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Zero Escape: Zero Win Game

Discussion in 'Questing' started by CypherZero, May 1, 2022.

?

What will you do?

Poll closed May 21, 2022.
  1. Sacrifice Carlos and Diana

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  2. Sacrifice Mira and Maria

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  3. Sacrifice Sigma and Phi

    0 vote(s)
    0.0%
  4. ...?

    1 vote(s)
    100.0%
Loading...
  1. Threadmarks: Prologue: Walking Into a Trap
    CypherZero

    CypherZero Getting sticky.

    Joined:
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    You expected that you and Aoi would be the first ones in the DCOM building on Friday evening. The team was going to be you two along with Sigma and Phi. Light was going to be part of the operation initially, he had applied to be part of the Mars Cohabitation plan in their Disabled slot (because, ostensibly, if this whole thing wasn’t going to be a trap, they would need to accommodate people with different disabilities while up in space), but it had been filled by another applicant.

    It was a slight wrench in the works, but it was fine. It allowed you to put Clover into cold sleep early, make preparations for plan B ahead of time.

    The reason you gave Sigma and Phi for entering the building twenty minutes ahead of them was to scout for traps, just in case. You didn’t want to get surprised right out of the gate, after all, and if there were any signs of trouble, you wanted to make sure that half of your people were on the outside ready to rescue you.

    (Having run one of these before, you and Aoi both knew that the trap wouldn’t come right out of the gate. Typically, you wanted to lull your subjects into a false sense of security first, then hit them when their guards were down. It wouldn’t do if half your possible participants were entering the trap knowing they were entering a trap.

    You were just wary of Sigma, is all. You didn’t want him entering ahead of you.)

    What you weren’t expecting was for someone to already be in the lobby.

    An attractive brunette dressed just barely on the right side of decency lazed back in her chair dead center of the lobby, tapping away on her phone, likely handing the last bit of business before she was shut away from the outside world for a week. She has a suitcase next to her, maybe half again the size of yours (and utterly dwarfing Aoi’s duffel bag). She looked up immediately when the sliding door chimed your entrance, seemed to scan you and Aoi each for two seconds each, then dropped her gaze back to her phone, seemingly uninterested.

    It seemed practiced. Very calculated.

    Another person to be wary of, wonderful.

    Aoi walked up to the person at the desk for registration while you dug around in your purse. You mentally tallied a pack of gum, Aoi’s candy, a pocket-sized notebook and pencil, and your pistol, before bringing out both of your IDs and your phone.

    “Aoi and Akane Kurashiki for the DCOM project.” You let your brother sign the both of you in, passing the IDs over, and keep an eye on the mystery participant out of the corner of your eye. Objectively, your brother is very attractive, neither too tall nor short, with striking blue eyes contrasting with his white hair (which he continues to dye in spite of (or maybe because of) Sigma’s annoying comments about Phi being the third missing Kurashiki), and a decently deep voice that just sort of demands your attention.

    Mystery girl didn’t even spare a glance upwards, how about that.

    “Alright, you two are all set! And thank you very much for participating!” You held your arm out to let Aoi put your IDs away (and snorted when he immediately went to grab his candy) and walk to the side of the lobby opposite the receptionist’s desk. Easiest way to keep an eye on the door without making it too obvious that you’re watching.

    Mystery girl doesn’t try to approach or address you, which is interesting considering that you were going to be living together in close quarters for about a week. Aoi looked over at you, quirked an eyebrow, and shrugged when you shook your head. You weren’t going to be the first to reach out in whatever this scenario was.

    You sat in silence for a few minutes, Aoi eating his candy, eyes roving the room for any obvious signs of traps (there wouldn’t be. There didn’t have to be. It was a reception lobby. The front wall was made entirely of glass, there was a vent in the ceiling for HVAC, there were two doors in the back, one of them probably led to a bathroom and the other was probably locked to the participants. If they wanted to gas and bag you here it would be pathetically easy.), while you ran the program on your phone that checked for bugs and wires.

    There was nothing recording besides the obvious cameras in the corners. Because there didn’t need to be. If the receptionist was in on it she could just call when everyone was in place and tell her superiors in person if anything out of the ordinary was spoken.

    You’re not going to get yourself wound up in your paranoia. You already knew you were walking into a trap, you were not going to get worked up wondering about shadow agents and hidden assassins and microscopic cameras the size of a nipple. There was no point.

    The door chimed and your eyes darted up instinctively, fingers swiping the program away to land on an innocent game instead. A redheaded woman was walking through the entrance, gait confident for all of three steps before it melts into a nervous shuffle, gaze roaming all around the room. She had to psyche herself up to come in, even though there was an entire process to signing up for the cohabitation project. Naturally nervous, then.

    She looked in your direction and almost flinched. Was she in on the trap? Were you the primary target after all? Was this an unwilling participant that was knowingly walking to her demise?

    ...No, she wasn’t looking at you, you don’t think. At Aoi, then. Male-avoidant, maybe? If it was all men she would have had a stronger reaction toward seeing Aoi. Probably a specific man, then, and the man in question was different enough in build from Aoi for her to distance them in her mind.

    ...You were so lost in your thoughts that you missed her name while she was checking in. You had to look over to Aoi and silently ask for his help. He smirks at you, then stretches in the facsimile of a yawn, using the motion to cover his mouth and whisper over to you,

    “Diana. Medical.”

    Ah, the second special slot in the cohabitation program. In addition to there being someone with special needs, to see how people would react to unexpected difficulties while in space, there also needed to be someone with medical experience to assist anyone who had any sort of accident or injury, and someone with correctional or mediation experience to help handle interpersonal issues on the ship.

    (You almost had Aoi sign up under interpersonal instead of through a normal application, stating that the Games was technically a form of mediation. Aoi said he couldn’t use that as a reference without catching kidnapping charges. Pity, that.)

    This meek little slip of a thing was going to handle medical issues in DCOM? You wouldn’t trust her to look at a chart, much less handle a needle. You tried to not let any of that show on your face, but you didn’t exactly stand up and roll out the red carpet for her either.

    She brought her bag, about the same size as yours, over to the center of the room, not right next to the other woman but not explicitly trying to distance herself as you did. To her credit, the mystery girl put on a smile and tried to put her at ease.

    “Hey, Diana right? I’m Mira. I guess we’re going to be living together for the next week.”

    “Oh, uh, hello! Yes I, uh, suppose we are!”

    “How are you feeling about everything, you excited? I know I am. Like, I know it’s not really space, right? But it’s a simulation of space, and that’s just thrilling.”

    “Oh, I guess you like space?”

    “Absolutely! I just wonder what they’re gonna have us do when we’re there, if they’re gonna give us a really authentic experience, you know?”

    Your estimation of Diana seems spot on. She’s nervous, a bit of a wallflower, easily concedes control of the conversation to whoever she happens to be interacting with.

    Mira, though, is completely at odds with how you first interpreted her. She seems friendly and open, Diana is visibly calming down while she talks. She isn’t completely running roughshod over Diana either, she’s pausing to give her space to respond with her input (that she never seems to take).

    Maybe she just closed off in response to your own analytical gaze? Maybe you saw something that just wasn’t there? You’re not sure.

    The door chimed again. It was a pair this time, and the sight of two people walking in together reminded you to text Phi the all-clear signal. The front lobby has no traps, you’re free to come in, or something along those lines. It was sloppily composed and sent off in a hurry because something—

    Something was off. It wasn’t the man, though his blond hair and green eyes and easygoing smile sent a tickle down your brain, reminded of you something you can’t quite recall. No, it’s the girl, her blond hair cut short, a hand gripping the strap of her overalls underneath her coat, a vacant stare pointed at the back wall like she’s not really looking at it, like she’s looking past it, to where it might be in ten years.

    A vacant stare she turned to fix on you. She turned to you, and static filled your mind, like she was drawing you into her void. Her gaze never shifted as she walked unhurriedly toward you, but her hand slipped from the strap she had in a death grip, and it was reaching for you—

    And then the eerily familiar-looking man came up from behind her, put a hand on her shoulder to stop her momentum.

    “Hey, sorry about her. Maria’s recently been diagnosed with Reverie Syndrome. She doesn’t talk very often, but sometimes she wanders off like that, all slow and zombie-like, y’know? The doctors think it’s her way of trying to communicate. She isn’t exactly mute yet, but words come harder than they have before.”

    Silently, Maria’s hand comes up to pat the man’s before descending again to grip the strap of her overalls.

    “Oh, where are my manners? I’m Carlos! I’m Maria’s older brother. I guess we’re going to be living together for the DCOM project! You know, I didn’t even know she applied to the program with me until her acceptance came through? Or that Reverie Syndrome was serious enough to be counted as a Disability for the program slot. Guess she still has autonomy after all, huh?”

    Reverie Syndrome? That was a familiar phenomenon— some of the Crash Keys agents had contracted it, most notably one of your younger esper agents. There seemed to be little connection between the ones caught, as well.

    It was something to keep an eye on, maybe. “That’s okay. It’s nice to meet you, Carlos, I’m Akane. This is my brother Aoi.”

    “Hey man, how’s it going?”

    Aoi started talking to Carlos while Maria sat in a chair on your opposite side, gaze pointed somewhere in your direction but not directly at you. You put some final affairs with Crash Keys in order on your phone, thankfully nothing very visually incriminating, what with a dazed child seated next to you, and prayed for the clock to move faster so you could finally spring this death trap waiting to happen.

    Or were you waiting for the rest of the DCOM participants before you could begin? That seems more likely.

    You prayed that Sigma and Phi would move faster, then.

    “-you senile old man!”

    “I’m just saying, they seem to have grown a full cup since the last time you told me about them.”

    So you have wished it…

    You weren’t paying very close attention when Carlos came in, thanks to the possibly possessed girl that came along with him, but when Sigma and Phi enter the building, you make sure to keep your gaze toward Diana.

    And, sure enough, she looked up from where she was having a conversation with Mira to see the tall, broad-shouldered frame of Sigma Klim, and flinched so badly it gave you sympathy pains. She seemed to have had a negative experience with a larger man, which is unfortunate, to say the least. Useful information to have, though. But how to leverage it properly…

    You stood up, stretched audibly, and walked over to Phi, who was jerking her ID out of Sigma’s hand and stuffing it into the side of her backpack. She turned to face you, and her mock outrage shifted to a cool smirk. “Well, hey there, sis.”

    “Oh, hush you. Aoi’s the one who quote-unquote ‘adopted’ you, I take no part in this siblingship.”

    “Aw, come on,” Aoi called from his seat, “you don’t want her as a little sister? She’s adorable, and way more manageable than you’ve ever been!”

    You blinked a couple of times before turning back to Phi. “You know what? You can have him to yourself. I disown myself. I wipe my hands clean of him.”

    You ignored Aoi’s gasp of mock outrage and move off to the side away from the reception desk. Phi let out a sound that was more cackle than giggle and ran off to harass Aoi while Sigma moved to accompany you.

    It would have been too much to ask for this to be the entire group, but it would have been nice if it were true. Eight people, four of them on your side, so even if everyone else was explicitly your enemy you stood a decent chance of success. Sigma and Aoi could handle Carlos together, and while you weren’t sure of Mira’s capabilities, there wasn’t a lot that could stand up to your plans combined with Phi’s innovation. Maria didn’t seem like much of a factor due to her Reverie Syndrome, and Diana wasn’t much of a force, as afraid of her shadow as she seemed.

    But the DCOM program had a third special slot, didn’t it?

    The door chimed one final time, and your eyes automatically went up to scan the new participant—

    And you immediately shuffled half a step to your right, putting Sigma’s frame in between you and the door. Your eyes shot over to Aoi right as he made some inflammatory comment or another, causing Phi to get right in his face as he slouched in his chair, hiding his profile from sight as well.

    “The security in this office has more holes than a block of Swiss, but that’s fine because of the visibility to the public that the windows provide,” you murmured to Sigma, if only to occupy yourself.

    “Hey, this is the waiting room for DCOM, right? I got the Interpersonal slot?”

    “They’re unlikely to try and trap us while in transit, it would be too easy to prepare ourselves, to break the doors and escape, to have trackers on us and call distress beacons.” You kept talking, kept your focus on the topic even as your attention split to center on him.

    “Yes indeed, can you identify yourself for me?”

    “Most likely, they’ll wait until we’re in whatever living quarters, wait for our guards to drop, grab us in the middle of the night, or when we’re least expecting it. That’s what I’d do, anyway.”

    Because even if you could handle everyone else in the room, even if you could make a rudimentary plan for anyone else you came across—

    (The doors were painted with a four and a five. The whole of the group had more or less decided on the correct course of action. All he needed to do was go with the flow, and he would be one step closer to freedom. You would be one step closer to salvation.

    And all he needed to do was go left.)

    “Junpei Tenmyouji.”

    (But sometimes, in about eight iterations of twenty, he argues. Goes against the flow.

    In eight iterations,

    he goes right,

    and you burn.)

    —you could never quite plan for Junpei.
     
    Jen X, Cubbyhb1, Shukin and 1 other person like this.
  2. Threadmarks: Prologue: Interviews With the Damned
    CypherZero

    CypherZero Getting sticky.

    Joined:
    May 5, 2018
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    You got to the facility late in the night, easily past midnight. The receptionist, who also served as the coordinator, had led everyone down a hallway that ended with three doors. The door in the center led to a medical office with three bedrooms attached, one each for the specialized participants, while the doors on the left and right led to group rooms with three beds each.

    It was easiest to split into gendered groups, so you and Phi entered the room with Mira, where you set your bag down underneath your bed and promptly fell asleep.

    The next morning saw you getting ready for the day. There was a paper on the back of the door that stated that “randomized group activities that would test the participants’ ability to react to difficulties in space” wouldn’t start until Monday at the earliest, and that people were advised to familiarize themselves with the facility and the other participants. Mira was gone from the room, so she had presumably gone off to do just that.

    “So what’s up with him? Why are you so scared?”

    Which left you with an inquisitive Phi.

    “Scared? I can Shift, so I’m functionally immortal. There’s nothing for me to be scared of.”

    “I don’t think that’s how Shifting works.”

    “Isn’t it?” You adjust yourself to lock eyes with Phi in the mirror. “If there’s a threat to my livelihood, I jump to another timeline and I’m no longer in danger. That’s exactly how Shifting works.”

    “So because you can respond to mortal peril, there’s no reason to ever be scared of anything ever.”

    “Yep!”

    Phi is completely unaffected by your peppy mask. “So there should be no reason for you to keep trying to hide behind Sigma and avoid that mediator guy.”

    You ignore her smirk and pull your hair into a side ponytail. “I’m not afraid of him—”

    (“I’m not up to anything. I’m just waiting.
    “Waiting for what?”
    “Waiting for the balance to shift.”)

    “—I’m just wary.”

    “Why? Is he a Shifter too?”

    “You know…”

    Multiverse theory was something that Aoi had never thought about before Phi had shown up with her rudimentary plan. It was something he still refused to really think about except in the abstract, because that would mean that there existed worlds where Junpei had messed up, and you remained dead in the incinerator.

    You know firsthand that those worlds exist. You know that Junpei didn’t always and automatically make the correct choice, that in this observed universe, he was considerate and thoughtful and caring, but in others, he was just a little too selfish, a little too hesitant, a bit too curious for his (and your) own good.

    Was he aware of that too?

    “I have no idea.”



    You stumbled upon Carlos doing stretches in the main hall, and stopped for a second to just look at him. He was tall and muscular, and from what you had observed the day before he was charismatic as well. He seemed like one of those extraordinarily happy people whose mission in life was just to make everyone else as happy as him, which was a hard thing to fake for any extended amount of time.

    Your estimation of Carlos was that he was a genuinely warm person.

    (You ignored the strange chill you got around him. It was December, and your sweaters weren’t the most insulated. It was nothing.)

    “Having fun there?”

    He looked up at your call and smiled when he saw you. “Oh, hey there! Akane, right? Just keeping up my routine, is all. There isn’t supposed to be anything for us to tackle until the day after tomorrow, but there’s no reason for me to slack off, you know? It always pays off to be limber!”

    He was just so cheery. “You have a workout routine?”

    “Yep, every morning! A bit of a lie-in on Sundays, but that’s just a delay, not a cancellation. It’s not like fires don’t start just because it’s the weekend, you know?”

    “Fires?”

    “Yep! Firefighting’s how I take care of my sister. Well, that and the money we’ll be getting from DCOM, of course. It helps that I’m good at it, too, but mostly we had a bad experience with fire and I wanna make sure that no one else has to go through what we did, you know?”

    “I’m sorry, you’re good at firefighting?”

    “Well, more the rescue part of Fire and Rescue, but I’m not bad at the actual firefighting either! I always know where people are while I’m in a burning building, you know? And I always seem to avoid the really bad parts of a building, too. Danger could be behind any door, you know. Guess I’m just lucky my danger is a lot lower than other people’s!”

    There was a lot to unpack there. “Are you sure it’s just luck?”

    “Well, what else would you call it? A few of the guys at the station call it my ‘sixth sense’ or whatever. I just know when there’s gonna be danger behind the door.”

    “Well, that’s pretty cool.”

    How very interesting.


    Something that was required before replicating random occurrences on a Mars dwelling site was a series of tests both physical and psychological, to make sure you were fit to live in isolation for an extended period. As a sort of extension to that, the medical practitioner and the mediator were to get baselines of your physical and mental health before the test, to compare during and after. The physical examination you didn’t have any issues with, but the mental examination…

    Well, you didn’t have any issues with the exam, per se.

    You tried your best not to take your stress out on poor Diana.

    “For you to get this spot, you have to be like, licensed, right? And not just a medical student or something?”

    “Mhmm, that’s right. I’m a fully licensed nurse.”

    “Where are you currently practicing? Anywhere nearby?”

    “Not in Nevada, no. I work at this sort of experimental facility where they have some really advanced stuff for testing. It’s all like, approved! It’s not completely untested! It’s just not ready for public general use, is all!”

    The comment slipped from your mouth before you were even conscious of it. “You’re backed by Cradle, right?”

    “Oh! You know about them?”

    You had to physically bite your tongue to keep your first, second, and third comments to yourself. (That the CEO had prosopagnosia, that he was arrested for kidnapping, and that it was possibly funding a cult. You weren’t even certain of the third thing.) You struggled to find something relevant to say.

    “They had that, uh, injector thing come out recently, right?”

    “Oh, the injector gun, yeah. Takes a whole vial of whatever medicine you need and pushes it right into your patient. Super handy, just a bit tricky.”

    “Tricky?”

    “Well, using and operating the gun itself is super easy. Just screw in the vial, push the needle part into the patient’s vein, pull the trigger. It’s the medicine itself that’s hard. Because it uses like, a whole vial of the stuff, right? You have to prepare each vial manually, and you have to be very careful with it. If it’s too diluted, then you’re just shoving a whole bunch of flavored water into someone’s body, essentially, but if it’s not diluted enough, you could overdose them super easily. So general use is only available for super-rich facilities right now, and only for certain medicines and stuff, and all the vials are preprepared.”

    When Diana’s on a topic she knows a lot about or is passionate about, she apparently tends to go on and on for a while. You wondered if she knew any super obscure trivia.

    You thought you could really come to like her.

    “Alright, you should be all set! Just head on over next door to Junpei!”

    The thought quickly vanished.


    Any heat you felt from the doorknob was imagined.

    It was a thought you had to force yourself to think numerous times while you stood in front of the door to Junpei’s office. It served as a distraction from the low-level dread that had been creeping up your spine.

    Another example of something that distracted you from your panic (because that’s what this was, you dimly realized. You were panicking, possibly over nothing at all), how funny it was to think of Junpei with an office.

    You couldn’t imagine it. Even as it existed right in front of your face, your mind kept conjuring silly images of a twelve-year-old Junpei wearing the clothes of someone older than he, possibly dressing like his father, with comically oversized glasses carrying a cartoonishly tall stack of papers and forms, telling everyone that he had important business to take care of.

    It was funny, what your frenzied mind could conjure.

    It didn’t help you open the door. You were still afraid (irrationally so) that the doorknob would burn you.

    At some point, finally, you could move your gaze away from the knob to see the sliver of light that shone between the door frame and the door. It was cracked. You nudged it fully open with your foot so you could enter, bracing yourself for a wave of heat.

    A wave of heat that would never come, because you were not burning alive, because Junpei didn’t mess up, Junpei saved you, and there was no reason for your mind to go into hyperspeed survival mode at the mere thought of him.

    The office was normal, almost completely untouched by its occupant. A completely ordinary swivel chair in front of a perfectly normal desk, with a stack of manilla folders placed on top of it. All the folders were closed of course, except for yours, open to a page that declared you mentally fit to participate in the project, and an old photo of you paperclipped to its corner.

    A very old photo of you. You think you were twelve. You thought it might have been Junpei’s picture.

    Junpei himself looked good. Hair roughly the same length as when you saw him during the Nonary Game, dressed in subdued blacks rather than the outrageously bright colors he had been wearing a year ago. There were light bags under his eyes and, as he turned in his chair to face you, you can see that those eyes, which were previously so bright and expressive, were cold, closed off.

    You had no idea what to expect from him.

    (“I want to go through…”
    He would go through door one. He would be one step closer to saving you.
    “...door six.”

    You burned.)

    Belatedly, you began to wonder if you ever did.

    “So,” you started, in a bid to rid yourself of your nervous energy, “how did you end up in a mediation position?”

    “Aren’t you a master of deductive reasoning? You’re the one who grabbed me from my apartment, you should have enough clues.” The words that should have been accusatory barbs were dulled and watered down until they were bland, factual statements. It shocked you enough that you began your usual deductive process, thinking through your available facts and making general assumptions.

    “You were in an overseas collegiate program for… psychology, I think. Criminal psychology. You would’ve been on file in some database or another, I think, and after the Games, you would have brought Ace to a police station, because he was arrested for kidnapping and experimentation. From there, someone would have noted that you were part of a criminal psychology program and offered you an internship, maybe? Because of your conduct, probably.

    “And then from there, the only thing you would have needed for the mediation position is related experience and a good reference. And if you were excelling, you wouldn’t have had any issue getting a good reference.”

    Junpei hummed, looking over the files in front of him. “Those were some leaps in logic.”

    “I only made assumptions because you were so sure that it would’ve been easy for me to guess. Normally, I would’ve waited for more information.”

    He hummed again, then he seemed to melt in front of you. The neutral body language sloughed off and became lazy and bone-tired, his mouth twisted unpleasantly, and his eyes lit up with intelligence, somehow familiar and foreign at the same time.

    The same smart Jumpy, just a bit jagged.

    “When we got to the station, Light’s testimony was half-missing and almost entirely dismissable because of his blindness, Clover was too busy fussing over Light, Alice,” oh, he met Alice before reaching civilization? “didn’t know anything at all, and Seven still had a killer migraine.”

    He stops his explanation to glare at you, as if you had any control over your limbo state of existence and how non-espers reacted to it.

    “So it was just me and Hazuki left to explain things, and she was more concerned with letting her daughters know that she was alright, despite being in another country altogether. So she left me to explain everything to the police.

    “Apparently, I gave really good reports, and the detective in charge was impressed with my composure, or whatever. He had a position for me, except it was unpaid, and it would bite into the work I had to do to pay for my schooling.”

    His jaw flexed like he was grinding his teeth, and he cast a gimlet eye over to you. “Then, money stopped being an issue. Though honestly, you could’ve been more subtle than making nine deposits of $55,555 to my bank account.”

    “I’m surprised you used the money at all, honestly. I know Clover doesn’t, on principle, and Seven tried to return it a couple times before he shifted it to a new account and forgot about it. It was Aoi’s idea anyway; if he got his way, he would’ve just given you ¥555,555,555 and called it good, but I convinced him not to completely blow our operations budget.”

    “What, you’re telling me that the ruthless ‘Red Santa’ wanted to give me five million for a bit?”

    “He’s a bit of a jokester when things aren’t so serious, yeah.”

    “Guess I wouldn’t know.”

    The silence that descended was more than a bit awkward, as you turned your eyes to the side, guiltily, and Junpei went back through his forms. Eventually, he sighed, took a paper from the folder, and talked a bit robotically, reading from the page.

    “Akane Kurashiki, what are you hoping to gain from this?”

    “Oh, uh, well, I think the experience that I get from DCOM—”

    “I should clarify.” He looked up from the paper and directly into your eyes, pinning you with his gaze. “The form wants to know what you hope to get out of DCOM. I know that you wouldn’t have been able to get a brother-sister pair into the project without a valid concern, like Maria fully succumbing to Reverie Syndrome without Carlos to bring her back, and I also know that you tried to get Light into the project before it was vetoed in favor of Maria.

    “I don’t care what reasons you gave your interviewer or your probably forged application. I want to know what you’re doing here.”

    You don’t answer. You turn your eyes away, unable to meet his own, and you could only imagine his expression as huffs in disgust.

    “Just tell me one thing, then. Are we in any danger?”

    You’d like to say that your voice didn’t crack when you answered.

    “Probably.”

    But you don’t enjoy lying to yourself.


    The next morning saw you waking up earlier than the girls you were roomed with. You paid no thought to dreams you may or may not have had, and didn’t concern yourself with why you might have found yourself so awake so early.

    Instead, you shuffled off into the kitchen, expecting to find yourself alone in the early hour.

    You found Maria there. She had a cereal bar by her side, open but untouched, and instead had her lidded eyes focused on a paper in front of her, a pencil in her hand swaying from side to side as she drew.

    It was odd to see her. Normally, she kept to her room or kept to her brother’s side. You weren’t sure you wanted to know what kept the troubled child awake, what pushed her from her sanctum to the kitchen.

    Clearly, it wasn’t hunger.

    You busied yourself with coffee preparations and tried to make small talk. “You okay?”

    “Hm.”

    “Didn’t want to be with your brother?”

    “Sunday.”

    “Oh, he did say he usually took a lie-in today. Is this normal? For you to be drawing while he sleeps?”

    “Mm-mm.”

    You had the grounds in the filter and set the machine to run, turning your attention to her fully. “What are you drawing, anyhow?”

    “Dreams.” With that monosyllabic response, she pushed the paper to the side to show it to you, a sort of presentation.

    “Oh, do you draw your dreams to help you… remember…?” You trail off as your eyes roam the page. Her drawings seem split between ideally childish (a girl pushing off a building to soar through the air, and a trio of birds escaping their cage to fly alongside her) to grotesquely morbid (a robotic hand holding a human eyeball, a human hand holding a bleeding heart). But some of them…

    (A girl trapped behind a glass window set into steel.

    A bleeding hand and a falling axe.

    A sudoku puzzle bracketed by flame.)

    Were familiar.

    “No.”

    You opted to leave it at that.


    A bit distressed, you went back to your room and got dressed in subdued clothing. Wearing comfortable leggings and an oversized hoodie, you absentmindedly tucked your hair into your hood and ventured out. The door opposite you was open enough for you to see all four boys roughhousing and jeering at each other, engaging in a bit of male bonding.

    Sigma happened to look up and lock eyes with you, and you took the opportunity presented to you, jerking your chin leftward, away from the bedrooms. Without looking to make sure he was trying to break away, you walked to the central lobby, then took a turn toward one of the many plush living spaces available to all of you, quite a bit farther than anyone would normally go if they just wanted to laze on a couch.

    You didn’t sit down, generally preferring to stand and pace and talk with your hands. Sigma didn’t leave you waiting for very long, entering and closing the door quietly, with an amount of grace his frame belied.

    You waited for him to take a seat in one of the armchairs before starting your questions. “You said you don’t know anything about the project, right?”

    “I was never told more than the date and the location.”

    “You don’t recognize anyone here?”

    “Other than you and Phi? Two people, Diana and Tenmyouji.”

    You opened your mouth to retort but instead decided— “Let’s put a pin in that for now. I think Maria is an esper.”

    “Really now?”

    “Sleep-based, maybe? An incredibly powerful receiver, regardless, if my hunch isn’t wrong. Saw her in the kitchen this morning, drawing what she described as dreams.”

    “What was she drawing?”

    You described everything you saw to Sigma, omitting nothing. It weirded you out how much he knew about you compared to how little you knew about him, even given his claims of a massive time-based Shift. (Forty-five years! Could you ever do that? Would you ever try?) You were hesitant to give him even more information, but that probably wasn’t a healthy line of thought to have against an ally.

    “Hmm… The flying girl is vaguely familiar, maybe ask Phi about it. Some of them are complete nonsense, and some of them are over-the-top gory, but the birds remind me of Diana, and the eyeball in the cybernetic hand is a very vivid reoccurring dream I have.”

    “Did you have it last night?”

    “Yes. So it seems as though she’s viewing our dreams, how interesting.”

    “And you don’t recognize her at all?”

    “I know nothing about her, or her brother, or Mira for that matter. To be perfectly honest, I didn’t even know you had a brother before I woke up in your base last week.”

    “You didn’t know Aoi?”

    “I had never met him, and you had never mentioned him.”

    That’s… disconcerting, to say the least. “But you somehow know Diana and Junpei.”

    “Diana was with me on the moon base when I first shifted back to my body after the AB project, while I was adjusting to my cybernetics. We spent three or so years together before she succumbed to a circulatory disease brought about by the moon’s low gravity.”

    His words were so sterile and calculated, but his voice carried longing in it. You decided to let the topic rest. “And Junpei?”

    “I had only ever met Tenmyouji personally during the project itself. This was before I went through the AB Game and sent my consciousness backward in time. Other than that, he was the subject of a different experiment, long-distance communication between a GAULEM and the moon base. I had three such GAULEMs, one reporting current events down on Earth, another to keep in contact with you until you eventually came to the moon yourself, and a third to observe him, as a person of interest.”

    “Whose interest?”

    “Yours.”


    The kitchen was attached to a larger common space, with couches and armchairs and coffee tables and side tables, anything you could ever need. All of which were pushed to the edge of the room to make room for super plush beanbags.

    You don’t know whose idea it was originally, but someone made the point that starting tomorrow you would be randomly and abruptly thrown into chaotic situations beyond your control. Unbeknownst to half the participants, this was doubly true if you were indeed walking headlong into a trap. This would likely be the last bit of relaxation you could get before everything went to hell.

    In light of this information, you collectively decided to laze about on the floor and just chat a while. Talk about your interests, find commonalities, bond with each other.

    Things were going well. Not perfectly, not with Maria burying herself in her brother’s side, or with Diana flinching every time Carlos gets overexcited and gesticulates a bit too quickly, or with Junpei staring at Mira every time her motions got jerky, only to snap his sight back to you before sending it to the floor, defeated and guilty and angry.

    But they were going fine enough.

    “But those true crime documentaries are super interesting, I would say!” Carlos’ voice fluctuated and tended toward being overly loud, probably to compensate for the hands he couldn’t wave around because Maria was clutching them. “The ones about serial killers are pretty great!”

    Mira snorted, apparently unimpressed. “Sure, if you want some quick entertainment while thinking you’re not completely rotting your brain. ‘Look, look! I’m so much better than the guy who watches sports or comedy! I spent forty minutes listening to how some guy thought he was a genius because his neighbors were too polite to ask about the smell coming from his apartment!’” She sounded like she took personal offense.

    Maria turned her head from Carlos’ shirt as he tried to argue. “So some of them aren’t so great—”

    “No, most serial killers aren’t great. They’re not smart, and the people running the documentaries keep ascribing other people’s failings to the killers’ utter genius. At a certain point, it stops being a documentary and starts being a fetish.”

    Her disgust sounded over the top as well. Her opinions were probably genuine, but just from the last hour of this circle talk you think you figured something out about Mira: she was blowing her emotions out of proportion, trying to compensate for something. Her mouth would twist and curl and her voice would raise or lower accordingly, but her body language didn’t quite match and her eyes never truly emoted.

    “What do you think, Akane?”

    She also kept trying to include you in the conversation, kept trying to gauge your opinions on things. This was the first time the two of you were engaging in conversation, she was trying to get a measure of you the way you were getting a measure of her.

    So you adjusted yourself from your spot underneath Phi and Aoi, but they were thumb-wrestling over your midriff, which prevented you from truly sitting up. “I think the real value in true crime is the same as in any documentary: the research and production quality. People just find serial killers to be fascinating, something forbidden and grotesque hidden in a normal-looking shell. They probably sell better than other documentaries.”

    “What do you think about the serial killers themselves, though?”

    “Most of them are tacky and overblown, probably think super highly of themselves, too. Like, you know that newer guy? The Heart Ripper or whatever?”

    “What, like some Jack the Ripper rip-off?”

    On top of you, Phi won the thumb wrestling match and huffed out a laugh while Aoi lay his head on your shoulder, staring lazily at Mira. “Something like that, I’m sure. Kills people and tears their hearts right out of their chests. I think he does it while they’re still alive too, the twisted sadist.”

    “You sound like you really don’t like this guy.”

    “Like I said. He’s tacky and full of himself.”

    You’ve got a reason to hate the Heart Ripper, but there’s no reason to share that.


    Eventually, the room cleared out and everyone started to get ready for bed. You and Aoi stayed in the common room for a bit, silent, comfortable with each other.

    He was the first to break it. “You ready for this?”

    “Think so.”

    “It’ll probably be a couple of days, there’s no way they grab us when we’re this keyed up.”

    “According to Sigma, this guy’s a real mastermind. Dangerous enough that I didn’t want to tell him anything at all.”

    “Which means he’ll want to wait a bit. Get a real measure.”

    “If you say so.”

    You fell silent again. Eventually, Aoi left for bed, leaving you to your thoughts.

    Despite the concerns, you felt good about whatever was coming next. You were surrounded by allies, you had a decent measure of most everyone here, and though you didn’t quite know how everyone would react to the extreme pressure a death game would bring, you were sure you could handle it.

    You got up and headed for your room, ending your Sunday in high spirits.





    Your good mood didn’t last to see Monday.
     
    Last edited: May 12, 2022
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  3. Threadmarks: Prologue: Preparation of Demise
    CypherZero

    CypherZero Getting sticky.

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    You might have woken up at some point.

    Someone might have asked you a question.

    You may have answered.

    You have no way of knowing.



    You may have been asked,

    "What day is it today?"


    You would think to yourself.

    You would recall getting up from your seat.

    You would remember the door suddenly closing.

    You would relive your panic.

    You would remember white smoke.

    You would assume that you fell unconscious.


    You would answer,

    "Today is Monday."



    You would be put back to sleep.







    The first thing you see when you wake up is a familiar gas mask. Its red lenses glint oddly, the bottom half shining in the room's low light, the top half-hidden by shadows cast by the hood thrown over top. The hood also conceals the tubes that connect to the filter, which you know from experience conveniently conceals the voice modulator tucked away in the back of the mask, rather than being built into the filter itself. This mask, you note, looks new compared to the one you've owned for the past year and some, like it hasn't seen much use yet.

    Still addled by the gas you were drugged with, you wonder if you were meant to don the mask again and act as Zero once more.

    Then the mask moves, tilting at an angle, and you realize that someone is wearing it. That someone wearing a gas mask is staring directly at you.

    You don't scream, but your heart leaps in your chest, your back and head slamming against the back of your chair, and your hands fly to your face in fright.

    The mask tilts again to its previous orientation, and the person wearing it moves to lean back in their own chair, their left elbow coming up to rest on the arm, their fist coming up for them to prop their head against.

    Their right hand lays still in their lap, holding a gleaming silver pistol, their finger idly tracing the trigger guard.

    "You will note that you are not affixed to the chair," they state, modulated voice emanating robotically. "For the sake of your health, you'd do best not to try and escape despite this."

    Belatedly, you note that you're not bound at all. No ropes are tied to keep your hands together, no metal bars hold you to the chair. You're even still dressed in your hoodie and leggings. You move your body about to rid yourself of the stiffness that comes with being drugged for several hours—

    And you notice that something is off.

    You have to fight to keep your breath steady.

    You can feel your heart beating powerfully in your chest.

    Your fingers are trembling.

    You know that your captor can see that you're panicking, but it's hard to keep calm as you bring your right hand to pull down your left sleeve—

    To reveal a bracelet.

    The only consolation you had was that it looked nothing like the bracelets used in the Nonary Games. It was rectangular where yours was circular, dull and metallic where yours was mockingly bright and colorful, and it was a bit sleeker than yours had been as well. If it weren't for the bulky underside, jutting out from your wrist with two circular indentations, you could almost see someone fashioning a watch that looked like this.

    But the bracelet didn't suddenly become a watch. It remained a shackle.

    You were almost grateful when your captor spoke again. They served as a distraction.

    "Your attempted infiltration was noticed almost immediately. It would have been a simple matter to reject your application to the Mars Cohabitation project. My associate, however, had different intentions for you. He decided to give you the information you seek, but only as a prize for winning his game."

    You feel your breath hitch. Game. You were in another game.

    You steady yourself. "So DCOM was fake all along? It was always a trap?"

    "Not as such. The project is real, a psychological study on isolation that he has put funding towards. When the infiltration was noticed, the project was postponed, and he took the opportunity to add other participants he was interested in."

    "So everyone's been hand-picked by this guy? Why? What does he get out of this?"

    "He would tell you that his reasons are complex. In truth, they are simple, but require too much background information to explain concisely."

    "Well, it's not like I'm going anywhere. We have all the time you need to tell me, right?"

    "We do not. Perhaps you should check your bracelet."

    Oh, that's wonderful. You held back a sigh and did as you were asked, clicking the button on the side of your bracelet.

    It displays a timer, counting down.

    [49:11]

    "There are two needles built into the underside of your bracelet," they continue. "When the timer hits zero, both will extend into your wrist and inject their payload into your bloodstream. The first is a sedative that will put you to sleep. The second is a drug that, when combined with the sedative, will cause your memories of the past hour to be muddled and inaccessible."

    "Don't those drugs cause permanent memory loss?"

    "In most people, perhaps. And in larger doses, certainly. The dosage in your bracelet is small enough to reduce that risk to minuscule levels, and your access to the morphogenetic field will prevent it entirely."

    "Then what's the point of the drug in the first place?"

    Their head tilts away from their fist, and you get the faintest clue that they're amused. "You will not have immediate access to the morphogenetic field, which means most of the information you procure will appear to you as in a vacuum, completely isolated from any other pieces of information you will have gathered. Only in specific circumstances will you have access to the morphogenetic field, and only then will you understand the bigger picture."

    "Wouldn't that include this explanation? Why are you telling me this if I'm just going to forget it?"

    "There is no need to worry. So you can remember the rules of this game… You will not be injected with the memory drug at this time."

    Why did… "You hesitated. You're hiding something." Did they lie? Which part was the lie?

    The laugh they answered with was startling, made only more disconcerting by the voice modulator. It seared their next words into your memory.

    "It would be… inconvenient if you forgot what happens next. If you forgot that the choices you make can cause the suffering of others."

    You were taken aback, and your lack of response allowed them to continue unabated. "Unfortunately, our time together is over for now. Zero will explain the rest of the rules to you."

    The chair jerked underneath you and started to rise. In your shock, you barely managed to ask your final question. "Your associate is calling himself Zero?! Then who are you?!"

    Their response was faint, barely heard over the grinding of gears.

    "I am nobody of import."

    Fragment Complete
    Prologue
     
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  4. Threadmarks: Game Theory: Fundamental Rules
    CypherZero

    CypherZero Getting sticky.

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    A hatch opens in the ceiling, and your chair rises through it to deposit you at a table. The first thing you note is the tall figure standing across from you at the table, dressed in a black cloak and carrying a staff. His mask is fashioned after a plague doctor, and he wears a hat with a wide brim.

    He seems very different from the person you spoke to down below.

    "And here she is, the main player of our game! Akane Kurashiki, the first Zero. I suppose, for the sake of differentiation, you may refer to me as Zero II."

    Zero paces as he talks, emphasizing with clawed hands and gesturing with a cane he doesn't seem to need. He truly does seem to be the bombastic partner to the cool head you met immediately after waking.

    The disparity is almost hilarious, except there's nothing funny about being trapped in another death game.

    You're left staring, gaping ever so slightly, and a manic thought escapes from your mouth. "I've been kidnapped by a gameshow host."

    Luckily, his voice modulator is different as well, enhancing a distortion rather than garbling into complete anonymity, so his laugh doesn't catch you nearly as off guard.

    "I am indeed the host for this game, though I'm afraid there is no show, and no audience to appreciate the work put into this production. It is merely for my benefit, though perhaps it can be for yours, as well.

    "But we'll get to that in just a moment!" Ah, he seems to be embracing the moniker you assigned him. "For now, do feel free to investigate the room and ensure yourself that your companions are perfectly fine… even though they may not remain that way for very long."

    And with that ominous statement, he sits with a flourish, and motions for you to stand. You do so, first starting with a visual examination, eyes roving around the room.

    It's shaped like a cross, you notice. Each person that joined DCOM was present, each of them was restrained in some way or another. They were grouped into pairs and held together at each end of the cross.

    You start with the pair on your left. Carlos and Diana are seated with metal cuffs holding the joints of their arms and legs to the chairs, and a helmet securely attached to their heads. Their chairs are flush against the wall, and between them is a pole that extends to the ceiling, with a big switch against it. Wires connect the pole to each cuff on their chair, and two on each side of their helmets.

    "Akane!" Carlos exclaims immediately as you walk toward them. "I was worried when I didn't see you! You okay? You weren't in any danger down there, were you?"

    "Uh, no, no danger. No more danger than you're in up here, I mean. I'm fine, thank you for worrying?" He asked after your wellbeing before anything else, what a guy. Mr. Firefighter really did have the heart of a hero.

    Diana's response to the situation was a bit more standard. "He called you the main player, and he kind of implied that you had, um, experience? With this kind of stuff? Are we going to be okay?"

    "Well, in my experience, this kind of thing is kinda like a game. A death game, sure—"

    "A death game?!" Oh, had he not gotten to that in his explanation? You rush over her newly-heightened panic.

    "—but games are meant to be won, or else they wouldn't be fair. There's a solution that gets everyone out alive, and we're going to find it. Don't you worry."

    From his position in the center, Zero laughs lowly. You smile at Diana to offset it, trying to hide your unease, but she still looks moments away from a breakdown.

    You proceed clockwise to Sigma and Phi. Their setup was simple: they were both pinned to a bench, hands securely fastened to the bar that pinned them. In front of them was a lever, and above them, behind the bench, was a large round object with a timer on it, displaying a distressingly low time.

    You didn't notice you were caught in a bit of a reverie until Phi broke it. "Do I want to know what it is you're staring at, Akane?"

    "A bomb, probably."

    "Lovely. Don't suppose the timer has a bit of a long fuse?"

    "Nine seconds."

    Phi lets out a long groan of suffering. You turn to Sigma, "You didn't see this coming?"

    "I was told that the test facility was full of traps."

    "You are entirely too calm right now."

    "Would you prefer I start panicking? Start laughing maniacally to stop myself from crying? In the worst-case scenario, half of us survive to escape this place."

    "In the worst-case scenario," you drop your voice to a hiss now, no reason to panic everyone further, "you lose both arms, an eye, and six billion people die."

    "But we knew that already, so there's no reason to panic about it."

    You don't groan, you refuse to give him the satisfaction of a reaction that emotional. Instead, you walk over to Mira and Maria.

    This pair isn't seated. They're left standing— well, not exactly standing, you suppose. They're upright, feet planted on a metal surface, their backs pressed against a thick metal sheet. You notice that they're restrained by thick bars of metal underneath their armpits and around their waists, and there are smaller bands of metal around their ankles, thighs, wrists, forearms, and necks.

    Behind them, you can see that the sheet is connected to the wall behind it by a metal pole, and that the pole is split into two. Off to the side is some sort of machine or tool, you believe, a wheel with a handle jutting out of the top, and a button set dead center.

    Maria gives no sign of noticing your approach and doesn't seem to acknowledge you as you investigate. Her gaze isn't as unfocused as it usually is, you think, but it is pointed directly ahead of her, unwavering.

    To Zero? He's been turning in his seat to always face you, and even now he tilts his head, almost as if to greet you.

    But no, you think she's looking at Carlos, making sure he's okay to the best of her limited ability.

    You turn to Mira and notice again that something is off with her. Her eyes are wide, her jaw is clenched, and her breathing is coming in quick, short pants. But…

    It's almost involuntary; your hand comes up and your thumb goes right against her carotid artery.

    "In my experience, when someone is scared, they'd shake a little more. Shiver like they're cold, I mean. They also have a tendency to hide their hands, or their fingers, if they can't move their hands. In a position like yours, maybe you'd curl them into fists, and they'd tighten unconsciously and then they'd also start to shake. Additionally, their fight or flight instinct starts to kick in, adrenaline starts pumping, their pulse heightens."

    And hers was slower than yours was.

    "But honestly, once the initial shock wears off and they come down from their fear, the tells start to wear away, maybe give way to anger or despondency. You'd have been awake and pinned here for," your hand drops to her bracelet, pushing the button and revealing her time.

    [24:33]

    Same time as yours should be. "More than a half-hour, right? And your fear only came back once I started walking over?"

    Slowly, her eyes drop to a half-lidded, almost sultry gaze, she stops grinding her teeth, and her breath evens out. You swear she almost smiles at you.

    "I'm not really one to scare easily."

    But she'd fake it for you, how about that.

    You put it out of your mind and move to the last pair. Junpei and Aoi are seated next to each other, in separate chairs facing each other. There's rope around their chests and arms tying them to the chairs, and tape on their mouths, but otherwise, there are no restraints or devices hooked up to them, unlike the other six.

    You have to walk up a set of stairs to get to them; not many, just four, but they were relatively tall, and the floor was noticeably higher when you finished climbing them.

    You imagine that the area you were in now was a normal lobby of some sort before being converted for this game. Your theory is supported by the exit door behind the boys, barred by some sort of long, stone table, unadorned except by candles on either end.

    You check them each over, to make sure that they're unharmed, and let go of some of the stress that had been building between your shoulder blades. The boys aren't in apparent torture machines like everyone else, but also unlike everyone else, they've been silenced.

    Nothing is stopping you from removing the gags, but something's making you hesitate anyway.

    And then their bracelets vibrate.

    Not much, just two quick buzzes each, short bursts that shake against the wood of their chairs. It's loud enough to be noticeable in the silence of the room, but no more than a text notification would be.

    But it only happens to them. All nine of you are wearing bracelets, but only theirs vibrate.

    You reach down slowly and push the button on Junpei's bracelet.

    [04:44]

    You double-check to make sure, but sure enough, you still have twenty minutes on your bracelet. "Zero, what the hell is going on?"

    "It seems that you've finished your perusal of the immediate area, wonderful." Zero stands once more and begins walking, cloak billowing oh so dramatically. You walk to make sure you're always on the opposite side of the table from him. "Let this serve as a tutorial for the rest of the game. You shall be investigating whichever area you find yourself in once you awake from your slumber, searching for your escape. You may treat it as a sort of puzzle room if you will.

    "As I have stated previously, once you awake, you have sixty minutes until you are put to sleep again. If these sixty minutes pass and you have not escaped from the room you find yourself in, you will never wake again."

    He stops walking, standing at the base of the stairs that lead to Junpei and Aoi, gesturing toward them with his cane. "As this is the tutorial, and as you are bound by my design, you will not receive this penalty at the end of the round. Let this be another rule: none here shall die by my hand. I have no personal interest in your continued survival, but neither do I have designs on your demise."

    He pauses here, putting the cane to the ground and leaning forward on it with both hands. Had his eyes been visible you swear he'd be looking straight through you.

    "Let the consequences that fall be of thine own choices."

    You let the shiver run through you as you collect yourself. Before you can ask your question again, Zero starts talking once more.

    "Your goal shall be to escape this place with whatever prize you may find here. However, this final escape shall require sacrifice. You will only be permitted to leave once six of you are dead."

    There's a pause, and then exclamations from nearly everyone, be they muffled or gibbering or furious and insulting. You don't react much, having expected this, and from your position, you can see that Sigma is similarly quiet, brow scrunched in either concentration or confusion.

    Eventually, it's Diana's voice that cuts through the noise with a panicked accusation. "You just said you wouldn't kill any of us!"

    "And I will not. If six of you will die, it shall be because of one of you, and not through anything that I do." Zero starts to walk with purpose, toward you, and you move to the side as he comes to a stop again at the base of the stairs.

    "You wish to know why these two had different times on their bracelets than the rest of you? It is for three reasons. As you are the star of this game, it has been decided that they would receive benefits, as the closest people to you. This includes information, which required them to be awake before everyone else. They will not reveal this information, lest they wish for everyone here to be penalized.

    "The second purpose is this."

    With perfect timing, both bracelets on the landing above start beeping, three little chirps, and then Junpei and Aoi both stiffen, little gasps escaping their throats. Then, slowly, they fall forward toward each other, held only by the ropes on their chest.

    The entire process takes fifteen seconds.

    "The sedative is very fast-acting, almost instantaneous. The bracelet is form-fitting, with no gaps between the underside and your veins. Once your time is up, you will be put to sleep, and the only way to remove the bracelet is by escaping, or by removing your hand entirely."

    Zero meanders back to his original position by the table, eventually putting one hand on the back of his chair. "The third reason is that, as a courtesy to you, I wished to have them asleep for the final part of the tutorial."

    You find your voice again, finally. "What's the last part?"

    "During this game, you will find yourself making many choices. Your first such choice is this: your first sacrifice."

    He pauses, lets the word hang. There is silence in the room as you all await his explanation.

    "As previously stated, you will not leave this place until six are dead. You are being given the option to add two to that count immediately. To make your choice more informed, I shall tell you what lies behind each door that you will open, what is behind each sacrifice.

    "First, the uninitiated pair." He gestures to Maria and Mira. "Should you choose to sacrifice the two of you who remain blind, you will be led to where I keep my notes on the morphogenetic phenomenon." Your eyes widen. Is Zero a Shifter as well? "You are powerful yourself, yes, but there is much you still do not know, I imagine. You may find answers within.

    "Secondly, the fledgling pair." He gestures to Carlos and Diana. "Should you choose to sacrifice the two of you who are still growing into their own, you will be led to where I keep my personal notes. Should you be searching for any information about me, whether it be my motivations, my plans, or even my life, you shall find it within.

    "Finally, the advanced pair." He turns his profile, allowing you to see Sigma and Phi. "Should you choose to sacrifice your partners, you shall be able to accomplish their aim. Behind their entrance lies information on the virus, why it was created, how it spreads, how to combat it. You may even find a sample, for study, or immediate destruction, should you desire.

    "The choice is yours to make."

    With that, Zero sits once more.

    Surprisingly, it's Maria that breaks the silence. "Take me, don't hurt Carlos."

    Predictably, Carlos reacts harshly. "Leave Maria out of this! Take me instead!" Diana jerks at that, looking at Carlos with betrayal in her eyes.

    Phi proceeds to insult Zero on everything she can name, from his fashion choices to his parentage, which only serves to amuse him. Sigma beside her mumbles plans under his breath.

    You have a choice to make.


    Choose One:
    Sacrifice Carlos and Diana
    Sacrifice Mira and Maria
    Sacrifice Sigma and Phi

    Is there another option...?
    $3 Patrons get an extra vote here!
    $5 Patrons can see the outcomes of three chapters here!
     
    Last edited: May 15, 2022
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  5. Threadmarks: Game Theory: Rules Lawyer
    CypherZero

    CypherZero Getting sticky.

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    You try weighing the pros and cons. You have to consider every pair — the benefits of keeping them alive against the benefits of killing them.

    First, there's Carlos and Diana. This facility is likely to be rife with danger. Sigma loses an eye and both of his arms in a possible future. Having Diana's medical expertise on hand could very well save lives. And Carlos isn't just a strong body. As a firefighter, he likely has experience with keeping people safe and getting them out of difficult situations.

    Carlos' strength could be used against you, though. He's been so cheerful the last few days, and Fire and Rescue training would give him experience in keeping a smile under pressure. But he's already begging you to kill him, completely disregarding Diana's life. The only thing that matters to him is keeping Maria safe.

    Diana herself only has value in a vacuum. You've already seen how she reacts to unfavorable conditions — her androphobia is severe, especially as it pertains to Sigma and Carlos. She's already on the verge of an emotional breakdown, and all that's happened is an explanation of the rules. If she can't even handle vague threats, you doubt she'll be of much use in harder challenges.

    Zero's personal notes are an enticing prize, as well. Everyone here has been handpicked to take part in this game. You won't lie and say your interest isn't piqued.

    But a pair of fledgling espers killed in a game hosted by some asshole masqueraded as a gentleman? That hits a little too close to home.

    You tug at your collar and try to flap away a sudden burst of heat.

    There's also Sigma and Phi to consider. The pros are obvious, Zero said as much himself. They're your allies. You can trust them… but not implicitly. God knows you only trust Sigma as far as his interests go. His stated interests, at least.

    And who's to say he actually wants to stop this apocalypse Phi's been talking about? To hear it from him, he had it made despite everything going on in the future. A scientist with his own base of operations on the moon?! He could be here to sabotage Phi's plans, for all you know!

    Stop.

    Your paranoia's spiking.

    Rein it in.

    Breathe.

    Sigma and Phi are your allies. They've dealt with a situation much like this. They've been in a game where people could have died. Where people did die, in other worlds. Unlike the other two pairs, they knew what they were getting into.

    But that's a point in favor of killing them as well, isn't it? From a moral standpoint, they walked into the trap just like you and Aoi did, knowing that if it closed on them, they could lose their life. The other four people trapped here didn't have that advantage. They'd be dying blind and afraid.

    And pragmatically, killing them might be the easiest way to prevent an apocalypse created by Radical-6. After all, a world where Sigma and Phi go back to 2074 is a world where six billion people die. Combined with the fact that their death would reveal the secrets of Radical-6, sacrificing them would almost guarantee that the apocalypse would be averted.

    "Akane."

    When the bracelets buzz with the five-minute warning, Sigma calls you. Maybe he's come to the same conclusion. If he has, it would ease your paranoia a bit. He wouldn't offer himself up as a sacrifice if he was trying to sabotage Phi's mission.

    But almost guaranteeing something isn't quite the same as guaranteeing it. And honestly, you're too selfish to give up a pair of perfectly good allies. You ignore him for now.

    Your thoughts turn to the last pair. Honestly, the notes on the Morphogenetic Field that lie behind them are less interesting to you than the other two prizes that were promised. It would be fascinating to see them — an alternative perspective on the Field would be a great boon — but not so much that you would carelessly kill for it.

    But pragmatically speaking, there isn't much of a reason to keep Mira and Maria alive. Maria's displayed the ability to access the Morphogenetic Field while she sleeps, and it seems as though a large amount of your time will be spent medically comatose. But you have no reason to choose her abilities over Sigma and Phi's. And while she won't remember you killing Carlos, she will feel his absence.

    What was that thing Junpei said? That without him to bring her back, she would fully succumb to Reverie Syndrome? Sounds like a liability to you.

    Mira seems strong from what you can see. Strong legs, visible abs. She's attractive, she knows it, she uses it. She displays herself, emphasizes her words with her body, smirks when she catches people looking. Just from the bit of observation you've done, you can tell that she has strength, the depths of which you can't quite see.

    It makes her dangerous. She's a beautiful weapon, but a weapon nonetheless. Whatever difficulties she might have with emotions, you feel like they won't stop her in the least if she decides to kill you and escape.

    Ironically, her emotional difficulties are making you hesitate. You sympathize with her. You feel like you could help her if you got the chance. And maybe Maria's issue with Reverie Syndrome lies in her ability to access the Morphogenetic Field. If that were the case, you could help her as well, and maybe you could get her to join you. A powerful esper would be a great asset.

    …An asset, huh? You're trying to decide who to sacrifice as part of this twisted game, and all you can think about is what happens outside of it. Six people must perish for you to escape. If you got your way, the only people walking out of this place would be you, Aoi, and Junpei.

    ("There's a solution that gets everyone out alive, and we're going to find it.")

    …A death game is still a game. You've been told the rules. Where's the loophole? What's the exploit?

    "If you don't escape at the end of sixty minutes, you will be put to sleep, never to wake again…"

    "Oh?"

    You pace and mutter and ignore Zero.

    "You are being given the option to add two to that number immediately…"

    Option. The sacrifice is optional.

    "As you are bound by my design, the penalty will not take place this round…"

    The sacrifice is optional. There is no penalty.

    There is no penalty because there is no puzzle. There's no way to escape this room.

    There's a door past Junpei and Aoi, but you won't kill them, even if doing so would allow everyone else to escape. The doors past the other three pairs aren't escapes, they lead further into the facility.

    You're not trapped if you refuse to open a door.

    Rather, you're already trapped and there's no way to get even more trapped.

    You stop pacing, open your eyes, walk to the table, and sit opposite Zero.

    "Hm? Were you hoping for more information to help make your choice?"

    "No. This is my choice. I won't be sacrificing anyone."

    "Ah, you choose the hardest path possible. You'll have to kill six people with your own two hands."

    "I won't kill anyone if I can help it."

    "Oh? And how will you escape?"

    "I'll find a way."

    "I suppose you will. I look forward to watching your efforts. Let us hope that you do not falter."

    "I'll do everything in my power not to."

    Zero laughs at that. You don't know whether it's the modulator or the echo of the room, but it seems louder than it should have been. It's as though there are four of him, one for every choice you could have made, and all four copies are surrounding you, laughing at you.

    Is this the power he wields as an esper?

    It's intimidating, but you stay strong.

    Eventually, the laughter stops. Zero's beak dips — you get the feeling that he has to crane his face low to stare at you through the tiny windows his mask provides for his eyes.

    "Let us see if your power is enough."

    Every bracelet in the room chimes at the same time. You feel the needles pierce your skin, and you feel the drugs flood your veins.

    Zero's voice is the last thing you hear.

    "Pleasant dreams."

    It echoes fourfold.

    Fragment Selection
    (Choose One)
    Literary (Carlos and Maria)
    Pathogen (Aoi and Diana)
    Pawn (Junpei and Phi)
    Misgiving (Mira and Sigma)

    This is the “secret” solution to this little puzzle— in a visual novel I suppose it wouldn’t appear until you complete the chapter three times and go “wait, how come the Fragment isn’t complete?”

    Usually, at the end of a Game Theory chapter, whoever you sacrificed would be banned from Fragment Selection— they wouldn’t show up because Akane recognizes them as dead, because she killed them. That won’t happen anymore, and not just because you probably won’t revisit Game Theory until it’s required.

    You also get something else from this, but that won’t be relevant until the next time Fragment Selection comes up.
     
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  6. Threadmarks: Misgiving (Mira and Sigma)
    CypherZero

    CypherZero Getting sticky.

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    One day, when you were twelve years old, you woke up on a hospital bed. You were dizzy, you felt heavy, and when you tried to reach for your head, something stopped you – something around your wrists. With more effort than it should have taken, you propped yourself up on your elbows and weakly opened your eyes to look at your hands.

    There were cuffs around your skinny wrists. You were shackled to the bed. You opened your mouth to call for Aoi, but your throat was dry – all that came out was a sickly croak.

    You heard a deep sound from behind you – later, you would identify it as a chuckle. Later, you would label that chuckle as evil, as sick and twisted, something deserving of hatred and revenge.

    But that would only come later.

    At the time, all that came to mind was confusion.

    You tried to turn and face the sound, but your arms gave out and you collapsed back on the bed. The sound's source came to you, though. He walked to stand over you and smiled down at you.

    It was a kind smile, but the eyes were cold.

    "You shook off a sedative meant for grown adults, you know. A bunch of you brats did. It's a good thing, I suppose – it confirms that you have special abilities. It proves that this venture isn't a waste of time and money. I'll definitely get what I want from you, that much is certain."

    Later, you would remember his words. You would understand and realize that he was being cruel, like a cartoon villain monologuing to a captured hero. But his cadence was nurturing, meant to soothe children to sleep, and your head and eyelids were so heavy.

    Babies and children are similar like that – as long as the tone remains level and pleasant, they don't care about what is said.

    "Why don't you go back to sleep? You'll have a lot to do once you wake up."

    And like the child you were, you listened to the tone and went back to sleep.

    The next time you woke up, you were run ragged through a death game on a sinking ship. At the end of it, you were thrown into an activated incinerator.

    And you recognized the person who threw you in. The smile was cruel this time, and the eyes were crazed rather than cold, but the face was the same.

    It probably didn't occur to him to hide his face – he was face-blind and you were a drugged child. He had no reason to suspect that you would burn his face into your memory and enact his downfall nine years later.

    No, Hongou had no idea that you would remember his smile and eyes.


    You wake up shackled to a hospital bed and freak out.

    You clench your eyes shut as adrenaline burns away the sedative in your veins. Your breath comes out in quick pants. Your muscles start to tense – you cringe when your arm moves too quickly and the cuff jangles against the metal railing on the bed.

    You feel warmth against your forearms. Hesitantly, you open your eyes and look down.

    You see a large weathered hand sharply juxtapositioned against your dainty unblemished arm. Your eyes trace the hand up to a muscled bicep stretching out a navy polo. Past the collar is a familiar face – a young face hiding an old soul.

    (What else is he hiding?)

    He feels your eyes on him. He turns his head to face you.

    He smiles.

    You think you hear a click. You know you feel cold metal fall away from your wrists.

    Your fingers grasp material and you heave yourself out of the bed.

    You sprint to the other side of the room. You don't stop consciously – you just barely manage to turn so your shoulder slams against the wall instead of your face. The impact jolts you, wakes you up. You drop to a huddle, crouched in the corner. You close your eyes and try to think, try to calm down.

    None of the people involved in the First Nonary Game are here.

    All of them have been taken care of.

    (All of them that you're aware of.)

    Hongou is in prison.

    Hongou killed Kubota.

    Hongou killed Nijisaki.

    Hongou killed Musashidou.

    Hongou killed you. Dragged and threw you into the incinerator like you were trash to be disposed of. In one world you were saved, but in twenty other concurrent timelines Junpei failed and you failed and you burned and you burned and you burned and you burned

    A touch to your knee brings you back to earth—painted fingernails on a slim wrist. The jacket is a vibrant red. Green eyes carrying muddled confusion and faint hints of concern seem to glow neon.

    Even in the dim lighting, Mira finds a way to shine.

    You slump out of your frightened huddle, sit properly on the ground, and try to catch your breath.

    "I'm fine," you mumble out.

    You have to be fine.


    You regain focus some unknown number of minutes later. Mira is still crouched by you, with her hands wrapped around her shins. Close enough to offer some measure of comfort, but not so close as to crowd you and make you panic again.

    Past her, you see the room you're trapped in. It's barren, empty except for the bed that Sigma still stands by and a console in the center of the back wall.

    You stand up using the wall to steady yourself, and stuff your hands into your sweater pocket, brushing against plastic.

    Hm?

    There's a plastic card in your pocket. You take it out and look at it.

    It's violet with a black number in the center.

    44. Ominous.

    "You have one too?" Mira's also stood up from her crouch—she stands behind you, looking over your shoulder. "We both had one in our pockets when we woke up. The card and a key."

    A key?

    To your shackles, probably.

    She has a card in her hand now, stretched out to let you see. You don't get the best look with the lighting the way it is, but you can see that it's bright red, same as her jacket.

    You hum at the information and walk over to the console. It's a simple touch screen with a number pad and six empty input boxes. Above the input is text.

    Begin the treatment process!
    Please input the PIN!
    <=<


    Your instinct is to blink at the emoji, but honestly, the gameshow host persona you captor put on gives him a bit of leeway as far as decorum goes, doesn't it? So really, your only complaint is the colors he chose to use. The screen is a light blue, the text and input fields are a blaring white, and the symbols in the emoji itself are three different colors.

    …Wait.

    The symbols in the emoji are three different colors. Red, violet, green.

    You take your card out again. Violet, 44. Mira's card was red…

    "You both have numbers? What are they?"

    Mira answers first. "29."

    "94," Sigma replies from his corner.

    Of course, you aren't dealing with three two-digit numbers. You're dealing with three pairs of single-digit numbers. If Mira is red and you're violet, Sigma must have the third color. And then, it isn't an emoji at all, they're all mathematical symbols. Lesser-than, equals-to, lesser-than.

    Now, you just hope that Zero isn't going to be needlessly extra with his puzzle…

    Red-violet-green-red-violet-green.

    The screen flashes green and trills at you. Task complete.

    The text and number pad disappear to give you a top-down view of the room that you're in right now. Or at least, you assume it's the room you're in – it'll be really inconvenient otherwise. The bottom wall has a door emblazoned on it, and the other three are colored the same as the emoji was: the left is red, the top is violet, and the right is green.

    Now, you don't know what that means—

    Your thoughts are interrupted by mechanical whirs. You look up to see a little slot opening up directly above the console, just a bit higher than your head, and on either side of you, two similar slots open up on either wall.

    You take a closer look at the slot. It's about the right size to fit in an ATM, isn't it? A little card slot.

    And the top wall is colored violet, after all.

    You take your card out, reach above your head, and slip it into the slot. Your card is eagerly taken, just like a bank card, and after a second it dings merrily and closes up.

    A bang above startles you – you trip backward and fall on your ass. Groaning, you look up to see a hatch that's opened in the wall right above the console. And of course it couldn't just slide open, right? Ugh.

    "You okay, Akane?"

    Sigma's above you, offering his hand to help you up.

    Ugh.

    You wave him off and stand up on your own, gesturing to the right wall. "Go put your card into the slot that opened up over there. Mira, put yours in that slot."

    "…Right."

    He sends you a questioning look, but follows your instructions, which is good. Two dings sound out simultaneously, followed by a grunt from Sigma. You look to the right – some sort of big metal cylinder rolled out from the bottom of the wall and knocked into his shin. Schadenfreude fills you.

    To your left, Mira is now holding a stepladder awkwardly. It's just a bit too tall and a little too wide for her to hold comfortably. You come over and grab one end, gesturing her to the other side with your head, and helping her carry it underneath the hatch. Sigma, for his part, rolls the cylinder to rest by the stepladder.

    You look from the cylinder to the hatch. There are little bits of piping on either side of the interior, and little divots in the cylinder.

    "It's probably a canister of some kind. We need to pop it in to get out. Sigma—"

    "Yeah, I'll climb the ladder, you try to hand me the canister as high as you can get it."

    …Your eyebrow is twitching. You can't resist the urge to be pedantic.

    "It's a stepladder."

    "Oh? Is there a difference, Miss Kurashiki?"

    "The difference is that I won't have an issue knocking you off one of them."

    "Yeah, you've said something similar to me before."

    He's smirking, the bastard. You know what, you do need six kills to get out of here anyway, don't you—

    "Hey." Mira, crouched down, knocks on the metal. "Escape first, stepladder murder later."

    You grumble, but she's right. You crouch and grab the canister on your end. "One-two-three-lift–"

    It takes both you and Mira combined to get the canister off the ground and above your heads, whereas Sigma on his own can take it from there, twist to face the wall, and place it into the hatch, turn it until it clicks, and put the hatch back into place. Then he jumps down before you can kick the stepladder from underneath him. Smart of him.

    There's another little jingle. The wall behind you slides open, the doorway revealed. You try not to rush over.

    The doorway leads to a small cubicle with a sealed door on the other end. When the three of you are inside, the door closes behind you. There are two dings from the ceiling, followed by a hissing sound from the vents above.

    All three of your bracelets let out a little chime. You check yours and only find a green time display.

    Well, the display during the "tutorial" was red, so you suppose that the color change signifies that the puzzle is finished. Good of Zero to end it when you get through the door and not when the second door opens. Imagine if you had been slower to solve the puzzle and died to a technicality, it would be disastrous.

    So, the puzzle is finished.

    …You're still trapped in a small metal room, though.

    You lean against a wall.

    Your chest heaves. Your breath is coming through uneven – what are they pumping through the vents, anyway?

    Probably whatever was in that canister.

    Sigma would have mentioned if he saw a label or something, right?

    Who knows what Sigma would do at any given moment.

    …The hissing reminds you of the incinerator burners.

    For a moment, you imagine that gas is being pumped in here, just waiting to ignite.

    Is it getting hotter in here?

    "Hey."

    You jolt back to reality. Mira is grasping your wrist. The second door is open – Sigma is gone.

    "It looks like there's a lounge room at the end of this hallway, do you wanna sit down or something?"

    "…No, I should take a look around."

    "Why? What are you hoping to find?"

    "I dunno. Zero might have left something lying around, some kind of information."

    "Info that he probably planted, you mean? Info that he wants us to find?"

    "It's better than nothing. And we can learn something from what he isn't telling us, too."

    "If you say so… Are you sure you're okay?"

    "I'm fine."

    It sounds as convincing as the first time you said it.


    The hallway twists sharply in a corner at the end, but past that, there is indeed some kind of lounge room. A couch and two armchairs surrounding a coffee table. There are three more pathways it looks like, three rooms to explore.

    You start with the path on your right. When you turn the corner you see an open door at the end of the hallway and a big glowing monitor inside the room. Looks good enough to you. You walk forward.

    The monitor has six input fields, same as the puzzle you just solved. You wonder if the same number will work…

    Yeah, the screen flickers to a folder directory. You wonder if the number has any significance. Now, what all is here—

    "The other two doors are shut and locked—"

    "Fuck, Sigma." He snuck up on you and he's leaning against the open door.

    "Sorry, sorry. Looks like you got this working, though."

    "Mhmm."

    "Hey, do you have, uh… an issue? With like, hospital rooms? Or handcuffs, or something?"

    "What, future-me didn't tell you anything?"

    "No, you're a pretty private person, all things considered."

    "And what, you think that would change if I was forty years younger?"

    "Hey, okay, I get it." He stops talking, only to start again after barely a minute of silence. "Do you have… an issue with me?"

    You take your thumb off the keyboard so you don't accidentally input anything in your annoyance. You are very tempted, actually, to tell him exactly what your issue is.

    Decision Time
    (Choose One)
    Snap at Sigma
    Calm Down
     
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  7. Threadmarks: Misgiving: Untenable
    CypherZero

    CypherZero Getting sticky.

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    You need to calm down.

    Sigma is your ally. You need to be able to work with him properly, without trying to bite his head off. You’re both in the same position, both trapped by someone with unclear goals but a willingness and ability to end your lives.

    Maybe Zero is a fan of dramatic irony. Maybe he force-fed you a bomb, and it’s sitting in your intestines right now, waiting for you to mess up and end up like Kubota.

    You don’t intend to mess up. You’re going to put your issues aside and work with Sigma.

    …And then you make the mistake of looking at his eyes.

    The tension in his face was the right amount of concern mixed with curiosity. Sigma asked a question, he wants an answer, but he doesn’t want to cause you any undue stress. Doesn’t want to complicate the fragile relationship you share. His face reflected all of that perfectly.

    But his eyes were twitchy. Bounced from your face to your shoulders to your hair. Kept looking for something that wasn’t there.

    He’s looking for someone, and it isn’t you.

    Your mouth runs ahead of your brain.

    “Sigma, what are we doing here?”

    “We’re going to try and get into this computer—”

    “No, no, I mean — here, in this facility, being psychologically tortured by some asshole in a bird mask.”

    “I, it’s a plague—”

    “Why are we in this situation, Sigma?”

    “I mean, it was your plan to—”

    Your frayed patience finally snaps.

    “My plan? My plan? Oh, no no no no no. You may be using my resources, hiding out in my base, going through my connections to get into DCOM in the first place, but this is not my plan. My plan wouldn’t have us sauntering into a loaded mouse trap, my plan wouldn’t have us expecting to get gassed and grabbed in the middle of the night, and my plan certainly wouldn’t have me separated from my brother, completely in the dark about his whereabouts or condition!”

    “But, no, we spent weeks coming up with—”

    “I met you less than a week ago, Sigma. That’s my problem with you. You don’t treat me like I’m my own person, you treat me like some other bitch named Akane! Someone who’s either completely lost touch with who she used to be, or knew exactly what would come from your pushy bullshit and simply didn’t care.”

    The short silence that follows is glorious. Sigma looks like a freshly caught fish, eyes wide and mouth agape. He’s taken aback and he doesn’t have a response ready for once in his life.

    He doesn’t have the answer, he isn’t sure that he’s in the right.

    But it’s short, it doesn’t take much time for him to get his bearings back.

    “I see. I am truly sorry about that. You are correct, I’ve been treating you like I would treat the Akane of my time, and I will endeavor to change that going forward. However, I am still and have always been devoted to stopping the outbreak of Radical-6, and this plan that you and I are a part of is the best way to achieve that.”

    Ah, he’s trying to own up to his mistake and put everything past you. Trying to move forward without trouble.

    “Oh? Are you sure about that?”

    But your patience doesn’t magically unsnap…

    “Phi told me a very interesting story. Actually, it was your story, but she figured you wouldn’t tell me yourself, so all I have is her secondhand information.”

    …and you are still very angry.

    The words drip off of your tongue.

    “According to her, neither of you remember much of your venture, and if your Akane remembered anything, she didn’t tell you. But it sounds an awful lot like you went into DCOM, where you proceeded to lose both of your arms and an eye, and also somehow the outbreak happened. That sound about right?”

    “Yes… That is the extent of my knowledge.”

    “Do you know what vibe I get from this building, Sigma?” You wave a hand around for emphasis, gesturing at the walls and the computer. “I get the idea that this is a research facility. We just got out of some kind of test chamber, this is obviously a place where information gets logged, that kinda stuff, right?”

    “Yes, and they developed—”

    “They made Radical-6, and therefore it must be evil, and they’re evil too? Maybe Zero is just some rich guy, big into venture capitalism or something. Rich guys are all kinds of weird.”

    “There’s no way you’re suggesting—”

    “We did research into DCOM, you know, and the organization that funded it. There’s some shady stuff, and there are unconfirmed rumors of a cult, which matches what you told me about them. But mostly what we found is that the organization has some kind of passion or interest in the medical field, and the main beneficiary of that passion is Cradle Pharmaceuticals.

    “Now, I don’t have the best history with them, but other than that fiasco, they’re mostly above-board. And they lead the charge in medical innovations. Which, of course, takes a lot of research. And that research, naturally, needs human testing. And maybe Zero, the rich guy that we probably pissed off by breaking into what was probably a new venture of his, decided to take his anger out by converting his personal research facility into a torture roulette and shoving us into it.”

    Your eyes narrow as you walk forward, and your teeth are gritting ever-so-slightly, but you keep forcing a smirk.

    “Maybe you’re right, and Radical-6 is a bioweapon in the final phases of development. Or maybe it was never a bioweapon. Maybe it was a new product, currently unstable, and your bumbling turns an unstable compound into something that nearly wipes out the human race. We simply don’t know.”

    You stop in front of the door, right next to Sigma. Your next words come out low, barely above a whisper.

    “What we do know, is that the outbreak coincides with your entry and subsequent exit from DCOM. If you were truly… devoted, you said? To ensuring Radical-6 didn’t get out?”

    You finally drop your smirk, allow your lip to curl up into a sneer.

    “You would have killed yourself when you woke up in 2028.”

    There. Now you can leave Sigma to think about that. As if in agreement, your bracelet buzzes with the five-minute warning.

    …You can hear footsteps shuffling away down the hall. Mira must have gotten bored and walked up to the corner to eavesdrop. Might as well go and see her.


    You catch a flash of Mira’s red jacket turning the corner in the hallway opposite you. Sigma had said that the other two passages lead to dead ends, but you suppose Mira wouldn’t have been told. She just wants to get as far away from you as possible and hope that her snooping goes unnoticed.

    Sucks to be her. You sprint down the hall in pursuit.

    (Why are you hurrying? You won’t even remember whatever she tells you. Why is it so important that you find out what she knows?

    Stop second-guessing yourself.)

    Mira’s facing you when you get to the bend, hands in her jacket pockets. Her lips are turned up in a small smile, even as her eyes stay cold. “You came down here awfully fast. Is there something you needed?”

    You stuff your hands in your hoodie’s pockets as well and keep your back straight, no matter how much you want to bend over and pant for breath. You can’t show weakness.

    “Yeah, I wanted to know why you were eavesdropping on my conversation with Sigma.”

    “Was your talk supposed to be private? I didn’t realize — if you were shouting any louder I could’ve heard you from the room we started in.”

    “And yet, instead of coming into the room entirely or staying away to give us a thin veneer of privacy, you were lurking just out of sight.”

    “I didn’t want to interrupt. And I was curious.”

    “Curious about what?”

    Mira’s smile stretches ever-so-slightly, and her eyes glimmer with… something. They’re still cold, but they’re no longer so calculating, instead…

    Amused? Satisfied?

    “About you and Sigma. About people in general, really. Human emotion and intrinsic motivation intrigue me greatly, and we’re trapped in a situation that has a great chance to bring out a person’s true nature. What they do when faced with their mortality.”

    She huffs out a breath of laughter, which devolves into a brief fit of giggling that seems to surprise her. She holds her hand to her lips, but her smile doesn’t drop — it only grows.

    “Imagine my surprise to learn that you came here willingly! I don’t know what to make of half the things you were talking about, but you somehow knew that we would end up here, and not only did you not stay away, but you apparently expended resources to make sure that you got here!”

    …Are you being mocked?

    “And the best part is that you don’t even know why! Let me take a stab at the situation.” Mira’s left hand comes out of the jacket in a fist, her fingers ticking upward along with her points. Her insufferable smirk widens. “You heard that there was a threat. You were asked to help end that threat. You realized that you were the best fit for the job — or you have a deep mistrust of the proper authorities. And then you, very begrudgingly, agreed to help even though you have no personal stake and dragged your brother along for the ride.”

    Her mouth is set in a full-blown grin, her green eyes wide with manic energy.

    Her questions barrage you nonstop.

    “How close am I, Akane? Does your deep-seated hero complex have you wandering aimlessly in search of people to help? Do you always rush into things without thinking of the long-term consequences of your actions? Do you care about how your actions affect other people, or is everyone outside of your close-knit group considered expendable? Zero set your brother and your boyfriend apart from everyone else, away from immediate danger. Sigma and Phi are your allies too, right? Why were they strapped to a kill-machine when Aoi and Junpei weren’t?”

    Inside your pocket, your hands are balled into fists, and you’re trembling with anger. Nothing she’s saying is wrong, but you want her to shut up so badly.

    “At least Sigma has a real reason to be in here risking his life. Against all common sense, he seems to be laser-focused on that threat. He’s got conviction.”

    It’s like the last nerve that Sigma snapped suddenly alights on fire. You stalk forward, your hands slipping out of your pocket. Mira sees something in your face — her grin drops, her hand comes up as if to ward you away, she starts backing up toward the locked door.

    Her mouth opens. To plead with you? You don’t want to hear her voice anymore — you cut her off.

    “Regardless of my motivations, I’m still here. This is still a death game. Congratulations, at least part of your psychoanalysis is correct — I don’t care about anyone outside of my ‘close-knit’ group. I want my brother to get out of here alive. Safe and sound.”

    Mira’s back bumps against the door. Her head turns to look at it incredulously, and her left hand rubs against the spot where there would be a knob to open it, but these doors are automated, and this door is locked.

    “Six other people need to die for that to happen.”

    She turns back to face you. You’re in her face. Your hand comes up to wrap around her throat. You push her backward and slam her against the door.

    Something bumps against the top of your left foot. Mira’s foot, maybe, trying to scramble away from you. Her hands come up and wrap around your wrist, but you squeeze her throat and her resistance falters.

    “Maybe I should kill you. How many are already dead? What number would you make?”

    Her breathing comes out in pants. Her eyelids are fluttering and her face turns red.

    “How about it Mira? Do you want to test my conviction?”

    She’s saved by the bell. Both of your bracelets sound off — they’re obnoxiously loud, as close to your ears as they are right now.

    The needles stab into your wrist. Rather than lean into it and embrace unconsciousness, you try to resist, pressing your thumbs into the soft part of Mira’s throat. She chokes audibly, and a dark part of your mind hums in satisfaction.

    But while your anger is white-hot, it doesn’t burn away the sedative as it floods your veins. You slam Mira’s head against the door as hard as you can before you’re forced to relinquish your hold of her and drop bonelessly to the floor.

    Maybe the head trauma will put her into a coma and she’ll be classified as dead.

    You can only hope.

    You’ve obtained the Green Key.


    Your choices have granted you a new option when selecting a Fragment:

    Redirect (Individual)
    Rather than choose a Fragment from the selection provided, you can vote to redirect the Fragment Selection to target a specific person. The exact Fragment is left up to the discretion of the QM.

    Fragment Selection
    (Choose One)
    Exodus (Carlos and Phi)
    Box (Junpei and Aoi)
    Reverie (Diana and Maria)

    Revisit (What Fragment?)
    Redirect (What person?)
     
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  8. Threadmarks: Pathogen (Aoi and Diana)
    CypherZero

    CypherZero Getting sticky.

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    You wake slowly, emerging from a dreamless fog. You don’t open your eyes immediately— you’re actually really comfortable at the moment, which is weird to say considering the situation you find yourself in. Hard floors and tense atmospheres would be more in line with your expectations, but the quiet surrounding you is calm, almost serene, and whatever’s underneath you is unexpectedly plush.

    You’re reminded of living in an apartment with your brother. You were never ignorant of your financial situation after your parents had… passed, but Aoi did his best to shield you from the reality of your situation, often sacrificing himself for your comfort.

    Then the Game happened, and money stopped being an issue.

    Okay, no more thoughts like that. Time to get up and face the death game.

    …After five more minutes.

    You hear a snort come from someone nearby, followed by padded footsteps and the sound of a heavy door being swung open. It closes slowly with a sigh of air but doesn’t slam against the frame. Pressurized, then. What kind of place are you in right now?

    There’s only one way to find out.

    …Maybe this is the real trap. Make you so comfortable that you don’t want to get up, so you can’t help with the puzzles, so the time limit lapses, and you’re put back to sleep, never to wake up again.

    That dastard Zero, how could he possibly know your habits?! Only Aoi could possibly know that you’re slow to get up in the morning! They must be in cahoots!

    …Fine, fine. You’ll get up now.

    You swing your legs to the side and follow the spin to right yourself, stretching your arms upward to fully wake yourself. The air of danger that should be ever-present during these events is missing almost entirely, and the usual spike of adrenaline that makes you alert is absent as well.

    The plush couch you find yourself on certainly isn’t helping matters. There are chairs around as well, with fluffy white cushions attached to stiff metal frames, and two doors on the opposite end of the room. When you stand you can see them both clearly; one has an electronic lock, the sensor glowing a bright red, while the other door facing it has no lock at all, just a metal plate on the side.

    You walk across the red carpeted floor and push through the second door, leaving the waiting room for a laboratory of sorts. The air is sterile, the walls and shelves are metallic, and the temperature is a few degrees lower.

    You wonder how many facilities are just like this one, with a warm, inviting frontend hiding a cold, unfeeling backend.

    “Do we have a magnifying glass anywhere in here?”

    Your attention is drawn to the back of the lab, where Diana is hunched over a table. Aoi calls back to her from somewhere else in the room, hidden by shelves of stacked materials.

    “You’re looking into a microscope right now.”

    “I need less magnification! I think I can identify what I’m looking at, but not with so much detail!”

    You start scanning the shelves around you. There are different tools by the entrance, measures and vials and other sciencey stuff. You find a magnifying glass in short order and bring it to Diana.

    “Thank you — oh, you’re up! Aoi didn’t want to wake you, you know.”

    “She needed the rest!”

    “He also said you looked adorable.” She laughs as she shifts to the side of the microscope, examining something in a petri dish with the magnifying glass instead. “I didn’t mind, honestly. This is just like college lab work, a bunch of biology and cell culture.”

    “What are we trying to do, exactly?”

    Rather than answer your question, she points to her left, and you direct your attention to the whiteboard on the wall.

    FIND THE POSITIVE REACTION
    PATHOGEN A + SPECIMEN B —> SUBJECT C
    DELIVER THE SOLUTION​

    “We’re supposed to be making something?”

    “It’s a process similar to vaccine creation. A disease caused by some sort of bacteria or virus is isolated, then introduced to a sample from a healthy subject, usually human, and the reaction is examined. Then, something is added — some sort of gene or toxin, something that can weaken the disease, and it’s reintroduced to the sample to see if the reaction is weakened or intensified.

    “The vaccine is declared complete when the reaction is neutralized to such a degree that it can be safely introduced to a human body to fight off the disease it was created for.”

    “Woah, that’s sick.” Diana pauses in her examination to look up at you, but you just stare back in confusion. She sighs and resumes her work.

    “I think these samples were pre-treated. I don’t know what the treatment was, but the muscle fibers look stronger than average and the hair follicles look tougher as well. And that’s not even getting into whatever I’m looking at right now.”

    “What do you think you’re looking at?”

    “Brain cells. At least I think so. Neuroscience was never my specialty, so I couldn’t tell while looking through a microscope, but the structures underneath the magnifying glass look similar enough to what I studied in school. They’re so weird though.”

    “Weird?”

    “Yeah. Super weird. Like, I know if you treat the containment properly, you can keep a brain alive for however long — that’s how we get brain-in-a-jar stuff in science fiction. So it would make sense if the cells here were still alive. But they’re behaving strangely.”

    “Stranger than being alive and thinking weird things while trapped in a petri dish? What would you even think about being trapped in a petri dish? ‘Oh my god, it’s small in here! What’s that thing blocking the light?’”

    “Well, without eyeballs or optic nerves I don’t know how you’d perceive being inside the petri dish, but that sounds close enough. No, what’s weird is how they’re connecting. Like, you’d expect the neurons to connect to each other and then sparks would fly and that’s how you make a thought, right? Only like, half of the neurons here are trying to connect to other neurons.

    “The other half are raised away from the brain cells, away from the other neurons, like they’re trying to connect to something else.”

    A shiver runs up your spine. The concept seems familiar.

    Aoi appears from the shelves carrying three tubes and a book. “Alright, this journal doesn’t go into detail about what these things are carrying, but it does help with labeling them.”

    Diana takes the journal and has Aoi put the test tubes down on the table away from the microscope. “B, V, and P, huh? Ooh, phages, isn’t that cool? Alright, yeah, that works. There’s a marker with the whiteboard, right?”

    You go over to the board, while Diana grabs the three vials, along with another three that she put elsewhere on the desk. You find two markers and toss one over to Aoi, who hands it to Diana, who begins marking vials.

    “Aoi, could you go over to the emulator? This place is so advanced, I wish I was here under different circumstances. Do you see that computer over there, Akane? Apparently, Zero has access to these mannequin things that emulate a human body, and they’re connected to that computer, so we can monitor their condition, and like, fast-forward the reaction. What do the injectors look like, Aoi?”

    “Nine slots in a three-by-three!”

    “Perfect, okay. Akane, you’re gonna arrange the mixture labels in a three-by-three square as I’m putting them together, okay? First letter lowercase, second letter uppercase. Ready?

    “Top row, mB, mV, mP.”

    You write them down and look back to Diana, who’s using different syringes to take samples from each test tube and transfer them to new vials.

    “Okay, middle row! hB, hV, hP.”

    You didn’t get the chance to look at each sample under the microscope — nor would there really be a reason to, you didn’t exactly understand everything that was going on, but you did know that each sample had to have been finely shredded and added to whatever solution to be in a state that it could be picked up by a syringe.

    “Bottom row! bB, bV, bP!”

    You really didn’t want to think about what those brain cells had to be in order to still be functional in that state, let alone abnormally functional. But that’s where your thoughts kept drifting off to.

    Neurons connecting to something unseen.

    “Alright! Let’s get these bad boys into the emulator!”

    At least Diana’s having fun with the incomprehensible horrors. Maybe because she doesn’t know enough to be horrified.

    You help Diana carry the vials over to Aoi and watch as she slots them in exactly as she had you note on the whiteboard. She doesn’t even look up to reference it, you think her directing you was purely mnemonic. Each slot has a button directly underneath it, likely to eject once complete, and the computer attached has a single screen with no keyboard.

    Diana presses a button on the front of the machine and the screen lights up. She moves to stand in front of it, and Aoi joins her to observe. You stay back.

    “Okay, let’s see… Oh, phages are a bust, that’s for sure. They, uh, usually target bacteria and sort of, uh, convert them for reproduction, right? They’re super useful for antibacterial medications and stuff, but they’re less useful when being introduced to a healthy human body, especially when they’re treated… with whatever they were treated with here.

    “Which seems to be promoting growth? Growth of whatever biological material was introduced to the phage. It could be really good when combined with the muscle fibers since they seem to target whatever’s closest. Which happens to be abdominal muscles.”

    “You could sell eight-pack abs.”

    “Yeah, Aoi, you could! Except that this variant is too aggressive, and it seems to be too focused on growth instead of enhancement, like steroids. So instead what you get is a bunch of ruptured intestines as the abdominal muscles grow too quickly, start to grow backward.

    “But hey! Maybe if you fine-tune it! Maybe one day you, too, could have an eight-pack!”

    She pokes Aoi’s stomach with a knuckle, and he fakes affront while she turns back to the screen and swipes it to the side. Touch screen, okay.

    “The brain sample is similar. The phages convert the bacteria in the gut, reproduce, and travel up to the brain in order to create more brain mass, which causes it to expand until it’s too much brain for the skull to handle and kills you. The hair isn’t lethal, at least, except it seems to be promoting growth within the gut? And hair can’t be digested, so you just have hairballs in your intestines. Which is. Interesting? But not exactly positive.”

    “Would that make us cough up hairballs like cats would?”

    “I don’t think so? I think the feline digestive track is different from ours, maybe connected to the respiratory system? I don’t know, I didn’t go into veterinary science.”

    Diana pushes every button on the bottom row and grabs the vials as they pop up out of the machine. Then, she pushes a button on the other side of the computer, which opens a hatch to reveal a space that starts glowing orange.

    The temperature in the room rises. You back away until you hit a shelf.

    Diana drops all three vials into the hatch and pushes the button again, closing it.

    “Alright, what are the other pathogens doing? Oh, the bacteria seem to be reproducing by consuming the samples they were introduced to. I think that immediately disqualifies mB and bB.”

    The hatch opens again.

    Diana drops the vials through.

    The hatch closes.

    You can breathe again.

    “I don’t think the hair bacteria can be considered automatically negative? I know a lot of people would consider hair removal treatment like this a godsend. If there was a way to target body hair instead of all hair I think it’d be a shoo-in! But we weren’t given the resources to look into that sort of thing, so I think it’s a net-neutral? Put a pin in it.

    “Now the viruses… Hm? Oh, that’s interesting.”

    You can’t see that well from where you’re standing, but the expression on Aoi’s face suggests that he doesn’t quite understand what he’s looking at either. He comments on it, even. “You wanna share with the class?”

    “Huh? Oh, right. The viral pathogens seem to be targeting the introduced sample and promoting activity. The hair sample looks similar to the phages which promoted growth, but it’s directly targeting the hair follicles outside of the body. Which, like, hair growth, awesome, but also body hair growth, kinda gross. Another net-neutral, I think.

    “The muscular pathogen is interesting; it’s promoting muscle activity, which shows as becoming more muscular. Which is a desirable trait, and probably the most positive thing we’ve seen yet. Except the virus seems overeager, it’s constantly targeting the muscles and promoting activity, which means you’re in a constant state of overwork, which means you’d always be sore, so it’s not purely positive.”

    Diana just stares at the screen, fidgeting with the angle and tilting her head. “I don’t know what’s going on with the brain virus. There’s a reason I didn’t go into neuroscience: it’s a bunch of fiddly bits coming together to create something that sets humans apart from other animals. The virus is targeting the brain cells, and it’s promoting activity, but I can’t tell for what purpose…”

    Unease starts to curdle in your stomach, and the words come to your mouth unbidden. “What if it’s targeting the neurons and promoting activity in the thought centers?”

    Diana stops messing with the computer and snaps her gaze to you. “That would be positive… there wouldn’t be any downsides to that at all.” She steps away and runs for a book on a shelf, another bounded journal, it looks like. “Yeah, yeah, the activity promotion would spread all throughout the brain instead of in one targeted area, which would prevent migraines, and people are always looking for ways to increase their mental abilities! Oh, this is perfect! I think we have a winner!”

    You suppose that you would need proper background information to see the downsides.

    Increased neural activity would slow your perception of time down.

    Increased mental processing while stuck in this state would circle your thoughts around futility, around the thought that you’d be trapped in this state forever.

    Increased thoughts while in a mental spiral about futility would lead to thoughts about a multitude of ways that you could end futility.

    Thoughts about how you could end your life.

    You don’t blame Diana for not seeing the downsides to Radical-6.


    The final part of the escape room is delivering the solution. If you do not deliver the solution, you cannot escape, and you will die.

    What do you do?

    Decision Time
    (Choose One)
    Stop Diana
    Do Nothing
     
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  9. Threadmarks: Pathogen: Infection
    CypherZero

    CypherZero Getting sticky.

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    It would have been easy if you were alone.

    Your life against six billion is simple math. You would sacrifice your life and a girl you had only met three days prior for the entire world every time the choice is offered.

    It's not that you're a noble hero, a martyr burning at the cross. You endangered six innocent people to save yourself from a paradox, you're not righteous at all. But in that scenario, if anyone innocent did die, the paradox solves itself with your death anyway, so nothing really mattered.

    So no, you're not righteous. But you're not arrogant enough to put yourself above the whole planet.

    …Your brother, though.

    He's your anchor. You wouldn't be alive without him, you don't know how you could live without him by your side. You understand that if you made this choice, you wouldn't be living without him, you would die with him.

    The thought isn't comforting.

    Diana hums, presses the button to eject the vial into her hand, and walks over to a delivery tube that most likely leads directly to Zero.

    You still have a chance! Aoi would listen to you, he knows when you're deadly serious. He would follow you into hell.

    He would obey any command you gave him.

    Your throat closes. Your jaw is stuck like it's wired shut.

    He turns to you with a confused stare. He always seems to know when something is wrong with you. He can read your body language well enough that you wouldn't even have to speak the order to stop Diana. A gesture would be enough.

    You don't move.

    Instead, you watch as Diana sends the vial through the tube and dooms six billion people.


    It takes about a minute, but eventually, your bracelet beeps cheerily. Idly, you look down at it and see the digits lit up in green rather than red.

    You can't bring yourself to feel satisfaction. Solving the puzzle created a world-ending virus, and you barely helped to solve it anyway.

    You drag yourself after Aoi and Diana as they walk back through the lab to the entrance.

    The LED on the lock is green now. The door is open.

    You walk toward it.

    "Hey, are you…"

    Aoi grabs Diana's hand as she reaches for you. "I wouldn't if I were you. She's… touchy, about personal space, especially when she gets like this."

    "Does this kind of thing happen often?"

    You tune them out, succumb to numbness.

    To your immediate left when you exit the door is a metal wall blocking one end of a hallway. The floor is carpeted the same as the room you just exited, but the carpet just past the metal wall is singed and blackened and littered with dust and debris.

    You turn right and walk down the hallway.

    There's another door in the hall, but it has a red LED and it's locked when you try the handle. The hallway eventually leads to a lobby-like room with couches and chairs much like the ones you woke up in. There are three more doors, all of them with red LEDs.

    They're all locked, there's no need to check them.

    You collapse on a couch. Your bracelet buzzes.

    Five-minute warning.

    …You'll do everything in your power to accomplish your goals.

    Except kill your brother.

    Would you kill Aoi?

    …You'd let him die.

    There were those iterations where Clover assumed that he and Seven killed Light and chopped the three of you down with an axe. You told Aoi about the possibility of Clover escaping alone, and with Light, if she waited long enough to hear him in the coffin and broke it open.

    You didn't tell him the details. He died unknowing in those iterations.

    You didn't. You'd have already been dead for years at that point.

    You don't know if that's the same thing.

    …What even are your goals? What are you trying to accomplish in this godforgotten game?

    Sigma and Phi want to stop the release of Radical-6. You fucked that one up, good job.

    They want to stop the rise of some cult, Fire the Sol, or whatever. You don't even know how that's relevant to the current situation.

    They want information on Zero. Shit, you too. You wouldn't kill Aoi over it, though.

    Zero's lucky, you guess. If it had been Sigma or Phi in that lab, if Aoi hadn't been in this group, that virus would have never seen the light of day.



    No, wait.

    That isn't luck at all.

    Sigma and Phi aren't here. Diana, someone who knows just enough about medicine and biology to put the virus together but not enough about neuroscience to figure out the implications, is.

    All of that is by design.

    You're here to observe the virus' creation, for whatever sadistic reason Zero has. This is also by design.

    Aoi is here to ensure your hesitation, your reluctance to destroy the virus at the cost of his life.

    Also by design.

    Looks like you got some information on Zero after all. They know you well enough to know that you'd never sacrifice your brother.

    That you'd let the world burn for his sake.

    …But you weren't aware of that before today…

    Your bracelet beeps at you, and the needles slide into your wrist. You fall unconscious with one final thought lingering in your head.

    Zero knows you.


    Fragment Selection
    (Choose One)
    Exodus (Carlos and Phi)
    Scripted (Carlos and Junpei)
    Relative (Maria and Phi)

    Revisit (What Fragment?)
    Redirect (What person?)
     
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  10. Threadmarks: Pathogen: Prevention
    CypherZero

    CypherZero Getting sticky.

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    You don't give yourself any time to overthink things.

    "Aoi."

    Instead, you walk right up to Diana, plant your foot behind her heel, and grab her by the back of her sweater. When you swing yourself backward, she trips and has no way to catch herself, flying backward directly into your brother's arms with a squawk.

    Your accomplice's arms. You're slipping back into the role of Zero, sacrificing other people to accomplish your goals, and your brother is acting as your hands to move them like chess pieces.

    "Take her out of the room."

    Aoi most likely recognizes your tone, given his lack of comment or complaint, and you hear Diana yelling, imagine her struggling. You don't turn to look back.

    You press the button and release the vial that contains the end of the world. You hold your breath and reach over to open the hatchway to the incinerator.

    Heat washes over you, but you ignore it and throw the vial into the fire.

    Then you close it, slightly shaking.

    But you're not done yet.

    The table where you originally found Diana still has the brain cell specimen and the viral enhancement. Separately, they could produce some amazing advancements in biological science, you're sure of it.

    But they're too dangerous together.

    With that thought ringing in your head, you grab the microscope with both hands, bring it above your head, and swing down.


    The door swings heavily when you pull it open. You stick a foot behind you to catch it so it doesn't bump into your butt.

    "Aoi, I need you to break that monitor. It should release some sparks, grab the journal and use the paper to start a fire. Burn the whole lab."

    He nods and gets up from his seat, walking past you into the lab. Diana remains, morose on the couch, her head between her knees. You have nothing to focus on except the LED on the electronic lock opposite the laboratory door. A bright and mocking red.

    You can hear Aoi's shuffling in the lab, thumps and thuds emanating through the door. You think that you can only hear it because of your proximity to the entrance.

    Diana probably can't hear anything from the lab at all.

    She doesn't seem keen on speaking up.

    The silence is damning.

    Eventually, it's broken by the buzzing of your bracelet.

    The five-minute warning.

    Five minutes until you're put to sleep, never to wake again.

    "Why…"

    Diana's voice echoes in the room, weak and pleading. She understands the implications of what you've done. She wants answers.

    "The virus would have attacked the infected person's ability to process time, altering it drastically. It would have then trapped their thoughts into a loop that could only ever spiral downwards until eventually the only thought in their head was on how to end their suffering. The virus would have also been transmittable through the air. A violently contagious suicide virus."

    "I… no, not that. Why did you have Aoi go start the fire? Instead of staying to do it yourself?"

    Oh.

    You don't know how to explain the dreadful feeling that fire gives you.

    The claustrophobia of being trapped in a metallic room.

    How the combination is likely to give you a panic attack, and how the thought of not only willingly subjecting yourself to that torment, but actively setting a fire in a closed metal space, is absolutely revolting.

    You just shrug.

    Diana sighs, falling back and bouncing lightly on the cushion. From behind you can hear a crash and the tinkling of glass, then a soft woosh.

    You skitter away from the door.

    "I would have understood, I think," Diana says, looking to the ceiling instead of to you. "If you had explained it? My life against the possibility of something that awful getting out? I think that would have been an easy choice to make."

    Her head falls again, and her forearms crash against her lap while she glares at the ground.

    "But it would have been my choice to make."

    Her fists and shoulders are shaking with anger, her voice is coming through choked, through grit teeth.

    She refuses to look at you.

    "I was finally ready to divorce my abusive ex, but he found a new bitch to play with and served me first! I was passed up on a promotion at work, not because I wasn't qualified, but because my fucking coworker thought I couldn't handle the additional responsibility!

    "I didn't even sign up for this fucking experiment! My friend thought I needed to get away from everything and she signed up for me! I only went along with it for the volunteer bonus!"

    As suddenly as it came, Diana's anger passes on, and she slumps forward, head back between her knees.

    "All I want in life is a little agency."

    You aren't given a chance to respond. Your bracelets both beep shrilly, and the needles pierce your skin, injecting their payload into your veins.

    For the last time, you fall asleep.

    The Nurse's Frustration
    Bad End

    You have obtained the Blue Key.

    Fragment Conmplete!
    Pathogen

    Fragment Selection
    (Choose One)
    Exodus (Carlos and Phi)
    Pawn (Junpei and Phi)
    Literary (Carlos and Maria)

    Revisit (What Fragment?)
    Redirect (What person?)
     
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  11. Threadmarks: Misgiving: Armistice
    CypherZero

    CypherZero Getting sticky.

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    You allow yourself a moment to imagine it.

    The vitriol that would drip from your lips, the shock would appear in Sigma’s eyes, the denial and assurances he would bring to bear. He didn’t mean to make you feel this way, he couldn’t possibly know how uncomfortable he made you, never mind the space you tried to put between yourself and him.

    You wonder what kind of person you must be forty-five years from now if stilted professionalism and abrupt exits from conversation were considered normal. Truly, time must change a person, let alone decades.

    The moment passes.

    You release the tension between your shoulders and let out a silent breath from your nose.

    “No Sigma, I don’t have an issue with you. We don’t have much time left before we’re put back to sleep. You said the other two hallways led to locked doors?”

    “Mm, yeah.”

    “Maybe the console in that other room has something. There might be more hidden panels in the walls than the ones Zero had us use for the puzzle.”

    “You figure?”

    “I don’t think he made an entirely new facility specifically for a death game. If we act under the assumption that DCOM was a real initiative rather than a trap that would require information from the future or from Zero himself, then we were abducted and taken somewhere else. Somewhere Zero would have to do minimal preparation.”

    “You think this place is some kind of… what, secret lair?”

    “Secret lair, experimental facility, whichever. This room is clearly some kind of office space, this is someone’s computer, and even if everything here is completely irrelevant, it might still point us in the right direction.”

    “You think the other room has a purpose too?”

    “It had stuff hidden behind mechanical panels, right? Maybe it has more. Maybe you can find out why it has a bed — and why the bed had restraints.”

    “I’ll go check it out.”

    “It might be locked. The passcode was two forty-four, nine forty-nine.”

    “Gotcha.”

    You turn back to the monitor and listen to his receding footsteps. You can’t relax, you’re unsure if he’s just around the corner, waiting to come back in and force the discussion. But eventually, you have to try to get something productive out of this round.

    And anyway, Sigma is an ally. You should try to put your issues aside, if only to strengthen cooperation.

    Your problems can wait.

    The folder directory has three options for you… is what you had hoped would happen. Instead, two of the folders (Personnel and Participants) are locked, and whoever the hell this computer belongs to was smart enough not to have the same password for literally everything.

    …You correct yourself: Zero was smart enough. He dangled this in front of you only to steer your attention to the third folder.

    ‘Projects.’

    God damn it, Mira was right. He wants you to know what he’s up to, for some reason. Whatever, you’ll take it. Knowing is better than not. You open the folder to see five subfolders.

    Hey, you’ve already learned something! Zero’s some kind of religious nutjob. The project subfolders are titled after the first five books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

    Lovely.

    You take a second to try and think of a scenario in which Zero seriously titles his projects like this and somehow isn’t fanatical. After all, it’s not like you’re atheistic. You have a healthy respect for God, even if you sometimes blame him for the unfortunate circumstances you find yourself in.

    Then again, you wouldn’t name your plans after the Bible.

    You know what, there you go. Zero’s either a religious fanatic or he has a god complex.

    Whatever. You start with the Genesis folder.

    There’s another subfolder, and this one is password-protected. Joy of joys. But there’s also a document. An index, maybe? You open it.

    The document is written in plain English rather than code, but it’s littered with shorthand and abbreviations. You imagine that somewhere in the locked folder there’s a key or a glossary, but you can’t make heads or tails of the contents with the information you have at hand.

    It seems to be human experimentation of some kind, or at least you assume so. There’s a subject section — they’re referred to by number, rather than name, but at least their roles in the experiment are written clearly.

    Nine subjects total, huh? Were all of the Game’s participants the subjects of this experiment, then? What was Zero testing for? Which number were you assigned? You scan the rest of the document but you can’t get any more information out of it.

    When the five-minute warning signals on your bracelet, you’re busy staring at a trio of Greek letters, trying to divine their meaning. You harrumph and navigate back to the directory. Beta, Gamma, and Epsilon can keep their secrets — for now.

    Exodus doesn’t have a locked subfolder, so it’s already better than Genesis. Unfortunately, the files all seem to be mechanical schematics — maybe you should’ve let Sigma go through this computer and poked around the other room yourself. You don’t get the importance of one part versus another or the gravity of how they connect to one another. Everything is written in plain English, but it might as well be a different language.

    But then you reach the final document. It’s some kind of manifesto or thesis or report, written by someone that wasn’t part of the engineering team. Someone tried to explain what the machine did to someone outside the know, and this is the summation of what was understood.

    The machine, a ten-foot hulking mechanical tube topped off with a cone with wires connecting to a computer, has been listed as a Transport Machine. Its purpose is to scan matter inside of its shell and download the physical data, then send that data into something called a quantum computer. The computer then sends that data to another terminal, but not through a normal transmission, but through time and space.

    ‘Theoretically,’ the report says, ‘the machine can be used to send advanced technology back in time to the founding of the organization to ensure our superiority. If quantum computing is truly advanced enough to send data back and forth through time, we can use it to make note of events through history and leverage them for monetary or political power.’

    The reporter seems skeptical, and these hypotheticals are put forth as begrudgingly as possible, as though they were explicitly told to give ideas as to what this technology can be used for from an outside perspective. And so they did, though they didn’t truly believe any of this was possible.

    You’re… not so sure.

    Sending data back through time and changing the past seems like a cheesy sci-fi movie plot… but it’s also exactly what you went through. The Morphogenetic Field is a purely theoretical science, but you’re living proof of its existence and its effect on the world. If Zero can recreate what happened to you with quantum computing…

    Your ruminations are cut short with a sharp pain in your back, accompanied by a forceful push that drives you down onto the keyboard.

    Your breathing is labored, and your body is shaky, but you try to put a hand on the edge to stabilize yourself, try to turn around and face your assailant.

    You’re pushed a second time. It comes with another sharp pain.

    You’re reminded of submarines…

    Ah. You’re being stabbed in the back.

    You’re stabbed for a third, fourth, fifth, sixth time. There are no grunts of exertion or false platitudes or angry rants of revenge. Only the parting of flesh.

    Finally, after maybe a dozen blows, you fall face-first to the ground. You try to inhale instinctually, but receive nothing but blood for your trouble.

    You hear three things as your consciousness fades:

    A parting of flesh from somewhere above you;

    A body falling directly next to you;

    And joyous, victorious trilling from your bracelet.

    It seems as though somebody’s won.

    Shame it wasn’t you.

    Engineered Destruction
    Bad End
    Obtained: Transporter Schematics
    Fragment Complete!
    Misgiving


    Fragment Selection
    (Choose One)
    Exodus (Carlos and Phi)
    Confession (Junpei and Mira)
    Reverie (Diana and Maria)

    Revisit (What Fragment?)
    Redirect (Which character?)
     
    Last edited: Sep 3, 2022
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  12. Threadmarks: Literary (Carlos and Maria)
    CypherZero

    CypherZero Getting sticky.

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    You wake up curled in a plush chair, your face buried in the armrest and a hand buried in the cushions. It's not the least comfortable you've ever been waking up, but your body is certainly complaining about the contortionist position you've taken. Carefully, you stretch your legs off the seat and away from your chest and twist your torso upward out of the chair, pushing your hand further into the cushions to give yourself leverage.

    Your fingernails tap against something hard. The chair's frame, maybe? With a small bit of effort, you yank yourself into place to sit properly in the chair and absentmindedly move your arm around without removing it from the corner it had been shoved into.

    It wasn't the wooden frame you brushed against. It was something else, some small object shoved down between the cushions like a TV remote that'd been lost for days. Your fingers graze across the surface, grasp it. The shape is familiar…

    Oh. What is this doing here?

    "Akane?"

    Your hand slips out of the cushion and into your pocket smoothly, and you sit up with a hop. Your eyes dart over to the caller. Maria sits in her chair with her feet on the seat, hugging her shins with her chin on her knees. Her eyes, clouded by her usually dreamy state, hold a small amount of alarm and concern.

    You're confused until you turn to the right.

    Carlos sits similarly to his sister, with one foot on the cushion, both hands around the raised knee. His chin is propped behind them, leaving the bottom part of his face hidden by his leg.

    His eyes are glued on you. His stare is intense.

    A small part of you wants to bark in indignation. What the hell did you do, anyway?

    A larger part of you remembers that you're being injected with a memory drug after every round. You very well might have done something to him.

    But the memory drug is in your bracelet. Shouldn't it be in his bracelet?

    Junpei and Aoi's bracelets weren't exactly the same as yours. Their times were altered. Who's to say everyone's bracelet is exactly the same as yours?

    Who's to say that everyone is getting their memories clouded over? Who's to say it isn't just you?

    You're veering into paranoia. You need to stop.

    You jerk your gaze away from Carlos, rubbing warmth into your forearms. Why is this facility so cold anyway?

    Whatever. You just need to focus your energy elsewhere. There should be a puzzle, right? You're in some kind of escape room, Zero had said. Okay, what do you have to solve to get out of here?

    …Nothing appears as suspicious to your roving gaze. You're in a plush little lounge room. Wooden coffee table surrounded by three white arm chairs on red carpeting. Dim bulbs in the corners lighting up four metal grated walls. There is nothing is written on the walls, there is nothing on the table, there is no puzzle for you to solve.

    You kick your feet up onto the table and fold yourself over your legs. Wonderful. The one time you need a distraction, the room is empty. You resist the urge to groan aloud.

    …Maybe you should give in to that urge. The silence is unpleasant.

    "What did… Zero mean…?"

    Oh Maria, you beautiful child. You sit up and look at her with a small, grateful smile.

    "Hm?"

    "He called you… the main character."

    "Oh, that bit about me being the first Zero? I mean, I suppose he wasn't wrong. I was Zero at one point, yeah. I ran a game kinda like this one, but it was more of a revenge plot—" and rescue mission "—than a real death game, right? Someone else had trapped me in a death game exactly like the one I ran, so I trapped them in a game, along with a couple other people to make it more realistic. And it worked! The only participant that died was one of the assholes that trapped me—" along with two others, but they weren't participants, and Hongou killed them, anyway "—and the other asshole is in jail now, pleaded guilty in a court of law."

    On threat of further punishment, of course. He was too big to go away for long if he didn't do it himself. And he didn't even go to jail on kidnapping charges, he pleaded guilty to the murders he committed while in the game. Which was fine, murder has a longer sentence time.

    "Mm-mm." Maria's voice frees you from thoughts of Hongou. What a thoughtful child. "Main character. Means something. You're the focus."

    "What, do you think this game is my fault, somehow? That this is someone else's revenge plot against me?"

    Maria shrugs. You blow a stream of air past your lips and lean back in your chair, eyes planted to the metal-grated ceiling.

    "Nine participants, one dead, another in jail. The one in jail has a lot of connections so I've been watching his correspondence and visitors— he has had precious little of both, and something like this takes dedication and planning, and his accounts are frozen so he doesn't have the money to pay for that level of commitment.

    "Two of them were me and my brother, and this isn't his doing. One is Junpei, he's too straight-laced for this. Two were in Japan as of Sunday evening, one of which is a high-end police agent. The last two were being monitored very closely, and they haven't been acting like they were planning something as grandiose as this."

    Although… Light would be around the same height as Zero, who was walking around with a cane. His family is relatively wealthy, isn't it? This isn't exactly his style, but it does match the same flair of dramatic irony that you were going for with Hongou and Kubota. Maybe not Light himself, maybe his family?

    You're working yourself up again. Stop.

    "It's probably not one of my quote-unquote victims coming back to get me. I didn't force them through anything worse than a fright."

    Probably.

    Unless…

    Stop.

    "What else could main character mean, I wonder."

    "Plot focus," Maria drones from her spot. "Person of interest. Special powers. Plot armor."

    "Special powers and plot armor, huh?"

    You are some flavor of immortal, you suppose, that's pretty special. But it isn't more special than Sigma or Phi. What sets you apart from them?

    You saved yourself from a fiery death. The person you used who helped you is even here with you. You've even used this power of yours for reconnaissance, a bit of informant work for the Special Office of Internal Security, a bit of money in your pocket, a tangible connection between them and Crash Keys.

    All it cost was a few hours in universes that no longer exist against threats that don't truly threaten you.

    …Unless you ran into an esper on one of those missions.

    Huh. Suddenly those things that didn't really matter seem kind of important. Maybe you shouldn't have been so quick to put them out of your mind.

    Too late now. Either it's super important and you can't remember, or it isn't important at all and you shouldn't worry about it anyway.

    So you should probably stop worrying about it.

    Stop.


    You don't really have anything else to add to the conversation. Maria seems like the exchange has completely tired her out. Carlos has yet to say anything at all.

    Would Zero be so cruel as to use your social awkwardness against you and have the solution to an invisible puzzle be locked behind sullenness that you yourself have to dispel?

    Well, why would he stop at kidnapping you, right?

    You're working up to breaching that wall when you hear a chime from the ceiling. A banner appears on the wall behind Maria and a panel lifts from the coffee table. Both light up with the same words.

    Emergency Escape



    There is no poll for this chapter.
     
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  13. Threadmarks: Literary: Chekhov’s Gun
    CypherZero

    CypherZero Getting sticky.

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    “Emergency escape protocol has been activated.”

    A toneless female voice rings out tinnily from the panel in the coffee table but still echoes in the silence of the room. Carlos lowers his feet to the ground and gives it his full attention, while Maria raises her head from her knees to look at the table.

    “Participants will be given access to the Instant Win Button.”

    A button slides out from the wall behind Maria underneath the shining sign. Painted a cartoonishly bright red color, it’s hidden under a plastic case, probably to prevent anyone from pushing it until the voice fully explains the rules.

    “Upon pushing this button, all participants present will win the game, and an exit out of the facility will immediately open.”

    This makes you sit up, intrigued. Would you three count as dead, then? Does that mean the other six people present would have to fight it out amongst themselves—

    “The usual penalty will immediately be applied to all other participants.”

    Oh, never mind. You’re not sure why you thought otherwise.

    “The Instant Win Button will become available in sixty seconds. Please choose carefully.”

    With a hissing buzz, the speaker goes silent. You roll your eyes and sit back in your chair — there isn’t a choice to consider. While you’re sure Aoi wouldn’t hesitate to die if it meant you would live, you’re certainly not going to pull the trigger. You can figure another way out, you’re not in any rush.

    “Usual… penalty…?”

    “Everyone else dies,” you answer Maria. “There’s probably something lethal in all of our bracelets, the button would send a signal all throughout the facility to inject everyone that isn’t here. Six people die, so we ‘win.’”

    “Ah…”

    Maria sounds as dispassionate as ever. You might be imagining the disappointment you hear, projecting a little bit — but how cool would it have been for the three of you to ‘die’ and leave the other six to fend for themselves, have at least four of them act outside of normal parameters because someone they were close to is just gone?!

    (You’re definitely projecting. How would they even know you died?)

    …Carlos is still quiet. Isn’t he supposed to pipe up about how he would never sacrifice people to save himself? He seems like the heroic type.

    You look over to see him staring at you. Intensely. Why is he…

    There’s a faint click from behind Maria — the button unlocking.

    “Maria, go!”

    You instantly realize your mistake. Carlos wouldn’t kill everyone else to save himself, but for his sister?

    With surprising speed, Maria jumps out of her chair and turns to run around it to get to the button. You spring to your feet to chase her, she has a bit of a head start, but you can still intercept her—!

    But Carlos is faster than you.

    He doesn’t have to go all the way to the button, he just has to reach you — wrap his arms around you, pin your arms to your sides, and keep you from interrupting his sister.

    “No, don’t! Maria, stop!”

    But why would she? All that matters to her is right here, and there’s an easy way to secure its safety.

    So Carlos holds you back, contains you in all your flailing fury, while Maria slams her hand on the mockingly bright red button.

    A jingle plays from all of your bracelets, a set of six joyous trills, sharply contrasted by a loud, thunderous boom. An explosion echoing in a distant part of the facility.

    Not a lethal injection from your bracelets, then.

    Numbly, you stop struggling, going limp in Carlos’ arms. You hear whirring machinery behind you and feel a breeze. That would be the exit, then. You don’t turn to face it, you just keep your eyes forward.

    You can feel shifting above you from Carlos. He’s probably looking down at your expression. Whatever he sees, he doesn’t let you go. You’re not sure why. You don’t think your eyebrows are screwed up in fury, your eyes aren’t narrowed in a glare, your nostrils aren’t flaring.

    Maria looks up at Carlos while you’re busy wondering where the anger is. You feel him jerk his head to the side, and she walks around the chairs and the table toward the exit.

    Carlos just did what Aoi would do. Six perfect strangers in exchange for his precious sister? Easily done.

    Could you have stopped this if you had acted earlier?

    …No, Carlos was ready to move as soon as you did, wasn’t he. Even if you knew what would happen the second the speaker said ‘Instant Win,’ he would still be able to stop you. He’s too much stronger than you, too much faster. And you’re not sure you could do anything with Maria, either. Her speed surprised you — she’s so lethargic most of the time, you didn’t know she could move that quickly. Who’s to say she isn’t stronger than she looks, too?

    So no, you don’t feel angry.

    Just defeated.

    God, why did that stupid ‘Emergency Escape’ protocol have to activate this round, instead of any other?

    …Because Zero willed it.

    He flipped some switch somewhere as soon he saw Carlos and Maria alive and active in the same room. This is by design — he knew this would happen. He probably knew exactly how Carlos and Maria would act if given an out.

    Ah. There’s the anger. Shame you don’t have an outlet…

    Oh. Wait.

    “You can let me go, you know,” you mutter quietly. “It’s too late to stop you. You won.”

    “Oh…” Carlos slowly releases you, and you stick your arms in your pocket, stepping around him to turn toward the exit. The wall opposite the button is split down the middle and opened up. Maria waits just inside the mouth of the artificial cave.

    “I thought you would be more upset…”

    “It’s reasonable, I think.”

    “Reasonable?”

    You walk toward the exit, but Carlos hesitates.

    “Six people you’ve only met this week, or a sister you know well and love dearly. It’s an easy choice, most people would say. Completely understandable.”

    “You really think so…?”

    “Yeah.”

    You cross the boundary, past the grooves in the floor that the metal walls slid along to open up, and stop next to Maria. The darkness ahead is impenetrable, but you can definitely feel the winter chill.

    Instant Win, indeed.

    “It’s just… kinda unfortunate.”

    “What is?”

    Your arm whips out.

    The first shot shatters Maria’s kneecap — she collapses and falls to the ground.

    The second shot goes through her temple and splatters brain matter — you barely have to adjust your aim.

    You cock the hammer back a third time and turn to face Carlos.

    “I am neither reasonable nor understanding.”

    Zero would have had to go through your purse, remove your pistol, and plant it in the chair you woke up in. Just deep enough to hide it from Carlos and Maria, but shallow enough for you to find at the start of the round.

    It’s likely that he expected this, too. Oh well.

    “Y-You…”

    “You tried to kill six people to save your sister. But now eight people are dead, and you get nothing.

    “But you — I didn’t… wait… Eight…?”

    “Yeah, eight. There’s nothing left for me in this universe, I’ll leave it all for you.”

    “But why—?”

    “Weren’t you paying attention? I’m the ‘main character,’ it comes with plot armor. My soul is immortal, Carlos. I just have to free it.”

    Your hand comes up. Your tongue tastes gunmetal.

    Wait—

    You embrace death and feel no pain.

    QUANTUM LOCK DISCOVERED
    Stop Those Siblings!
    0 of 4
    Fragment Selection
    (Choose One)
    Pawn (Junpei and Phi)
    Confession (Junpei and Mira)
    Mortality (Junpei and Sigma)

    Revisit (What Fragment?)
    Redirect (What person?)
     
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  14. Threadmarks: Pawn: Junpei and Phi
    CypherZero

    CypherZero Getting sticky.

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    Junpei seems well. That's the only thought going through your mind right now, that Junpei seems well. He's on the camera feed now, in the middle of a featureless white room, looking down at his bracelet with a concerned expression, free of any harm physical or mental that you can see. It's a calming thought, accompanied by a sense of relief, distracting you from the tiny size of the room you're trapped in.​

    Juxtaposing Junpei on the other side of the screen is Phi. The feed shows her in negative colors, almost like a night vision filter, and while you can't see any physical wounds on her face or legs, and she doesn't seem to be favoring any parts of her body, she only just finished shaking and is now pacing restlessly.

    You look down. Beneath the camera feeds, there's a microphone. To the left of the microphone, is a screen with a page of text displayed, and to the right is a yellow indicator light on top of a button.

    An intercom button, maybe? You press it and speak into it.

    "Phi, can you hear me? Are you okay?"

    What you get in response is a blaring klaxon that makes you cover your ears. Ow, shit.

    …Junpei and Phi don't react to the blaring horn. Can they not hear it?

    Was the button not an intercom?

    You look around the room, the glorified booth you woke up in, and find nothing of value. There's a door directly behind you, but the knob was locked when you tried it earlier, and somehow you doubt that blowing your eardrums out is the solution to opening it.

    There's nothing else here, just the monitor, the microphone, and five metal walls too close to each other.

    You try the button again. "Hello?"

    Fucking ouch!

    Another klaxon.

    Words pop up on the screen, and you try to keep an eye open even as you wince in pain.

    'SPEAK NO EVIL!'

    Oh, is this part of the challenge? Are you not allowed to speak freely? Is that why the indicator light is yellow instead of green?

    So what are you allowed to say?

    Your eyes drift down to the screen next to the microphone. Maybe that's a script. You press the button, making sure to read faithfully.

    "Participants, this challenge room, the first of three, is based on the three wise monkeys."

    "Akane? Is that you?! Where are you? Are you okay? How can I hear you right now?"

    Oh Junpei. His concern is refreshing, but very unhelpful for the purposes of trying to solve a puzzle.

    "Junpei! Shut up and let her explain the damn rules!"

    Phi even agrees with you, but Junpei keeps whirling around, shouting your name at the walls as if he can't hear her.

    …Maybe he can't.

    "Wait. Three wise monkeys? Oh shit, is that the no evil thing? This room is pitch black, so I must be 'see no evil.' Maybe Junpei can't hear me…"

    Shit. Phi can't see, and you can't lead her with the speaking restriction you have. Junpei needs to help her out.

    First, you need Junpei to stop freaking out. Guess you need to steamroll over his concern to get his attention.

    You press the button again.

    "Participants."

    "Akane! You're back! Are you—"

    "This challenge room, the first of three, is based on the three wise monkeys. One participant can hear no evil."

    "—okay? What aren't you… Well, I guess I can hear you just fine…"

    It didn't mute you when you stressed certain words, so maybe… "The other participant can see no evil."

    "What? But I can see this room perfectly! What's—"

    You take a shot in the dark, putting yourself into Zero's shoes and mentally preparing yourself for another round of horns.

    "A third participant, acting as the Voice of God, can speak no evil."

    "Huh?"

    It went through! No klaxons!

    "…Wait! Is that why you won't respond to me?" There it is, he's getting it. "Voice of God, huh? Guess Zero thinks pretty highly of himself."

    "That's exactly what I'm thinking," Phi remarks to herself.

    Wait, that was you talking out of your ass. Did Zero actually…

    You flick a finger up on the screen next to the microphone to scroll up. There was actually another line! It actually says 'Voice of God!'

    Why did that work?

    "So if you're just repeating words that Zero's providing for you, and you can't speak evil, does that mean I'm hearing no evil? Is it that I can't hear the other participant because they aren't holy and their words would be evil? Then if they see no evil, they either can't see me — or maybe they can't see anything at all, and the challenge must be that I have to somehow lead them to safety without being able to see or hear them?"

    "Wow, he worked through that fast."

    You're not exactly shocked like Phi is, but you still can't help being impressed by the speed of Junpei's deductions.

    "Shit, but how do I lead them out? Akane, can you — no, wait, you can't answer… Oh, but how is it stopping you from saying evil? I have to imagine that you tried talking to me before you started reading whatever lines you were given. Maybe… Here's how we can test that. Akane, try saying 'evil.' It's part of the line you said earlier, but it's far enough from the beginning…"

    Oh, you see what he's saying. He wants to test if the censor is listening for whole lines or words that aren't on some sort of approved list. You press the button next to the mic and speak clearly.

    "Evil."



    No buzz.

    "Alright! Now that we know that works, you can answer yes or no questions! If 'yes' isn't on your script thingy, you can default to 'see' for an affirmative, and obviously, you can say 'no.' Okay?"

    "See!"

    "Alright! Before we like, start, you're okay, right? You're not hurt or anything, are you?"

    Oh, Jumpy…

    "See."

    "Yes you're hurt?! Wait, no, I messed the question up. Uh. Yes, you're okay?"

    You have to shake your head fondly. "See."

    "Right. That's good! Okay, can you see both participants, or do you just have, like, a book and a speaker?"

    "What, like a Chinese Room situation?" Phi remarks. Meanwhile, you're stuck trying to answer Junpei's question, which, while binary, is not yes/no. Damn it, Junpei.

    "Monkey."

    "What? Oh, damn, I did it again. Uh. Do you have eyes on us?"

    "See."

    "Is there, like, a shared wall between us?"

    Um. "Evil?"

    "Inconclusive… Is the camera setup two feeds side-by-side?"

    "See."

    "Am I on the left side?"

    "See."

    "Which means the other participant is on the right, okay. Now I have to figure out which of these walls in a perfectly square room is facing the right side."

    Well, on the camera feed he's facing the front wall. Maybe…

    "One?"

    "Huh? Oh maybe… Am I facing the front wall right now?"

    Same wavelength, very good. "See!"

    "Which means," he raises his arm to point to the wall on his right, "this should be the wall that's connected to the other participant on the camera feed!"

    "See!"

    "Well, if they want it so I can't hear them, the walls are probably soundproofed. But if our rooms are connected, and the walls aren't too thick, then they should still be able to feel a strong enough impact!"

    Phi's head tilts as she hears Junpei talk, and then perks up when he walks to the wall and starts knocking on it. "Oh! Okay, he's gonna try to lead me through vibration, that's a good idea. Akane! Call out when I'm facing the left wall from your perspective."

    Her idea is to raise her arm, point outward, and slowly spin to orient herself. However, she is also facing the front of the room, and she starts spinning clockwise, so it takes a bit for her to face the right way. All the while, Junpei keeps one hand pressed flush to the wall while knocking with the other, waiting for his partner to knock back.

    Phi does eventually face the right way—

    "One!"

    —and as soon as she knows it, she drops her arm and runs forward full-tilt, slamming into it heavily, shoulder first.

    "Jesus!" Junpei falters — he definitely felt that slam through the wall — but he gets his bearings back and starts knocking again, slower this time. And soon enough, Phi gets to her feet, presses a hand to the wall, and knocks back.

    "Okay. I'm gonna start walking towards the front-facing wall. Just follow my knocks, and knock back so I know you're following."

    Slowly, Junpei and Phi shuffle along to the front, and when they get there, a section of the wall slides open on both sides, and when they walk through, it shuts behind them. Your feed changes to a different room, though it doesn't show Junpei and Phi walking out. Maybe they have to walk through a passageway to get to the next room.

    The screen wipes itself clean, and the light above your button changes colors to green.

    "Wow, I'm impressed," you hear Phi's voice through the speaker. "I thought Junpei was just some goth stalker biker boy or something, but he figured out what was going on pretty quickly."

    "Hey, I can hear you now."

    "Oh good, I won't have to repeat myself later. Hey Akane, you okay? Can you talk now?"

    "Maybe? I think so, I don't have any lines, and it isn't buzzing and cutting me off. Are you two together?"

    "Well, I can't see anyone in this tunnel, but I could hear, uh, Phi, right? That was your voice, right?"

    "Hey, your short-term memory managed to survive one or two rounds of sedation, congratulations."

    "Definitely Phi. You all good, Kanny? Nothing to worry about?"

    "Yeah, I'm fine outside of being stuck in an AV room the size of a closet. My door's locked too! Apparently, I'm just supposed to sit here and give out cryptic clues and wait for you two to solve everything!"

    "That feels familiar," they both snark at the same time. There's a brief pause before Junpei picks up the thread. "Why's it feel familiar to you? Did Akane kidnap you to play in a game too?"

    "Oh, well, no. Not yet, at least."

    "Not yet?!"

    "Maybe not at all. Who knows what timeline we're in. It's meant to be a backup plan, anyway."

    "Timeline? Backup plan? A backup for what?"

    "Nothing that's important right now. What about you? Is this not your first time getting kidnapped and stuffed into a super dangerous game?"

    "You-ugh. No, it isn't."

    "Well, it sounds like there's a story there. Too bad this tunnel is ending. Oh well, time for another heart-pumping escapade, I guess."

    "I… Guess?"

    In your camera feed, from an almost straight down view, Junpei and Phi enter from the bottom of the screen. You think initially that it's another split-feed, and they're in different rooms again, but they both turn their attention to the grey dividing wall in the middle of the feed, so maybe it's the same room and there's actually a wall separating them. You hear a mechanical whir, probably the entrances closing behind them, and a small section of the front wall opens up on both sides to reveal three circular shapes that you can't make any sense of from your angle. The best you can see, from the shapes poking out of the wall, both sides have two buttons and a screen above them.

    Phi seems to recognize them, from the way she hangs her head and lifts a hand up to her face.

    The light turns yellow again, and the screen flashes at you. You try to scroll, but this time the only words you can speak all fit onto a single line.

    "Your second challenge is this. Get out before anyone else."

    They really just want you to be cryptic and useless.

    "Before anyone…?" Phi is stuck on your wording, apparently hearing something you didn't catch, and walks to the right of the room, her head on a swivel. She stops while looking at a point on the far wall above the divider, where you can't see. She curses under her breath and kneels down, calling out as she… knocks on the floor?

    "Hey Junpei, you see those buttons on the wall?"

    "Yeah?"

    "Are they the same as mine? With an A and a B?"

    "Uh, yep. Same buttons."

    "Go ahead and hit the B button for me?"

    "Uh, okay…"

    Blaring horns make the both of them flinch, but not you, maybe because you can only hear the horns secondhand through the speakers.

    "Okay, that didn't work…"

    "What were you even trying to have me do?"

    "I wanted to see what would happen if you vo-pressed the button when I didn't. We need to press them at the same time."

    "Okay. On your count?"

    "Yeah, three count. Same thing, press B."

    "You got it."

    "One, two, three!"

    …That was weird. Maybe it's the camera angle, but you think that Junpei and Phi pressed different buttons?

    "Okay, my number went up to six!"

    "So did theirs…"

    "You say something, Phi?"

    "No, no. Same thing, okay? B on three."

    Phi is now walking to the right along the front wall, crouched into a runner stance.

    "One…"

    She crouches a bit further down…

    "Two…"

    …she starts sprinting at full speed toward the middle…

    "Three!"

    …and she slams the button at the same time that Junpei presses his, then jumps straight up, throwing her hands up to catch the top of the divider—

    As the floor falls out from beneath her.

    She strains a bit, but manages to heave herself over the wall and fall onto Junpei's side in a three-point landing, just as his buttons slide upward to reveal an exit. For his part, he looks shocked, eyes wide open.

    "Phi?! What was that about?"

    "Let's go through first, I don't want to take any chances."

    "Alright…"

    They walk into the dark entryway, and your camera feed changes again to yet another featureless white room, with what looks like two sets of buttons on a podium in the center.

    Your indicator light turns green, and you press the intercom button.

    "Phi? You okay?"

    "Ankle's a bit tender from the jump, but it isn't a strain, at least.

    "Well, that's good. So, when you were kneeling and knocking on the floor, were you checking for a trap?"

    "Yeah, I was listening for an echo. I was expecting like, spikes or something, or maybe the wall was gonna rise and trap me on the other side, but the echo under the floor sounded way too deep."

    "How did you even know to check for a trap?"

    "Oh, Junpei, right, I was gonna explain. So that room was based on the Prisoner's Dilemma. Basically, there are two guys in prison—"

    "Yeah, they're both asked to turn on their partner. Neither squeals, they both go to jail for a couple years, they both squeal and they both get a longer sentence."

    "Right, but if one guy squeals and the other doesn't, the one who ratted gets off free and the other one gets life. So, the A button stood for Ally and the B was for Betray. You saw how your points went up, right?"

    "Yeah? Started at three, went up by three every time."

    "And you 'won' at nine points."

    "Wait! Were you Allying and losing points to me Betraying? How many points do we get if we both Ally?"

    "Yeah, and we would've gotten two, but that's not the point. There were two more point counters above the divider, and I didn't know what would happen if we both Allied but one of the other guys Betrayed. We had to get out before anyone else."

    "And once I Betrayed the first time, it was too late to double back and try to Ally."

    "Yeah, they both went up to five points. Honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if it was a double bluff, and one of them would've gone up to six if we chose to Ally instead—"

    "And because we Betrayed, Zero was trying to guilt us by saying there was no reason to rush and one asshole was throwing the other participant away in a rush?"

    "Yeah, but it doesn't matter now."

    "Yeah, because you're apparently Supergirl. That was like a five meter wall, what are your legs even made of?"

    "Springs made of a polymer consisting of steel and spite."

    "I wouldn't fucking doubt it. Jesus."

    "There's the exit. You ready for the third challenge?"

    "I'm fine, is your leg holding up?"

    "If we need to run for some reason, you can just carry me."

    "Yeah, you look small enough for that."

    "Good, I wouldn't want to strain your noodle arms."

    "Maybe I'll just leave you to die."

    The indicator light changes color before you see them pop out on the screen, and your line is even shorter than it was the last time.

    "Third challenge, count the children."

    "The hell is that supposed to mean?" Junpei mutters just loudly enough to get transmitted. "Are kids gonna pop out of the damn ceiling or something?"

    "Junpei, come over here and like, lean against the podium. Face that corner."

    "Why the corner?"

    "The best way to present this challenge is to show us images on the walls, right? This button has three lights above it, so I think we get three tries to look at everything."

    "So you want me to take these two walls?"

    "And I'll take the other two, yeah. You ready?"

    "Mhmm."

    "Okay, I'm hitting the button."

    Your angle is awkward, placed specifically so you can clearly see Junpei and Phi in the center and not much of the puzzle. You have no vision on the back wall where the two of them came from, and you can only barely see the corner of the side walls, little strips of green and blue, probably from the background.

    But you can see the back wall perfectly.

    Five teenage boys with dark hair and black suits have been put into coffins, with the top half of each casket open like a funeral viewing. Smoke is pouring out of one casket, water fills a second, and the other three all have objects placed on the bottom half: an axe, a knife, and a syringe.

    Six young girls with brown hair and pretty purple dresses are sitting in front of the coffins sobbing, and nine teenagers with light hair and pressed white suits are trying futilely to calm them down.

    …You turn away from the camera feeds and sit on the floor, pressing the heels of your hands to your eyes and listening to Junpei count.

    "So there are three guys coming out of an office building and eight ladies standing outside to meet them—"

    "Any kids?"

    "I mean, these girls kinda look like they might wanna make some kids — ow! Your elbows are bony!"

    "And your head is empty. What's on the other wall?"

    "Uh, a group of fathers and daughters walking through a park? I couldn't get a number, it looks like it's halfway through the animation."

    "We have two more goes at it, it's fine. I had a mother rocking twins to sleep, and then a goddamn funeral procession or something. There were a lot of kids — they definitely all looked like they were under eighteen."

    "What, like they were teens? Are we counting teens?"

    "Even if we weren't counting teens, it sounds like there are still enough actual small children to go into double digits. And yet for some reason, this keypad only has one digit for data entry."

    "Yeah, there were at least three or four girls on that other wall, and it was at least halfway through the loop, so with twin babies that's already eight or nine. Unless we don't count the babies?"

    "There were at least five girls in that procession, older than infancy but younger than teenage."

    "So that's probably not… Hm. How did you know the rules for that game?"

    "What, the AB Game?"

    "Yeah, you said it was based off the Prisoner's Dilemma, but all I saw were A and B."

    "Oh, right. It has to do with that other game I played."

    "…The game Akane hasn't kidnapped you for yet."

    "Yep."

    "In a timeline that you're not even sure will exist?"

    "That's the one."

    "Do you want to maybe explain that?"

    "I think it would take too long."

    "…Sure, whatever. So maybe Zero's aware of this game that you may or may not play in the future, and that's why that last game didn't have more of an explanation than two buttons and vague directions, because he knew you would know."

    "Sure."

    "So if he knew about your game that happened in an alternate reality or whatever the hell, it would be easy to imagine that he knows about the game I played in this exact state just a year ago."

    "That seems plausible. Is it relevant?"

    "Yeah, because that game had a lot to do with digital roots."

    "What, online plants?"

    "No, not digital like computers, digital like the digits of numbers. The sum of a number's digits, to be exact.

    "So you want to count all of the children and then add together the digits of the number we get?"

    "It's the only thing that makes sense."

    "Okay, that works. Well, I know that wall has two babies, and you said one of the walls didn't have any kids at all?"

    "Yeah, just salarymen and call girls."

    "Wonder why that is."

    "To give participants a chance if they screw over their partner in the last game and don't have another set of eyes, probably."

    "That's as good a reason as anything else. I'm hitting the button."

    "Go for it."

    It's quiet for a bit. You imagine that they're busy counting.

    …It probably isn't a coincidence, then. If they knew about a game that hasn't happened yet, that backup plan that Phi told you about, then they probably know about the Nonary Game, and the rounds that didn't happen.

    The front-row seat you had to each and every one of Junpei's deaths, and the nightmares that served as your punishment.

    Why else would the boys look exactly like him? Why else would the girls look exactly like you?

    You curl up tighter into your ball.

    "Alright," Phi calls out eventually. "I got mine, you all set?"

    "Yeah," Junpei responds. "I don't think we'll need that third loop."

    "You're that confident?"

    "As long as you didn't mess up your count, I have a great head for math."

    "Alright, let's see it in action. Five dead teens, six crying girls, and nine living teens trying to console the girls."

    "Five-eleven-twenty if we're including teens? Fourteen teenagers, keep that number just in case."

    "Sure."

    "I had a few blond fathers and seven blond daughters following them like little ducklings. With the babies, that's twenty-nine kids—"

    "Or fifteen if teens are banned."

    "Let's assume they're not. Two and nine is eleven, one and one is two."

    There's a little trill that comes from the speaker, and Junpei and Phi both cheer. You rise from your huddle slowly and turn to face the camera.

    'SPEAK NO EVIL'​

    The camera feed is gone, that message is the only thing that remains.

    The indicator light next to the microphone is a bright red.

    This is… less than ideal.

    "Well there's the door leading out," you hear Phi from the speakers. "But what's with this keypad entry?"

    "'The queen is captured just as easily as any pawn.'"

    "Is that supposed to be a hint? Should we have been looking out for pieces to a meta puzzle?"

    "What's this groove? Is this a door?"

    A door? Oh! Are they right outside?!

    You run to the door in your room and try slamming on it. "Junpei! Phi!"

    "Hey, do you hear something?"

    "Yeah, knocking. That is also familiar."

    "Junpei!"

    "Maybe the door is soundproof, and the only reason we can hear the knocking is because the door is rattling against the frame."

    "That makes sense. But who's even in there?"

    Who else would be in here, Junpei?! You deliberately stop knocking, wait for someone to comment on it—

    "Hey, they sto—"

    —and slam on it twice more to interrupt.

    "Wait, can they hear us? But why can't we hear them?"

    "I dunno, how come Akane could hear us from wherever she — wait! Akane, knock twice if this is you!"

    Knock, knock.

    "Shit, maybe the password is out past the door somewhere?"

    "That looks like a long hallway, I don't know if we have the time to run out, search, and run back."

    "Fuck, then what do we do?!"

    You're stuck listening to them go back and forth about the situation. You can't do anything about it. The mic is muted with no way to send out sound. You guess you could open your mind and try to transmit to Junpei, but you don't know the password, and there's nothing in this room besides the monitor setup so you can't help with clues.

    To punctuate your despondent thoughts, your bracelet sounds off. The five-minute warning.

    Is this really it for you…?

    QUANTUM LOCK DISCOVERED
    Captured Queen
    1 of 11

    Fragment Selection
    (Choose One)
    Designer (Sigma and Maria)
    Condition (Mira and Diana)
    Mortality (Junpei and Sigma)

    Revisit (What Fragment?)
    Redirect (What person?)
     
    Last edited: Oct 2, 2022
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  15. Threadmarks: Mortality (Junpei and Sigma)
    CypherZero

    CypherZero Getting sticky.

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    The water is at ankle-height. It’s soaking your socks. At least Zero had the decency to wake you up in a chair so your butt isn’t wet.

    Sigma’s stoic about the situation, like usual. Junpei—

    “So it’s dark and wet and we have to walk to find our way out? Why not give us a fedora and set a boulder after us, huh Zero?!”

    Junpei’s the same as ever.

    “You know the rules Tenmyouji,” Sigma mutters, almost absentmindedly as he starts walking forward. “We only get the boulder after we get the treasure.”

    “You’re awfully formal,” Junpei says instead of answering the quip.

    “Habit.”

    “Didn’t even know you were Japanese.”

    “Oh, I’m not.”

    He doesn’t explain further. Junpei likely doesn’t have a way to press further. Your walk through the dark, wet passage progresses silently.

    That is, until you have to grab the back of Junpei’s jacket at the first fork in the road.

    “What?” He tries to ask you, but you’re scrambling at the front of his jacket now. “What are you — Akane, stop—”

    You toss the metal button you snapped off his jacket into the water in the direction he was about to start walking, and it lands in the water with a pop and a hiss.

    “Electrified,” you mutter into his sleeve. “He’s treating us like rats.”

    “Oh. How did you…”

    You don’t know, so you don’t answer.

    “How many buttons do you have left?”

    “Uh, three?”

    “Pop them, let’s hope it’s enough.”

    And now your trek progresses silently, save the sloshing of water, and slowly. Joy.

    Of the three buttons Junpei has to toss, two of them hiss to signal electrified water, proving that Junpei has a terrible sense of danger, since he only ever threw in the direction he was trying to walk. Interestingly, Sigma started ahead of the both of you, leaning toward each safe branch.

    You remember what Carlos told you in DCOM. He could sense where danger lied.

    Maybe increased access to the Morphogenetic Field gave you increased senses in regards to danger.

    (Then why was Junpei faltering so often?)

    There’s one more turn than Junpei has buttons.

    “You’re all out?”

    “Yeah, the buttons on my sleeves are plastic, they won’t work.”

    “What kind of inconsistent bullshit—”

    “It saves money, I guess? How should I know?”

    “You bought the damn thing. Whatever. You wanna break off your zipper?”

    “Why don’t you break yours?!”

    “Do you see somewhere I could have a zipper, Junpei?”

    “I-Uh.”

    Junpei looks away, flustered, but still doesn't break off his zipper. Sigma makes a small noise of understanding from where he stands… Directly in the middle of the branch. Hell.

    “Alright, whatever. Grab me by the hood so you don’t get shocked.”

    “Wait, what?”

    You ignore Junpei and face the middle of the branch, Slowly, you turn to the right—

    And your muscles lock up. It’s a phantom pain, something remembered from something that never happened. A warning.

    You turn toward the left and walk. Sigma meets your eyes as you pass him, and his eyebrow rises.

    You just nod once and keep going.

    At the end of the passageway is a screen, rather than an exit, with a green button that says initialize on the bottom.

    And on the screen is some kind of log.

    Transmission: SUCCESS
    Reception: BARE SUCCESS

    I now have an understanding of how Six views me: as a lab rat. Their first order upon arrival was to put me into an electrified water maze and have me stumble my way out using only information from testers looking at an answer sheet across the entire facility. It was easier going when it was my turn looking at sheets than going through the maze, but I already suspected it would be.

    “Who’s writing this?” Junpei was aghast.

    Sigma was more nonchalant. “Zero, most likely.”

    “It’s not just us he’s doing this to, he’s subjecting himself to these experiments?”

    “Anything for progress.”

    “What’s he trying to progress?”

    “Morphogenetic Field access, if I had to guess,” you speak up, pressing the button. “Can’t say it doesn’t work.”

    “What do you mean by — the maze…”

    “I guess we benefit from the people going through as well.”

    The wall in front of you rose to reveal a sterile grey laboratory room with three frosted glass boxes on the other side. The room is awkwardly short, as if the wall on the other end is cutting it in half rather than serving as the true back wall. It’s likely that the exit is behind the wall, which would only open if you finish whatever’s in the boxes.

    Might as well get started. You walk forward, and after a moment’s pause, the boys follow behind you.

    The boxes have doors with metal handles that are cold to the touch. The door on the leftmost box swings open to reveal an empty room with a key in the center, dangling from the ceiling by a string. Sigma comes from behind you and walks inside, reaching with his left hand to grab the key—

    And snatches his hand back as something red rushes through the space where it just was. With a growl, he jabs his right hand out, snaps the key off the string, and stomps out of the box, letting you close the door behind him.

    As soon as the door is closed, the box frosts further, becoming completely white and opaque, and red words appear on the door.

    Enhanced Transmission: BARE FAILURE
    Enhanced Reception: FAILURE

    No progress has been made on the mind reading front. Not a hint of intention from Six, who sat in front of me for an hour slapping me at random intervals unless I accurately called out when they were going to do so. Pushing my own thoughts into their head has been just as fruitless, though they stated that’s more an issue with their head than with my own abilities, and there has been slightly more progress with the Testers. They can ‘feel’ a knock at the door.

    Junpei scowled. “So he’ll just endure endless pain and humiliation just for a chance to increase his power.”

    “You sound as if the concept is new to you, Junpei,” you snark back.

    “The bad guy suffering himself instead of making others suffer for him is pretty new, actually.”

    “That’s fair. Hey Sigma, what was that thing? Zero said he just got slapped, but that didn’t look like any hand I’ve ever seen.”

    Sigma rubs his wrist, still staring at the now-white box. “I think it was a laser, aimed at the wrist. It would have taken my hand if I was a second slower.”

    “Maybe you should’ve let it. Bracelet removal along with cauterization to keep you from bleeding out would have kept you awake through the part of the game where we get put to sleep, and maybe even give us a point on the board towards escape.”

    “Hm, maybe…”

    “Are you two bemoaning a missed opportunity to disfigure yourself for gain?”

    “It would have been better than killing someone to get out. Honestly, Tenmyouji, you value self-preservation a little too highly.”

    “I think you just don’t value yours enough!”

    “That may be true as well.”

    You leave the two of them for a moment to open the middle box. Inside is a black panel with three red buttons sitting conspicuously in a row. You wonder what the challenge is in this as you go up to press the one in the middle.

    You’re stopped right before you hit it, though. Another muscle spasm, this time in your chest, a warning sensation.

    You hover your hand over the button on the right instead and, when the sensation doesn’t come, hit it. The panel opens to reveal another key, slightly smaller than the one Sigma grabbed, you think, you’d have to see his more closely to be sure.

    When you walk out and close the door again, the box frosts over just as the first did.

    Shifting: MISERABLE FAILURE

    Six apparently conferred with the A-Technicians and configured a device that would cause excruciating cranial pain, and then unconsciousness. They put the activation trigger into a false pistol and proceeded to induct me into a blind binary quiz, activating the device whenever I was incorrect to simulate death. The experiment was a failure.

    “Jesus,” Junpei muttered. “This testing is obscene, it’s like he didn’t care about his own safety at all.”

    “Really? These tests seem to be normal, by all accounts,” Sigma argued. “Honestly, it seems rather tame.”

    “What about this display of self-mutilation seems tame to you?!” Oh, that sounds like genuine anger in Junpei’s voice now.

    “He isn’t throwing himself into situations in which he could actually die. Come to think of it, that has to be why his experiments are failing so often, he’s mitigating the danger.”

    And now his scowl is turning into a snarl. You didn’t expect him to care so much about Zero’s experimental habits.

    “So he’s, what, a worse scientist? Because he didn’t want to point a loaded gun at his head?”

    “I couldn’t speak to his ability or ethic as a scientist, as I don’t know him. But he is producing substandard results as a consequence of his reluctance, yes.”

    “Jumpy,” you cut in, pointing at the third, rightmost box. “The both of us have keys already, grab one so we can move on.”

    “Yeah,” he nods, visibly trying to calm down, “yeah, I’ll go do that.”

    The inside of the box he opens is covered floor to ceiling in mirrors all facing different directions. It makes you nauseous just to look at, and after confirming that there’s a key in every single reflection, you have to tear your eyes away.

    Junpei takes all of thirty seconds to solve the puzzle though, picking up the key easily and walking out of the room immediately. You’re amazed.

    When the box whitens for words to appear, the wall behind it lowers slowly, revealing a tall, gunmetal grey box, two control panels on either side, and the exit. Your bracelets all chime out cheerily, as well. Seems as though the challenge is done.

    So what’s the box about? And why the keys?

    First things first. The entry.

    Parallel Processing: FAILURE

    I had forgotten to update: enhanced reception has advanced — though through no effort of my own. Six guided me through the steps and led me into their mind, and had me repeat the steps with the Testers. The next step, though, is viewing their mind as they Shift — or the step before they Shift, which is to make two separate decisions and follow them through. It gives me a headache just to think about…

    “Limbo… The moment between choices…”

    “What’s that, Akane?”

    Sigma doesn’t understand — his AB Project is too dissimilar in purpose from your Nonary Game. He went back in time to save his future, you went forward to save yourself. You know how important every choice can be, how wrong things can go if the wrong one is made.

    Judging by his silence, Junpei remembers as well.

    You walk past the glass boxes to examine the tower beyond. It’s imposingly large, with a banner at the top that reads ‘FIELD TRIP’ in large red letters, but it’s ultimately just another box, with doors locked by a keyhole. The control panels on either side are also mostly bare, with closed keyholes of their own — maybe they’d open when the box is unlocked? At least you found what the keys are for.

    “What does it mean by ‘field trip,’” Sigma ponders. He walks forward with his key out, and you see that it is different, his has a black fob like a car key while yours (and Junpei’s, you assume) is pure silver to match the control panels. Sigma unlocks the box and walks inside. “There’s a screen inside as well, telling us to initialize the machine to view the document.”

    “So no information on what the machine is or what document we’d be reading,” Junpei says dryly. “Thanks, Zero. Very helpful.”

    “Assumably,” Sigma’s voice echoes from the box, “it would be another log detailing Zero’s abilities and growth. Honestly, there’s no reason not to fire the machine up right now.”

    “I could think of a couple! For one, what if the machine is a trap?!”

    “Oh, it most certainly is.”

    Excuse me?!

    “There’s an aura about this box. Something bad will happen when we turn it on, that much is almost guaranteed. But it’s worth it to know exactly what Zero can do.”

    “How is that worth anything?! You can’t do anything with that information if you die to the machine giving it to you!”

    “Not in this universe, at least.”

    “Not in — what?”

    “Shifting, that ability that Zero failed to grasp, is exceptionally powerful. I’ve mastered it, and Akane is capable as well. We are not bound to these bodies, we only exist in our minds, and through the Morphogenetic Field, we can transcend space and time to deliver this vital information to a universe where we can use it.”

    “You’re… That thinking is inhumane…”

    “I think a desire for immortality is extraordinarily humane, myself.”

    Persistent consciousness is not immortality! How could you even delude yourself into thinking that?!”

    “Because it’s comforting,” you murmured from the control panel. You say it almost under your breath, but it echoes in the silent, empty room. “When you consider that mortality is fickle, that you can die from something as random as going into the hospital for a checkup, for something as insignificant as turning right instead of left, believing yourself immortal is a safety blanket that you can never remove.”

    The room goes quiet. The machine is silent without power, and the only way to turn it on is to turn both keys at the same time.

    And Junpei…

    “I can’t be part of this. I know you think that it doesn’t matter what happens in this world because you can go and make a better one, but I can tell you that the survivors of this world will mourn your loss. You’ll be alive in another timeline, but the people who care about you won’t go with you.”

    …Yeah.

    You don’t have anything to convince him…





    Required Document: Machine Blueprints

    ...Document secured. Continue?

    [ ] Yes, continue.
    [ ] No, select a fragment.
     
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  16. Threadmarks: Mortality: Fleeting
    CypherZero

    CypherZero Getting sticky.

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    A buzzing at your wrist breaks you from your musing. Five minutes left and no progress to show for it. You growl softly and lean against your console, staring at the tower that Sigma stubbornly refuses to leave.

    …Hang on a bit. Doesn't that look like…

    "Hey, Sigma," you call out, getting Junpei's attention as well, "The floor of that box, is it like, concentric rings?"

    "Like a bullseye? Yeah, kinda."

    "And they're like, made of plastic?"

    "A firm plastic or a dull glass, like—"

    "A light bulb?"

    "Akane," Junpei interrupts, "do you know what this machine is?"

    "I think so! It looks similar to an Exodus machine—"

    "A what?"

    "A quantum transporter! It's like, super-future tech! It takes whatever's inside and transports it to a sister machine. Nothing bad will happen if we flip it on!"

    "And you just now… remembered this."

    "Mhmm!"

    "From where?"

    "From somewhere else in this facility."

    "How am I supposed to—"

    "1438!"

    "3421, fine. You're sure it's safe?"

    You have no idea, but Sigma seemed fine to die for it earlier.

    "I'm sure it's a transporter and I'm sure his body will pop up in another machine."

    "See, that's what makes me nervous—"

    "Tenmyouji," Sigma's voice interrupts from the machine, "if Akane is correct then I'm sure everything will be fine. A quantum transporter should be safe, I should arrive at my destination perfectly healthy."

    "See, it's that 'should' that makes me nervous."

    "Just turn the key, Tenmyouji."

    "It's literally on your head if this turns out wrong…"

    "It won't turn out wrong. We need to see this final stage of Zero's development."

    "Fine! Fine. Let's just… On three?"

    "Yeah, go ahead," you tell him.

    "Okay. One, two, three!"

    You turn your key and the machine starts humming. "You okay in there Sigma?"

    "Yes, there's a screen in here, the document is loading now."

    "Could you read it verbatim?"

    "Of course, just a moment… Ah, here it is. Field Trip Log.

    "I often questioned why Six had this base built in Nevada. By all standards, most of the experiments we've done to explore the Morphogenetic Field could have been done in the main base, and the ones that were too large are, and I maintain this opinion even now, simply egregious. However, it seems that Six chose the locale of this base for a very specific reason.

    "There's another test site nearby."

    Another test site in… Nevada? You're trembling. Zero could only be referring to one thing.

    "There was another experiment happening, with nine subjects performing escape puzzles under threat of death to unlock their own access to the Field. Whether this experiment was a success or failure doesn't matter as much as the experiment's existence, and our proximity. We've observed this Building Q, we practically had front row seats! And I finally understand why Six put so much emphasis on the deadliness of our experiments — in fact, I'm a bit annoyed that they held back so much. Though I suppose my death wouldn't be ideal for our other plans.

    "And those test subjects… Some of them are extraordinarily interesting."

    It's quiet for a moment, before Junpei says something to help contextualize what you just heard.

    "Clover isn't here." You turn to look at him, still a bit numb. "If I remember correctly, only Clover and one of Hazuki's daughters were in Building Q ten years ago. You and Santa were on the Gigantic, right?"

    "Y-Yeah."

    "Then we can assume that, because we were invited here, baited here, and Clover wasn't, Zero was only here last year, and hasn't been monitoring you for a decade."

    Unless his interest was piqued ten years ago and he was here waiting — but how would he know you would come back? Junpei's probably right.

    "You're… probably right, yeah… Still, to think he somehow observed us without either me or Aoi noticing…"

    "Might it have something to do with the Morphogenetic Field?" Sigma suggests from the box. "It was mentioned previously that Zero had gained enhanced Reception, which, as I understand it, is the ability to retrieve information directly from a subject's mind."

    "Front row seats," you hear Junpei mutter.

    You come to the same conclusion. "He was watching from our own eyes…? And decided that Junpei was worth putting through another experiment?"

    "Just me?"

    "I'm not ready to attribute Zero's foresight as far as baiting Sigma and Phi into making a plan that traps me as well. At the very least, he noticed our infiltration and decided to invite you."

    "Hm, if you say so…"

    The room goes quiet again, and it goes unbroken until time runs out and the bracelets let out a shrill beep.

    And then—

    Well, you're glad for the memory drugs for once. You're not sure if you'd forget Sigma's screams as you fade into unconsciousness otherwise.


    Fragment Complete!
    Mortality

    Fragment Selection
    (Choose One)

    Condition (Diana and Mira)
    Lab Rat (Carlos and Diana)
    Interception (Aoi and Mira)
    Revisit Game Theory (1/4 Seen)

    Revisit (Which fragment?)
    Redirect (Which person?)​
     
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  17. Threadmarks: Designer (Maria and Sigma)
    CypherZero

    CypherZero Getting sticky.

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    You should probably be more surprised than you feel right now.

    “Maria, stop! You can’t!”

    Honestly, you’re only surprised she found a weapon so easily.

    “Why should I?! Four more of us have to die anyway, why shouldn’t it be her?!”

    The context clues are telling you that you sacrificed Carlos initially, which you can’t remember but somehow Maria can. It’s possible that it lingered in your unconscious and popped up in your dream as Maria was sleeping and she took it via the Morphogenetic Field.

    “We can get out of here without more bloodshed, I’m sure of it.”

    Or Zero and his assistant are fucking with you and she hasn’t been given the memory serum at all. You’re upset at how plausible that sounds.

    “Why should I bother, huh? She should pay!”

    You wonder if you should apologize. You try to imagine what you would do if someone killed Aoi in front of you.

    “She can pay any other way, we just have to calm down and find what that way is!”

    Actually, the scissors might be a bit tame, in your opinion.

    Maria finally breaks free of Sigma’s grasp and runs toward you, the pair of scissors outstretched toward your neck. You step forward into her lunge, surprising her, you think, and grab the scissors by the blade, ignore the hot slice of pain in your palm, and kick Maria in the chest, forcing her back toward Sigma.

    Then you take the scissors, a pair used for cutting thread, you think, by the handle with your other hand, and look at the wound.

    That is… deep. Hm.

    You start cutting your sweater pocket off with the still bloody scissors.

    “Uh, Akane…?”

    You ignore Sigma for the few seconds it takes to cut your pocket fully off the sweater, then turn to him with both the scrap of cloth and the scissors in your hand.

    “Help me bandage this.”

    “You don’t want to clean it first?”

    “Oh sure, Sigma, let me just use the rubbing alcohol in my purse, I think I left it back in DCOM.”

    “Right, yes, of course.”

    Sigma takes the torn-off pocket and ties it around your hand, stemming the blood flow from the wound on your palm.

    “I hope it doesn’t get infected,” he mumbles.

    “At least it’s on the hand with the bracelet, if I have to amputate I can take it right off.”

    “That’s a… positive spin, I suppose.”

    Your wound wrapped, you turn to face the office you woke up in. The room is empty, save the bookshelves that line the walls and the computer on the desk at the far end of the room.

    “Sigma, check the shelves for irregularities. Mismatched cover colors, disordered numbering, the works. I’ll take a peek at the desk.”

    “Right.”

    The computer turns on as you sit in the seat, and turns off when you lean out of it. It seems to be pressure-sensitive, and you need to be sitting down to operate it.

    Except that it’s currently inoperable.

    Please insert the data chips.

    Chips, plural? There’s only one port on the computer…

    There isn’t a terminal underneath the desk, but there is a device in the drawer on the right, a square box attached to a USB cable. There are six slots on the square, the perfect size for six data chips.

    And the left drawer has one of them inside, good. There’s also some kind of manual…

    “Sigma, we’re looking for data chips, they look like this.”

    “Alright, I have two of them so far.”

    “Alright, keep at it, there’s a document over here.”

    “Right.”

    While he’s looking for the other three chips, you turn your attention to the paper. It’s a single sheet with only eight lines of information, which…

    Knowledge types: combat, science, social.

    Body types: svelte, standard, bulky.

    Combat: knowledge of physical defense.

    Science: Knowledge of medical and biological sciences.

    Social: artificially increased charisma and knowledge of social cues.

    Svelte: slender, small, useful for finesse.

    Standard: normal body type, useful for blending in.

    Bulky: large and imposing, useful for strength and intimidation.

    …Doesn’t make much sense out of context. But there are six slots in the device you found, which means there are probably six chips, so the six categorizations must correspond to each of them. What you’ll be categorizing is still a mystery, but any good puzzle has instructions or is either self-explanatory.

    “Akane, we have a problem.”

    You look up to see Sigma putting his found data chips on the desk, turned toward Maria. You’re confused for a moment, but then you count the chips.

    “Four? Wait, are you saying—”

    “I think Maria found the last one before we could.”

    Maria, for her part, looks nonchalant, her hands hidden in her overalls. Her eyes stare back at you emotionlessly, her mouth in a flat line, but her aura exudes smugness and hostility.

    If you needed, you could have Sigma hold her while you searched her clothes for the chip, but…

    “Is this your revenge? Killing yourself to get to me? Are you that eager to see him again?”

    Her mouth twitches, and her smugness seems to dim.

    “Do you think he’ll be happy to see you so soon? Happy that you’ve killed a bystander to get his murderer?”

    Maria breaks eye contact, looks at Sigma instead. “Trade,” she tells him. “Scissors.”

    “I don’t know if—”

    “Sigma,” you interrupt his refusal. “She’s on the other side of the room, I’m sure you can stop her in time if she tries anything.”

    “…If you say so.”

    He takes the scissors from his pocket and holds them out to Maria on the palm of his hand. She snatches it and tosses the last chip, which he fumbled with for a bit before catching it and bringing it over to the device.

    The computer turns on to reveal a three by three grid, the top row labeled with the ‘knowledge types’ and the side row labeled with the ‘body types.’ There are also nine occupations beneath the grid, and you’re able to grab and drag them to a square, which clicks on a green color when correct and blares red when wrong.

    You start off. “So bulky combat would be a bodyguard.”

    “Yes, and a model would fit svelte social rather nicely, I believe.”

    “Hmm, do you think Zero considers sports to be combat?” The machine lets out an angry buzz, and you hiss. “Guess not…”

    “Maybe instead…” Sigma reaches over and places the athlete into the square for bulky social, which clicks into place with a green flash. “There are a number of social niceties you have to acknowledge in sports. And also—”

    You see what he’s pointing at and hang your head with a groan. “I didn’t realize there was athlete and boxer. Okay, that fits normal combat a bit better.”

    “Svelte combat is probably the ninja.”

    “You don’t think Zero employs ninjas, do you?”

    “Maybe he grows them, that’s what the puzzle seems to be implying.”

    “Hopefully he’s only thinking about growing them. Now, the three sciences…”

    “Honestly any of them could fit anywhere…”

    “Well, Zero emphasized finesse for svelte, right? So a neuroscientist…”

    “Well, I’m a little offended that it worked! I’ll have you know I’m an accomplished neuroscientist!”

    “And how much equipment have you knocked over with your yaoi hands?”

    Yao — I never!”

    “Yeah, yeah. Bulky science is the engineer—”

    “Why, because we can lift the equipment?”

    “You said it, not me. Which means normal science is the doctor.”

    “Ugh, Zero…”

    In the end, there’s only one left, and one square empty.

    “…Do we want to think about the implications of ‘standard charisma’ being a game participant?”

    “No Sigma, I’d rather not.”

    And when you fill the square, the monitor flashes green, all of your bracelets beep, and you hear an unlocking sound from the other end of the room. Maria takes the opportunity to slip out the unlocked door, but the green flash on the monitor fades to show you something a little more interesting.

    Cloning Series Documentation


    This chapter has no poll.
     
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  18. Threadmarks: Designer: Custom
    CypherZero

    CypherZero Getting sticky.

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    “So Zero is Brother. This confirms it.”

    “Documentation on cloning confirms that Zero is a cult leader?”

    Sigma’s taken over the computer, glaring at the screen that the puzzle revealed. You’re left to lean against the bookcase behind the desk, staring over his broad shoulders.

    “Brother uses clones to bolster his workforce,” he continues. “By 2074, he’s perfected the art, so it makes sense that he started early.”

    The documentation doesn’t seem too long, which is good — you think you see a file directory underneath the window, so you wouldn’t want to spend the rest of the round without exploring it.

    Sigma scrolls down.

    “Seems sparse for a documentation,” Sigma grouses. You roll your eyes.

    “What, were you expecting a paper-form monologue? Maybe a video lecture?”

    “That would have been more helpful.”

    “We take what we can get.”

    “I suppose so. Still, who is Six?”

    “Zero’s assistant, probably.”

    “You’ve met them?”

    “Where did you think I was before being presented by Zero?”

    “Ah, I see. You were being prepared.”

    “…That’s a word for it, I guess. Scroll down.”

    “Right away.”

    Sigma seems thoughtful now. “It seems as though the A and B series were built together, if the ‘most recent report’ is tracking the most recent clone to be developed.”

    “I wouldn’t have expected more physical clones to survive than brainy science clones.”

    “It’s likely that the A-Series clones test on themselves — with all the dangers that come with doing so.”

    “Hmm. What's programming, you think?”

    “Conditioning, most likely. Ability to follow orders. Like programming a phone, when X happens, usually a code word of some sort, have the clone do Y.”

    “And the A-Series has slightly lower programming—”

    “Maybe because it interferes with mental functions. …As can be seen here, with the C-Series.”

    “Akane, not to alarm you, but—”

    “This is the second reference to a clone being part of the Game, yes. But you mentioned that all of his clones were blonde with blue eyes, and with the hostility Maria was putting off—”

    “You think Carlos was the clone.”

    “I’m hoping I have one less thing to worry about.”

    “And what if you’re wrong?”

    “We deal with it when it becomes relevant. Is that it, or is there still more in the document?”

    “You’re always… no, there’s one more passage here.”

    “They’re just numbers to him,” Sigma practically snarled. “Just fodder to throw away.”

    He slams his fist into the bookcase behind him and stalks out from behind the desk to pace angrily out in the open. You’re… stunned by how mad he is. You’ve seen him determined, contemplative, worrying, and even depressed about his odds and his opponent, but never really mad about what was going to happen in here and what it would lead to.

    …And the thing that sets him off is cloning designations? You don’t get Sigma. Now would be the perfect time to try and connect with him on a more personal level—

    Except that’s the five-minute warning buzzing on your wrist, and there’s still four files to look at on the computer.

    The first one is simply titled ‘limerick.’

    …Huh. Surprisingly decent, if completely useless.

    The next three are just numbered. 4, 5, and… 7. Great, that’s gonna bug you.

    4 gets opened first.

    Well, that’s confirmation, at least. Carlos is a clone.

    Was a clone.

    Does that make Maria…?

    Problems for later. 5 next.

    Trouble reading… does Junpei have more access to the field than just what he displayed last year?

    Later. Problems for later. Final document.

    Critical?!

    “Sigma, we have an issue!”

    Sigma runs over immediately, but the document is updating itself in real-time, and the yellow CRITICAL ticks over to a red DECEASED. As if on cue — no, actually on cue — your bracelet’s both blare four times. To signify the number of deaths.

    Four people are dead.

    “How did she die?” You’re still stunned by that, but Sigma is rapidly paling.

    “Oh no. I thought I was imagining things…”

    “What? What happened?”

    He doesn’t answer, he just runs out the door. You slip from behind the desk and sprint to follow.

    The door leads to an abrupt turn into a long hallway, and you can see Sigma running down—

    Then stopping suddenly in the exit, blocking it. You slow your sprint to come behind him, and put a hand on his back.

    He slowly walks out, and you see…

    Oh. That’s what he meant.

    Maria is holding the pair of scissors in her right hand, and there’s a gash in her neck, spilling blood everywhere.

    “I thought the time perception was my imagination,” Sigma muttered. “I noticed it during the puzzle, looking for the chips. I started getting dizzy, the world started speeding up. Akane… did you notice anything similar…?”

    You can only shake your head. You can’t look away.

    “Then, if Maria and I were both infected… Ah. I see. You once postulated that Radical-6 could spread from open wounds, blood to air infection.”

    “Are you trying to say…”

    You can’t get the words out.

    This is your fault? You’re a carrier?

    When were you infected?

    “It was probably then.” Sigma continues, but he isn’t making any sense anymore. “It’s too late to contain it. But maybe we can reduce the possibility of a total apocalypse.”

    He kneels down by Maria.

    He takes the scissors.

    He plunges them into his own neck and drags them out harshly, slitting his own throat in front of you.

    The scent of blood is overpowering.



    Are you supposed to follow suit? Kill yourself to keep from infecting the rest of humanity?

    Your head is swimming.

    Your bracelet beeps before you can come to a decision,

    You fall unconscious to the tune of five harsh beeps.

    Five people dead.
    Fragment Complete!
    Designer


    1 of 4


    Please select a fragment.
    Box (Aoi and Junpei)
    Candid (Aoi and Maria)
    Condition (Diana and Mira)
    Conviction (Diana and Phi)
    Designer (Maria and Sigma) (Complete)
    Deviation (Aoi and Carlos)
    Exodus (Carlos and Phi)
    Game Theory (All) (1/4)
    Interception (Aoi and Mira)
    Lab Rat (Carlos and Diana)
    Literary (Carlos and Maria) (Locked)
    Misgiving (Mira and Sigma) (Complete)
    Monster (Carlos and Mira)
    Mortality (Junpei and Sigma) (Complete)
    Pathogen (Aoi and Diana) (Complete)
    Pawn (Junpei and Phi) (Locked)
    Relative (Maria and Phi)
    Reverie (Diana and Maria)
    Scripted (Carlos and Junpei)
     
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  19. Threadmarks: Box (Junpei and Aoi)
    CypherZero

    CypherZero Getting sticky.

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    A splitting headache wakes you. It drives a hiss from between your teeth, makes you screw up your still shut eyelids in pain, pushes you to turn on the seat you’re lying on and wedge your face between the backrest and the cushion. It isn’t so painful that it prevents you from thinking, isn’t yet so overwhelming that it commands all of your attention, but if you’ve only just woken up and it’s already this bad, you have a bad feeling that it won’t get any better.

    You need to distract yourself from the pain. Analysis often provides for a decent distraction. The first thing to come to mind is, of course, the headache, but maybe it’ll work in some kind of twisted nonsensical puzzle sort of way. In your mind’s eye, you can see the attention-grabbing video game label, instructions serving as an introduction to the next puzzle.

    ‘Dissect the pain to lessen it!’

    You let out a weak snort of laughter.

    The pain doesn’t feel centralized in any one location of your head. It isn’t clustered or clumped up near an eye socket or a temple. Slowly, you drag your hands upward from your stomach to check for bumps or bruises. Your prodding fingers can’t find any knots of flesh— you find a bunch of knots in your hair, though, it’s matted and tangled unpleasantly, and you have to wonder how long you’ve been trapped without a brush or a comb, how many times you’ve been woken up and put to rest without your memories, without a shower.

    So the headache isn’t from a physical injury. No blow to the back of the head, no stomp to the skull, no rapid-fire jabs to the face or the temple. You have not been subjected to action movie violence.

    You would hope to keep those memories. Action scenes are cool.

    …But your hand-to-hand is abysmal, and you’re no good with a close-range weapon unless you have the element of surprise, so maybe you’re better off without action scene memories.

    You run your tongue across the inside of your mouth and the back of your teeth. The taste isn’t pleasant, but it’s a morning breath kind of unpleasantness. There isn’t any plaque build-up, and it isn’t notably dry, either. You can conclude that the headache probably isn’t from dehydration.

    …You force yourself to stop clenching your jaw so you can run your tongue over the front of your teeth.

    Completely plaque-free, just like the back.

    Hm.

    The headache doesn’t feel like a migraine. You aren’t prone to getting migraines, but you are prone to overextending yourself and your skillset includes the utilization of supernatural mental abilities, so you aren’t unfamiliar with them. But your migraines are typically more painful than the headache you have now, and they only ever overtake half of your head.

    And if you had blacked out trying to use your powers, the backlash would easily be ten times worse than what you’re feeling right now.

    Probably not a migraine.

    The most likely explanation is that the Soporil is starting to wear on you. A common side effect of sleep aid overuse or misdosage is headaches, and you have no idea how long you’ve been in this Game.

    That’s probably all it is.

    …Yep. Your bad feeling was right. Shoving your face into the corner of an armchair has not improved your headache. Luckily, your hyper-analysis hasn’t worsened it, either.

    Groaning, you wiggle backward and turn to face the edge of the seat rather than the backrest. Slowly, carefully, you manage to sit up and, with your face pointed at the ground so you aren’t staring into a light, you open your eyes. There’s a coffee table in front of your chair. The lights don’t seem to be too dim, you can see just fine, but you don’t notice any reflections off the surface.

    You crane your head upward, and you’re overcome by nausea.

    You recoil so harshly that your headache spikes, exactly what you were trying to avoid. You curl up, your feet coming off the floor so your knees can reach your chest. Your hands shoot up, one covering your mouth, the other pinching the bridge of your nose.

    “Woah, you okay?” Your brother’s voice is to your left, moving closer to you — you take your hand away from your mouth to wave him off. You’re not okay, but unless he’s got medicine with him, there isn’t anything he can do to help.

    You breathe deeply and slowly, hands moving to cradle your head, fingers at your temples. Already you can feel your headache receding to its previous level of pain.

    No sudden movements.

    You reopen your eyes and stare down at the red-carpeted floor for a moment, then slowly look to the left. Aoi is standing halfway between you and an empty chair, hands at his side like he doesn’t know what to do with them, restless fingers flexing at his waist.

    His sister is hurting and he can’t do anything to stop it. Again.

    The headache spikes. You bite your cheek to prevent a wince from becoming visible.

    You wave a hand at him again, urging him to sit back down, clenching your jaw to hold back the nausea that the movement brings. Hesitantly, your brother moves back to his chair, sitting on the very edge, forearms against his knees, hands balled into fists.

    …You look down toward the table. Slowly, you bring your hand into view, wiggling your fingers in front of your face. Their movement lags behind the orders you give them. An afterimage trails behind them as they move. Double-vision makes your stomach bubble unpleasantly.

    Aoi didn’t have an afterimage.

    You raise your head (slowly, no sudden movements) and turn your head to the right. Junpei stares back at you, face blank except for the question in his eyes. You tilt your head and raise an eyebrow at him, but his mouth twists and he averts his gaze.

    Well, if he’s not gonna ask his question.

    “Hey, how long does plaque take to form?” Your voice is low, you don’t want to aggravate your headache. Junpei’s eyes jerk back to you, his expression shifting toward quizzical.

    “W-What?”

    “Do you know?”

    “I, uh, three hours? Four?”

    “Hm. Do you have any?”

    “Any plaque?”

    “Yeah. Use your tongue real quick and find out.”

    “Uh. A bit? On the back side of my teeth?”

    “Huh.” You turn to ask Aoi, but he’s already scraping the front of his teeth with his thumb. He stares at whatever he’s collected before he stretches his arm over the arm of his chair and rubs it off on the side. “Interesting.”

    “Is it?” Oh, Junpei’s deadpan now. “Is it really that interesting?”

    “Oh yeah, it’s super neat.”

    “And why is that?”

    “You’ve got a bit of plaque on the back of your teeth. Aoi’s got a bit more, on the front.”

    “Sure…”

    “I don’t have any.” Junpei blinks a bit. “It’s like a bacterial thing, something to do with certain foods breaking down in your stomach and making its way up to your mouth where it collects on your teeth. The process happens constantly, but it speeds up while you’re asleep because your body isn’t spending energy being awake, so it can devote more power to automatic processes like bacterial breakdown. Or something along those lines.”

    Aoi pipes up from his spot. “The drugs have been keeping us asleep.”

    “And we have no way of knowing how much time has passed, or how often we’ve been injected with the drugs.”

    “But you think you’ve been spending more time awake than either of us?”

    “Hmm, maybe not more time, not necessarily. More recently, for sure, but there’s no real way to know how long I’ve been awake.”

    Junpei grunts. He shifts his arm, lifting his wrist to his face and messing with his bracelet. His eyes narrow after a few seconds.

    “No change.”

    Hm? “What’s up?”

    “Bracelet’s turned off.”

    “What?” You raise your own bracelet, trying to ignore your stomach, and tap on the button a couple of times. It doesn’t light up, though. No timer. “What the hell?”

    “Been that way since I woke up. Now I know it’s not just mine.”

    “Huh.” You wrap your arms around your knees. “You think the game is done?”

    “No.”

    “You sound so certain about that,” Aoi drones out from his seat.

    “If it was done, that would mean everyone else would have died.” Junpei’s eyes drift over to you for a moment before he brings his attention back to Aoi. He puts his elbow on the arm of his chair and rests his cheek against the palm of his hand.

    “And we wouldn’t still be trapped here.” Aoi props his elbows against his knees, leaning forward to rest his chin on the knuckles of his folded hands.

    “That too, I guess.”

    “Hm.”

    The two of them make for quite a sight. Opposite sides, opposing seating positions. Opposed color palettes, even. Aoi’s white hair, faded clothes, and pale skin on your left, Junpei’s darker tan, darker hair, and pitch-black ensemble on your right. Your eyes drift up just to make sure that there aren’t any differences in lighting.

    There’s tension rising between them and you can’t quite identify it. You want to try to diffuse it, or distract from it.

    “If the bracelets aren’t working, that means Zero can’t put us to sleep, yeah?” They both turn to look at you. “That means he can’t punish us. So…”

    Aoi grabs the line you leave hanging. “So?”

    “You could tell me that secret Zero gave you at the start.”

    Junpei’s face changes instantly, eyes glaring, lip sneering. “Absolutely not.”

    “Why not? I’m game for it.” Aoi doesn’t have nearly as negative a reaction. In fact, still mirroring Junpei, he smirks confidently.

    “Why not?! It’s not just us that gets punished for spilling that shit!” Ah, Junpei’s getting louder. You grit your teeth and hold your knees tighter to your chest.

    “The bracelets aren’t working.”

    Our bracelets aren’t working, theirs still could be. They can still get punished.”

    “They might already be dead, for all we know.”

    “They are not dead!”

    “How do you know?”

    “No one here would kill someone! We should be working together, trying to all escape together!”

    “Kinda hard to work together when we’re all constantly separated like this, huh? And how do you know that, anyway? How do you know you didn’t get trapped with eight deranged killers?”

    “None of them are the type, I’ve read their profiles.”

    “You’ve read a bunch of paperwork that people have edited to make themselves look as good as possible. You don’t know them.”

    “I don’t have to know them, I can believe in them just fine. They aren’t killers.”

    Aoi drops his hands and leans forward, leering as he makes his point. “You think Sigma wouldn’t wrap those huge arms of his around your neck and squeeze until you stop struggling? That Phi wouldn’t distract you with her legs long enough to get in one good kick and beat you bloody from there? Diana and Mira are both pretty enough to lure you into a situation where it’d be easy to stab you in the back.”

    “They—”

    “Do you think for one second that Carlos wouldn’t kill you if it meant that Maria could get home nice and easy?”

    “Carlos is—”

    “An older brother.” Aoi brings his hands back up and leans on his fists again. His face drops to something neutral. Something sad and tired. “I’m pretty sure I can be considered an expert on what older brothers would do for younger sisters.”

    Junpei doesn’t have a response to that, and Aoi doesn’t need to follow up. The silence left in the wake of your brother’s statement is marred by the ringing in your ears, like a bell ringing in your head using your brain as the clapper. You let the pain die down a bit before you speak up again.

    “In fairness to Junpei, I don’t think the game is over either.” They both turn their heads to you. Junpei’s mouth curls into a small smile, pleased that you seem to be taking his side. Aoi quirks an eyebrow, waiting for the other shoe to drop. “Zero definitely made it seem like as soon as six people died, the ‘victors’ would escape immediately. The fact that we’re still here means that there’s still something we have to do to get out.”

    “Yeah, exactly. See, this is what I was talking about—”

    “Which is why I wanted that secret in the first place.” Junpei’s celebration stops instantly. Aoi snorts lightly and leans back in his chair. You continue. “It’s an advantage Zero gave you in exchange for being closely associated with me, in exchange for making an example out of you and knocking you out fifteen minutes before the end of the first round. It’s an advantage that we could use to win the game and escape with our lives.”

    “E-Even if it kills them?”

    “Six people would need to die anyway.”

    “You— no, but— what if-if, if our bracelets aren’t turned off either? What if it’s just a, a display malfunction, you know? This could be dangerous! Trying to skirt around the rules like that! Yeah!”

    “The bracelets are meant to measure our heart rate and alert the overseers of the game if one of us dies, I don’t think there’s a way to isolate the display and make just that malfunction and not the rest of it.”

    “B-But—”

    “But I guess if you’re against this plan of action on such a deeply moral level, you would probably fight against it even if it was to your own detriment. So there’s no real point in going through with it.”

    Junpei is struck silent again. Your energy is drained and your headache has only gotten worse. You shift your head so you can bury your face between your knees and try not to think too hard about anything in particular.

    But he doesn’t seem keen on letting it rest.

    “…You’ve changed.”

    “Changed? From what, Junpei?”

    “You’re different from that girl I used to be friends with.”

    This, more than anything else so far, infuriates you. The anger is cold and does more to relieve your headache than any medicine could have. You drag your face up from between your knees to glare at him. His eyes widen, but he does his best not to recoil.

    “The girl you had a crush on was twelve years old. It has been ten years and twenty deaths since then. I’m terribly sorry you had to find out this way, but I don’t fit into that little box of yours anymore, the one you’ve clearly set aside for happy memories and safe nostalgia. I’ve grown up since then, Junpei, even if you clearly haven’t.”

    “Oh, so it’s immature to care about other people’s lives?!”

    “It’s immature to think that you can save anyone if you can’t even save yourself. To put perfect strangers over yourself.”

    Everyone can get out of this alive!”

    “Why do you think that the person who strapped us with a bracelet that can put us to sleep with just a command and rigged people up to devices that would kill them instantly would leave us an opening to escape without providing him whatever pleasure or information he wants to get out of us?”

    “You-You said so yourself! To Diana!”

    “I told a lie to calm someone on the verge of a nervous breakdown.”

    “Everyone was fine the last time!”

    “The last— Junpei, that was not a real death game.”

    “You—”

    “It was an engineered execution that sometimes doubled as a rescue mission. It was explicitly manufactured to use Hongou’s greed and fear as a weapon to kill the four executives of Cradle Pharmaceuticals. The only wildcard in that entire scenario, the only thing that could have gone wrong, was Clover. If her grief exceeded expectations, she could have managed to kill any number of people before discovering Light still alive in the coffin, but even that was covered using Seven as a physical stopping block, or you as an emotional one.”

    “That isn’t—”

    “The only way that anyone would die except the four people I meant to kill is if you fucked up. If you didn’t calm Clover down, if you left Hongou alone for too long, if you were too insensitive and made a situation in which no one would listen to you, then everyone would die, and Hongou would get to the incinerator, and then Hongou would die. And that’s fine because that’s the outcome that was meant to happen.

    “It wasn’t a real death game. A real death game is winnable yet variable in regards to who can win. There was nothing varied about the game you played. Either you did everything right and everyone lived, or you did something wrong and everyone died.”

    The room goes silent once again and Junpei finally lets it rest. The cold leaves you, and with it goes your energy, so you put your head back down between your knees.


    The silence is broken five minutes later when a dual chime rings through the air. You lift your head just in time to see a small hatch open at the very bottom of the wall directly across from you. A metal box slides out from inside of it.

    Your legs are getting cramped in your curled-up position, so you decide to stretch them a bit and walk toward the box. The top has a small flap stretching out from the center, a handle that can be used to open it, and a note has been affixed to it.

    Check your pockets.

    Confused, you slip your hand into your sweater’s pocket, only to find a piece of folded-up paper. You pull it out and unfold it.

    It’s a note from Zero.

    Your vision doubles and your headache intensifies suddenly. You fall to your knees and cry out, and the note slips to the ground. Your hands come up to clutch at your head. The boys run from their seats— one of them stops near you without touching you, the other picks up the note.

    You can’t tell which is which.

    The note gets read aloud. Their voices overlap.

    “Akane Kurashiki, this is your final decision. There are currently two universes: one where all six of your fellow participants have perished, and one in which all six of them are alive. Should you open the box, you shall discover which universe you reside in. Should you reject the box entirely, you shall remain in ignorance. Choose carefully.”

    Your head feels like it’s splitting. You can barely open your eyes.

    One of your hands falls onto the box.

    What do you do?

    Choose One
    Open the Box
    Do Not​
     
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