's 2017 Horror Write-off:

Hello, Alan.

Submitted by Brendan Cleary (email)

"Hello, Alan."

His name was Tim, it was never Alan. He had lost count of the number of times he had corrected the machine. He had shouted it, wrote it down and pressed it into the machine's camera, even sung it, but it never took. "Hello, Machine."

Tim was terrified of the day when the machine would correct him.

From the ceiling, where it seemed to have integrated itself into the wall, the machine lowered its clunky body to eye level to face Tim. Its stretching revealed the wires and electronics beneath it's red exterior. "Have you figured out how to leave this room, Alan?"

"Not yet, Machine, not yet" Every day, Tim was terrified that today would be the day it finally notice the vitriol in his voice.

The machine's three camera eyes rotated, expanding and retracting, its body started to murmur and spark. Tim braced himself for what would come next.

"Then we shall practice, Alan"

A loud whining, objects too fast to identify barreling out of the machines eyes, the lights going out. All so quaint and predictable by now, except for the pain, Tim never got used to the pain.

He was in a room that was underwater, the windows were open a crack, letting a inch of water slowly pool inside, the door was locked from the inside. There was a locked trunk, multiple shelfs full of knickknacks, and a dead body, lying inches away from the door. The man was tightly holding the cause of his death, a shotgun, in his arms. Tim wrenched the shotgun from his grip and checked the ammo. It was empty, because of course it was. Tim couldn't have a quick death. No, if he were going to die here, it would be by drowning, a process that would be just as slow and painful as he feared it would be.

Next time, he thought, next time.

He checked and smashed all of the knick-knacks, leaving piles of brightly colored glass and cheap plastic floating near his feet. While he didn't expect to find the secret to his escape in one of these, he was at least hoping to find a hint or clue. He got nothing but a bloody finger. He checked the trunk, perhaps it was open, the machine had done that to him before, give him a room filled with hundreds of items potentially filled with the key needed for the locked door, only to find, after hours of searching, that the door wasn't locked in the first play.

This time, it was locked.

He reluctantly checked the corpse pockets, he had a note in his left, besides that there was nothing but dust and lint. Tim read the note, it said, in harsh chicken scratch "Fuck you".

Tim had a feeling the note wasn't meant for him.

He looked at the door, it was shut tightly, and he decided to keep it that way. So far, the only thing he saw that posed an immediate threat was the open window, and he had time until that occurred.

He looked at the ceiling, checking to see how quickly the water was coming in from there. Odd. While there were multiple holes in the ceiling, not one of them was leaking. This couldn't be an accident.

Tim smiled; the odd or illogical details of a room were usually integral to escaping. That was the one constant in all of the rooms.

He went to one of the windows, and, reminding himself that he was doing this to prevent an even worse fate, he opened the window fully.

With his eyes closed, breath held, and left hand firmly gripped to the windowsill he reached out into the rushing sea with his right.

Spiting the raging water, he raised his hand as high as he could, and felt wind on his fingers.

He moved his hand around, making sure. Yeah, it was above the water.

In a motion that was a lot less fluid than he wished, he bought his now soaking wet hand into the room and closed the window with it. It slammed down on his right hand. He screamed. Shakily and sloppily, he tried to open the window with his other hand while trying to avoid the pain. When he was done, he collapsed onto the ground. He was met by a foot of water, which had accumulated when he had opened the window. He didn't care; he let himself lay in the water until his lungs forced him to go up for air

He got onto the chest and was able to reach the ceiling; it was less sturdy than he thought. With one quick jab, he had punched a whole into the ceiling. Through the hole, he could see rope just inches from the ceiling; He got a good grip and started to climb up it, after making room for his body to get through of course.

On the other side, he could see where he was. It was a vast unending ocean on a pure blue day, absent of cloud. Only the top of the room was visible, the rest was submerged. He looked up, trying to see where he was climbing.

The rope ending in a light, which, as he looked at it, seemed to get brighter and brighter, until nothing else existed and then-

"What did you learn"? The machine asked. Its version of a face was impossible to read.

"I learned..." he took a second, trying to make sure he knew how the machine wanted him to answer. "That I should never assume anything about my surroundings"

The machine took a second to rotate his cameras before replying. "... Yes. That is very good Alan. You have learned-". The machine played back Tim explaining what he learned. Tim still wasn't used to the high pitched, scratchy quality of his voice. He was half convinced the machine was digitally speeding it up just to fuck with him.

"You can have ten hours of library time." The machine said. For Tim, ten hours of library research meant ten hours of rest. As the machine began to contract into the walls and Tim started to curl up on the cold, sterile floor, computer screens on sleek platforms emerged from beneath him, seeming to rise and be birthed from the floor itself.

They contained every single recording made by those who came before them, be it their discovery's, musings, or broken babbling. There was another device, connected to the computer that if pressed, would allow him to record his own thoughts. Tim had yet to press the button, he didn't want to add more bullshit that the next guy would have to shift through. The amount of recordings that were just startled newcomers not realizing that their distress signals weren't reaching anyone who cared, or idiots who after a brief message, forgot to turn the recording off, resulting in 5 hour long epics that were 99.9% silence, was the large majority of the "library archives". He knew this, because he had watched all of it. He still thought back to those missing hours, daydreaming about all of the extra hours of sleep he could of used. As the days have turned to weeks that have turned to months that have turned to years that have turned to periods of time that were so vast that the term centuries didn't seem to do it justice, Tim had learned that sleep was much more important than anything in the library. Because in the end, all of the information in there, no matter how many times the machine had stressed that it wasn't, was useless. No one had escaped the room, at least none of them had, how could he expect to learn anything from these failures?

Five hours into the ten hours, the machine appeared again. Tim was woken up minutes before he appeared. Whenever the machine was near, he got a strange feeling in his throat, like he had swallowed static.

He was pretending to be up and alert when the machine had fully phased in.

"Oh, hey there." He said nonchalantly, pretending to read a transcribed audio log he had picked at random, "Little early, huh?" He was terrified the machine was here early because he knew that Tim had spent the last five hours sleeping. The machine only let Tim sleep at short specified times, any incident where Tim was sleeping without his permission had consequences, effective consequences.

"It is... the movie time, Alan," the machine said.

Tim sighed, and then tried to pass it off as a normal breath.

The machine's camera eyes retracted, and then began expelling a blinding white light that cast images on the opposite wall, functioning in a way similar to a movie projector.

The image currently being displayed was of a man climbing a seemingly endless skyscraper, with only rudimentary climbing gear and ram shackled wooden platforms to help him. He looked down; there were clouds below him. He could hear the man's shocked laughter. He must have came to the same realization that Tim had had, that the skyscraper was so large it had its own atmosphere. Suddenly, the platform started to shake, he tried to pull out his climbing hooks, still stuck in the same place he had lodged it, but abandoned them, deciding instead to take his luck on the wooden platforms. The platforms were falling apart beneath him, below him, and in front of him. It was obvious to Tim that the whole structure was coming down, and that the man had abandoned his only chance at escape. It didn't take long before the man fell with it, and the last thing Tim experienced from the man's point of view was the ground quickly becoming visible and the man saying, in a whisper "I'm sorry".

Then the lights went out.

"Rely on the tools you are given, Alan, those are the only tools you can rely on. You cannot trust any others."

The machine rotated to stare directly at Tim.

"Remember that Alan".

The last moments of past victims contextualized as moralistic fables, this was what movies were to Tim now, what the machine had warped them to be. He had a hard time remembering what movies had been like before all this. He remembered there was one with a shark that his... brother, son, daughter, wife, husband...One of those... one of them liked it.

He looked up the machine had retreated again. He pushed the last few remaining memories of his past life aside, making way for sleep. The next time he was tested, there was no warning. When he woke up, he was a crewman on a spaceship, and he was locked in the escape pod. Memories, memories that he knew were fake, started to be remembered for the first time. There was a fight, something about... a girl... or maybe a guy... someone... Peters, a name that filled him with a burning rage... was responsible, he had gotten him drunk... suggestible... and had locked him in the escape pod. Outside he could still hear them... laughing it up, toasting that they were another day closer to going home. God, did they even know? Where they in on it? Tim tried to resist all of these petty thoughts, knowing that they would just distract him from what was truly important, escaping. But he couldn't resist. He wasn't allowed to resist. He didn't have a lot to work with, his space was cramped, everything was bolted down, and opening the escape pod wouldn't be as simple as pushing it open. In fact, it was already prepped to launched. Perhaps that was the trick. After all, once he launched the pod it would be quite easy to maneuver it down to earth. He could do it to, his brain was filled with information on how to launch and pilot the escape pod. But he also knew the consequences. It was a last resort for a reason, if the escape pod left, it would destabilize the power and life support systems on the ship, spelling death for anyone still on it. 15 people in this case, people that he had years of memories with. But his mission wasn't to save them.

It was already prepped; all Tim had to do was press a single button.

So he pressed it.

He was rammed into the back of the escape pod as it thruster blasted him and the ship out of the hold. Before falling unconscious, he noticed the unused safety harness, mocking him.

His vision went dark

Then it went light...

He woke up to the machine.

"What have you learned, Alan"

"That... sometimes you have to sacrifice others to-" "You are the only one that needs to escape" Its tone was slightly harsher than before. "You are the only one". It was usually hard to read the machines voice, but Tim could easily see that the machine was annoyed that Tim had failed to guess the true meaning of this room. It was close enough, Tim thought, I knew what you wanted to teach me I just... worded it differently. But his thoughts remained thoughts. He knew it was no use arguing. The machine rubbed two of its fingers together.

There was a dull ringing in Tim's left ear. He fell to the floor. "You shall practice Alan" The white of the walls began to seep into his eyes. "You shall practice" He heard a noise, like a recording being turned off, and then-

Tim was in a falling office building; a small cubicle in free fall. Beneath him was a plane of endless blue light. Inside the room was a key and another man.

The key was attached to the other man. His hand to be exact.

The man was dressed in Monday business attire, and he looked terrified.

"I don't... oh god, oh god."

He fell to the ground, and tried not to cry.

Tim ran up to him and tried to rip the key off him.

The man screamed. The key was surgically attached to the man, bounded to his flesh; it was now as part of him as his own toes or fingers.

There was something on his stomach, visible beneath the contours and wrinkles of his suit. "Take it off," He yelled, trying to be heard over the sound of the wind and the... pulsing from the plane below them.


Tim ripped the man's suit off. On his chest was a keyhole. Tim gripped the man's key hand. The man's eyes went wide. He didn't know why, but he knew exactly what Tim was planning to do. "... We're going to die anyway, please don't make this more painful for me" The man was crying.

Tim wanted to apologize to the man so badly, he wanted to let him know that he was just as much of a pawn as he was, that he to was in a situation that he couldn't control and that, if he had a choice, wouldn't do what he was about to do. But it had to be done, and he was going to make it as quick and painless as possible. But he didn't apologize. Instead, he inserted the key into the man's skin without a word of explanation.

It took far longer than either wanted.

When he was done, he collapsed to his knees, and watched the now dead man's chest open to that familiar whiteness.

They had never been like this.

The machine stared down at him.

"Use the tools around you, Alan. No matter what they are or what they say. They were put there for a reason."

Before he could reply, the white devoured him

He was in a small metal cell, stuck in a strange machine that immobilized him. He could get out of the machine, but doing so would release a pressure plate that would compress the cell, killing him. The only way to escape was for someone else to take his place in the machine.

Coincidentally, there was a woman sleeping next to him. Easily reachable.

He was back in the room. He was trembling. He was so glad the woman hadn't woken up. He was so glad he wouldn't be there when she did.

"Do not think of the consequences of your actions, Alan. It serves you no purpose."

Before he could say anything in reply, the whiteness rushed him.

He was in a burning building, surrounded by people. There was a helicopter outside one of the windows. Before he could grab onto the rope, he was pushed out of the way by the others, who seemed to be making a conscious effort to make sure he didn't escape the building alive. By the time he reached the window, the helicopter was merely a punctuation in the sky. He ended up having to fashion a rope out of shirts and pants to escape. The white took him just as he began his descent from the building.

"Understand your colleagues, Alan. Show them the same respect they would show you."

The White-

He was in an antique shop with five doors, all padlocked. There was a small machine on the counter that, every five minutes, dispensed a hint aiding him in his escape. He followed the hints for a while, patiently waiting for the next, until he realized that, after 18 notes and countless objects searched, moved, and broken, he was still no closer to escaping the room. In a fit of desperation, he broke the machine. Inside was a key, a perfect fit for all five locks.

The White- The Machine "Tools will lie, Tool will always be useful, and they will always lie. Sometimes the lying is a part of the escape, Alan."

The White- The Machine

He was in a room that had a single window; on the floor was a computer. There was nothing else in the room besides that machine. The window was seemingly inoperable, but he noticed, as he pressed his hand onto the plane, it was still glass.

It could still be broken. He chuckled, it was so simple, so goddam simple.

It was all so simple.

With a grunt of effort, Tim lifted the broken computer, and threw it at the window.

The window shattered, the white came through. Tim laughed and gladly let the white take him.

The White- The Machine-

"If a tool has lost its original use, it can still be-"

"I know how to leave this room. I know how."

The machine stared back at him. Tim waited, expecting the machine to react.

"Then please escape Alan." The machine said.

"That's it?"

"Yes it is, Alan. If you know how to escape."

"... Aren't you going to test me, or force me to prove that I know how to leave?"

"I don't need to do that, Alan. I'll know soon enough."

"... But" He looked around, "How do you know I'm not faking, how do you know I'm not just saying it and don't actually mean it?"

"Well Alan, I am starting to have my doubts, if you really did know how to leave, you would have shut me down"

A smile crossed Tim's face. Whether it knew it or not, it had just confirmed Tim's hunch.

"So I just... unplug you"

"If you want to deactivate me Alan, all you need is your hands."

Tim nodded, and slowly began peeling off the machines outer layer in large metallic chunks. An arm there, a chest plate there. He half expected the machine to try to stop him or struggle, but as soon as he began, the machine was silent and unmoving.

They were all for this, he thought, every single one of those rooms served a purpose.

"I get it now." He whispered to the now unconscious machine, "I get it. Thank you". And he did in one way, and he didn't in another. He now understood why he went through what he did. Yet still, he had no context or explanation for it all. But that, surely, would come in time.

It wasn't long until he had ripped off its entire exoskeleton, revealing a litany of electronics where a human's heart would be.

Besides a rat's nest of wire and a small closed lid with the words "if you want to live don't open this" written on top of it, the only thing of interest was a small screen, resembling his daughter's, yes, he had a daughter, tablet. God... Jennifer... he couldn't remember a single thing about her face.

Through the screen was scratched and glitch in parts, he could still make out the outline of a hand.

"User identification" Said a voice coming from within the screen.

Tim placed his hand firmly on the outline, his hand was smaller than the outline, but it shrunk to accommodate him.

There was a ding.

"Welcome Tim Boucher, you have been registered as current user" the voice was muffled and robotic, it sounded like it hadn't been used in ages. "Deleting prior user, Alan Rollick."

Tim chuckled, that explained it. But the more Tim thought about it, the more it raised further questions. To become the current user, Tim would have had to escape, and according to the machine and the logs of all the other prisoners, no one had ever escaped. If that was the case, what did that mean for-

"Welcome Boucher, the cell can be emptied."

"... What?" Tim didn't even realize he had said this aloud.

"The cell's current prisoner... Tim Boucher... can be replaced." If the screen had noticed that the prisoner and the current user were the same person, it didn't mention it.

"... You can hear me?"

The screen replied in the affirmative.

"Would you like to empty the cell?" The screen responded.

"I don't... I don't know, what would that... what does that mean?!"

"If the cell is emptied, the prisoner will be sent back to their retrieval location."

"And what is current prisoner's retrieval location?"

The voice read his address. "Wow that sounds... one more question...will the prisoner have any memories of what he... they had to go through?"

"No... the work of-" the voice said a series of numbers and letters quickly, some Tim recognized, some Tim didn't."- Does not require prisoners to remember their treatment. The subconscious effects are more than enough. The prisoner will be returned at the same time they left.t "

He laughed again, clapping his hands together in pure joy. He was going home, and he wouldn't remember a thing!

"" He tried to hold back his tears, how long had it been since he had seen another person, more than just a image of one on a screen, an honest to god real live, living person. "I'm... the current user... I'm requesting to clear the cell."

"Excellent" the voice didn't sound like it meant it. "Would you like to pick the replacement, or would you like to it to be automated?"

"What?" He knew this was coming, he knew there was a catch.

"For the cell to be emptied, a replacement must be found to continue the treatment."

"So you could pick for me?"

"I already have one decided... I am waiting on your word, Tim."

With just one word, one simple word, he would be free.

At the expense of someone else's freedom.

Could he do it?

Alan Rollick had done it.

"Yes, replace him"

Tim felt the whiteness envelop him and, for the last time, make him disappear.

A woman wakes up in a featureless white room. She doesn't know where she is.

"Hello, Tim"

She turns around; behind her is a robot, as strange and inexplicable as the rest of her surroundings. It puts a piece of corroded red metal onto its arm, and corrects the crookedness of its head.

"Have you figured out how to leave this room"?