Out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Shane sat down at the long steel cafeteria table with the others. This cafeteria was not very large as such, and it only had one table, but the table itself hosted all thirty participants with ease.

This was Aaron Cordon’s facility, so it was a mix of expense combined with practicality. The billionaire made sure they had what they needed, but without any extras. Shane likened the man’s character to a spoiled twelve-year-old with way too much money, but that was the personality of billionaires; they didn’t live in the real world…Not that it mattered much. Shane would never get to meet the man.

His stomach rumbled as he winced from the starving feeling trying to pull out his guts and play skip rope with them. Everyone here had been taking Cordon’s new drug for the last week, and Shane didn’t know about the rest of the participants, but he felt as if he’d just been run over by a truck. He was starving, tired, and just plain ill from whatever was in that new drug.

But that was why he was here. He was getting paid two grand for this glorified sleepover/Guinea-pig experiment, so as long as he didn’t die or start losing limbs, it was all worth it for the cash.

“Oh, I am ready to eat a horse,” he mumbled.

“I hear that,” said Quarron, a young, twenty-one-year-old black kid from Georgia. “I’m ready to eat two.”

The young man sat across from Shane, Quarron sitting down on one of the many round metal stools that curved up from underneath this steel table.

Quarron picked up the shiny, chrome-colored, juice-type pack in front of him and pulled off the plastic straw glued to the side of it. He punched a hole in the top of the container with the straw’s pointed bottom tip, and then he took a sip, a look of slight surprise on his young face as he tasted what he was drinking.

Shane didn’t particularly have a problem with Quarron, although the kid could really talk his ear off at times.

“Mmm,” smiled Quarron. “This is good. Can’t wait for some actual food, though.”

“No kidding,” grunted Shane.

Shane was a big man of thirty-six, six-foot-two in height, broad-shouldered, and lined with natural muscle from years of working construction and farm work. He was indeed a big man, and he knew that some people didn’t quite understand the fact that big men needed to eat. Except for the first two days they’d been here, all they’d had over the last week were small red cakes for food, dried disks that looked like dark-red urinal cakes, and that crap was sustaining, but it wasn’t satisfying. In fact, Shane wondered if this generally-ill feeling plaguing him was from simply not eating enough.

Shane picked up his juice-pack, tore off the straw, and punched a hole in the top of the chrome-colored container. He took a sip, and the liquid flowing into his mouth automatically perked him up, though not as much as he would have liked. This juice had an odd taste, something he could not quite define, but at this point, he didn’t care…It would do for now. He had been promised real food today—they all had—and that was why he was here right now with the other twenty-nine participants. Everyone wanted to eat.

“Where are the vittles?” asked Bart, an older man in his late sixties.

The old man sat down next to Quarron and longingly stared at the empty space where food should have been.

Bart had been around the block and then some, and he was kind of funny once you got to know him. He had that sense of humor that only old people tended to have, always dated but somewhat amusing.

“This is all we got so far,” said Quarron. “Just this weird juice and nothing else. I’m really hoping we get steak, though. I need something to really sink my teeth into.”

“I normally can’t have red meat,” replied Bart, “but after a week of those crap-cakes, I wouldn’t mind a big fat steak. I wouldn’t care if it was mooing at me.”

Shane snorted out a slight laugh. Leave it to Bart to make him feel better.

Donna walked up and sat next to Shane. She was a couple of years younger than him, and she was fairly attractive—long brown hair, hourglass figure, decent boobs—but he wasn’t interested in any women right now. He’d already had one disastrous marriage under his belt, and that divorce had finally gone through earlier this year. He wasn’t ready to hop back in that saddle.

He could tell, however, that she stuck close to him because he looked like an alpha male. He had a rugged face combined with short black hair, a short black beard that wrapped around to his hairline, and a black mustache that circled down to his beard. Combined with his size, he could easily model for one of those romance book covers…Women were attracted to that brawny look for some reason. She probably saw him as a natural leader, and he could take that role when necessary, though he did not like to.

“I am so ready to eat,” breathed Donna. “I can’t wait to get some real food…and my clothes back.”

She was dressed in a light-blue one-piece, the same blue outfit they all wore, cut to size, of course, that outfit just a loose-fitting garment of a long-sleeved shirt and pants coupled with black socks and black heel-cut outdoorsman boots. The only thing that differentiated their clothes was a number, a big number in black print over the left breast. Donna’s was #12.

“They wouldn’t even let me have a bra,” said Donna. “I don’t even have any underwear.”

“We’re all going commando,” snorted Quarron. “And we’re not even allowed to have sex…It was in the contract. Get caught doing the nasty, and you’re out. You don’t get paid…Seems like kind of a waste to me. There are some hotties here.”

Shane rolled his eyes. Sex was the last thing on his mind right now. No, right now he just wanted to eat, and he wanted to eat some real food, not the “crap-cakes” Bart had coined as such.

Two children walked up and filled the remaining two seats. There was Adrian, who was eight, a quiet little boy who never had much to say, and Zuri, who was six, a little chatterbox of a girl who never stopped talking, at least, not when Shane was around.

Zuri sat down by Donna, and Adrian sat down next to Bart. That was all thirty of them now at the table, all thirty of them ready and waiting to be fed some real food.

“They said we get to have real food today,” said Zuri. “I can’t wait. I want fish and spaghetti. That’s my favorite.”

“Fish and spaghetti?” asked Bart. “You’re supposed to eat spaghetti with meatballs and fish with tartar sauce.”

“I like fish with spaghetti,” replied Zuri. “My mom always makes fish on the side. I like catfish, though. It’s my favorite fish to eat.”

“Well, you got good taste there,” smiled Bart.

“Where’s the food?” asked Adrian.

“Food’s coming, I’m sure,” said Bart. “You just have your juice now, youngin’. That should tide you over.”

The two kids prepared their juice containers and took sips from them.

“This tastes funny,” said Adrian.

“I like it,” smiled Zuri. “I think it tastes good.”

“You think everything tastes good,” frowned Adrian.

Zuri stuck out her tongue at him, and Adrian stuck out his tongue in return. Quarron barked out a short laugh over the exchange, and this gave Shane a slight smile.

There were little moments here that made Shane feel like he was part of a family, and that feeling was rare considering the hard life he had led.

“Well, we only have to be here a couple more weeks,” he said after a moment of thought. “After that, we can all go out to eat or something. I wouldn’t mind having a goodbye party. You folks are really the only ones here that I’ve gotten to know anyway.”

“That’s a great idea!” said Donna happily. “I wouldn’t mind Mexican or Chinese…”

“Burger for me,” nodded Quarron. “I like Mexican and Chinese, but I really want some meat for some reason.”

“Yeah…” said Donna with a thoughtful look. “I really could go for a double cheeseburger right now…That’s weird, too. I’m mostly a vegetarian. I normally don’t like too much meat.”

“Works for me,” said Bart. “Hamburgers it is.”

“Done and done,” smiled Shane.

They all sipped away at their drinks after that, letting a couple of minutes pass as they finished their juice containers. The other twenty-four participants prattled on and chattered away as people do, but Shane’s little group remained quiet for the moment.

He had not been in this cafeteria before, and in fact, except for taking short trips to a medical lab, he had not been out of the dorm area where the study participants were housed. None of them had, so Shane took this quiet opportunity to study his surroundings.

This small cafeteria was basically a metal box of chrome flooring and black metal walls.

They had all entered through the west side where the dorms were located, but he was more interested in the two large sets of double doors on the east side. He did not know where they led, probably to more labs, but that was no surprise if they did.

In-between those two sets of double doors was a huge flatscreen, one that spanned the entire wall, something he just now noticed. It was basically the size of a cinema screen, so maybe they were going to get to watch a movie in here. That would definitely be nice.

There was a singular door in the southeast wall, but that was probably a service door that led to the kitchen, so he had no interest in that.

Above him was an expanse of twenty feet to the ceiling, that ceiling a flat, black-metal roof with fluorescent lights beaming down from above, those lights set in-between huge metal slats that were designed to open inward, though for what purpose they opened, he did not know.

In fact, this whole setup was weird. He’d never seen any building designed like this, not in this depressing, futuristic, dark-metal and shiny-chrome look. It was like a mix of Goth and science fiction. All he could figure was that Aaron Cordon’s taste in architecture was odd.

He thought about this for a few seconds, and then Bart looked as if he were about to say something, but the old man never got to speak what was on his mind. The enormous flat screen on the east wall lit up, and everyone’s attention was diverted toward that.

A man sitting at a chrome desk in a stark white office appeared on the screen, and Shane recognized him immediately…It was the billionaire himself, Aaron Cordon.

The billionaire tech mogul—and apparently a pharmaceutical genius now—was dressed in a plain black T-shirt, no suit and tie, nothing to pin him as the rich fancy pants everyone knew him to be. He had a punchably-smug grin on his face, and Shane found his distaste for the man rising even before their “generous” host had uttered a single spoken word.

“Greetings, my little Guinea pigs!” said Cordon in a cordial tone.

There was slight laughter amongst the crowd gathered here, but Shane didn’t care about that. He just wanted to know what was up. He wasn’t sure if this was a recording or a live feed, but he couldn’t imagine that a billionaire dink like Aaron Cordon would even give them the time of day…It had to be a recording.

“As you know, you’ve all been gathered together for a groundbreaking experiment,” continued Cordon. “You’ve all been injected with Serum #463, and if you’re wondering where the control group is…don’t. There is no control group.”

Shane’s little group of six was sitting on the east side, the very most end of the east side of the table, so they were closest to the screen and the two sets of double doors, which, in retrospect, was why Bart’s comment was overheard at all.

“Well, that’s not very scientific,” muttered Bart.

“Right you are, Mr. Stanford,” nodded Cordon.

There were gasps in the crowd as everyone realized the same thing…This was a live feed. “The” Aaron Cordon was actually live on the screen before them, and he even knew their names…Well, he knew Bart’s name anyway.

Cordon clapped his hands together and rested his elbows on his desk. He had a huge grin on his punchable face, and Shane could tell the man was amused at the reaction of the plebeians before him.

“This isn’t about science,” said Cordon. “No, this is about progress…You see, Serum #463 has the ability to greatly prolong the lifespan of the recipient. It stops the aging process. You can heal wounds in minutes that would take days to heal, and you can even heal serious injuries in days that would take months to heal.”

There were excited rumblings amongst the crowd, and Shane could understand their enthusiasm, but he wasn’t buying it. There was no fountain of youth formula as far as he was concerned. Besides, he’d felt like crap all week long, and if feeling like this was what it took to stay alive longer, then he wanted no part of it.

The billionaire on the screen parted his hands, rested them back upon his desk, and then screwed up his lips in visible thought.

“There are some unfortunate side effects,” he said after a second. “This is why I haven’t personally used the serum, but we’ve tested it four-hundred-and-sixty-two times, and #463 is definitely a winner. All results on our test animals have proven to be excellent with run #462, so naturally we moved on to human beings.”

“Wait…” spoke up a man at the other end of the table, someone Shane did not know. “Is this F.D.A. approved?”

Cordon laughed and then shone forth that huge, irritating grin of his.

“Oh, Mr. Lewandowski, we don’t have the time to go through the government,” he said quickly. “No, there’s no need to worry about that.”

The cafeteria erupted in both angry and fearful protests, but Shane kept his mouth shut. He was brimming with anger now, that rage building up, but there would be plenty of time for lawsuits and whatnot after he got out of this facility, and he was leaving today, payment or not.

The billionaire waved his hands in a downward motion for silence, and the crowd in the cafeteria reluctantly acquiesced.

“I specifically scouted and chose each and every one of you because of your unique status in society,” he nodded. “All of you are in financial trouble in one way or another, except for the two children up here in front, Adrian and Zuri, who come from poor, underprivileged families. All of the rest of you, in essence, are dirt-poor adults with no prospects, no futures, no retirement savings—welfare parasites—pretty much the losers of society, and that’s why you’re here.”

“What are you saying!” cried out another man that Shane did not know.

“I’m saying, Mr. Ackles, that the real test begins now,” smiled Cordon. “You were all expecting to eat a real meal today, and you will, but only if you make it to one of the Finish Rooms. You see, whoever makes it to a Finish Room will immediately be hired onto my staff with a starting salary of two-hundred-and-sixty-thousand a year.”

All complaints and anger died with that single statement. There were loud gasps and excited bursts of verbal joy, but Shane did not feel any of that enthusiasm. Something was not right here, something was off, and it was the fact that Cordon had stated, “whoever makes it to a Finish Room.” That sounded ominous, and Shane did not like ominous.

“Everyone, calm down!” said Cordon in a loud voice. “Everyone, calm down, please!”

The cafeteria crowd quieted, and the man on the giant screen gave a short smile.

“We’ll get you hired on,” he nodded. “However, I only allow intelligent people on my staff, intelligent and driven people, so you actually have to make it to a Finish Room in order to be hired on. You need those two traits, intelligence and drive, in order to work for me.”

He clapped his hands together again and grinned, that grin Shane could not stand. Cordon then lowered his head slightly and narrowed his dark eyes in a look that Shane did not like at all, one he liked even less than that smug grin. The expression made Cordon look like a snake about to strike, and Shane would not have been surprised if the man’s skin just peeled off to reveal scales underneath.

“Now, the rules are simple,” said Cordon in a predacious tone. “You just have to make it to one of the Finish Rooms. You can use any of the doors up front here, but the paths to the Finish Rooms are all different, so be warned.”

“Warned about what?” asked a woman at the other end of the table, a rather fat white woman in her thirties.

“Sloth, Ms. De Luca,” replied the billionaire. “I expect results, not lollygagging. You need to hustle and be smart enough to make it to a Finish Room. Once you do, you’ll have a real meal waiting for you, and we’ll get you hired on…If you don’t make it…well…you’re disposable.”

“What?” asked Donna in a slight gasp.

Shane could tell she was thinking the same thing he was. “Disposable” was another word for “dead.”

“What does that mean!” yelled someone else in the crowd, another man that Shane did not know.

“That’s a popular question, isn’t it?” smiled Cordon. “It means I don’t have a use for the poor and stupid, Mr. Gerbach. You can be one or the other, but society doesn’t need both…Now…I suggest you start moving. Once the first shutter opens, the doors will unlock, and once the shutters open…well…I would start running. Otherwise, your cremations will be pretty quick.”

The cafeteria erupted in protests of rage and fear yet again, but the soulless scumbag on the giant screen simply grinned at them.

“Good luck!” he said in a sadistically happy tone, and then the screen went blank, that giant screen returning right back to the former ebon wall it had been.

Shane cursed under his breath. Unless this was some kind of messed-up psychological experiment Cordon was pulling on them, everyone in here was in real danger.

“Son of a…” he started. “We’ve got to get out of here.”

“What’s going on?” asked Quarron. “Is this for real? What did he mean by ‘cremations’?”

The young man’s face was a mask of fear and anxiety.

“Can’t say for sure,” said Bart with a grim frown. “All I can say is that we better take him seriously.”

“What should we do?” asked Donna, her voice tremulous with that same tangible fear as Quarron.

Shane thought about this, but he did not have to think for long. He noticed the little service door out of his left peripheral, the service door he had completely ignored before, and a plan quickly formed in his mind. He was no longer going to ignore that door.

“We head for the single door,” said Shane. “Cordon said we could use any of the doors up front. I’m thinking we should hit that little service door up there.”

The group turned their heads to stare over at the singular, so-called “service door.”

“That’s our best bet,” said Shane. “Cordon wants intelligent people, so I’m thinking a herd mentality will head for the double doors, right or left, doesn’t matter. I’ve seen cattle stampede without any kind of direction before, so trust me…those double doors have to be the wrong way, or they’re tougher paths to follow than that little door. Either way, I think the right choice is that service door. Let everybody else take the double doors.”

Quarron turned and gave him a worried frown.

“That’s cold, man,” he said unhappily. “That’s cold, but I understand where you’re coming from.”

“Unfortunately, he’s right,” grimaced Bart.

“But all of these people…” trailed Donna.

“It’s either us or them,” said Bart, “and we have two children with us. I hate to agree with Shane, but he’s right. If anything, we have to do it for the kids.”

“What if it’s not the right way, though?” asked Quarron. “We could be screwing ourselves ov—”

He was cut short as a loud clang occurred at the other end of the cafeteria.

Shane watched in cold silence as the first of the black-metal shutters opened up on the ceiling at the opposite end of the table, those shutters falling open to stream in a bright light that shone upon the cafeteria floor directly next to the entrance and exit to the doors that led to the dorms.

“It’s started,” said Shane.

Donna gripped him by the arm, an instinctual reaction, he knew, born out of fear.

People around the table began to stand, and some of them walked forward toward the double doors, but some of the people at the end of the table were still talking and not moving. There was plenty of excited, angry, and fearful chattering, but not much in the way of reaction to the first open shutter.

Shane stood and motioned everyone else to stand, and his little group reluctantly did so.

“What are these fools doing?” asked Bart. “They should be getting their butts in—”

Like Quarron’s previous comment, the old man’s statement was destined to never be completed.

The next shutter opened, and light came pouring from the ceiling over the first section of table nearest the dorms.

The fat woman who had spoken earlier, Ms. De Luca, was standing at that end talking to another male participant Shane did not know, but as the light shone down upon her, she simply cried out in a loud, shrill, and agonizing scream. Her fat, pale face blackened as it charred over in the light, and then she burst into flames, her whole figure going up in a pyre, a blazing pillar of orange and blue.

The man talking to her caught fire as well, though only half of him had been standing in the light. He screamed as well, though he staggered a few feet as a living column of flame before collapsing to the chrome-like floor.

“OH!” shouted Quarron, just before the screams around them began.

The rest of the cafeteria burst into chaos, a mass of people running, shouting, and screaming as they practically trampled each other in a rush for an exit.

Shane’s mouth dropped open at the black stain on the shiny floor, that section of floor that gleamed from the light shining down from overhead at the opposite end of the table. Ms. Deluca was now nothing more than a black stain, not even clothes left behind.

The deceased man that Shane did not know the name of was still burning, but his body was collapsed on the floor outside of the light. It was clear that direct exposure to the light was instantly fatal, but in order to completely incinerate someone…the source of that light had to be a weapon more powerful than Shane had ever heard of. They could not afford to get caught in it.

People rushed past their group as they stampeded towards the double doors, and Shane cursed himself for being right about their herdlike mindlessness. He had not wanted to be cold and ruthless by not warning people about the double doors, but his own little group had two children in it, and he did not want their little bodies to go up like lit matchsticks.

But any guilt could wait. Right now…they needed to run.

“We’ll be like ants under a magnifying lens!” yelled Shane. “Everybody, move, now!”

The next shutter opened just as he finished his desperate command.

There was no more room for discussion. Shane swept up Zuri in his arms while Bart took Adrian by the hand, and all six of them headed toward the singular “service door.”

Zuri whined in Shane’s ear as Quarron pulled open the service door and ushered them inside.

“Come on, everybody!” cried Quarron.

They filed into a narrow hallway, and the first thing Shane did was look up. This narrow hallway also had a tall ceiling and shutters lining that ceiling, but those shutters were smaller than the cafeteria shutters, these particular shutters set acrost the width of this hallway, each one designed to open after so much time had passed.

“Don’t stop moving!” grunted Shane as their group filed into the hallway.

They fled down that hallway to the next door. They crowded around that singular door at the end of the hallway, and Quarron was already tugging on that door, but the door barring their exit would not budge.

“I can’t open it!” cried the young man. “It’s locked!”

“Now, wait just a minute,” said Bart. “Let’s not panic…There’s something on the wall here.”

The wall on their left contained three, small, flat touchscreens, those screens lit up with questions that apparently had to be answered.

There was a loud clang as the first of the shutters in this hallway opened, and then light came streaming in to blaze upon the floor next to the door at the other end, the singular service door they had originally passed through.

“Hurry!” warned Donna. “It’s starting in here!”

Shane took a brief moment to look over the three screens, and each one contained a different question.

“We have to answer these questions,” he grunted.

The first one was a math question, an equation that looked like gibberish to Shane. Math was not his strong suit, but maybe someone else had the answer to this one.

The second question was multiple choice, something about three farmers in a field and how they could work together in order to produce a shape that would maximize their crops, and although Shane had worked on farms, this also looked like math…He’d come back to it later.

The third question was not so much a question but a shape of some kind, and the question beneath that shape was simply “WHO AM I?” There was an answer line on the screen underneath that question with a touch keypad underneath that…He was afraid this one was going to be impossible to answer.

But he was wrong.

“Oh, it’s Gerbilon!” said Zuri. “That’s Gerbilon!”

“What?” asked Shane in confusion.

He turned to look at Zuri’s face; he’d forgotten he’d been holding her. She was staring at the last screen, the one with the odd shape.

Adrian stared at the shape as well before nodding once.

“Yep, that’s Gerbilon,” said the little boy.

“What’s a Gerbilon?” asked Bart.

“It’s a Collecto Monster,” said Zuri. “You know, like Burnamole.”

“I have no idea what that is, little one,” said Bart.

“It’s that kids show and card game,” said Quarron. “Collecto Monsters…It’s where different cutesy monsters battle it out and—”

The next shutter opened with a loud clang, and more light lit up the shiny chrome of the hallway. They were running out of time, and quickly.

“Quick!” cried Donna. “Just type it in! That’ll be one question out of the way!”

“I don’t know all the monsters!” hissed Quarron. “I don’t know how to spell it!”

“G-E-R-B-I-L-O-N,” spelled out Adrian.

Quarron quickly punched in the letters and hit enter. There was a loud click as the door directly in front of them unlocked. Quarron tugged at the handle, and the door swung inward.

“Snagged it!” he said excitedly. “We just needed to answer one!”

“Everybody, through the door!” commanded Shane.

They entered the next room, and the floor in this room was just as narrow as the previous hallway, but this time there was a pit on each side of the floor, or the floor was a bridge, rather. Their floor was now a bridge that spanned a large gap, spanning a pit that sank down about thirty feet, and at the bottom of that pit were flames, roaring flames that meant a terrible death for anyone falling into them. In fact, the heat from below was so intense that Shane instinctively backed away, but he knew he couldn’t go backwards…There was no turning back.

He looked up at the shutters above him and realized that their time in this room was limited in more ways than one.

“It’s hot!” yelled Zuri.

“How are we supposed to cross this!” replied Quarron. “This room is a death trap!”

They were all standing at the beginning of this new room, half-in and half-out of this large square chamber, but one look back the way they came revealed the next shutter opening, so there was no time for debate.

“They’re all death traps!” barked Shane. “We’ve got to cross anyway!”  

Bursts of flame erupted from several holes in the floor a few feet ahead of them, then a few more feet ahead, and then those spouts of flame erupted down the hallway, then in the middle of the hallway, and finally they erupted right next to their little group.

Donna shrieked and backed away.

“What do we do!” she screeched. “We can’t cross that!”

“That rich sucker is intent on roasting us!” hissed Shane. “Damn him!”

“Give me a second!” cried Quarron. “Just give me a second…”

The young man watched the bursting flames with an intensity that confused Shane, but Quarron’s study of those flames paid off a few seconds later.

“It’s a pattern!” said the young man in excitement. “They’re bursting in a pattern! I know, because I play a lot of retro video games. I can tell you when to move—”

“Good!” barked Shane. “We’ll get the kids across first. Donna, you take Zuri, and Bart, take Adrian next.”

“Got it,” said Bart. “Donna, honey, you should go first with Zuri. Adrian and I will be right behind you.”

There was a loud clang from the hallway they had just exited.

“There’s no time!” cried Quarron. “Just go! This hallway is just wide enough for two people at a time! That means Shane and I will go last!”

Shane lowered Zuri to the floor, and Donna took the little girl’s hand in her own, but Zuri struggled against her.

“We can’t go through that!” screeched the little girl.

Thankfully, Donna proved to be the levelheaded one this time.

“We have to,” she said quickly. “We have to, honey. That light’s going to burn us up if we don’t. Do you understand?”

“Y…Yeah…” said Zuri.

“Quarron will tell us when it’s time to go,” continued Donna, “and then he’ll tell us when we have to stop, okay?…Can you do that?”

Zuri looked back at the light streaming down in the hallway they had just left. She looked up at Donna a second later, her swarthy little face ringed with fear, but she nodded in compliance.

Donna looked toward Quarron and nodded once.

“When do we go?” she asked in a heated rush.

The flames burst ahead of them in a pattern, and Shane tried to memorize it, but Quarron was way ahead of him.

“Go!” said the young man.

The pair of females stepped forward just as the next shutter opened in the previous hallway.

“And stop!” ordered Quarron.

Donna held Zuri close to her as spouts of flame burst right in front of them. The bridge was narrow, but Shane had faith that Donna would not allow Zuri to fall.

“Go!” said Quarron.

“It’s hot!” yelled Donna.

“Keep moving!” yelled Shane in return.

The pair walked forward until Quarron barked at them to stop. Their journey forward did not last long, however. The young man’s instructions safely guided them until Donna and Zuri had stepped beyond the last flame trap and were standing before the next door.

“Bart and Adrian, you go next,” ordered Shane.

The old man nodded and took Adrian by the hand, leading the little boy forward according to Quarron’s instructions. They crossed safely moments later, and it was a good thing they had, because the last shutter in the previous hallway opened behind Shane and Quarron.

“We have to move now!” yelled Shane.

But the spouts of flame upon the narrow bridge burst at their own speed.

“Give it a second…” said Quarron. “Now!…And stop!”

Shane stepped forward along with the young man just as the first shutter of this room opened to blaze down that incinerating light from above. He could feel a radiance from that light, an aura of something he could not describe, something he immediately recoiled from. Whatever this radiation was, it was more than just light, and whatever that was…it was deadly.

“You’re cutting it close!” cried Shane. “Cordon’s trying to fry us with some kind of laser!”

Quarron ignored him and gave the next order to move.

“Now!” he said. “And stop!”

They continued in this way until they rejoined the group, but Donna had already opened the next door.

“Come on!” she said as she motioned them onward with her left hand.

They stepped into the next room as a unified whole. Whatever was going to happen, they were now a united front, and that was good, because Shane knew they needed all hands on deck in order to outrun Aaron Cordon’s deadly race against time.

The next room was a large square that looked empty at first, but appearances were deceiving when it came to anything in this insane facility.

Quarron stepped forward, and Shane could tell that the young man was only moving forward in order to give people more space, but alarm bells rang in Shane’s head, so he laid one big right hand on the young man’s right shoulder to keep him from moving.

“Wait!” he said quickly. “We don’t know what this room is about…”

He did a quick scan of the floor. This room’s floor consisted of eight rows of six large metal plates in each row. They had entered the room and were standing on a simple line of chrome flooring, that flooring safe and unmarked, but then the rows of plates began, and each plate outside of the starter line of flooring was lined with flame spigots; Shane immediately recognized those deadly spouts.

Each of the floor plates was a shiny chrome color, each large enough to allow three to four people standing room, and each plate had a single huge letter engraved in them, each letter different, the first row of plates consisting of “S, L, P, T, O, and E.”

“This must be some kind of anagram,” said Shane as he scratched his head. “I’m not good at these.”

“I am,” said Donna as she stood next to Shane. “Each row has the same letters, just in different orders. Once you get to row five, however, it switches to numbers.”

Shane looked up and winced once more at the closed shutters lining the ceiling.

“Cordon must love fire, because these plates are boobytrapped,” he grimaced. “Step on the wrong one, and you’re hit with the flames. Stick around too long, and the light incinerates you. That must be why all the floors are so shiny. Helps reflect the light.”

“That’s great, but we need to solve this right now,” said Quarron. “There’s no time to screw around.”

“Any ideas?” asked Shane. “Anyone?”

“Oh!” said Donna as her face lit up with excitement. “I have it!”

“Already?” asked Bart. “That was fast.”

“I’m good at these,” grinned Donna. “Anyway, this particular anagram spells two words that come to mind regarding our current situation. They are ‘STEP’ and ‘LOSE.’ So the first four plates we want to step on are…”

She walked over and hopped onto the plate engraved with a large “S” before Shane could stop her, but thankfully, nothing happened. No flames erupted from the floor, and Donna was not turned into a living pyre.

Shane breathed out a sigh of relief over this, but this feeling of relief was quickly replaced by worrisome anger.

“Will you give us some warning!” he barked. “Don’t just march forward like that! You could have been killed!”

“Sorry,” said Donna with a sheepish grin.

“It doesn’t matter right now,” said Shane as he shook his head. “Just be more careful from now on…Anyway, let’s keep moving…Everyone, follow Donna!”

The thirty-four-year-old woman jumped from the “S” plate to the “T” plate that was diagonal from her original position, and once again, nothing happened. She was not burned to a crisp, and Shane was thankful for that.

She walked from the “T” plate to the “E” plate, and then from the “E” plate to the “P” plate, only stopping before the new plates with numbers on them. Everyone followed her lead, the two children on Donna’s “P” plate and the three men right behind her on the “E” plate.

“Wait a second, everyone,” she said unhappily. “I don’t know what these numbers mean.”

The first of the shutters in this room opened with an echoing clang, and this sparked immediate haste in Shane.

“We need to figure it out, and fast!” he warned.

“I don’t know what the numbers mean!” cried Donna in return. “They don’t make any sense! There’s no mathematical anything to base them on!”

Shane stared at the line of numbered plates that made up the fifth row. Those numbers were “8, 5, 4, 18, 1, and 20,” respectively. Those numbers repeated as the letters had, but in different orders for rows six, seven, and eight, just like the differing orders of the letter plates the group had already passed.

Of course, like Donna, he did not know what he was looking at, but fortunately, Bart knew the answer to this puzzle.

“They’re letters,” said the old man. “They’re just the numerical orders of them, their numbers in the alphabet. Learned that when I was in the Junior Detective’s Club when I was in grade school. You see, you have, from left to right, ‘8, 5, 4, 18, 1, and 20’. That equals ‘H, E, D, R, A, T’.”

“Hedrat?” asked Quarron. “What does that spell? Because we’re gonna be dead rats if we don’t get out of here fast.”

“Exactly,” said Donna. “I think ‘DEATH’ is one of the words. The other one is ‘HERE’, which must be the safe word, because the whole room puzzle answer would be ‘STEP HERE’…Plus, you know, four plates to step on. ‘DEATH’ would be five plates, so there you go.”

“‘HERE’ would be plates ‘8, 5, 18, and 5’,” said Bart. “’8, 5, 18, and 5. Follow that order.”

“Good enough for me,” said Shane. “Step back, Donna. I’ll go first just in case.”

The next shutter opened, this one above the second row of the room.

“Move!” yelled Shane. “There’s no more time!”

Donna quickly switched places with him, and he stepped onto the “8” plate diagonally right from his position on the “P” plate. He breathed out a sigh of relief and then motioned the kids forward. Quarron, Donna, and Bart followed right behind them as Shane checked the remaining three plates while moving the kids forward directly after each safety check.

With Donna and Bart’s help, they had found the correct path through this room, and they reached the next door without further incident, but this didn’t stop Shane from complaining. He was way past sick of this.

“How many of these rooms are left!” he hissed.

He stepped into another long and narrow hallway, this one at least five times longer than the original hallway they had entered. This hallway was surrounded by chrome metal walls and a chrome metal floor, and it was only wide enough to fit two people at a time.

He picked up Zuri, and Donna led Adrian by the hand beside her, the pair of them behind Shane. Quarron and Bart walked behind Donna and Adrian as all of them filed into this new, unknown, amorphous threat.

“It’s another hallway,” said Shane. “Be ready for anything.”

He walked forward along with the others, but the moment all of them had traveled past the beginning of this straight shot, loud clangs occurred in the previous room as the shutters in that room dropped one after the other.

All of them turned to watch as the first shutter in this hallway opened, and then the next opened five seconds after that.

“It’s not stopping!” yelled Shane. “RUN!”

Shane dashed forward with Zuri in his arms. Quarron picked up Adrian and huffed it beside Bart as Donna ran in-between the two groups.

The shutters opened one after the next behind them as they dashed to the end of this hallway, that deadly light streaming in with each newly-opened shutter, that light that would incinerate them all if they could not open this new door.

They hit the last door at full speed, and written in large red letters upon that door were the words, “SPEAK THE TWO TRAITS NECESSARY TO WORK FOR ME, AND YOU MAY ENTER.” Upon the left wall next to the door was an intercom lit with two large, red, rectangular lights.

“Two traits!” exclaimed Quarron. “Uhhh…What were they?…Oh, wait…OH!…Intelligence!”

The first of the red lights turned green as the shutters continued to open down the hallway, those shutters making a quick beeline for them all. They were all huddled around this door, this frustrating barrier between death and another chance to live, but they only needed one more correct answer to open said door.

“What was the other one!” cried Shane.

“It was…It was…” stammered Donna. “Being driven!…Drive!”

The second light flipped to green, the door unlocked, and Shane practically ripped open the door.

All of them piled into the next room as the door behind them shut and locked again.

Shane quickly studied his surroundings, his mind automatically focused on searching for the next exit.

This room was just a small white room with white walls, a white ceiling, a white tiled floor, and a large flatscreen monitor mounted upon the wall opposite of the locked door they had just passed through. Beside that monitor was a singular white wooden door with no means to open it, no handle to pull or knob to turn to get them into the next room.

“What the…!” huffed out Shane as he lowered Zuri to the floor. “There’re no shutters in here!”

“That means…” said Donna quietly. “That means…we made it?”

“I sure hope so,” said Quarron.

The screen upon the wall opposite of their little group lit up, and the smiling face of Aaron Cordon appeared before them. The sadistic billionaire clasped his hands in front of himself, his elbows on his shiny desk, and then he grinned like a Cheshire cat, an expression none of them wanted to see.

“Congratulations!” said Cordon with strange zeal. “You’ve won! You even took the single door, which means you skipped an entire room for that little bit of ingenious thinking. Good job! That means my staff will begin the paperwork to get you started right aw—”

“Now, hold on just a minute!” yelled Shane.

Cordon did not seem surprised at this outburst and interruption. He simply shrugged, smiled, and waited for whatever Shane was going to say, and Shane definitely had a few words for him.

“You can’t just use some kind of crazy weapon on us and expect us to be friendly!” yelled Shane. “You tried to kill us! You’ve murdered two people already, and who knows how many of the other trial participants have died in the other rooms!”

“You tried to fry us in those rooms!” yelled Quarron. “You can’t just test out some kind of new laser weapon on us!”

“I have heard the sun is a deadly laser,” shrugged Cordon. “I think that’s a meme or a song or something…”

“This isn’t a joke!” cried Donna. “You’ve murdered people!”

“And I can still dispose of you right now, Ms. Bendel,” said Cordon as he screwed up his lips in pensive thought. “If you like, I can just have security come in here and kill you all.”

“Wh…What?” asked Donna.

Shane studied Donna, but her face was extra pale at this point. Her condition was probably fear mixed with shock, and that was compounded by adrenaline mixed with just plain overexertion. It had to be, because that was what he was feeling.

Whatever the case, it was clear that Cordon held all of the cards here, so Shane did not know what to do, but the old man behind him stepped forward and replied for all of them.

“Now, let’s not get hasty,” said Bart. “What is it exactly that you want from us, Mr. Cordon? You want something, or we’d all be dead by now.”

“Right you are again, Mr. Stanford!” said Cordon in weird excitement. “You are each going to be placed in a position on my staff where you will all be of the most use to both myself and the company. I need to see how well you perform in your given roles before I decide to use Serum #463 on myself…I think, though, for right now, you’re all probably just hungry…You’re all just hangry. A good meal will perk you right up…”

He reached in front of himself and pressed a button on his desk. There was probably a touch screen on Cordon’s desk, but Shane could not see it from the camera angle Cordon was in.

The white door on the right side of the monitor made a loud click, and then it swiveled inward to reveal yet another white room beyond the one they were already in.

“You see…” continued Cordon. “Mmmm…How can I explain this? Let’s see…I guess I’ll just spell it out for you. Serum #463 was derived from the blood of a rather rare individual currently in my custody. Her blood grants a type of immortality, but that immortality does not come without certain side effects.”

Shane’s nostrils picked up the scent of something delicious. It was a mix of both a heady and tangy aroma, something that made his stomach growl. He could also hear a sort of thumping sound over and over again in his ears, a strange beat that hit at regular intervals, though that sound was faint.

“Those shutters did not reveal any new kind of laser, Mr. Johnson,” continued Cordon. “Those shutters just let in the sun…Just the plain ol’ sun you’ve seen every day of your life…but I’ll explain everything after you’ve eaten…For right now…just enjoy your meal.”

Shane was barely listening. He was starving, too hungry to think on any of this at the moment, and that heady, tangy scent was calling to him.

He walked through the open door that led into the next room, and the others followed him.

This new room was a little larger than the one they’d just exited. It was a rectangular white room with short grey carpet, a large flatscreen monitor on the wall to the left of them, and before them was…

There was no food in here that Shane could see. Instead, there was a small group of employees that clearly worked for Cordon, three women and two men, all of them dressed in professional business attire, though they wore bright, conical party hats on their heads.

A woman in her mid-thirties pulled the string on a party popper, the little party favor burst forth its confetti, and the small group all cried out, “Congratulations!”

Shane could smell whatever food was in here; he just simply couldn’t see it yet. That thumping in his ears was growing louder, each thump driving him forward to seek that food…That thumping was connected to the food somehow. Oh, yes, he was truly starving, and he could tell everyone else in his little group was as well.

The flatscreen on the wall flipped on as Cordon’s irritating and incredibly-punchable face popped up on it yet again.

“One last thing!” said the billionaire in excitement. “To the greeting committee in here! You’ve all been gathered here today because of a certain…mmmm…lacking in your performance…I’m talking theft, extra-marital affairs, sloppy work ethic, etc. That sort of thing makes the company look bad, so thank you for your service, but for one reason or another, I have to let you go. You are all terminated, effective immediately.”

The woman with the confetti popper gazed upon Cordon’s face with a horrified expression of surprise etched upon her own face, her mouth dropping open in shock.

“Wh…What?” she stammered.

Shane could not control this hunger any longer. His own mouth dropped open as he let out a long gasp of pure shaking desperation. He could smell them, these people, these poor people who had just been fired, and he could hear their heartbeats, that thumping in his ears, and those heartbeats called to him.

But it was little Zuri who acted first. Her lips parted as her mouth opened wide to reveal two large, sharp fangs. She hissed once and then charged on all fours, only to leap upon the poor woman with the party popper. This woman screamed as Zuri’s fangs bit deeply into the woman’s exposed jugular, and then blood sprayed from the wound to dot the white of the room around them.

The two remaining women screamed while the two men shouted, and that little group tried to run, but their door, the door they had specifically used to enter the “greeting room,” would not open for them. There was no handle or knob for which to do so.

The woman that Zuri was attached to staggered around in a circle before falling to the grey carpet beneath them, and Adrian was on that woman a second after that, biting into her left leg, right underneath her grey business skirt.

“Aaahhhgggh!” shouted Bart as he rushed forward.

The old man grappled one of the men from behind, and then he bit into that man’s neck just like Zuri, just like Zuri had bitten into the first poor victim’s exposed throat.

Donna shrieked and charged, and Quarron charged as well, Donna on the remaining man, Quarron on one of the two remaining women. They attacked from behind, both of them savagely biting into vulnerable jugulars to spray hot red blood around the room.

On some level, Shane felt a modicum of horror, but even he could no longer fight this raging hunger within himself.

He rushed forward out of instinct and pulled back on the blonde hair of the last remaining woman, though this poor young lady had been screaming and pounding on the locked door in front of her.

She cried out in stark terror as he pulled back her head to expose her bare throat, and that fear, that tangible fear that radiated from her like an aura, was an addictive drug that drove his hunger through the roof. His new fangs bit deeply into her jugular, and then he drank in her life essence, his eyes rolling up in the whites as he felt a new surge of power rush through him, a jolt that electrified him right down to his core.

“Don’t worry about a thing,” said Cordon from the flatscreen. “We’ll get all of you set up in the company, and then every one of you will have access to as many real meals as you need. You’ll learn security, espionage…assassinations…positions in rival companies, and even political positions, and the best thing about it is, you don’t age! So you have all the time in the world to learn new skills…Ah, but for right now…as I said before…just enjoy the meal.”

Shane could feel blood dripping down his face as he looked up and over at Donna. She gripped a dying businessman in her arms, her own face coated with the man’s blood, but she briefly detached her mouth from his neck and smiled at him, her new fangs red and slick with that liquid life essence.

Shane did not like Cordon, not one bit, but the billionaire was right about one thing…They were all most certainly enjoying their meals.

The Light Runners Copyright © 2022 Matthew L. Marlott

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