You groggily open your eyes. Your head is pulsing, begging you to pull the blankets over your head to block out the sunlight hitting them. It’s quiet. But not in the same way the previous two sessions were. It’s eerily silent.
You reach for your phone, its scuffed, black case nearly sliding out of your hand. It’s Saturday, just before 11am. It’s by far your latest wakeup. You’re alone, but you recognize the room. You’re in the bedroom in the apartment you share with Quinn. As you gather your wits about you, something seems off about the sunlight. You move your head so that it’s no longer directly in a beam. The windows to the room are boarded up from the inside. Only a pair of perfectly circular holes let light through.
You climb out of bed and leave the bedroom, unsure what you’ll find. In the living room, Quinn is sitting on the couch, facing the apartment’s main door. The small gun and garrote from the violin case are on the table beside her. She twirls a knife between her fingers.
“What’s going on?” you ask.
“Sit, please,” she says hurriedly. “Just not in front of me. The chair in the corner would be best.”
You do as she says, sitting on a gliding chair in the far corner of the room.
“I need to tell you about some things,” Quinn says. “Some things I’ve hidden from you for a very long time. You can be mad at me all you need to when I’m done and when I’m sure we’re safe. But I need you just to try to understand right now. Because I may need your help.”
“I’ll listen,” you say. “Tell me whatever you need.”
“Good,” Quinn says. “First off, in the right armrest of your chair, there’s a dagger. And in the left armrest, there’s a canister of pepper spray. The switch to open both is under the front left lip of the chair.”
“I feel like you’ve reached Schrutian levels of weapon hiding and you’re not telling me until I need to know,” you say.
“Indeed,” Quinn replies. “We’ll get to the others if we have to. I’m hoping we don’t need them, as that’d mean we’re retreating. Second, my name isn’t Quinn Saberhagen. I mean, it is. But it isn’t.”
“Well that’s not confusing at all,” you reply.
“I had it changed,” Quinn replies. “My birth name is Hope Shapiro. That was my name until I was 23.”
“Why?” you ask.
“WITSEC,” she says.
“Witness protection? What did you do?”
Quinn goes quiet, taking a couple of deep breaths. She closes her eyes before speaking again.
“I used to kill people for money.”
“What? Like a hitman?” you ask.
“Kind of,” she says. “When you do it privately, that’s what they call it. When you do it under a country’s flag, it’s counterintelligence. Or at least that’s what I was told to call it. I got caught up in the wrong crowd when I was young. Wronged a few people I shouldn’t have. Had some debts I couldn’t pay. But I was really good at making people disappear. So it became a career. But by the time I was 20, I had half of the contract killers in the Midwest after me. So I flipped. I gave the feds enough info to put tens of people away for life. Then I was in their employ for three years in exchange for a fresh start.”
You remain quiet as Quinn keeps talking.
“I went to college, but it wasn’t my thing,” she says. “So they helped me get a job in the only legal skill I had. Ten years of private violin lessons came in handy for once. And that’s how we met. I took a job as a violin tutor and with Benimaru’s quartet. It’s the first time my life’s been quiet in a long time. I’d understand if you’re mad at me for not telling you sooner. But it was to keep you safe.”
“I’m not going to be mad,” you say, “so long as you lay everything out right now. What else are you hiding? Everything. I don’t care how small it is. Everything you’ve hidden from me.”
Quinn leaves her post on the couch and grabs her purse. She removes her wallet from her purse and hands it to you.
“I’ve told you my family is a bunch of bigots,” she says. “And that you haven’t met them because of that. That’s true, but there’s more to it than that.”
You pull out the picture of the two girls you saw earlier.
“I had an older sister,” Quinn says. “She died when I was fourteen.”
“I’m so sorry,” you say. “She’s been gone longer than I knew her now. Even if only by a year. I miss her though.”
You stand up from your chair and wrap your arms around Quinn. She keeps talking as she leans into your embrace.
“I almost never had any issue hiding who I was in the past,” she says. “Most of my family hated who I was. That was easy to put behind me. Keeping her hidden sucked. Every fucking day. I wanted to tell you about the woman who inspired me. Who accepted me being everything I am. Who protected me when no one else would.”
Quinn goes quiet. You feel her grip around you tighten. You stay silent, focusing on the sounds of her breathing. While she’s trying to stay calm, you hear a catch in her breath every once in a while.
“Iris,” Quinn whispers. “Iris Serena Shapiro.”
Quinn takes a deep breath. A long pause ensues before she continues on. Her words come out more forced and pained than they have to this point. You can feel the struggle in her voice as she speaks.
“She went to California with her boyfriend and some friends for spring break,” Quinn says. “She got caught — ”
Quinn pauses, sniffling.
“Caught in a riptide. There was a search for her for nearly a week. They found her about a week after the search ended. Mom and Dad were upset, but you wouldn’t totally know it. Yeah, they cried. But they spent so much of the time talking about how they knew her friends were bad for her and that something would happen.”
You stay quiet, letting Quinn continue on.
“I’d come out to her when she was home for Christmas break,” she says. “I expected her — I mean, I don’t know exactly what I expected. I just knew it wouldn’t be like with Mom and Dad. The night before she flew out, she called me. We talked for a half-hour or so. Couldn’t tell you what most of it was about. Which sucks, because you want to remember the last conversation you have with someone you love, right?”
“Right,” you say softly.
“But all I remember of that conversation,” Quinn says, “was her giving me a hard time that I wouldn’t tell her the name of the girl I had a crush on. And I wouldn’t tell her. Not until I saw her in person. That was so dumb. Why not tell her?”
“You were a teenager,” you say. “Teens do stupid things. And that wasn’t even that dumb.”
“I know. I beat myself up for it a lot though.”
Quinn breaks away from you and walks over to the fridge.
“Water?” she asks.
“You sure you don’t need something heavier for what you’re sharing?” you ask.
“Need to stay sharp in case someone comes through that door.”
You take a bottle of water from her and return to your chair. Quinn takes her place back on the couch.
“My count is sixty-three,” she says. “That I know of. I don’t want to add to it today. But I will to protect you.”
“What am I being protected from?” you ask.
“My past is always trying to catch up with me,” she says. “And it seems they found a way to find me.”
“Aren’t there better ways to handle this rather than fighting?”
“Sure,” she says. “When I know about it with enough time. Then there are mornings when I wake up being tipped off that bad shit’s about to go down. And sometimes you just have to bunker down and wait it out. Even if you get bored waiting for it to pass.”
“So you can’t run?” you ask.
“I could,” Quinn replies. “I’ve probably overstayed my welcome here anyway.”
You frown. You begin fiddling with the engagement ring on your left hand. Quinn looks away from the front door and toward you.
“No, not with you,” she says. “I mean, I could see you getting tired of what comes with me. But I’m not going anywhere without you unless you tell me to. We could always go somewhere else together.”
“Where would we go?” you ask.
“We’ve got options,” Quinn replies. “I know some people. There’s a lot of places in the south — Atlanta, Charlotte, Mobile, Knoxville. I know a guy who has a place in rural Vermont we could go to if needed. That’s not even counting the international places. I’ve got contacts from Vancouver to Marrakech, Wellington to Riga. What sounds best to you?”
“Do you really want to be running your whole life?” you ask.
“No,” Quinn answers. “Not even a little. But if we need to be on the move to stay one step ahead of my past to make you comfortable, I’ll pack tonight.”
“Can I come over there?” you ask.
Quinn nods and scoots forward on the couch. You take a seat in the spot she just vacated, putting your legs on each side of her. She puts her knife on the coffee table and leans back into your arms.
“I don’t need to go anywhere,” you say. “I’ll go wherever if it makes you more comfortable.”
“I don’t want to run,” Quinn says. “I’m tired of it.”
“Then we stay,” you reply.
Quinn turns her head and looks up at you.
“Do we need some extra help?” she asks. “I know a woman in Kentucky who makes personalities for androids. I’m sure we can get a protection one.”
You lean forward and kiss her.
“We’ll be okay,” you say. “When I’m with you, I feel a little brave. I think we can handle this.”
Quinn smiles and kisses you back.
“Yay,” she says quietly. “Thank you.”
You wrap your arms more tightly around Quinn. She pushes her body back closer to yours, removing what little space was between you. She turns on her side and rests her head on your shoulder.
“Make yourself comfortable,” you say mockingly.
“Thanks!” she replies excitedly. “I will.”
You laugh and brush a large strand of copper hair out of her face. She looks content and calm — especially for someone twirling a knife a few minutes earlier.
You’ve been engaged to Quinn for six months now. Despite that, neither of you has shown an interest in actively planning a wedding. Sure, things have been discussed passively, but the only solid plan you have is going to Europe for your honeymoon. Knowing all this about Quinn, it all starts to make sense. Sure, she shares your laissez-faire attitude about planning a big event. But she’s been in hiding for years. What if you plan a huge day and it all has to be canceled at the last minute?
One night a few months back, you’d briefly discussed eloping. It would mean your friends couldn’t come to the wedding. And neither of you really wanted to go that route. As you think it through now, perhaps it really would be the better option.
You look down and notice that Quinn has opened her eyes and appears to be alert — very alert. She notices you, pressing her finger to her lips. After another few seconds, she motions for you to head back to the chair.
You grab the pepper spray out of the chair and keep it in your hand. While you don’t feel confident using either of the weapons, at least you’ve carried pepper spray on your person in real life. That’s got to count for something.
Quinn’s staring at the door intently. You notice she’s placed the gun behind her, while the knife is pressed against the palm of her left hand. The garrote is gone from view too. Following her lead, you hide the pepper spray from sight but keep it close by.You hear footsteps outside the apartment. Whoever is out there is walking awful heavy for someone trying to sneak up on Quinn. It’s loud enough that there’s an echo to their footsteps.
Clomp-omp. Clomp-omp. Clomp-omp.
A knock at the door rings through the apartment. Quinn stays silent. You find yourself holding your breath to stay as quiet as possible yourself. A second knock rings out, this one louder, yet more timid than the first.
“Who is it?” Quinn yells.
“Pizza guy!” shouts a male voice. “I have a delivery for Quinn Saberhagen.”
His voice is quivering and cracking. He sounds young. Real young.
“I didn’t order any!” Quinn yells back.
“Please open up,” he replies. “It’s already paid for. I’m just trying to get back for my next delivery.”
“Can you leave it on the doorstep?” Quinn yells back.
“Do that then. Thank you.”
You hear a bag open, then the sound of something being sat down outside. The footsteps run away quickly. After a few moments, it’s quiet again. You stare at Quinn for what feels like an eternity. She’s listening for something. You, meanwhile, are listening for anything besides the sound of your own breathing. There’s not even the ambient hum of an air conditioner. When did Quinn turn that off?
She’s unflinching in her posture. You’re certain you haven’t seen her blink since she stopped talking to the pizza boy. If she has, she must have done it during the time you blinked. But how could she blink so much quicker than you that you couldn’t see it? In fact, the only movement you see her making is subtle. You watch as she slips the knife into a sheathe looped to her belt. She releases her hand off the of the knife’s handle and lets her arm relax at her side for a moment.
Like a flash of lightning, Quinn bolts up from her seat and has made her way to the door before you realize what’s going on. You always knew she was athletic, but this is a level of quickness you’ve never seen from her. Is it the experiment? Or is it her?
She peeks out the peephole before slowly, carefully opening the door. Instead of looking through the opening, she sneaks a glance through the door hinge, then checks around the open door. Satisfied with what she can see, Quinn kneels in the doorway in front of the pizza.
Quinn withdraws the knife from the sheath, then proceeds to carefully open the top box. She pulls the box inside, then quickly repeats the process with the two boxes beneath. After all three boxes are inside, she quickly, but quietly shuts and locks the door.
“What is it?” you ask.
“Pizza. The bottom box has a delivery note,” Quinn says.
“What does it say?”
“It says ‘Sorry rehearsal got canceled, enjoy lunch on me. Carrie.'”.
You laugh to yourself once you learn who’s behind the pizza.
“Of course it’s from Carrie,” you say. “She always knows just what to do.”
“Really?” Quinn replies. “I mean, I haven’t known her that long. And she seems nice. But why do you say that?”
“She’s just sweet.”
Quinn places the three boxes on the counter. You walk over, pepper spray in your pocket, and grab a plate for an early lunch. You decide you need to try all of the pizzas Carrie sent. Pepperoni and mushroom is fine — a staple in your house growing up, though you prefer sausage and mushroom. And while the veggie medley is fine, picking off the green olives may present a challenge.
“What in the everloving fuck is this?” Quinn asks.
“I believe it’s a belgian waffle pizza,” you say.
It appears to be a round waffle large enough to fill the pizza box, covered in vanilla and chocolate icing, a mix of fresh fruits, and copious amounts of powdered sugar.
“Darling,” Quinn says, “you know I love you. But I think I have feelings for this waffle.”
“That’s a perfectly reasonable reaction to have,” you reply.
You kiss Quinn on the cheek and take a seat at the dining room table, a piece from each pizza on your plate.
After a couple of moments, Quinn joins you. Her plate features a half slice of the veggie pizza…and three pieces from the waffle pizza.
“Quinn,” you say. “Where is your lunch?”
“It’s called brunch and rich people do it,” she replies, grinning like an idiot.
She takes a bite of the waffle pizza, spilling a pile of cherries and raspberries tumbling onto the plate below.
“Maybe it’s a knife and fork kind of pizza?” you say.
“If deep dish is any indication, the best are,” Quinn replies.
“Will you get me one?” you ask.
Quinn nods and walks over to the silverware drawer, picking up two forks and placing them in her left hand. As she goes to pick up butter knives, a quick flick of her wrist flings the forks toward the front door. You hear a guttural scream, then watch as a man falls to the ground, trying to pry the forks from his shoulder. Quinn sprints over and is standing over top of him, pinning the man to the ground.
“Who sent you?” Quinn growls.
You decide to keep your distance — a decision you immediately are grateful for as Quinn interrogates the man further.
“Who sent you?” she repeats. “Lady, I don’t know his na–AHHHHH!”
The man’s sentence bleeds into a shriek as Quinn stomps on his hand.
“Tell me what you do know then,” she says.
“I can’t!” the man pleads. “He’ll kill me. I can’t go back if he knows I said anything.”
Quinn kneels down onto the ground and grabs the man’s hand, breaking his ring finger. He lets out another shrill scream, then begins sobbing on the floor.
“What does he look like?” Quinn says. Her voice is cold and haunting.
The man tries to speak, but can’t form words. Quinn reaches down and breaks another finger on his hand. You stare at Quinn, unsure what to do. While you assumed that her past life meant she had a darker side, seeing it up close and personal was uncomfortable. Even if it was in an effort to protect you. The man’s screams turn to whimpers as she breaks another finger.
“He’s tall!” the man shouts. “Tall guy. Messy hair. Dresses nice.”
“Go on,” Quinn says.
“Said he’d pay me $5,000 I brought you back alive.”
“And how much dead?”
“He laughed and said I couldn’t do it.”
Quinn chuckles at this revelation. She lets the man’s hand go. He immediately cradles it. You think you hear him crying. Quinn leans down, getting inches from the man’s face.
“Listen,” Quinn says softly. “You get the fuck out of my apartment. And you go tell him that if he wants me alive, he’ll need to do it himself. He knows where to find me.”
Quinn lets the man up off the ground. He rolls toward the doorway, doing his best to stand while not turning his back to Quinn.
“Oh,” Quinn continues. “And tell him you owe him a refund for your services.”
The man sprints out of the apartment and off into the distance. Quinn goes over to the sink and begins washing her hands. You expect her to be obsessive about it like you see hitmen do in the movies. But she’s done in under a minute. Quinn goes back to eating, while you stand and stare at her.
You walk over to the couch and lay down, curling up on your side. You hear Quinn rise from your chair and begin walking towards you. She sits cross-legged on the floor in front of you, taking care not to touch you.
“I’m sorry you had to see that,” Quinn says. “I always felt like it was bound to happen at some point. That doesn’t mean I wanted it to.”
You stare at her. She looks to be overcome with an emotion you can’t put your finger on. Guilt? Sorrow? Regret?
“If you wanted to change your mind,” she continues, “I’d totally understand. My hope is that I’ll never need that side of me again. But it’s always there. My past is part of who I am. And for as much as I’d love to change it, I know I can’t.”
“He was going to kill us,” you say.
“No,” Quinn replies. “He was going to try. And he was not going to succeed.”
Quinn was probably right. After all, Quinn shurkiened a guy in the neck with a dinner fork. He didn’t stand a chance against her. Besides, you reasoned, even if Quinn really was an ex-hitman in the real world, there’s no guarantee that’s how she acted. You’ve never felt unsafe around her. For all you know, Project Tasman could be amplifying her worst traits to make a point.
“That’s it!” you shout excitedly.
You bolt up from the couch and run to the bedroom.
“What’s it?” Quinn shouts after you, confused.
You grab your phone and run back to the living room.
“He couldn’t have killed us!” you yell.
“Right,” Quinn states. “Because I would have killed him first. Fairly sure he was a newbie.”
“No, no, no,” you reply. “I mean he literally couldn’t have killed us. Not you, not me. It’s not how any of this works.”
Quinn stands up and comes within a few feet of you. She’s still reluctant to touch you.
“Did I scare you that bad?” Quinn asks. “Do we need to go to the hospital?”
“I’m fine,” you say. “Let me prove it to you. I need you to punch me.”
Quinn gives you an extremely confused stare.
“I’m serious,” you continue. “I promise this will make sense once you see what happens.”
Quinn rolls her eyes and gives you a light, playful punch on your left shoulder.
“Better?” she asks.
“That’s not what I meant and you know it,” you reply.
You lean your cheek out to her.
“Hit me. Right here.”
You point to your jaw, knowing full well that if you’re wrong, Quinn could legitimately knock you out.
“Alana, I don’t want to do this,” she says. “I can’t hurt you. Even if you’re asking me to.”
“Please just trust me,” you plead. “I know you think you’ll hurt me. But I need you to understand. And I can’t do that without showing you.”
Quinn looks at you, using her eyes to beg you not to make her go through with this. Your mind’s made up, so you set your feet beneath you. If you’re right, it won’t matter. If you’re wrong — you at least want a sturdy base before you hit the ground. Quinn takes a step back from you.
“I’m so sorry,” she says. “I love you.”
She draws back her right arm and throws a punch at you. You decide the best course of action to prove your point is to take the punch. You brace for the impacts, the punch landing squarely against your jaw. You feel pressure from the punch…but no pain. You stagger a bit from the force of the punch, but that’s it.
“What the hell?” Quinn asks. “How didn’t that hurt?”
“Because,” you say. “That’s the rules. I can’t get hurt.”
Quinn squares up to you.
“Go on, hit me then,” she replies.
“I don’t think it works that way,” you reply.
“You might be fit, but you can’t throw a punch to save your life,” Quinn says.
She was right. The only times you’d ever gotten in a fight, you broke your hand and threw a ton of kicks, respectively.
“I think I can still hurt you,” you reply. “If I’ve figured out the rules.”
“You keep saying rules,” Quinn asks. “What do you mean?”
Before you can answer, there’s a loud, pounding knock at the door. You sigh.
“Dammit Jeff,” you say. “Let me deal with this my own way. I’m not telling the whole story.”
You walk to the door and unlock it. The door flies open, slamming you into the wall behind it. You hit the ground hard, laying on the floor. You watch as Quinn points her gun at a tall man with messy hair dressed in a suit with coattails. You’d recognize that posture anywhere. Noel has burst into the room and in a standoff with Quinn.
“Why do you make things harder on me than they need to be?” he asks. “I’ve got people willing to pay off all my debts and set me up for life if I can get rid of you.”
“I’m not particularly easy to make disappear,” Quinn says. “Professionals couldn’t do it. You certainly can’t.”
“It’s not that I want to kill you,” he says. “This is just a way out. Once you’re gone, my debts are gone. And then the person who paid me can get who he’s really after.”
“Then why not go after them?” Quinn asks.
“Because at every turn you ruin my life,” Noel says. “This is just a bonus.”
“I ruin your life?” Quinn replies. “What happened to Miriel?”
“She was a fucking liar.”
“The courts didn’t see it that way.”
“Wait,” you say as you stand from the floor. “You mean Quinn isn’t the main target?”
“If you must know,” Noel says, “she’s not. It’s some guy named Jeff. But he’s not my problem.”
“Who the fuck is Jeff?” Quinn says.
“Don’t lie,” Noel replies. “You two have to know him.”
Thinking quickly, you decide the best plan to deescalate the situation is to tell a partial truth — just enough that Noel has info to leave, but not enough that he’ll press you more.
“I know him,” you say. “Quinn doesn’t, but I do.”
Noel turns to you, a look of surprise on his face.
“Really?” he says. “Now that I didn’t see coming.”
“What do they want with him?” you ask.
“That’s something I’m not in the business of asking.”
“And it’s also unlike you not to.”
“You do know me well,” he says. “Seems Jeff wronged a guy I met a few months back. Wouldn’t say what he did — just that Jeff made him experience horrors he’d never seen before. He said he doesn’t care if Jeff’s just a pawn. It’d appear whatever Jeff did, he made an ex-crime boss very mad. And that’s not a good thing.”
You see Quinn sneaking up on Noel, garrote at the ready.
“Jeff’s not perfect,” you say. “But I think he’s trying to make the best of a bad situation he’s been put in.”
“Maybe you could direct me to him,” Noel says. “I’m sure he’ll get the chance to make his case in person.”
“I don’t know where he is,” you say. “Haven’t seen him in a while.”
“I think you’re lying,” Noel says.
He goes to take a step toward you, but not before Quinn lunges at him. They tussle on the floor and, much to your shock, Noel holds his own. The garrote falls to the wayside, well out of the reach of both of them. As the two of them continue to fight their way back to their feet, you notice Quinn’s gun on the floor. You pick it up, shouting at the top of your voice.
Both Quinn and Noel come to a dead stop.
“Alana,” Quinn says calmly. “Dear. Take your finger off of the trigger unless you intend to use it.”
Quinn’s concern for your trigger discipline gives Noel an opening. He puts Quinn in a chokehold.
“Let her go!” you scream.
“You don’t have the guts to shoot,” Noel says. “You could hit me. But you won’t. You could hit her. I mean, you probably won’t. But you could. More likely, you’ll hit the wall or the door. Either way, I choke her out. So lower your gun.”
Noel has a point. Quinn’s body is mostly, but not totally blocking his. The only clear shot you have on him is his head — and you’ve never handled a firearm before. You could try to hit Quinn in the leg to make her drop. You could lower your gun…but you have an emergency plan too.
“Instant snow!” you scream.
You watch Noel’s lips start to move to say something, then immediately freeze as time stops around him. Within a few moments, Jeff opens the door to the apartment, taking off his shoes at the door.
“I’m a bit disappointed in you, Alana,” he says. “I thought you had a better grasp on how the rules of this world worked.”
“He’s going to kill her!” you say, gesturing at Noel’s frozen chokehold on Quinn.
“He’s not and he cannot,” Jeff replies. “Remember Quinn hitting you? Or Jeff assaulting Arn? And how no one got hurt?”
“But what about the guy Quinn fucked up a few minutes ago?” you ask. “He bled all over the carpet.”
“An NPC,” Jeff says. “Other subjects can harm simulation-generated NPCs. Remember Brielle killing the tour group? Same logic. But the subjects cannot kill each other — though you do have that power. When you so choose to use it.”
Jeff nods at your hands. You realize you’re still holding the gun.
“You could end this right now,” Jeff says. “He’s not moving. Neither is Quinn, if her past troubled you that much.”
“Tell me what he was talking about,” you say.
“What do you mean?” Jeff asks.
“He said that someone wants you and that he’s only here for Quinn.”
“Him being here for Quinn is all part of the simulation. It’s a scenario to give you context. Like everything else.”
“But what about what he said about you?” you ask. “Is that true?”
“I’m sure there’ll always be someone after me,” Jeff replies.
“Jeff,” you begin, your voice filling with frustration, “in one more session, I have to decide who I have to kill. I have to make a choice that no one should have to make. I am the one having to choose who doesn’t deserve a second chance. The least you can do is give me some fucking transparency about what’s going on.”
“There’s always someone after me,” Jeff insists. “And that’s all I can tell you.”
You turn the gun to Jeff. You know he’s hiding something from you — and that’s it’s big from the way he’s evading it.
“You need to tell me, Jeff,” you say.
“It’s not that I don’t want to tell you, Alana,” he says. “It’s that I can’t in here. And you know that.”
“I’m going to make you tell me.”
“How exactly are you going to do that?”
Jeff raises an interesting point. One you hadn’t thought of before deciding on your course of action. If this were Quinn or Noel you were going after, they’re frozen in place. But Jeff isn’t. And while you can’t be hurt by NPCs or most others — you’re unsure about Jeff. You take a quick look at the gun in your hands. Before you’ve had time to consider your options, Jeff speaks up.
“Not a good choice,” he says. “You know that whole stopping time thing? I can use it against you if I’m in danger.”
You sigh and set the gun on the table.
“I need to know,” you say. “If it can’t be now because some powers that be are listening, that’s fine. But I need to know.”
“Before you make your choice,” he says.
You start working to release Noel’s grip from around Quinn’s neck. He relents easily — being frozen in time will do that to you. Before long, you’ve separated Quinn and Noel.
“How can I get rid of him?” you ask.
Jeff assesses the situation for a moment.
“You have a few options,” he begins.
“Without killing anyone right now?” you ask.
“Then you have two options. You can call Brielle. She has a way out of this.”
“A good or a bad way out?” you ask.
“I can’t answer that,” Jeff replies. “But it is a way out. Alternatively, you could drag Noel out of here yourself. Once you get beyond the parking lot of the apartment, the loop will end. But you may miss important information.”
You dig the phone out of your pocket and stare at the lone contact in the phone. You repeatedly said that you’d use your last time seeing Brielle in the simulation at a time when you really needed her. You can’t think of a much better time. You’re tempted to tap her name and call her, but then a thought crosses your mind.
“Will whatever this way out is trap her in here?” you ask.
Jeff shakes his head.
“It will not,” he replies. “The only way left where she’d be stuck in here is if you choose to do so.”
You breathe a small sigh of relief. Even though you don’t know what’s coming, at least you’re not going to trap her in here. You tap her name and let your phone ring. It rings once. Twice. Three times. Four times. It kicks over to voicemail.
“There’s fucking voicemail in this simulation?” you ask. “You’re not convincing me this isn’t actually torture.”
“Some people don’t mind voicemail,” Jeff replies.
“And Quinn is wrong,” you reply.
You hear a knock at the door. Jeff walks over and lets Brielle in. You walk over to give her a hug, but stop when you notice the sadness on her face.
“Oh god,” you say. “What did I do?”
Noel disappears from the room, Quinn staying frozen in place.
“You made a choice,” Jeff says. “Instead of handling the problem yourself, you allowed the simulation to handle it for you.”
Brielle walks over and takes Noel’s place, putting Quinn in a chokehold. Brielle has started tearing up. She doesn’t want to hurt Quinn or you in any way, yet she’s being put in this unenviable position. Jeff stands watching, stoic as ever. Meanwhile, you’re debating your options, clawing your brain in hopes of remembering a loophole.
Something is off. You don’t know what, but you can tell something is amiss. Then…something occurs to you. It’s a risk, but you feel like you need to take one. You walk over and kiss Quinn’s still frozen forehead.
“If I’m wrong,” you say, “know that I love you.”
You grab Brielle’s hand — or at least what little of it you can reach — and begin rubbing her palm like you did in the lab.
“I have a plan,” you say. “And I want you to trust me. Can you do that?”
Brielle nods, a tear trickling down her cheek.
“Unfreeze time,” you say, staring at Jeff.
He gives you a perplexed look.
“Really?” he asks. “Why the sudden change of heart?”
“Because I think I’ve figured out a couple of things. The first is that it’s not just that they can’t hurt each other. It’s that I can control them somewhat.”
“A very interesting theory,” Jeff replies. “Explain.”
“Brielle,” you say, “take off your shoes.”
“I’m kind of busy here,” she says.
“I know,” you reply. “Try to kick them off.”
She does as you say. It takes a couple of attempts, but her shoe comes loose and leaves her foot.
“Excellent,” you say, smiling.
“I don’t follow,” Jeff says.
This is the first time you feel like you know something Jeff doesn’t. You can’t help but laugh at your fortune, though you stop quickly once you remember there’s a second part you need to test.
“I’m going to take a shot in the dark here,” you say. “And not being a scientist, I might get some of this wrong. But I think Project Tasman is a reverse Milgram experiment.” Y
ou see the corners of Jeff’s mouth perk up just a little.
“Interesting deduction,” he says. “Why do you say that?”
“I think the point to this experiment is to see how much several people can hurt one test subject,” you say. “How much emotional, physical, and psychological pain can one person go through before that subject either snaps or doesn’t feel remorse about killing someone. But what you specifically are trying to prove is that there’s another way out.”
“Before you continue, I feel the need to correct one small detail of your theory,” Jeff says. “Just so you don’t get a completely wrong impression of this experiment.”
“Is it secretly all good?” you ask.
“Then why do I want to hear it?”
“Because your premise that this is a Milgram experiment has a flaw,” Jeff replies. “For that to be the case, everyone in here except for you would have to be complicit to causing your suffering. And you already know that’s not categorically true.”
You stop to think about what he said. While everyone in here was taking a toll on your psyche in some way, you were confident that your sister was not in cahoots with Jeff. Nor that she could be even if she wanted to be.
“For that matter,” Jeff continued, “the only person you could even make an argument for having some level of blame in that regard is Arn. What with him being the reason you’re in here. But even he didn’t expect to be in here with you.”
“So Project Tasman is just designed to cause mental anguish on someone,” you say. “To take those they love, fear, and connect with the most and use them to manipulate their emotions. Like a lab rat. All to see how much I can take before I snap.”
“I wish you weren’t right,” Jeff replies. “But that is a way to look at it.”
You stare into the distance, trying to form the rest of your thoughts. You’re less sure about your theory with Jeff’s explanation, but you continue sharing it.
“I think you’re trying to prove that there should always be a reason for someone to die,” you say. “And that the reason doesn’t look the same for everyone.”
“How so?” Jeff asks.
“Unfreeze them first.”
“I can’t do that. Quinn doesn’t know anything.”
“Then can Brielle sit at least?” you ask.
Jeff nods. Brielle releases her grip around Quinn and runs over to you, hugging you close. You hold her for a few moments before motioning her to sit on the couch.
“I think you’re trying to show that even a single subject can change their mind about whether someone deserves to live or die based on context,” you say. “Arn put me in here, and I hate that he did that. He put our sister in here too. And I hate him for it. But I think he did it as a way to try to help her live. I think he’s wrong for doing it. And I don’t think it’ll work. But he’s taking a chance to save his sister’s life. Does he deserve to die for that? I wish I knew.”
You walk over and join Brielle on the couch. You lean your head on her shoulder and sigh. You feel drained. More so than any other day in here thus far. You hear Jeff walk around the couch, stopping in front of you. He hands you a white token.
“It’s an option, should you choose to take it,” he says. “You don’t have to decide now. Just know it’s there if you think it’s the right thing to do.”
You reach out and take the white token from Jeff, slipping it into your pocket.
“Thank you,” you say.
“You should not feel obligated to use it,” Jeff says. “Do what you think is right.”
“I will,” you reply. “I appreciate having the choice.”
Jeff nods and begins to make his way to the door.
“Is there any way you could unfreeze her and not have her thinking she’s, you know, fighting for her life?” you ask.
“I can do that,” Jeff says.
He exits the apartment to silence. A few moments after he departs, Quinn unfreezes. It takes her a second to get her balance, then notices you and Brielle sitting on the couch.
“Oh my god,” she says. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t notice you come in. Is this who you were telling me about?”
Brielle stands up and makes her way around the couch, giving Quinn a hug.
“Brielle Horvath. A pleasure to meet you.”
As Brielle steps away from her hug, you catch Quinn checking Brielle out.
“The pleasure’s mine, I promise,” she says.
Quinn looks over at you.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “The inside my head voice got out. I hope I didn’t cross a line.”
“It’s alright,” you say. “You can’t be faulted for liking something you see.”
Brielle smiles, but her face quickly changes. You see Brielle shoot you a look of concern. Not for what Quinn said, but out of concern for you. You know that if you were to give Quinn the relationship she wants, this is the kind of thing you could hear in your future.
“Can you give us a second, Brielle?” you ask.
She nods and takes a seat on the couch. You lead Quinn back to your bedroom and shut the door behind you. Quinn immediately begins panicking.
“I’m sorry,” she says. “It just came out. And I shouldn’t do things that make you uncomfortable. Because it’s not just about me. It’s about us. And about your boundaries and your comfort. And I just want to — ”
You cut Quinn off by taking her in your arms and kissing her. Your momentum carries the two of you into the bedroom wall. You feel Quinn smile from the pressure of you trapping her there as you kiss her. But you remember what happened the last time you got too intimate with Quinn — and you have more to say to both her and Brielle. You break the kiss, but not before tugging at her bottom lip lightly with your teeth. She moans, eyes chiding and begging you simultaneously.
“I’m not mad,” you say.
“Clearly not,” Quinn replies.
“Look. I don’t totally know if I’m going to be okay with what you want in a relationship. But for the right person — and most importantly, for you — I’ll listen.”
“Do you think she’s the right person?” Quinn asks.
“I think we should start by having lunch together,” you say. “I think we can figure things out a little bit at a time from there.”
Quinn smiles and places her hands on your cheeks.
“I love you, Alana,” she says.
“I love you too,” you say.
“I know. You love me as I am. And that’s all I’ve ever wanted.”
You lead Quinn out of the bedroom and back to the living area. Brielle is examining the dagger you’d left on the arm of the chair.
“It’s a beautiful blade,” she says. “Toledo steel?”
“It is!” Quinn says excitedly. “I got a sword shipped back from there too.”
“My abuelo had a sword from Toledo steel he’d inherited from his dad. It makes a wonderful sword.”
“I also have a tamahagane dagger I could show you sometime,” Quinn replies. “While I prefer Toledo to use, I like the look of the tamahagane a bit better.”
You stare at both Quinn and Brielle, dumbfounded at their conversation.
“You all can talk knives and tamagotchi steel,” you say. “I’m going to eat part of a giant waffle pizza.”
“Oh shit!” Quinn shouts. “My waffles!”
Quinn runs back to the kitchen and begins eating her plate of food.
“Would you like some?” you ask Brielle.
“That’d be great,” she says. “Do you have anything hard to drink?”
“We do,” Quinn replies. “I know I could use a drink.”
You offer to get everyone drinks, deciding to make three mimosas and bringing them over to the table. Quinn and Brielle are still talking about swords, daggers, and other weaponry as you walk up. It amuses you how well the two of them get along.
You know Quinn can get intense when she’s excited about something. It’s been a long time since you’ve seen her this animated about anything. Brielle is just as fired up too, her energy feeding off of Quinn’s and vice versa.
After setting the drinks down, you walk behind Quinn, wrapping your arms around her shoulders. You lean in and kiss her cheek, smiling as she presses her face into yours. You glance up and see Brielle smiling at you, joy sparkling in her eyes.
And then, like always, it hits you. 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. The voice from before cuts through the silence.
*SESSION F COMPLETE. YOU HAVE ONE SESSION REMAINING TO SOLVE THE QUANDRY*
There’s a pause. You feel nothing at all.
*INITIATING SESSION G*
You’re surrounded by the lights again. Green. Then blue. Then purple. Then black.
Everything is black.
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