Project Tasman: Lab A – Maintenance

You wake up to halogen lights piercing through your eyelids. You let out an audible groan and try to lift your arm to block your eyes. You’re restrained against whatever you’re laying on.

“Don’t struggle. You’ll be allowed to move a little soon.”

You tilt your head toward the sound of the voice. Brielle is laying on the table next to yours. If you weren’t restrained, you’re sure you could reach her.

“Wow,” you say. “Not what I expected at all.”

“Yeah, I get that a lot,” she says. “Everyone hears the name Cruz that they assume I’m a muscled out dude with at least two arrests for street racing.”

“You look just like you did in there,” you reply.

“Meanwhile,” Brielle interjects, “you look about ten years younger. And if you’re going to age that gracefully, you’ll need to tell me your skincare routine.”

This gets a laugh out of you, but it turns into a cough quickly. Your throat is dry.

“Just take it easy,” she says. “It’s an adjustment coming out of there. Even for me.”

“Water?” you faintly say. “You’ll get some soon. I don’t think anyone but me knows you’re up yet.”

“What happens during this maintenance?” you wonder aloud.

“Outside of this room?” Brielle begins. “Couldn’t tell you. In here we chill, they take our vitals, chat a bit. Like a normal doctor’s visit.”

“This isn’t normal,” you say under your breath, despite no one else being in the room.

“Right. But it’s easier to pretend it is. Keeps them from keeping the restraints on at all times.”

You take a look around the room. It appears to be cinder block painted a drab pale gray. You feel a slight breeze coming from somewhere, though you can’t see what’s behind you. You’re dressed in a lilac hospital gown.

“Where’s everyone else?” you ask. “I want to see Natalie…er…Quinn.”

“Call her whatever you need to keep yourself sane,” Brielle replies. “I’ll call her Quinn until we figure out why she has two names.”

“There’s a lot you said you couldn’t tell me in there,” you say.

“Shall we start?” Brielle nods. “You found out some of it at the end of last session. What with the whole killing people and keeping someone in thing.”

“Yeah,” you reply. “Not a fan of that. There’s got to be more though.”

“There is,” she replies.

It feels like she’s being evasive in her answering. Considering everything you’ve just learned, you decide you don’t have time for that.

“Why are you in there in the first place?” you ask. “Clearly you’ve been in there way too long. But how did you get in there?”

Brielle takes her time before replying.

“Remember the roommate I told you about? The one I got Chloe from?”

“Yeah.”

“Her name was Maddie,” Brielle begins. “She was my best friend since high school. We’d lived together in college and for most of the time after. Being an only child whose parents weren’t around since my teen years, she was basically my family. We were kind of alike in that way.”

“Her expiration date was when she was 26,” Brielle continued. “June 19th. A Tuesday.”

“I’m sorry,” you say.

Brielle doesn’t hear you.

“She didn’t tell me until January of that year. At least she told me. Almost no one else knew.”

You see tears rolling out of the corners of Brielle’s eyes, but she’s not actively sobbing. She’s staring at the ceiling as if she were trying to see back through time and find some image of Maddie in the white panels above her.

“I went with her,” Brielle says. “Have you ever been to a processing?”

You shake your head.

“It’s surreal,” Brielle continues. “They walk away from you and they’re never coming back. Thing is, that wasn’t the weirdest part.”

“No?” you interject.

“I’d had six months to get my head wrapped around Maddie being gone. It sucked. I still hurt when it happened. It hurt a lot. But in the end, she was at peace with it. And that helped a lot. What was weird was the whole experience after. Without her. It was very clinical. I signed a lot of paperwork. Her parents had both died, so I was her family. And all I could help but do was wonder…why?”

“Why what?” you ask.

“Why her,” Brielle said. “Why then. Why not me. Why not someone else. Why this way. If there’s a why about Maddie dying I didn’t think of, I’d love to hear it.”

Brielle goes quiet. She’s closed her eyes and is purposefully taking long, slow breaths.

“I’m sorry,” you say. “She must have been a great person.”

“She was.” Brielle’s voice is barely above a whisper.

“She’d be 30 in August,” Brielle continues. “It could be August now for all I know. I try to ask Jeff the date whenever I remember. It doesn’t always happen.”

“He knows about Maddie?” you ask.

“He knows everything,” Brielle continues. “I wasn’t doing well after she died. I holed myself up in our apartment for several weeks. The barista from the coffee shop came and checked on me for a while. He was always good to Maddie and me. But after a while, he stopped too. And then there was no one. And I was alone. In every way I could think of.”

You realize that at some point in Brielle’s story you’ve started tearing up, but couldn’t say when.

“I was going to find a bridge,” she continues. “One over a river. That way if the fall didn’t get me, the fact I can’t swim would. But on my way there, I ran into this old guy handing out cookies on the street like it was free sample day at the grocery store.”

“I went to a meeting with him that night,” Brielle explains. “There was an underground movement against expiration dates. Not the snarky bumper sticker kind of movement. Like an actual, fuck your shit up in a Fawkes mask movement. They were going to break a bunch of people out of this processing center in Redmond, Washington. And they need someone to help. Someone to be a distraction. A face for the outside while they did their work.”

“What did you do?” you ask.

“I was supposed to just have a megaphone and a bad attitude,” she answers. “Give me a megaphone and I can do that any day. But they gave me supplies in case things went south.”

“And when I got arrested for my protesting, it’s awful hard to convince people you aren’t going to use the thirty Moltovs you’re caught with.”

“Damn.”

“So that’s how I ended up here. In some experiment facility somewhere in the Cascades.”

You remember from the experiment that Brielle is the kind of person that’ll just keep talking if you stay quiet. You decide to follow that logic again, rather than prying too much. Sure enough, she starts talking after a short pause.

“It’s not much better in here,” she says. “It’s not like being trapped in an experiment where you might die at the end of every seven days is easy on the brain.”

She turns and looks at you.

“I wasn’t kidding, you know.”

“About what?” you ask.

“If you’re really thinking about choosing your own death, pick me instead,” she says.

“I’m not,” you insist.

“But if you do. You might not be now. But that place affects people in different ways.”

She looks away again, starting over at the wall. For as long as she’s been in here, her body still looks relatively normal, albeit with less muscle mass than a typical person. That’s the only noticeable difference you can see between Brielle in there and out here.

“What do you do?” she asks. “Like for a living.”

“I’m a sous chef,” you reply. “I work in one of the upscale restaurants in downtown Seattle. You?”

“Cleaning staff at an office building,” she answers. “I doubt they even miss me.”

You’re growing concerned that the direction this conversation is taking isn’t helping Brielle. You decide to change the topic to something more uplifting, then work your way back to learning more.

“What’s the hotel look like?” you ask. “The one you want to work in.”

“It’s not a specific — ”

“Tell me about it,” you insist. “What’s the dream? Please?”

Brielle takes a deep breath in. She shifts her body slightly and faces you.

“There’s a front desk with columns dividing the different sections,” she begins, “with these ornately carved arches between them. Everything’s got the most up-to-date tech, but they’re discreet and classy about it, you know?”

“Like spy movie classy?” you ask.

“Like fuck you money classy,” she says. “Not gaudy gold. I’m talking fingerprint scanners embedded in mahogany, wireless charging everywhere, and holographic room service menus that display on your shower curtain.”

“What’s on the menu?”

Brielle gets excited and tries to roll to face you better, only to get caught by her restraints.

“Fuck,” she says. “Been a long time since I’ve done that.”

“Sorry,” you say.

“Don’t be. I’m excited. You know those little French songbirds,” she begins, “the ones that you’re supposed to eat with your head under a napkin out of shame?”

“Ortolan,” you say. “Right. The first thing I’m going to do is to take that off the menu.”

“How do you know they even serve it?” you ask.

“It’s my dream, I make the rules,” she says.

You shrug. Seems fair.

“Then we’re going to replace the menu with a mix of calorie bombs that taste amazing and healthy food that’s better than it looks. Oooo! And stroopwafel. Because in my dream job, they crumble it over all of the prepared ice cream dishes. And I’ll go home every night with boterkoek and chicharrones. Because my hotel, my menu.”

“What’s on the breakfast menu?” you ask. “I assume it’s not continental breakfast served in warming trays.”

“Psh,” Brielle scoffs. “No. Plated breakfast all day. Made to order omelets. Eggs benedict. Eleven kinds of quiche. I’ve never even had quiche!”

“You’ve clearly put a lot of thought into this,” you say.

“She has,” you hear a voice say from behind your head. “If you get time before you go back in, ask about the dessert options.”

It’s Jeff. He’s stopped just out of your sight.

“If I’m supposed to shake your hand, I really can’t,” you state. “Sorry about that.”

“Most people in here would rather punch me than shake my hand,” he says. “I appreciate the thought though. How are you two feeling?”

“Same as always,” Brielle says. “Can I have tequila yet?”

Jeff sighs.

“Not until you’re out.”

“I knooow,” Brielle groans.

“And you, Miss Alana?” he asks.

“May I have some water?” you ask.

You hear water flow out of a faucet and into a cup. A few moments later, a straw shows up in front of your face.

“I can’t take you out of your restraints at this stage,” Jeff says. “I hope you understand.”

While Brielle looks close to how she appeared in the simulation, Jeff is totally different.

Inside, he was a diminutive, young, balding white man. But in the lab, he’s a slender, middle-aged black man with a salt-and-pepper beard.

“I understand,” you say, “but you’re going to have to explain why you don’t look like that Jeff.”

“The staff of Project Tasman can change how they appear in the simulation,” he says as he checks the IVs and cords running to your body. “Some people are less intimidated by that Jeff than how I look.”

“That’s fucking stupid,” you say.

“It is,” he replies.

He moves on, walking over to Brielle and checking the cords on her too.

“Any dizziness today?” he asks.

“None,” she answers.

“Good. Your blood sugar is starting to stabilize again.”

“What happens next?” you ask.

You expect Jeff to answer, but Brielle instead pipes up.

“Vitals get taken,” she begins. “Then there’s a cognitive assessment. Then he debriefs with anyone he needs to on his end. Meanwhile, we wait. Presuming all goes well, after all of that, we go back in. And I hopefully see you back here in two days.”

She pauses and looks up at Jeff.

“Closer?” she asks.

“You’re getting there,” he says.

Jeff walks back behind you and pulls out a chair. There’s presumably a desk behind you. You faintly hear the sounds of a writing utensil scritching on paper.

“You ever have a really long sleep, only to wake up and be tired?” Brielle asks.

“Me or him?” you say.

“You. He’ll be busy for a while.”

“I mean. I’m sure I have.”

“I’ve been told that’s what it’s like when you first get out of here,” Brielle states. “You just want a long ass nap, apparently.”

“I miss my bed,” she continues. “Not that it was great. But it was something. And it was mine.”

You shift your body on the table beneath you. There’s padding, but it’s clear it’s atop a metal table of some kind.

“What’s next back in there?” you say. “I just want to know what I’m walking into.”

You hear Jeff get out of his chair. He walks back past you and comes to a stop at your feet.

“Who do you want it to be?”

“I get to choose?” you ask.

“You’ll have to go through them all anyway,” he says, shrugging. “It all depends on what you w –”

“I want to see Sabrina,” you interject. “Carrie. Whatever. You know what I mean.”

“Then the session with your sister will be next,” he says. “Personally, I would have made that your next to last session. But it doesn’t have a huge impact one way or the other.”

“I want to see her,” you reiterate. “And why is Arn in there?”

“That depends,” Jeff says. “How much do you already know?”

“I’m pretty sure he’s why both me and my sister are in there,” you answer.

“Correct.”

“Then why is he in here?”

“Let’s just say he rubbed the wrong people the wrong way,” Jeff answers.

He turns to walk away, but you reach out to stop him. Your hand is still restrained, but your fingertips are able to clasp onto his lab coat enough to get his attention.

“What did he do?” you say.

“Why does it matter?” Jeff asks. “You were going to be in here anyway because of his actions. Sabrina too.”

“Because he’s still my brother.”

“He’s your half-brother.”

“Still counts.”

“He’s getting a stipend for submitting candidates to the trial,” Jeff says. “When he was asked why he put you in here, he said it was to keep you from going against his wishes to help your sister. As you’re aware, euthanasia isn’t legal here.”

You cut Jeff off before he can say more.

“What? It’s been legal since 2008. We’re still in Washington, right?”

“We are,” he replies, “but you’re thinking physician-assisted suicide. Arn has medical power of attorney over Sabrina. And his hope is to use Project Tasman to help keep her alive.”

“I mean,” you say, “dick move. But how did that cause him to end up in here too?”

“When the person you piss off is the CEO of a major corporation and that company happens to oversee the medical experiment in question, things can happen.”

“What the fuck?” you say. “He’s been a dick to me. But that’s not right.”

Jeff shrugs.

“It is not my place to argue what is fair and what isn’t,” he says.

“Don’t you feel bad for people in here?”

“That’s irrelevant to my duties.”

“Do you think this experiment is ethical?” you ask.

“That’s irrelevant to my duties,” Jeff says again.

“Why are you doing this if you don’t agree with it?” you’re nearly shouting now.

Jeff leans in close to you.

“Do you know what happens to those of us who go against their rules?” he asks. You can feel his breath against your face. “Anyone who dares try to scream about ethics or to change the experiment without having data that proves something they want to hear?”

You shake your head.

“Remember the mindless drones in the kitchen? From your first day.”

You nod.

“That’s where they all end up. Mindless NPCs in the estate. Or at least that’s how it looks to you and the others stuck in there. In reality, they still have their thoughts. They know what’s going on. But they’re not in control of what they do. Of how they act. Of any part of their being. Not exactly something you want.”

“So why do what you’re doing then?” you ask. “If that could be you, why risk it?”

“Because I want to prove there’s a more humane way,” he says. “And if I can show data proving my theory, it makes it easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.”

Jeff walks away from you. You hear him strip off his rubber gloves and dispose of them.

“Maintenance will be another two hours or so,” he says. “Try to get some rest.”

The door closes behind him as he exits. You look over at Brielle, who’s staring at you intently.

“What?” you ask.

“I owe you an apology,” she says.

“For what?”

“You’re engaged. And I kissed you.”

“To be clear,” you interject. “I kissed you first.”

“On the cheek,” Brielle answers. “That’s how I kiss my abuela.”

“Still counts,” you insist.

“Not really,” she counters. “I tried to play you to get out. But then I realized you weren’t a shithead. And I felt bad.”

“So you wouldn’t kiss me then?” you ask.

“Not knowing you’re engaged,” Brielle replies. “That’s not who I am. Besides, while I get it’s a simulation, that doesn’t mean it won’t piss off Quinn when she finds out.”

You chuckle to yourself.

“What?” Brielle asks.

“Nothing,” you answer. “You just don’t know her.”

“It’s not like I can go see her right now,” Brielle says.

“I could tell you about her.”

“How’d you meet?” Brielle asks.

“What, you don’t want a proposal story?” you say.

“Eh. Maybe later. How’d you meet?”

“So I was dating Noel. And he’d been a dickbag that night. I mean, he was every night, but this night too. And I decided that I needed to go somewhere that wasn’t around him. He probably ran off somewhere and got drunk anyway.”

“Fuck him though,” Brielle interjects.

“Right. But I decided that I needed to go somewhere quiet where I could be alone with my mind. So I went to the library. I got a couple of books, then I went to this outdoor mall down the road. I was sitting on a picnic table reading some truly terrible book when I notice someone stop near me.”

“And it was right then you knew she was a creeper…keeper.”

“Very funny. But I did check and see if I needed to be worried.”

Brielle’s engrossed in your story. All you can think about is how much you want to itch your nose. Since your hands are restrained, you decide the best thing you can do is to keep talking.

“I saw this gorgeous woman with wavy red hair,” you continue. “She’d stopped to tie her shoe. I must have stared for way too long because the first thing I remember her saying to me was ‘are you okay’?”

“So you’re the creeper?” Brielle asks.

“Probably. I stumbled over myself apologizing. I don’t know how, but apparently I made enough of an impression that we ended up getting frozen yogurt that night. But, dumbass me didn’t get her number.”

“You failure!” Brielle shouts mockingly.

“I was pissed at myself all week,” you say. “And then Saturday comes. I go to brunch with Noel and to meet their quartet’s new violinist. And of all the people in the fucking world, it’s her.”

“No fucking way,” Brielle says.

“I swear on my life.”

“But wait,” Brielle replies. “So she knew you when you were dating Noel?”

“Only briefly. We broke up not long after.”

“What happened?”

“Noel cheated on me,” you reply.

“That bastard!” Brielle responds.

You shrug.

“I knew it was happening for a while,” you say. “It’s not like he hid it. Eventually, he just got tired of me, I assume. He broke up with me and went to be with someone else.”

“That sucks,” Brielle answers. “I mean, I’m glad you got out. But that’s shitty.”

“I wasn’t single long,” you say, “at least not functionally. Quinn and I ended up spending a ton of time together nearly immediately. Though we didn’t start ‘dating’ for a few months. You want to hear a funny story about her?”

“Sure.”

“She has this emerald green dress with white polka dots.”

“Oh goody,” Brielle interrupts. “Another hot ginger in a green dress.”

“I think it’s cute!” you snap back.

“Carry on,” she says, dismissing you.

“She had a date night planned for us,” you continue. “We were going to go to dinner, run around a nearby bookstore until it closed, see whatever movie happened to be starting when we got done at the bookstore, then go to the bar to end our night. We had dinner at this hibachi grill, then had our bookstore time. Date’s going great and all at this point.”

“AWWWWWWWWWWW!” Brielle lets out in an exaggerated manner.

“You’re mocking me,” you reply.

“Completely,” she says. “Get to the funny or the lewdity.”

“Is that even a word?” you ask?

“If someone writes it as part of a story, I think it legally is,” Brielle answers.

“So we leave the bookstore and start walking to the movie theater. And walking is a generous description of what we were doing.”

“Too much sake at dinner?” Brielle asks.

“So much sake,” you confirm. “That and a flask of whisky we snuck into the bookstore. Anyway, we’re walking out of the book store and she gets this brilliant idea that she wants to take pictures with me at the outdoor fountain.”

“This can’t end well,” Brielle says.

“So we take a handful of pictures with her phone,” you continue. “I stand up to take one of her. And she thought I was going to help her up or something, as she falls forward onto the ground in front of the fountain. I go over to help her up and she’s laughing. I go to pull her up and she decides that she needs to jump. Which knocks me over into the fountain.”

Brielle starts chuckling.

“So I’m all wet in a dress that probably needed to be washed anyway,” you say, laughing too. “I’m standing there, water dripping off of me when Quinn full-on tackles me into the fountain. I’m laughing, she’s laughing, and the fountain water is running down her hair and into my face.”

“Go on…” Brielle says.

“And then Quinn got hit in the back of the head with a banana.”

“Is that a euphemism?”

“It is not.”

“What the fuck?”

“Some teen thought it’d be funny to chuck a banana at us,” you say. “While she’s laughing with her friends, Quinn starts chasing them with the banana. They’re out of sight before I know it. I get out of the fountain and dry myself and our phones off, only to see Quinn walking back, eating the fucking banana.”

“No way.”

“And then she walks up to me and says ‘hungry?’ like nothing happened.”

“I think your girl might be a little weird,” Brielle says.

You smile and laugh to yourself.

“It’s part of her appeal,” you say. “Her dropping into my life in the way she did was really fortunate.”

“Right,” Brielle replies. “It helped you move on from Noel quickly.”

“Not just that. I mean that too, but that’s not all.”

“Oh?” Brielle says.

“I think it was fortunate for her too,” you answer. “She’d just moved here a couple of weeks prior.”

“Where’s she from?”

“A podunk down in Michigan no one has ever heard of.”

“Is it Hell?” Brielle excitedly says. “Please tell me she’s from Hell.”

“She’s not from Hell,” you respond as you laugh. “Clipperview. Tiny town at the top of your ring finger.”

“Oh, she’s one of the ones that shows you where she’s from on her hand.”

“It’s a Michigan thing,” you reply. “Or so I’m told.”

“How did meeting family go?” Brielle asks. “I know that can be rough.”

“My family loves her. Especially Sabrina. Arn was just glad I wasn’t dating Noel anymore.”

“That’s fair on his part,” Brielle says. “What about meeting her family?”

“I haven’t,” you answer.

Brielle stares at you like you have a third eye.

“Is there a good reason?” she asks.

You shrug. ”

She doesn’t speak to them.”

“Any reason why?”

“Apparently she had a falling out with her parents when she was 17 over her sexuality,” you reply. “The rest of her family disowned her shortly after.”

“That’s shitty.”

“Yep.”

The room goes quiet. Brielle is thinking. You feel like she’s debating whether or not to ask you something, but can’t decide what to do. You eventually decide to try to pry it out of her.

“What is it?”

“How did she propose?” Brielle asks.

“She wrote me a song,” you say. “It’s this beautifully haunting solo violin piece.”

“I don’t know that I’d want a proposal song I wrote to be described as haunting,” Brielle replies.

“I loved it. It moved me to tears.”

“Well that’s fucking adorable,” Brielle says.

“I was too busy being happy and crying that I didn’t notice the brilliance of it until after,” you continue.

“Oh?”

“The first letter to the lyrics of each line spelled out ‘I love you, Alana’.”

“Stop!” Brielle shouts.

“What?”

“Is there anything about your entire relationship that isn’t storybook perfect?” she asks. “You two are apparently the annoying couple that everyone wants to punch.”

Your voice gets defensive when you answer.

“I don’t see why that’s a bad thing,” you reply. “I should love my fiancee. And vice versa.”

“But tell me something that’s not perfect. Something that you don’t see eye to eye on.”

“We have to buy two different kinds of milk on grocery trips,” you say. “She likes regular old skim milk, while I prefer almond milk.”

“That’s it?” Brielle says. “That’s your only quibble with one another?”

“No,” you reply. “We have bigger disagreements. We get through most of them, but there’s still one we haven’t worked through yet.”

You stare at Brielle. She’s waiting for you to say something, but words never come out. Brielle must have noticed the change in your demeanor, as her face goes from determined to concerned.

“You don’t have to tell me,” she says. “I mean, we literally just met. Well, kind of. You have sort of kissed me. It’s all very confusing.”

“It’s not that I don’t want to,” you reply. “I just haven’t quite gotten my head around everything yet.”

“We can wait,” she says. “Whenever you’re ready.”

You stay quiet for a bit longer. The silence compels you to speak, but Brielle talks first.

“She was really nice,” Brielle says. “Very sweet lady.”

“She found you then?” you ask.

You think Brielle mentioned it to you, but you’re unsure.

“Yeah. She was convinced you two weren’t together anymore in that session.”

“Yeah,” you say, your voice trailing off.

“I told her you’d come back,” she says.

Your face perks up and you look at Brielle.

“Why?” you reply. “It’s a simulation. One you spent part of the last two days seducing me in.”

“First of all,” Brielle says. “If I were actually trying to seduce you, I would have succeeded.”

“Very funny,” you reply.

“I am in no position to show you right now, or I would. And second, because you clearly love her.”

“Well yeah,” you reply. “Kind of comes with the territory of fiancee.”

“That experiment has a history of getting people to toss their inhibitions to the wind,” Brielle says. “And the best I got from you was a little tongue. Either you’re a saint or she’s your person.”

You sigh.

“She is,” you say. “And that’s kind of the thing we’re struggling to work through.”

“It’s a problem that you love her?” Brielle asks, confused.

“Quinn doesn’t see monogamy as a requirement in a relationship.”

“She’s cheating on you?” Brielle says.

“No no,” you reply. “She’s very faithful to me. I love her for that. She just doesn’t think a relationship needs to solely be between two people. She loves us. She loves what we are. She loves it enough to propose. But she’s also said on several occasions that if there were someone we were both to develop feelings for, that she’d love to have them in our life. To have them as part of…us.”

“Are you okay with that?” Brielle asks.

“I don’t know,” you say. “I mean, maybe? I really haven’t made a decision.”

“Is she making you make one?” Brielle asks. “Like is this a ‘your future marriage is contingent upon this point’ thing?”

“Not at all,” you reply. “She’s told me that even though that’s her ideal situation that she’d be fine with a completely monogamous relationship if she loved the person enough.”

“Which is what she’s giving you,” Brielle answers.

“Right.”

“And that’s what you’d ideally want, right?” Brielle asks.

“It’s what I’ve always thought of marriage being,” you say.

“So you’re in agreement. You want you and her. She wants that. Why even entertain the thought?”

“Because I don’t want her to have to give up a significant part of who she is just to be with me,” you reply. “It’s something I’ve been very clear on with her from the start. Just because she doesn’t have romantic feelings for someone else now doesn’t mean she won’t someday.”

“And what happens then?” Brielle asks.

You go quiet and think. It’s a question you’ve thrown around in your mind several times since you and Quinn started dating. You’re never sure of exactly how to answer it even to Quinn.

“I want to say I’ll be okay with it,” you reply. “The part of me that loves her uncontrollably and unconditionally wants to say that. But I truly don’t know. I don’t want to feel loved any less if it happens.”

“I hope that you still feel loved the same even then,” Brielle says. “I have no experience with that, but I think I’d feel like you do. And I think that’s what I’d want too.”

You close your eyes and take a deep breath in. You just want to see Quinn now.

“Does she know you’re scared?” Brielle asks.

You nod without opening your eyes.

“What does she say to that?”

“That unless I’m completely comfortable, it’ll be just us. For as long as I need.”

Brielle groans.

“What selfless act did you do in a past life to get a smoldering hot, paragon of virtue fiancee?”

“Apparently she has two names,” you say. “She’s clearly hiding something.”

“Yeah. Any guesses what?”

“I couldn’t tell you,” you say. “Maybe she’s in witness protection or something.”

“For what?” Brielle asks.

“I don’t think she could legally tell me if she was. Or at least that doesn’t seem safe.”

You see Brielle’s eyes light up.

“What?” you ask.

“What do you think she was?” she asks.

“I don’t even know that she was in it.”

“Humor me. What else do we have to do right now?”

She’s right. You think about it for a moment before deciding on an answer.

“Her old music group was a front,” you state.

“For what?” Brielle asks.

“I don’t know,” you answer. “Money laundering? Drug laundering? Laundry laundering?”

“And you think she flipped to save her own skin?”

“Yeah.”

“I think you’re wrong,” Brielle says.

“What do you think it is then?”

“I think she was a fancy businesswoman,” Brielle states.

“The kind that wears pencil skirts and hosiery with perfectly straight lines. And when she found out her bosses were extorting the poor to pad their coffers, she narced on them.”

“You have an awful noble vision of her.”

Brielle laughs.

“I’m solely going off what I know about her from you,” she says. “She seems like the kind to do the right thing.”

“I just can’t imagine what kind of business,” you say.

“Does it matter? She’s like a gender-bent Robin Hood. Someone should write that.”

“I think someone has,” you reply. “I’d read that.”

“There’s plenty of time for you to read once you get out of here,” Brielle says. “We need to get you out first. What can I tell you about to help you?”

“Why do the stats I get matter?” you ask.

“They tie into certain things you can do in the experiment,” Brielle says. “The relationship and trust stats impact who you can and can’t kill at the end.”

“So is high trust good or bad?” you wonder aloud.

“No clue,” Brielle answers. “Usually high trust means you can lock yourself out of having to choose if a specific person lives or dies. But that’s not always the case. Same goes for relationship. Usually, high values are good for helping you to save someone, but not always. I think it really depends on the person.”

“What about the other stats?” you ask.

“They’re more important throughout the experiment,” Brielle says. “Though from what I’ve heard Jeff say, they play more of a factor in sessions after the first — and more importantly second — maintenance.”

“So I haven’t even used them yet?” you ask.

“I doubt that,” she replies. “Maybe not frequently. But I really have no way of knowing that.”

“What’s a good score in these things?”

“75 has been a relationship and trust line in the past.”

“Huh,” you say.

“I’ll have to check with Jeff as soon as I can in there. Do the stats impact my ability to find those tokens?”

“They don’t seem to,” Brielle answers. “But it’s been a while since there’s been a seeker with only 3 tokens.”

“How do I know who the tokens are tied to?” you ask.

Brielle shakes her head.

“I’ve never been around for that part.”

“You didn’t get to use the tokens when you were a seeker?” you ask.

Brielle shakes her head.

“When you kill my equivalent in the experiment, you become them,” she says.

“Oh.”

You go silent.

“He was trying to kill me first,” Brielle says. “Granted, first he tried to swindle me into getting him out. Then he tried to seduce me. He had no hope with the latter option, but I might have taken him up on the bribe if he weren’t so stingy.”

“But then he tried to kill me,” she continues. “He tried to push me off the balcony in room 324. It wouldn’t have gotten him out, but it would have moved the process along to a new seeker.”

“Is that how you get rid of people?” you ask.

She nods.

“Just easier that way. Everyone’s curious that early and blindly follows the tour group outside. While you haven’t been the most inquisitive seeker I’ve seen, you were more knowledgeable than many.”

“You waved me away,” you say.

“I did,” Brielle replies. “But almost no one watches for it. That’s part of how I knew you were worth my time.”

“Would you have killed me had I not seen it?”

“No. But we would have had a long talk.”

You hear clanging outside the room. It sounds like Jeff is coming back with something loud.

“How will I know how to find you in there?” you ask.

“It loops, remember?” Brielle says. “Just choose your time wisely.”

Jeff comes back in the room, dragging a cart behind him. He stops the cart behind your head and walks around in front of you.

“You ready to go back in?” he asks.

“Is no even an option?” you retort.

“No,” Jeff replies. “But I try to be polite.”

“Before I go, I have a question for you,” you reply.

“Oh? What is it?” Jeff says.

“Not you…her.”

“Me?” Brielle asks.

“Yeah. You kept saying there are things I can’t do in there,” you say.

“Right,” Brielle replies, “so you can’t kill anyone, you can’t make people fall in love, and you can’t bring people back from the dead.”

“Are you fucking with me?” you ask.

“A little,” Brielle replies. “Clearly you can kill someone. You have to in order to get out. The not bringing people back from the dead is legit though.”

“She’s right,” Jeff says. “It’s not a pretty picture.”

“What are the actual rules?” you say exasperatedly.

“No bringing people back from the dead, you can’t kill NPCs for good, and you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

Jeff shoots Brielle a glare.

“You know that last one isn’t true,” he says. “Well, not literally, at least. You can only leave when the experiment is over.”

You sigh. You were hoping there was another way out. Apparently not.

Jeff gives you both another quick check before going back to his cart. You hear him tapping on something before your IV lines begin to shift. Before you know it, you’ve fallen back asleep.


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