Excerpt: Conundrum

By Marie Robinson

“I've researched the Astrals extensively. There's a growing theory that all of this — not us here, but the entire occupation — is about judgment. They've been here for months. So why haven't they formally invaded? Why haven't they taken us over, established their own puppet governments?” Tyler tapped his knee. “It's because they want to see what we do on our own, so they can sit back and judge our actions. That's why they've let us reestablish so many of our routines. Why they practically encouraged us to forget they were there and get back to business. We're an ant farm to the Astrals.”

“Bullshit.” Kenneth shook his head. “They abducted tons of people, destroyed cities, let those fucking .. things … loose in the countryside–“

“At first. But then most of their activity backed off, and now they're only observing.” Tyler gestured at the room. “They're testing us, I promise.”

Zach said, “If this is a test, why no shocks or treats?”

“They can test by just watching what we do. There don't need to be punishments and rewards.” Tyler shifted, pulling up his mental list of observations. “Except that there have been rewards. Like the doors.”

“What about the doors?” Miriam asked.

“When we were trapped, a door opened.”

“Because they opened it.” Kenneth nodded to Zach and Ian.

“We didn't do anything,” Ian said. “We've been trying to get out of this room since we got here. It only opened when you opened it.”

“We didn't open it.” Kenneth shook his head.

They looked at each other. Tyler could see Nicole and Elyse trading glances as well, probably wondering about their own open door.

“Almost everything in this place is repeated in every room,” Tyler said. “One of the few exceptions is that ferret. Why only one?”

Marcus shrugged. “That doesn't mean anything. Why just one kitchen?”

“The kitchen is the only source of water. We needed it to stay alive.”

“We didn't even know it was here.”

“Zach and Ian did,” Tyler said. “They started where there was water. Nicole and Elyse — I assume you started with the ferret?”

“What's your point?” Nicole asked.

“Kenneth, Miriam, and I found the cage of mice, right by our room. And lastly–“

“What?” Deborah asked as Tyler turned to her.

“You knew that ferrets eat mice.”

“So what?”

“Doesn't anyone think it's strange that we were in four groups, and pieces from all of us were required to keep that animal alive?” He ticked off fingers. “Mice. Water. Knowledge. And of course, the animal itself.”

“Oh, for fuck's sake,” said Elyse.

Tyler kept going. “It's starving and thirsty. It ran right up to the sink the second it got here. We had to work together.”

“Bullshit.” Ian sounded irritated, and maybe even pissed. “It's a fucking hairy rat. Who cares?”

“Maybe that's the question,” Tyler said. “Are we the kind of beings who help other beings? Or the kind who only care about our own survival?”

“Even if you're right,” Zach said, “nobody decided whether or not to feed it.”

“Deborah did.”

“Well, bully for Deborah,” said Elyse.

Miriam moved closer, almost as if she sensed pain and wanted to hug her. But Elyse shot her a look that kept her in place.

“That was luck, not teamwork,” Kenneth said.

Tyler disagreed. “It wasn't. Doors had to open before we were together in the same room.”

“Doors we didn’t open,” said Ian.

Luck,” Kenneth repeated.

“The doors opened when we made choices,” Tyler insisted. “They didn't open at random.”

“They opened at random.” Ian sat on a bunk, worrying his hands through close-shorn hair.

Tyler sat back, never comfortable with either the spotlight or confrontation. He had thoughts about everything, but they were ill-formed, needing data to fill them out.

“All right,” said Zach, once the room was finally quiet. “Arguing won't solve anything. Tyler thinks we're being tested. Maybe that's true and maybe it's not. For whatever reason, the doors out there are opening and closing. But that's not all. I used to see a pink door through there. Now it's light blue.”

“So the doors change color.”

“Or the rooms are moving,” Deborah suggested. “Can you feel the way the floor and walls keep shaking?”

“How the hell can rooms move?” asked Kenneth.

Then three things happened at once.

As if in response to his question, an orange door on the far side of the room opened — just in time to show the frame shrinking in the shadow of advancing walls, the arch itself narrowing to reveal sliding gears and churning machinery. The floor trembled as the room slid past, rolling from one to another like chambers in a revolver.

Deborah, now clutching the ferret, screamed.

And Tyler, whose antennae were up, noticed the conspicuous absence of Marcus's voice. He should have been leaping in to take control as the game changed.

Tyler, and the others, turned toward Deborah, who wasn't screaming at the moving room. She was screaming at Marcus, who was halfway through the used-to-be-black door, holding that little card he'd taken from the pile of papers. He was staring at it, advancing backward, trying to escape unseen. His eyes widened as they fixed on the card, a look of horror dawning on his face.

His mouth opened — maybe to explain why he was trying to sneak out like a coward or to voice his deadly realization. Maybe to argue.

But Deborah wasn't screaming about his attempted escape. She was crying out at a growing green light, hovering mid-air above his head, about the size of a golf ball, growing larger and throbbing with menace.

Very carefully, Miriam took a step toward Marcus. Hands up and out.

“Come toward me, Marcus. Nice and slow.”

But the ball of light became a beam, then a column enveloped him same as the mouse.

An ozone plume blew outward, momentarily everywhere like a zero-gravity fire.

Then Marcus was gone, leaving flaming scraps of cloth to dance in the air, the card he'd been holding slowly seesawing downward, a wave of burning stench wafting on the breeze.

The alien clock ticked on.

Chunk.

Chunk.

One door opened.

Another closed.

The room beyond the red door jerked then moved upward, soon to be replaced by another.

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