John still felt a little groggy and confused from when the mysterious woman had roofied his drink the night before. And now he found himself here.
“This is ridiculous!” he announced.
He was staring down a hallway, in what he presumed was an abandoned building, in some far-off location. Away from the safety and help of a civilized society. And from the hallway’s walls, circular saw-blades measuring two feet across jousted out into the path he was meant to take, or else the strange wrist-watch he wore would inject him with a deadly poison. He had two minutes before either eventuality happened.
The Mad Orchestrator, presumably the woman, had explained all of this when he’d woken up.
But at least he had company.
“Flip a coin to see who goes first?” the other man, who’d introduced himself as Daniel, asked.
A coin was flipped. It came up heads.
“I guess that means I go first,” Daniel declared. “Wish me luck!”
John watched as Daniel ran and scampered and danced between the continuously thrusting and retracting saw-blades. There were a few times when John assumed he was a goner, but the guy was light on his feet and he miraculously pulled it off.
“Okay, your turn!” Daniel shouted from the other end of the hall.
John took a deep breath and closed his eyes. He envisioned himself on the other side, alongside Daniel. That’s what the books he’d been reading lately had told him to do. Of course, none of them had had the foresight to inform him that he might one day find himself in this exact situation. But he figured if it worked to get himself a job promotion or a girlfriend, then it just might work here.
He ran and skipped and spun through the hallway as well. The sound of the whirring blades was deafening and the air tasted of hot machine oil, but he managed to reach the other side. His shirt came out a little tattered, but he himself was no worse for the wear.
“Remarkable, gentlemen,” an electronically distorted voice spoke from a speaker in the ceiling. “You both managed to make it through alive. Now onto your next challenge! If you’ll take the door to your left, please.”
“I can’t believe this,” John muttered to himself. “How did I end up here?”
He felt a hand on his shoulder. Daniel looked into his eyes with a reassuring look.
“Don’t worry, we’ll make it through this,” Daniel told him.
“How can you be sure?”
“Because I’m a positive thinker! I think our lives depend on it right now.”
“Funny, I’ve been trying to think more positively lately. How’s it been working out for you?”
“Well, other than being forced to run a death gauntlet by a crazed woman calling herself The Mad Orchestrator”—he shrugged—“results have been varied, to be honest. Some days are better than others.”
“Same here. This is definitely one of the bad days.”
“You can say that again!”
The went through the door on left, as The Mad Orchestrator had instructed them to do. On the other side, several rooms had been demolished in order to make space for an Olympic-size swimming pool. In the swimming pool were hundreds of box jellyfish bobbing up and down, ready to sting thousands of times anyone who had the misfortune of falling in. Resting against the lip of the pool was a twelve-foot rolling log.
The Mad Orchestrator spoke:
“You must cross the water without falling in! Or death will follow! Please be mindful of the time limit.”
John checked the death watch. Three minutes.
“You ever do log rolling before?” Daniel asked him.
“A little bit. When I was a kid, my parents used to take me to this lake house for summer vacation. There was a competition log they allowed the kids to drag out into the water and practice rolling on. After a few summers I got pretty good at it. Though it’s been years since the last time I was on a log.”
“Me too! Was it Lake Fellenwoe, the one you went to?”
“Do you think we might’ve been there at the same time? Battling each other on the log?”
The overhead speaker crackled at them.
“Ahem,” The Mad Orchestrator cleared her throat. “The task at hand, gentlemen?”
“Oh, right!” They said in unison.
“Alright, John,” Daniel said, “I’m vibing with you right now. Are you vibing with me?”
“I think so?”
“Good, because we’re going to need to work together if we’re going to make it to the other side. Ready? One…two…THREE!”
They hopped onto the log at the same time and immediately began to backpedal. The log rolled and raised little fins on the water. Soon, John and Daniel were out in the middle of the pool and there was no turning back.
“Good. Good. Yeah! You know, you’ve got a great log rolling technique!” Daniel shouted.
“Thanks,” John shouted back. “You too!”
“Hey, why are we shouting?”
“I don’t know! Maybe it’s the adrenaline from being one misstep away from a painful, watery death!”
“You know, I think you’re right!”
They managed to get to the other side of the pool and dismounted the log with a triumphant leap.
“Yeah! Up top!”
John gave Daniel a high-five.
“In the hole!”
But before they could pound fists with one another The Mad Orchestrator interrupted them yet again.
“Nice work, gentlemen. You both showed an impressive level of skill. But our little game isn’t over yet.”
“Hey, shut up for a second! We’re celebrating!” John yelled at her.
The Mad Orchestrator growled at him. “Just for that, you will be penalized during the next challenge!”
John winced. He wished he had held his tongue.
M.O. continued, “If you’ll just step through the door straight ahead.”
They entered a room with spikes hanging down from the ceiling and a plinth standing in the middle of the floor. Embedded in the plinth was a slider puzzle with painted tiles meant to display a certain image. The tiles, of course, were out of place and the picture they showed was a jumbled mess. The door slammed shut behind them.
“Gentlemen, you have two minutes to solve the puzzle before the ceiling lowers and impales you both. Oh, and John, don’t think I’ve already forgotten your penalization. After one minute has elapsed, a tranquilizer dart will be fired from the wall. It will contain a powerful, fast-acting drug, and should you be hit by it then not only will Daniel have to solve the rest of the puzzle by himself, but I shouldn’t think you’ll be able to continue through the other challenges. Thus you will have to forfeit the game. Don’t get hit, is my advice.”
John nodded grimly. He scanned the room for any indication where the dart might come from, but the surface of each wall appeared seamless without any tell-tale signs of where a dart-gun barrel might be hidden. He would just have to do his best with solving the puzzle before his time was up.
The speaker buzzed. “Okay. On your marks. Get set. GO!”
The two men rushed to the plinth.
“Are you any good at slider puzzles?” Daniel asked.
“No. I’m terrible actually.”
This wasn’t good news for either of them.
They began by shuffling around the tiles in an attempt to stumble upon a coherent image.
“This one needs to go over here,” John said.
“I know, but I need to keep this other tile where it’s at already. See? It doesn’t work if we just slide things around willy-nilly.”
“I wasn’t saying willy-nilly! There’s a strategy involved with these puzzles. I wish my daughter were here right now, she was always really good with these kinds of things.”
Daniel looked up at him.
“You have a daughter?”
“Yeah. Jane. She’s fifteen. I haven’t been able to see her lately, though. Her mom moved her across the country after the divorce.”
“That sucks! I’m sorry about that, man. If it makes you feel better, I only see my daughter on the weekends.”
“Yeah? What’s her name.”
“Natalie. She’s seven.”
“Seven’s a good age.”
“I know. Wish I could be there for more of it, though.”
Fifty-five seconds had already elapsed. John couldn’t help but look at the death watch as the digits counted down. Five, four, three, two…
He leapt to the side. And the dart that was meant for his neck ended up impaled in the wall behind him.
“Impressive,” M.O. congratulated him. “But you still need to solve the puzzle if you’re both to survive.”
They slid the tiles around. It was beginning to come together now. They could almost see what the picture was supposed to be.
“Don’t worry,” Daniel told him, “we’ll get out this. And then you’ll buy yourself a plane ticket and see that daughter of yours.”
“I appreciate that,” John thanked him.
The last tile slid into its proper location and a click sounded from the ceiling as it was now locked into place.
The Mad Orchestrator spoke through the speaker:
“Gentlemen, gentlemen, you amaze me. After all of that brutish fumbling you did at the beginning, I was expecting to see a couple of shish-kebabs right about now!” She assaulted them with a distorted chortle. “In fact, I’m so amazed that I think I’ll allow you to skip the rest of the day’s activities and go straight to the main event. How’s that?”
John glanced at Daniel and shrugged his shoulders. “Works for me.”
“Okay then! I’ll just need you to exit the room, go down the hall on your right, and straight through the door there.”
Outside the room with the spiked ceiling a hallway stretched away to either side. They did as the crazed woman had instructed and turned right. As they walked together, they talked.
“What about you?” John asked. “When you get out of here, do you think you’ll fight to see your daughter more?”
Daniel sighed. “I don’t know. Her mom’s a real witch and she’s a schemer. I’m afraid of trying to ask for more days, in case she manages to take them all from me.”
“Yeah. I only ever see my daughter in Facebook pictures anymore. I only get to talk to her through text messages. Apparently, kids today don’t know how to communicate using their vocal cords anymore.”
“Oof! Thankfully, Natalie isn’t quite at that point yet. Though her mom did buy her a phone this year. So it’s just a matter of time, right?”
John patted him on the shoulder. “It’s a hard road we walk as divorced fathers,” he said.
“You’ve got that right!” Daniel agreed.
They arrived at the end of the hall and stepped through the double-doored passage into a large, nearly barren room. The only occupant of the room was a wooden table and laid across its surface was an assortment of weapons—swords, halberds, maces, spears, etc. It was a bit medieval and out of place among the impressive, if somewhat crude, mechanical sights they’d experienced so far. At the other end of the room a sign lit up over the only door out. The sign, of course, read ‘EXIT’.
“Gentlemen, please choose your weapons. For your final challenge, you have only the single-minded task of ending the life of the other man before your own life is snuffed out. I wish you good luck!”
“Wait a minute,” John yelled. “No, that isn’t fair! You can expect us to just kill each other! Not after everything we’ve been through!”
“I can, and I do!” The Mad Orchestrator stated.
“Well, I’m not doing it!”
“Fine, then neither of you will leave this place. Or, you can do as I’ve asked and one of you will gain his freedom.”
John pondered this. He sighed and turned to Daniel.
“We have to do what she says,” he said.
“What? You can’t be serious!”
“Look, you’ve got a daughter out there who needs her dad.”
“So have you!”
John shook his head. “Just take the offer and walk out of here, okay? It can only be one of us. Just make it quick for me.”
“No! We’ve gotten through this together so far and I’m not giving up on us now! You and me, we’re friends now!”
They sat down on the floor and refused to do anything else.
“So this is how it’s going to be, huh?” M.O. asked.
“Yep,” they both confirmed.
She sighed. “Fine then.”
There was a rumbling. And then the floor tilted downward. They were spilled out onto a moving platform traveling above a pit of lava.
“What?” John shouted incredulously. “Lava? Really? How is she able to have all of this stuff?”
Daniel shrugged. “You got me.”
The Mad Orchestrator told them, “You’re now on a track taking you to the building’s incinerator, which where all trash ends up. Because you’re trash!”
“Why? Because we won’t fight each other to the death?”
“This is ridiculous!” John announced for at least the second time that day. Though he felt he’d been saying it every second since he’d woken up from his drug-induced sleep.
“There has to be a way out of this,” Daniel said. “Think positive, remember?”
They both closed their eyes and envisioned themselves escaping from this nightmare.
When they opened them, they both looked up and shouted, “There!”, at the same time.
“Here, I’ll boost you up,” Daniel said.
John put his foot into Daniel’s cupped hands and his palms on other man’s shoulders. He found himself soaring upward through the air until he could manage to grab onto the lip of the hole in the ceiling. He managed to pull himself up and over, and then quickly spun himself around and hung down a helping hand.
The platform was nearly past the hole by then, so Daniel had to sprint across its surface and take a running leap. It was a moment they would both remember for the rest of their lives. Their faces lit up by the lava below and the looks of absolute determination shining brighter than anything. Daniel flew through the air like he had wings on his feet and John reached out his arm by a mile at least. It was the kind of moment that only the world’s greatest bromances would contain. There was a loud clap as they each latched onto the other’s forearm and in a blink John was pulling Daniel up through the hole.
They laid there afterward catching their breath.
“I think my ears are ringing,” Daniel said.
“Yeah, that was a really loud clap,” John responded.
“My arm feels like it has the worst Indian burn.”
“Come on, let’s get out here.”
They were behind-the-scenes now and they passed giant hydraulics and cogwheels and electrical cables.
“You know,” Daniel said, “we should go find her. We should…I don’t know, do something to her. After all we’ve been through.”
“Yeah, we should. But if she’s smart, she’ll already be long gone anyway.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.”
They kept walking until they could see light coming through a window somewhere above.
“I was serious, you know, about taking a plane out to see your daughter? After everything you’ve been through, you deserve to get a good, long hug from her.”
“You too, man. I know you’re worried about your ex, but if we don’t fight for the things we deserve then we’ll never get them.”
They both pretended like they didn’t have tears streaming down their faces.
“Here, I’ll give you another boost. I’m pretty sure that window will take us out of here.”
Afterward, when they were back in the world where maniacal, conniving women weren’t trying kill them (only trying to limit contact with their children), they exchanged numbers and made plans to hang out the following weekend.
“Cool, I’ll see you then, John!”
“See you then!”
They began to go their separate ways.
“Wait a second, how do we get these death-watches off?”
“Oh wait, there’s a release button on the side.”
“Well, that’s convenient!”
After a moment:
“I really think we should go file a police report now, you know?”