You wake up, decidedly not groggy for the first time in the lab. You look to your left, expecting to see Brielle sleeping, or at the very least ready to snark at you. But she’s not there. Her table is totally gone, the empty space left behind filling you with dread. You look to your right to see a tall woman in a white lab coat making notes on a chart. She’s facing away from you, but there’s no mistaking who she is.
“Mel?” you say, words struggling to leave your dry throat.
She turns around and smiles at you, handing you a glass of water. You reach out and take it, realizing that you’re not restrained for the first time. You quickly drink half of the cup of water, then motion over to the space where Brielle’s bed once was.
“Where’s Cruz?” you ask, surprised at yourself for remembering Brielle’s real name.
“It was time to go back to her own room,” Mel says.
“Right,” you say. “Just in case.”
Mel nods. You finish the second half of the cup more slowly than the first, trying to formulate what you want to ask Mel next. Fortunately for you, she saves you the trouble.
“I can’t tell you everything,” she whispers, “but if you kill Noel, Brielle stays in here. There’s no way around it.”
“What?” you ask.
“I’ve said nothing. You know nothing. You will not say anything about this. Understood?”
“Yes,” you whisper, trying to match her volume.
She nods, then turns and walks out of the room. The door latches behind her, leaving you alone and mobile in the lab room for the first time.
You take a look around, but much to your chagrin, the room is nearly bare. The machines and charts from your previous times in the lab are gone. Your table is still there, as are a few of the tables and chairs around the room. But there’s nothing obvious to give you more info about the experiment. The tables around the room are plain wooden tables with no drawers beneath them. You walk over and give one a whack with your hand, hoping a secret compartment will pop out like the movies. But alas, all you do is hurt your palm.
You walk over to where Brielle’s table was. Other than the faint outline of dust on the floor around where the table had been, there’s no sign she was there. You can’t help but wonder if she’s doing alright. Sure, she’s gone through this before. But you don’t know if everyone is still sedated while they wait on your choice or if they’re awake. You hope they’re not awake. It’d have to be hell for her to be awake waiting on the choice so many times.
You lay down beside the space where the table was, laying your hand where you think Brielle’s would be. You make a circling motion with your thumb, just as you had last time in the lab. You know it doesn’t work this way — but you hope somehow it brings her calm.
As you lay on the floor, you realize it’s odd that you’re being left alone in this room without your restraints. That’s never happened in the lab before. And while you’re fairly certain that you’re not still in Project Tasman’s simulation, there must be a reason for this.
You stand up and examine things more thoroughly. The tables are, in fact, just tables. You figured that after failing to open any secret compartments, but it didn’t hurt to check again. The table you were previously strapped to is equally boring, despite being more metal. There’s a file cabinet in the corner of the room that looks promising. You pull on each of the four drawers one by one, but they’re all locked. There’s a hole for a key at the top, but there’s not one to be found. Something tells you your fiancee would know how to pick it.
You move on and go over to the lone desk in the room and attempt to open each of the drawers. You hadn’t noticed it before, though it was behind your head, so you find this understandable. All of the drawers are locked. Again, there’s no key. Frustrated, you’re able to give up your search and just try to leave the room. As you walk over, you notice something on the floor. It’s an index card. The lined side is facing up and it’s blank. You flip it over to the unlined side and read it.
You reach into the front pocket of your pants, finding a familiar slip of paper.
Six ways out. Mercy will save the innocent. It may also save the wounded. Sorrow will save the brave. Betrayal will save yourself. Revenge will save the status quo.
Something is different about the paper, but you can’t figure out what. As you’re thinking, you hear the sound of the doorknob turning. You only have time to hide one thing, so you figure hiding the index card is your best call. You kick it under the filing cabinet, the corner of the card disappearing from view just as the door opened. You’re not shocked when Jeff comes through the door. He notices the note still in your hand.
“I was wondering if you’d find that,” he says. “It’s the lone thing that leaves the experiment with the seeker. Other than the tokens, that is.”
“Why is the note different?” you ask. “There’s a new line.”
“Because you have all the information you need now,” he says. “The note would have meant nothing to you in its current state had you found it in Noel’s loop.”
“It means nothing to me now!” you insist. “I mean, I can make a ton of guesses. But nothing is for certain besides the fact that Quinn gets to leave.”
“That’s true,” Jeff replies. “Though there was a guy who tried to jump me when I came in at the end once.”
“What happened?” you ask.
“He had managed to get enough points to save both his sister and his mother completely. He punched me. So I put them back in as options.”
“What the fuck?”
“He deserved it,” Jeff says. “He’d killed three people before he came in here.”
“Would you have done that to me had I attacked you?” you ask.
“Probably,” Jeff replies. “There’s no excuse for violence. I’m just doing my job.”
You’re at a loss of words. There have been times in the experiment where you think Jeff’s on your side, as he has tried to help. At his core though, you think he’s been corrupted by the very experiment he’s running. He might have been a good person once upon a time. And it might still come out from time to time — particularly for Brielle — but you think it’s not who he is anymore.
“Listen,” you say. “I just want this over with. Everyone else stuck in there with me deserves to know their fate without waiting any longer.”
“How do you know they know they’re waiting?” Jeff asks.
“I don’t. But if they are, they deserve for it to be over quickly.”
Jeff nods. He motions for you to follow him to the door. The two of you exit the lab and proceed down a long, dimly lit hallway.
“She really will take good care of your sister,” Jeff says.
“She seems to care a lot about the people in the experiment,” you reply.
“She should,” Jeff retorts. “She was in it once.”
You come to a stop, staring at Jeff. It takes a few seconds before he realizes you’re not with him.
“What?” he asks.
“That’s what…” you say before trailing off.
It dawns on you that Jeff might not know how much Mel shared with you, so decide not to say anything.
“What is it?” he asks.
“Was she a seeker? Or was she in there while someone else she knew was the seeker.”
“She was a seeker,” Jeff answers. “She was the very first seeker of Project Tasman.”
It hits you that Mel being helpful to you in your loop was more than an act. Having lived it herself, she knew some of what you were going through.”
“The first iteration of Project Tasman was all employees,” Jeff says. “There were ten of us. All fresh off the street and just out of training.”
“Wait,” you interrupt. “You were in it too?”
“I was. I’ve been in Project Tasman more than anyone — except for Brielle. Her role doesn’t really have a name,” Jeff says. “It’s kind of become the Brielle role because of how long she’s been in here. It’s better than the old name.”
“The Jeff role?” you ask.
He goes quiet. He’s clearly shaken up hearing the terminology again.
“How long were you in there?” you ask.
“Twenty-two rounds,” he says. “Just under six months. Nowhere near what Brielle’s gone through. But long enough to know how it changes someone.”
“I’m sorry you had to go through that,” you say.
“It changes you,” he says. “Sometimes it’s for the better. Look at Mel. Usually it’s for the worse. I’m not the person I was before I was in there. I’m much less kind and a lot more jaded.”
“Which is why you’re trying to prove there’s another way?” you ask.
Jeff sighs and resumes walking down the hall.
“Something like that,” he says as he walks away.
You walk quickly to catch up with him.
“What’s the rush?” you ask.
“You have a decision to make,” he replies. “And while you might not want to make it, we have a schedule to keep so that things don’t seem suspicious. So we need to be on our way.”
“May I know something?” you ask. “Before I fuck up more lives than just my own.”
“You can ask,” Jeff says.
“It doesn’t mean I’ll tell you.”
You think quickly.
“Who has to stay if I kill my sister,” you say. “I mean. I don’t know that it’s what’s best. But I need to weigh my options.”
“Is it an option you’re considering?” Jeff asks.
“I kind of have to think about it. There’s no guarantee she survives in here — or out of here.”
“I can’t answer you directly,” Jeff says.
“Because of the integrity of the experiment?” you snark at Jeff.
“No. Because at that point things are out of my hands.”
You’re about to follow up your question when Jeff comes to an abrupt stop.
“We’re here,” he says, standing in front of a tall mahogany door. “Please hand me the note.”
You comply, digging the note out of your pocket and giving it to him. He slips it in his own pocket.
“Can’t have people seeing that,” he says.
He opens the door and leads you into a brightly-lit cinder block room. In the middle of the room, a balding, pale man with thick glasses sits in a chair. Behind him, a row of four levers — red, black, yellow, and blue — is mounted on the wall.
“Thank you, Jeffery,” he says, his voice a shadowy contrast to your luminous surroundings. “I’ll take it from here.”
Jeff nods, leaving the room behind you. The man rises from his chair and offers you his hand.
“Miss Alana Quevedo, I presume?” he says.
You stare at his hand, unsure of the intent behind his offer.
“I see,” he continues. “Shame the handshake died out. It was the only gentlemanly way to greet someone.”
He walks over to the wall behind the levers, pushing a button to the left of the red lever. The cinder blocks behind the levers fade away, leaving a glass window behind them. You’re overlooking a woodsy ravine, facing east. The sun is just beginning to peek above the horizon.
“I find we make the clearest decisions in the morning,” he states. “Don’t you, Alana?”
“I’m more of a night person myself,” you say.
“Very well,” he says.
He pushes the button again. The sunrise gives way to a clear, starry sky. You walk over closer to the window, stopping a few steps away. It’s actually a giant screen mounted directly into the wall.
“Are you ready to make your choice now?” he asks.
“Or is there something else you need? Coffee? Tea? A light snack?”
“What’s with all the niceties?” you ask. “I feel like you’re a dinner party host.”
“I’ve found that our participants think most clearly if they’re relaxed,” he replies. “And while I’m aware that Project Tasman is a calming decluttering of the mind, that doesn’t make your choice easier. Thus helping to make you comfortable now.”
What is this guy talking about, you wonder. Nothing about Project Tasman is calming. You find his entire demeanor unsettling — not to mention the fact that Jeff was so quick to get out of the room earlier.
“Calming?” you ask. “What’s calming about having to learn about the worst parts of everyone you care about all before deciding who you have to kill?”
The man looks at you, confused.
“Whatever do you mean?” he asks. “Are you one of the bad ones?”
“What?” you reply incredulously.
“The only ones who have a poor experience in Project Tasman are the truly despicable members of society,” he says. “They do come in from time to time, I guess. What are you in for? Arson? Murder? Jaywalking?”
“I got put in here because my brother is a jerk who makes bad business decisions,” you reply. “Allegedly.”
The man shrugs. He walks over to a table against the far wall of the room, picking up a teacup and sipping from it.
“We’re all criminals in our own way,” he says. “Some people try to steal time from death. Others kill dreams. There are a select few, however, who make their intentions clear and commit their crimes in the open.”
“That’s totally different,” you reply.
“How do you figure?” he replies. “If you were to fall in love with the same person I love, is that not stealing from me when you marry them? How is that different from taking the life of someone another person loves. It’s all theft, my dear.”
As much as you want to know more about what the man is saying, you find him unsettling. Perhaps it’s best not to press your luck with him.
“Let’s just get on with my choice,” you say. “Everyone in there deserves to know what’s happening to them.”
The man takes a long sip of his tea and nods at you.
“Fair enough,” he says. “It’s time for you to choose then. Who does not make it out of Project Tasman alive?”
NOTE: To continue reading the story as it was voted on by the Twitter poll, just keep reading. Otherwise, scroll to the bottom of this section of the story to choose your desired ending.
You think about your choice for a few moments. As much as it pains you to think about, the answer seems clear. There’s such a minuscule chance your sister survives — and even if she does, it’s unlikely she’ll ever be the same.
You walk over and pull the white lever.
As soon as you take your hands off it, tears begin to roll down your face. But you’re not filled with rage like you were in the experiment. You feel calm. At least she doesn’t have to suffer this place anymore. You feel the man’s hand on your shoulder. At some point, you’ve fallen to the ground and are sitting against the wall. You don’t know when it happened. You’re just kind of here now. He offers you a tissue.
“Thanks,” you say.
You hold the tissue, occasionally dabbing at the snot running out of your nose. You’re sure you’ll go through the whole box. But before you can dwell too much on your thoughts, the man walks over to his desk. He returns with a small box in hand. It reminds you a bit of a jack-in-the-box, as there’s a lever on the side and what appears to be a lid on the top. But there’s also a slot cut into the middle of the lid.
“This is for the next stage of your choices,” he says. “Whenever you’re ready. Take the time you need to compose yourself.”
You shake your head and do your best to stand up. Your legs are weak and you wobble as you stand, but you make it to your feet.
“No,” you say. “I said I wanted to get this over with. I mean it.”
“Very well,” he says. “You should have a token in your back pocket. Please place it in the box.”
You stick your hand in your right back pocket and pull out the token.
“No,” you mutter. “Oh god, no. No no no no no. I promised her. I told her. I, I ca–she’s gotta get out! You’ve got to let her out.”
Your voice is ascending to a full-throated scream.
“She won’t make it. She’s been through too much.”
You grab the box out of his hands and slam it to the floor. It lands with a hollow thud and tumbles away. You give it a kick, hoping to break it against the wall, but all you succeed in doing is hitting yourself in the shin on the rebound.
“I won’t do it!” you shout. “I made a promise! She can’t. Please. I can’t do this.”
Your words are becoming less intelligible with each passing syllable. You’re grabbing at the man’s shirt trying to will him to give you another option. To give you ANY choice but this one.
“Alana,” he says calmly.
You’re shouting, but you can’t understand what’s coming out of your mouth. All you can hear is his voice occasionally calling your name.
“Alana,” he says again.
“Wh–what?” you finally struggle out. “Check your other pocket.”
You reach into your left back pocket and produce a second token.
You take the red token and walk across the room to where the box has come to rest. You pick the box up and inspect it — aside from a few scratches on the paint, it doesn’t seem to be any worse for wear.
“Are you sure this is what you want to do?” the man asks.
“I’m certain,” you say. “I gave her my word. Even though I don’t know her that well, I think she’s earned that.”
The man nods. You stick the token in the box and it disappears from view. You hear the door open behind you. Mel is waiting outside.
“You’re free to go,” the man says. “And, no offense, but I hope to never see you here again.”
“Thanks,” you say.
You follow Mel down the hall and away from the room.
“Did you make a choice you can live with?” Mel asks once you hear the door shut behind you.
“I think so,” you say. “I’m not happy about it but — ”
Mel cuts you off.
“You don’t need to be,” she says. “This isn’t a place that breeds happiness.”
You nod. You keep following Mel down the hallway, your pace enough slower than hers that you find yourself occasionally having to catch up.
“I’ll take you down to see Sabrina soon,” she says. “Is there anyone you want to see until then?”
Author’s Note: Endings for the story are available below. For the ending chosen by the Twitter poll voters, select White Ending 1 – Love.
– Purple Ending – Alana Dies (not yet available)
– Blue Ending – Brielle Dies (not yet available)
– Red Ending – Noel Dies (not yet available)
– Yellow Ending – Arn Dies
– Black Ending – Quinn Dies (not yet available)
– White Ending #1 – Carrie Dies, Noel stays
– White Ending #2 – Carrie Dies, Brielle stays (not yet available)
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