed individuals were more interesting than perfectly logical robots, something those goddamn losers never seemed to be able to understand. Sometimes people didn’t make optimal decisions because of emotional or situational reasons, and sometimes that was fine, because interesting and thematically relevant stuff happened because of it. Sometimes systems weren’t perfectly optimized. Sometimes people found solutions and workarounds to problems that were more complicated than they needed to be, really just because it ended up making things cooler.

Regular people understood that. Almost all the rationalists understood that. Why couldn’t they? What was wrong with people like that? What drove a person to criticize a given story sheerly on the basis that one or more of its characters weren’t optimal? What the fuck was wrong with being suboptimal, from time to time? Things in the real world made a lot of sense, but they were also absurd and ridiculous and stupid, so why couldn’t fiction reflect that? Wasn’t it just as fun — wasn’t it just as correct — to embrace absurdity as it was to embrace rationality

Flaws aside, By liked idealists. They encouraged her to make stories with a focus on wonder. To be positive. To be empathetic. To be happy.

She liked some rationalists, too. They encouraged her to write scenarios with intellectual depth. To be smart. To be consistent. To be real.

But she loathed them for comments like the ones they made, those ultra-rationalists. It was more annoying than anything else she thought she’d ever dealt with as a serial writer, and she’d been doing it for awhile. She had no evidence to support the claim, but she’d always secretly suspected that DM was one, if not for any other reason than to further legitimize her hatred. It was more of a jokey hatred than anything else, but still. They were annoying. Any group that identified themselves solely by the methodology they used to obtain knowledge would invariably produce at least a few weirdos.

By didn’t know if Caroline Plite fit into that category, but if she did…

“Yo, By? You okay?”

ZB Popsicle tapped By on the shoulder. She blinked.  

The circle had broken up again at some point, the groups split up more or less like they had been before, with Strait and Caroline having joined Zeezrom, Polycarp, and Dot. Martha was still alone, reading, and Quote, Dent, and Corn had reformed their trio from earlier.

Looking at the clock, it was 10:56. Over three hours since By had first met ZB, and even more horrifyingly, about twenty minutes since they’d finished Caroline’s icebreaker. She’d spaced out for quite a while.

“…Huh?”

ZB itched her nose with her flipper, looking off to the side.

“Yeah, you just kinda… froze, a little right after Caroline came in. You had a super serious expression on your face, like you were really thinking hard about something, so I figured I wasn’t supposed to bug you.”

“I, um. Shit.”

“It’s okay, By. We all have those moments when we completely disregard reality to partake in long internal monologues about how much we wanna fuck total strangers. I mean, not really, but you do you, y’know? I’m sure Caroline would reciprocate, if that’s what you’re aiming for. I know she looks like the type to shy away from romance, but I’m sure that’ll all change once you warm the icy cockles of her frozen heart.”

She giggled.

“Heh. Cockles.

“That isn’t what-”

By shook her head. Wiping her hair back with one hand, she took the other and held it out for ZB to see.

“Look, I’m engaged, you dork.”

“Engaged in mental adultery!”

ZB winked, snapping both hands and pointing two finger guns directly towards By. She fired without mercy.

“Just stick to the ice puns. Please. They suit you.”

“Seriously, though. I don’t know if you’re the type to zone out like that often, but you should really think about trying to think less. This is a murder game, By. If you wanted to spend time pondering whatever bullshit floats into your head, this probably isn’t the best place for you to be. At least wait until the first person gets bumped off, god. You don’t want to get thrown out of the game early just ‘cause you were trying to be a smart asshole.”

“I’ll be fine. I think you’re the one we need to be concerned about.”

She laughed.

“Now, now. There’s no need to project your fears onto me, By. How’bout this — you give me one good ice pun, and I promise to protect you whenever your mind decides to wander through the vast fields of sexual degeneracy. Sound like a plan?”

“…I’ll take my chances, thanks.”

“Oh, come on. You never know when you’ll need somebody on your side, By.”

I’ll take my chances.

ZB snorted, and then got another half a sentence out, although she stopped at the sound of another person entering. Door nine.

In walked a faceless man.

1.04

Strait, Polycarp, and Dent Machado.

Our newest three.

Eight was Strait, coming out of door thirteen with a smile bigger than I previously thought possible, blowing even Cornea out of the water in comparison. He was cute, in that platonic little brother sort of way. He was a lot smaller than Zeezrom or even any of the girls, and with the level of babyface he’d brought along with him he probably wouldn’t have had any trouble passing for a high school freshman.

He wore a white wifebeater and a pair of light blue shorts, fresh little balls of tight muscle plastered on his small arms, as if he’d just started lifting weights in the past month and was eager to show it off. His light brown hair was tall and untamed, spouting off in all directions like a mad scientist, a thick purple streak dyed near the front. He practically burst with energy and positive vibes as he bounced over to us, his flip-flops tapping merrily on the hard floor even after he stopped walking. He moved like he was hearing a song the rest of us couldn’t.

He didn’t go for handshakes; hugs were more his style, and he started from Cornea and worked his way down, Dot, Zeezrom and ZB giving him ferocious disapproval when he tried asking them if it’d be alright to do so. He took no offense at their rejection.

It wasn’t that common to see, people asking before giving someone else a hug. I liked that. I took one myself, perhaps a little greedily. It wasn’t anything much compared to one from D, but a hug was a hug, and that wasn’t a fair comparison anyway.

Polycarp — and yes, he was seriously trying to claim that as his real name — couldn’t have come across more differently if he’d tried.

The best way to describe him, as dumb as it sounded, was as a young angsty-looking Mr. Rogers. He had the red long-sleeved cardigan and tan dress pants to justify that comparison, along with a full head of short black hair. On his wrist was an expensive-looking silver colored watch, although the rest of his clothing didn’t appear nearly as pricey, looking like hand me downs. Out of the guys who’d arrived so far, he was easily the most conventionally attractive, and I suspected that a pair of perfectly symmetrical blue eyes along with the gloomy vibe he gave off would earn him more than his share of fangirls once the show aired come spring.

He was five-foot-ten, so a good bit shorter than me, with very fair skin. His steps felt planned and deliberate, and assuming that he didn’t have the world’s worst case of RBF, he looked like he wanted to jump off a bridge. Regardless of whether or not it was an act, he was grave. His eyes were more sunken than Dot’s, and his demeanor even more downtrodden, the missing elements of snark and nose-flicking only exacerbating the problem. He gave all of us a smile after shaking our hands for the first time, but it visibly lacked substance, and it left just as quickly as it had appeared.

The last of the three, Dent Machado, was one of those people who someone could take one look at and say, oh, you’re crazy. I liked to consider myself a non-judgemental person (as untrue as that was), but I felt guiltless mentally chucking Dent in the nutso-box without having heard one word exit his mouth. I didn’t think that bodies were really something to be judged, but I had no problem judging the way a person had chosen to decorate them.

Was he absolutely a madman, without a shadow of a doubt? I suppose I couldn’t confirm that and break my rule, but I could give a 99% certainty. Sane people didn’t wear studded pants. Sane people didn’t wear purple floral pattern Hawaiian shirts. Sane people definitely didn’t wear both at the same time.

Dent was visibly of Indian descent, speaking with a slight accent, and I had a good guess of why he’d ended up giving us the name Dent — or more accurately, two.

The first was on his chest. He had that thing, pectus something, where a person’s chest caved in slightly at the torso’s center. (I reminded myself to ask Corn for the full name later, assuming he actually was a doctor.) He’d left the top three buttons of his shirt open, presumably to make sure we all got a good look at it, his dent. I had been on the swim team in high school, and a guy I knew on it had the same condition, although Dent’s was a much less serious case. It was definitely noticeable, but still not as bad as that of others I’d seen with it, the hole in his chest only about two inches deep at the absolute most. I had no doubt that a hypothetical Google search could’ve easily turned up worse examples, but even if I’d had a way to access the Internet, I probably would’ve passed on the opportunity.

The second dent was on his forehead, on his right side, just beneath his overly gelled dark hairline. Unlike the one on his chest, I guessed that it had arrived there less naturally, a more or less perfectly rectangular hole having taken up residence there, as if someone had tried branding him with the side of a lego brick. Again, eye catching, but not as bad as it could have been otherwise, barely an inch deep. It was in a crucial area, though, and I couldn’t help but wonder if it had affected him mentally; going by his getup and the creepy grin glued to his face, I had my suspicions.

Somehow, all of that still neglected to mention Dent’s most unique physical characteristic, the one I was sure everyone’s eyes had been attracted to before all else.

The tattoo.

Tattoos on some level had always kind of scared me. I’d never wanted one. I rarely liked stuff that permanent, that self-defining. I had a small amount of solemn respect for most people who had the confidence to get one, even if it was terrible or something they’d go on to regret later. By that point in my life I had more reasons not to get one beyond my lack of desire, but I still found myself with a peculiar admiration for them. There was something about them, about choosing to mark your own skin like that. Something special, sacred.

(Save the Cloy tattoo, which I didn’t think I’d ever be able to look at without my stomach churning. It was beautiful, but god. Why did they do that?)

The tattoo was difficult to describe, not more than a small mess of thick black lines, nine in total, all on his left cheek. Two of the largest lines met in the middle with each other to form a large square cross, and none of the other small ones touched, all seven relegated to one of the four boxes formed by said cross.

In the upper-left corner, there was a single vertical line, and two parallel vertical lines in the boxes both beside and beneath it. In the bottom-right corner, there was also a vertical line, but it lay immediately to the left of a horizontal one. I imagined that the image held some deep secret meaning, probably a religious one, but whatever it symbolized was lost on me.

(I did, by the way, happen to notice that Dent Machado formed yet another DM to add to my mental collection, but it was something I’d learned to stop thinking about. When you were determined to look for a certain pattern or letter combination, you were bound to find it eventually. Dent Machado had the same chance of being DM as Dean Martin did.)

Zeezrom, Dot, ZB and I spread our attention among all three of our new members as they entered almost simultaneously and walked towards us, Martha poking her head out of the book for a moment before jumping right back into it. Quote and Corn only gave their attention to one of the members for more than a second, Dent.

Almost as if they were under a spell, they took a step towards him even as he came to them, their eyes fixed on him, and as I soon quickly realized, his tattoo. The two of them pointed at it together and said something to him, and he beamed with pride and said something back, but I missed what it was. It had gotten loud.

With Dent, there were ten people in the room, nine of which were actively trying hold a conversation, and it made following every detail of every discussion impossible. I wanted to talk to all of them, since information was power, but I no longer had that ability. I’d have to be selective from that point on. I’d have to choose.

It seemed my chance to do so wouldn’t come until later. Via my indecision and the fact that ZB had somehow bonded to me, her and I ended up talking with Strait as we broke off organically into three groups of three (and Martha). I didn’t mind that. Dot and Zeezrom didn’t seem nearly as happy to have ended up with Polycarp, who looked like he’d have been more at home at a funeral, and although Quote and Corn seemed to be having fun with Dent I assumed that it would have been a lot less so not being privy to the secrets his face held.

I had expected Strait to be French or from some culture where greeting people like that was normalized, but he didn’t have an accent (well, he had an American accent). After pushing him to tell us the origin of his name, though, it was clear that wasn’t the case.

“I was born in a hospital built near the Detroit River, which is a strait. My parents said that the view of the water on the day I was born was so beautiful that they thought I should be named after it.”

ZB burst out laughing, turning her head back and yelling in Zeezrom’s general direction.

“Sorry, Zeezy! You aren’t the worst one. You too, Martha!”

Martha didn’t respond. Looking back at Strait, ZB wiped a mock tear out from under her beak.

“Jesus, dude. I don’t know what kind of nice guy bullshit you’re trying to inspire, but if you seriously think any of us are going to believe that your parents were brought to tears by the natural fucking beauty of Detroit you are out of your goddamn mind.”

“I never said they were crying.”

She brought her hand to her face, squeezing and pulling at her cheeks in exasperation. The little tuft of curly hair poking outside her beak bounced slightly.

“…Really? This is what I have to work with? These are gimmicks on gimmicks on gimmicks. You gonna play the nice dumbass the whole game? Fine, cool, whatever. Stand there with a straight face and tell me you aren’t going to murder anyone. Go on, do it.”

“I mean, I’m open to it. I kinda want to have a few trials first as a participant. See what it’s like. I’ll have to get to know you all better first before I’d feel comfortable going through with it, I think.”

“…But you’d do it.”

“Yeah, of course! It’s just a game. They told us the rules in advance, and we were all presumably of sound mind when we agreed to join, so there’s nothing wrong with killing anyone. Well…”

He grinned again, tapping his fingers against his forearms.

“Not, y’know, literally. But here, right now, it’s fine. It’ll be fine, once they tell us how it’s gonna happen.”

“Fine, fine. Nice killer, then. How honest of you. Gimmick.

I politely but firmly put my arms on ZB’s shoulders and looked her in the eyes, immediately regretting it. For a moment, she looked surprised, recoiling by my touch as if by instinct. However, it was only a moment before she accepted their placement and settled back into a dumb smile, her urge to spew sarcasm overwhelming all else.

“Well, this is forward.”

“…You are wearing a penguin suit. The first thing you said to me was an ice pun. You don’t see any hypocrisy in accusing everyone else of playing a character?”

“Oh, shut up. That dude has a fucking miscarriage on his face.”

“What?”

“Jesus, By. Try staying inside sometime.”

Shaking my by-then loose grip off her shoulders, ZB waddled away from Strait and I, going back to bother Martha again. I thought about yelling some angry retort about how I literally worked online for a living, but I just ended up ignoring her. Whatever. With the way she was acting, I didn’t see her making it past the first trial anyway, for one reason or another.

Stupid penguin.

I looked at Strait. He was frowning, and I sensed a small bit of disapproval.

“I don’t mean to be rude, but you shouldn’t touch people without asking, By. Consider her feelings.”

I chuckled a little bit, although he didn’t laugh back, standing firm. His smile had been erased, and he was surprisingly serious. I wasn’t sure what to say.

“I didn’t… I mean, I did, but it was a tap on the shoulders.”

“Okay, but you didn’t have her permission. You should never touch a person without their permission.”

He was right, technically speaking, but I still felt like he was giving me the third-degree over what amounted to nothing (or trying to fuck with me, at the very least). I thought about pointing out that Dot had done much worse to her prior to him showing up, but suspecting that he’d (rightfully) accuse me of whataboutism, I conceded the point.

“…Sorry, then.”

“You should apologize to her, not me.”

“…I’ll, uh, talk to her later. In private.”

He smiled again, the problem and all the tension on his face washing away instantly. Was that really all it was going to take?

“Awesome! Sounds like a plan.”

Returning to the mood he’d entered the room with, he ran a hand through his hair, looking me over again.

“So then. What do you do, By? College?”

“…I’m a writer. Mysteries.”

Before he could ask for clarification, I pounced, trying to avoid having to go through a repeat of earlier. (Even suspecting that he wasn’t the type to tease, I didn’t want to risk it.)

“What about you, Strait?”

“I’m a sophomore, in school. I took a semester off to do this.”

“…A college sophomore, right?”

He laughed.

“Of course! You have to be eighteen to play, right? I’m not sure it’d be legal to let kids do this.”

“Sorry. You do look a little young, no offense.”

“None taken! You aren’t the first.”

I disliked ZB’s approach to openly discounting everyone, but speaking to Strait alone did make me understand how someone could come off seeing him as somewhat fake. Even so, I did find myself taken in by his overt politeness. I’d met a few of those super well-adjusted types before, as rare as they were, and they were a blessing to be around.

Besides, focusing on the fakeness of everyone in many respects seemed… well, pointless. Maybe that’s because we were all like that, at least in the ways that mattered.

I didn’t think we were fake in the way that ZB thought we were, in that some of us had chosen set personas for ourselves and decided to stick to a script; more that we were acting as caricatures of who were normally were, amplifying our personalities both on purpose and subconsciously. We were like more extreme versions of ourselves, playing it up for the cameras. I was, anyway, and I suspected that most of the others fell into the same category.

Was the real By Menachem fairly extroverted? Yeah, probably. I liked talking to people, especially interesting people, and I had been that way since kindergarten or so (where I did supposedly have a long streak of severe introversion, at least according to my dad). I was also the type to snap back in jest to the occasional wisecrack or be a little bold in pointing out when someone was lying to my face. When possible, I wanted things around me to feel honest and fair.

But I wasn’t really the By Menachem who came to play the game, just like I wasn’t the By Menachem who’d given a panel to a cheering audience of my fans. In my daily life, I didn’t stand around in conversations cleverly scanning people for lies and playing detective in the same way that I didn’t give long-winded expositions about the mechanics of Judaism and Internet-writing. I was playing a character, a cooler, smarter By, who’d presumably stop at nothing in her pursuit of the truth and her victory. This By, as much as I wanted her to be, wasn’t real.

I suspected that the same was true of the others. ZB was probably a class clown back home, the type to go overboard with puns and find herself in awkward social spots because of it, but I doubted she ran around in a penguin suit and bothered people until they found it necessary to physically assault her. Same for Martha. She probably really did have a legitimate interest in literature, but she’d likely overplayed it for the cameras, knowing — as she’d already openly admitted — the power of a person who kept quiet. There was some old saying about keeping one’s mouth shut in order to look smarter, and it definitely applied there.

I figured the same was the case for Strait, but I did secretly hope that his personality wasn’t too much of an exaggeration. He was nice, and I liked nice people.

“Have any hobbies or interests, then? Everyone here supposedly has some special background that is meant to be useful in the context of a mystery. What’s that for you?”

He squinted a little.

“Hmm. That’s a toughie, By. I like skateboarding, although it’d probably be hard to murder someone just by shredding super hard. One time I saved the world from an eldritch abomination, so maybe it was that.”

I blinked. He blepped his tongue out.

“Just kidding! It wasn’t the world. More like my high school. Town, if you wanna be generous.”

I rolled my eyes, but I wasn’t annoyed. That was the type of joking I was more accustomed to; not really funny or clever, but not malevolent, either. The types of stupid jokes that Dad or D would’ve made.

“Well, you don’t have to tell me if you don’t want to, I guess. That’s fair. Have any plans for the future, then? Dreams or something? Other than winning ten million dollars.”

He put his hand on his chin, his eyes darting upwards as he raised the ball of his foot up and down against the floor in constant repetition. He looked thoughtful.

“…I think I’d like to fall in love, someday.”

Ooo. Hopeless romantic?”

He smiled again.

“Not too hopeless! I’ve loved lots of people before. I’d just like to experience that… I guess they call it deep love. The type that just grabs you by the heart and doesn’t ever let go, when you can hardly stand to think about anything else. Emotional, physical, spiritual, everything. That kind of love. I know not everybody wants every or any part of that, but I do.”

Smiling, he pointed to my engagement ring.

“You already know what I’m talking about, right?”

I nodded, grinning back. There was an excellent chance that he was just trying to play me for a fool, but it was working. I was a sucker for sappy shit like that.

“Yeah, I think I do. Unconditional love. I have that with somebody I care about.”

His eyes got serious again, another dark frown popping up. He didn’t like that; apparently I’d hit another sore spot.

“I hope not.”

“Um…”

“The idea of unconditional love is disgusting, By. Love should always have conditions. That’s what makes it so beautiful.”

I stayed silent. I thought I understood the gist of his point, but I wanted him to clarify.

“If you loved someone unconditionally, that’d mean that your love didn’t matter anymore. You wouldn’t care about how they looked or acted or thought or behaved or loved you back — you’d just love them for the sake of it. That’s meaningless. That means they can do anything, everything, all without having to worry about what you’re going to do to them in turn. That’s not love. You should love someone because they work hard to make you love them.”

“I get what you mean, but in a way, isn’t that saying that people should change themselves for others? What about loving someone for who they are?”

“You shouldn’t expect people to change themselves, but you should expect them to act in a way that makes a healthy relationship possible. If someone loves you, they should respect your boundaries, they should communicate, and they should be honest, among a whole bunch of other stuff. If love was unconditional, they wouldn’t need to do any of that. They could treat you however they wanted, and it’d be fine, because your love never had any requirements to begin with. That’s awful.”

I smiled.

“Fair enough. I think I used the wrong word, then. My relationship isn’t like that all; it’s very conditional, and very nice because of it, communication and honesty and all.”

He smiled too.

“Great to hear! You had me worried.”

Looking off to the side, I had a thought. I wasn’t too attached to it philosophically, but I was enjoying the conversation, and I wanted to continue it for as long as possible. Most eighteen year old guys in wifebeaters didn’t have the emotional intelligence of sixty year old marriage counselors, and I found myself presented with a challenge. I liked finding loopholes in rules and systems, even ones that I respected.

“…Even so, would you say that all love has to be conditional?”

“Yes. Absolutely.”

“What about love between a parent and a child?”

“I thought we were talking about romantic love.”

ZB shouted from across the room, still hovering over Martha. She’d been listening in, god only knew for how long.

“She’s from Alabama!”

Ignoring her, I shook my head, looking back down at Strait.

“…I guess it wouldn’t matter, though. Even non-romantic love should be conditional. If you have a friend or a family member, you aren’t obligated to keep loving them forever. If they don’t act in the way that people who love each other should, they don’t deserve it.”

I grinned. He’d stepped right into my rhetorical trap.

“What if it was a mom and her newborn baby? Surely you wouldn’t say that the baby needs to do something to have the mom keep loving it, right?”

“…No, there’d still be conditions.”

I raised an eyebrow. Was he that desperate not to concede the point?

“Really? Tiny cute little baby? What, does it have to make sure it doesn’t bite too hard?”

“No… okay, fine. Put it like this; babies do have expectations, they’re just super low, because they’re babies. So low that no baby has probably ever failed to meet them.”

“And what expectation would that be?”

“That the baby doesn’t turn into a giant evil monster and eat the mom. Moms have to love babies, unless they turn into giant mom-eating monsters. If a baby does that, they’ve more than forfeited the right to love. That’s the condition.”

“…I don’t think you’re playing fair here.”

“You don’t think moms should be able to expect not to be eaten alive by their own babies? I think parents deserve that much, By.”

He blepped again, his emotional maturity levels doing loop-de-loops. It was marginally better than an incest joke, I supposed, noticing ZB still bullying Martha out of the corner of my eye.

Another door opened.


He wanted attention.

That was fair enough. We all wanted it, at least on some level. That’s why we were there. Nobody who didn’t would’ve ever agreed to be where we were.

He was… desperate, though, if his style of dress was anything to go by. That was a bold statement to make while in spitting distance of a penguin and the world’s weirdest facial tattoo, but he earned it.

He was tall. Not as tall as a man could get, I knew, but tall. Corn and I had tied for the tallest up until that point, and he beat us by around three or four inches, standing straight with perfect posture. (I was relieved. Being six-foot-two meant that I was over three standard deviations above the average female height, so while I didn’t have any delusions about not being the tallest girl there, at least I wasn’t going to have to be the tallest person.)

He looked to be Southeast Asian, although I was embarrassed to admit to myself that I didn’t have a clue from what country in particular. Thai was my best guess, but I didn’t have much confidence in it.

While his country of origin (or family’s country of origin, anyway) was a mystery, his nationality wasn’t. The producers had never made it clear to me when signing the contract if the game’s first invitees only included Americans, but our eleventh contestant had gone out of his way to make it clear to us that he was. On his head rested a wide ten-gallon hat, which had the design of an American flag stitched on it, red and white and blue stars and stripes covering every last inch of it. He wore a dark suit — an expensive dark suit, one that had been fitted to match him almost perfectly, a tie just as overbearingly patriotic and star-coated as his hat hanging tightly from his neck.

Like Zeezrom, he had black dress shoes, and like Polycarp, he had a fancy watch, although both surpassed their predecessors, sporting brand names intended to make any financially-responsible person piss themselves in fear. He looked more like a parody than a person, a child’s caricature of what a southern oil tycoon might have dressed like.

He was buff, and much more so than anyone else in the room, thick muscular arms plainly resting just under his long black sleeves. His chin was the inverse of Zeezrom’s, having a near perfect curve to it, any traces of body fat eradicated long ago. He would’ve looked great — he did, by most conventional standards — but his smile ruined everything. It was bold and cocky in the worst way, declaring superiority, demanding that we give it our attention.

I found myself initially repulsed by him and the way he’d chosen to present himself, but then I remembered. Characters. We were playing characters. That wasn’t really a person. I loosened up a bit.

Ultimately, he seemed to be disappointed with his reception. Everyone was wrapped up in either a conversation or a book (or an attempt to bother someone engaged in the latter), and other than giving him a brief look after his entrance, no one paid him much mind. After briefly smirking to himself, he sauntered over to the group closest to him, Strait and I.

Eleven stuck out a hand to Strait before he’d gotten the chance to ask him for a hug, and he shook with enough power to make his small shoulders bounce. Introducing himself, he gave a little bow, speaking in a protracted Texan accent that made me do a small double-take upon hearing it.

“Great to meet you, then. My name is Joyo Karna.”

Forcing a grin that he had failed to make look as Machiavellian as he’d probably been hoping for, he turned to me and shook my hand in the same way he had with Strait.

“I’m the man who’s going to kill you.”