He shoved at glasses that were no longer there. “Ah . . . yes. Trapped. I also believe the infinity paradox is responsible for the headaches we’ve all been complaining about. Our minds can’t handle this much unpredictability.”
He thought his logical explanation would put her at ease, but Nok went pale. Stupid. He’d never been confident around girls, especially beautiful ones. He came from Viking descendants; wasn’t he supposed to be beating his enemies with sabers and ripping trees in half? All the Vikings ever gave him was an unmanly shade of strawberry hair.
Cora tugged on his military jacket, getting his attention. “What about the ocean? There’s no path in the water that can loop a person back. Maybe someone just needs to swim out far enough to get past this infinity paradox.”
Rolf paused to consider this. It most certainly wouldn’t work, but at least she was displaying creative thinking, which was more than he could say for the others. “Perhaps, but judging by the fact that a girl already drowned, I’m not sure it’s the best course of action.”
His fingers found the comfort of the combination lock gears, spinning them again. He hated being put on the spot. Back in Oslo, all he’d wanted was to live in the flower garden at Tøyen, near to where his parents worked. He’d spend hours digging around the Rosa berberifolia and Bellis perennis. Dirt used to ring the beds of his fingernails, brown-black and permanent, like it had been tattooed on. You can’t play in the dirt, min skatt, his mother had said, washing off the dirt. You were made to use your brain, not your hands.
He sighed, squinting at the small etched numbers on the spinning gears of the combination lock, blinking hard, still confused by his perfect new vision. He’d seen numbers like the ones on the gears before. It was a Fibonacci pattern even the most basic math student would learn: one, one, two, three, five, eight, thirteen, and a blank for the last number.
On impulse, he spun the final gear until the next number lined up with the others—twenty-one—with a satisfying click. A copper-colored token rolled out of a trough at the base of the counter. There were strange grooves on either side of the token . . . a foreign language, or symbols. He inserted the token into a slot above the trough to see what would happen.
A glass door swung free. Hundreds of peppermint candies rained to the ground.
He cursed, jumping back as the flood of candy hit his feet. The others jumped back too. The falling candy was the only sound in the room, along with a sweet smell that made him famished. It felt like forever since he’d eaten anything. At Oxford he’d had lunch every day at an Indian takeaway place just below his dorm . . . he’d kill for a curry now, or for his mother’s egg-butter cod with flatbread, or even one of Snadderkiosken’s overcooked burgers.
Cora crouched down to inspect the candy. “How’d you do that?”
“The numbers on the combination lock form a simple sequence.”
“Simple? Maybe for you.” She inspected the gears. “Look, the numbers have already reset themselves into a different order. I don’t think it’s a lock. I think it’s a puzzle. Solve the numbers and get a token.”
Rolf cleared his throat, leaning in to see. “It’s possible. Scientists use this sort of puzzle to gauge the intelligence of lab mice and chimpanzees.” He glanced at the humming black window. “These windows could be viewing panels. Our captors might be watching us now, timing how quickly we solve these number tests, and perhaps the greatest puzzle of all—why we are here.”
As if to prove his point, one of the shadowy outlines shifted to the right.
Nok recoiled. “Is that them?” She collapsed against Rolf. “But those shadows are too big to be people, yeah?”
He tried to ignore how nice she smelled, like spring in Tøyen gardens. “We can’t be sure of anything. I imagine that whoever put us here wanted a group of teenagers who all spoke English, even though we’re from different countries. Nok is Thai, but she lives in London, I’m Norwegian, Leon is New Zealander. Lucky is . . .” He paused. He didn’t trust cool-looking American guys in leather jackets as a rule, but he liked the way Lucky spoke, calm and certain, and he definitely liked the way Lucky had punched Leon in the face. “The two of you—Lucky and Cora—are both American. That can’t be right. It doesn’t fit the pattern.”
“I was born in Colombia,” Lucky said. “My mom moved to the States when I was two and married my stepdad there.”
Rolf almost smiled—his theory had been correct. “So perhaps they want us for our different ethnicities, not nationalities. And I suppose they want us all to speak English because they speak English, which means they’re probably Americans or Brits or Australians.”
“I don’t care who they are,” Leon said, glaring at the panel challengingly. “As long as they bleed.”
“Do you think that’s why this place is so strange?” Cora asked. “With all the weird angles, and time periods stuck together? Maybe they’re trying to do some psychological test, like how much stress a mind can take?”
“If it is a psychological experiment,” Rolf said, “then they won’t tell us their purpose. It would skew whatever data they’re trying to collect. But there’s something else we need to think about. Every experiment has a control. A test subject who isn’t being manipulated, so they can ensure accurate results. Someone on the inside. A mole. Which means the more pressing question is . . . how can we trust each other?”
Everyone went silent. Both Cora and Leon rubbed their heads like their headaches were only getting worse. Rolf realized his mistake too late. He hadn’t meant to sow seeds of doubt; it had been a perfectly reasonable line of thought. But now he could practically hear the sound of their shifting eyes evaluating each other. He glanced at Nok—a girl who needed him. And Lucky—who had defended him. Had he already ruined his chances for some friends?
Next time he’d just study the Calendula officinalis and keep his mouth shut.
“A SNITCH?” CORA’S VOICE cut through the silence.
Nok was clutching her scalp, sobbing again. Even Leon, who acted so tough, paced over the peppermints, crushing them into a sticky mess. Cora could feel their panic—it beat in time with her own. But panic wouldn’t help this situation.
She looked at her reflection the black window, forcing the tight muscles in her face to ease—her clenched jaw, her wrinkled forehead—until she looked calm on the outside. It was something she’d had plenty of practice with.