You wake up in bed to the sound of coffee being brewed in a coffee pot. The sound is much closer than you remember the coffee pot being. You go to sit up, but your head feels like you got hit by a truck.
You reach for your phone, its scuffed, red case nearly sliding out of your hand. It’s Sunday. It’s now tomorrow. Or at least tomorrow relevant to when you last saw Brielle and Jeff. It’s nearly 10. You never sleep this late.
“Good morning, gorgeous,” a voice says from across the room.
It’s not Quinn’s voice though. It’s not a woman’s voice at all.
You know that voice. It’s Noel.
You pull the blankets close to you and scream.
“Instant snow! INSTANT SNOW!”
Noel takes a step towards you, but then comes to a complete stop. He’s frozen mid-motion. Jeff enters the room walking past Noel and standing between you.
“What did he do?” Jeff asks.
“Why is he here?” you ask.
“It’s your next session,” Jeff says. “In this loop, the bulk of your time will be best spent learning about Noel.”
You look at Jeff in shock as he continues on.
“Granted, you don’t have to spend all your time –”
“What?!” you yell. “Why would you put me with him?”
“It’s part of the exp –”
“He cheated on me! He fucking beat me! He –”
“He can’t touch you in here!” Jeff shouts over you.
You go silent. You’ve never heard Jeff yell before.
“Alana,” he says, calmer. “Though everyone else that’s in here who is real has some level of choice, they don’t have the autonomy that you do. I can stop them at any time if your safety is in question. If Noel — or anyone — tries to hurt you, I will protect you.”
“Do they know?” you ask.
“Do they know what?” Jeff answers.
“Do they know they’re not supposed to hurt you? That they’re in an experiment? That I can stop them in their tracks? About anything that happens when they’re frozen?”
“Y–yes?” you stammer.
“I can demonstrate the latter,” Jeff replies. “Noel certainly won’t remember this conversation, but let me do something he’d surely remember otherwise.”
Jeff turns around and walks to a spot a few feet in front of Noel and begins thrusting his hips and crotch chopping.
“But…why?” you ask.
“You want proof no one knows what’s going on when they’re stuck? Ask Noel about that.”
You shake your head and blink several times in an effort to get Jeff’s hip gyrations out of your brain.
“They don’t know the rest.”
“They don’t know they’re in an experiment,” Jeff continues. “They don’t know I can control them. And they don’t know they can’t hurt you.”
“Except Brielle?” you ask.
“Correct,” he replies. “She’s been our constant for some time now.”
“So she could hurt me?”
“Directly?” Jeff answers. “No. We can still prevent that. But she’s crafty, so indirectly is totally plausible with her.”
“Who in here is real?” you ask. “I know Brielle, Quinn, myself, and now Noel. Who else?”
“Arn, Carrie, and one person you haven’t met yet.”
You take a deep breath and take a moment to get your bearings about you. “Alright. I just have to deal with him today, right?”
“You’ll see him other days besides today,” Jeff says. “But he won’t remember what happens?”
“Not totally,” Jeff replies. “He and everyone else have a basic idea of what’s going on, but the memories don’t persist session to session. Last session he thought you were his ex. Today he, and everyone else, thinks you’re together.”
“This is weird,” you say.
“It’s by design,” he says.
You go over to Noel and wave your hand in front of his face.
“So he won’t remember anything while he’s frozen?” you ask.
You take a step back and proceed to kick Noel as hard as you can in the nuts. Jeff sighs.
“Please don’t harm anyone unless you have to,” he says. “It’s so much paperwork for me.”
“Would you like to know your stats before I go? You have some newly unlocked stats I can share.”
“Yes, of course,” you hurriedly say. “Tell me.”
“Your intellect is 26, your motivation is 20, and your charm is 18,” says Jeff. “At this time, intellect and charm have a maximum possible score of 36, while motivation has a maximum of 31.”
“Wasn’t my charm 17 before?”
“It was. But flirting with others in the estate isn’t a sure-fire way to raise a charm stat.” Jeff’s snarky remark catches you off-guard.
“I wasn’t flirting with Brielle,” you lie.
Jeff looks at you, his eyes judging every inch of your being.
“Much…” you add quietly.
“If you’re inclined to break up your engagement or bring someone else into it outside of here, that’s your choice,” he says. “But I would advise you to do your best to find answers as your first priority in here.”
“Fine,” you reply. “What about the stats I unlocked?”
“You can develop trust and relationship stats with most of the other ‘real’ people — as you called them — in here,” Jeff begins. “Trust and relationship can only be built with a character you’ve interacted with, so some low scores now are expected.”
“Can you just list them off?” you ask.
“I’ll tell you all I can,” Jeff says. “Brielle. 35 trust, 45 relationship. Quinn. 15 trust, 30 relationship. Arn. 0 trust, 15 relationship. Carrie. 0 trust, 5 relationship. Noel. 5 relationship.”
“Wait,” you interject, “why doesn’t Noel have a trust score?”
“Because his motives in here do not require him to trust you,” Jeff answers. “Additionally, your personal motives, whatever they may be, are driven by you and you alone.”
“What are his motives in here?” you ask.
“His goal is to undermine Quinn at all costs,” Jeff answers. “Keep that in mind with all that he does.”
“Can I know anyone else’s motives?” “You can only ask about people whose focus session you’ve been in.”
“Is Brielle’s her freedom?” you wonder aloud.
At least you now know what’s painting the actions of two others in the estate. You still have to figure out Quinn, Arn, Carrie’s motives, apparently.
“Can I know about the person I haven’t met yet?” you ask. Jeff thinks for a minute before replying.
“You may know their name and when you meet them. Will that suffice?”
“Anything’s better than nothing.”
“Wonderful,” Jeff says. “Her name is Mel. You will likely meet her during Carrie’s focus session.”
You stare at Noel. Knowing he can’t hurt you is reassuring, though not much. The fact he’s after Quinn is more concerning, but Quinn can take care of herself if she needs to.
“You can let him go now,” you state. “I’ve got it from here.”
“Very well, Miss Alana,” Jeff replies.
He begins to exit the room before stopping and looking back.
“And please. No more nut shots?”
A few moments after Jeff leaves the room, Noel starts moving again. He collapses to the ground grabbing his crotch and rolling in pain.
“MOTHERFUCKER!” he shouts.
“Oh no!” you answer, feigning ignorance. “Whatever is wrong?”
It takes a few minutes but Noel finally comes to his feet. You hand him his coffee and help him into the desk chair.
“What are your plans for the day?” you ask.
“I’d hoped we could go somewhere after we check out,” he says. “Maybe a movie?”
“Can’t,” you reply. “I’m meeting Arn for lunch.”
“How long’s it been since you’ve seen him? Two, three years?”
You think for a moment. You know it’s been a while in real life, but have no context for in here.
“Something like that,” you answer.
You gather your clothes off of the desk and head to the bathroom to change out of pajamas. Considering his condition, Noel makes no effort to follow you. When you come back, he hasn’t moved an inch. You feel like you should feign kindness of some kind.
“Want something to eat?” you ask. “I hear they have a decent breakfast in the lobby.”
“Can you get it for me?” Noel replies. He closes his eyes and takes a deep breath in. “My balls.”
“Right. That. You have fun with that.”
You grab a card key off of the desk and start to leave.
“Plain bagel and orange juice?” you say as you go to open the door.
“And a yogurt,” he yells toward the ceiling.
You open the door and leave, quietly latching it behind you. You spin around and turn down the hallway toward the lobby, only to immediately collide with Quinn, who was walking looking at her phone. Your momentum causes you to fall on top of her, your lips inches from hers. Her red hair tickles your cheeks.
“Oh my god,” you say, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you.”
“Please get off,” Quinn says. Her eyes are red and her cheeks are tear-stained. You quickly climb off of her and help her to her feet.
“I’m really sorry,” you say again as you back away.
The two of you stand a few feet apart in silence. You fiddle with the card key in your hand.
“Is he better to you this time?” she asks. “Not hit you and then say he’s so sorry better. Treat you like you deserve better.”
“I — I don’t totally know yet,” you answer.
“It’ll take time. He won’t show his true colors in a month. He — ”
Quinn stops abruptly. She thinks for a moment, shakes her head, then continues.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “I said I’d give him the benefit of the doubt. It’s just hard because I…”
Her voice trails off. Her chin falls to her chest. You notice tears trickle down her face. Instinctively, you grab Quinn’s hand. She pulls it away roughly.
“Please don’t,” she says forcefully. “I know you want to help. I just can’t. Not yet.”
“Sorry,” you mumble.
You start to take a step away only for Quinn to touch your arm and stop you.
“I hope he’s better this time. You deserve that.”
“Thanks,” you say.
You’ve barely had time to utter your single word when Quinn continues. Her eyes are filled with a fire you’ve never seen before.
“But if he’s not and he hits you again, I will ruin him.”
“Thanks,” you say. “If I can help you somehow, just tell me.”
“Unless you can suddenly make me less lonely, I don’t think there’s much you can do.”
You pause and think for a second before a moment of inspiration hits you.
“Did you see the wait staff checking you out last night?” you ask.
“Very funny, Alana,” Quinn says.
She digs her card key out of her pocket.
“I’m not kidding,” you reply.
“Fine. Which one? Probably the guy with the creepy mustache.”
“No. I mean. Maybe him too. But I meant the young, curly-haired, brunette waitress walking around with bruschetta.”
“Really! I saw her at the ice machine this morning and she was asking about you. She thinks you’re hot.”
“Bullshit,” Quinn says.
“Don’t believe me?” you reply. “Go call the front desk and ask for Brielle Horvath. Ask her yourself.”
Quinn smiles and put the card key in her door, entering her room. You head off to the lobby.
As requested, you get a plain bagel, a cup of orange juice, and a yogurt for Noel. You’re hungry too, so you decide to grab breakfast for yourself. You take your peanut butter covered waffle and head back to the room. You find Noel laying on the bed. He sits up as you hand him his food.
“Thanks,” he says. You take your plate and head back to the desk chair.
“Does this place seem weird to you?” you ask.
“The room?” Noel replies before shoving a spoon of yogurt into his mouth.
“The whole estate. Something about it just seems off.”
Noel pulls the spoon out of his mouth and points it at you.
“It’s the heated floors,” he says. “They really fuck you up if you’re not expecting them. You think the tile’s going to be cold, then bam. Comfort. It’s weird.”
You chuckle to yourself. At least he’s still as oblivious as ever.
“Where’s the rest of the quartet at?” you ask. “I saw Quinn’s across the hall.”
“Benimaru’s down the hall. I think Carrie ended up on the third floor.”
“I might go see Carrie here in a bit.”
“Am I that boring to you?”
“It’s not that,” you reply. “Girl things. You can’t help.”
Noel nods. As he chews his bagel, you wonder if there’s any information you can get out of him. Brielle remembers most everything about the estate. You wonder — is Noel the same way?
“You played well last night,” you say as you cut up your waffle.
“Eh. We’ve done better,” Noel answers. “It wasn’t bad though. Benimaru moving me back to first violin helped. Quinn was never good enough to play that part.”
“I think she plays well,” you say, stuffing food into your mouth.
“I don’t need to hear you praising your ex this early in the morning,” Noel angrily replies.
“What?” you mumble through you food. “She’s good.”
“Not as good as me. She’ll never be.”
You roll your eyes and cut another bite of food. Noel was always the jealous type. It only got worse when Quinn was involved. You could needle him and bring up that he had cheated on you, but you decide to take the high road for now.
“Let’s forget about it,” you say. “Did you tour the estate?”
“Do you want to? It’s a cool building.”
“Don’t care about what a bunch of old dead guys did here. Besides. The staff’s pissy.”
“I was coming back to the room and stopped off at one of the gift shops to get some smokes,” he says. “But the guy in the shop wouldn’t sell me any. Said they’re bad for my health.”
“That’s unfortunate,” you reply.
You told Noel the same for years, but he didn’t listen.
“So then I go to buy some booze. I turn around. And he’s gone. I waited a half-hour before someone helped me.”
“Was the alcohol that important?”
“It’s the rum we had. You tell me.”
Oh good, you think. In this reality, you got drunk with Noel last night. Noel finishes his orange juice and heads to the bathroom.
“Going to shower,” he says. “Wanna join me?”
“I’m going to go see Carrie,” you reply.
The thought of being that close with him makes you cringe.
“Please? It’ll help me feel better.”
“Another day. Alright?” you say.
Noel seems satisfied with the answer and heads off to shower. You’d be shocked he didn’t kiss you goodbye, but he’s never been what you’d consider to be an affectionate person. Not unless he wants it.
You climb the stairs to the third floor and begin looking for Carrie’s room. The first hallway turns up nothing. The fact that there are names on the doors would never fly in the real world, so you’re glad this is an experiment in this one way. You turn the corner and pass room 324. The doors are shut, but you’re tempted to go in. That said, you don’t know who, if anyone, may be inside, so you think better of it. The very next room, however, is labeled Carrie Moulu.
You go to knock, but then a thought hits you. You try to pry the name card off the door to see who Carrie really is. It’s stuck. Normally you have a pocketknife on your person, but not in here. All you have is the card key and the note from Brielle.
“Wait,” you say. “How did that happen?”
You haven’t been able to take things day to day before. Before you can focus on it too much, Carrie opens the door. She’s startled at your presence and falls back to the floor.
“Fuck,” she says. “You’ll give me a heart attack if you do that again.”
“Oh my god,” you stammer. “I’m so sorry.”
You offer your hand to Carrie and help her to your feet.
“I didn’t expect to see you today,” Carrie says. “Noel being a shitlord again?”
“No,” you reply. “I mean, he did want to shower with me and I kicked him in the nuts.”
Carrie throws her left hand in the air.
“Get him girl!” she shouts.
Carrie gives you a high five that you are not at all ready for, smacking your forearm.
“It wasn’t in that order,” you confess.
“I would think nut shots would be a turn-off,” Carrie replies.
She motions you into the room and shuts the door behind you. It looks like she’s taken half of the lobby’s breakfast and brought it to her room.
“Hungry?” Carrie asks.
“Why do you have so much food?” you wonder aloud, gawking at the bounty.
“Saves on grocery shopping. Mel will be here to pick me up in an hour or so. We’re going to smuggle it out in a baby stroller she borrowed from her sister.”
“Who’s Mel?” you ask.
You continue your visual inspection of the bounty of food. There are enough oranges to make a 4 orange by 4 orange pyramid. You smell French toast coming from somewhere, but don’t recall seeing it when you got Noel breakfast. Bacon too.
“Aren’t you going to ask about the waffle iron?” Carrie says.
Sure enough, she’s stolen a waffle iron. It’s plugged and sitting on the nightstand, counting down as she makes waffles.
“How?” you ask.
“I mean, it’s built for this very purpose,” Carrie says nonchalantly.
“How did you take all this without them noticing?” you say, growing exasperated at Carrie.
She opens the bathroom door and pulls out a white handbag. It’s no bigger than your own purse. It’d be lucky to fit the oranges in it, nevermind everything else. Carrie leans in.
“I call it a stealth purse,” she whispers. “It’s undetected by radar, sonar, gaydar, and mason jars.”
This is the longest you’ve talked to Carrie in your entire time knowing her. You had no idea she was this…something? You can’t put your finger on it. But it’s familiar. You decide playing along might get Carrie to focus.
“Alright. I’m interested. Where did you get the bacon from?”
Carrie walks over to the minifridge and opens it, revealing three containers of bacon.
“I bring my own,” she says. “Never trust anywhere to have bacon.”
“Fair enough,” you reply. “Does Mel need help when she gets here? Also, who is she?”
“Oh, right,” Carrie answers. “You did ask that. She’s my new roommate. She broke up with her boyfriend and needed a place, so I sublet her my second bedroom.”
“You must have known her a long time to get her to buy into all of — ” you pause, considering your next words carefully. ” — your industrious plans.”
“Nah,” Carrie replies. “She’s just caring and open to things.”
The waffle iron timer goes off.
“Sit,” Carrie says. “The least you can do is have a waffle. Life is never awful with a waffle.”
You decide to join Carrie for second breakfast. You’re buttering a piece of toast when you notice Carrie putting whipped cream into her coffee. At least you think it’s coffee. Where does this girl keep getting stuff?
“So is it just me,” you say, “or is this building weird?”
“Weird how?” she asks.
You don’t know how much Carrie knows, so you keep your answer vague.
“It’s kind of creepy.”
Carrie takes a drink of her coffee, leaving her with a whipped cream mustache.
“I know what you mean!” she says. “Almost everyone here seems robotic.”
You’re startled and excited at Carrie’s reaction.
“What? You noticed too?”
“Well, I mean, yeah,” she replies. “Quinn’s a downer now that you two aren’t together. Beni’s always boring. Noel’s only emotions are anger and lying. I’m just happy you’re here.”
You’re disappointed. Carrie can see it on your face.
“We’re not talking about the same thing, are we?” she asks.
“No,” you answer. “There’s something else weird here. I can’t figure it out though. I don’t really know who to trust.”
“Want me to help you figure it out?” Carrie says. Before you can answer, she keeps talking. “Wait. What if you can’t trust me? Am I going to betray you? Oh god. I hope not. I like you. You had breakfast with me. But what if you can’t trust me? What if I can’t trust me?”
“I think you’re fine, Carrie,” you say.
Carrie’s mood has deflated. She’s holding her coffee mug in her hands, cupping it close for warmth. You feel like you should let her in on something. She’s the only other person suitably freaked out.
“What happened to you when you woke up today?” you ask.
“I got up,” Carrie says. “I took a shower. I laid in bed in a robe contemplating humanity’s inexorable march to death. I ate a Snickers and drank chocolate milk. Then I had breakfast.”
“Okay what about ye — wait.”
You pause to consider what Carrie had just said before continuing.
“You had a candy bar and chocolate milk BEFORE all of this?”
“It’s an appetizer and it’s classy.”
“Fine. What was your day like yesterday?”
“I woke up, showered, laid in bed in a robe cont — ”
You cut Carrie off.
“Did it feel like you’d done yesterday before somehow? I mean, beyond your morning ritual?”
“Now that you mention it, it kind of did feel like deja vu,” Carrie says.
“I think we’re in a loop of some kind,” you say. “Yesterday and today keep repeating themselves over and over again, just slightly differently each time.”
“You mean like Groundhog Day, Russian Doll, Source Code, or Bandersnatch?”
“That’s…um,” you stammer. “That’s an oddly specific list of things to remember having this trait.”
“I like weird things. Like mushroom soup and pasta.”
“My sister likes that too.”
“Cool. You should introduce me to my new soup buddy!”
You’re about to continue on explaining more about the estate when there’s a knock at the door. Carrie bounds over to the door, opening it and letting in a tall, strawberry blonde woman in a leather trench coat. It’s the middle of summer, so the coat seems odd.
“Alana, this is Mel,” Carrie says excitedly. “Mel, Alana’s dating…uh…I think Noel? Someone in our quartet.”
Mel’s eyes are hidden behind large sunglasses.
“Nice to meet you,” you say.
Mel smiles, but it seems forced.
“We should really get going,” Carrie says. “If you want away from Noel or whatever, you could always come over after your lunch with Arn.”
“Thanks,” you reply. “But I think I need to spend some time with Noel and figure things out.”
Carrie runs up and hugs you.
“Have a good day, boo,” she says before ushering you out the door.
It’s a common enough term of endearment, but it sticks with you for a moment. Carrie’s fun. Maybe her session will be as upbeat as she is.
You’ve got a half-hour to kill before you need to leave and meet Arn for lunch. You decide to go back to Noel’s room and pack up your stuff. However, when you get back to the room, you’re greeted outside by Jeff, who has your belongings.
“What was that all about?” Jeff asks.
“What?” you reply, feigning innocence.
“You can’t just go around telling everyone about the experiment. Probe and learn, yes. Directly telling people will compromise everything and endanger everyone involved.”
You’re taken back. Somewhere along the way you stepped over a line, but you’re not sure where.
“Listen, Jeff,” you say. “I’m sorry. I’m just trying to figure out how to be in here.”
“You’re not in trouble, Alana. Not yet. Just be more thoughtful of who you share info with,” Jeff continues. “Brielle knows enough that you’re fine with her. Carrie’s harmless, though naive to the world you’re in. It’s best not to hurt her. Keep your guard up otherwise.”
Jeff wheels your suitcase to you.
“I’ve taken the liberty of checking you out,” he says. “Noel’s in the lobby if you want to see him before your lunch gathering.”
You wonder how Jeff knows about that too.
“Brielle will be by soon to clean the room if you’d rather see her.”
“I think I’ll hang around here for a bit,” you say. “If that’s alright.”
Jeff looks at you, a small smile curling up the corners of his mouth.
“She’s got a reputation as a charmer,” he says. “But she’s got you good. Just be sure you know what you’re getting into.”
Jeff heads to the elevator and is soon out of sight. You remember the note from Brielle, still folded up in your pocket. More specifically, you remember how it had become easier to read yesterday. You pull the note out, hoping the trend had continued. You’re in luck.
As always, it begins:
Abandon Hope then ye may enter.
At the bottom, the text is readable in its entirety.
One fallen angel can save another. The geese will achieve flight only after the weak find rest.
You recognize the last line as the cryptic sentence Jeff ended the last session with. It’s a metaphor, but it’s over your head. Your reflexes are not fast enough and you cannot catch it. The first line though — that one gnaws at you. Who in here is a fallen angel? It can’t be literal. It’s an experiment. And there are more than a few criminals in here, apparently. You wonder if your choice involves you convincing two people in here to help each other. You’re startled out of your thoughts by a light kiss on the side of your neck.
“That’s for leaving me like you did last session,” Brielle whispers in your ear.
You feel the hairs on your arms stand on end as her breath passes across your ear.
“Fuck,” you mumble.
Brielle gleefully skips around in front of you.
“So who’s your session today?” she asks.
“Noel,” you reply. “I was about to leave and meet my brother for lunch though.”
“Fun. But how do you know it’s your brother?”
“I mean, I don’t,” you reply. “He’s not in the estate that I know of.”
“Have you figured out who’s in here yet?” Brielle asks.
“I tried to pry off a nametag earlier,” you say. “But I’m not going to do more right now.”
“I got in trouble with Jeff.”
“I told Carrie something was off about this place,” you say. “She agreed, but we didn’t get any further before her new roommate showed up.”
Brielle looks puzzled.
“Strange,” she says. “An odd thing for Jeff to get mad about.”
Brielle starts pacing the hallway. You watch her for a few moments. She stops and turns on a dime, walking back over to you. She wraps her arms around your neck and stares into your eyes.
“What?” you say, confused at her intent.
“You sent Quinn to me earlier, didn’t you,” she asks.
“What’d you two talk about?” Brielle smiles and leans her head in, putting her mouth a breath away from yours.
“You’ll find out eventually. I hope.”
You lean in to kiss her, but she’s already pulled away.
“You’re a fucking tease,” you say.
“I’ve got to amuse myself in her somehow,” she says. “You just give me a way I like.”
“Jeff said you need to be careful of who you tell what in here,” Brielle continues. “But he didn’t say I couldn’t tell you things. I think it’s time you learned some things. Leave your suitcase and come with me.”
“Where are we going?”
“Do you want to know who else you’re in here with or not?” she asks.
You debate her offer. The time on your phone says you likely won’t have time to go with Brielle and still make it to lunch with Arn.
“Where are we going?” you ask as you follow Brielle upstairs to the third floor.
“We’re going to find out who Carrie is,” she says. “Just to make sure you can trust her. Then we’ll work our way back down and get the others.”
The stairwell you came up is on the opposite end of the floor as Carrie’s room and room 324, so you have two long hallways to walk down to get there. As you near the end of the first hall, Brielle throws her arm out to stop your movement. She starts to shush you, but you fall quiet on your own. There are voices in the hallway you’re heading toward. One is clearly Jeff. The others are faint and you don’t recognize them. You go to open the door to a room, but Brielle stops you. She opens a door across the hall and pushes you in. It’s a dark utility closet. She shuts the door behind her. It’s a tight fit and things are pitch black.
“Who’s with Jeff?” you whisper.
She answers, but you can’t hear her. She’s facing away from you. You listen carefully as the voices draw closer. Jeff is talking to a man and a woman. They’re too far away to make out much more than that, but the man’s voice sounds familiar. You feel Brielle slowly turn around and face you.
“Damn,” she says. “I really didn’t mean for us to get trapped up here.”
“Keep your voice down,” you whisper. “I want to hear what they’re talking about.”
Jeff and his company have stopped somewhere nearby.
“That room is the one we passed back down the other hall,” the woman says. “It’s best if we don’t go in right now. It’s best not to throw off the experiment.”
“But don’t worry,” Jeff says. “Even when you’re not here, I assure you she’s taken care of.”
The man begins talking, but his voice is muffled.
“Can you hear them any better than me?” you whisper.
“No,” Brielle says.
You’re concerned her voice is too loud and they’ll hear. You put your finger to Brielle’s lips to shush her. The group walks by the door, their footsteps creating a cacophonous echo in the closet. Just after they’ve passed the door, the man speaks again.
“Where to now?” he asks.
You recognize the voice now.
You audibly gasp. You’re about to shout when Brielle wraps her hands behind your head and pulls you in for a kiss. For a moment, you forget all about your blinding rage against your brother and focus completely on Brielle’s lips. By the time the kiss ends, the voices are gone.
“Why?” you say, realizing you’re still in each other’s arms.
“You were going to give us away,” she says. “And while I would have loved to have asked you first, I panicked.”
Brielle pokes her head out of the closet, then guides you out behind her.
“They’re gone,” she says. “I think you might have a little extra time before lunch.”
You sprint down the hall to the opposite stairwell where you came up. You come to a stop outside of Noel’s room, with Quinn’s across the hall. Brielle catches up and hands you a screwdriver.
“Here,” she says. “It’ll make getting the tags off easier.”
You take the screwdriver and start prying at the tag on Noel’s door.
“Why could I get them off before, but not now?” you ask, frustrated.
“The tags are locked down on Sundays,” Brielle answers. “No clue why.”
You manage to get the tag off with a little effort and flip it over. It reads ‘Jon Doyle’.
“Motherfucker,” you grumble. “It actually is my shitbag ex. I wonder what he did to get in here.”
“What did he do to you?” Brielle asks.
“Not now,” you say. “I promise. In person. Everything.”
She nods at you and smiles. You toss the tag away and go to work on Quinn’s door. You get this tag off quickly and flip it over. It reads ‘Natalie Warren/Hope Shapiro’. You pause for a moment, reading the name tag several times.
“What is it?” Brielle asks.
“Natalie is my fiancee,” you reply. “But I have no idea who Hope Shapiro is. Or why there’s two names on the door. Especially since I didn’t stay in there last night.”
Having seen Noel and Quinn’s nametags, you debate your options. There’s still at least two others in the estate you recognize — Benimaru and Carrie. You do have a lunch date with your brother, but you’re pretty sure he’s not there yet.
“I should check out Benimaru and Carrie’s nametags,” you say. “I probably know them too.”
You look at Brielle, expecting the determined look that has encouraged you much of the time. You’re greeted with sadness.
“What do you know?” you ask.
“I don’t,” Brielle says. “I just have a hunch. And while I really hope I’m wrong, I don’t think I am.”
You start making your way back to the third floor. On the way by, you pass Benimaru’s room. You stop and pry the nametag off his door. The back side is blank.
“What’s that mean?” you ask.
“He’s a NPC,” says Brielle. “A generated part of the experiment where it makes sense to have one. They tend to use people that the seeker knows where the can to help them feel more comfortable.”
“I think it’s creepy.”
You and Brielle make your way back to the third floor, coming to a stop at the room beside room 324. The nametag reads Carrie Moulu on the front, but Carrie’s strange enough she must be real. You pry the tag off and immediately begin to sob. Brielle’s arms wrap around you in the tightest embrace you’ve ever felt. She’s silent — not that you’d hear anything she said over your own pained wails. You look at the nametag again.
The back reads Sabrina Hope Torrence. Your sister.
“Why is she in here?” you say. “What’s my baby sister in here?”
“I wish I knew,” Brielle says. “They experiment with all kinds in here.”
You slump down to the ground, holding the nametag in your hand. No wonder Carrie entertained you so.
“She’s only 17,” you mumble. “She’s got so much life left. But she’s in a coma. And…and this.”
“You should keep calling her Carrie,” Brielle says. “If she’s in a coma and believes she’s Carrie, it’s probably for the best.”
“Yeah,” you agree. “She doesn’t need to know.”
You run your fingers over your sister’s actual name on the back of the nametag. Teardrops fall from your face and land on it, pooling before they roll away.
You hand the nametag back to Brielle.
“Could you put this back? Please?” you say.
She obliges. You stand up, grabbing the screwdriver with your left hand.
“I need that,” Brielle says. You ignore her.
“Instant fucking snow, bitch!” you shout into the empty hallway. “You’ve got me in a game. Come play mine!”
“Nonononono,” Brielle stammers. “Screwdriver down, hun. Do not fight him. He will literally kill you.”
Within moments, Jeff appears at the end of the hallway and begins walking towards you. His stride is consistent but cautious. You’ve handed the screwdriver over to Brielle, but you’re still furious.
“Why’s my sister in here, Jeff?” you growl. “And why is she cosplaying my fiancee’s cellist?”
You’re sweating and crying, unable to tell which one is making the top of your shirt wetter. Jeff sighs and sees Carrie’s nametag laying on the hallway floor.
“I will end this session early and take you back to the lab if you need to know now,” he says.
“No,” Brielle interjects. “There’s more he can tell you in here.”
“Then he’s going to tell me before we go,” you say.
Jeff sighs. He pulls a card key out of his pocket. It’s like the one Brielle gave to you, only emerald green instead of blue.
“To the elevator,” he says. “This will be easier to show rather than tell.”
You follow Jeff into the elevator, Brielle trailing along behind. Jeff swipes his card key and presses the basement button. As the elevator arrives at the basement floor, its motion stops going down and takes a sudden right. You lose your balance and fall into Brielle. She helps you to your feet. You notice that she slips something into your pocket as she does so. It feels like the screwdriver, but you don’t want to alert Jeff by checking.
The elevator comes to a stop. You walk out to a long, sterile-looking hallway with a conference room at its end. Jeff leads you to the conference room and motions for you to sit down. The table is huge, much longer than wide. Despite that, you sit by Brielle. You notice that whatever Brielle put into your pocket isn’t jamming into your butt. So it’s not the screwdriver. Jeff’s distracted typing away at a computer.
You check to make sure Jeff’s not looking and slide your hand into your pocket. You produce two round disks that look like poker chips. One is the blue one you saw in the blue room earlier. The other is red. You look at Brielle, hoping for an explanation. Instead, she sees what’s in your hand and smacks it. She motions for you to put the tokens back in your pockets while shaking her head no violently. You hide them again.
Jeff turns around and points to the screen in the front of the room. On the screen, you see what looks like a flowchart, largely unlabeled.
“Welcome to Project Tasman,” Jeff says. “Your real name is Alana Torrence. In here, however, you are Alana Quevedo. You are seeker 165 of the Project.”
“165?” you say. “How long has this been going on for?”
“Four years and six months,” Jeff says.
You do the math. That means Brielle’s been here for over half of the project.
“What exactly is Project Tasman?” you ask.
Jeff gestures toward the chart on the screen.
“That,” he says. “Though in order to understand Project Tasman, you need a bit more context. How much do you know about invalidity dates?”
You glance at Brielle. She’s fuming.
“I generally know what they are,” you reply.
“No you don’t,” Brielle mutters. “Not totally.”
Jeff ignores Brielle and begins his own explanation.
“With the advent of technology and medicine that allows humans to live past 150 regularly, the world suffered from overpopulation for many years. Around 50 years ago, several governments around the world banded together to develop the concept of invalidity dates, as a way to help those in advanced years phase out of life gracefully.”
To you, the concept was normal. It’d been around forever. Brielle is squeezing the arms of her chair, her fingernails digging into the leather. You shoot her a glance, but she doesn’t notice.
“Of course,” Jeff continues. “if everyone just lived to 150 with no questions, life wouldn’t be…life. Things happen. There is a random variable to the invalidity date system. It is possible, as you’re aware, to have an invalidity date well before the age of 150. It is random, but it does happen.”
“To dissidents,” Brielle grumbles.
“Is Project Tasman a way to implement an invalidity date on someone?” you ask.
“No,” Jeff says. “In the past 50 years, our government, in particular, found that the actions of having to carry out an invalidity date were extremely trying for staff. Project Tasman is a way to study that effect without having to go through the full process with government staff.”
“Full process?” you ask. “What’s that mean?”
“When a government staff member has to assist with end of life responsibilities as part of an invalidity date, it’s quite mentally taxing,” Jeff says. “They’re just doing their job, but they are human. Taking a life, even for the right reasons, takes a toll on the mind. As such, there’s an effort to make sure that all workers understand the importance and gravity of what they’re doing. They must not act with emotion, but out of mindfulness of duty.”
“How is that possible?” you ask. “What if it’s a family member or a friend?”
“Or someone you hate,” Brielle adds.
“There are efforts made to avoid such a thing, but it can happen,” Jeff says. “Taking the life of a stranger isn’t like ending one that you know. That’s exactly what Project Tasman is tasked with studying in its current state.”
He pauses, letting the gravity of what he said sink in. Brielle’s quiet rage speaks volumes, but not as much as the tears she’s trying to hold back.
“Are you saying I have to kill someone?”
“No,” Jeff replies. “Well, not directly. But you will make the decision as to who in this experiment lives and who dies.”
You’re stunned. Why would anyone do this? Why run a test like this? Why with so many people you know? Your mind wills you to cry out and scream. To should about the unfairness of it all. But your body is frozen, unmoving from the chair you’re in. The only warmth you feel is Brielle’s hand closing around yours.
“That is, after all, the quandary,” Jeff says. “Like the previous 164 seekers before you, you must seek and learn about the other real people in here. Aside from Brielle, you knew them all before coming in here. Some are friends, some are family, some are enemies. And you must decide who among them should die.”
“What if I don’t want to?” you say, your voice cracking. “What if I don’t want to choose?”
“Don’t do that,” Brielle interjects.
“Then you still have made a choice,” Jeff replies. “The consequences of not choosing come at the cost of your own life.”
You feel the grip of Brielle’s hand tighten around yours.
“Please don’t do that,” she says. “If you’re even considering that at all, choose me instead.”
“No!” you shout.
“I just want out,” she continues. “Even if it isn’t a good way.”
“What happened to the other seekers?” you ask.
“They all made a choice of some kind,” Jeff answers. “They had to. That is the only way the experiment is allowed to end for a seeker.”
“What’s your role in all of this?” you inquire. “Why bother telling me all of this if I’m in this massive experiment? Aren’t you tainting the results or something?”
Jeff motions around the room.
“There’s a reason we’re in here instead of out there,” he says. “I can talk freely in here. I can share everything I need to in order to help keep seekers from making a wrong choice in this room. Because technically, neither you nor Brielle is supposed to be in here.”
You look at Brielle. She nods. Clearly she’s been here before.
“Where is here?” you ask.
“The walled-off area that was once the jail,” Jeff says. “It’s the administrative area for any experimenters that are involved with a given series of tests. Normally there’s only one of us, but given this run’s unique circumstances, we have two.”
“You still haven’t answered who you are,” Brielle interjects. “Tell her.”
“My name is Jeff Yeboah. I’m an experimental technologist for Yaron Laboratories.”
“Yaron,” you say. “As in — ”
“As in the same company that owns Yaron Architecture. We’re both subsidiaries.”
“Goddammit,” you mutter. “Of course it was Arn. That entitled shitbag.”
“It’s worth noting that Arn is also part of this experiment,” Jeff says.
“Yeah, I know,” you say. “We –”
Brielle cuts you off.
“I told her. I figured it out.”
“I’m not sure whether or not to believe you, Brielle,” Jeff replies. “Normally it takes you a lot longer to figure out how everyone is connected. Though I suppose you’ve gotten much closer to Alana than a typical seeker.”
You stay quiet. You want to find out who you’ll end up having to choose between killing, but something about Jeff’s last statement gives you pause. Jeff notices your silence and motions at Brielle.
“Go on,” he says. “Tell her what you typically do to seekers. Tell her why you’re still here.”
Brielle mouths something at you, but you can’t read her lips.
“It’s going to come out sooner or later,” Jeff continues. “You might as well tell her now.”
Brielle closes her eyes and takes a deep breath in. She speaks softly now.
“I lead the seekers to their own deaths,” she says. “Not you. But most of them.”
“And why didn’t you do this to Alana?” Jeff prods.
“Because you promised me a way out if she proves your theory right.”
“What theory?” you ask.
“I’m afraid that’s the one thing I can’t share,” Jeff says. “Doing so would bias you.”
You turn and look at Brielle.
“Would you have killed me if he didn’t cut you a deal?” you ask.
“I don’t kill anyone until the second day!” she says. “I liked you by then!”
“She means she liked you enough that she would have kept you around to do her bidding,” Jeff replies. “There’s no changing who she is at her core. She’s a cutthroat. Sure, she’ll protect those she cares about, but only until something better comes along.”
“Fuck off, Jeff!” Brielle shouts. “She deserves out.”
“She does,” Jeff says. “But because you’ve accelerated how quickly she’s learned the facts of the experiment, she’ll lose your help for much of the rest of the experiment.”
“Then give me answers first,” you insist.
“I intend to,” Jeff says. “At the end of this experiment, you must choose one person to kill — your brother, your sister, your girlfriend, your ex, or a total stranger.”
“Easy,” you state. “Noel. Next.”
“It’s not that simple,” Brielle says.
“She’s right,” Jeff says. “You don’t know enough to make that decision now. You did well to learn about Brielle in her session, but you squandered nearly all of the time you could have been learning about Noel.”
“Great,” you state. “He’s still a dick.”
“There’ll be a maintenance, then you’ll be in your next session,” Jeff continues. “I would encourage you to use that time to learn about your next session partner as much as you can.”
“Who is it?” you ask.
“You’ll see after maintenance,” he replies.
“Normally, you’d have a little time with Brielle in each session,” Jeff says. “But instead you’ll only see her one more time within the experiment. Make it count.”
Brielle grips your hand.
“You can do this,” she says. “Get out. If you can figure out how to save me – ”
“I will,” you say, cutting her off.
“And if you prove my theory right, you will,” Jeff says. “But I’m afraid our time here is running short. Any final questions you have of me?”
“Who is the fallen angel?” you ask. “From your message.”
“I believe you’re reading the message wrong,” Jeff says. “Take another look at it.”
You do so, re-reading the line you thought you had memorized.
“The line says ‘one fallen angel can save another’,” Jeff states, as you read those exact words. “That would imply there are at least two in the estate.”
“Could you stop being so cryptic and help me out a little?” you ask.
“There are three people who could fit the criteria of fallen angel within the estate,” he says. “You, Brielle, and Quinn. That said, not all three of you fit the criteria in all possible iterations of this experiment.”
“How will I know when it applies to each of us?” you ask.
“It’s always going to apply to me,” Brielle says. “So far as I know.”
“And I can pretty safely guess you know if and when it’ll apply to yourself,” Jeff says.
“So I’ll have to figure out when it applies to Quinn?” you say.
“Indeed,” Jeff answers. “And of all the possible fallen angels, her situation is perhaps the least clear if it applies.”
You debate asking Jeff another question when he picks up a laser pointer and aims it at the flowchart on the screen. It’s tiny, but you can see he’s pointing at a red box that has several branches out from it.
“This is roughly where you should be at this stage of the experiment,” he says. “You’ve gotten enough off track that I don’t have a good way to explain where you are now. But you will get back on track with the next session. On the plus side, you’ve managed to avoid two potential situations thus far where you wouldn’t have a choice over whose life gets taken. There are three more of these coming down the line. Stay on your toes.”
You nod. He clicks a button and the projector shuts off.
“Back to the elevator you go,” he says. “Both of you.”
“You’re not coming with?” you ask.
“There’s no need,” he says. “It’ll just take you to the first floor.”
Brielle grabs your hand and leads you out of the room. Neither of you say a word until you’re in the elevator, the doors closing behind you. You pull the blue and red tokens out of your pocket. They’re lighter than you expected.
“What are these for?” you ask.
“There’s three of them around the estate,” she says. “You’ll need them at the end.”
“It’ll be how you choose who stays in here,” Brielle answers. “If you’re given that option.”
“Wait,” you say, “you mean I have to kill someone and choose who gets stuck in here?”
“Ideally, yeah. If you make no choice, I’m stuck again.”
“Why are there only three?” you ask. “Shouldn’t there be six?”
“I wish I knew,” Brielle replies. “This part is inconsistent with each experiment. I wish I knew more.”
You both go quiet as the elevator ends its side-to-side travel and starts its travel up to the first floor. You arrive just down the hall from the entryway — the same elevator you took with the tour group twice before. The door to the elevator slides open, revealing an empty hallway. You start to step out when Brielle grabs your hand and pulls you back.
“You know when this session ends I’ll see you?” you say.
“Are you serious when you say you’re going to try to get me out of here?” she asks. “Even with your fiancee, your brother, and your sister in here?”
“If there’s anything I can do to get you out of here with them, I will do it.”
You extend your pinky to Brielle. She smiles and takes it in her own. You lock eyes with her. Your kiss in the darkened closet is still seared in your memory, but the light of day keeps you from doing it again.
You decide the stay and look for the last token. Not having Noel’s room key anymore, you decide the best plan is to use Brielle’s key card to explore for open rooms as much as you can. You take the elevator to the third floor, reasoning that working your way back to the lobby would be the best use of your time. You try a handful of doors, but find that they’re all locked. The only unlocked door is the storage closet you were in with Brielle earlier. You do a quick scan of the closet, but nothing looks to be out of the ordinary. Closing the door, you stop for a moment and listen just to make sure you’re still alone. Satisfied at the sound of the silence, you continue on.
The first room with an unlocked door you come to is the room across the hall from Carrie’s. The name on the door isn’t familiar to you. Likely another NPC. You open the door to find a room that has already been tidied by housekeeping. You give the room a cursory scan, but nothing jumps out at you. You leave the room and try several more doors in the hallway, including Carrie’s. All are locked. It takes you the better part of twenty minutes, but you eventually test every door on the third floor.
Disappointed with your lack of progress, you head down to the second floor. The first wing of doors produces a similar lack of luck. You do end up finding another utility closet that’s unlocked, but it’s also unhelpful. You’re beginning to get frustrated when you try Benimaru’s door. It’s unlocked. You excitedly make your way into the room, only to find that like the room upstairs, it has been cleaned. Frustrated, you storm out of the room.
You’ve turned the corner to the hall where Noel and Quinn’s rooms are when you hear the sound of a housekeeping cart coming down the hall. They’re not in sight, but the sound is getting louder. You frantically begin trying every door down the left side of the hall.
One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven. All fail.
You’ve reached the end of the hall and try the eighth door — Noel’s. No luck.
Across the hall, you notice Quinn’s door cracked opened. You quickly run in and shut the door behind you. You notice the cart’s sounds getting quieter. They must have turned down the opposite hallway. You take a deep breath and relax, only to get startled again when you notice Quinn asleep in bed.
Once your initial shock wears off, you choose to take a closer look at Quinn. The scenario provided by this session has clearly taken a mental toll on her, as she never sleeps in the middle of the day. You lean over her and confirm that she is, in fact, sleeping. Her wavy, copper hair has fallen across her face. You take your hand and lightly brush it back behind her ear, wanting to make sure a hair tickling her nose doesn’t somehow wake her.
You pull up the desk chair and sit beside the bed. While she may be your fiancee outside of the experiment, she doesn’t think that in this particular session. Despite that, you find words start pouring out of your mouth.
“Hey babe,” you say. “I don’t know if we’re going to get out of this. I don’t know if you’re Natalie or Hope or who you are. And I don’t really like that. But I’m too overwhelmed by this — this place — to do much about it.”
Quinn’s breathing remains steady and soft. You decide to lower your voice a little, so as not to risk waking her.
“They want me to kill someone,” you continue. “And I don’t know if I can do that. But I have to. And that’s fucking horrifying. I wish you were here. The real you. Whatever your name is. It doesn’t matter that you look like you in here. This isn’t the woman I love. And that’s not your fault.”
You pull out the tokens and stare at them again. Nothing identifying other than their colors.
“I have to keep someone in here too,” you continue. “And no matter what happens, I promise that won’t be you. I met someone in here. Someone who may be able to help with the parts of you I don’t fully relate to. I’m going to try to get her out too. Her name’s Brielle.”
You pause and correct yourself.
“Well, her name out there is Cruz. You met her as Brielle. She’s kind. I think you’ll really like her. I know I do.”
You pull the blankets up to Quinn’s shoulders. She moves slightly, burrowing herself beneath them.
“I miss you,” you say before kissing her head. “I love you.”
You quickly, but quietly open the door, shutting it as softly as you can behind yourself.
You double-check the hallway, then head back the way you came. You check the doors on the second floor you hadn’t so far, but none of them are unlocked. You make your way back down to the first floor via the elevator. The elevator doors open. You see Jeff standing just outside the elevator, his back to you. You could try to sneak out the closer side door, but you have to pass him to do so. Or you can make a break for the front door.
You take off running for the front door, desperately trying to find a way back to somewhere, anywhere, but here. As you reach the door, you feel the floor turn warm beneath your feet. You see a series of pulsing lights. Green. Then blue. Then purple. Then black.
Everything is black. Again.
You feel like you’re falling uncontrollably. This time, though, you hear a voice call out. It’s different from the voice the past two times.
“Are we really going to wake them up in the middle of the night?”
A second voice answers.
“Relax. The program will allow them to receive.”
You swear the second voice is Jeff’s. Before you can process it, a voice cuts through the silence.
*SESSION C COMPLETE. YOU HAVE FOUR SESSIONS REMAINING TO SOLVE THE QUANDRY*
You try to speak, but you can’t. The voice calls out again.
*MAINTENANCE MODE ENGAGED*
You’re surrounded by the lights again. Green. Then blue. Then purple. Then black.
Everything is black.
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