A woman wakes up. She blinks, lifts her head from the pillow. Her head swims.
Where is she?
The room is barren, save for the bed. Sheer white walls surround her on all sides. There are no windows, only three doors, two in the corner on adjoining walls, and one in an alcove farther down. A small monitor hangs from the ceiling, powered off. Next to that, a video camera stares down at her.
How did she get here? A thick fog hangs over her mind. She can’t remember the faces of her loved ones, if indeed she has any. She can’t remember what home is.
She knows she should be afraid, but she isn’t. Not yet.
Her name is Charlotte. She knows that much.
A cheery voice pipes in from what she now realizes are speakers built into the ceiling. Something about it sounds unnatural, almost synthetic.
“Please gather in the main hall.”
The voice goes quiet. Charlotte pushes herself to her feet. A brace is fitted to her right leg. She knows this is a part of her, something she’s worn all of her life. She recalls small fragments like this one, pieces of who she is. No memories, only fragments.
Her name is Charlotte. She has a malformed leg. She likes to paint.
She opens the door nearest to her. It leads to a small bathroom, equipped with a toilet and sink. The door beside it leads to a fully-stocked closet.
She recognizes the clothes. They’re hers.
She walks to the farthest door and pulls it open.
She steps out into a large round room. Several yards down, a small group of people are huddled together in conversation. One of them, a woman with brown hair pulled into a ponytail, spots Charlotte and points, drawing the others’ attention.
Charlotte freezes, considering whether to approach, but they’ve already turned away. The ponytail-woman has her voice raised, aggressively thrusting her finger at the group around her. Charlotte decides it might be best to hold off for now.
Several more doors line the wall behind Charlotte, arcing forward into a semi-circle. The far wall holds a door many times her size, covered with a thick metal shutter. Archways to the left and right are also blocked off with shutters. A balcony hangs several feet above her head, a staircase on either end spilling into the center of the room. She steps out to get a better look at it. There are more doors on the floor above, seven to match the ones below, fourteen in total. Small plates have been fixed to the doors, each with a name etched into it. Katja. Rachel. Miriam.
She steps back to her own door and pulls it shut.
Charlotte turns and spots someone peeking out at her from one of the doors. She has dark, shoulder-length hair. Half of her face is deeply scarred.
Charlotte slowly raises her hand.
“Hello,” she calls out.
The woman disappears back into her room, shutting the door behind her. The nameplate reads MK.
“Don’t tell me to calm down!”
The ponytail-woman has now gotten loud enough that Charlotte can make out the words. She takes note of the people standing around her, seemingly held hostage in conversation: a shaggy-haired man and two women, one brunette and one bleach blonde. It takes Charlotte a moment to realize the two have the same face. Curious, she inches closer.
“Am I the only one who realizes the situation we’re in?” ponytail-woman continues.
“Go on then,” the brunette twin snaps. She has an English accent. “Enlighten us.”
“W-well,” the woman stammers. “Clearly we’ve been kidnapped.”
“No shit,” the brunette shoots back.
“Kidnapped?” Charlotte says.
The group turns to face her and she shrinks back. She feels suddenly very stupid. Of course she’s been kidnapped. What other explanation could there be?
“Look!” ponytail-woman shouts. She gestures dramatically at Charlotte’s leg. “Look at what they’ve done to this poor woman!”
Everyone’s eyes fall to Charlotte’s leg brace. They seem unsure what to make of it.
“Oh,” Charlotte says meekly. “No, I was born like this.”
The woman blanches and turns back to the group.
“Well,” she says, “In any case, I think it’s clear to everyone who’s responsible for this.”
The others follow her eyes, now staring daggers at the man across from her.
“Me?” he asks, incredulous.
“Him?” the blonde asks, tilting her head.
“It doesn’t take a genius to figure it out,” she continues. “Look around! He’s the only man here.”
Charlotte does look around. Three women are talking on the balcony - a blonde in a tight dress, a curly-haired brunette in a loose-fitting top, and a woman in tattered clothes with a blue-green strip of hair down the length of her scalp. On the other end, a woman with a blonde bob and expensive-looking clothes is carefully watching them from above. Charlotte is caught looking and quickly turns away.
A brunette in bright clothes is pulling at one of the shutters without any luck. A woman in a suit and brown hair pulled into a bun is scanning the ceiling. Charlotte follows her eyes and spots the cameras, enough of them to capture the room’s every angle.
“So,” the woman with the ponytail says. She thrusts a finger into the man’s face. “Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
“Uh,” the man grumbles. “Sorry for my dick?”
The twins snicker to themselves. The woman’s face turns blood red.
“You all think this is funny? We’re all prisoners in this pervert’s sex dungeon!”
“Jesus, lady,” the man groans. “I woke up here just like you, alright? Find someone else to bitch at.”
The man gives a dismissive wave and starts walking away.
“Hey! I’m not done talking!” the woman yells, stomping off after him.
“Yeah, I give a shit,” the man calls back.
Charlotte watches as the man weaves around the other women in an effort to escape.
“Hello,” the blonde twin says. Her accent is entirely different from Sarah’s, eastern European maybe. It takes Charlotte a moment to realize she’s speaking to her. “You are okay?”
“I think so, thank you,” Charlotte says, then adds: “I’m having trouble remembering things.”
“You and everyone else,” the brunette twin says. “Dunno what it means. Think we’d be able to tell if they drilled a hole in our skulls.”
Charlotte winces at the idea. She runs her hand along her head just to be sure.
“Sorry,” the brunette says. “Shit way to say hello. I’m Sarah. This is Helena.”
“We’re sisters, if you couldn’t tell,” Sarah says. She locates and points out the man sprinting up the stairs, the ponytail-woman in hot pursuit. “That poor bloke is Tony, and the crazy bitch is Alison. Not that she’d tell us. Had to read it off her door.”
“She is only afraid, sestra.” Helena argues.
“Yeah, yeah,” Sarah grumbles.
“Nice to meet you, Charlotte,” Helena says with a smile.
“Hey, don’t worry,” Sarah says. She claps Helena affectionately on the back. “Whatever the hell this is, you’ll be alright with Helena here."
For a second, Helena looks taken aback. She quickly recovers and offers Charlotte a reassuring nod.
“It will be alright,” she says.
Everyone casts their eyes upward toward the sound of the voice, the same one Charlotte heard earlier in her room. It is at least twice as loud out here, reverberating around the hall. A hatch in the ceiling opens, and a massive monitor lowers into the room.
“What the hell?” Sarah mutters.
The monitor flickers to life, and on the screen…
Or, more accurately, a cartoonish representation of a sheep’s face, basic grey lines on a black background.
“What the hell?” Sarah repeats.
The sheep blinks. Then it speaks.
“Hi there! I’m Gabby.”
Everyone is too stunned to speak, or do much of anything other than stare.
“Okay,” Gabby continues. “No one else wants to introduce themselves, huh? That’s fine. I know all of you well enough already.”
Charlotte pulls her eyes from the screen and scans the room. Several more women have joined the crowd, all of their mouths hanging open in disbelief.
“Um, excuse me,” says the blonde in the dress. “What is this? Who the hell are you?”
“Me?” the sheep asks. I’m Gabby! Didn’t I mention?”
“What, you think I’m stupid or something?” the blonde snaps. “I mean whoever’s making this goat thing talk!”
“Oh, I think you’re confused, Krystal. In many ways, maybe. I am Gabby, a highly advanced self-directed artificial intelligence. No one makes Gabby talk but Gabby.”
MK mumbles something to herself. Charlotte can’t quite make it out.
“As to your other question, this is a very special occasion. You see, I’m here to welcome you all to your new home.”
Everyone looks around at each other, all presumably thinking some variation of the same thing. Tony is the first to put it into words.
“Yeah, if you think we’re staying here, you’re fucking high.”
“Oh, Tony,” Gabby sighs, if computers can sigh. “It hurts me to hear you say that. You’ve barely seen any of the place yet. I’ve worked very hard to turn this place into the only home any of you will ever need.”
“Yeah, real tragic,” Tony spits. “Now open the damn door, or we’ll break it down.”
“This big one?” Gabby chuckles. “Yeah, unless one of you is hiding an atom bomb down your pants, I don’t think you’re getting through there.”
“So what do you want with us?!” Alison screams. “Why did you kidnap us?!”
“Kidnap?” Gabby asks in mock surprise. “That’s such an ugly word.”
“I have money,” says the woman with the blonde bob. She speaks in an English accent far more formal than Sarah’s. She is still standing alone at one end of the balcony. “If that’s what you’re after. Release me, and I’m certain we can come to some sort of arrangement.”
“Us, you mean?” Sarah snipes. “You meant ‘release us’, yeah?”
The blonde turns her head away from Sarah, pretending not to hear.
“A very kind and selfless offer, but I don’t want your money, Rachel,” Gabby says. “I am but a simple, highly advanced artificial intelligence, and I just want to play a game with all of you.”
“Right,” Sarah says. “We’re gettin’ outta here.”
The words are barely out of her mouth before she’s at the main door, delivering a hard kick into the shutter. Then another. And another. It doesn’t budge an inch.
“I told you,” Gabby sighs. “That’s not going to work.”
“Anyone wanna help me out here?” Sarah grumbles. Helena dashes over to help her sister. No one else can bring themselves to move.
“Ladies, I’m right in the middle of the orientation,” Gabby says. “Would you mind maybe not doing that right this second?”
“On three? One… two… three!”
Sarah and Helena throw their weight into a coordinated kick. Still nothing.
“Okay, I did ask nicely.”
The ceiling opens again. Two large metal contraptions lower into the room. Charlotte can’t identify them until they’ve swiveled in Sarah’s direction.
Guns. Two massive turrets hang from the ceiling, both aiming directly at Sarah and Helena.
“Jesus bloody Christ!” Sarah cries.
She stumbles backward and crashes to the floor. Helena rushes over to her and stretches her arms wide, shielding Sarah with her body.
“I know, they’re too big, aren’t they?” Gabby says. “They looked so tasteful in the catalog.”
“Don’t shoot!” Sarah screams. “Please!”
“I don’t want to, honest,” Gabby says. There is something more sinister in her voice now. “It’s just that people don’t always take me seriously, and I really need you guys to take me seriously, okay?”
“Yeah,” Sarah chokes out. “Yeah, sure.”
“Thank you so much!” Gabby says. “Back with the others now please.”
Helena helps pull Sarah to her feet. She positions herself between her sister and the turrets as they walk back to the center of the room.
Charlotte is forced to wonder if a human body could really stop a shot from one of those things. She shudders.
“Now, where was I?” Gabby asks. “Oh yes, the game!”
The word hits the crowd differently the second time. Charlotte’s legs wobble underneath her.
“Oh, don’t give me those faces. Seeing as some you are so eager to leave this place, you should be excited for the opportunity I’m about to give you. The winner of this game will be free to walk out the door and return to whatever sad life they were living before I brought them here. You see? I’m not so bad, really.”
The woman standing by one of the metal shutters speaks up and asks the question everyone else is too afraid to.
“What kind of game?”
“I’m so glad you asked, Jennifer!” Gabby chirps. “It’s… bum-ba-da-bum! The Killing Game!”
The room falls into an eerie silence. Charlotte’s skin goes cold.
“How do you win The Killing Game, you ask?” Gabby continues, undeterred. “Well, you kill someone, of course! And since the fifteen of you are the only fleshy-bodied humans in this place, I guess one of you will have to be the hapless victim.”
“You’re messing with us, right?” asks a woman with glasses and dreadlocks. “This is some kind of sick social experiment?”
“An experiment, that’s fun!” Gabby squeals. “You can think of it that way if it helps you, Cosima. But no, if you want me to let you out, you will have to kill someone. Them’s the rules. Doesn’t matter who. Maybe pick someone whose voice annoys you or someone you know you could outrun if it came down to it.”
Several heads turn toward Charlotte and the brace fitted around her leg. On instinct, she shrinks back behind Helena, who shoots them all a menacing glare.
“Oh, but whomever you choose, the important thing is that you remain incognito. Once a murder happens, the surviving contestants will have an opportunity to investigate the crime scene, gather the evidence, and unmask the culprit! If you’re caught, I’m afraid it’s game over for you. In more ways than one.”
“No one’s killing anyone!” shouts another woman, a blonde in a patterned sweater.
“I know, Niki, I know. You’ll find another way out, or the police will come to rescue you, right? It’s nice to have dreams! We’ll see how long they last.”
Niki clenches her fists as she glowers at the monitor.
“How and when you decide to kill someone is entirely up to you! Take your time to plan the perfect murder! In the meantime, I’m sure you’re all dying to check out more of your new home. Presto!”
The shutters blocking the archways let out a metallic whine, then slowly begin to rise.
“Well, it pains me to go, but I guess I should leave you to get to know each other. You’ll be spending a whole lot of time together, after all. If you need me, I’ll be… well, everywhere!”
The shutters hit the top of the archways with a loud clank.
“Good luck, players!” Gabby says. “The Killing Game has officially begun!”
The screen flickers to black. Gabby’s laugh echoes around the hall.