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The sun was high in the sky and the landscape nothing but redrocks and sand when the van pulled out of their next filling station.

Whitney and Adam had walked through the gas station store together this time. It had felt couple-y in a forced and awkward way, but still sweet.

Adam had only tried to disappear into her blindspot twice, so that was progress. Especially, considering Adam hadn’t been able to look her in the eye three hours before.

Now, he could not only able to look at her, but he seemed comfortable enough to show her how to work the trip app. 

Truth be told, Whitney had made a point to ignore the app ever since her parents told her to study it. Now, she was so glad she had because she could be genuinely clueless as Adam explained everything on his tablet.

Not only that, but she got the window seat this time, since Adam offered to move over to her row so she wouldn’t have to move her things. 

Such a gentleman.

“Hey,” Whitney said, touching his arm without thinking about it, then immediately drawing her hand back when she noticed Adam freeze at the contact.


She should have asked permission. He was just so good at looking her in the eye now that it seemed natural.


“It’s fine,” Adam said, straightening as he placed his tablet on his lap. “I’m just not used to it.”

Before Whitney could respond, Adam jumped into his little tutorial.

“So all the answers to your questions can be found in the trip app on your tablet,” he explained, pointing to the app they’d all downloaded to fill out their paperwork. “Do you want to go grab yours?”

“No,” she said, leaning in a little closer. “I’ll just watch you do things. I don’t want to get distracted.”

“Okay,” Adam hedged. “But you’ll be able to remember it better later if you do it along with me.”

Suddenly, Bella’s head popped over the seat in front of them. “Whatcha talking about?”

Whitney almost jumped at the girl's sudden appearance, but caught herself before sending the girl a measured glare for popping appearing like that for the second time in that day.

Bella clearly had snooping down to an art. Whitney wasn’t a big fan of that, but Adam was nothing but smiles at her sudden appearance.

“Hey, you should grab your tablet, too,” he beamed up at her. “I’m showing Whitney what I know about Z Labyrinth.”

All of a sudden, Kei’s face appeared over Adam’s shoulder. “May I listen, as well?”

Adam faltered in responding—clearly overwhelmed by all the sudden attention.

“Okay, okay,” Whitney said, waving them back. “Let’s give Adam some space, shall we?”

Bella arched a brow at her. “Just us? Or you, too?”

Whitney glared at her. “All of us. Obvs.”

“Great,” Bella replied, scooting back about two inches. 

Whitney did the same as Kei took the seat across the aisle from Adam with a tablet.

When Adam paused again, Whitney noticed he was looking Chad’s way. 

“Should we invite him?” Adam asked.

Whitney bit her lip when she looked over and saw how hard Chad was pretending not to notice them. He had his earbuds in, eyes closed, and was apparently listening to something much more interesting than he thought they were.

“Um,” she faltered, looking for someone to answer first.

It was Bella who saved the day. “Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘Respect the intentional isolation of headphones,’ Adam?”

Adam’s head tilted. “I believe I saw something similar to that on a poster once.”

Bella nodded as if that was good enough. “That is the protocol for moments like this.”

“Oh,” he said, nodding. “Okay. I just don’t want him to miss information.”

Bella rolled her eyes. “Please. He wouldn’t pretend to listen even if he was.”

Adam seemed to process that for a moment, then nodded. “True. Okay. First, go into the trip app and click on the Z Labyrinth app.”

Whitney saw the icon he was heading for and cringed. “Ew, the yellow snake thing?” 

“Yes,” Adam nodded. “Once you click on it, select the labyrinth map and it will open a top-view of the labyrinth. At first glance, this looks like a puzzle page where you can familiarize yourself with the layout and use a single line to reveal the path everyone takes through the labyrinth--” 

“It’s huge!” Whitney said, unable to count the twists and turns that wove through a series of circles.

“Yes. It’s 12 circular sections with 30 rooms in each section,” Adam explained, saving her from needing to count. “Each section is a quarter-mile long with rest areas in between. All in all, it’s a one-way road of 3.6 miles. Once you enter, the only way out is through.”

Whitney wasn’t feeling so well when she raised her hand out of habit to ask a question. When everyone, including Adam, looked her way, she quickly brought it back down. 

“Um, so, like, once you go in, you’re trapped?” she asked.

“For 3.6 miles, yes,” Adam replied with a nod. “You consent to walk that distance when you enter the labyrinth. No exceptions. Even emergency care enters and exits the same way. I’ve heard the EMT teams actually have contests to see who can clear the most awkward situations the fastest.”

“Awesome,” Whitney said, feeling lost, dizzy, and trapped at all the same time as she imagined a 3.6-mile path Adam was drawing onto the screen with impressive speed. His flow and accuracy in tracing the path was kind of amazing. Even Kei’s eyes were on Adam’s tablet now.

“But what they don’t tell you,” Adam continued with nerd-level excitement before zooming in on one of the 12 sections. “Is that visitors can also access the customization tools here to program each room with a great amount of detail!” 

Adam tapped on one of the rooms and a giant spreadsheet filled the screen. 

Whitney liked spreadsheets as much as any teenage entrepreneur, but she honestly had no idea what she was looking at when Adam’s customization instructions popped up. It was all numbers and symbols she didn’t even know the names of. Her brain kind of shut down just looking at it.

“These, for example, are the customizations for my 4-D Room,” he said excitedly. “I’ve set this room up to experience a series of four-dimensional shapes from pre-chosen vantage points.”

“Why?” Bella asked before Whitney could.

Adam shrugged. “Just to understand time and space better, I guess. But you can see that I can pick all sorts of details, including the temperature of the room if I want. And, if I don’t care about a detail, or want to be surprised, I can leave it blank and the algorithm will choose for me.”

“So—“ Whitney began before Chad pulled out his earbuds and interrupted.

“Wait,” he said, moving in. “What do you mean, choose?”

Bella rolled her eyes and mouthed, Told ya’ to Adam, who didn’t seem to miss a beat at Chad’s sudden—and rather intense—interest. 

“What I mean is,” he said with perfect calm. “If you look at this on your tablet, you will see the degree to which you can customize the details of each room.”

Chad shook his head as if Adam had answered wrong. “What I’m asking is, can I load in bike jumps into it and run them in the simulation?” 

Whitney felt her temper rise at Chad's impertinence and could tell she wasn’t the only one. Bella looked ready to throw something at Chad, and Whitney wouldn’t blame her if she did.

“If you know the dimensions of the ramps, I would think so,” Adam replied. “What you need to keep in mind is—“

“Got it!” Chad said, popping his earbuds back in and reaching for his backpack. 

There was an awkward beat before Kei got things back on track. “So there are 12 areas with thirty immersive-reality environments at the facility we are going to?” 

“Yes!” Adam said, once again excited. “But the thing to remember is that each room has a built-in program it’s testing on everyone that enters.”

“Like an experiment?” Whitney asked, stomach turning.

“Yes,” he agreed as if nothing about that troubled him.

Meanwhile, Whitney felt like she needed to sit down … yet she was already sitting so all she could do was close her eyes and try to let her stomach settle.

Everyone around her looked so intrigued but everything Adam was outlining felt like a blackmail campaign waiting to happen. Whitney was pretty sure she couldn’t do it.

She didn’t say anything, though. For once in her life, she stayed silent as Adam kept talking.

“The closest to knowing what kind of pre-program to expect is to know which of the 12 areas you are in,” he explained. “There are many different schools of thought that test theories in the Labyrinth, and they each have totems. Groups compete to run one of the 12 areas, and we won’t know which ones will be running the show for our visit until we arrive. Then, and only then, can we have a sense of what dynamics might be tested. But I hear that themes are more obvious in retrospect than they are real-time and it’s best to just go with the moment and not think about things too hard.”

Nothing about anything Whitney was hearing didn’t feel horrifying. In fact, she’d already moved right past a panic attack into full-blown paralyzed terror at the possibilities Adam had just laid out for all of them.

“So, like, they’re studying us and recording everything,” she said, just to clarify.

“Well,” Adam hedged. “They’re basically doing what Chad thinks he’s doing right now: they're setting a constant stage and seeing how often the predictable happens in infinite environments."

Kei nodded as if that made sense while Bella frowned as if she hadn't heard anything all that interesting yet.

"Often, the more simple the program, the better the results," Adam continued. "I’ve read that embedded programs are often as simple as dealing with a crying baby or seeing if people will return their shopping cart.”

“Yeah,” Whitney said. “Or how they react to being chased by a monster or being caught in a crime.”

“Not without consent,” he said like a bright-eyed salesman who loved his own KoolAid. “You can create a restrictions list in the Preferences tab. Then any rooms that don’t meet your standards will be locked to you. Plus, everyone has their stop-word—a password you give the computer to immediately disconnect you from your current simulation and lead you back to the Golden Brick Wall.”

“The whuh?” Bella asked, waving for him to stop there. 

“Oh ... uh, the main hallway of the labyrinth,” Adam clarified, returning to the map on his tablet and showing how it turned yellow when viewed at an angle. “Apparently, it’s golden. So people call it the Yellow Brick Wall.”

“Weird. But, okay,” Bella said, eyes narrowing like a mom looking to baby-proof something. “Now back to these rooms … we can load anything on them? What does that mean? Can you load memories?”

“No,” Adam said, like that was a disappointing glitch to be fixed and not the best thing Whitney had heard so far. “You can only recreate the setting and environment. But if you know the place, the time, and the date, it can load all those conditions in. It won’t be the same as you saw it, but it should be recognizable.”

Bella’s lips pursed in thought and Whitney’s heart started jackrabbiting with the knowledge that she had nothing acceptable to say to fill the silence.

“And we can access all this on our own tablets?” Bella asked, saving Whitney from blurting something. “Why am I just hearing this now?”

Adam shrugged. “No one told me. I read it. And it’s not required to know beforehand. Apparently, it’s common practice to let first-timers wing it and figure all this out for future trips. But I don’t have time for that. I need to get as much as I can out of it in one go.”

Across the way, Chad frowned pulled out his earbuds again. “It won’t let me log in. It says I need a password.”

“Ah, yes,” Adam said. “The password. I forgot. I can’t give it to you. The way it wor—”

“I’m pretty sure you can give it to me,” Chad said forcefully enough to have Whitney glaring protectively.

“I literally can’t,” Adam replied, seemingly unfazed. “All passwords are single-use. There’s one for each of us and it will pop up as you review the content. You just need to look around for yours.”

“I was wondering about that,” Kei muttered.

Chad held his tablet Adam’s direction. “How about you find mine for me?”

“How about you put your big-boy pants on and do it yourself,” Bella snapped back.

Chad glared at her. “How about you let me and Adam talk?”

Bella’s head shook like someone ready to throw down. “Not if you’re going to talk like that!” 

As Chad inhaled for his grand retort, Kei leaned in to Adam and said, “Thank you,” before disappearing to the back row and leaving the group.

Such a great idea!

Bella had Chad obviously had some frustration to burn and Whitney had no desire to be a witness to it.

She was trying to figure out how to best follow Kei’s example and escape the situation from her window seat when Adam pulled out some noise-blocking headphones, smiled her way, and asked, “How about some intentional isolation?”

Maybe it said something about how neurotic Whitney was that she was pretty sure that was the most romantic thing anyone had ever said to her. 

“That sounds awesome,” she replied, reaching for her tablet and earbuds as Chad defended his right to be as much of a jerk as he wanted.

Then Chad's self-righteous monologue was replaced with Whitney's meditation playlist as Whitney poked around the trip app—searching for her password while trying to wrap her head around the giant human experiment she was walking into.

All while rubbing elbows with Adam while he did the same thing. 

It was weirdly companionable. The strange calm Adam had about everything seemed contagious. Which was nice because Whitney was rarely calm.

Yet, by the time she found her password and programmed her first room, she forgot she was scared and moved on to Room 2.


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