's 2018 Horror Write-off:

A Lesson in Arrogance

Submitted by Samsinater (email)


There was a ding, as the counter taking up the wall in front of me flashed on, displaying the number a robotic voice just boomed into the chamber. Zero; made sense. I only just signed up for this thing.

The setup for this experiment, as it had been described to me, was fairly simple. All I had to do was figure out the solution to the puzzle in this room in as few tries as possible; each time I failed, the counter would increase, the puzzle would reset, and I'd have to try again. I had five minutes to do it, and if at any point I felt it was too difficult, I could say "I quit," out loud, and the experiment would end.

Really, despite that simplicity normally being totally contrary to my tastes in intellectual pursuits, the main reason I'd accepted this was because of how short it sounded; I could just solve this puzzle, if not on the first try then surely within a few more, and finish my lunch break with the promised reward of a cool hundred dollars padding my pocket, no sweat.

Being that it had now begun, I quickly took in my surroundings. The counter showed room for a generous nine digits, but even besides the fact I considered myself a puzzle master, I couldn't imagine this taking very many tries at all; the room I had been led to was just a plain, white tiled affair, not ten feet on a side, and totally empty save for me, the counter, the door I entered through, some fluorescent lights and a speaker on the ceiling, and probably most relevant to the puzzle, a small pedestal in the center of the room with a box on it.

Even the box didn't look very complicated; it was hardly bigger than a shoe box, made of a plain, silvery metal, with a little latch on the front, and an obvious horizontal slit crossing under the latch, likely where it opened along.

This was going to be a piece of cake.



There was a ding, as the counter taking up the wall in front of me flashed on, displaying the number a robotic voice just boomed into the chamber. Wait, one already? ...Oh, I get it; that's trippy!

It hit me now what the experimenters must have meant when they mentioned this was a "time experiment," which I originally just thought referred to how much time it took me to solve this. Never thought I'd participate in a study that used commercial time travel in my lifetime, but I guess the applications had come far, huh? That, or this place had more funding than I thought.

Well, whatever mistake I made last time, I was sure I wouldn't make again. Especially now that I knew I had already messed it up -- likely the only variable information I'd be allowed access to, if I couldn't remember my first attempt. I'd have to think very carefully about what that number meant, each time I saw it.

As for the puzzle itself, the only thing in here that looked directly puzzle-related was a little metal box on a pedestal -- but immediately I caught myself. Maybe working on that assumption had led to me failing the puzzle? I'd need to work against my own instincts if I was going to solve this. Trying the door, maybe? No; one tug confirmed it was locked, just as advertised. Supposedly it would be unlocked if I just said "I quit," but like hell I was giving up that easy. I turned my attention to the box.

Alright, buster, you fooled me once before, but let's see how you handle attempt number two?



A ding, as a robotic voice read aloud the number in front of me. I nearly did a double-take. Six? Just how fiendish was this puzzle that I'd failed six times without realizing it?

I held still and thought about it, careful not to make any sudden moves that could lead to my abrupt puzzle-solving downfall. This was obviously an experiment involving either memory manipulation, or actual time travel -- and unless I was mistaken, the former technology had yet to be perfected, let alone deemed safe for commercial use. I'd already done my research to make sure this lab was above-board, so that just left the second choice; these guys must have been pulling out all the stops.

It seemed that had to be the case, anyway, if this puzzle was difficult enough that I'd failed to solve it six times in a row now, despite my previous impeccable puzzle-solving track record. But... the only thing in here that looked like it was part of the puzzle was a box on a pedestal. It wasn't even that big; was whatever's inside really that complicated? Not only enough such that I didn't solve it the first time, but I also messed it up the next five tries, too?

I took a breath, and braced myself. I had to be ready for a challenge. Time to see what these tricky bastards came up with!



A ding, a voice. I sputtered the moment I comprehended it. The words wheezed out of me like air from a balloon: "Ffff.....fforty seven?!"

My thoughts instantly raced, desperately trying to piece this together, at several points leading me to glance at the box in the middle of the room, and then everywhere else. This was time travel; obviously. Big budget. But just how big??

Big enough to afford a puzzle that could stump me forty seven times, apparently. It occurred to me that maybe I'd failed so many times, despite probably having the realizations I was having now, because I thought too hard about it. I just needed to dive right in.

This puzzle would *not* stump me a forty-eighth time!



"Ffff.....fforty eight?!"



I gaped. No way. There was absolutely no way that was right. Was this part of the test? How could a number like that even be contextually feasible?!

I slumped against the door behind me for a moment, thinking for what felt like eternity, trying desperately to piece together what my thought process must have been before, even as I was in part probably repeating it. Remembering and scrutinizing everything the experimenters told me, drawing every possible conclusion I could, even being careful as to not fix myself on what I believed to be the only logical conclusion -- anything was fair game with a number like that on the wall.

It occurred to me to consider: How far back was I repeating my own actions? How many times had I thought these exact thoughts, just with a different number? It couldn't be all the way back to the second time I tried this, right? ...No; there's no way a one or a two would have sent me reeling like... one hundred and seventy-goddamned-three. So, at least I was on the right track for not going down that same mental path, and making the same initial mistakes.

And yet, even more baffling than how many tries I'd apparently taken was how simple this puzzle looked. I mean, it was just a box! Right over there, sitting on a pedestal; not even so much as a lock or any words or numbers on it. Not even a sequence of colors or symbols! I was told this puzzle might take me a while, which I dismissed at first due to my skill level, but had they really outsmarted me so easily? With, if not a simple box, then whatever meager assortment of pieces could fit inside one?

Jesus. I was dealing with master level chess players, apparently. Or, chess designers? Whatever.

They told me I could end the experiment at anytime by saying "I quit" out loud, but if I'd stuck with it for 173 times, I could give it a 174th go. C'mon, brain, you got this.



My jaw hit the floor. I had to practically shout to my own brain, "BREATHE," just so I didn't pass out.

I caught myself thinking, specifically about what I must have thought about before, and what I must have thought about what I thought about before, and... Crap.

How deep in was I? I made, in the span of about a minute, a complete mental rundown what I assumed must have already occurred to me for the past... I don't know, a thousand tries at least. And then I made a rundown of that rundown, and then one more of that.

What could possibly be in that box? Was... wait.

No, that was insane -- but immediately I knew that meant I had to try it.

Working on the assumption that maybe I failed this puzzle just by opening the box, I decided to wait it out. I had been given a time limit, of five minutes to be exact, but that limit must have seemed too insane to be relevant to all the previous iterations of me. I mean, that box is tiny!

Boring as it may be, the solution had to be just letting the clock run out. It was the only unorthodox answer that made sense, given my number of failures. Otherwise, this was just bad puzzle design.

I relaxed, and waited against the door until my time was up.



My legs gave out from under me. I couldn't help it; that number was staggeringly huge. It was also...

...Heh. Heheh. "Nice," I informed the room with a mock thumbs up.

It was stupid, and practically beneath me to find that funny, but I probably needed that laugh. Something to ground me despite my overwhelming number of failures. Maybe that was just what I needed, too! No other number was going to have the same mental significance as that one; not in this numerical range. Whatever mental path I was on right now, it was guaranteed to be different from my last ones. I had to capitalize on it.

This would probably be the time I solve it, I bet!



My legs gave out from under me. I couldn't help it; that number was staggeringly huge. It was also...

...proof that whatever path I followed last time hadn't helped. I decided not to even bother considering that I had squandered the uniqueness of it; I knew myself better than that. Hell, as best I could tell, just knowing myself was the real key to solving this puzzle. I was essentially playing fourth-dimensional chess with myself, trying to think so far outside the box that the box was in another universe.

An apt comparison to the box in this room, maybe? It had to be out of this world if I still hadn't gotten it. Damn! What was I missing??

I decided to get up and approach the box, as I had surely done countless times. But this time, whatever was inside, I'd be careful. I'd be the most careful. And whatever I saw, I'd just have to think extremely carefully about what my thought process must have been before. It was tough, that much was obvious, but I could do this.

I could do this!



I think I felt my brain explode.

I didn't even think, this time. I couldn't; whatever I thought before was wrong, that much was a guarantee, six orders of magnitude over. That's what the number on the wall was telling me.

My mind should have been frantic with possible branches to follow, to try to escape the impossible logic trap this puzzle represented, but they were all shut down before they could start; if I was this far in, with that many failures, there was no amount of thinking I could do to dig myself out. Maybe...

Maybe it was finally time to call it quits. It was disappointing, thinking that to myself, but it was time to cut my losses. Even if it didn't feel like it, to this iteration of me, I'd obviously spent way too much time on this.

...I had to see what was in the box first, though.

I had to know what had taken me more tries to solve than I could have ever originally conceived any puzzle taking. Just one quick look. Then I'd say "I quit," and it'd finally all be over.

I walked forward and, hands trembling, unlatched the box.

As it clicked, I shied away, flinching, and then ducking fully below the level of the pedestal, in case something deadly was inside. When I gently flipped open the lid from that position, nothing exploded, or audibly went off, or even visibly seeped from the interior, so I slowly rose up to venture a peek.

The inside of the box was almost as plain as the room it sat in. I tried to feel something as I drank in the underwhelming display, but found myself thoroughly unable: the contents of the interior were just two big, red buttons. The one on the left was labeled, "Push this button," the right labeled, "Do not push this button."

That was it? Just two buttons? It had taken me nearly 900,000 attempts to solve this? Hell, I couldn't give up on something this brain-dead simple; I only had two choices! Still not fully believing it, my hand hovered over the button on the left, the obvious choice. But just as I was about to press it, it struck me: this was reverse psychology. I immediately slapped the one on the right instead, refusing to be tricked by something so simple, and getting a buzzer sound for my efforts.

Huh. Weird sound for a victory noise, but--