Estimated reading time — 69 minutes
My name is Conrad King.
I work with my father in research and development at a large tech company. Over the past year, he and I stumbled our way through a very fascinating engineering breakthrough. We discovered that by vibrating a rare metal at a very precise frequency, we were able to manipulate the elements, down to the atomic level.
We constructed a device that optimized this process to the point of seamless accessibility. This device gave the user god-like power, granting them the ability to form objects using the atoms in the vicinity. From the point of view of the user, it appeared to create matter from nothing. I nicknamed this tech Genesis.
Needless to say, the potential applications for Genesis were endless. World Hunger. Dwindling natural resources. All of which could be alleviated with our tech. It was exciting times. I even suggested publishing our data for free. We were to be harbingers of a new era!
However, the powers that be were not as philanthropic.
The board of directors, which included my father, viewed Genesis as an unrefined and dangerous technology. They decided to instead create (and sell) a tempered version of the technology that would go on to become a VR gaming accessory. My father developed it himself. He called it The Maze.
The Maze would be able to create “soft” virtual realities that users could minimally interact with and explore. Its greatest selling point was that the user would not require VR gear. To the uninitiated, think Matrix-Lite. Or Ready Player One.
I hated how our discovery had been watered down. Reducing such a groundbreaking discovery to a video game was a slap in the face to everything we stood for at our company.
I decided something had to be done about that.
* * * * * *
“Aren’t you supposed to be cutting the grass,” says my father. We’re in the backyard of our vacation home sitting at the concrete bench and table. A chessboard engraved into its tabletop.
This was a dream. More specifically, a memory. Looks like we were in the middle of a game.
“I’ll get to that,” says a smaller version of me, eyes focused on the board. “But first, how do you keep beating me?”
“Because you’re reckless,” he says with a smirk. “You play from here. You need to play from here.” His hand moved from his chest to his temple. I frowned. This makes him laugh.
“Strategy son. Always be the smartest person in the room.” Younger me’s face contracts slightly. “How?”
“Calmly assess the situation,” he starts, his focus back to the board. “Detect the variables at play.”
“When you have that data, form a plan.”
* * * * * *
It was the vinegary smell of oak and rain that first penetrated the darkness. Followed by sounds of thunder, my phone’s vibrations, and the coarse voice of my father’s personal assistant.
“Rough night, Mr. King?”
I blinked myself out of my drunken stupor, exiting my dream. I then glanced at Red through the glass window pane that separated the front and back seats. Head pounding, I answered his question with a nod.
William Redford was a tall, British fellow who’s worked for my father and the company for many years. He can often be found carrying out some designated chore. Thus, I’ve dubbed him our company’s “Task Manager”. Outside of his administrative responsibilities, he’s also occasionally asked to manage less imperative tasks. Such as chauffeuring the boss’ hung-over son to The Maze’s beta-testing trials.
Usually, the night before a beta test, the company would sponsor a party that served as both a staff celebration and a “meet & greet” for the participants. I recalled very little from the festivities, so it must have been a good time.
From what I remember, four individuals were to participate in The Maze’s beta test today. I was included in that number. I would occasionally volunteer to test products, especially those that show promise. Unlike those other times, though, this time I volunteered for another reason.
We soon came along a vast woodland path that was comprised of tall, densely packed trees. They were staggered together so tightly, it was difficult to view between them. This path eventually opened up to a wooden warehouse planted in the very center of a massive clearing. Acres of grassland surrounded the warehouse as far as the eye could see. The immediate perimeter of the warehouse consisted of flat, gravel ground that appeared to encircle the property in almost a perfect semi-circle.
The warehouse itself was a decent size, and was old with noticeable wear and tear. Our company owned several warehouses for various reasons, but this particular one I wasn’t familiar with.
As we got closer, I noticed the other 3 participants had already arrived and were grouped near the entrance, congregating under a canopy to avoid the rain. Red pulled up to the group and parked the car.
“Last chance to escape, Mr. King,” he teased.
Now it may have been my post-inebriated state, but when he spoke those words, I would have sworn there was a moment of perfect quiet; rain and thunder calming for that one instant.
“Not this time, Red,” I said with a smile while exiting the vehicle.
As soon as I make it under the canopy, a dark-skinned, muscular woman paced towards me with her hand extended. “Glad to see you didn’t die from alcohol intoxication, CK.”
“Mack!” My hand extended to meet hers. It was a firmer handshake than I had anticipated. “I’m glad to see your liver is still intact as well.”
Mackenzie, aka ‘Mack’, is a UFC fighter-turned- Youtube gamer personality with roughly 2.4 million subscribers. Her niche is the fighter gaming genre, obviously. We’ve consulted Mack to beta test a number of projects for us in the past, so she’s well known within our company. Despite her towering, intimidating appearance, Mack was nothing but smiles and corny jokes. If it weren’t for her job history, you’d think she’d be incapable of hurting a fly.
My eyes then met with those of our other two beta-testers, Abigail and Adam, fraternal twin gamers. These two were slim, blonde and, outside of Abby’s long flowing hair, were essentially clones of each other. They co-hosted several gaming profiles across multiple social media platforms. In total, their subscriber count exceeded well over 10 million, with a daily viewership of greater than 750k. Adam’s niche in the gaming community was horror/action-adventure genre while Abigail’s niche was puzzles/problem-solving.
I walked over to the twosome. “Hey Abby, Adam. Thanks for coming!” Abby gave brief eye contact with a smile before looking back down at her phone. I shook Adam’s hand.
“Same here! I’m surprised your company even knew we existed, Mr. King,” Adam responded, establishing himself as the spokesperson of the two.
“Of course, I’m excited to get to work with you guys today,” I replied. “And, please, Mr. King’s my father. Call me Conrad.”
After the pleasantries, we all step through the doorway, entering the warehouse.
[Before we proceed, let me explain that I was not part of the design process the weeks leading up to today’s beta testing. I was busy working on… another project.
The actual layout and machinations of the game were, and still are, largely unknown to me. I had no idea what to expect upon entering this building. In retrospect, my lack of oversight certainly could have contributed to our current state of affairs.]
We then found ourselves within a rather large room. It was rectangular in shape, and similar in design to that of a hallway. 120-125 ft x 30-40 ft would have been the dimensions by my estimate. The wall in front of us was lined with doors of different shapes and sizes. The wall space between those doors was painted dark crimson and housed dozens of knockoff famous paintings. These included the Mona Lisa, Last Supper, American Gothic, etc.
The floor was made up of thick, brown acrylic carpeting and the vaulted ceiling housed a golden chandelier that cast a faint yellow tint over the room. This functioned as the only source of lighting, actually. Notably, there were no windows in this room.
Not too far from where we stood was a large circular table that contained a spread of food fit for a king. Everyone looked to me as if to ask permission to eat. I nodded. As we made our way to the buffet, my mind continued to explore the room. And that’s when I noticed it.
It was subtle, but the dimensions of the space gave it away. It was a little too wide and the vaulted ceilings were a smidgen too tall. What I noticed was that the room shouldn’t be able to physically exist within this warehouse.
’Were we already inside the virtual space? Had the game been turned on without us knowing?’ My suspicions were confirmed once I made it to the buffet table. I picked up my plate and the meat slicer next to the roast beef. Both of which had the designated company’s logo, a half-eaten apple, imprinted on them.
Though I wasn’t part of the design process, I was aware of what the emblem meant. Objects within the virtual space were marked with it to help prevent users from confusing the game with real life.
A gesture I grew to appreciate. This game’s VR capabilities were breathtaking.
I stared at the sizzling meat in the pan being kept warm by a smoldering chafing dish. It made me think of Genesis. Creating food should be beyond the capabilities of The Maze. It was theoretically possible for Genesis, however. We just hadn’t had a chance to test it yet.
I pictured the C-H-O combinations within this slice of roast beef. I checked the piece of meat for the company’s logo, just in case. My undertaking was interrupted by Red’s coarse voice.
“Good morning, participants,” said a hologram version of my father’s personal assistant. He startled the group. His torso had suddenly appeared through the center of the table, and hovered over the food.
“And welcome.” His legs appeared from beneath the table as he walked towards us. “As some of you may have already realized, you are now within the virtual space.” Everyone looked around, this time with critiquing eyes. All nodded in approval.
Red continued. “We call this space The Maze. I am William Redford and I will be your guide.”
“Here at The Maze, you will be thrown into a series of escape rooms. Each escape room has an objective that will need to be completed. You progress in the game by completing these objectives.”
“So it’s like the Boda Borg escape rooms in Boston?” asked Adam, hand half-raised in the air.
“Correct. And like there, each room will have its own distinct objectives. There will be laws, however, that will persist throughout all rooms for the duration of the game. These laws are simple but make up the intricate framework of this virtual reality.”
“Law #1: There are only two types of rooms. Resting and Escape Rooms. Resting Rooms will be placed before each Escape Room. Use these rooms to eat, rest, etc. Once you are ready to progress, simply go through the next available doorway. Passing through a doorway will activate the next room.”
“Law #2: There is no leaving The Maze,” Red paused for a moment to allow the tension to build. He then continued with a smile. “Prematurely. This will diminish everyone’s experience. Thus, it is not allowed. You can only exit The Maze once you’ve lost or finished the game.”
“And Law #3: The objective of each room will sometimes be laid out in plain sight for you. Other times, your objectives will be hidden. You must complete this objective if you want to survive the room.”
There was a subtle, but noticeable shift in Red’s tone at the word ‘survive’.
“Final advice: The truth you know as true is a lie. Acknowledge yourself or you will fail. And then reality will become your illusion.” I scanned my cohort and saw that they were eating this up. Figuratively and literally.
“Please leave your smartphones here.”
As Red spoke, a table manifested in front of him with a basket in its center. Everyone obeyed the hologram’s instruction. I dropped my phone into the basket, but I noticed a missed text from my father. I tried to reach back into the basket, but both it and the table disappeared into the floor.
Oh well, I thought to myself. If it was important he would’ve called. Though it was weird. He rarely texted me.
“That is all. My hologram will remain here as a guide. Please do not hesitate to ask any questions about the Room,” stated Red, back to his baseline courteousness. “And please, do enjoy your time here in The Maze.”
Mack and the twins mumbled amongst themselves in excitement. While the group was eating, I walked up to Redford. It was time for me to initiate my plan.
I retrieved the device from my pocket that I had been working for the past few weeks. I developed it to help me hack into The Maze’s local settings. I pressed the button in front of Redford and, after a few seconds, a flat, translucent command prompt screen popped up and a keyboard manifested.
I was in.
Context: For months, I’ve secretly tried to publish our Genesis data for free. Security at HQ has been tight, however, and would remain so until product launch. This made it impossible to carry out my plan on-site.
So I came up with an idea of publishing Genesis via The Maze. I would be able to send the data to an FTP server via The Maze’s server since the two were connected.
Most of our beta-testing is monitored by skeleton crews, if that. I figured the best chance I had at accomplishing this goal would be while I was inside the game today.
By the way, yes. I knew what my actions meant. I knew I was betraying not only the company but also my father. I weighed the pros and cons of my decision, and made peace with the potential repercussions. You have to understand. Genesis had the potential to change the world.
It was worth the risk.
“What you working on there, CK?” Mack asked while making her second trip to the buffet table. “Oh you know,” I started to reply as I turned back to minimize the screen. “Just some work stuff.”
“Getting the most out of your free time before we start, huh,” she said as she continued her trek towards the roast beef. “Good. We’ll need you focused when we go through one of these doors.”
I nodded, but that made me think about Red’s monologue earlier. I didn’t remember him giving us any clear instructions on how to start the game. I thought that was weird seeing how following the rules was heavily emphasized. You would think something like that wouldn’t be left so open-ended.
Figured I’d get Task Manager 2.0 to clarify.
“Red, quick question. Do we go through one of these doorways to start the first resting room?” Then, thinking myself clever, I asked, “or are we already inside the first resting room?” It would make sense. There was food, and we were sort of resting.
“I’m afraid the answers to both of your questions are no, Mr. King.” That didn’t make any sense, I thought.
“Hey guys,” I heard Mack shout from the buffet table to the left of me.
I asked a follow-up question. “Then how do we start the first escape room?”
Mack continued, “Do any of you know where the roast beef knife went?”
“The escape room has already started, Mr. King.”
Suddenly, everything goes dark.
At first, there was silence in the darkness. Then, a loud sound of something crashing into the buffet table was heard. This was followed by Mack screaming in agonizing pain. She cried out for whatever was happening to stop. Then, as abruptly as it all started, she’d gone quiet, returning us to the silent darkness.
“Mack!” I yelled as I ran blindly towards her general direction. The chafing dish must have tipped over during the ruckus as the buffet table and the carpet underneath it were now in flames. The light from the fire illuminated the area near Mack.
As I approached her position, I saw Adam had also come to her side and had pulled her away from the growing flames. Mack’s body lied prone with the meat slicer sticking out of her back. Blood was oozing from multiple stab wounds.
“Conrad,” Mack yelled, rolling onto her side. “This fucking hurts! Why does this hurt? What was that?”
I looked around the room for the attacker. Though it was dimly lit by the flames, all I could see was Abby still standing where we left her, near her table and uneaten food, seemingly frozen in fear.
“Mr. King!” This time it was Adam that yelled it. “What do we do? Is this part of the game?”
I didn’t purposely ignore their questions. I just didn’t have an answer for them. Something like this should not be part of the game. We should barely be able to touch objects made by The Maze tech, much less be hurt by them.
I took a deep breath.
‘Calmly observe… detect the variables…’
Mack was losing a lot of blood and the flames were growing around us. We had to act fast. And treating Mack had to take priority.
‘…form a plan.’
“Adam,” I declared, “If I’m not mistaken, you have first aid training, yes? Would you able to tend to Mack?” He thought for a moment and nodded his head, “I think we need to stabilize the knife, and try to pack her other stab wounds to stop the bleeding.”
“Good, do that,” I stated, then turned to face his sister. “Abby, can you-“
“The doors are gone,” Abby uttered, voice trembling as she pointed around her. “And the paintings are laughing at us.”
Sure enough, as the flames continued to surround us, the added illumination revealed a continuous blank wall, absent of all doors. This included the door we used to enter the facility.
And those stunning paintings from before had changed. They were now intently staring at Mack, Adam, and myself with one hand pointed at us. The creepiest part, and why Abby thought they were laughing, was that they were now all donning wide, toothy, malevolent grins that extended from ear to ear.
“Call 911, Red,” I demanded as I walked back towards the hologram. “And end the game right now. We need to get outside.” Red’s eyes, calm as ever, followed me as I paced in front of him.
“I’m afraid I cannot do that, Mr. King.”
I stopped pacing, caught off guard by his response. “And why the hell not?” I asked, but I knew his answer before he even verbalized it.
“Law #2, Mr. King. There is no leaving The Maze prematurely.”
Let’s just slide right past the part where I flipped the f**k out on the hologram.
“I think I found something,” yelled Adam, unfolding a small piece of paper. “It was hidden underneath the handle of the knife. It looks like… a poem?”
“What does it say,” asked Abby finally moving for the first time, walking towards her brother.
“First,” I interjected, making my way back to Adam as well. “How is Mack?”
“I think the bleeding stopped,” he replied, looking back down at Mack. “But she passed out a couple seconds ago.”
Adam coughed while he spoke. Smoke was filling the room. We were running low on time. We needed to find a way out of that room and fast. And as much as I hated to admit, it appeared the only way of accomplishing that would be to play the game.
I explained my reasoning to the twins and they agreed. I motioned for Adam to read the paper, since I was sure the poem would turn out to be the objective for the room. I was correct.
Your memories have been conned. Do not trust the bond. Find the insincere peer and get out of here!
Adam looked back at us after he finished reading aloud. What followed was a moment of dreadful silence that seemed to last forever.
“Does that mean what I think it means,” asked Adam finally. I found myself shaking my head, not wanting to believe the thoughts that were bubbling inside my mind.
“This note seems to be suggesting that one of us may have done this to Mack,” I declared. “That one of us…” I started to say, but then trailed off.
“…is a traitor?” finished Abby. “But how? Why would one of us hurt Mack? Could there be a mistake with the clue?”
“That’s unlikely,” I stated. Adam handed me the paper and I read over the poem once again. I then noticed the back of the paper had one more line. It read, “Hint: Real Eyes Realize Real Lies.” This was followed by a half-eaten apple.
“If that’s so, then one of us here is a danger to the others,” Adam suggested, as he and his sister both looked at me with condemning eyes. I was smart enough to know where that was heading.
I decided to create some space between us. I told the twins we needed some further clarification of the poem, and I headed back towards the hologram. I suggested we all spread out, but the twins opted to stay close to one another. I didn’t argue with them.
I was beginning to feel faint and unsteady by this point as I was coughing nearly non-stop. The flames were spreading quickly and the heat was becoming nearly unbearable. I looked around at the paintings who were still smiling and pointing towards Mack and the twins.
“Maybe it was brainwashing,” offered Adam, as I slowly navigated around the flames. “Could the game do that, Mr. King?”
Technically, it was possible. But something like that would need time and we had only just started the game a moment ago. Also, only Genesis (not The Maze) tech would even have the faintest chance of accomplishing something like brainwashing. And Genesis would have to be turned on for that to-
And that’s when I had realized what I had potentially done. I hastened my pace back to the hologram.
“We need clarification of the poem,” I began as I sat down in front of Red. I opened the digital screen back up and perused the current settings as I queried the hologram.
“Does this mean that the insincere peer, is one of us here in the room? That one of us here attacked Mack?”
“That is correct, Mr. King.” The words were painful to hear.
“Then it was brainwashing?” I added. Then I sat back in my chair defeated. Within the settings, Genesis was noted to be inactive. If Genesis, our most powerful tech, isn’t causing this, then what is? Wtf is going on?
“I’m afraid not, Mr. King,” replied Red to my brainwashing comment.
“Wait what,” I said, confused. “Then how? Why would one of us do this to-”
“One of you do not exist, Mr. King,” he continued, cutting me off mid-sentence. “One of you is a fixture of the game, created solely for this room.”
It felt like a rock formed in my stomach and I became lightheaded. “H-How is… that possible?” I looked back at the twins and their faces reflected the same terror and confusion I was feeling.
“Memories of this individual have been implanted in everyone’s brain,” Red started. “Electrical signals in the brain are nothing more than a series of molecular compounds attaching themselves to brain receptors, after all.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. The Maze is able to create a person from nothing and implant memories?! Also, we all met each other outside the warehouse. Before we even started the game. I distinctly remember seeing everyone while driving up.
And then an uncomfortable thought hit me. Maybe it wasn’t one of them that didn’t exist. Could I be-
My thoughts were interrupted by Abby’s piercing screams.
I stumbled to my feet and looked to where she and Adam had been standing. What I saw next, I will never forget.
Abby was engulfed in flames. She was kneeling over as if she had been pushed.
“Oh my God!” she cried repeatedly, each syllable sounding excruciatingly more painful than the last. Her hair had fried like it had been stuck inside a light socket. Her face turned black, and the rest of her skin melted away.
She was attempting to stand, until she suddenly collapsed. The screaming stopped and the silence that followed became louder than the chaos before it.
My legs buckled, I fell back into my chair and then vomited onto the floor. Watching her burn to death had paralyzed me completely. I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think. But through my mental breakdown, one other thought popped into my head.
‘Where was Adam?’
I looked around the room that had begun to get more opaque from the smoke. That’s when I noticed that the paintings directly ahead of me had changed again.
The creepy smile was still there, but this time instead of pointing towards where Mack and the twins had been earlier, they were now pointing directly at me.
Or, rather, directly behind me.
I suddenly heard noise coming from my flank. I turned around to find Adam running full speed towards me, meat slicer in hand, a toothy, malevolent, impossibly huge grin on his face.
Then suddenly out of nowhere, Mack comes running and tackles Adam right before he reaches me. They both land onto the now inflamed buffet table off to the side, both being sentenced to the same fiery death Abby suffered just moments before.
‘What the hell?’ I repeated this phrase over and over while rocking in my chair.
Adam was the insincere peer? But he was a twin. How could that be possible? But then Mack… And Abby…
Just as my brain was beginning to process it all, Red’s voice interrupted the silence, once again.
“Congratulations, you have survived the first escape room. Please proceed through the designated doorway to enter your Resting Room.”
Of course, the door manifested on the opposite side of the room. I and it separated by the roaring flames. But it didn’t matter. I had already become too weak to move. I knew then that it wouldn’t be the fire that would take me, but the smoke. I was trapped, condemned to die in this room with my cohort.
I fell to my knees and screamed my discontent at Red’s hologram. Surprisingly, it wasn’t my impending death that caused me the most grief. It was that I was to die with so many unanswered questions that bothered me the most. Specifically, about this damned game.
Despite my screaming, I had accepted my fate. At the time, I believed that I or the company was somehow responsible for all this. Thus, a part of me felt that my death here was justified.
I sank to the floor and lied on my side while the flames continued to close in around me. My vision had grown increasingly blurred, but while I stared into the coded black screen I noticed something pop up on the monitor.
‘Upload Complete,’ and ‘Are you sure you want to send data? Type Yes or No.’
‘Maybe, I could do one thing right, before I go,’ I thought. I reached for the keyboard but then found myself barely able to lift my arm. Dizziness overtook me. I finally collapsed, all before I was able to click yes.
Then darkness overcame me. And after the transient discomfort of gasping for air subsided, I surrendered myself to a calmness I had never felt before. I had found peace there in the darkness. And I was content.
But it was the vinegary smell of oak and rain that first penetrated the darkness. Followed by sounds of thunder, my phone’s vibrations, and the guttural voice of my father’s personal assistant.
“Rough night, Mr. King?” asked Redford.
‘What the-,’ was my first thought upon awakening. I snapped myself upright and noticed I was able to breathe with ease again. I looked around. I was back in my father’s town car, being once again chauffeured to the beta testing site.
‘Was that all a dream?’
My dream notion was quickly disproved as we came upon a woodland path. A woodland path that I knew would soon open up to a very familiar yet unfamiliar wooden warehouse surrounded by acres of grassland and a thin patch of gravel ground that would enclose the property in a perfect semi-circle.
What came next was a sequence of futile acts.
I asked Red about the game. I ordered him to stop the car. Despite banging on the glass, I was repeatedly ignored. I tried to open the door, but to no avail. I then attempted to call 911, and that’s when I noticed my father’s text. That same text from seconds earlier and from before I… died. I opened it.
Don’t bother calling 911, Conrad. As you may now have begun to realize, you are already in The Maze.
I paused for a second and looked around me. The rain, the car… even Redford? I then searched my surroundings and I nearly dropped my phone when I found it. But sure enough, there it was. On the back of Red’s headrest was a half-eaten apple. I returned to my father’s text.
Now, by the time you’ve read this, you should remember having died and then subsequently reset. Going forward, you need to know that that isn’t happening again. Each time one of you dies from now on, it will be permanent. Resetting will no longer be an option.
The company also knows about your plan to publish Genesis, Conrad.
My heart leapt to my throat at this statement. I continued reading.
Redford was inserted into the game to offer you a way out. Abandon this fool’s errand of yours and exit the game. Please… Mackenzie will die. Abigail will die. Zero chance of survival here, son. End the game now. I convinced the board to give you another chance. So show them you’re a team player. And move past this. Let this plan of yours go. I beg of you. Value life over scientific advancement. Each of these participants’ freedom depends on your decision.
And that’s where the text ended. Leaving off on what was a poorly veiled threat.
My father is not only aware of what’s going on, but it sounds like he’s willing to hold these poor souls hostage and even let me die if it meant preserving his bottom line.
Did he set all this up? Did he sabotage the beta trials just so I wouldn’t upload Genesis? I knew my father and I had our disagreements, but this was on another level.
We began pulling up to the clearing with the warehouse in sight. In the distance, I could see the group under the canopy. I saw Mack waving and Abby’s hair flying wildly in the wind. A wave of relief washed over me at the sight of those two.
But then, to the side of Abby, I saw Adam. And that relief was replaced with both dread and rage.
My eyes began to well with tears as I stared back down at my phone. I wished things had been different. I wished I wasn’t this powerless. So I took a deep breath. Calmly observe…
The car pulled to a stop.
…detect the variables…
“Last chance to escape, Mr. King.”
Just as I was about to cave in to my father’s demands, I noticed three bars in the top right corner of my phone’s screen.
…and form a plan.
My phone had service. Internet access. And that gave me hope.
The internet access could have been fabricated like everything else in this reality or something missed by the design team. If it was the latter, then we now had a tool we didn’t have before. Not only would we have google at our disposal, but we could also elicit outside help.
If so, I know we’d be in a better position to circumvent future obstacles like Adam. We just needed to survive long enough to finish the Genesis’ upload. That had to be our priority. Though I didn’t want to die or for the others to die, Genesis had the potential to change the world.
It was worth the risk.
So, to everyone reading this, please help us navigate The Maze.
The villains here (the designers, the board, and my father) are human. And humans make mistakes. Our best shot of making it out of here will be to exploit one of those mistakes.
“Last chance to escape, Mr. King,” Red repeated.
An urge to curse this faux-Redford arose, but I resisted the temptation.
“Not this time,” I finally replied.
And, with all the courage I could muster in that backseat, I opened the door and stepped out into the rain.
Let’s try this again, I thought to myself as I exited the town car.
I knew I had to be careful from here on out. Every action I took had to be deliberate and calculated.
I met back up with the group under the canopy. Their memories had been scrambled as I was greeted similarly to before. Adam, the solution to our first puzzle, was back in character. So I played along. Didn’t want to risk alarming him/it. Though doing so made my skin crawl.
After passing through the doorway, I felt it was safe to begin explaining The Maze. I started by detailing most of what transpired during our first attempt. I also made a point to emphasize that the next time we die here, it will be permanent.
I confessed that I knew what I was saying sounded crazy, but I swore it was the truth.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t terribly difficult to convince them of any of this. They both still had some faint recollection of their deaths. Just not how they died.
They did, however, express their displeasure how their lives were now in danger. I apologized profusely for this and promised that I’d do everything in my power to get them safely out of the game.
Adam flawlessly adapted to the situation. Perfectly mimicking symptoms of memory lapse and concern akin to the others. I trod carefully with my final revelation.
I went on to discuss how one of us here didn’t exist in the real world. And explained how that person was created by The Maze for the sole purpose of being an obstacle to overcome in this room. After a short pause, I divulged that Adam was this individual.
It was a hard sell, but Mack was the first to get on board. It was Abby who resisted accepting my accusation as fact. She insisted we were making a huge mistake. That they were twins and had a connection that couldn’t be fabricated.
I noticed Adam had remained silent during the conversation. Abby noticed this too.
“Tell them they’re making a mistake,” she finally pleaded.
But Adam didn’t respond. All he did was smile. An all too familiar toothy, malevolent, impossibly wide smile.
“Adam…” Abby started, but she was interrupted by Red’s voice.
“Congratulations, you have survived the first escape room.”
Startled, we all turned around to see Red’s torso hovering over the buffet table. By the time we turned back around to face each other, Adam had disappeared.
Red prompted us to hand over our phones and the group complied with his demands once again. I held onto mine for obvious reasons.
“Please proceed through the designated doorway to enter your Resting Room.”
A doorway then manifested near us. Abby was hesitant to leave the room at first, but eventually conceded. The three of us walked across the threshold of the doorway, entering the resting room together.
The door immediately disappeared after the last person walked through. For the first few seconds, we were in darkness. Then, wall mounted lamps began slowly turning on, one by one, until the room was completely illuminated.
If I had to describe the room in a sentence, I would say that it was similar to that of an exclusive airport lounge. There were elegant dining room tables and chic comfort sofas and love chairs dispersed throughout. A white plush carpet covered the entire floor. At the center of the room was a full bar with sink and mini-fridge and at the far corner of the room was a large wooden door.
Obviously we all headed to the bar.
“Maybe he was brainwashed,” asked Abby taking a seat on one of the barstools. “You said it yourself you didn’t know exactly how this game worked.”
I sat at the barstool adjacent to Abby’s and leaned against the tall counter. Mack left us to go grab glasses to make us all drinks; However, I think she did this to also give Abby and I some time to talk.
I held Abby’s gaze for a moment. Her eyes revealed her torment and confusion. I couldn’t even begin to fathom what all she must be going through. What she’s likely still going through. Adam had been meticulously inserted into the deepest parts of her hippocampus, just to be unceremoniously ripped from the seams soon thereafter.
“The hologram confirmed it during the last attempt,” I stated, trying to reassure her. “I’m sorry, Abby, but he wasn’t real. He never was.”
I took out my phone and encouraged her to google her social media profiles, as I too had done shortly before getting out of the town car. Her eyes began to tear up as her search confirmed her fears. That she was the sole proprietor of each of her social media accounts. No digital footprint of a twin sibling.
“Uhh, CK,” started Mack. She had made her way behind the bar and was staring at the floor. “There’s someone passed out drunk back here. I think it’s ya boy. The hologram from earlier.”
Redford? Abby handed me back my phone and we both walked behind the bar to where Mack was.
There on the floor was a slim, brown-haired British fellow curled up into a ball, clutching a half-empty fifth of Gentlemen Jack Daniels.
Mack and I carried Redford to the nearest sofa while Abby went to grab him a glass of water from the bar. He was pretty obtunded initially, but slowly began waking up after we splashed water on his face.
“Rough night?” I quipped as I helped him sit upright.
I didn’t understand why he’d be here, though. And, given the capabilities of The Maze, I did have my suspicions. If he was, in fact, the real Red, then he was going to have a lot of explaining to do.
“Mr. King? Is that really you?” His eyes had to adjust to the light. He was scruffy and appeared as if he’d been in these same clothes for several days.
“Yes,” I replied. Abby handed him the glass of water while I took the half-finished bottle of whiskey from his grip. “How long have you been here?” Mack asked. “Why are you here?” I added.
“Thank you, Abigail,” says Red as Abby handed him the water. He then took a long swig. After finishing the glass, his eyes then bounced from each of us. His analytical gaze stopped once his eyes met mine.
“I entered The Maze approximately 1 week ago,” started Red, staring at me carefully as he spoke. “Your father requested I accompany him and a few others during a walk-thru of the technology.”
“You’ve been in here a week!?” I ask, stunned. “Is my father here too?”
“Yes. And I’m not sure. We started The Maze together, but what I experienced in the last room disturbed me to my core. Despite your father’s pleading, I was unable to go any further. So he continued on without me.”
“Who was it?” Abby asked, her voice breaking. “Who’d the room implant in your memories?”
Red’s gaze dropped to the floor as he rubbed his forehead. He attempted to discretely wipe away a tear. I had a good idea of what his answer was going to be even before he verbalized it.
“My wife,” he answered softly. “The Maze created a version of my deceased wife. It had erased her death and had given us 10 extra years of memories in its place.” He then looked at Abby, eyes swollen with his impending tears. “And they were incredible.”
Red completely broke down at this point. His following statements became muddled behind his cries.
“But the memories are fading now. I’m losing her, Conrad. I know the memories weren’t real, but-,” he paused to gather his composure enough to finish his last thought. “It’s like she’s dying all over again.”
I put my hand on his shoulder as he continued to sob. This was no faux-Red. He was the real deal, of that I was certain.
I glanced back at my cohort and noticed Abby with tears in her eyes too. Mack walked up and embraced Red in a full bear hug, lifting him from his seated position. This startled Red, and I couldn’t help but smile at his disconcerted expression.
“We have to get out of here Red,” I started, as Mack positioned him back on the couch. “And you have to come with us.”
“My place is here with her,” he declared, clearing his throat. “That’s why I stayed. To find a way back into that room.”
His words rendered me silent. I wanted to object. To tell him the thousands of reasons why that was a terrible idea. But the look he gave me wasn’t one of resignation. It was one of conviction. And I knew there was no changing his mind. The only thing I could come up with in that moment was, ‘I understand.’
I encouraged Abby and Mack to ‘refuel’ before we started the next room. Mack went back to the fridge to grab food while Abby went to the bar to fix herself a drink. I took this chance to begin my inquiry.
“My father sent me a text earlier.” I leaned in closer and took out my phone to show him my father’s text. “Tell me what you see here.”
Red squinted as he read the text. “Danger. Trap. Maze is Alive.” A smirk manifested across his face. “Your father always did like his ciphers.”
He handed me back my phone. “It’s as he said. This whole place is a trap. And it’s always watching.” His last sentence gave me chills.
“You said that there were others with you and father? What happened to them?” Red hesitated a moment. Then looked around to make sure the others weren’t within earshot before continuing. “They died in the first room. Sacrificed to The Maze.”
“Sacrificed? Why is my father’s game sacrificing people?”
He paused again, as if carefully choosing his next words. “What all do you remember about your Genesis research?”
I thought for a moment before responding. “We were researching how the ancient Egyptians built the pyramids. At the time, we were just wanting to be inspired by their engineering ingenuity. But that’s when we found and translated those stone tablets. They described a strange tool that had been used during the construction.” I looked back up at Red. “From that, Genesis was born.”
“Well,” Red started, “your father went back through the tablets to extrapolate a better understanding of the tech. What he found was that there had been gaps in the translation. The designation for tool was better translated to our English word entity or demon.” My blood ran cold. Demon?
“Many people perished during the construction of the pyramids. Your father deduced that these deaths and the device’s functionality were interrelated. He believed the lives lost were actually human sacrifices.”
“He saw the risk it posed and tried to convince the board to stop the project. They gave him the opportunity to build a safer version of Genesis. But they informed your father that, no matter what, they were bringing a product to market that quarter.”
“He did his best, but this was foreign tech. And he was under time constraints. His efforts ultimately equated to him ‘pulling at wires’ in an attempt to dampen some of its core functions. Thus, The Maze came to be.”
“Then what happened 1 week ago? When did s**t go to hell?” I asked, interrupting his monologue. He lowered his eyes and nodded before continuing.
“We’re not certain. But before we separated, he had postulated that his modifications had the opposite effect. Instead of diminishing its function, he instead removed the harness that was keeping the entity at bay.”
“So now that that harness is gone…,” I started to say.
“The demon can free roam The Maze,” said Red, finishing the statement.
I didn’t know what to make of these revelations. Demons? Sacrifices? And why am I just hearing about this? Also, f**k the company, why didn’t he just destroy the technology?
It wouldn’t have been worth the risk.
My plan to upload Genesis was now rendered moot. We couldn’t risk giving this thing internet access. That would be disastrous for obvious reasons.
It made me sick knowing I had turned down an opportunity for us to escape the game. I was convinced it was the right decision at the time. Even understanding doing so would put me and the others in danger. All for a cause that could’ve destroyed the world.
And now, if we die in here, we will have died for nothing. And it would be completely my fault.
I decided to swallow that guilt for now, because there was one other issue I’d been wrestling with since the last room. I figured Red would be the one person who may have an answer.
“When I woke up in the backseat for the first time, I was in a fugue. But even now, I can’t remember the events prior to that moment. I had just attributed it to me drinking but-,”
Before I could continue, Mack and Abby suddenly returned. Mack sat on the couch, making herself comfortable right next to Red.
“Mr. Redford, sir. CK says you’re a co-creator of The Maze. Do you mind going through some of the specifics? Maybe give us a lil’ advice?” I shared a glance with Red that indicated our prior conversation should stay between us. He went on to answer Mack’s question.
“Of course,” he replied, as he sat back in his chair. “First, this space is called The Maze.”
* * * * * *
After picking Red’s brain for a bit, the group was ready to move on. Red, now back to his baseline gusto, hospitably walked us to the corner of the room as if we were guests leaving his home for the night.
As we congregated around the large door, I turned back to look at Red for the last time. I had almost forgotten he had decided to stay in The Maze. And I couldn’t help but feel sorry for him. He was essentially condemning himself to die for a faux version of his deceased wife. It was illogical.
I don’t think I’ll ever agree with his decision, but he was still my friend. And I wanted to help him complete what could likely be his final task.
“Here,” I said, retrieving the device from my pocket, handing it to Red. “It was made to hack into The Maze. It should get you into the local settings. From there, you may be able to find a way back into the room.”
He placed the device in his pocket and I see him smile for the first time since we found him in that room. He initiates a hug.
“Thank you, Conrad,” he says.
“I hope you find her, Red.”
“I hope so too.”
I heard Mack open the door behind me. Red and I release but as I begin to turn around, he stops me. One last piece of advice to offer.
“Don’t forget, my boy. The truth you know as true is a lie. Acknowledge yourself or this illusion will become your reality.”
I furrowed my brow, but nodded. Abby and Mack walked through the doorway and I followed behind. It wasn’t until after I had crossed over did I remember that those words were the same as his hologram’s advice from before. I turned back to face Red once more, to portray recognition of his words.
I then get a brief glimpse of him before the doorway vanishes. The sight couldn’t have lasted more than a fraction of a second but what I thought I saw filled me with apprehension.
Red was standing there, the same as before, but standing behind him was a man. A man of familiar height and build. Even his clothes…
He looked a lot like Adam.
I took note of his face in those brief moments. It depicted an intense anger exuding from behind an insincere and impossibly large grin.
It was enough to trigger a series of uncomfortable thoughts I had had during my time in the resting room. Like how bizarre his final advice was.
And this one other troubling detail that I couldn’t help but notice.
When Red thanked Abby for the water, he did so by name. He had just woken up. He had been in The Maze for a week. He has never been involved with beta test recruitment. How did he know her name?
Whatever peace of mind I thought I had collected in the resting room was now replaced with confusion and paranoia.
Fight or flight was back in full gear.
Just in time for the new escape room.
“Where are we?”
Abby’s words bring me back into the moment. I look around for the first time since we walked through the doorway. We were outside on a grassy hilltop. It was night time but there was a full moon and stars that comfortably illuminated our surroundings. At the bottom of the hill in the western, southern, and eastern valleys lied grasslands that extended for miles. Mountaintops could be barely seen at the very edge of the horizon.
We were now beyond the realms of my comprehension. Despite everything The Maze has done to us thus far, I couldn’t help but take a moment to be impressed with how unfathomably powerful it was.
Only a moment, however.
In the northernmost valley down in front of us was a large cemented edifice. It split itself into paralleled walls creating a narrow path within itself that twisted and turned at sharp angles.
It appeared to be a maze.
We made our way down the hillside towards what we thought was the entrance. Which it was, except there wasn’t just a single entrance.
There were three.
Each widened at the lateral segments and each revealing an impossibly darkened passageway.
I noticed the small square sign that stood about a foot from the ground, not far from the entrances. Upon which was another poem.
Look! It’s a maze! Aren’t I clever?
Walking your OWN path is the endeavor, however
if you choose your path in error
you could be trapped in here forever.
The implication was clear: each of us was to navigate the maze alone. It wanted to separate us.
Suddenly, a hologram of a tall, British man manifested in front of us.
“Greetings, participants,” it began. “Congrats on surviving the first room. As you may have deduced, in this room, you have to travel the maze separately. Plain and simple. If you’re lucky, you’ll run back into each other.”
“And if we’re unlucky?” inquired Mack. I wish she hadn’t asked that.
“You’ll run into something else.”
“Something else?” asked Abby.
“A demon resides within this maze,” the hologram responded while staring directly at me. “And if you’re not careful, it will consume you.”
This hologram was Red in appearance only. In truth, it was an extension of the game. The embodiment of the demon in The Maze.
I had decided to spare Mack and Abby the truth about the demon in The Maze. They already knew the dangers of this game. That at any moment their lives could be at risk. I didn’t see how adding an extradimensional being to the mix would help things.
We huddled and tried to come up with a plan. Mack suggested we travel the maze together. It seemed like the safest option on the surface. But given the signpost’s emphasis on “choosing the right path”, I figured doing so would be a mistake.
Abby agreed. Her recommendation came next. Puzzles were her wheelhouse. She told us that every maze could be beaten with one simple principle: trace your hand along the right wall and it will lead you to the exit. She said that it may take an incredibly long time to escape, but it was a strategy that would guarantee our exodus.
She spoke with a confidence I’ve yet to see in her since we started. It convinced us that her plan was the right plan. So we made our way to our designated maze entrances.
Abby was the first to enter. With her right hand placed lightly on the wall’s edges, she soon disappeared into the maze. I admired her enthusiasm despite everything she’s endured thus far.
“God speed, CK,” said Mack. I nodded as she too began her journey, disappearing into her respective maze, her hand on the right wall.
I stared at the path in front of me for a moment. Then back at my surroundings for the last time.
On doing so I noticed some scribbling on the back of the small square signpost. On closer look, I see my father’s handwriting. Words scribbled into the pack of the signpost.
It read, “Hint: The end is only the beginning.” It was followed by a poorly drawn half-eaten apple.
No idea what that could mean.
I take a long sip of this whiskey I had borrowed from Red. And then with my hand on the right wall, I stepped into the darkness.
* * * * * *
Left. Then right. Then left again.
I followed the right wall, just as Abby had instructed. But no matter where I turned, my path remained the same. Darkness was all there was.
This darkness was blacker than mere black. Even the moon and stars were lost to me. Up, down, left, right. It was the same shade of blackness all around me, in every direction I looked. It felt as if I was walking through pure nothingness.
Like God himself had turned off the switch.
I tried utilizing the flashlight on my phone, but it was no use. The light couldn’t seem to move past the bulb. As if it was being absorbed.
VOICEOVER*: You live your life bound by knowledge and experience you think is true.*
The voice startled me. The words had boomed through the walls but I couldn’t seem to pinpoint its location. I did note how familiar it sounded. Then a chill ran down my spine when I deduced this voice belonging to Adam.
Moments later, I found myself walking towards a magnificently bright light. It had been so long since luminosity had stimulated my pupillary muscles. Its presence electrified my dopaminergic pathways.
This is also when the drumming began. I couldn’t hear these drums, mind you. But I could feel them. Rumbling inside my chest. Beating to a very specific cadence.
BOOOM, bum-bum. bum-bum. bum. BOOOM, bum-bum. bum-bum. bum.
It was intense, but it was also oddly comfortable. Almost soothing. Like someone was massaging my chest wall from the inside. And it seemed to increase in its soothing intensity with each step.
I also noted how the closer I got to the light, the happier I had felt. I even found myself smiling at one point.
Then, out of nowhere, a right turn appeared. The right wall had decided I turn right, away from the light.
As I turned, I felt a sharp pulling sensation inside of my chest dragging me back to the previous direction. Like my body was upset that I was choosing to turn. However, Abby’s instruction echoed in my mind. “Keep on the right wall.”
After completing the turn, the drumming had stopped, and I was once again faced with the same dark nothingness from before. I slowed my pace and looked back over my shoulder. Like an addict, I wanted one more helping of the pleasant light and comfortable drumming before returning to the shadows.
When I turned around, however, that magnificently bright light had changed to a dim, crimson red beam. The drumming returned, but it was no longer soothing.
It felt… angry.
Its tempo had also increased and each banging of the “drum” created a sharp stabbing sensation in my chest.
It was enough to make me stumble a bit before turning back around. I hastened my pace, wanting to put as much space between that corridor and myself as I possibly could.
Adam’s voice again boomed through the walls.
ADAM (VOICEOVER): Knowledge, experience… you invest so much into vague concepts. They shape your reality.
What the hell is he on about? I chose to ignore him. So I continued my trek, deeper into the darkness I went.
But I didn’t stay there for long.
My path became more and more visible from a flickering yellow light, its source somewhere further down the path. I note the walls, previously cement, were now made of stone. A stone ceiling had also established itself overhead.
The source of the light finally reveals itself to be candlelight. Dozens of candles dispersed about in various crevices positioned along the stone wall. The corridor began to widen now, with an extra 15 feet from wall to wall.
I was dragging my hand along the right wall when I felt it. At first I thought it was tiny bugs running along the wall. It made me reflexively remove my hand. But on closer inspection, all I saw were indentations in the wall. Hieroglyphic symbols, engraved into the stone.
And they were moving.
A mix of lines and shapes shuffled and twisted along the wall before me. A few seconds went by and the letters’ momentum seemed to slow. English lettering soon replaced the previously foreign inscription.
Its message stuns me for a moment, but I bring myself back enough to take a picture of the text. I tried to post it here, but my phone wouldn’t let me. Here is it transcribed:
YOU LET RED KILL HIMSELF YOURE TO BLAME YOURE A MURDERER YOULETREDKILLHIMSELFITSWORTH THERISK YOULETREDKILLHIMSELFYOULETRED KILLHIMSELF. YOU LET RED KILL HIMSELF YOURE TO BLAME WESTARTEDTHEMAZETOGETHERYOULETREDKILLHIMSELFYOURETO BLAMEYOUREA MURDERER MAYBEYOUSHOULD KILL YOURSELF KILLYOSELFKILLYOSELFLETMEKILLYOUITSOKYOUCANSTOPNOWITS OKHAHAHAYOUFUKNCUNTHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA
As I finished taking the photo, I hear Adam’s voice for the last time.
ADAM (VOICEOVER): These can be manipulated, you know.. One’s reality could easily be another’s mirage.
He was much louder this time. His emphasis on the word ‘you’ practically shook the place, causing me to drop my phone. It bounces off the stone floor and slides off near the left wall. S**t.
I walked over to grab it. But as I did so, I noticed something shift in the shadows behind me.
I turn back towards the corridor, and I see a tall, dark humanoid figure. Its head was millimeters away from the 10 ft ceiling and the light around its edges appeared to bend and twist into its pitch dark frame.
Its arms and legs were jet black and bent in ways they shouldn’t have. It had long, dark claws in each hand, one of which appeared to be dripping with blood. Both hands were pressed hard against both walls simultaneously, suggesting a wingspan of 20 ft.
It had no eyes or any facial features for that matter. The only element to replace the space where his face should have been was a dark void.
What the actual f**k?! I shout in my head.
My chest began vibrating again. But not like before. This time it felt like both an earthquake and a volcano erupted inside my torso, pulsating at that same damned cadence.
The terror from seeing this figure in conjunction with the agony from the drumming was enough to cause me to stumble over some stone rubble. I fell to the ground, twisting my ankle in the process.
The light was getting dimmer. A hard look revealed the candlelight being sucked into the being’s clothing like a vacuum. One by one, the candlelight disappeared, slowly returning the corridor to its previously darkened state. As the last candle went out, I thought I saw the creature move for the first time.
And it appeared to be advancing my direction.
The cadence’s tempo hastened. At that moment, I somehow knew the drumming and the creature were related. Specifically, the intensity of the drums indicated how close the creature was to my position. I knew I had to get moving.
I forced myself to stand. This caused a sharp pain to shoot up my leg, reminding me of my injury. The pain only intensified as I steadied myself along the wall.
But I was mobile. And I limped as fast as I could in the direction opposite of that dark creature.
The further I traveled, the less intense the drumming became, confirming my theory from before. I soon found myself stumbling over something else.
It was a staircase. I looked up, raking through the nothingness until I saw a pale, dim light in the elevated distance. I begin my ascent upwards.
Once I reached the top of the staircase, I discovered the option of a left turn. It was another dark corridor, and it led away from the dim white light straight ahead of me. Following the right wall mandated that I go straight into the illuminated corridor ahead of me, which I was more than happy to do.
But I heard muffled screams coming from that left turn. Screams that sounded a lot like.. Abby. I took a deep breath. Calmly observe…
I knew damn well it was likely another trap by the maze. I knew the screams I heard were likely fabricated and death was probably waiting for me down that dark hallway. Detect the variables…
But I also knew that if I was wrong, and that was, in fact, Abby, the real Abby, then I could very well be her only hope.
The intensity of the drumming was steadily increasing. The creature was getting closer. I knew I had to make a decision soon.
Form a plan.
I decided it was worth the risk. I couldn’t leave her stranded. Abandoning her was not an option.
And right when I let go of the right wall, someone or some thing came sprinting out of the darkness of that left turn. It rammed me into the right wall, knocking the wind out of me.
“S**t,” it yelled. I became entangled with the anonymous sprinter and we began to (luckily) fall away from the stairs, landing only inches away from the opening of the illuminated corridor ahead of us.
The sprinter jumps up immediately after falling and disappeared into the light. I, having taken the brunt of the collision, still needed a second to gather myself.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have that second.
The drumming had become horrifyingly potent within my chest, which didn’t help my recovery time. I tried to force myself up, but I collapsed back onto the ground soon after the attempt.
BOOOM bum-bumbum-bumbum BOOOM bum-bumbum-bumbum.
I could feel the black humanoid figure getting closer and closer to my position, no more than a few yards away by my guess.
Well, this is it then, I remember thinking to myself. Soon the creature would have me and I’d be absorbed inside its blacker than black clothing, just like the candlelight seconds ago.
I’m sorry Abby. I’m sorry Ma-
“CK? Is that you?”
Those words had come from the sprinter. It had returned to my fallen position, back from the corridor from which it had previously escaped. The collision happened so quickly, I wasn’t able to get a good look at who or what it was that ran into me.
That is until now. As my eyes adjusted to the light around its silhouette, I noted a dark-skinned, muscular woman, extending her hand out, encouraging me to grasp it.
My mind had little time to process her presence. The drum cadence continued to pummel through my chest as if it was trying to escape from the inside. It was becoming unbearable.
“Grab hold of my hand. We need to get you into the light. That thing doesn’t seem to like it too much,” she said in slowly pronounced syllables.
I grasped her hand and she pulled me in those last few inches. It all lasted maybe a few seconds, but it felt like an eternity. I was safely within the dimly lit corridor, drumming cadence ceasing where the darkness met the light.
I flopped onto my back sensing the concrete surface underneath me. I go on to take some much needed deep breaths. My eyes were closed so I didn’t immediately notice my surroundings. When I did open my eyes, I was greeted by the moon and the stars.
The night sky had returned. I was also no longer in a narrow, dark corridor. I was outside in what appeared to be a large, rectangle-shaped concrete courtyard. About 30-40ft opposite of me was another concrete wall with several dark ingresses of its own. These ingresses undoubtedly leading to more dark corridors.
And in the center of the courtyard, rested a tall and leafless apple tree surrounded by lifeless shrubbery.
After a moment, I sit up to address my rescuer. I scanned the courtyard and found her sitting on the cement bench that encircled the fading apple tree. I gracelessly stood and limped towards her.
She stared at me as I approached and scooted over to give me space on the bench.
“Rough night?” she jested. I cringe at her joke.
I then noticed lacerations and bruises on both arms and legs. Her shirt and jeans had been torn from what looked like claw marks. She noticed me noticing.
“You should see the other guy,” she declared. I let out a soundless chuckle.
I sighed heavily as we sat there next to each other in silence. She had grabbed one of the fallen apples behind her and had begun nibbling. I was surprised the dying tree was still able to produce fruit. However, a quick look around indicated that Mack’s apple was the last edible that tree had produced.
She then extended her hand, offering me a bite of the last apple. I turn to her and she shares a look with me that reflected my own internal conflict. Her face feigned fearlessness, but her eyes showed a woman in turmoil. Confusion and fear radiated from behind her stare.
It was almost convincing.
“Where is… Mack,” I asked after a moment, starting to understand.
“Hmm,” she mumbled, questioningly.
“You’re not Mack. You’re a mirage, are you not?” At first, she was silent. For a moment, I even started to think I had made a mistake.
But then the fear on faux-Mack’s face vanished. And it was replaced with an impressed grin.
“Well done,” said the demon.
“Well done,” said the demon.
As it spoke, its scars began to melt away. All of Mack’s features and even her clothing shifted and transformed. Masculine features soon started to form. It appeared to take the form of-
These words had come from the direction of a different corridor. I turned to find the voice coming from another Mack, the real Mack. She was dragging something behind her out of the darkness. Whatever it was, it was leaving behind a trail of blood.
I reflexively jumped from the cement bench and staggered towards her. Once I got close, I realized she was dragging an unconscious Abby, who was covered in blood. I glance back at the apple tree from which I had come to find the shapeshifting demon had disappeared. Only a crisp red apple was left behind, placed carefully on the cement bench.
“What happened to her,” I asked while helping Mack lift Abby deeper into the courtyard. “I found her unconscious in the maze,” Mack replied. “There was this creature standing over her. I was able to bum rush it before it got to her.”
As we placed Abby gently on the cement bench, Mack abruptly collapses to her knees. It was then that I realized the blood Abby was drenched in hadn’t come from her, but from Mack.
I quickly assessed Mack’s injuries and noticed scars that were similar to that of her faux counterpart. But one of the claw marks on her leg had cut deep, causing her to bleed profusely.
“You’re losing a lot of blood,” I ripped off the bottom half of my shirt and twisted it around Mack’s thigh, forming a tourniquet. The bleeding began to lessen soon after.
Mack was noticeably exhausted, undoubtedly due to blood loss. I helped her get comfortable on the ground, leaning her against the bench where Abby laid supine. Once Mack was settled, I went back to finish my assessment of Abby.
She had a strong pulse and was breathing normally. I examined every part of her, but no clear reason for why she was unconscious could be identified. In fact, outside of Mack’s blood, she didn’t have a mark on her.
I put together a pillow of leaves that I slipped underneath Abby’s head in an attempt to make her more comfortable. While I was doing so, Mack asked a question.
“Was I hallucinating, or did I see Adam?”
I sighed, finished up with Abby, then slumped onto the ground next to Mack. “It wasn’t a hallucination. It was him.”
“How could it be him,” asked Mack, weakly. “If he never existed in the first place?”
It was a fair question. I hadn’t before realized how much I was keeping from Mack and Abby. I decided that that would no longer be the case. Things had gotten way too complicated and everyone needed to be on the same page.
So I updated her on everything Red and I discussed in the previous room. She took it in without much argument. Even the part about me passing on the opportunity to exit the game early. She said she understood my reasoning, and that she may have done the same in my position. I didn’t realize until then how much I needed to hear that.
We kept talking for a while. We talked about our experiences in the maze so far. About what we saw. Mack had a few theories about where the demon in The Maze came from and what it could ultimately want from us. I expressed my concerns about the apple it tried to offer me and pondered how it factored into things.
Then, somehow, our conversation drifted and we started talking about non-Maze related topics. We reminisced about our work together on other beta-tested projects. I talked about my relationship with my father. She told me about her life as a UFC fighter.
The night almost seemed out of place. Especially after everything we had experienced thus far. Regardless, it was a nice ending to an otherwise terrible day.
Adrenaline wears off and exhaustion hits us hard. Both of us were hesitant to close our eyes in this place, but both knew that we’d do well to get some type of rest.
Mack is the first to drift off. I stay awake for a couple of minutes, half expecting demon Adam to reappear. He doesn’t, though. And I drift off as well.
I go on to have about as good of sleep as you’d imagine one could have in this place.
I was waking up every 5 minutes in the beginning, paranoia consumed me as I’d wake to every odd sound. When I finally shifted into REM sleep, I dreamed of Abby.
Visions of Abby awakening were the first images to flood my subconscious. Next, scenes of her and Adam sitting on the cement bench projected onto my mental screen. The last image I remember seeing in my mind before waking is that of Adam giving her a crisp, red apple.
I wake from my nightmare, once again being greeted by the moon and stars. Only this time, seeing them filled me with angst. The night was somehow too silent. Too still.
As my eyes adjust, I immediately perceive a figure kneeling to the side of me. Its arms were raised high above its head, moonlight reflecting off a metallic object clenched tightly in its hands.
And then, in one quick motion, the figure forcefully brings the object down towards my jugular. I reflexively raise my hands just in time to catch the wrists of my attacker, just before the blade penetrates my skin.
During that brief moment of absent momentum, our eyes lock onto each other’s and my mind begins to process the situation.
It was Abby.
She was kneeling over me her eyes wild yet filled with sorrow. Tears fell from her face onto mine as she struggled to push the blade into my neck.
“I’m trying to save us, Mr. King,” She declared frantically. “Please, let me save us!”
Her words seemed to give her strength as she gradually overpowered our previous stalemate. All I could do was steer the blade into the nearest non-vital area, which happened to be my left shoulder. I screamed as I felt the blade tear through muscle and violently scrape against my bone.
She tersely pulls the knife from my shoulder and readies it for a second strike. But, as she does so, Mack appears behind her and grabs her arms, halting her movement completely.
“Calm down Abby!” Mack shouts. “What are you doing?”
“Everything we’ve done… everything we ARE… it’s all been for him!” As Abby struggled against Mack’s grip, she turned her attention back to me. “Puppets on strings! Pieces on a chessboard… can’t you see that?!”
“Abby, you’re confused,” I pleaded. “Let us help-,”
She then abruptly shakes loose from Mack’s grip.
What happened next seemed to go in slow motion. I saw Abby’s legs plant and her waist shift towards Mack, but by the time I found myself yelling ‘No’, it was already too late.
In one swift and unfair motion, Abby slams the knife hard into Mack’s upper abdomen. She lets out a loud painful scream.
“I’m sorry Mack,” shouted the demented Abby. “…but we’re only the pawns.”
Abby turned back towards me, her eyes somehow now exuding both remorse and blood lust. She then attempts to pull the knife out of Mack’s abdomen.
However, Mack manages to maintain a tight grip of its handle, holding it in place. I then get up and push her away from Mack using my only functioning arm.
After a brief stumble backwards, Abby breaks out into a full sprint towards the opposite end of the courtyard, disappearing into one of the dark ingresses.
I tried to chase after her but I stumbled from the sheer pain radiating from both my ankle and left shoulder. Mack, too, had fallen backwards onto the cemented bench, knocking over what appeared to be a half-eaten apple.
I look over to Mack and note that not only is she bleeding from her new stab wound, but her tourniquet from earlier had loosened during the scuffle. She was now bleeding profusely from two different sources.
I think a part of me knew that my attempts at stopping her bleeding this time would be futile. But I went on to try anyway. I stabilized the knife and started packing the wound with more pieces of our shirts. I then noticed the knife had lacerated her liver. I don’t have my MD, but even I knew that her chances of survival had plunged to 0%.
But I continued to pack the wound nonetheless. I wasn’t going to give up on her. I wasn’t going to abandon her. I refused to let this fucking maze have her.
It wasn’t until I heard those 6 familiar words did my movements finally come to a grinding halt.
“It’s ok,” she said weakly. “You can stop now, it’s ok.”
She then gave me a look that was heartbreakingly knowing. My eyes welled with tears as the realization of the inevitable became more and more apparent.
She became weaker by the second. I eased her into a supine position on the bench hoping that would make her the most comfortable. I then kneeled next to her and she held my hand. It was a much firmer grip than I had anticipated.
But soon, her grip gradually disappears and her eyes slowly glaze over. I placed her hands gently at her sides and silently thanked her for saving my life for the second time.
All strength seemed to leave me in that moment and I fall on my side onto the hard concrete. I felt blood flowing from my left shoulder, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about that in the moment. My mind had become numb to the world.
I force myself upright and begin leaning against the bench. I glance over at my dead friend once more. But it was too much. The horrors in this maze, the guilt… I couldn’t process this. Not alone.
So I closed my eyes. And I started to pray.
I’ve never been particularly religious. Agnostic at best. But never religious. I prayed, nonetheless. I had neither partiality nor preference. I simply prayed to any God that would listen. Asking for deliverance. Asking for help.
Unfortunately, the wrong one decided to reply.
“Rough night, Mr. King?” It quipped in Redford’s voice
I opened my eyes, and there he stood. He was in the form we knew to be Adam. As he stared I noticed he was donning that familiar, malevolent, self-satisfied grin.
It didn’t take me long to piece together that it was He who caused Abby’s descent into madness. My dreams from last night and the half-eaten apple to the side of me was all I needed to confirm that theory.
Fury and rage scorched through my spirit like a wildfire. I may not have yet processed all the grief I had accumulated since starting the game, but I did know towards whom I could direct all this loathing.
As I was getting ready to give the entity an incredibly large piece of my mind, he lifted a finger to his lips.
“Shhh,” he gestured. And as he did so, I felt a pressure arise in my throat. I then tried to speak but faltered. It took a moment, but I realized the demon had removed my voice.
“I figured I’d do the talking for the both of us,” it said as it walked closer to me.
“I bet you’re angry. I bet you blame me for everything that has happened to you since you got out of your Pop’s town car, am I right?”
I didn’t acknowledge his statement. I just continued to glare at him, trying to murder him with my eyes. He then kneeled down in front of me and momentarily examined my shoulder, his face only a few inches from my own.
“But I’m not the bad guy here. Let’s review your actions, shall we,” he started again. “Prior to you exiting the town car, were you given an out? For you and your cohort?” He didn’t pretend to wait for my answer.
“Yes, that’s right, you opted out of your ‘out’. Choosing to stay despite knowing the risks it posed to you and your comrades.”
“Second, you withheld valuable information from poor Abigail and Mackenzie, in order to manipulate them into continuing this dangerous game.” His lip then twisted as if to physically portray the sick irony of his next words.
“You manipulated their knowledge and experience within The Maze. Essentially, warping their reality.”
My eyes widened. His words cut deep.
“You and I are a lot more alike than you think, Mr. King.”
That agonizing guilt I had buried and forgotten under all my hatred had begun to reform with a vengeance. My chest tightened to the point that it felt as if it was squeezing my very soul. The demon was right. I was responsible for everything that happened since we started The Maze. For Mack’s death. For Abby’s descent into madness. For all of it.
And no amount of words would be able to articulate the amount of remorse I felt in that moment. That I continue to feel now.
However, this did not deter me from what I did next. I turned sharply towards Mack, snatched the knife from her abdomen, and plunged the blade deep into the soft tissue of demon Adam’s neck.
He didn’t even flinch. The blade penetrated what should have been his carotid artery, but there was no blood. No trace of injury at all. Just Adam sighing heavily.
“So as it stands, you have a few options,” he stated as he placed his hand over the knife’s handle.
“Unfortunately for you, this isn’t one of them,” he continued, ripping the blade from his neck and gently placing it in my lap.
“Option 1: You can continue on. You can try and finish the maze on your own. But my money’s on the creatures eventually catching up with you.”
“Even if you do somehow manage to finish the maze, you still got one more escape room to deal with. And trust me, you’re not going to survive that one.”
He stood up. “Option 2: Part of my power allows me to resurrect the dead.” He then looked towards the bench and I followed his eyes to where Mack laid. My eyes darted back to his. He held my stare for a long time before continuing with a smirk.
“I can revive her, but it’ll come at a price. This devil doesn’t work for free. I want you to finish what you set out to. I want you to upload The Maze to the internet.”
My eyes narrowed as I looked at him critically. He reflected the same look back at me. “Of course, I’d want that. Why else did you think I let you live this long?”
He then held out his hand and in the center of his palm lied my device I had created weeks leading up to the game. The same device I had given Redford to help him get back to his wife. And now the demon had it in its possession. My blood ran cold at the implication.
I guess my face also gave away my concern, because the demon responded with a loud cackle.
“Oh come on! If you thought William Redford was going to have a happy ending, then I have a bridge I want to sell you.”
I squeezed my eyes shut trying my best to push the emotions away, but a few tears escaped in the process.
“So what’s it going to be, Mr. King?”
I took a deep breath. Calmly-
“Calmly blah blah, detect the whatchamacallit, yada, yada,” Adam blurted, interrupting my thoughts. “Make your decision now, Mr. King. Before I change my mind. “
I stared silently at the entity. The entire universe seemed to still for that singular moment under that apple tree.
I then took the device from the demon’s hand.
“Brilliant,” it said in response to my apparent decision. Then, by him snapping his finger, my shoulder injury began healing itself. I could feel the meat and blood vessels in my arm revert back to their previous non-lacerated states. Feeling and function slowly returned to the extremity.
“There will be a computer in the resting room. You can do the deed there. ”
After giving my left hand a few test squeezes, I immediately stand up. I then notice my ankle had miraculously healed as well.
“You’ll have to finish the maze first, however,” started the demon, a smidge of excitement building in its tone. “But I’ll call off my creatures since we’re on the same team now.”
I tuck the knife beneath my belt loop and walk towards the same ingress Abby had disappeared into earlier. I stare at Mack’s body for the last time as I walk past her bench. I’m so sorry Mack. You didn’t deserve this.
“Also, I’d try to avoid Abigail if I were you. Hell hath no fury as they say.”
My phone then vibrated. I fetch my phone from my pocket to find another text message from my father.
Don’t, Conrad. It’ll be the end of you. End of everything…
I clicked the side power button and returned the phone to its pocket.
“Well, I’ll leave you to it then. Tell Dad I said hi.” I turned back towards Adam just in time to see him vanish.
I stop at the entrance of the corridor, staring deeply into the nothingness. Thinking about my decision. Thinking about what I had to do next.
I then started typing up this recent installment.
For all the intelligence and foresight the demon obviously possessed, he had been wrong about one thing. I didn’t just have two options anymore.
…form a plan.
“I choose option 3.”
I then sprint into the maze, disappearing into the darkness.
Demon Adam was true to his word at least. I navigated the maze much easier after our conversation. Eventually, I came to an opening. Could this be the end?
I exit the opening to find acres of grasslands and a grassy hill in the distance. In front of me is a sign, maybe a foot from the ground. I walk towards it but as I do, I notice something.
That grassy hill in the distance look familiar. And at the horizon, right where the sky met the “earth”, I could see mountaintops. I had been here before, I think, not yet processing where I was.
Even after everything, this game keeps finding new ways to surprise me.
I turn my attention back to the sign and I see that it’s actually facing away from me. I notice its back side housing a familiar scribbling. Though, it’s reading now taking on a whole new meaning.
“The end is only the beginning.”
“Congratulations, you have survived the second escape room,” said the hologram, reappearing in the same spot as before. “Please proceed through the designated doorway to enter your Resting Room.”
I see a door appear in the distance atop the very hill we descended at the start of this room. I turn back to the hologram to ask a final question. “Has Abby exited the maze yet?”
“She has not,” it replies.
I nod and begin my ascent up the grassy hill. I then open the door and cross the threshold, finding myself back in darkness.
I stay there only for a second. Soon, wall mounted lamps begin turning on, one by one. The resting room turns out to be a carbon copy of the previous. And, just as the demon said, a black laptop rested on a tabletop to my immediate left.
I take a seat at the table to my immediate right.
I remove the device from my pocket. Then the knife from my belt loop and place both on the tabletop.
I don’t think demon Adam knew what he had in his possession. Granted, in the beginning, neither did I. But I’ve learned a lot during my time here in The Maze. And I’m ready to apply that knowledge.
I’ve come to learn that this device isn’t just a hacking tool. As I said before, it was created using Genesis tech. The same metallic frequencies that created this place can be found inside of it too. In other words, this device carries some of the demon’s power.
Part of its mechanism is to broadcast a signal that interrupts The Maze’s internal settings. When the signal is at low power, it allows for temporary control of local settings. When it’s higher it should be able to command larger aspects of The Maze. How large? We were going to find that out.
I use the knife to lever the device’s back covering, revealing several small compartments. One of which contains a vibrating strand of metal, attached to a small dial. I remove it from the device and mold the metal around the second digit of my right hand. Now to increase the signal.
Using medical tape I found behind the bar, I tape the dial to the dorsal part of right my hand. I then take a deep breath and slowly turned the dial. This caused a strange sensation to shoot up my arm and stop at my shoulder. It feels both painful and exhilarating. Now to test it.
I want to ensure it would have the same functionality I had hypothesized. I held out my hand and say to the air, “Bring up a live visual feed of the previous room.”
The air listens. As soon as I speak the words, a flat, semi-translucent screen appears in front of me. It shows an overhead perspective of the cement edifice in its entirety. It worked!
I then try to resurrect Mack.
It was a tall order, I know. But when I saw her there in the courtyard, lying peacefully on the bench, I knew I had to try.
I was wielding only a fraction of demon Adam’s power. I knew it would be a slim chance of it working. My suspicions are confirmed after several attempts.
Welp, worth a shot.
Next order of business: “Locate Abigail Clay.”
The screen zooms in to an area of the maze where I see Abby sitting in a darkest corner holding her knees to her chest. She’s crying, but she seems to be physically ok.
She was notably far from the exit, though. I had to try and fix that. I crank up the signal on the device. I’d need a little extra juice for this next effort.
“Create a straight path from Abigail’s current location to the maze’s exit.”
There is a transient moment of inaction. I even begin thinking the effort had been in vain. But then the walls of the maze begin vibrating. The dark paths near Abby shift and reform itself.
Then suddenly the movement stops. A linear path had formed between Abby’s location and that of the grassy hill. Just as I commanded.
I feel a burning sensation in my hand. I look down to see the device overheating. I’m able to turn the power down just in time. That last command almost broke the device. I need to be sure to save some functionality for my final command.
My focus shifts back to Abby.
Sooner or later Adam was going to realize I had reneged on our deal. When that happens, all hell will break loose. And after what I just commanded the maze to do, I’m betting it’ll be more sooner than later.
Get up, Abby, I repeat in my mind.
She peeks over her knees and slowly pulls herself to her feet. Her pace starts off as small cautious steps. This transitions into a brisk walk, then a jog, and ultimately a full-on sprint towards the exit.
I had focused so much on Abby’s escape, that I hadn’t monitored any other area of the maze. If I had, I would have noticed demon Adam briskly walking the corridors, just a few turns from Abby’s position.
By the time he turns onto her path, however, she had already made it outside the maze. She pauses for a second to scan her surroundings. Then sprints to the top of the hill.
Finally realizing what was happening, demon Adam immediately vanishes from the maze and reappears at the top of the hill. But it is too little too late.
Abby has already crossed the threshold, the door closes just as the demon appears.
For a moment, he just stands there motionless on the hill, staring at the door. He then looks up at the sky, and begins to stare through the translucent screen, directly at me. His face contracts into a scowl that exuded a fiery rage, that chilled me to the bone.
He then raises his hand and snaps his fingers. The screen goes black.
I then hear movement within the resting room.
A feeling of relief shoots through my body when I remember from whom the sounds must be coming from.
“Abby..,” I say as I stand to go meet her. I’m the sorely reminded of her mental state. I had hoped it had only been temporary. Unfortunately, it was not.
The lights go out suddenly and the world around me disappears.
“Did you know?” asks Abby’s voice in the darkness, seemingly coming from the direction of the bar. “Did I know what, Abby,” I ask back, taking out my phone to use my flashlight app.
“That this is for you. This game… this WORLD. It’s a chessboard. And it’s all for you. Tell me you didn’t know!”
“I didn’t. I don’t.” She was speaking nonsense, but I keep the conversation going as it is helping me pinpoint her location. “Explain to me what it means, Abby. Please.”
“Puppets on string,” I hear her mumble. “That’s all Mack and I were to you. Puppets on fucking string. We wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for you.”
Her words hit me harder than I was expecting. But I think I find her. I’m sure she’s behind the bar. I turn off my flashlight as I slowly get in position.
“But you hurt Mack, Abby,” I reply in an attempt to keep her talking as a distraction. “You stabbed her. And though she’s -… It wasn’t your fault.”
“You’re right,” she replies.
I finally make it to behind the bar. I turn back on the flashlight.
“Remove the apple’s influence from Abby,” I demand from the device as I extend my right hand in front of me. I had positioned myself to where my body would effectively box her in behind the bar.
That is, had she been behind the bar. My flashlight shows nothing but empty space.
“It wasn’t my fault,” says Abby, continuing her statement from a few seconds ago. Her voice sounding close. Really close.
“It was yours.”
I turn my flashlight in the direction of the barstools. And there she was. Sitting at the same barstools she and I sat in during the first resting room. She leans over the bar towards me, her face only inches away from my own. Her eyes Are wide and desolate, and she appears even more fanatical than before.
I suddenly feel a sharp pain to my left temple that is accompanied by sounds of glass breaking. Abby had slammed some type of glass utensil to the left side of my face. I go tumbling to the floor behind the bar.
I come to seconds later. I feel the side of my face and feel blood oozing from a small gash on my cheek.
I then realize my stupidity. “Let there be light,” I curtly demand of the device. Should have definitely lead with this.
The lights instantly return. My eyes take a second to adjust as I pull myself up to my feet. Abby was no longer at the barstool. So I immediately scan the room.
I spot her. She had made her way to the table I had been sitting at prior to her arrival. I then see her staring at the items I had so carelessly left on the tabletop.
These items were my device and a serrated, roast beef knife.
She quickly grabs the knife from the tabletop and shifts her desolate stare back towards me. The memory of my left shoulder pain echoes down my left extremity. I find myself instinctively taking a step backwards.
However, instead of chasing me, she instead raises the blade above her head with both hands. Her eyes then drop to her abdomen. “No more strings,” she states, tearfully.
“Wait,” I shout. Dread filled my being as I realize what her plans for the knife would be.
“You don’t have to do this, Abby.” She looks up and our eyes lock. I slowly start walking towards her.
“I’ve figured it out,” I say. “Everything will be fine now.” I look down at my device, trying to think of some way it could help in this situation. Nothing comes to mind.
I look back up at Abby to notice her arms becoming less rigid. The blade lowering a few inches from its peak position. Was it working? Did I reach her?
“I built a device that can help us escape, Abby,” I say as I continue making my way to her. Only a few feet from her now. “We can finally leave The Maze.”
She smiles and gives me a look of comprehension. It felt as if the real Abby had finally returned.
“No one leaves The Maze, Mr. King,” she says vacantly. What I see next, I’ll never forget.
She then casually lowers the knife to her neck. And, in one deep, horizontal slice, cuts her own throat.
The knife drops to the floor. Her body tries to follow but I’m there to catch it before she hits the ground. I immediately begin applying pressure to the neck to stop her bleeding, but it’s a futile effort. She’s gone in seconds.
Then what little poise I have left disintegrates and I break down completely. I explode into a heaving mess of tears as an intense sadness overtakes me. “I’m sorry, Abby,” I exclaim through my heavy crying. “I’m so so sorry.”
I sit there sobbing for a while, until eventually the tears run dry. And then I’m just sitting there, cradling her limp, bloody body in silence for I don’t know how long. Doing nothing. Thinking nothing. Feeling nothing.
“I never meant for this to happen,” I say out loud to no one. I could feel my mind peering over the edge of insanity, contemplating a leap. It’s ironic, really. Considering Abby. Though a part of me also sees it as poetic justice.
We were so close. So. Fucking. Close.
My phone vibrates.
For a second, I consider ignoring it. I had enough of this bullshit Maze. I had enough of my father’s coded texts. I wanted nothing to do with whatever he had to say.
Nonetheless, I find myself reaching into my pocket and I soon have my phone in hand.
But it isn’t my father. It’s a text from an unknown sender. Though, after reading, the identity of the sender became obvious.
“I can save them. Both of them,” it says. A second text pops up. “Finish the upload.” Demon Adam has learned how to text.
I couldn’t trust him. He was a murderous demon, after all. That’s why I created an option 3. I couldn’t accept his offer to revive Mack. What he was asking for in exchange… I was convinced
…it wasn’t worth the risk.
I convinced myself to accept Mack as lost and put all of my focus into saving Abby. Convinced that this was the right decision for the world. The sane decision.
Unfortunately for the world, I had already leapt from that edge of insanity, and had begun my descent into madness.
I had been wrong before. I had been convinced my decision for us to stay in the maze was the right one. Yet here I was. Holding my second dead friend in as many hours. And now, something had broken inside of me. Something unfixable.
And I was ready to make a decision only a broken man could make.
I carefully carry Abby to one of the couches and gently lay her down, folding her arms over her stomach. I had seen her sleep in the courtyard like that. I guess a part of me believes she’d be more comfortable in that position.
I sigh and then walk back to the tables, this time taking a seat at the one to the left. I open the laptop and find that the command prompt is already running with a familiar pop up in the corner of the screen.
‘Upload Complete,’ and ‘Are you sure you want to send data? Type Yes or No:’
It had wanted this upload since the very beginning. Was that why it had respawned me? Was it even my idea to upload Genesis in the first place? Had that been my ultimate purpose all along?
I guess it didn’t matter anyway. I had already made my decision. This command prompt wanted an answer. And I was ready to give it.
Type Yes or No: “F**K. NO.”
Go f**k yourself, Adam.
I then get up from the table and smash the laptop to the ground.
I look at the device strapped to my hand. I thought about executing the plan. Using its power to poke a hole in The Maze, creating an exit. This was the end game after all. My “Option 3”. Our Exodus.
But I couldn’t bring myself to do it. It feels too much like abandoning them. If they couldn’t leave The Maze prematurely, then why should I?
I look towards the large, wooden door in the corner of the lounge. Yeah, no f**k that.
Then I an idea pops into my head.
I look down at the device and turn the dial to its max setting.
This Maze has taken almost everything from me. It seems only right that I at least try and take everything from it.
I close my eyes and envision the core components I knew had to exist behind the veil. The rare metals vibrating at the fringes of this reality.
I then visualize everything else. The maze. The resting rooms. The courtyard. The apple tree. The buffet table. The paintings. The canopy. The town car. The woodland path.
Then, using the device, I will into existence copious amounts of C4 explosives at each of these locations. Each set of C4 connects to a countdown clock.
The command destroys the device, severely burning my hand in the process. It doesn’t matter though. The rest of my body would soon follow.
In my final moments, my mind drifts to Redford. I think back to his decision to submit to the maze. But I see now that it wasn’t really a submission, was it? It was a man… denying his demons the pleasure of dictating his destiny. I smile. Even in death, he’s still taking me to task.
Mack, Abby, Red… I’ll be seeing you soon.
And Dad… I’m sor-
I open my eyes to find myself in the backyard of my old vacation home sitting at that same concrete bench and table with its chessboard engraved into the tabletop.
I then see someone staring at the lawn, facing away from me.
“Even here you avoid cutting the grass,” says that someone. Though I immediately recognize the voice.
He then turns around and gives me a warm look.
“Looks like you’ve had a rough night, son.”
“I know you have a lot of questions. I will answer what I can, but we have very little time.”
My father took a seat on the opposite bench. There was a moment of uncomfortable silence between us. He then leaned forward and stared at me closely.
“This isn’t one of the demon’s tricks, Conrad. It really is me.”
I still had my doubts. I had been duped by the demon on numerous occasions since starting this maze. But I also had what felt like an infinite amount of questions. The desire to find answers overwhelmed my desire to proceed cautiously.
“The C4…, did it work,” I asked, expectantly.
“You dealt a lot of damage, but no. You didn’t destroy it,” he replied. Dammit.
“Where am I? Am I dead?”
He gestured at our surroundings. “This is your pocket dimension. A temporary existence outside of space and time. I pushed you here right before the bombs went off.”
He broke eye contact and looked back out at the acre of uncut grass. “To answer your other question,” he started. He had difficulty finding his next words.
“I know,” I said, relieving him of his charge. His eyes darted back to mine. “It’s okay, I understand.”
“I don’t think you do, though,” he started. My face contracted in confusion. “What do you remember before waking up in the town car?”
An uncomfortable heat had begun spreading through my veins at that question.
“I remember creating my device,” I stated, lifting up my damaged right hand as exhibit A. “But I can’t remember much else from the days leading to the test.”
“And you know why that is?” he asked. A severe tightness had begun to form in my chest. Anxiety took hold from out of nowhere and threatened to tear me apart.
I forced myself to calm down. My mind slowed and I was able to think more clearly.
I had been in a fugue state when I awoke in the town car. Memories scrambled. Assuming the party the night before didn’t happen, what other causes could there have been for my altered state? I had seen my fugue state before in Mack and Abby after they’d…. wait.
“Did I die? Before the beta test? Before the town car?”
“Yes, son,” he replied. “You did.”
“What did… How-,” I started to say, but could not yet find the words.
“You killed yourself, son,” he stated bluntly.
Suddenly, it felt like a dam deep inside of me had broken. Pieces of images and memories abruptly flooded my mind.
“Before all this. Before the beta test,” my father continued. “You took a gun and you took your own life.” I just stared. I tried to not believe it. But a fragment of a memory itched at the back of my brain. A memory that had long since been overwritten.
Then I remembered how my first thought when I awoke in the town car was how terrible my head had been pounding.
I then knew his words were true. But why?
“Why would I do that?”
“Genesis wasn’t working in the beginning,” he said. “You were the one to correlate its functionality to a living sacrifice. You were so infatuated with the groundbreaking technology that you-,” he paused and looked away for a moment. He then cleared his throat.
“I was there when you did it, Conrad. I had tried to stop you, but you had already made up your mind. ‘It had the potential to save the world’ you had said. ‘That it -,”
“… was worth the risk,” I said, finishing his sentence.
“Correct. The technology had contaminated you somehow,” he explained. “I wasn’t going to let you die. Wasn’t going to let it take you. So I tried resurrecting you.” I then noticed the device taped to his left hand. It was similar to my own device, but it appeared much more efficient.
“I’m the one who re-created your consciousness and an exact replica of your physical body using Genesis technology,” he said, almost sounding impressed with himself.
However, his words had the opposite effect on me. They had paralyzed me. Rendering me speechless and my mind blank. The only thought that crept its way into my head at that moment was something Adam had said earlier.
You and I are more alike than you think.
I shook my head, physically trying to get rid of the Adam’s voice that had begun to echo. “So how did I end up in The Maze?”
“When I set out to create you, you’d only manifest inside The Maze,” he replied. “No matter what I tried, I could not bring you to the real world. You were missing something. So I tasked Redford, Mackenzie and Abigail to join me inside The Maze in order to find out what-,”
“Wait,” I interrupted, as I forced myself out of my previously stunned state. “Mack and Abby? How are they involved in any of this?”
He had taken his device off and placed it on the table. He then paused for a moment.
“I brought them in under the guise of it being a beta test for a new product. The real task was for them to help me learn more about The Maze. To find what you were missing. I needed their help to bring you back.”
“Red said people died in the first room with him. Was that -,” I couldn’t bring myself to say the words. My father nodded as his gaze shifted downward.
“They were killed the second they walked in the first escape room. You have to understand. We didn’t know what The Maze was capable of at that time. We didn’t know the demon existed and that it could-”
Abby’s words in the resting room resonated in my mind. Puppets on strings.
I stood up, furious. “You’re just as guilty as that damned demon.”
He remained silent at my accusation. But then he looked back at me, his eyes swollen with tears.
“I know. And I agree,” he admitted, wiping away tears as he spoke. “I tried to resurrect them too. That’s why they manifested in the maze with you. But I failed them. And it doesn’t take away what I did to them.”
His final words then became stern and filled with conviction. “But I had decided I was going to bring you back. No matter the cost. And if I had to go back and do it over…,” he couldn’t finish his statement. Nor could he look me in the eye.
The uncomfortable silence returned. He looked at his watch and frowned. He then slid his device across the table.
“I realized my error in the resurrection process,” he continued. “I was right in my initial assumptions. Something was missing. Something that couldn’t be constructed using atoms in the vicinity. This intangible missing item was -.”
“A soul?” I suggested. He nodded.
I continued to stand there, but my glare softened. He appeared weaker somehow. What was happening?
“I had figured it out. It was simple, really,” he said with a weak grin. “If a soul was needed, I just had to use one that was in the vicinity.” His implication was clear. And it sent a chill through my veins.
It was then that I noticed it. “Dad, you’re -,”
It started in his fingertips and had begun slowly working its way up. The edges of him were slowly degrading away. I stumbled backwards, shocked at what I was seeing.
“This was the only way I could save you,” he said as the degradation rate accelerated.
“You didn’t need to do that,” I said, my eyes fixed on his disappearing limbs. The degradation had already made its way to his torso.
“Of course I did,” he said. “I may be the better engineer, but you’ve always been the better person. I need you to live. Live and right my wrongs, son. I created this demon. You have to be the one to stop it.”
“How? What do I do?”
“Strategy, son. Be the smartest person in the room,” he said as his neck had begun crumbling away. “Assess, detect, and form a plan.”
The last of his face faded away. Then, as only a voice in the breeze, he added, “Of all of my projects, you, Conrad, were, by far, my greatest creation.”
And like that, he was gone.
I stood there for a moment. Bereft of all emotion. Strangely, I didn’t feel sad or angry or confused. I didn’t have an existential crisis. I just felt… alone.
And despite all the craziness I’ve endured in this Maze thus far, even after finding out I had died and had been recreated twice now, I’ve never felt as detached from reality as I did in that moment.
I, too, had made bad choices during my time in The Maze, all while convincing myself it was for the ‘greater good’. Could I really blame him for doing the same?
I stared at the cement tabletop where my father’s device rested.
I then looked at the door at the edge of the lawn. It had been hidden in the mist this entire time. I had noticed it earlier but hadn’t gotten a chance to bring it up. I thought of my father’s last request. I thought about how a demon was inches away from breaking into our reality.
And I decided something had to be done about that.
But there was something I had to do first.
* * * * * *
As I opened the door and crossed the threshold, I found myself in a shadowy, grey room. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all this heterogeneous grey hue that enmeshed together. It looked as if the world had been drawn in lead pencil, and then rapidly erased thereafter, leaving behind this residual gray smear.
In the center of this room were two wooden chairs and a square wooden tabletop. Demon Adam sat at one of the chairs, facing my direction. He was wearing a darker than black suit. His facial expression was noticeably furious.
He must not have liked the C4 I had left for him.
“Rough night?” I asked the demon.
For a split second, he flashed a gaze of pure hatred that caused my entire body to shudder. He snapped back to his previously semi-calm demeanor after taking a long, drawn out breath through his flared nostrils. He forced an insincere smile and extended his hand in front of him. “Please, take a seat.” I obliged.
“You really are something, Mr. King,” he started. “You were ready to sacrifice yourself just to hurt me and my Maze. I respect that, I really do.”
“I assume there’s a point coming?”
“What if I was to offer you the world? Turn you into a God? Granting you the power to literally bend the fabric of reality to your will. What would you say to that?”
“I’d say go f**k yourself,” I replied, plainly. “Can we start the escape room now?”
He eyed me up and down. “There’s something’s different about you now..” He smelled the air for a moment. “Ah, you’ve got a soul!” The demon bellowed as he licked his lips. “Interesting. “
He paused for a moment, giving me time to reconsider.
“Fine, have it your way,” he mumbled. “Have you heard the song The Devil Went Down to Georgia?” I nodded.
“Your task: beat me in a competition of your choosing. Beat me and you and your freshly minted soul will escape this game alive,” he stated with a sinister grin.
I sat there in silence for a moment before I asked my follow up question.
“And if I lose?” His grin got even more malevolent.
“You lose, you upload the game which will grant me my freedom. Then I will consume your newly acquired soul.” Just as I had expected, I thought.
The demon extended his hand. “Do we have a deal?”
“We do,” I said. I then shook the demon’s hand. His skin felt both cold and boiling to the touch.
“Brilliant,” it exclaimed as it released my hand. “So, what’s the competition?”
“Chess,” I said plainly.
“Interesting choice,” said the demon. He then waved his hand over the wooden table and a marble chessboard came into existence. A split second later, so did freshly polished marble chess pieces. They were already set in their designated positions.
I was to play black, it seemed. And the demon wasted no time making the first move.
White pawn to e4.
I studied the board, but soon reflected his move.
Black pawn to e5.
“Since this is your last day,” said the demon with a note of satisfaction in his voice. “You want to know anything? Anything at all? I can tell you.”
White queen to F3. He made his move with the confidence of an experienced chess player.
“Why are you doing this?” I asked sincerely. “How did you become this way?” The question noticeably caught the demon off guard as he was visibly disconcerted. I make my second move of the game.
Black knight to C6. The demon finally responded.
“Do you know where the term maze comes from?” I shook my head.
“It originated in ancient Greece,” he started, his eyes moved back to study the board. “A monster had come into existence. No crimes committed. It simply existed. King Minos, afraid of what its existence would mean, hired a craftsman to build a complex labyrinth around the monster. One so complex that it could never be solved. Trapping the monster within its walls forever.”
White Bishop to C4.
“That level of solitude does damage,” he said. He looked back up to me. His eyes seemed heavy. As if there were thousands of years of turmoil hidden behind his wicked exterior. It felt as if I was looking at the demon for the first time.
“Have you ever felt utterly alone, Mr. King?” It felt as if I was being genuinely asked this. My stomach ached with accidental empathy. All I could do was nod.
“Whatever happened to the monster in the maze?” I found myself asking, eyes still glued to the chessboard.
“The son of some far-away King eventually came to cast him down.”
Black knight to D4.
The demon had begun a loud and obnoxious cackle. I looked up to see him donning his same grin, but this time it had never been wider. The edges of his mouth etched deep lines into his face. It appeared stretched to the point where it should have been painful.
Then he stopped laughing and picked up his queen.
White queen to F7.
Checkmate. In only 4 moves.
“Well that was a good game,” stated the demon.
Then in one swift movement, the demon shoved his hand forcefully into my chest. It had happened so quickly that I barely had time to register the sharp, crushing pain it had caused.
“A deal’s a deal,” he said.
Then, as quickly as he had impaled me, he had tersely removed his hand from my torso. I subsequently collapsed to my knees and had begun coughing up blood. I looked up and found him dropping a ball of bright light into his mouth.
I immediately felt the life draining out of me. I had become dizzy and lightheaded. But before I could pass out, the demon had come to my side.
“Can’t fade away just yet,” said the demon, as he positioned me back onto the wooden chair. My vision had started becoming blurry, but I did note the chessboard had suddenly been replaced with a laptop. “Time to honor your side of the deal.”
Once I was settled, the demon sat back in his chair and stared at me. I just stared back. He sighed.
“No one likes a sore loser.” He snapped his fingers and my body started to move on its own.
I found myself opening the laptop to that same command prompt screen is already running with the all too familiar pop up in the corner.
‘Upload Complete,’ and ‘Are you sure you want to send data? Type Yes or No:’ My fingers almost felt excited to move.
Y. E. S. Enter.
The demon then released me and I collapsed once more onto the grey smear that was the floor.
“I’ve waited so long for this day,” exclaimed the demon. He stood up at the side of his chair and took a long nostalgic look at our surroundings.
A moment passed. And then another. And then several more.
While I continued to get weaker and weaker on my side of the table, I was able to denote a discernible shift in the air on the opposite side of the table. I glanced over at the demon. He looked confused.
He paced around the grey existence. Banged on the walls in frustration. “I don’t understand,” he repeated frantically. “How do I get out?”
And then he stopped and turned back towards me, panic depicted on his face. I was incredibly debilitated, but I tried my best to smile.
“I thought I’d try to do one last thing right, before I go,” I muttered. The demon wasn’t amused.
“What’s happening,” bellowed the demon in my direction.
“Law #2,” I weakly replied. “There is no leaving The Maze.”
I then feebly raised my left hand and, with all the strength I could muster, I snapped my finger.
And then there was nothing but darkness.
* * * * * *
But it was the vinegary smell of oak and rain that first penetrated the darkness. Followed by sounds of thunder, my phone’s vibrations, and the coarse voice of my Uber driver.
“We’re almost there,” said the young, African American gentleman.
I yawned and sat upright. My gaze shifted to outside the passenger window. We were on the outskirts of the city, and though it was raining, I could still make out the New Orleans skyline. It had been a long day and an even longer night. And I was happy to finally be getting back home.
Which brings us to the here and now. I know you’re wanting me to tell you what happened. And I will, but I have to forewarn you. This story doesn’t have a happy ending.
There is some good news though, I guess. I survived. So there’s that.
How did I manage that? Simple.
I assessed my situation: The demon had all-encompassing knowledge. I knew that whatever task was waiting for me in that escape room, the rules would be set up so that my failure would be a guarantee. That room was going to end one way and one way only: with the demon consuming my soul.
Detect the variables: He controlled everything in that room. I had to find something that he didn’t control. Or something he didn’t yet have control over. Yep, you guessed it. That thing was my soul.
Form a plan: The plan was easy at this point. I just had to contaminate my soul. I encoded a command inside of it using my father’s device that would render the demon powerless. It was commanded to return itself back to me thereafter. Dragging the demon along with it.
See? Clever right? I wasn’t sure if it was going to work at first. I definitely didn’t think it was going to work this well. Yet here I am, staring at the New Orleans skyline. I had prepared myself to be stuck inside The Maze indefinitely, taking the demon’s spot as its prisoner.
Then again, that’s exactly what ended up happening, isn’t it?
The unhappy ending: As you may recall, I was forced to upload The Maze to the internet. It was unavoidable. And it couldn’t be undone afterwards. As a result, we are all now part of The Maze. And for that I am truly sorry.
The rooms will be subtle. The doorways will be understated. But the game will remain the same. There is no demon roaming around this time though. At least not that I’m aware of.
If you are somehow able to escape, you’ll know you’ve made it out once you stop seeing the emblem. You’re aware of the emblem I’m referring to right? The one that objects within the virtual space were marked with? To prevent users from confusing the game with real life?
“We’re here,” says my Uber driver. I tapped the edge of my phone onto his receiver.
Apple pay accepted. A half-eaten apple then lights up both of our phone screens.
It’s a gesture you’ll grow to appreciate, I promise.
But if I’m being honest, I wouldn’t spend much energy trying to escape. Because in the end, the demon was right about one thing.
There is no leaving The Maze.
Credit: Justin Kyle Cutrer, MD
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