You wake up to the sound of your own voice screaming. You don’t know when it started, but you can’t stop it. Your voice is half terror, half sobs. As you come to, you realize you’re back in the lab. This only drives the tears to pour harder out of your face.
“Jeff, get the fuck in here,” you hear someone scream.
It takes you a second to place Brielle’s voice. By the time you recognize who it is, she’s already shouted again. You hear the door behind you slam open and the sound of footsteps running toward you.
“Just calm her down,” Jeff says. “We can run our tests later.”
“She’s not okay!” Brielle yells. “Let me come over to her.”
“Be quiet!” Jeff snipes back.
You see three lab techs running around the room looking for things, while a fourth comes to your side.
“It’s okay, dear,” she says. “Just breathe with me. Deep breath in, in, in, in. And hold it. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. And let it out slowly. You’re doing so good.”
You follow her instructions for a few repetitions. You find yourself starting to calm down.
“I want to see Quinn,” you say. “Please?”
“Who’s Quinn?” one of the lab techs says to another. “There isn’t a Quinn here.”
“She’s coming down from the experiment,” Jeff says. “Go to the other room and monitor the system maintenance. I can handle this.”
The three lab techs filter from across the room to the door to exit the room. The tech who sat down beside you — an older woman with kind eyes — rubs your hand softly.
“It’ll be okay, dearie,” she says.
You give her a smile with all the energy you can muster, but even that barely moves your lips. The woman gets up and exits the room too, leaving you and Brielle alone with Jeff.
“Do you know where you are, Alana?” he asks.
“Yeah,” you reply. “I’m in the Project Tasman lab.”
“What’s my name?” he asks.
“What’s Quinn’s name?”
“No, I mean the name you know her by outside the experiment.”
You think for a moment. You genuinely can’t remember Quinn’s actual name. You scratch and claw at every corner of your brain, trying your best to recall it, but you’ve got nothing. For now, the best you can do is guess.
“Sadie?” you ask. “Oh god. That’s not it, is it?”
“This is normal sometimes when people come out of a particularly traumatic experience in the experiment,” Jeff says. “Your memories will come back soon.”
“How soon?” you reply.
“An hour or two at most.”
You go quiet. You feel tears welling up in your eyes as Jeff goes around, checking connections to machines and getting vital signs from you. He gives you a visual once over as well.
“If she starts really struggling, yell for me,” he says.
“Will do,” Brielle replies. “But can you scoot my bed a little closer? It’ll help me calm her down until you can get back.”
You hear Jeff fiddling with something, then the sound of wheels moving across the floor.
“I’ll have to move you back before we start,” he states.
“I know,” Brielle says.
With that Jeff leaves the room, softly closing the door behind him.
“Left hand,” Brielle states.
“What?” you reply.
“Reach out your left hand.”
You do as Brielle says. She takes hold of your hand, intertwining her fingers with yours.
“You don’t need to talk about what happened in there if you don’t want to,” she says. “I’m here if you need me though.”
“I miss her,” you mutter. “I just want to see her again.”
You feel Brielle clasp your hand tighter.
“I know,” she says. “I’m sure she misses you too.”
“I hope she’s still asleep. Like that this is just a week-long nap for her.”
“I don’t want her to know what she’s going through,” you say. “I don’t want her to wake up in some room alone. She’s on a table with all these machines monitoring her. But she doesn’t have the context I have. She doesn’t have you to talk to.”
You take a moment and look up at the ceiling. The lights overhead pierce your eyes, stinging your brain. You turn and look at Brielle, relieving the pain a bit. Her dark brown eyes are calm, but filled with concern.
“She’s awake, isn’t she?” you ask.
“Yeah,” Brielle replies. “Maybe not this second. But keeping her sedated for that long wouldn’t be safe.”
You bite at the inside of your lips, trying to do something to distract you from the tears leaking out of your eyes.
“It’s Natalie,” Brielle says. “Her name, that is.”
“Thanks,” you say. “But you said you’d call her Quinn until you figured out what was going on.”
“I’ll call her whatever helps you miss her less.”
“Quinn’s fine. That’s how you know her.”
“I can tell you something happy to help,” Brielle suggests. “Just as a break until you want to tell me more.”
“Sure,” you answer. “Your sister made Jeff wear a purple chef’s hat and speak in a French accent.”
“What else did she do?” you ask.
“She started by insisting he only refer to her as the queen of waffles, the princess of pancakes, or Saint Breakfastine,” Brielle says.
“I quite like that last one.”
“She’s creative, but she’s a ferocious boss.”
“That doesn’t shock me,” you say. “She’s always known what she’s wanted in life.”
“Is she a theater nerd?” Brielle asks. “She had fainting and crying on command down to a science.”
“She’s really good at pratfall comedy,” you say. “There was one time when I was a senior where she was getting ready for school. She had to have been 10 or so at the time. And Arn is eating those sugar Smacks or whatever they’re called.”
“I know what you mean,” Brielle says.
“Yeah. So he’s sitting at the kitchen table. He and I have to leave soon, while she’s just starting breakfast before she gets on the bus. And she sets her bowl down and asks Arn to pour her some while she gets juice. He rolls his eyes and starts to do so. But the second he does, we hear a thud, then a slightly softer thud, immediately followed by her wailing crying. She tried to take sugar smacks literally.”
“Oh no,” Brielle says.
“She faked falling on the floor,” you state, “then threw a bag of sugar in the air for it to hit her. And it did. She broke her fucking nose with a bag of sugar. All for a joke.”
You find yourself smiling at the story.
“What did she tell the two of you to convince you to come?” you ask.
“She found me first,” Brielle says. “She told me you sent her to ask for help from me and Jeff. I’m playing along for sure. But I told her Jeff might not. So when he walked up, she tries to go full-on Charlie Daniels on him, offering him her cello if he can outplay her, otherwise he has to make 250,000 waffles with her. He conceded immediately.”
“She doesn’t even play cello,” you say. “Well, my real-life sister doesn’t. She’s a guitarist. A very good one too.”
“I think Jeff just figured it was easier to go along with her than argue,” Brielle replies. “Everyone loves her.”
“Any idea what I have left?” you ask. “I know there’s two loops.”
“I’m pretty confident one is Quinn’s loop,” Brielle replies. “Unless something’s different about your path, that’ll be next.”
You give a sigh of relief. At least you’ll be around Quinn more.
“I couldn’t tell you what the last loop is,” Brielle says. “I’m never involved in it.”
“Didn’t you go through it yourself?” you ask.
Brielle shakes her head.
“I didn’t even make it to the first maintenance,” she says. “I killed my equivalent loop two.”
“Right,” you say. “Didn’t realize it was that quick.”
“I hadn’t mentioned when it happened,” she replies. “Makes my time in here as a seeker sound boring by comparison.”
“You killed a guy.”
“Everyone in here kills someone.”
“And if I kill someone before my choice at the end, that’s it,” you say.
“Yep,” Brielle replies. “No choice who stays inside. They choose for you.”
“Well. That sucks.”
Brielle nods. You hear her attempting to shift her body, but it doesn’t work with the restraints.
“You ever just want to lay on your side?” she asks.
“Not really,” you reply.
“Well, it’s how I sleep. So this is incredibly uncomfortable.”
You see that Brielle has managed to shift her hips slightly, but not enough to get on her side.
“Did you consider calling me?” Brielle asks.
“Yeah, of course,” you say.
“Why didn’t you?”
“I’m trying to save it for a time when I really need it,” you reply.
“Like when?” Brielle asks.
“Not sure. Carrie’s session wasn’t particularly scary. And Arn’s loop made me realize he’s even shittier than I thought he was. But almost nothing bad.”
“Almost?” Brielle asks.
“Well, Noel did assault Arn with a restaurant tray,” you reply.
“Because he was being a dick to my sister.”
“Ah. That checks out. I thought Arn was Sabrina’s full brother?”
“He is,” you reply. “He’s overly protective of her. Even to me. Apparently being a half-sister isn’t good enough.”
“Or he’s just an assnugget,” Brielle says.
“Fair. I’d like to think that somehow someone will get through to him one day.”
“You want me to find him?” Brielle asks. “I can be pretty persuasive.”
“Don’t maim him,” you reply.
“I can’t do anything more than superficial wounds to anyone real person in there. Didn’t you notice that when Arn got hit?”
You hadn’t really paid too much attention to Arn’s condition after Noel attacked him. But come to think of it, he did recover pretty quickly for someone who had gotten hit in the back of the head with an aluminum tray.
“If you really need me, ask,” Brielle says. “Please? I can’t stop time or shit like Jeff can. But I know that place better than literally anyone. I will think of something.”
“I will,” you reply.
You feel moving her thumb around the palm of your hand. Her eyes are closed.
“What are you doing?” you ask.
“Close your eyes,” she says.
“Just do it.”
You follow Brielle’s instructions. You wait for a few moments as she silently moves her thumb around your palm and your wrist before letting your hand go and feeling your hand with her own.
“You still hav — ”
She cuts you off and goes back to whatever she’s doing. You focus on the feeling of her fingers gliding along your own. Her skin is dry — likely from all the time here — yet her touch is intensely soft.
“I’m trying to remember as much as I can,” she says. “In case I don’t end up seeing you again after this.”
“Cruz,” you reply, using her real name, “I’ll see you again.”
“Try it yourself. It’ll help calm you.”
You loosen your grip on Brielle’s hand. Instead of using your thumb, you choose to use your index and middle fingers to trace the contours of her hand. Your fingers linger in the spaces between each finger, before tracing their lengths all the way to the tips. As your hands fall into the space between her forefinger and thumb, you trace the lines in her hand down to her wrist. You pause in the low spot where the muscles of her lower hand come together, before reversing course back up her hand, lightly touching with your fingertips. Brielle twitches her hand away.
“What?” you ask.
“It tickled,” she replies.
“I can stop.”
“No, please don’t. It’s hot.”
“Um,” you say, “still engaged here.”
“Right,” Brielle answers, “and barring Quinn being the worst person ever, you’ll still be after this. Meanwhile, if I get out of here — and that’s a big if — I go back to no friends. No family. Probably no job. Let me enjoy something that makes me feel SOMETHING positive for a few minutes.”
She looks at you. Her eyes are pleading, but she’s making no attempt to start touching your hand again. You think about your fiancee and how happy you’ll be to see her again, but know that there’s still more she wishes to have in life.
You grip Brielle’s hand, intertwining your fingers with hers.
“I don’t know what things will be like for you when you leave,” you say.
You’ve going back to lightly touching her hand as you talk, now with the pad of your thumb.
“I want things to be better for you,” you continue. “And I hope they are. If you’d like to be friends after this, I’d love that.”
“I don’t mean to sound like I’m trying to get between you and Quinn,” she says.
“I know you’re not,” you reply. “I’m just realizing how important she is to me. And being in here is making me think that if giving her the relationship she wants will make her happy…I might be open to it. Maybe. With the right person.”
“We’ll see how things play out,” she says. “I’d love to at least meet her outside of the experiment.”
You both go back to not speaking. You take turns running fingers along each other’s hand. After a bit, you feel yourself starting to doze off as you’re rubbing Brielle’s hand.
“Wake me if Jeff comes back,” you murmur.
You look over and see that she’s already asleep, a light snore coming from her mouth. Because Brielle has fallen asleep, you elect to stay awake. One on hand, you know it might be dangerous to stay awake alone with your thoughts — especially after the last loop. But you’re not about to miss the opportunity to talk to Jeff, should it arise.
For a few minutes, you regret your decision. Despite the rigid table against your back and your restraints, your general fatigue and the feeling of Brielle’s warm hand threaten to lull you to sleep. Luck works out in your favor though. Just as you start to doze off, you’re startled awake by the door shutting behind you. Jeff pulls up a chair and sits down at your side.
“She’s never this relaxed,” he says, motioning at Brielle.
“Do you move her closer to everyone?” you ask.
“She’s only asked one other time,” Jeff replies. “There was an elderly man who was a seeker once. She didn’t want him to be alone when he was awake.”
You look over at Brielle and see her sleeping, a dribble of drool leaking out of her mouth. You can imagine her being kind to anyone in here, so the story doesn’t surprise you. And yet, Jeff’s explanation indicates otherwise. You dismiss the thought when he starts talking again.
“You won’t get a choice for your order for the next two sessions,” he says. “And I want to warn you that they might be challenging for you. The last two always are.”
“I know one is Quinn’s,” you say. “What’s the second one? Brielle didn’t know.”
“It’s about you,” he says. “I really can’t tell you more than that, as it varies from person to person. But it is your session.”
You sigh. You’re not sure if a loop about you is better or worse than you were expecting. But you do have questions.
“Where’s the third token?” you ask. “I have a red one and a blue one. I still need one more.”
“I know you do,” Jeff replies. “Unfortunately, I don’t know where to tell you to look.”
“Can you tell me what color I’m missing?”
“Because you don’t know or because you can’t tell me?” you say.
“I can’t tell you,” he replies. “I know which one you haven’t found, but I don’t know when you’ll come across it.”
You furrow your brow. You’re wondering what’s so special about this chip.
“Do the colors mean something?” you say.
“What do you mean?” Jeff answers. “Do they correlate to the buttons I saw in my sister’s loop?”
“Indeed they do,” he replies. “Very perceptive of you.”
“So that means red is Noel, right?” you ask.
“It is,” Jeff replies. “Care to take any guess as to what the correlation has been? Your key, if you will?”
“I think it’s got something to do with my phone cases,” you say. “When I woke up in Noel’s loop, my case was red. So that’s why he’s the red chip.”
“Excellent deductive skills, Miss Alana,” Jeff says. “And what else have you learned as a result?”
“Well,” you state, “that would mean Arn is yellow, Carrie is white, and Brielle is blue.”
“Correct,” Jeff replies.
“But there has also been a purple case. Back in the brief time before I was with Brielle. I don’t know what that one means.”
“You would not have enough information to deduce that conclusively at this time,” Jeff replies.
“And then there was a black button in Carrie’s session too,” you say. “So I assume I’ll see that again. And then one more color, as there are two sessions left.”
You think back, criss-crossing the experiment’s paths in your brain to make sure you haven’t missed anything. You’re confident you haven’t.
“So that means I’ll have the choice to leave Noel, Brielle, or someone else inside, right?” you ask.
“That will be one of your choices, yes,” Jeff says.
“I think I’ve figured it out then,” you reply.
“Oh?” he answers. “What have you figured out?”
“I think Carrie is the last token,” you say.
“What’s your reasoning?” Jeff asks.
“Because there’s a reason for all of them to be in here. Noel’s a scumbag, Brielle’s been in here for forever, and you’re using Carrie as a test.”
“By that logic,” Jeff replies, “shouldn’t Arn be the last token? After all, he’s committed a very clear crime. And that’s to say nothing of your fiancee who has clearly hidden something from you.”
You sigh. He’s right. Even if your sister is the final token, there has to be more to it.
“Can I just get it over with?” you ask. “Put me in there, let me deal with whatever horrors you have queued up for me so I can be done with it.”
“Maintenance is over half done,” Jeff responds. “But I need you to be prepared for when you go in there.”
“How so?” you ask. “By the time the next two sessions are done, there’s a chance you won’t have a full choice of who to kill and who to save.”
“What do you mean?” you ask.
“Your stats have skewed your experience in some ways,” Jeff replies. “Put it this way. There is one person in there who you will be given a direct chance to kill in one of the next two sessions. If you do not take that chance, you will be locked out of choosing them for good.”
“Is that a good or bad thing?” you ask. “In this instance, you’d likely currently view it as good. You may not after your next two sessions.”
“Can you tell me my stats?” you say.
“Yes, of course,” he says. “Your intellect is 34, your motivation is 30, and your charm is 25. At this time, intellect and motivation have a maximum possible score of 59, while charm has a maximum of 60.”
“And my other stats?” you ask.
“Of course,” Jeff says. “With Brielle, you have 50 trust and 80 relationship. With Quinn, 55 trust and 100 relationship. With Arn, 5 trust and 50 relationship. With Carrie, 20 trust, 75 relationship. And with Noel, 15 relationship.”
You chuckle to yourself a little.
“What’s so funny?” Jeff asks.
“After all that, I have a better relationship with a stranger than my sister,” you say.
“You also spent the better part of the first two sessions skirt-chasing. The sessions are designed to be weighted pretty evenly.”
“But it got me info I wouldn’t have otherwise had prior to Carrie’s session,” you say.
“Not true,” Jeff states. “Had you not gone out of sequence, you would have had Arn’s session before Carrie’s. You would have learned Carrie’s identity then.”
“And I would have had Arn right there in full anger,” you say. “That would have ended very poorly for Arn.”
“That is certainly a possibility,” Jeff replies. “Perhaps it’s for the best that you didn’t follow the script.”
Brielle starts to stir beside you.
“Have you decided how you’ll use her last visit in there?” Jeff asks.
“There’s got to be a time where she’ll be useful to me,” you say. “I’ve just got to find it.”
You look over at Brielle and see her eyes start to open.
“Shall I let the two of you have a little bit of time together before you go back in?” he asks. “I can finish my checks in a bit.”
“If you wouldn’t mind,” you say.
Jeff nods and exits the room, leaving you alone with Brielle.
“Was I out long?” she asks.
“Half hour or so,” you say. “I thought about sleeping, but decided against it.”
“You should have,” she says. “A nap is nice.”
You notice Brielle absentmindedly rubbing your hand again, much as she’d done before she fell asleep.
“Have you thought about what I said before?” she asks.
“Which thing?” you reply. “That if you’re planning to keep me in there, you should just choose to kill me instead.”
You haven’t thought about it. It’s been the furthest thing from your mind, partly intentionally.
“No,” you admit. “Because I’m not planning on keeping you in there.”
“What if you’re stuck keeping me in?” she asks. “What will you do then?”
“I won’t get stuck like that.”
“You don’t know that.”
She’s right. You don’t know. From everything you’ve been led to believe to this point, you believe you have to choose your victim before you can choose who is staying in. You could get stuck with keeping Brielle in there and not know it until it’s too late.
“Can you promise that if you think there’s even a slight chance you won’t get a choice about keeping me in that you make sure I get out?” Brielle says. “Please?”
“I can’t know how they’ll do it,” you say. “Do you have a plan?”
“I might,” you say.
“Who are you planning on keeping in there?” Brielle asks.
“Either Noel or whoever the other token is for.”
“Then who are you planning on taking out?”
“Arn,” you answer quickly.
Brielle seems taken back by the speed with which you answered.
“What?” you ask.
“I mean, he’s an asshole,” Brielle says. “But does he deserve to die? Couldn’t this be a chance for him to change his ways.”
“He’s keeping my sister alive when she can’t do anything,” you say.
“And so are you by choosing to kill him,” Brielle says.
“No I’m not! If he’s gone, then I can decide when it’s okay to let her go.”
“Sounds to me like you just want what he has.”
You’re shocked at Brielle’s accusation.
“I know what’s best for her,” you say.
“I’m sure Arn thinks he does too,” Brielle replies.
“By making her suffer!”
“And the way you’re acting, it sounds like you want her to die.”
“I don’t want her to suffer!” you shout.
“Then why kill Arn?” Brielle asks. “Why not give him the chance to do what you think is right when you two get out. Doesn’t he think this will keep her alive?”
“But is living in here any way to live?” you ask.
Brielle stares through you. Her eyes are cold, the happiness you’ve seen from her when you’re around her gone.
“Five hundred and ninety-six,” she says dryly. “That’s what next loop will be.”
“Brielle, I’m sorry,” you say.
“Would you be willing to let your sister stay in here another session if it meant she came out of her coma?” Brielle asks. “If it means she eventually gets back to the normal girl you know her as.”
You think about it for a moment before replying.
“Maybe,” you say sheepishly.
“Even knowing all you do?” she asks. “Even knowing why this fucked up program exists. Knowing all that — you’d let her stay here? What’s the line then? Cause you’re already cracking after five days. And while she may not realize she’s in there now, there’s no guarantee she won’t in future loops. There’s no guarantee someone else won’t kill her. If you really want to be in control for her, you either need to make sure both your brother and your sister get out — or you need to kill her yourself.”
Your mind comes to a halt. You don’t know how to respond to her.
“There’s a chance she could get better,” you eventually blurt out.
“How sure are you?” Brielle asks.
“I’m not. Not at all.”
“Look. I’m not telling you this is what you need to do. I’m just saying to think about why you’re making the decisions you are.”
“I want to change my answer,” you say.
“Really that quick?” Brielle says. “Is this a game to you?”
“No! It’s just that you make important points I hadn’t thought about.”
“Then what’s your answer?”
“I don’t know,” you say. “I panicked. I made a choice when I was put on the spot because I felt like I had to.”
“Are you planning to do that at the end?” Brielle asks.
“No, of course not.”
“Then why do it with me?”
“Because I thought I could talk this through with you,” you reply. “And yeah, I didn’t handle it the best. I made it sound like this was just a simple choice because I freaked out and just chose. But I need this thing that doesn’t make sense to make some sense.”
“None of this makes sense,” Brielle says, her voice now quiet. “Even being here as long as I have. None of it will ever make sense.”
You realize that in all of her frustration, Brielle’s hand has never left yours. Not that she could move far — but it hasn’t moved.
“I’m sorry,” you say. “I know that it might not mean much. And I know that you’ve been through far worse than I have. You’re just trying to help.”
“Yeah,” she replies. “I am. Some of it is for selfish reasons. I wouldn’t be helping you if I didn’t think you could help me get out of here. And I think your heart is in the right place even if you don’t think before you talk sometimes.”
“Okay, I deserved that,” you say.
“You did,” she says. “But you don’t deserve this. Nor does your sister. Frankly, I don’t think I do either. No one does. Not even Noel. This experiment strips away so much of what it means to be human — so much progress that society has made. And for what? For some fat cats to feel like they aren’t psychologically overwhelming their employees when they carry out some fucked up form of population control? None of this is worth it.”
“But I have to choose,” you mumble.
“I know,” Brielle replies. “Just — just don’t be impulsive. I was. And look where it got me.”
You look over at Brielle for the first time in what feels like hours. She gives you a slight smile.
“If I do see you on the outside,” Brielle says, “we can have a drink to forget about this. Or we don’t have to see each other again. Whatever helps you get past this.”
“Lots of therapy,” you say. “And in the absence of that, someone to talk to.”
You both go quiet, staring at each other for a few minutes. You’re not sure when Jeff’s coming back. You do know, however, this is the last time you’ll get to see her before you have to make your choice.
“Thanks for being there for me in there,” you say. “And out here too. But especially in there. I don’t know what I’d do if you weren’t there to help me figure things out.”
“You’re welcome,” Brielle replies. “I admit I was only doing it for myself at first. But that changed.”
“The why isn’t important,” you say. “The fact that you were there is.”
You hear the sound of the door unlocking behind you.
“Time to go back?” Brielle says.
“I’m afraid so, Miss Brielle,” you hear Jeff say.
You feel her give your hand a final squeeze as Jeff starts to move her bed away.
“See you in there,” she says.
“That’s the plan,” you reply.
Jeff makes his way around the room, checking instruments and machines. 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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