Chapter 1: Zero
David wakes up.
The first thing he sees is the set of keys in his hand. But before he can comprehend what they are for, his attention diverts to the figure beside him.
It’s Farah. His girlfriend of three years. She is sprawled on the floor with her eyes closed, and with her body angled in an awkward position.
“Farah,” he shakes her lightly. “Farah, wake up.”
Farah finally stirs. Her eyes slowly flutter open until they rest on David’s face. Farah’s eyes widen for a second before she abruptly sits up and pulls him into a hug. “David, you’re okay, you’re okay,” she whispers as she pulls him tighter.
“I’m okay,” David responds just as softly as she slowly guides Farah to stand up.
“David, where are we?” Farah asks as she removes herself from his embrace so she can look into his eyes. “The last thing I remember is the fifth blackout, and then us free-falling.”
David remembers it too. The lights going out for the fifth time and the two of them falling a few seconds after.
“David, what’s that?”
“Oh.” David holds the keys up for her to see. “I woke up with them in my hands.” He begins to trail his eyes around the dimly lit room. “There’s probably a door some—”
His voice trails off. Then a gasp is heard. It takes them both a few seconds to realize that the gasp comes from Farah.
There are bodies around them. Or rather… several, familiar body parts.
Farah covers her mouth to prevent herself from throwing up as she and David survey the pieces of flesh scattered around.
She trembles as she recognizes Ruth in a corner. Beautiful Ruth. Her body is crushed as if ran over by wheels of a truck. Her bones and organs are a muddle on the floor. Her face is unharmed though, as if whoever did that to her fell in love with her beauty and wants to preserve it even in death.
Then there’s Julie. David and Farah recognizes her only because of her clothed body, which is unharmed. Her face is the one crashed, pulverized into pieces. As if this time, the murdered hated her face.
The tense silence is cut off by a flickering static sound. David and Farah find the source of the noise, their eyes landing on a flat screen near the door.
The screen sparks open, revealing a figure of a man. He is seated on his chair, his face covered by a black hood mask, revealing only his eyes. He is wearing a long black robe that covers even the fingers of his feet.
David and Farah instantly recognize him.
The Game Master. The famous mysterious online player whose games sold millions worldwide. He had invited a chosen few to his house to act as his betas. To play a new game he just invented before it comes out to the market.
A game he calls Blackout.
“Blackout only has one rule—find your way out,” the Game had Master explained through a screen when the invitees were all gathered in a room. “The house is a maze. Find the keys that will lead you outside. The first pair out will win the game. A big prize and prestigious honor await the winners.”
It had seemed easy. Until he had added the catch.
“The house is locked everywhere. The only way out will be the keys. But there is a catch.”
They had all stared at his masked face with fear and anticipation.
“Every thirty minutes, there will be a total blackout. And a pair will be eliminated until a pair gets out.”
Most of them had laughed. Some had remained silent. Some had looked fearful—they had interpreted it in the worst way possible.
They should all have interpreted it in the worst way possible. Especially when the mock screams had turned real.
“What have you done to the others?” Farah asks, her eyes burning with anger.
“All of them are dead.” The Game Master’s tone is light and calm, as if killing is an everyday occurrence that bores him.
“I don’t believe you,” Farah says through gritted teeth. There had been twelve of them.
“Have you not seen what’s around you? I don’t lie. Why will I lie to you?”
“You psychotic, sick bastard,” David says in defiance, instinctively pulling Farah towards him.
The man doesn’t do or say anything for a moment, before he stands up from his throne and leaves the screen. It’s only a matter of seconds when the Game Master comes back.
“Here are the proofs.”
David’s eyes widen upon seeing what he’s holding in each of his hands. “Those are—“
Severed heads and dismembered body parts. The blood is still dripping from the nerves, the scraps of flesh dangling like shell curtains being blown by the wind.
“I believe that’s Patrick, such a foul-mouthed kid,” he says, his middle finger pointing to a detached head that has its eyes open and its mouth stuffed with cloth.
“This one’s Yna,” he says, pointing to a cut-off hand with a glistening, silver wedding ring. David and Farah both remember how she had gushed over her husband and their children.
“That one is Nina,” he says, pointing to a fist-sized organ beside the hand. “That girl has such a big heart that I plucked the heart off her chest before I set fire on her corpse. I couldn’t burn it with the rest of her. It’s too… precious, don’t you think?”
Farah whimpers. David pulls her face away from the scene, allowing her to bury her face on his chest.
“And this one is Karla,” the Game Master finally says as he lifts a pair of intestines—large and small intestines.
They hear the Game Master sigh before the man lifts the hood mask that covers his face, revealing a sight that neither Farah nor David will ever forget.
The man’s face is disfigured. One of his eyes is on the verge of popping out, while the other stares ahead. His mouth is open wide in a permanent scream. And his face looks like a rotting piece of flesh.
“Turn around.” And the two of them unconsciously obey. They witness as a more lights get turned on, revealing the rest of the room.
“Do you see what’s on the other side?” They can. “One of those will lead you out of this nightmare. Reward awaits you.”
There are six identical doors at the other side of the large room. The keys on David’s hands start to make sense.
“One of you stays here while the other opens the right door using the right key. When the door is open, the one who stays here is allowed to go. If one of you disobeys the rule, I will kill one of you. You know I can.”
They have no choice. The Game Master loves to play games. And they all agreed to play.
“I’ll stay here. You go.”
“Go,” Farah says softly. “We have no choice. I will wait while you open the door. It will be faster if you do it.”
David’s eyes are conflicted, his fists clenching, but he nods without saying anything.
“You have thirty seconds after the steel bars are raised.” As if signaling the end of his words, the screen blacks out. The Game Master’s face is replaced by a digital clock set to thirty.
The bars start to lift.
Farah is the first to recover her presence of mind and pushes David. “Go! Go!”
David hurriedly runs towards the room, squeezing himself under the slowly lifting steel bars.
Farah’s eyes go to the clock. It starts the countdown.
They will be free. Just a few more seconds, Farah thinks as she watches the time closely.
The ticking of the digital clock resonates inside the room.
24… 23… 22…
Farah hears the keys drop on the floor. She pays it no heed.
21… 20… 19…
“Farah?” David’s voice is shaking.
Her eyes remain on the clock, willing for it to go slower.
15… 14… 13….
“Farah—” David calls again. He sounds more desperate. Farah’s eyes remain on the blinking red numbers, seemingly mesmerized.
12… 11…. 10…
Farah finally turns her head.
9… 8… 7…
“We can’t use the keys,” David says. His eyes look panicked yet… resigned. As if there’s finally peace amidst the clouds of turmoil.
6… 5… 4…
“Why?” Farah asks as she runs towards him, unmindful of the rule set. “None of the keys worked?”
David doesn’t answer and instead crosses the distance between them, enveloping Farah in his arms. “I love you,” he whispers. “Always remember that. I will love you beyond forever.”
“I love you,” Farah sinks into his arms and responds softly.
Her eyes find their way to the doors.
3… 2…. 1…
Her eyes widen, finally understanding what David means. Now that she’s closer to the doors, she can see it.
There are no keyholes. Because there are no doors.
Those are mirrors.
“But how?” Farah asks quietly.
David pulls her closer. “Look up.”
And she does. The ceiling is full of mirrors. They are angled in a way that allows the mirrors to reflect only the door and not them. The meager light that shines on them allow the effect to obscure the treachery within.
“Fuck,” Farah whispers.