“Huh…?” Sigma spun in place to see what Phi was shouting about.
Beyond the door of their AB room, and across the width of the floor A warehouse, stood…
She had a frown, although what kind of frown it was, Sigma couldn’t tell at this distance. He and Phi had learned that she was a GAULEM, and as Sigma had learned earlier than that, GAULEMs were capable of a full range of emotions.
Was she showing malice? Fear? Or was it something else?
Sigma didn’t have a chance to look any more carefully, because the AB gate shut just seconds after he laid eyes on Luna.
“One minute remains until Ambidex Game polling closes,” the announcer declared.
“Wait wait wait wait!” Sigma’s head was swimming. “What the hell is going on?! Why is Luna here?!”
“She’s probably planning on participating in the game,” Phi answered matter-of-factly, as she could usually be relied on to do.
Luna had been deprived of her bracelet a while ago, but Phi and Sigma had left it just outside their AB gate. Because, of course. They’d enabled her to participate without it even crossing their minds that they had.
“You mean she’s going to take the bracelet and go into one of the other rooms?” Sigma asked
“Yeah…” Phi looked like she wasn’t too happy about the idea.
“How’s she going to vote?”
“Betray,” Phi answered without hesitation. “I’m sure of it. Why else would she have come here? If she wanted to vote ‘ally,’ she could have just waited for the deadline to pass.”
Phi had most of a point, at the very least. The three of them were the only survivors, aside from (Sigma hoped against hope) Quark, whose bracelet they had found complete with 9 BP, but who himself hadn’t been located. So Luna didn’t have to maintain any appearances for the sake of any of the others. But there was also the fact that she was “against” Sigma and Phi for this round of the AB Game…
“She’s got seven BP, right?” Sigma asked.
“Yeah.” Phi gave him a quizzical look. “Why are you asking, though? Her BP doesn’t matter right now.”
“Have you totally lost it?” With time ticking away, Phi was losing her patience. “She doesn’t have her bracelet on! And besides, she’s a GAULEM! She isn’t trying to get out! Whether she has nine BP or not doesn’t mean anything to her!”
By now, Phi’s most of a point had increased to about three full points. “Then why is she doing this?” Sigma asked.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Phi hadn’t eased her posture. “She wants to keep our BP below nine. Say she defaulted to ‘ally.’ We could choose whatever we wanted, and we’d still get nine BP. She’s here to make sure that doesn’t happen.”
“Ten seconds remain until Ambidex Game polling closes.”
Phi’s statement was the only thing that made any sense.
Even so… Sigma couldn’t get the image out of his head of what Luna had said earlier.
“And I… I trust him.”
In the final, frightening second, Phi’s logic won out. Sigma’s finger landed on the button to Betray.
“Luna! Where’s Luna?!” Sigma dashed to the far AB room. It was the one that had opened before Phi and Sigma had gotten there, so he assumed she would have used it. But when he got there, he saw… “She’s gone.” He looked to Phi. “Where’d she go?”
“That’s odd…” Phi mused. “We came out the moment the AB gates opened. There’s no way she could have left already…”
“Then…” Sigma cast his eyes around, looking for some kind of clue, but that was when things only got more confounding.
There, right where they’d left it, on the ground in front of the furthest AB gate from the number 9 door, was Luna’s bracelet.
Phi was just as surprised to see it as Sigma. “No… she didn’t take it?! That doesn’t make sense! Why would she show up just when we’re about to vote?! There was no reason to come here if she was just going to default…”
Sigma and Phi looked at each other. There was no doubt – neither one of them had any inkling of an answer.
Sigma was getting kind of tired of being yanked around. Ever since the first AB room key was used, he’d been getting a thousand questions and no answers.
The announcer’s voice came on. “Results from round three of the Ambidex Game will now be displayed. Please direct your attention to the results screen.”
Sigma had totally forgotten. “R-Right! The results!”
Phi shook herself out of her own reverie. “Yeah. Let’s go have a look.”
They jogged over to the results screen.
Clover, Quark, and Tenmyouji hadn’t voted, so the screen showed a penalty for them. Not that it mattered; Clover and Tenmyouji were dead, and even if Quark was alive (he was, Sigma assured himself), he didn’t have his bracelet.
Next were K, Dio, and Alice, who’d also received a penalty, but all three of them were definitely dead. There was no avoiding that particular penalty.
Sigma and Phi’s vote was next, and the screen showed their “betray” vote. Which left only Luna.
Who had defaulted to “ally” after all.
“Points have been assigned or subtracted accordingly. Please check your bracelet to see your updated Bracelet Points.”
Phi and Sigma now had ten points, and Luna, for whatever it was worth, had five.
Phi scowled thoughtfully. “Since Luna didn’t vote, she got set to ‘ally’ automatically. And the other six got… penalized. Five of them are dead already, and Quark’s bracelet is off.”
“That means all those penalties are meaningless.”
Sigma could feel the tension rising further and further. He and Phi were procrastinating on talking about all of the important problems on the table.
“We still don’t know why Luna showed up, though,” he said after a moment. “There’s no reason to come here just to abstain.”
“I can only guess at her reasons,” Phi said. “But I’m sure it was part of some plan.”
“A plan for what?”
Sigma wished he could understand Phi’s brain. How she could just start down a train of thought and not mind when that train fell off the tracks seconds later.
And for a moment, he also felt a momentary pang of guilt and uncertainty.
Had betraying Luna been the right call?
“So what do we do now?” Phi asked at last. “Whatever Luna’s scheming, we still managed to get nine BP. Do you want to leave?”
“No, we can’t!” Sigma was irritated that it was even a question. “We still don’t know if Quark is safe. No way am I leaving before we find him!”
Phi analyzed him for several seconds. Then she smiled. “I agree. I hoped you’d say that.”
“So… are you going to stay?”
“Heh. Of course.” It was clear the facility was still full of danger, but Phi was absolutely not the kind of person to let that stop her. “Let’s get moving.” She spun on her heel and made a beeline for the cyan door, Sigma following close by.
They started their search in the crew quarters. No Quark, only the lifeless body of Alice. Sigma felt a chill to his very core seeing her again.
And if that was bad, the infirmary was worse. The bodies of Clover, Tenmyouji, and the mysterious woman were all within, and still no sign of Quark. Sigma had held a sliver of hope that he’d be here, mourning Tenmyouji.
They continued onward through the lounge, then the GAULEM bay. Other than the still-smoking shell of G-OLM, there was nothing of interest. The rec room, too, had the bodies of K (who Sigma had felt shattered seeing murdered so brutally) and Dio (who, somehow, hadn’t evoked as strong a reaction in Sigma), but no Quark.
They searched every open room on floor B, ending with the pantry. It was their last unchecked spot, and—
“Shit! He’s not here, either!” Sigma kicked a wall out of frustration.
“This is the last room,” Phi mused. “Well, the last room we can get into.”
“And we haven’t seen Luna, either.” Sigma had hoped to find some clue as to Luna’s actions, but that was a bust, too.
“Where the hell did she go?” Sigma realized that she had access to all the security cameras in the facility, so she could easily avoid them, but why would she want to so badly?
That was when they heard the ringing that usually preceded a declaration from the announcer.
“The number 9 door has been opened. It will remain open for nine seconds.”
“WH-WHAT?!” Yelling was the only thing that could stop Sigma from blacking out.
“No!” Phi was equally mortified. “That’s not possible!”
“What’s not possible?!”
Phi didn’t answer.
“The number 9 door has closed. This ends the Nonary Game. Thank you for your participation. As the game is over, all doors other than the number 9 door have been unlocked. Escape is not possible. Please enjoy your stay.”
Sigma was dazed. “What… what just happened?” he mumbled. “It’s all over now… isn’t it? We’re…” He couldn’t look at Phi. “Stuck here… forever…”
Phi wasn’t going to let her shock slow her down. “We should go back to the floor A warehouse. I need to know if the door actually opened or not.”
“We can’t just look at the door and tell if it’s opened or not,” Sigma said.
The door was really just a big hunk of metal with a 9 on it. Not too many insights to be gained from looking at it.
“True,” Phi said, walking over to other wall, “but the projection should tell us.”
Sigma joined her side and looked at the projection.
“What…?” It didn’t make any sense. “Quark and Luna escaped?!”
“So it would seem,” Phi replied with resignation.
“Why?!” Sigma knew Phi wouldn’t have the answers, but it didn’t stop him from asking. “How?!”
Phi might not have been able to answer him, but someone who could took that as his cue to return.
The projection flickered, then changed. Zero.
“Well well well! Long time no see-ro! Remember your old pal Zero?” He hadn’t lost his enthusiasm in his hours of absence.
“You!” Sigma hadn’t expected to see him again – an AI who was apparently content to run things from behind the scenes.
“I’m guessing somebody’s hoping for an explanation about what the diddly-o just happened!” Zero said cheerfully. “Because we’re such great friends, I’ve decided to make an exception and descend from on high to give you the four-one-one. Aren’t you hoppy? Ahuhahuh!”
Sigma glared at the AI’s avatar of a rabbit. A perfect match for how cute Zero clearly thought he was.
“So what’s this explanation you’ve got?” Phi asked.
“Well, let’s start with little Quark.” Zero’s avatar looked up at them. “He was given an anesthetic that put him to sleep! While he was out, Luna carried him through to the other side of the number nine door!”
“But…” Sigma frowned. “How did she open the door?”
“With Quark’s bracelet, you silly bunny.” Zero crossed his arms. “It was still in the infirmary, remember? Luna just hopped over there and picked it up.”
“So I was right…” Phi mumbled. “Quark had 9BP when the second round ended.”
“Yup,” Zero said.
“But didn’t he get penalized after the third round?” Sigma asked.
“Yes he did!” Zero answered. “But a penalty carrot take away your points. Just your life! The needles popped out and so on, but, the points stayed the same.”
“So Luna took Quark to the door…” Phi said.
“And since her bracelet was already off, she wouldn’t have suffered the penalty,” Sigma finished.
“No, but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway.”
“Oh, right… she’s a GAULEM…”
Zero waited to make sure they were finished. “Alright, I think my tail is through.”
“Okay, well, I’ve got some questions for you, buddy,” Sigma said angrily.
“BAAAAAAA!” Zero bleated without missing a beat.
“Not ewe.” Phi rolled her eyes.
Zero shrugged. “Well, good thing you don’t have questions for V. That guy’s a jerk.”
“This isn’t the alphabet,” Sigma snapped.
Zero cackled. “You must be feeling pretty good if you’re able to joke around like that. I mean, six people just died here.”
That quieted Sigma and Phi fast.
“Eh, it’s not really a big deal,” Zero said. “That’s just how you humans are, after all. So long as you make it, nothing else matters. Am I right?”
“No! You’re wrong!” Sigma would have liked to punch Zero in the face, if only he had one.
“Don’t screw with us!” Phi added adamantly.
Zero waved them down. “It’s cool, it’s cool, I know you gotta act tough. I mean, you chose ‘betray.’ That means you don’t trust Luna, right? Figures. She’s a GAULEM, she might even be a murderer… That’s why you were planning to leave her here and bone out, wasn’t it?”
Again, Phi and Sigma felt themselves without a good reply.
“You see?” Zero smiled. “It’s all about you. Haven’t you thought about how sad you’ve made Luna?”
That was like a dunk in cold water for Sigma. “What?”
Zero ignored him. “Well, looks like my time here’s just about all used hop.”
“Wait!” Sigma shouted. “I still have questions for—”
“No, I won’t wait.” Zero pouted. “I don’t like waiting. I waited once, and some half-witted reptile got the better of me because of it. After that I learned to make sure to value my time.”
“The tortoise and the hare…” Phi looked off.
“All righty then, I’ll see you when I see you!” Zero waved. “Have a nice traitor!” And with that, he was gone.
Phi and Sigma stared at the spot where he’d been.
Where was Quark when they couldn’t find him? Who had given him an anesthetic, and why? Who’d killed everyone? Who’d brought them to this game in the first place? And why? Sigma had accumulated all of these questions, and not a single one had been answered.
And that left the future. The bleak, empty future.
“What are we supposed to do now?” Sigma asked at last.
“The tortoise won because he kept going, even when it looked hopeless.” Phi smiled at him, somehow. “I think we should do the same. We’ve got plenty of time, after all. We’ll give the dead the closest thing to a burial we can manage, and when that’s done…” Her eyes glinted. “We’ll start looking. Even if I never leave this place, I’ll figure out why we were here. I swear it.”
They had no hope, and no one left to save, but Sigma was grateful. Thanks to Phi, at least they had a purpose.