The first thing Kirsty notices when she wakes up is that the house is on fire.
The heat is enough to make her skin turn red. At least, that’s what it feels like. Any closer to the flames and she’s sure blisters will start to form, or she’ll start to melt.
She coughs, painfully. The smoke engulfs her and feels like it’s pressing down on her lungs, gripping them with invisible fists and trying to squeeze the air, the space, the life out of them.
Her heart rate soars.
Oh, no you’re not, Missy. Get focused. Pick yourself up and get going.
She was lying on a bed but now she springs up and notices there’s a clear path through the flames to the nearest window. She heads for it. In a nightmarish scenario like this, she’s absolutely sure that the window will be locked shut, but it isn’t. It opens with ease. Cold night air from the outside blows in, whispers to her, tells her everything will be alright if she just jumps.
She looks down. She’s one floor up from the top. Not a huge fall. And there’s an inviting looking bush right below that promises to catch her as though she’s a toddler and the bush is a loving parent with extended arms. Arms which would never fail to bring Kirsty to safety.
She brings a foot up to the windowsill. She braces herself.
‘Heeeellp!! Help! Is anyone else in here!?’
The voice is coming from inside the house.
‘Rob!?’ Kirsty yells as loud as she can manage. She coughs again with the effort. ‘Is that you!?’
‘Kirsty!’ Rob’s voice calls back. ‘Oh, thank god! I’m in a bedroom. I can’t get the door open!’
As he says this, Kirsty can hear him rattling with a doorknob. ‘Can you break the door?’
Now she can hear Rob slamming his shoulder hard against the door. Even though she can’t see it, she can feel Rob’s body thud against a door that’s as rigid and unmoving as a bus with its brakes on.
‘I can’t!’ Rob’s voice comes, and the panic is clear. ‘I can’t move it, Kirsty! I can’t move it! What do I do!?’
‘Hold on!’ Kirsty calls. She hops down from the windowsill, leaving the loving embrace of safety’s promise behind. She can see that there’s a path to the door of her room, but she’ll have to move quickly. The flames are spreading. Climbing up the walls like strange beasts stalking their prey. Becoming wilder, angrier, watching Kirsty with both a hungry interest and a furious desire to kill.
When she reaches the door she’s surprised again – it opens without a struggle. She finds a large hallway lit up in orange and red. A piece of the ceiling just three or four meters from her crashes to the floor beneath, bringing up flames and dusty smoke. She can imagine a fiery demon up above; the one who had sent that piece of ceiling crashing in an attempt to crush her.
There he is above you, grinning like a gremlin. He missed you this time but how many close calls can you have before you’re finally caught? Look! Look at the smoke and ash coming for you now! They are minions of the fire demon, hungry children who want to choke you and carry you away to a place you call death and they call victory. Just give up now!
‘Kirsty!?’ Rob’s voice calls her back to reality. And now she can hear exactly where he is. The very next door along.
‘I’m coming!’ Kirsty calls.
Again, there’s a clear path to Rob’s door. As if there were another being, this time an angel. Or maybe it’s another demon and the two of them are playing a sick game of chess with Rob and Kirsty. Except the goal isn’t to capture the queen, the goal is to obliterate Rob, Kirsty, and this whole house.
She reaches the door and sees that it’s locked from her side. A simple deadbolt lock that just needs to be turned by hand. She twists it and the door flings open. Rob steps out, nearly knocking into Kirsty. His face and hair are filled with black soot, highlighting the whites of his large, terrified eyes.
‘Holy shit!’ Rob pants, out of breath. ‘Thanks, Kirsty. I thought I was a goner. Where the hell are we?’
‘We can work that out later,’ Kirsty says. ‘Come on, there’s a way out over here.’
At the end of round one, the scores are as follows:
Kirsty is in the lead with an almost perfect score. She kept relatively calm under immense pressure and she found a way out of the house with ease. She’s also compassionate. She heard a teammate in distress and chose to turn back into the danger to rescue him. However, she may be reckless when faced with an emotional challenge.
Stuart is in second place. He was trapped in his room on the other side of the burning house and found an ingenious way of escaping. However, when presented with an opportunity to save his teammate, he chose to save himself instead.
Rob is third. Score currently not very good. He panicked so much that he never even noticed the door to the en-suite bathroom which would have given him entry to the balcony where he could have hopped down to safety. He put his teammate into a dangerous situation in order to save him.
And finally, out of the contest is Abigail. Abigail succumbed to the smoke and eventually, the flames enveloped her.
Abigail is dead.
Kirsty’s heart doesn’t stop racing when she finally slows to a walk, or even when she stops completely and turns around to look at the blazing house that she and Rob have just escaped. She can see now that the place was massive; a mansion the size of which would take her breath away if she had any left.
Looking around her, she can only make out her surroundings thanks to the illumination coming from the flames in front of her. They’re in the countryside somewhere. The mansion seems to be the only building around, and all that’s left are trees and a rolling hill behind the giant house.
‘Alright,’ Rob pants to Kirsty’s side. ‘What do we do now?’
You know, I never did hear you say thanks, Kirsty thinks. Save a guy’s life and what do you get?
‘I don’t know,’ Kirsty says. ‘But we should probably move.’
But in which direction? Kirsty can’t say, and she thinks Rob can’t either. There must be a clue somewhere, hidden in the darkness and waiting for its chance to reveal itself. If only she could see it. If only…
Her thoughts are abruptly cut off by a sound. A scream. It sounds like a man’s voice.
‘Hello?’ Kirsty calls to the darkness. ‘Hello? Who’s there?’
Her eyes strain to try to make out any shape through the thick darkness in the direction she heard the scream, but she can still see nothing.
‘What the hell is going on?’ Rob says, and as if in answer, the mystery man’s voice comes again. But this time it forms a word.
A moment after this, Kirsty sees him. It’s Stuart. He’s running towards them with wide, terrified eyes. He’s sprinting away from whatever terror he’s found in the darkness. And it doesn’t take long for Kirsty to see it. A huge man, at least seven feet tall. He’s wearing a trench coat and wielding what looks like a machete. His face is obscured by a grey mask with what looks to be a hand-drawn squiggly and contorted image of a face.
Rob takes Stuart’s advice first. He turns and flees into the darkness, and before Kirsty could make up her own mind, Stuart passes her too. In fact, he almost crashes into her and for a moment Kirsty is sure he’s about to throw her out of the way, maybe even hurl her to the ground so that this maniac might waste his time carving her up while Stuart makes a clean getaway.
But not today. Kirsty turns and follows the two men down a gentle slope and into a forest. As they get further away from the fiery house and run deeper into the trees, the darkness becomes more enveloping. Kirsty can barely see either Rob or Stuart now but she can hear their footsteps and follow them. She doesn’t dare to look behind her.
Rob’s voice. It sounds like he’s found something. And as Kirsty approaches and her eyes begin to focus, she can see a small wooden cabin. Rob is holding the door open and Stuart jumps inside.
‘Kirsty,’ Rob breathes. ‘Come on.’
Kirsty follows Stuart and Rob swings the door shut behind them. There’s even a lock on the inside, and when it’s in place, the three of them relax a little. Try to catch their breath.
‘Who is that guy?’ Kirsty asks.
‘I was gonna ask you two the same thing,’ Stuart says. ‘That psycho came after me right after I got out of that house.’
‘You were in there too?’ Rob asks.
‘Of course he was,’ Kirsty says, a little more harshly than she’d intended. She’s about to say more when she spots Stuart move off to the side and reach for something. She gasps when he picks it up.
‘This might come in handy,’ Stuart says.
‘What the hell is a rifle doing in here?’ Rob asks.
‘Who cares?’ Stuart says. ‘The moment that thing out there pokes his head in here, I’ll send him to hell.’
His words are put to the test almost immediately.
In the blink of an eye, the wall to the side of where Rob is standing caves, and a giant hand grabs him by the throat. Through the dust, Kirsty can see Rob try to struggle out of the masked man's grip but it’s futile.
‘Stuart!’ Kirsty yells. ‘Shoot! Shoot him!!’
Stuart takes aim but he hesitates. Kirsty can see why. Almost the entire mass of the masked man has burst through the wall now, but much of it is hidden behind Rob’s body as he writhes and wriggles. But there’s no time to think. No time to carefully adjust his aim before taking the shot. Stuart shoots once. Twice. Both men go to the floor.
Neither of them moves.
At the end of round two, we’re tied. Kirsty lost points for being indecisive while Stuart gained points for taking on a leadership role during a crisis.
He did however lose another point for killing his comrade, albeit accidental.
Rob is out of the contest.
Kirsty feels like crying, but she doesn’t. She feels like screaming, but she holds it deep down within herself. She feels like flying at Stuart and punching him for killing Rob. Instead, she turns from Stuart, turns from the body of Rob and the body of that horrible giant. Turns and opens a door on the other side of the cabin and nearly drops to the floor in shock.
In front of her now, it’s suddenly morning. A large sun rises over a golden desert. Great dunes rise up into the sky and a gentle wind blows grains of sand around them so that they look more like an ocean than solid land. And it might as well be an ocean because as far as Kirsty can see, there is no end to the golden sand.
‘Holy shit,’ Stuart says to Kirsty’s side. ‘We’ve got to go in there?’
Kirsty doesn’t need to answer; suddenly the wooden cabin, the rifle Stuart is holding and the bodies of Rob and the masked man fizz away into nothing. All that’s left is the desert.
The heat comes next, possibly a little delayed by a glitch, Kirsty thinks, and when it does it’s overbearing.
‘God,’ Stuart complains. ‘This is intense.’
‘Come on,’ Kirsty says, stepping forward and wanting nothing more than this nightmare to finally be over. ‘Let’s go.’
She doesn’t have a clue where she’s going. She heads for a dune in front of her and begins climbing. Every step takes up precious energy, and all she can do is hope that each step takes her closer to wherever they are supposed to be going now.
But Stuart doesn’t follow. She looks behind and sees him just standing there.
‘Stuart? Come on, you’re wasting time.’
He shakes his head. ‘I think you’re going the wrong way.’
‘Oh come on, Stuart. Don’t do this now. We should work together. Find a way out of here.’
‘I’ll do better by myself,’ Stuart says. He walks in the opposite direction to Kirsty.
‘Stuart!’ Kirsty yells after him, but his mind is made up. He stumbles across the sand and vanishes into the hot air.
Damn! Stubborn idiot. Now we’ve both got much less of a chance.
The supervisor groans as he watches Kirsty and Stuart part ways on his monitor. Kirsty was only partly right – now the pair of them have no chance. Scores would remain tied. Better get ready to radio the boss.
First he exists the observation chamber and checks the real-life bodies of the successful candidates. Their headsets are still firmly attached and there doesn’t appear to be any sign of movement. Abigail and Rob are bleeding from their noses again. Not healthy. He would suggest to the boss that they should stop now, but he already knows what the answer to that would be.
Ah well. Onwards.
He returns to his chamber and watches Kirsty and Stuart where, for the next two hours, they slowly succumb to the harsh conditions of the desert and die in a hot heap in the sands.
He calls it in.
Damn it, tied again. Why can’t we separate these two?
Shall we give them a break? How long can we keep these people unconscious? Is it healthy for them to be in deep virtual reality for this long?
Shut up, just run the test again.
But Sir, this is the fifth time.
We have to get this team working together. And we need to find a leader. The job is too important.
Whatever you say, boss.
The first thing Kirsty notices when she wakes up is that the airplane she's on is plummeting downwards.