Season 1, Episode 3
I wish I could say that once we incorporated the new research philosophy, we started finding things left and right, but the truth is that it took a while before we found anything worthy of an episode. That’s just how it was; some months were long investigations into one subject, some months were hectic bounces from one adventure to another, but most were long days spent on the road, followed by exploring leads that ended up going nowhere. We focused on the highlights, but more time was spent… well, working.
Ohio was one of those times. Pretty boring state, to be entirely honest. One rolling field after another, stops in cities with nothing to go on. We tried asking around, seeing if there was something spooky to follow up on, but most folks just gave us a deer in the headlight stare, then pointed to some haunted location or other. We quickly found out that most of those were fake. This continued until we were in Cincinnati, right on the southern border of the state. Originally the plan was to only spend a day or so there, but we extended it to two weeks. After this, we were going to be traveling straight into West Virginia and Zoey really wanted to have an episode for each state. But Ohio was just refusing to cooperate, so we were about ready to give up on that idea. In my opinion, it just isn’t a creepy state.
As a last resort, I managed to sneak into the abandoned subway tunnels underneath the city (apparently, they were built but never used). There wasn’t much to them. Just large concrete passageways void of decoration and purpose. Rather boring, actually.
The only thing I managed to find was what I assumed to be the camp of a homeless person. There was a green vinyl sleeping bag, a broken down shopping cart filled with various odds and ends, and a mass of fast food and candy wrappers. The only thing of interest was an old VHS tape laid to the side of the sleeping bag and away from the other objects, as if it held a special significance.
I picked it up and shined my flashlight on it. Written in silver sharpie were the words ‘Beyond Belief! s 3 ep 15’. No other markings.
I stared at it, then tucked it under my arm as I made my way out of the tunnels.
Looking up ‘Beyond Belief!’ online yielded no results. There were no shows of that name recorded anywhere, not even a footnote of a failed pilot or a half-conceived concept, much less a show that lasted a minimum of three seasons. That sparked my interest, so I spent some time trying to find a way to play the contents of the tape. I finally found an old VCR-combo TV on craigslist for about fifteen bucks. One shady exchange later, I was on my way back to the RV.
“You certainly took your time” Zoey said to me without looking up as I entered the vehicle. She turned to face me, then stopped when she saw me placing the old television on the table. “What on earth did you find?”
“Not sure” I said, slightly out of breath. I handed her the tape.
“‘Beyond Belief’, huh?” She turned it over in her hands, arching an eyebrow.
“I found it in the abandoned tunnels. There was nothing about it online.”
Zoey got up and flopped on the couch across from the table. “Good enough for me. Let’s watch.”
I plugged the T.V. in, pushed in the tape, then sat down as the screen flickered blue, then black and white static, then began.
For a few seconds, it was just a black screen. Then a set of white letters appeared:
Season 3, Episode 15: Human Nature
Original Air Date: July 24th, 1996
Copyright Iris Broadcasting Company, All Rights Reserved”
The words disappeared, and a man walked into frame. He was tall, middle aged, with a set of jet black hair styled into a fashionably casual look. On his body was a plaid suit coat that was so brightly colored it stood out on the screen like a fluorescent light in a cave; underneath it was a long orange tie with a cartoon eye situated in the middle. His face was stretched and tight, as if there wasn’t enough skin, and everything about him, from his nails to the small tufts of hair that made up his sideburns, was neat and nicely manicured.
He gave a wide smile to the audience. The translucent white teeth reminded me of a shark.
“Hello there ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “and welcome back to Beyond Belief! The show where we tests the boundaries of the truth one carefully constructed experiment at a time. My name is Mr. Horus, and it would be my pleasure to guide you through our exploration of the unknown today. As always, the events are unscripted, the people are real, and the questions come from none other than you, our delightful viewing audience.”
Reaching into the inside of his jacket, he pulled out a long white envelope, opened it, and withdrew a neatly folded piece of paper. The whole time he did so, he stared at the camera, not once looking down at the objects in his hands, grinning all the while.
He didn’t seem to blink.
Paper fully unfolded, he looked down it. “Today’s request comes to us from Janet Middleton of Tampa, Florida. She writes: ‘Dear Mr. Horus. I am a long time fan of both you and Beyond Belief, and I spend every week eagerly awaiting the new episode.’” He stopped reading for a second to flash another smile at the camera. “Please, Janet, you are making me blush. ‘However, I’ve noticed that all these experiments where you prove that people do awful and terrible things to each other rely on physically harming them, or making them act out of desperation. So today, my question is this: could good people commit evil acts without feeling threatened to do so?’ Well, that certainly is a tricky one, but we are always up to the task!”
I paused the video, freezing Mr. Horus mid-gesture.
“What is this?” Zoey asked quietly.
“I don’t know” I replied.
A few moments of silence passed between us.
“Do we want to keep going?” I asked,
Zoey sighed. “We should. I get the feeling that we’ll eventually see worse stuff than… whatever this is, down the road.”
I nodded, and hit the play button again.
“In order to test Ms. Middleton’s request, we went out and found five of the nicest people you could meet.” Mr. Horus waved an arm, and the video switched to someone else.
It was a large hispanic man, built like a football player, with black hair and obviously calloused hands. He wore a simple set of a white t-shirt and jeans.
“Mr. Tuan Rives,” the voice of Mr. Horus announced, “is a farmer who takes home very little income each year because of how much of it he donates to charities.”
The camera now shifted to an older white woman, with large oversized glasses. She was short, but not quite to the point of frail, and had a long length of blonde hair and piercing green eyes.
“Mrs. Ira Robbins is a librarian who spends most of her spare time volunteering at local animal shelters.”
Now there was a young black woman, the skin tone towards the much darker end of the spectrum. She had black hair neatly cut to shoulder length, and she wore a white blouse and a long dark blue skirt.
“Miss Carmen Walker is a social worker who has received multiple commendations from her employers for her diligence and compassion to her charges.”
She was replaced by a white guy, short, wearing a vest, white shirt, and black pants. The shock of messy brown hair was hidden underneath a pageboy’s cap, and his eyes were a similar shade of brown.
“Mr. John Kelly is a manager of several nonprofit charities and orphanages.”
Finally, there was a short white woman, with neatly pinned-up red hair, a tastefully makeuped face, and a set of nicely done nails. She had on a smart business suit with a skirt that reached down to her knees.
“And finishing out our cast, Miss Lora Zoza is a New York secretary who spends both her time and money helping with homeless kitchens.”
The image now changed to a collage of panning shots centered around the inside of some kind of building. It looked like it was made out of concrete, with thick walls and pillars, but it seemed nice. Luxurious, even. There was a wide-open living space, a large kitchen area, several of what looked to be bedrooms with key card readers, and a few other rooms besides. The only thing off about it was the complete lack of windows.
As the camera explored these places, the voice of Mr. Horus narrated:
“We have gathered them up and taken them to our faithful underground bunker, provided to us by Rapture Architecture and Engineering, the only name in doomsday preparation you can trust! Our rules are simple: they have to live in the bunker for one month. Whoever is around at the end month gets $100,000, split evenly between all surviving contestants. There is nothing for anyone to need in here. The food stores have enough in them to last them five years and all the furnishings are comfortable and private. The only thing they do not have is a means to entertain themselves, but do not worry! We will be providing that in the days ahead.”
The camera now panned down to the living area. Mr. Horus was there, standing next to what appeared to be some kind of tube, similar to the ones you would see in a drive-through bank window, but much wider.
“Every day, our contestants will be sent down an item of some kind via this chute” he said, rapping his fist on the metal object. “When they get it, they have to use it. No requirement on how or how long, just use it once.” He pointed to a small television bolted high in the corner. “When they have fulfilled that obligation, we will let them know by giving a big green checkmark on that screen over there. That is all they have to do, and we will not influence their actions in any other way. So without further ado, let us get to it, because I know I say it every episode, but this time, I really mean it: what you are going to see here is beyond belief!”
The picture of Mr. Horus faded out, and the camera stream of the heavy front door replaced it. The five people from earlier walked in, laughing and chatting amongst each other. Because they were all talking at once, as well as the fact that the film kept leaping from scene to scene, it was hard to make out what they were saying to each other. But the video made sure to stop on the important decisions: picking rooms, divvying chores, setting ground rules. It didn’t seem like they knew each other too well; whenever they confessed an annoying habit or a pet peeve, it was greeted with a slow nod and statements like “I’ll have to keep that in mind.'' But that didn’t keep from joking around and generally having a good time.
After some time showing this, there was a loud “THUNK” from the metal chute. They stopped their conversation and looked at it.
“That’s the thingy we have to use every day, right?” Carmen, the black girl, asked.
Tuan, the big farmer, nodded and headed over to it. He withdrew a large metal canister with handle on both ends. Pulling them apart revealed a rectangular cardboard box.
Lora peered over Tuan’s shoulder at the object. “Monopoly?” the red-headed woman asked.
“Guess they want us to hate each other from the start!” John joked, eliciting a few laughs from everyone else. He adjusted his hat and cleared off the table while Ira, the older librarian woman, started separating pieces and getting the game set up.
In a few moments they were all seated around the table, rolling dice and buying properties. The green check mark on the little TV lit up, but nobody seemed to even notice. The show then proceeded to show a cut-down version of the game. Carmen went bankrupt first, then Ira and Lora quickly afterwards. The three women spent time talking with each other in the kitchen before drifting off to bed. In the end, only Kelly and Tuan were up, and after a bit, Tuan conceded the game early, the two shaking each other’s hands before putting the game away.
Once the two went to bed, the camera lingered on the dark and quiet bunker before fading out.
What followed was a heavily edited summary of the next two days. Each morning they would get up, mull around, and hang out. When they tired of that, they’d find something else to do. Sometimes they would pair up to explore the bunker, other times they’d sit alone and do something they brought with them. This continued until evening, when then the chute would give its customary “THUNK” and they’d head over to withdraw that day’s item.
Day two brought the first season of the X-Files (the brief segment talking about the “amazing new” DVD format it came on was amusing to me), and day three brought the entire box set of the Adams Family. Everyone joined in watching the first couple episodes, summoning the green check mark each time, but after that the shows joined the rotating slot of activities.
Nothing important happened until day four.
The group was seated around the table, eating dinner, when the chute gave another “THUNK”. John got up and withdrew the cylinder.
“What is it?” Lora asked as he slid the handles apart.
John withdrew a large bundle of paper. “Sunday paper. Thank goodness, I miss having these things.”
He sat back down at the table and took the front pages, unfolding them and beginning to read.
Ira shook her head. “I never liked my husband doing that at the dinner table. Made me feel invisible.”
“I’m sure he didn’t do it on purpose,” Lora said. “He probably was just using the time to de-stress before talking to you. Wouldn’t you agree, John?”
John didn’t say anything. He was staring at the front page.
“What is it?” Tuan asked.
John slid the paper onto the table. The headline proclaimed “O.J. SIMPSON ARRESTED AFTER THREE HOUR POLICE CHASE.”
Carmen picked up the paper and started rapidly reading.
Lora turned to Tuan. “O.J.? Wasn’t he a football player or something?”
He nodded. “Running back, damn good one too. Only one to rush 2,000 yards in a season.”
“Paper said they found his wife dead at her house. Stabbed through the neck.” John shook his head. “Poor woman, can’t believe he’d do that to her.”
“Allegedly do that to her” Carmen said as she put down the paper. Everyone stared at her. “What? He’s innocent until proven guilty.”
John scoffed. “C’mon, it’s pretty obvious he did. I mean, he’s got a history of domestic abuse.”
“Yeah, but he also left behind a suicide note saying he was innocent. I don’t know about you, but if I figured I was going to die, I’d take some time to clear my conscious” Carmen retorted.
“Maybe. Maybe not. But innocent men don’t run.”
“That’s if they’re thinking straight. His wife just died, he’s wanted for murder, and he’s got a history of depression. Who knows why he did it?”
John stayed silent for a few moments, then shrugged. “Well, I suppose this is why we have a court system after all. Wonder how it’s going to turn out.”
Carmen nodded, and Tuan slid out the comics page as the conversation slowly turned to other topics.
Day five brought cards, and day six brought Trivial Pursuit. With nothing interesting to follow, the video began time skipping again, showing the routines of everyone inside. But now there was a new activity that added the rotation: John and Carmen’s debates.
The two had studied the paper thoroughly and discussed the matter of Simspon’s guilt. John was convinced he did it, due to Simpson’s history with his wife and the bloody glove they found at his house. Carmen remained skeptical, mostly due to his erratic behavior and constant claims of innocence. She also claimed that the police were railroading this case’s investigation, no doubt because of the fact that Simpson was a large, intimidating black man. John didn’t quite believe it, but the few times he tried to argue, he had to admit that he didn’t have too much experience about such matters and was forced to back down. Occasionally someone else would step in and give their two cents on the matter, but most often it was just those two, seated at the table, quoting the paper to back up their points.
While this was going on, I took some time to look things up on my phone. I couldn’t find anything on Iris Broadcasting or the strange Mr. Horus. I did find Rapture Architecture; it was a construction firm specializing in luxury doomsday shelters that went bankrupt around 2009.
Knowing this made me feel uneasy, and that feeling only increased as I watched John and Carmen agree that the court case would solve things one way or another.
Day seven brought alcohol. Lots of it.
“Look at all this!” John exclaimed while holding up the bottles Tuan had been carefully unwrapping. “Jack Daniels, Captain Morgan, Guiness… man, I can’t remember the last time I had a good Guinness.”
“Looks like we can finally have some fun down here!” Carmen said excitedly.
Ira smirked. “Well, we are supposed to use whatever they send us…”
Lora cheered and the group opened the alcohol, downing glasses and bottles in between conversations. It didn’t take long before the whole group was in a good mood, laughing and swapping all kinds of stories, continuing long into the night.
After a particularly funny tale from Tuan involving his pick-up truck, a pig, and his brother-in-law, Ira took a moment from laughing to wipe the tears from her eyes. “This is so much better than listening to those two play lawyer with the newspaper.”
“Hey!” John said with just the hint of a slur, “Don’t knock the free press. They’re a valuable asset to this country.”
“Oh, I’m not knocking the free press. I’m making fun of you two” she replied.
“I have to do it” Carmen protested. “Who else is going to correct him?”
John rolled his eyes. “Yeah, right, correct me.”
“You have a very poor understanding of the institutional oppression of people of color” Carmen returned without any hesitation.
“I don’t need an understanding of the isht… isn… of racism” John pointed at her with the neck of his beer. “All I need to know is that people do shitty things to other people an’ they’ll use whatever excuse they want to justify it, no matter their color.”
“So you don’t see any biases in a world where a black man is five times more likely to be convicted than a white man?”
“Is not like we’re just pickin’ ‘em off the street and throwin’ ‘em in jail. There’s due process an… an a warrant or somesuch.” He was beginning to actually sway.
“Judiciary systems run by those with an implicit bias.”
Lora gave a nervous chuckle. “Hey, I think John’s a little too wasted to continue this.” She put her hand on Carmen’s shoulder. “Why don’t…”
“Don’t touch me!” Carmen exclaimed.
The room fell silent. It was deafening.
John stood up straight and faced Carmen. “That was uncalled for,” he said, carefully enunciating each word.
Carmen just stared at him.
Tuan shifted from one foot to another. “It’s late, maybe we should all…”
“Apologize” John demanded.
Carmen crossed her arms. “Or what? You’re going to make me?”
“Never hit a woman. Only exception I make is if she throws the first punch.”
“You saying that as a threat, or a promise?”
“Are you really…”
“ENOUGH!” Ira wormed her way between Carmen and John, who had managed to get only inches apart, and flung her arms out wide, forcing them both to stumble backwards and seperate. “You two ruined a perfectly good night. Congratulations. Now leave before either of you make this any worse.”
“Sure. Not worth the effort.” John stumbled down the hallway. Carmen glared at him until he was in his room, then departed for her room as well.
Once the two of them were gone, Ira put an arm on Lora’s shoulder. “You can leave too if you want. I’ll clean this up.” Lora, who had been fidgeting since the fight, nodded and gave a quick “thanks” before also heading down the hallway to her room.
Ira shook her head and started picking up bottles. “Figures those two would find a way to screw this up, huh, Tuan?” She looked up. “Tuan?”
He didn’t answer. He was staring at the small green TV with the check mark.
The next day was much quieter than the last. Carmen and John spent most of it in their rooms, apparently stewing. Lora, Ira, and Tuan sat in the main room, but they kept mostly to themselves as well, quietly moving around each other as they pursued their individual activities.
The chute brought a book; Insomnia by Steven King. After John and Carmen didn’t come out of their rooms to see what it was, Ira offered to read it.
Day nine began like the last day did, but towards the evening, John came out of his room and waited for Carmen. When she did, he stood up.
“Hey, Carmen, look…” he began. “Alright, I’m not too good at this. I have to be honest: I’m not quite sorry for what I did or said last night. But I didn’t say those things in any particularly nice or sensitive way, and I am sorry for that.”
Carmen sighed. “It’s okay. I really shouldn’t have snapped, or pushed the argument, so I’m sorry too.”
John extended a hand forward. Carmen reached for it, ready to shake…
The metal chute rattled, startling everyone and derailing the conversation. Tuan, seated almost next to it, pulled out the canister and retrieved a little box.
“Nintendo 64?” he said, more a question than a statement.
“Yes, it is the newest console from Nintendo, the Nintendo 64!” the voice of Mr. Horus announced, the intrusion as jarring as it was sudden. “With more processing power, better graphics, and all new three dimensional games! This console is not on store shelves yet, but these lucky people get to experience it early and see how this console is ready to change the system.”
The uneasy feeling returned. Having a real life product placement in this drama made the whole thing feel ridiculous and sinister all at the same time.
John looked it over. “It must be new, but the hookups look relatively the same. I think I can get it working.”
After only a tiny bit of trouble, Super Mario 64 was on and blaring on the TV. Fully distracted now, everyone took a turn on trying it out, with only Tuan and John looking like they had the patience to continue.
And just like that, everything was back to normal. John and Carmen were on speaking terms again, though the normal course of debates were gone. The atmosphere shifted back to cheery and relaxed. The camera resumed its sped up colleges of living, pausing just long enough to record what the daily delivery was.
For a while, it was more Nintendo 64 games. Day ten brought Pilotwings 64. Day eleven brought Wave Race 64. Day twelve was Killer Instinct Gold. Tuan and John were the only ones who were interested in the games, so after the second cartridge, the others stopped coming to check the daily items.
There were some… suspiciously long shots of the two playing the system, and I couldn’t help but wonder about the show’s creators. Who did they think their audience was, and who actually watched this? How had they gotten Nintendo, of all people, as a sponsor? I got no answers from the video, of course, just more and more snippets of the two men praising the game console.
The only other thing that was considered important enough to record was during the twelfth day. Lora was seated in the common area, reading Insomnia while John and Tuan were playing more Wave Race. As they did, Carmen marched into the room.
“Lora, did you take my bag?” she almost shouted.
Lora looked up. “What? Um, no. I didn’t.”
“Well, did you move it? Because the last time I had it, I was showing it to you, and now it’s gone.”
“Did you check your room?” John offered. “I put stuff away without realizing it all the time, then I think its lost.”
Carmen rolled her eyes. “It's not in my room, believe me.”
Tuan turned around to face her. “Why don’t you check, just in case, before you go accusing Lora again?”
She opened her mouth to say something, then stopped, turned, and stormed out of the room.
As the days continued, I noticed that Tuan was always seated next to the chute when the delivery was due, and he was always the first one to retrieve the item. On day thirteen, I realized this was intentional.
For once, he was alone in the common room, shuffling a deck of cards over and over again without looking at them, when the chute gave it’s accustomed “THUNK”. He retrieved the canister and opened it.
It was another newspaper.
He unfolded it and started quickly scanning the words. Every minute or so, he popped his head up at the little TV in the corner. On the third dive in, the green check appeared, and he ripped the paper up and shoved it in the trash. Then he took his seat back and started shuffling again.
John appeared a few seconds later. “Hey, heard the chute. Anything good?”
Tuan shook his head. “Not unless you think solitaire is exciting,” he said, holding up the deck of cards.
“Bummer.” John sighed and left the room.
About five minutes later, Ira entered. “Hey, what was in the chute?”
Tuan loudly bridge shuffled. “Just more cards.”
She looked at him, shrugged, and then left as well.
Tuan wasn’t alone for day fourteen’s delivery, but it was just as well; I have no idea how he could have secretly used it anyway.
Shoved inside the canister was a large, plastic object with a long scroll of paper set in the center and dozens upon dozens of wires coming out of it. While he was pulling out yet more wires, Ira was reading an instruction manual.
“The polygraph is designed to measure physiological responses to active deceptions, such as increased heart rate, sweat production, and respiration. These activities are marked with one of three lines, shown here on figure 3.A…” she put the book down and rubbed her eyes. “It’s confusing, but I think I got the gist of it.”
“So it tells if you’re lying?” John asked.
Ira moved her head from side to side. “Sort of. It tells if you’re nervous, the idea being that if you are nervous, you’re probably lying.”
“So what do we do with it?” Lora asked.
Carmen perked up. “Well, we have to use it, right? I suggest we put Lora through it and ask her where my bag is.”
Everyone looked at Lora. She fidgeted.
“You still haven’t found it?” Ira asked. Carmen shook her head. Ira looked to Tuan. “She does have a point, we do have to use it.”
“But, but, I don’t want to be hooked up to that thing!” Lora exclaimed.
John put his hand on her shoulder. “Tell you what, I’ll also go through it. That way we aren’t picking on you.”
“If that’s the case, we should all have a turn.” Tuan said. “It’s only fair.”
Ira nodded in agreement. “Should keep anyone from asking a question they themselves wouldn’t want to answer.”
All eyes turned to Carmen.
“Yeah, sure” she grumbled.
The group went about setting the little machine up. Tuan plugged in the various wires into the box while John attached electrodes and sensors to Lora’s forehead. Ira was reading the manual, directing the two. Carmen just stared at Lora while Lora looked more and more uneasy with every passing second.
Once everyone was finished, Ira flipped a switch and the machine kicked on. The needles moved back and forth on the paper, drawing long, curving lines.
Ira pointed to each of the lines in order. “Alright, so that’s sweat, that’s heartbeat, those are breathing. The more they move, the more nervous she is.” She sighed. “The book has a dummy’s guide to interpreting the lines, but it’s still really complicated, so full disclosure, I might get this wrong.”
“Good thing to keep in mind” Tuan mumbled.
Carmen sat down in the chair across from Lora. “So how do we get started?”
“First, we ask her a set of neutral questions, nonthreatening stuff to establish a baseline.” Ira put the book down and looked at Lora. “Are you ready?”
She nodded. The lines were already moving all over the place.
“Okay then. Only answer in yes and noes. First question: Is your name Lora Zoza?”
“Are we in a bunker right now?”
“Yes.” The lines were beginning to calm down.
“Is today Tuesday?”
“Did you steal Carmen’s bag?”
“I…” The lines began to speed up again, moving faster than they had been. “Um…” The scratching sound of the needles were getting louder. “Yes, alright! Yes. I didn’t mean to! I just wanted to check the label inside, because I wanted to know if it was the same one I was thinking of, so I borrowed it for just a second and I left it in my room and I was going to give it back but you were so angry so I panicked and I… and I…” Lora broke into sobs.
John put his hand on her shoulder again. “Why don’t you go get it?” Lora composed herself, nodded, and left the room. A minute later she returned with a blue purse and handed it Carmen, then sat back down at one of the chairs.
Carmen waited for a second, then looked around the room. “What’s next?”
Tuan furrowed his brow. “What do you mean?”
“Her punishment!” She pointed to Lora. “What’s it going to be?”
“I think having to admit that in front of everyone was punishment enough.” John said. “Plus, you got it back. No harm no foul, right?”
It was obvious from Carmen’s face that she didn’t believe that, but she didn’t say anything.
John chuckled nervously. “Guess I’m next then, huh?” He sat down in the seat Lora had been sitting in and let Carmen attach the various wires to him. Once that was finished, he closed his eyes and inhaled. “Okay, ready.”
“Is your name John Kelly?”
“Are you in a bunker right now?”
“Do you run the ******** orphanage in ********?” The areas where the asterisks sat were silenced over, hiding the names.
Lora scratched her head for a moment. “Well, is there anything anyone wants to know?”
“Did you eat the last of the seven layer salad last night?” Tuan asked.
“No” John replied.
“What about the beer?”
“No.” The needles twitched and John smiled. “Okay, maybe.”
Tuan smirked, then shrugged. “That was all I wanted to know.”
The room was quiet for a minute.
“Well, if no one else has any questions…” Ira went to turn off the machine.
“Are you racist?” Carmen blurted.
Everyone stared at her. The only sounds heard were the scratching of the needles.
“What?” Ira asked.
“Are you racist? It’s a simple yes or no question.”
Ira glared at her in frustration. “John, you don’t have to answer that.”
“Why, afraid of the results?”
“Carmen, you are…”
“No!” John interrupted. “No I am not.”
The needles went wild.
Carmen’s eyes went wide. “What does that mean? That means he’s lying, doesn’t it?”
“No, that means he’s stressed, and I would be too!” Ira shouted at her.
“You’re just trying to…”
A loud snapping, sizzling sound interrupted the argument. The machine powered off. The group looked over to Tuan, who had the power cord in his hand, plug torn off of the cable with sheer force.
He flopped the now-useless cord onto the table. “It did enough damage.”
After a few more moments of silence, everyone left without speaking to each other.
The lie detector sent everyone in downward spiral. Carmen and John retreated to their rooms for most of the time, pacing around the room or giving death glares to the corners. Lora also exiled herself to her room, lying on the bed and staring at the ceiling, moving very little. Ira and Tuan were the only ones who frequented the common room, but their stays were silent. When someone else did enter all conversation attempts ended quickly.
And still the items came down the chute.
Day fifteen brought a notebook.
Tuan balled up a piece of paper and half-heartedly flung it across the room.
Day sixteen brought a fire safe and a key.
Tuan tore out a page of the notebook and locked it inside.
Day seventeen brought a set of dominoes.
Tuan took them over to the little table and removed them one by one, standing them up on their ends in a little line starting at one end of the table and ending at another. Once every domino was set up this way, he tipped over the first one and watched as they collided into one another, toppling over the neighbor in front of them so that dominoe could do the same to its neighbor, continuing until there were no more. Then he looked up at the TV.
When day eighteen came, Ira was in the room as Tuan retrieved it. When he opened the canister, he looked at her.
“Get everyone here” he said. “We need an emergency meeting.”
They stood around the gun, staring at it like a dead body. Nobody said anything.
Finally, Lora spoke up. “It...it’s not real, is it?”
Carmen shook her head. “Can’t be. They wouldn’t give us a real gun, right?”
No one answered.
“How do we know?” Lora asked.
Tuan pointed to John. “Go get me a can of something.”
John nodded and left.
Lora turned to Ira. “What if it’s real? What do we do if it’s real?”
“It’s not real” Ira assured her. “This is supposed to be for a TV show, remember? They just sent this down here to get a rise out of us and stir up a little drama, that’s all.”
John returned with a can of green beans and handed it to Tuan.
Tuan placed the can on the counter, then walked a few feet away from it. “Everyone stand behind me, and cover your ears for good measure.” After waiting for everyone to do so, he aimed the gun at the can, took a moment to make sure he was on target, and fired. The can exploded in a burst of metal, water, and vegetable. Lora and Ira screamed. John looked dumbfounded.
The green check mark appeared, but for once, no one paid it any attention.
“This is too much” Carmen muttered to herself.
“What the hell are we supposed to do?” John asked, panic in his voice, as Tuan laid the object on the table in front of him.
“We got a fire safe two days ago” Tuan said as he withdrew a large black box from under the table. “We’ll lock it in there.”
“And the key?” Ira asked.
“We throw it away” Lora declared.
Tuan shook his head. “Then someone could just dig through the trash to find it. We put it to a vote. One vote per person, no one can vote for themselves.”
John cleared his throat. “Alright, let’s vote then. Starting with Tuan.” He put his hand up. Ira did as well.
They put their hands down. “Alright, Ira.”
Tuan, Carmen, and Lora put their hands up.
“Shit” Ira swore as she received the tiny key. She picked the gun up with her thumb and index finger, as if it was a bloody body part, and placed it in the fire safe. Then she closed it, locked it, and placed the key inside her pocket. “What do we do now?” she asked.
“We keep going as if nothing happened. We forget about it” Tuan said, picking up the Steven King book he was reading before and returning to it to emphasize his point. In an echo of the lie detector moment, everyone took a few moments to stand around awkwardly before shuffling off to their rooms.
Only Tuan and Ira stayed in the common room.
“Tuan?” Ira asked.
He looked up.
“Why did that sound like… like you had practiced that? Did you know?”
He didn’t reply. He just looked up at the camera, and for a few uneasy moments, it felt like he was staring at me, through the TV screen, through time and space itself, because I could tell that this look wasn’t directed at the people running whatever this macabre spectacle was.
He was judging the audience itself.
Late that night, John snuck out of his room and made his way to the big front door he had entered through the first day. In his hand was a small suitcase of his belongings.
“Alright, you win” he said, directed at the camera. “I quit.”
The door stayed shut.
“What do you want from me?” he asked in a harsh whisper. “I give up. I forfeit. The others can have the prize money, I just want to get out of here.”
He glared at the camera. “You told us that whoever was here at the end got the money. That means that not everyone will make it. That means we can quit this stupid game.”
Again, no response.
After waiting for a few more moments, the harsh tone in his voice was replaced by a tremble. “What do you want?”
He was answered with silence.
He stood at the door for five more minutes before giving up and heading back to his room.
Day nineteen brought Scrabble. Ira set it up while Tuan and Lora waited.
“This is the last thing I want to be doing” Lora mumbled.
“Just put up with it for eleven more days” Ira said. “Then you’ll be twenty thousand richer.”
Lora silently picked up her pieces and began to play. The others followed suit, and once everyone had taken a turn, they looked up at the TV.
No check mark.
Ira looked puzzled. “Usually it gives us the check after everyone’s taken a turn.”
“Maybe we have to play two turns?” Lora suggested.
Tuan looked in the box. “There’s stands in here for four players. We must need another one.” He stood up. “I’ll go get Carmen.”
“We could also get John” Lora offered, but Tuan was already gone.
They sat quietly until Tuan came back with Carmen. She looked annoyed, but sat down and waited for the game to be reset. Then she took her turn with the others.
The green check mark appeared.
As it did so, John walked into the room, noticing everyone seated at the table. “What’s going on?”
“Just Scrabble” Ira replied, just a bit too quickly.
He nodded. “And you wanted to play?” he asked Carmen.
“They asked,” she answered. “They needed four people to satisfy the check mark.”
“And they asked you?”
She smirked. “Guess so.”
John looked around at everyone, then left.
The next day brought hats. Comical hats.
On the table, unpacked from their metal cylinder, was a ballcap with an arrow going through it, a large black witch’s hat, and one that looked like the head of a cartoon pig. Tuan was wearing an oversized cowboy stetson and Ira had on a jester’s cap.
They were staring at the tiny TV, which was refusing to give up the green check mark.
Ira sighed. “Well, that was all of them and no dice.”
“It was worth a shot.” Tuan said. “We’re going to have to get everyone in here.”
Ira nodded and took off her hat and placed it on the table, then left the room. Tuan took off his as well and waited. A minute later, she came back with Lora, John and Carmen.
Ira gestured to the hats on the table. “Just wear one so we can get this over with.”
Lora picked up the jester cap and balanced it on her head. Tuan picked the stetson back up, Ira took the witch hat, and John took the arrow cap. All three of them put their hat on as Carmen, last one to the table, picked up the pig hat and stared at it.
“Why am I left with this one?” she complained.
Ira snatched the pig hat from Carmen and shoved the witch hat into her hands. “There, happy?” she asked, glaring at her while she placed the pig hat on her own head.
“No. John should be wearing that one” Carmen said as she crossed her arms.
There was an audible round of groans from the group as everyone turned to Carmen. No one seemed to notice as John left the room.
“Are you fucking serious right now?” Ira almost shouted.
Carmen pointed to the hat on Ira’s head. “I’m not putting my hat on until John wears that one.”
“Carmen just wear the hat for five seconds” Tuan pleaded.
Ira rubbed her eyes with one hand. “You are acting like such a…”
The sound was deafening even over the shitty speakers of the small TV. Carmen’s eyes went wide. A small trickle of blood leaked out of the corner of her mouth. With clumsy, fumbling steps, she turned around.
John was standing there, pistol in hand. A trail of smoke floated out from the barrel.
Without a word, Carmen fell over. Both Ira and Lora screamed. Tuan just stood there, paralyzed.
John strolled over to the body.
The others shrank away as he did so, putting distance between themselves as him.
He picked up the witch’s hat, still clutched in her arms, and pried her fingers open to remove it. He gently lifted her head up and placed the hat onto it, then looked over to the TV with its green check mark.
John stood up and looked at everyone else in the room.
No one said anything.
He turned and left.
For the next five minutes, all the three of them could do was stand around in a shocked silence, not moving, not speaking, not doing anything but staring at the corpse of Carmen.
“W-why is n-n-nobody coming?” Lora asked, breaking the silence. “S-s-someone’s dead. Why is no one coming to let us out?”
Tuan got up and moved to the TV with the green check mark, standing right in front of the camera there. “Let us out” he whispered to the camera. “I know you can see us. I know you know what happened. Let us out now.”
There was no response, no instructions or the sound of any doors opening. The bunker remained in the quiet state it had always been in.
“What are we supposed to do?” he asked.
There was a loud sounding “SHUNK” as a metal a panel near the bigger TV slid away. The space behind it glowed with an orange light and the sound of crackling flames could be heard from it.
“For… bodies…” an odd, synthetic voice declared.
“No, no no.” Tuan shook his head. “We’re not doing that, okay? We’re not playing this anymore. Let us out! Do you hear me? LET US OUT!”
He punched the wall near the camera, but there was no more response. Tuan hung his head. Lora quietly sobbed in the corner. The crackling of the fire continued.
Ira got up and walked over to the body.
“I..Ira?” Lora murmured.
Without a trace of emotion of her face, Ira grabbed its arms and began dragging it towards the space with the fire.
Tuan turned around. “Ira, don’t.”
“We’ve already come this far,” she said in a dead tone without looking up. She lined up the body to the space and pushed until it was inside. Once she withdrew her hands, the metal panel returned with another “SHUNK”. Ira stood up and turned to him.
“Ten more days, then it’s all over.”
Day 21 brought a rubix cube. Tuan was nowhere to be found, so Ira took it back to her room and mindless shuffled it for a few minutes.
The hushed depression of the last few days had transformed into full on terror. Everyone had shut themselves into their rooms, afraid to come out. When they did have to leave, they peaked around corners, hoping not to be seen as they scanned for John. Ira even did this as she went to retrieve the rubix cube.
John was the only one who was calm, walking around without hesitation or hiding, a faint smirk on his face. He spent time in the common room, playing with the N64 and pretending not to notice the others run away after seeing him.
The next day passed in a similar manner, until the item came down from the chute. Ira snuck in one more time to retrieve the item, but stopped once she withdrew a small, plastic keycard with the number “5” on it.
Tiptoeing around, she moved into the hallway with the doors for the rooms. Sure enough, each room was labeled with a number, and each room had a keycard reader next to the door.
John’s room was marked with a “5”.
Moving slowly, she approached the card reader. She had to take a few moments to just breathe before her hands were still enough to slide the card through.
There was a small “beep”, and a red light appeared on the card reader.
She ran to the corner, eyes fixed on the door.
After a while, there was the sound of someone trying to open it. John’s voice could faintly be heard, muttering confused questions, but as he banged against the door, it refused to budge.
Ira smiled as she straightened herself out. She knocked on Tuan and Lora’s doors, showing them the keycard and pointing to John’s room. “It’s okay, he’s locked in now.” The two stared in disbelief at the sounds of frustration from inside, then gradually left their own rooms to gather in the common area.
John shouted and screamed at them. The words were too unclear to hear, but the tone of voice spoke pure murder.
The next couple of days managed to crystalize into something that was almost normal. Tuan and Ira took their accustomed spots back in the common room, and Lora spent a good amount of time there as well.
Day 23 brought UNO. Day 24 brought Operation. The happy energy the group used to play with was gone, replaced with an air of despair. But at least it was peaceful.
For whatever reason, the camera didn’t show the inside of John’s room, so there was no telling what he was doing. If anyone in the bunker was curious, they didn’t show it; once he had stopped his verbal assault at the end of the first day, they ignored him completely. The only time he was noticed at all was the three times a day Lora slid food through the mail slot of his door, a position she had volunteered for.
For a while, this was done without either one of them acknowledging the other, but when Lora delivered him lunch on the second day, she asked him a question while the mail flap was still open.
“Why did you do it?”
There was no reply.
Lora turned to leave.
“I didn’t want to” John said from behind the door.
“I just wanted to go,” he continued. “I saw how they were looking at me: Carmen, Tuan, even Ira. Doesn’t matter what they knew about that lie detector, no one thought of me the same after that. I tried to go, I told them I forfeit and wanted out. But as I’m sure you know, they won’t let us.”
Lora sat down next to the door. “But why kill her? Why take the gun and murder her?”
“I wasn’t planning to. I stole the key because I was afraid of her. She was getting crazier every day. You saw that. And Ira’s not always paying attention. I was too worried to just let it sit there. But when I heard her ranting on and on about the stupid hats, I just… I don’t know, I just snapped. I didn’t realize what I was doing until it was already done.”
Lora stared at the ground, not saying anything.
“Will you stay and just talk for a bit?” he asked. “It’s lonely in here.”
She drew her knees up to her chest. “Yeah, yeah. I can stay here.”
They talked for the rest of the day.
Day 25. Three more guns.
They were placed on the table. The three were looking at them with an air of obvious disgust, like they were observing cockroaches in food.
“I don’t like it any more than any of you, but I think it’s obvious what we need to do” Tuan said. “One each. This way, no one’s vulnerable.”
They each picked one up and moved to leave.
“Hey, guys…” Lora spoke up. “If we all have guns, can’t we… can’t we let John out?”
Ira and Tuan exchanged glances.
“No” Tuan said.
“But we all have means of defending ourselves! We shouldn't have anything to fear,” she protested.