“Cafeteria,” Jack said after the last of the group filed into the spacious room filled with metal round tables and chairs. He continued forward, past the self-serve bar and pushed open the door to the kitchen. “Choose cooks. Make for everyone. I like spaghetti.” With those words, he turned and exited the room.
Francisco ground his teeth. The whole tour had been like this. The bath and shower areas, the gym, and the computer lab. They had barely had a chance to see the inside of each room before they were already on their way to the next thing.
Jack led them back through the atrium on the ground floor. Though they had passed through it a number of times to get to other rooms, they had not yet stopped to give it a look. As they walked through it once again, Francisco couldn’t help but eye the massive structure in the very center of the room.
A single, square pillar rose from the ground all the way to the ceiling fifty feet up. The pillar was more than twenty feet across each side, and had elevator doors on each side except for one, where a sign clearly indicated stairs.
It wasn’t long until the structure was out of sight however, as they entered a hallway on the far side of the atrium. Jack opened a door at the end and ushered everyone through.
A light breeze hit his cheek as Francisco walked through. They were outside! A large courtyard stretched before them, complete with dying plants and stone benches around carefully laid stone pathways. He looked to the end of the courtyard, and sighed at the towering concrete walls that surrounded it on all sides. Above them was a large outcropping of rock that blotted out most of the sky, a large cliff towering over them and covering the courtyard as it curved.
“Outside,” Jack said. “Cameras here too. Don’t call for help. Nobody will hear you. Not near anything.” He turned on his heel and reentered the building. Francisco looked at the group, some clumping together while others keeping their distance from each other. The general tension in the air was palpable as each came to grips with the situation. One by one they filed back into the door, Francisco bringing up the rear.
Back into the atrium. This time, Jack stopped at the pillar structure. “Elevators powered off. Take the stairs.” He walked to a control panel on the side facing the entrance. It had many knobs and switches, and a slot for a key. “Safety control panel. Flood the stairs, turn on floodlights, toggle intense heat or cold in the staircase. Use if being chased.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a key on a pink spiral keychain. “Here.” He tossed it to Francisco, who caught it. “To turn on.”
He walked to the door with the staircase and turned the handle but it wouldn’t budge. “Need to turn on for open.” He reached into his pocket again, pulling out another key. “Here,” he repeated and tossed the new key to Francisco. “For those.” He pointed across the atrium to the metal doors of the entrance, which were welded shut. Next to the doors was another panel with two levers, one orange and one red.
Francisco sighed and nodded.
“Last.” Jack walked to the right of the pillar and pushed open the double doors on the wall. The group followed and entered while he waited at the door. It seemed to be a mix between a library and filing room, with lines of bookshelves and file cabinets. Some books and folders were already scattered on the tables. “Start here,” Jack said. With that, he exited and slammed the door.
There was silence for a moment, the only sound Jack’s footsteps growing fainter on the other side of the door.
Matthew went to the door and tried the handle. It opened, and he opened it a crack and peered out. “He’s gone,” he said.
Another long silence followed, as each person looked at each other, and at the ground, desperately trying to process the situation.
“This is a joke, right?” Martin, the chemist, spoke at last, his voice barely audible.
Nobody answered. Francisco leaned against the wall and leaned his head back against it to look at the ceiling.
“I mean, this can’t be actually happening,” Martin continued.
“I think,” started Jeremy, the runner, “this is real.”
“Nah, man,” Jonathan said. “Did you see this Barnabas guy? All creepy voice changer dark web shit. They’re trying too hard. This is some kind of web series or something. Some kind of team testing capabilities. We’re being recorded remember? This will probably go online or something for–“
“Web series?” Martin snapped. “What kind of web series kidnaps people? I certainly didn’t sign up for this.”
“Does anyone remember how they got here?” Riley asked.
One by one, each of them shook their head.
“But you all have to be from Dallas, right?” Matthew, the psychologist, asked.
“What makes you say that?” asked the nurse, Sofia.
“Well,” Matthew started, “Maybe we can find out where we are. If everyone is from the Dallas area then that must mean that we–“
“I’m not.” Cheng shook his head. “Last I remember I was teaching in City University of Hong Kong.”
“Hong Kong?” Matthew’s grunted in surprise.
“St. Petersburg,” Andrei said from his place sitting on a table. “I work from my apartment. Go to sleep. Wake up here.”
“This,” Martin hyperventilated, “this isn’t possible. Where are we? How did they get us here?”
“Why it matters?” Andrei spoke again. “We’re here, and only way to leave is to do job.”
“Just like that?” Martin said, eyes wide with terror. “We’re just going to do what this lunatic on a TV screen tells us to do? No discussion? No questions asked?”
“Would you rather starve?” Sofia shot back. “I don’t know about you all, but I have a husband and three kids at home. I have to get out of here.”
“Me too,” Cheng said. “Wife and daughter. They depend on me.”
“No,” Martin said. “This is crazy. This has to be a joke.”
“Hey!” Francisco said, “Calm down.” He pushed himself from the wall and looked at the black-haired man. “Martin, was it?”
“You need to get a hold of yourself.”
“Are you serious?” Martin all but screamed. “You’re the guy he appointed leader. I trust you least of all! How do we know you’re not in cahoots with Barbis? The guy on the inside!”
“Pull yourself together, man!” Francisco responded.
“Hold on now,” Matthew said. “Let’s all just take a moment to take a deep breath and calm down.” All eyes turned to him. “Matthew Walker. The psychologist,” he said. “It would be an understatement to say this is a terrifying situation. But if it is real, and if the only way out of here is really to do what this Barnabas guy says, then we need to think rationally and make decisions with level heads.”
“Ok,” Sofia said. “What do you propose we do?”
“I say,” Matthew started, pulling out a chair and sitting down at one of the tables, “we get to know each other first.”
Francisco nodded. “If we’re going to be doing this together, we may as well.” He walked to a table and pulled it toward the table where Matthew was sitting, the metal legs screeching on the linoleum flooring. “Everyone grab a chair. Let’s get started.”
It wasn’t long before the group sat around the two adjacent tables in a big circle, facing each other.
“All right,” Francisco said. “I’ll start.” He leaned back a little in his chair and sighed. “My name is Francisco Castillo, and I’m 25 years old. Hispanic, obviously. Parents immigrated to Phoenix, Arizona from Mexico, graduated from the University of Phoenix with a bachelor’s in biochemistry. Cofounded a start-up that’s trying to monetize raw scientific data. I won’t bore you with the details.”
“Any idea why you were chosen as leader?” Matthew asked.
Francisco shook his head. “I’m good with people. Pretty calm, easy-going guy. Was in the boy scouts? I guess I’m used to managing people, supplies, and numbers with the business. Not really sure, to be honest.”
“Mom, Dad, two sisters. One’s away in college in California, the other’s still in high school. They all live in Phoenix too. No girlfriend.”
Matthew nodded. “And how about you?” he asked, pointing to Andrei, who hadn’t moved from his position sitting on a table away from the others.
“Andrei Volkov,” he said. “Thirty-two. Hacker. I teach myself. I find customers online. Get paid in Bitcoin. That’s it.”
“Gotcha.” Matthew nodded. “I guess I’ll go next. My name is Matthew Walker. Masters in psychology. I have a private therapy practice. Divorced, no children. As I said before, I’m currently in Dallas.”
“Thanks Matthew.” Francisco looked toward the freckled red-head.
“Hi,” she cleared her throat. “Hi everyone. I’m Riley. Er, Collins. I’m nineteen. I’m studying abroad at Trinity College Dublin, but I’m originally from Kansas.”
“What are you studying?” Francisco asked.
“I haven’t really picked out a major yet,” Riley said. “I figured I’d still have time.” She sighed and looked around her. “I guess that wasn’t the case.”
“And you’re a Wiccan?”
“Kind of,” she hesitated. She shifted uncomfortably under the eyes of the group, but continued. “I mean I definitely started as one of those ‘spiritual but not religious’ girls if that tells you anything. But I was approached by someone last year on campus about Wicca, and the past few months I’ve been trying to get more serious with it. That said, Wicca is pretty diverse with a bunch of people believing different things, and I’m not sure what I adhere to would be main brand.”
“So what is it that you believe then?” Francisco asked.
“Yeah, so , I don’t know how much you know about Wicca so this might not make sense, but my coven isn’t part of the British Traditional Wiccans. We’re kind of our own thing. Same rituals and stuff, but nowhere near as strict on initiation levels and stuff. It’s less hierarchical. I know how to make a sacred circle, and use the ritual tools.”
“Is Wicca part of the occult?” Martin asked. “Like, will you be able to understand what they did here?”
“I mean, I guess it technically is,” Riley said. “But ‘occult’ can mean a lot of things. Wicca isn’t the same as Satanism, so if there’s any of that I don’t know that I’ll be much help.”
“Great,” Martin said. “Barnabas got us just one sect, and she’s only ‘got serious’ a couple months ago. Very helpful.”
“Enough, Martin.” Francisco shot him a glare.
“Yeah, sure. Boss man,” Martin said under his breath.
“Am I done?” Riley asked.
“Sure.” Francisco shrugged. “How about you. Felix, right?”
Felix nodded. “Yes. Felix Goldfeld. Just graduated from secondary school in Dortmund, Germany and was going to enter university in the fall. I,” he paused for a moment before sighing, “just got a girlfriend. Thought everything was going good.”
Francisco gave a sympathetic smile. “Sorry for this embarrassing question, but you’re a virgin?”
Felix flushed and he gave a small nod. “Yes.”
“Why the hell is that of importance to that creep?” Jonathan asked. “What is he? Some kind of pervert?”
“Why don’t you go next?” Francisco said.
“Sure.” Jonathan smirked. “Jonathan Williams. Call me Jon. Twenty-three. Resident UCLA gym rat. I’m trying to land a part in a show or something, not going well though. Studying communication in the meantime though. I got me a couple of girls back home. Nothing serious.”
“And you’re our muscle.” Francisco said.
Jon’s smirk grew larger. “Seems so.”
Francisco turned to the young woman in her twenties. “Sofia? Husband? Three kids?”
“Yep.” Sofia tightened her lips and studied those around her. “I’m a nurse in Belize. I studied in America for a while, but went back to be close to my family. I married young at nineteen. Times are tough for us. We don’t have much, but we’re trying to get by. I have no idea how Dominik is going to get along without me. He must be panicked and worried.”
“As are all of our families, I’m sure.” Francisco gave her a tight smile. “Ok. Almost done.” He turned to the young teenage girl and wagged his finger and clicked his tongue as he tried to remember her name.
“Michelle,” she said softly.
“That’s it. Michelle. Would you go next?”
She said nothing for a few while, looking as if she would burst into tears at any moment. Sofia once again comforted her with a hand on her shoulder, and she took a deep breath before beginning. “I don’t know. I’m not interesting. I’m a senior in Wayfield High. I was supposed to graduated this ye–” Michelle broke down in sobs, unable to finish her sentence.
“Maybe we should move on,” Sofia said.
Francisco nodded. “Cheng? Your turn.”
The Asian nodded. “My name is Cheng Su. I am a professor at City University of Hong Kong. I teach mechanical engineering. I am forty-six, and have wife and daughter. My English is not the best, so I hope I can be useful.”
“Sounds fine to me,” Francisco said.
“That’s it,” Cheng said. “Maybe I tell more later.”
“Sure. Jeremy? You’re a runner?”
The skinny white young man nodded. “Yeah. Uh, hi everybody. I’m Jeremy Hill. I’m a sprinter for the track team at University of Washington in Seattle. I’m studying business. Oh, yeah. I’m twenty years old. I have a girlfriend back in Seattle, but my parents are on the east coast.”
“Lots of Americans here,” Matthew noted. “Maybe we’re still somewhere in the United States?”
Francisco shrugged. “Martin? Are you ready to go now?”
Martin had slouched in his chair and crossed his arms after the many reprimands, but after being called on he sat up straight. “Oh all right. I’m Martin Jones. Wish we could have met under better circumstances, but here we are. I’m a senior research tech in NYC. Chemistry. Metalloids mostly. Recently single. Don’t talk to my folks much. And that’s all you’re getting out of me.”
“Perfect. Thanks.” Francisco fought to keep from rolling his eyes. “Well, that’s everyone, I guess. Thanks guys.” He nodded toward Michelle. “I know this is difficult, but, as Matthew said, we’re going to need our wits about us if we’re going to get out of this. Let’s try to help each other in whatever way we can. And, uh, I guess if you have any questions for Barnabas, please let me know. I don’t know what the supply room is like yet, but I’ll be sure to let you guys know things as soon as I know them.”
“So what’s our first move then?” Felix asked.
“Dude, really.” Jon stood from his chair. “You don’t have to ask him. He’s only the ‘leader’ in that he can talk to the creep. We don’t have to follow his every command.”
“I agree,” Sofia said. “I think we need to come to decisions together. There are eleven of us, so if we take a vote there shouldn’t ever be a tie.”
“There is no time to play government,” Andrei spat. “We have food for three days. We need to get started. Maybe it’s better if one person leads the way.”
Jonathan groaned. “And you think it should be this guy?”
“Nu, it sure should not be you.”
Francisco held up his hands. “Look. Guys. I’m not anybody’s boss. I don’t know what Barnabas had in mind when he said I’d be the leader, ok? As far as he told us, I just have the keys for the bombs and have to give a report every day. He didn’t mention anything about me being the one to come up with all of the plans or whatever, so if we wanted to do that together or democratically I’m open to that.”
Andrei sneered. “With votes, things will be done very slow. Already we waste time talking about decisions when we need to show progress for food.”
“Well maybe, that’s what’s important to keep us all sane here,” Sofia shot back with a glare. “Maybe it’s good if we take things a bit slowly. The guy on the TV said this was dangerous. We shouldn’t rush headlong into danger without a plan that we can all agree on.”
“Fine.” Andrei said. He rose from the table and went to the door. “I go to the computer room. Will see what access I have. Francisco.”
“When these idiots are done talking about votes. Come find me and tell me the plan.”
Francisco felt the glaring eyes of Sofia as he responded before Andrei left. “Sure thing.”
“Oh, sure thing. You got it.” Martin mimicked. “Are you seriously acting all relaxed and casual about all of this?”
“Dude, can you grow up?” Jeremy slammed the table with his hand. “Seriously, you’re like, what? Ten years older than me? Why am I being an adult about this and you’re not?”
“Be an adult?” Martin screamed. “What does it mean to ‘be an adult’ in a hostage situation where we’re going to die to demons? Does it mean facing your death with a smile?”
“Martin, please. Calm down.” Francisco stood abruptly from his seat. “Yes. We get it. This fucking sucks! None of us envisioned this as how our lives would be going, ok? But you’re not helping. If you’re not going to be useful, the least you can do is head back up to the rooms and let the rest of us put a plan together.”
Martin crossed his arms and glared at him before turning on his heel and walking out the door.
“What a pussy,” Jon said as the door shut behind him.
“Are you not scared at all, Jon?” Matthew asked.
Jon scowled at the table. “I don’t know man. Obviously I’d rather not be here. And since I’m the muscles of the group, I’m assuming I’m guy number one to head down those stairs. But…” his voice trailed off, and he looked up at the group. “Eh. Forget it. Bitching isn’t going to get us anywhere.”
“Agreed,” Jeremy said. “Let’s get started.”
Just as Francisco was about to speak, the door slammed open, and Jack stood in the doorway. “You.” He pointed at Francisco. “Come.”
Francisco hesitated a moment, but walked around the table. “Where are we going?”
“Ok. Just one sec.” He turned back around to the group still around the table. “If anyone still needs some time to process things, I suggest returning back to your room. Take what time you need. But remember, we have only three days worth of food. Everyone else, find the documentation of the previous team. Search these cabinets and books. See if there’s anything useful about the facility or anything else. And please be quick. We don’t have much time.”
Michelle wiped her nose with her sleeve and stood from her chair, walking around the table and waiting a few feet from the door for Jack to depart. The rest nodded and also stood, beginning to comb through the file room.
“Right.” Francisco turned back to Jack, who hadn’t moved. “Let’s go then.”