TRIGGER WARNING: The following chapter contains discussion of the potential suicide of the main character of this story. Since this story is written in a first-person perspective, I want to call this out in this chapter in addition to the trigger warnings at the beginning of the story.
You groggily open your eyes. You’re not laying down. Instead, you’re seated in a slatted wooden chair, much like the ones you sat on when visiting your grandmother as a child. The room is much colder than you’ve experienced, even though the floor is warm. In your hand, you notice your phone. Its scuffed, purple case looks much worse for wear. You push the power button to check the time, but it doesn’t work. Holding it down does nothing either. Must be dead, you reason. The room you’re in is poorly lit, but slowly growing brighter. It’s a decent sized room — perhaps 20 feet by 15 feet. It’s only bright enough to see the side of the room you’re on well. But you think you see a second chair across the room.
You go to stand up, but your body doesn’t cooperate. You try a couple more times, all with the same lack of results. You don’t see anything holding your body in place. There are no straps like back in the lab. You hear a voice call out from the far side of the room.
“Good morning,” it says.
It’s the same female voice from the announcement at the end of each loop.
“A pleasure to see you again.”
“Again?” you ask. “I can’t see you to know who you are.”
“I assure you we’ve met,” she replies.
The light continues to get brighter. You can finally make out the form of the person across the room. She’s familiar. Tall. Strawberry blonde. Yet you can’t recall where you’ve seen her before.
“Not everyone gets to this stage of the experiment,” she says. “I must commend you for your restraint. It’s hard not to take a life when people are at their worst.”
“Is it, though?” you ask.
“Of course,” she says. “The worst doesn’t mean someone being unkind to you. When I say peoples’ worst, I mean threatening the lives of those you love. Hating people for who they are. Abuse. Violence. Cruelty. A bad word here or there is not the same as being a fundamentally hateful person.”
As she continues to speak, it hits you where you’ve seen this woman before. It’s Mel. Carrie’s roommate from her session.
“Where’s Carrie?” you ask.
“She’s not part of this sesion,” Mel replies. “But I assure you she’s safe. As part of the project, I can personally attest to that. And after all, someone needs to run a session about you.”
“So this is my loop?” you reply.
“It is,” Mel says.
“Why do I need a loop about me? I already know I haven’t done things as bad as some of the others in here. I know my own secrets without having them revealed to me.”
“That’s true,” Mel answers. “We’ve found over the course of running this experiment that it’s most helpful for seekers to take a session to recalibrate before they have to make their final decision. Both for clarity of mind and of heart.”
“That’s flowery language when all boils down to me choosing who I have to kill,” you say.
The lights have stopped getting brighter. The room is blindingly bright. Mel is seated in a wooden chair of her own. She’s holding something, but you’re too far away to see what.
“You’re not wrong,” Mel says. “And I wish it were not the case. But I assure you that it’s all for the greater good.”
“The greater good?” you reply. “Is killing someone ever for the greater good?”
“Is it?” Mel asks back to you. “Because while I do believe the experiment itself does have a positive impact on society, I believe that your question has merit in being debated.”
She glances down at whatever she’s holding and stares for a few moments.
“Would you like to stand or walk around?” Mel asks. “We keep seekers in the chair initially until we’re sure they’re settled. But you seem to be fine enough.”
“Yes, please.” you reply.
“You can do so then,” Mel answers.
You wiggle your legs and feet, confirming that you’ve been freed from the invisible restraints that were holding you down. Before you can move, Mel continues talking.
“You have a choice to make soon,” she says. “At the end of this session, you’ll go back to the lab. And there, you must choose who will die: Arn, Carrie, Brielle, or Noel. There is another choice, but we’ll talk about that later.”
“It’s Quinn,” you say. “No need to bury the lede here.”
“Actually, it’s not,” Mel says. “As you’re aware, you’ve been gaining relationship and trust stats throughout the experiment. And based off those stats, you no longer have the option to choose Quinn. She will live.”
A wave of relief rushes over you. You don’t know when you start crying, but by the time you realize it’s happening, you feel multiple tears hitting your chest just above your shirt collar.
“Thank god,” you spit out between sobs. “Oh thank god.”
After you take a moment to compose yourself, Mel continues on.
“You’ll also be presented with the opportunity to keep someone in here. And depending on who you choose to kill, your options for that will change.”
“Red is Noel, blue is Brielle, and white is Carrie,” you say.
“You’re correct,” replies Mel. “Before you make your choice, I think it’s best that we talk about all of the other subjects in here. I suggest we start with the only one you know is safe, Quinn.”
“How did I manage to keep her safe?” you ask. “I get that I treated her well when I could. But I did the same to Carrie and Brielle and they’re not safe.”
“As you learned before,” Mel begins, “the stats for a person don’t solely line up to their outcomes. In Quinn’s case specifically, there were two things you needed to do to save her. You needed to have a good relationship with her first. But, more importantly, you needed to avoid having a good relationship with Noel.”
“Well, that’s easy,” you say. “Fuck him.”
“It’s not exactly that simple though,” Mel replies. “The bar for a good relationship with Noel was lower than nearly anyone else in the experiment. You had to actively avoid him not to hit it.”
It dawns on you that you had, in fact, gone out of your way to actively avoid Noel. During his loop, it’s almost as if you were a ship being captained by a crew steering you directly to Brielle. Not that you minded. Noel pissed you off.
“Do I need to worry about Quinn back in the lab while I’m in here?” you ask.
“No,” Mel says. “She’s being brought out of treatment while you’re in this session. We’ll debrief her at that point. She’ll wait for your decision from there.”
At least she’s out. Better than can be said about anyone else. But it’s a step in the right direction.
“Why wasn’t it an option for her to stay in here?” you ask.
“Aside from your choices, you mean?” Mel asks.
“She’s too valuable of an asset. If the government were to ever need her, having her in here would prevent that.”
“Then why even give me the option to kill her?” you wonder aloud. “If she’s so valuable and all.”
“It was a calculated risk,” Mel replies. “It’s very rare that seekers kill their domestic partners in Project Tasman, regardless of their transgressions. But now that we’ve gotten the easy stuff out of the way, let’s talk about your choices.”
You go quiet. You recall your discussion with Brielle and how poorly your snap answers went over with her. You can’t imagine a rushed decision going over any better with Mel. You at least had the benefit of the doubt when talking to Brielle. But you know nothing about how Mel is going to react.
“You can take a moment if you need to,” Mel says.
You shake your head. If nothing else, you want this part of the process over with.
“Very well,” she says. “Let’s begin with Noel.”
“There’s not a ton about his past I don’t know,” you say. “He hit me. He repeatedly belittled me and made me feel like shit. He made me feel like it was my fault. He’s a scumbag.”
“Yes,” Mel says. “All very true. But it’s not the whole story.”
“So he was nice to my little sister?” you reply, frustrated. “Doesn’t mean he wouldn’t have changed as she saw him for what he was.”
“Not what I meant,” Mel replies. “Though you’re certainly right about the fact that his patterns of behavior were troublesome. No, I mean there’s more after your time with him you don’t know.”
“Is this something to do with the girl from the restaurant?” you say. “I think her name was Miriel.”
“It was,” Mel says. “And it is. How long have you and and your ex been split for?”
“Just over three years.”
“And have you heard from him in that time?” Mel asks.
“Just once,” you say. “Well. I’ve heard from my ex, Jon, once in that time. The real Noel is just a quiet violinist.”
“I know what you mean,” Mel replies. “All the name changes are very confusing. It’s frankly a design flaw we would change if we started the project over. But alas, here we are.”
You chuckle at Mel’s admission that Project Tasman isn’t perfect. It’s refreshing to hear someone other than Jeff admit the project wasn’t all they hoped it’d be.
“He called me the night he found out Quinn and I were dating,” you say. “He went on this long rant about how he was too much of a guy for me that I had to resort to dating women.”
For the first time in the session, Mel’s expression stops being neutral, as she cringes at your statement.
“Well that’s classy,” she says.
“I told him to get fucked by a razorblade dildo,” you reply.
“I’m sorry to report he did not do that,” Mel says. “And the reason it was so easy for him to end up in here in the first place was because he was in jail. And has been for a little over a year now.”
“What’d he do?” you ask.
“He hit his wife, Miriel, with a car,” Mel says. “She was trying to run from him and that’s how he chased her. She’s alive, but has been trying to relearn to walk ever since.”
You feel a bit of vomit try to come up your throat. You didn’t even think that was possible in here.
“Fuck,” you say after regaining your composure.
“40 years for attempted murder,” Mel says.
“Is he eligible to get out early?” you ask.
“He’s not,” Mel replies.
“His time in Project Tasman cannot change his sentence either. He’s lucky he didn’t get a life sentence.”
“Does he actually know about Arn?” you ask.
“No,” Mel replies. “That was for the convenience of the simulation. If we needed someone skeezy to know or do something in your sessions, he was the easiest fit. We had originally planned to split things pretty evenly between him and Brielle. But then you got close with her, which threw those plans out the window.”
“So why keep him in here at all then?” you ask.
“Because he was needed for your experiment,” Mel says. “He has wronged you more than anyone else in here — at least directly.”
“Isn’t the fact that he’s in prison enough?” you reply. “I mean, fuck him. But the justice system actually did something for once. It took believing a victim that wasn’t me. But he got what’s coming to him.”
“Is it enough though?” Mel asks. “He tried to kill his wife with a vehicle. And sure, that’s the crime he got tried and sentenced for. But you can’t really believe you and Miriel were the only ones. Right?”
You think for a second. Mel’s right. You had thought about the fact that you weren’t his only victim. But you had hoped to be wrong. Not for his sake, mind you. But for the sake of others.
“Does it hurt anymore?” Mel asks. “The scar.”
You look down and see the top of your scar peeking just above the collar of your t-shirt.
“No,” you say. “It hasn’t for a while now.”
“I didn’t mean physically,” Mel replies. “Does it hurt to look at it?”
You take a deep breath and pace around the room.
“It used to,” you say. “Brushing my hair was the worst. I used to love getting out of the shower and brushing my hair in front of the mirror. I’d stop and break into song. I loved the whole hairbrush as a microphone cliche. But I couldn’t. Not for a long time. I’m not just going to go throw on a shirt with my wet hair just to sing. I could. But that was my time. I could just be me. And it was great.
“And then the mirror would defog,” you continue. “And I’d see it. And I’d think about him. Not even what happened to cause the scar — but the fact that everything he’d done to me mentally could be seen now.”
“Does he deserve more than prison for that?” Mel asks. “For making you hurt and having it go unpunished? Does he deserve to die?”
You’re quiet again, considering her point.
“And what about your brother?” Mel asks. “He betrayed you. He put you in here.”
“He put me in here as a way to try to save Sabrina,” you reply.
“And you think that’s okay?”
“Not at all,” you reply. “I might kill him myself once we’re out of here.”
“Do remember that killing someone outside the confines of Project Tasman is still murder,” Mel replies.
“How did this end up happening?” you ask. “Did he come to you? Was getting Sabrina in here a request?”
“I wasn’t personally involved,” Mel replies, “but I can tell you what I know. Sabrina suffered a traumatic brain injury as a result of her accident. When the doctors told Arn she might not make it, he went to his boss to take time off.”
“And since his firm is owned by the same company as Project Tasman, he got sent your way,” you interject.
“That’s what I have to assume,” Mel replies. “Though I can’t speak to that.”
“Why take it then?” you ask. “Weren’t there other options?”
“I genuinely don’t know,” Mel says. “I would guess he’d take other, cleaner options if there were any available.”
“Is what Noel said true?” you ask. “Is Arn really embezzling money?”
“That’s the understanding we’re under,” Mel replies. “We wouldn’t have made the simulation depict him that way were he not.”
“That doesn’t seem like a certain statement,” you reply.
“In my experience working with Project Tasman,” Mel says, “it is difficult to work out what is certain and what is not. As much as I’d like to say otherwise. We have to work with the information we are given and the facts we can find for ourselves. And where the two realities don’t line up, we do the best we can.”
“So he could be innocent?” you ask.
“He could,” replies Mel. “He could also be guilty of much more than was shared. We chose a middle ground of what we know for Arn.”
“Why can’t Arn stay in Project Tasman?” you ask. “There were tokens for everyone but him and Quinn. And I know I managed to eliminate Quinn being a factor in the endings statistically.”
“While Quinn is a valuable asset, we chose not to let Arn be able to stay here because of the uncertainty around what we do and don’t know about his transgressions,” Mel answers. “He did, however, wrong you directly. And what you need to decide is whether or not that action outweighs the value of his life.”
“Shall we talk about your sister next?” Mel states.
“I mean,” you say. “I’d rather we not, if I’m being honest.”
“I know. I’ve been with her most of this experiment. She’s a sweet girl.”
“What’s the long-term impact of her being in Project Tasman?” you ask.
Mel shifts her posture in the chair, bringing both of her legs off the ground and sitting in the chair cross-legged. It’s the first time she hasn’t answered immediately.
“I don’t know that there’s a particularly simple — or clear — answer to your question,” Mel says. “There’s a lot we don’t know at this point.”
“What’s the goal then?” you ask. “The best-case scenario.”
“The best case is that Project Tasman acts as a sort of brain therapy for Sabrina,” Mel answers. “There’s a reason your interactions with her are fanciful and light-hearted as a whole. We don’t want to introduce additional trauma.”
“But that’s the kind of person she is,” you answer. “Sabrina is peppy, quick-witted, and bright. I mean, she’s going to go to college for physics and music theory. Who does that?”
“Her personality has a chance to shine through as Carrie,” Mel replies. “After all, it is her brain controlling how she acts.”
“Is that why she could still play guitar?” you inquire.
“What’s the worst-case scenario?” you ask. “I mean…worst case directly related to the project. I know the actual worst case.”
“For as much as we can control,” Mel replies, “we can’t control everything. Your sister is a bit of a test. The hope is that Project Tasman can be used as therapy. She’ll never be a seeker, she’ll never be in Brielle’s role, and she can’t be killed, aside from by you. That said, we don’t know what kind of an impact re-living the same week will have on the human brain long-term. We have some initial thoughts, but they range from inconclusive to not promising.”
“From Brielle?” you ask.
“She is one source of knowledge we have,” Mel replies. “Brielle isn’t in the exact same situation as your sister. But I will say that Brielle’s psychological recovery once leaving will be a long road.”
“Will Sabrina have the same problem?” you ask.
“We don’t know,” Mel says. “She’s the first person we’ve tried in this context and this role.”
“If she’s in here too long, will she become Carrie?” you ask. “Or will she think she’s Carrie.”
“That’s unlikely, but not impossible,” Mel replies. “Most participants have not had such problems. That said, if you combine the fact that she’s in a coma with the reality that she has the possibility of being in here an extended time while recovering — maybe even longer than Brielle — I can’t rule it out.”
“Let’s say she stays in here?” you ask. “What’s her quality of life going to be like?”
“That’s a great unknown at this point,” Mel replies. “She could recover and be out of here in a few weeks. In that case, good after therapy. If she’s in here an extended amount of time, the prospects of her returning to the life she had previously drop drastically.”
“Assuming she survives,” you say.
“Assuming she survives.”
You walk back over and lean against the chair. The thought that Sabrina might not make it has been in the back of your head since her crash. And while you’ve tried to put it out of your head to this point, you can’t now.
“What are her odds of making it?” you ask.
“Just surviving?” Mel replies.
“Fifty-fifty. Though that’s better than I would have said at the start of the week.”
“And what about recovering quickly?”
Mel takes a deep breath in.
“It’s not good, Alana,” she says. “I want to be wrong. I really hope I am. But I wouldn’t count on it.”
“Give me a percentage,” you say.
“Less than five percent.”
You sit down behind the chair, bringing your body to rest on the floor where you had just stood. Everything in your brain tells you to cry. To scream. To lash out. To mourn. But you feel frozen, both physically and emotionally.
“Do you need some time?” Mel asks. “I’m willing to wait to continue until you’ve regained your composure.”
“Why did this have to happen to her?” you ask aloud, unsure who or what the question is aimed at.
“I don’t know,” Mel answers. “Life isn’t fair sometimes. I’m sorry you’re going through this.”
After a couple of minutes of silence, you drag yourself to your feet, sitting in the chair.
“What’s your role in here?” you ask. “I’ve barely seen you the whole time.”
“Normally, I fill the role Jeff has,” Mel says. “Or it’s my more common role at least. There’s always a guide role like he fills. There is usually a second person — typically me or Jeff — who is more of a background presence in the experiment. Just in case things go awry.”
Mel’s response triggers a thought.
“Would the second person have been Benimaru had you not been doing…whatever it is you’re doing?” you ask.
“That’s right,” Mel says. “However, for this specific experiment, I’m dedicated to taking care of your sister. She’s the only participant you would not have had a chance to kill early. Not that you would have wanted to from the sounds of things.”
You can’t think of anything further to ask Mel about your sister. After a few moments, she continues on.
“And now we come to the first stranger you met in here,” Mel says. “Our dear Brielle.”
“She’s been in here for so long,” you say. “She has. But she also hasn’t told you the whole story.”
“The whole story?” you ask. “The story sounds like she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. She got caught up in a sweep looking for people perceived to be worse than her.”
“Yes,” Mel replies. “The way she ended up here the first time was shameful. Not that I have any control over that. But it does frustrate me to see when that happens.”
“Wait,” you say. “The first time?”
“That’s what I was referring to,” Mel answers. “This is her second time in Project Tasman.”
“What happened?” you ask. “Why would that even happen?”
“Brielle’s first time in here lasted less than 2 hours,” Mel begins. “After her roommate, Maddie, died, Brielle was brought in as a seeker. She was identified by her grief counselor as an ideal candidate for the project.”
“That’s fucked up,” you state.
“It was,” Mel responds. “I was happy to see when we stopped that way of bringing in new seekers. She was so overwhelmed with grief and rage that she just began a rampage in the experiment. Within a few minutes, she’d killed one of her potential choices. And she was let go. She knew about the experiment, but barely understood what was going on, other than she had killed someone. The thing she was most shocked by was that she hadn’t actually killed tens of people like she thought she had. Just one. I’d never seen someone so disappointed at what they’d done.”
“That they thought they’d killed so many people?” you ask.
“No,” Mel replies. “She was upset that the reality of what had happened didn’t match what she’d experienced. It really set her off. She was in and out of trouble with the law for a while. Then came what she likely told you. Only it wasn’t weeks after Maddie died. It was nearly four years. That kicked off her second stay. When we found out she’d been arrested, Jeff begged and pleaded for her to be brought back here. He was convinced he could help her get back to normal. But it’s been a grand failure.”
“Is she serious?” you ask. “About wanting me to kill her instead of the chance of her staying in there.”
“Probably,” Mel answers. “I can never know for sure with her.. She’s going to need a lot of help when she leaves here.”
“Then why keep her here at all?” you reply. “Isn’t what you’re doing inhumane?”
“We have to maintain the integrity of the experiment,” Mel answers.
“To what end?” you shout.
“She has to get out within the confines of the experiment,” Mel says.
“You’re breaking her will!” you scream. “You’re destroying what’s left of her humanity. Hasn’t she been through enough?”
“If you truly feel that way, find a way to get her out,” Mel retorts. “Don’t keep her in here like everyone else has. She’s just a stranger to everyone else. You included. Will you be different? Will you give up someone you know for a stranger?
“So how do I get her out then?” you ask.
“Simple,” Mel replies. “Don’t kill her. And don’t choose to keep her in.”
“I can manage not killing her. How do I know I won’t be stuck with her as my only choice to stay?”
“It is a possibility that could happen,” Mel says. “The only way to guarantee that you won’t be given the choice for her to stay is to kill her.”
“So it’s a mercy killing?” you ask. “That’s my only choice?”
“It’s the only way to guarantee she doesn’t suffer,” Mel says. “Choosing to kill your sister would serve the same purpose. And I think you know that.”
You nod. You’ve been trying to avoid the thought, but it’s true.
“Can I know who I have to choose between keeping if I kill X person?” you ask.
“You may not,” Mel says.
“Not at all?”
“I don’t see why it should matter. You’re fundamentally choosing to alter every life involved.”
“Because not everyone in here has done wrong,” you say. “My sister is innocent. Quinn turned her life around. You’re not even sure of Arn’s guilt. You’ve taken advantage of Brielle.”
“You’re mischaracterizing what we’ve done for her,” Mel replies. “We’ve given her a second chance.”
“You’ve made her a lab rat!” you shout. “What the fuck has she done so much worse than Noel? Has she killed anyone?”
“No,” Mel replies.
“Has she groped her partner when they were sleeping and after they said no?”
“Not to our knowledge?”
“Did she try to hit her wife with a fucking car?”
“I get your point,” Mel answers.
“Do you?” you ask. “Because it sure sounds like you’re treating everyone’s transgressions equally when their power and their crimes aren’t.And the easy way out would be to give up a stranger for someone I love. But she doesn’t deserve this. No more than anyone else does.”
“There is another option,” Mel says. “One we have yet to discuss.”
You see her reach into the pocket of the jacket hanging off the back of her chair. She pulls something out, but you can’t tell what. From what you can see, it looks to be the same item she was holding when you first noticed her in the room.
“Come over here,” she says.
You get up from the chair and slowly walk across the room to her. The light feels hotter and brighter than it has to this point. You stop a few feet in front of her. Mel holds out a small box. You recognize it as the same one that Jeff gave to you at the end of Carrie’s loop. Mel hands the box to you. You take it carefully, unsure what’s inside.
“You’ve managed to avoid any potential need for this prior to now,” Mel says. “But I do want to discuss a fifth option with you. It’s not one I’d recommend. Ever. But it is a choice.”
You open the lid of the box slowly. Inside you find a vial, lid tightly screwed on, with a clear liquid inside.
“What is it?” you ask.
“An option that you should not choose unless you’re certain there’s no better choice,” says Mel. “When Project Tasman was created,” Mel begins, “we came to a realization very quickly. The mental toll that taking the life of another person takes on someone can be overwhelming. This fact is compounded when the life they’re taking is someone they know, or even if the choice is given for it to be an acquaintance. Normally, we address this with therapy after.”
“However, in the most extreme cases, the seeker has trouble making a choice,” Mel continues. “Often, this is because they’re torn between who to save and who deserves to live or die. In other cases,” she says, “such as yours, this becomes more of a matter of ethics. Who deserves to die? Who deserves to suffer? Who should live? These are not questions to be taken lightly. So you have a choice. If you take the poison, the only choice you’ll need to make is who stays here. And you’ll have all of the options from the tokens available. Let me be very, very clear. I do not think this is the choice you should take. I think you are strong enough to work this out and to make the hard choice. But I do need to tell you it’s an option.”
You stare at the open box with the vial inside. The thought had never crossed your mind. Ever. But in this moment, realizing it’s a guaranteed way to save whoever you want, you spend a few seconds thinking it over. You shut the box and hand it back to Mel.
“I won’t,” you say. “I think what you’re doing in here is fucked. I think you should tell me who has to stay with each choice before I choose who to kill. But above all, I choose to help me. Because if I’m gone, I can’t help anyone else.”
Mel takes the box back from you and puts it in her jacket.
“I’m glad you made that choice easy. Do you have any final questions before we head back to the lab?”
“I’m going to ask again,” you say, “as I’ll be mad at myself if I don’t. Who stays with each person I choose to kill? I don’t know if I can let Brielle — or Sabrina — willingly stay in here.”
Mel ponders your question for a moment. For the first time since you entered the room, she stands from her seat. Much to your surprise, she gives you a hug. You return it, confused.
“Thank you for thinking about others as the seeker,” she whispers in your ear. “Not all of us have the foresight to do so.”
Before you can ask about her statement, the familiar voice beings to ring out.
*SESSION G COMPLETE. PLEASE EXIT THE EXPERIMENT TO SOLVE THE QUANDRY*
There’s a pause. To your surprise, there are no lights. Mel is gone, as is the room. Everything seems to be gone.
You reach out, expecting to feel like you’re falling like you had in other sessions. Instead, you can feel your fingertips touching something. It’s hard and cold, not unlike the table you were strapped to back in the lab, but it has some give to it. You push as hard as you can with one hand, only for whatever it is to disappear. You reach out with your other arm and find the same substance in front of you there. You push again, this time more carefully, but it too gives way.
Something compels you to walk forward, stepping on whatever you’ve pushed down. It clangs and wobbles under your weight, giving a sound like muffled thunder. You’re taken back to your childhood when you’d visit your dad on the construction site. The sound comes back to you — it’s sheet metal. But you don’t understand why it’s there. You give a light kick with your foot and feel it wobble more. Perhaps it’s best to keep walking and get off of it as soon as possible.
You take a handful more steps, only for the feeling you’ve been waiting for to finally hit you. You’re surrounded by the lights again.
Green. Then blue. Then purple. Then black.
Everything is black.
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