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Zero Time Dilemma-Sigma's Story

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----Prologue: Dcom----

 

My name is Dr. Sigma Klim, and I'm a master of genetic engineering. I am also called Zero Sr. by a select group of people. But I suppose I'm getting slightly ahead of myself. Let me start at the beginning.

 

As I was leaving my college right after my twenty-second birthday, some white smoke made me pass out, and when I awoke, I found myself in a government facility that was filled with traps and tests of betrayal vs. trust. Little did I know that these were but mere prologues to a greater quest: that I would be the savior of a dying world, a world turned to near-annihilation by a virus known as Radical-6. My mission was to take what I learned from this experiment and return to the place where it leaked: the Mars mission test site, in the Nevada Desert, way back on December 25, 2028, the time that my body originated in.

 

After I finished my work on the AB Project, the efforts of which allowed the consciousnesses of myself and a young woman by the name of Phi, to return to this time, I awoke to find myself passed out in front of my car. I was a little disoriented at the shift in bodies, as my sixty-seven-year-old self was now inside my original twenty-two-year old body. Nevertheless, I saw a figure in a gas mask walking toward me. I stood up. She removed her mask and asked, "Did it work?"

 

"Yes, and there's no time to lose. Do you know where Phi is?"

 

"Yes. Come this way, Doctor," Akane replied.

 

Akane Kurashiki, one of my partners in the AB Project, helped engineer a crisis situation in order to return me to this present time, armed with knowledge of Radical-6, in order that I may be successful in stopping it this time. Of course, I first met her when she was my age, and while I saw her briefly in her twenty-two-year-old form, I had to remind myself that this version of her was in a timeline that had not yet been tainted by the virus. She had brown hair tied into a ponytail, which was how she had styled her hair in 2074 as well.

 

We rushed toward a house that I had never seen. Akane knocked on the door three times. Within seconds, a girl about Akane's age that I knew only too well came out. She was wearing glasses, with short, white hair, and what looked like a swimsuit underneath her white sweater. She smirked at me and said, "Looks like you made it, old man. You've aged pretty well."

 

"I like the glasses," I replied simply.

 

"Oh, these? I figured one of us had to look old."

 

"Very funny. Now, I take it you know why we're here?"

 

"Yeah. Radical-6."

 

"That's right," said Akane. "We're going to infiltrate the test site and stop this horrible calamity."

 

"Wait, you're coming too, Akane?" I asked. "But...you told me that you don't know what happened in there."

 

"Um, earth to Sigma, if we're infiltrating the test site NOW, wouldn't that mean that THIS Akane doesn't know what you're talking about?" asked Phi in a snarky tone.

 

"Ah, right, sorry. Anyway, you have the resources?"

 

"Yes. My brother should be able to get us in using intel from headquarters."

 

"Good. Let's hurry."

 

Right before we sprinted off, I heard Phi mutter, "The old man is as clueless as ever" before following us.

 

When we arrived at the test facility, a few familiar faces caught our eyes. Mine in particular were drawn to a young woman with long, red hair, and a dress that reached down to the floor. I rushed up to her, hugged her and said, "Diana! Oh, I missed you so much!"

 

"Um, what?!" asked the girl, prying herself from my grasp. "Hey, who are you?"

 

"Huh.... Oh, right, this timeline. Ahem, well, my name's Sigma. A pleasure to make your acquaintance."

 

Diana giggled as she took my hand, and several feelings that I thought were long-gone flooded through me. I just couldn't take my eyes off of her. She had died in my arms during my work on the project, but this Diana never knew me, so I had to feign ignorance during my time here. I nodded my head and said, "Very well. Let's see who else will be joining us."

 

Akane had been deep in conversation with a young man who had messy brown hair and a black T-shirt. He was long and lanky, shorter than me and struck me as the type that had long since given up on the world. Akane said, "Oh, Junpei, this is my friend, Sigma, and this here is Phi."

 

"Friends? A girl like you having friends? Well, color me surprised. I wouldn't be half-surprised if you stabbed them all in the back when they're asleep. Or maybe put bombs in their stomachs?"

 

"Junpei! I thought you understood why I had to do those things."

 

"Yeah, yeah, go ahead and delude yourself into thinking that the end justified the means." Junpei turned to Phi and myself. "A year ago, Akane and I were forced to play this messed-up game that involved putting our lives on the line. It was called the Nonary Game. Have you heard of it?"

 

"Yeah. The name rings a bell. Was a man named Zero responsible back then?" I asked.

 

"You could say that," said Junpei slowly, looking at Akane, who was now blushing. He plopped down on a sofa. "Anyway, she and I are childhood friends. We went to the same elementary school together, and she up and ran after we escaped from where we were trapped."

 

"And you happened to run into her here, of all places?" asked Phi.

 

"It wasn't a coincidence. I joined a detective firm, quit school and threatened those in charge to force my way in. What about you two?"

 

"Well... I'm not sure you'd believe us if we told you. A lot of people would probably think we're crazy," said Phi.

 

"After what I went through last year, I might just believe anything," said Junpei. "Try me."

 

"We're from the future," said Phi calmly. Junpei laughed and said, "Really? Psychics, huh? Care to read my future?"

 

"It's not quite like that," I replied. "We came from a very specific time point: January of 2074. We're here because there's a virus called Radical-6 that got leaked from from this test site, and we've come from that future to prevent that happening."

 

"I think I've heard something about that," said Junpei pensively, looking down at his feet. "I heard that Free the Soul was currently trying to create their 'Perfect World' and perhaps this is their way of doing it."

 

"Free the Soul, run by a man calling himself Brother, leading a terrorist organization made out of clones called Myrmidons," I said. "They gave us quite a bit of trouble in 2074 as well."

 

"Well, whatever you're smoking, I don't think they'll be making any more clones. My co-worker and I destroyed their headquarters. Whatever their plan is, I'm sure only the most elite members are in on the gig."

 

"Regardless, it should be our top priority while we're here to locate the source of the virus and eliminate it. Otherwise, six billion people will die."

 

"Kinda extreme, if you ask me, but all right, I'll keep an eye out."

 

"You believe we're from the future, then?" asked Phi.

 

"Nah, you've probably just been on crack or something. Anyway, if you'll excuse me." He walked down a nearby hallway.

 

Phi nudged me on the shoulder, and I leaned down to hear her out. She said, "He said his name was Junpei, correct? Are you thinking what I'm thinking?"

 

"Pretty sure we're on the same wavelength here. He's a younger Tenmyouji."

 

"Yep. That means, if we succeed, there's a good chance that he and Akane will be able to stay together."

 

"Let's hope so. He looked terrible when we last saw him."

 

"Hey, are you two done whispering?" shouted Junpei. "We've got a new member joining us, so come to the lounge. We're all supposed to get acquainted."

 

"You all right, Phi?" I asked, just to be on the safe side.

 

"Ready when you are," she sighed.

 

As I entered the room, I scanned the area to find how many people we'd be staying with. It seemed that there were eight of us altogether. I counted myself, Phi, Akane, Tenmyouji, Diana, and four strangers. One woman had dark skin and equally-brown hair, with her red jacket slightly unbuttoned at the top. The man next to her seemed like he was her boyfriend, with blond hair down to his ears and a grey work shirt. Finally, there was a young man who looked slightly older than Phi, Diana and Akane, who had slicked-back blond hair. I got the impression that nearly everyone in here was supposed to be the same age, until what looked like a staff member said, "Well, this is where you'll all be staying, so I hope you get nice, comfortable and acquainted with one another."

 

"The old man, too?" asked Junpei.

 

"Huh? You know about me?" I asked.

 

"Idiot!" shouted Phi, elbowing me. "Don't you see the guy in the wheelchair?"

 

Phi pointed to the staff member who was speaking, who had just wheeled in a bald man in a wheelchair with red glasses, presumably to hide the fact that he was blind.

 

"Uh-huh," said the staff. "This man's name is Q. He can't see, hear or walk. He's here with us to help you know how to deal with troublesome situations that might arise during a Mars mission. Anyway, allow me to introduce your current situation. If you would all start by putting name tags on yourself so that you all know who you are."

 

We did so. He smiled, then said, "We're planning an eventual colonization of Mars, so in order to do that, we'll need to run several tests before we actually send people there, as humans have never been able to survive on Mars. We'll be testing your emotional stability, as well as your ability to think quickly and critically. You'll also be within cramped quarters, because you might not have room for separate bedrooms on Mars. Any questions?"

 

"I have something to say," I said, raising my hand. The staff member nodded in my direction. I stood up in the center of the room and began to speak.

 

"Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Dr. Sigma Klim, and I'm here to urge you to be on the lookout for a deadly virus known as Radical-6. I have come from the future of 2074 and know that, if we do nothing, six billion lives will be lost, and humanity will nearly go extinct. It's a very complicated story, and I doubt many of you would believe me if I went into details, but my consciousness did come back from the future, as did Phi's, so please believe us. If you find any clues, please let us know, and we'll put an end to that horrible future."

 

"Coming from the future? That sounds like crazy talk," said the blond-haired man with the work shirt, whose name tag read "Eric." "Dcom is run by a civilian organization. Why would they allow a dangerous virus like that to be inside their facility? This is a Mars survival test; they wouldn't want to kill us off before the experiment."

 

"On the contrary," spoke Phi, standing up beside me. "I think it's highly-likely that this virus may be just the type of danger we need. An emergency, crisis situation would, of course, be the perfect test to help overcome dangers on Mars itself. Isn't that right?" she asked the staff member holding the wheelchair.

 

"Well, ma'am, I can assure you that no such virus exists within Dcom. If it does, please bring it up with the staff. I can honestly say that I have no idea what you're talking about; are you sure this virus even exists, or if your story is even the truth?"

 

"Of course it's the truth!" I shouted.

 

"Then... do you have any proof?" asked the woman with the dark jacket. According to her name tag, her name was Mira.

 

"Well... I mean, if it's from the future, there wouldn't exactly be proof yet."

 

"I mean about you being from the future."

 

"Give it up, Sigma," said Phi, pulling me back to my seat. "They just don't get it. They'll probably think we're lunatics."

 

"Luna..." I said.

 

"Sorry. Anyway, we'll search the building ourselves if we have to."

 

"Alas, I believe you're right for the time being. Very well."

 

----Segment 1: Fireman----

 

We proceeded as though nothing out of the ordinary happened for the next four days, but apart from several tests and simulations, we couldn't locate any trace of Radical-6.

 

I slumped onto one of the couches, exhausted. The young man by the name of Carlos sat down next to me and said, "Man, this is going to be brutal. Good thing they promised cash."

 

"You're in it for the money?" I asked him.

 

"Yeah. My little sister, Maria, has contracted Reverie Syndrome. With the money from this experiment, I can hopefully pay for an operation."

 

"My condolences to you and your family. However, if we don't discover the source of Radical-6, you may not live to see her again regardless."

 

"Uh, yeah, about that... I have a funny feeling you aren't quite what you appear to be. I mean, you introduced yourself as a doctor, for one thing."

 

"That's right; I majored in genetic engineering and artificial intelligence programming."

 

"Sounds like you'd have to be much older to qualify for that."

 

"Is 67 good enough?" I asked with a cold stare.

 

"67?! No way! You look younger than I do."

 

"How old are you?" I asked, deflecting the question.

 

"28. I've been a firefighter for ten years. My sister fell ill after I saved her from the fire."

 

"A truly tragic fate. What do you say we work together?"

 

"Isn't that what we're already doing, being in this test site and all?"

 

"I mean, if you help me search for Radical-6, I'll help you in any way I can to save your sister. As I mentioned before, I am a doctor. I may be able to treat her."

 

"It would mean the world to me," he said gratefully. "When can you start?"

 

"After the virus is found. I can promise you that she'll die anyway if we don't save the world."

 

"Hmm..." he responded. I could tell that he didn't quite believe me. Perhaps to dodge the question, he next said, "If you'll excuse me" and he walked away.

 

I couldn't sleep. I woke up during the night, grabbed a nearby flashlight and searched through the halls of Dcom, which we found out during our stay stood for "Dwelling for the Cohabitation of Mars." However, I soon came to realize that Akane gave us next to no information as to what exactly caused the virus to leak. Still, I didn't let that deter me. I searched for about seven hours, and then...

 

"Welcome, Doctor. I've been expecting you," came a deep, muffled voice.

 

"Show yourself!" I declared, waving the flashlight around. The beam rested upon a man wearing a plague doctor's outfit. Before I could say another word, he sprayed me with the same white gas that knocked me out before, and my consciousness faded away.

 

----Segment 2: Coincide----

 

I awoke to find myself in the Confinement Room, with Phi and Diana in the same cell as my own. I looked across the hall to find Carlos, Akane and Junpei in another, and in the third, Mira, Eric and some kid with a weird helmet. Eric was frantically pounding on the door to his cell.

 

"Hey! Open up! Let us out of here!"

 

"Easy, Eric. This is the Confinement Room. Your hands will do no good against such reinforced steel," I responded, sighing and sitting against the wall, finally noticing that there was a bracelet attached to my left wrist.

 

"What the heck?" I asked. I looked around and heard quite a few grunts as the newcomers tried to pry their bracelets off of their wrists.

 

"It's pointless," yelled Junpei over the commotion; he hadn't even bothered trying to remove his bracelet. "The kidnappers used these bracelets last year for their experiment. They're not gonna come off that easily."

 

"Why don't we ask him how to take them off? He's responsible," shouted Eric, pointing at the kid with the helmet.

 

"Let me guess, that helmet won't come off, will it?" asked Phi.

 

"Hey, kid, what did you do?!" demanded Eric, now shaking the kid. "Get us out of here!"

 

"Let it go, Eric. Maybe he's a heavy sleeper," Mira responded.

 

"What do you suggest we do in the meantime? Read a bedtime story?" asked Junpei.

 

The sound of a door opening echoed across the chamber, and the same man I saw in the hallway last night appeared. In the same low, gravelly voice, he said, "Life is simply unfair. Don't you think? There are moments when a single snail can make a world go extinct."

 

"Make... Go extinct?" asked Phi.

 

"Who are you?" demanded Mira.

 

"I'm sure you'll determine that eventually. For now, I'd like you all to take part in a game."

 

"A game?" asked Carlos.

 

"With the fates of you, me and the human race hanging in the balance."

 

"So what do we have to do?" asked Mira calmly.

 

The man flipped a coin, then hid it from view under his cloak.

 

"Beneath my foot, there is a coin. One side of it is red, the other is blue. Make a guess."

 

"What happens if we get it right?" asked Diana.

 

"I promise that I will release all of you," the man responded.

 

"And what if we're wrong?" asked Eric in a panicked voice.

 

"You'll all be required to stay in the game until six people are dead."

 

"Six people?!" asked Akane; I had never heard her so terrified before. I inwardly reminded myself that this Akane is indeed a victim, and hadn't developed into the version of her that I knew before.

 

"At least six. It's possible there may be more than that, but there's no need to fear if you get it right. Hmm... How about you, Carlos? I will take your decision as everyone's final answer."

 

"Hey, don't listen to him!" I shouted, clutching at the bars.

 

"Pick red," Mira insisted to the contrary.

 

"It's blue," said Junpei lazily, putting his arms behind his neck.

 

"I can't believe you guys," said Akane. "You'll just flat-out listen to a man who hides his face?!"

 

"Like we haven't seen that before," Junpei grunted. Akane glared at him. Carlos put up his hands and said, "Hey, could you all be quiet for a moment?" He turned to look directly at the man. "What if we choose not to answer?"

 

"Well, you can starve to death in these cells. I promise you that a dark future will await if you do nothing."

 

"Fine. I'll do it," Carlos declared.

 

"No, Carlos!" screamed Akane.

 

"Don't listen to him!" I shouted back.

 

"Time to choose, Carlos," the man said, with a hint of impatience in his voice. "You are that solitary snail. The fate of the world rests with your decision."

 

----Segment 3: Payoff----

 

"It's red," answered Carlos.

 

The man lifted up his cape to reveal that the coin was indeed facing upward with a shade of red.

 

"Oh, thank goodness," said Akane, clutching her chest and sighing. "I was afraid you weren't going to do it, Carlos."

 

"Hey, not so fast!" I shouted. "What if you had gotten it wrong?!"

 

"It doesn't matter. We won, so why speculate?" asked Phi.

 

"Well, are you going to uphold your deal?" asked Junpei, finally sitting up a bit.

 

"Fear not. I'm a fair person. I promised to release you all, and I shall. But first... I apologize, but you must all sleep."

 

"Sleep? In the afternoon?" asked Akane.

 

"When next you wake, you will have forgotten everything that just happened here."

 

"Forget? But why...?" I asked, but then a sharp pain hit my wrist. I made out his voice, coming from far off, saying, "Pleasant dreams."

 

I awoke to find myself, along with the others, outside of Dcom. My head hurt just as badly as it did when I first met Phi. I looked behind me and said, "Wait, why are we outside?"

 

"No clue," said Junpei simply.

 

"When I woke up, I was on the ground over there," said Akane.

 

"Wait... I thought we each had something attached to our wrists," said Diana, holding out her left arm.

 

"Well... It's not outside the realm of possibility," I said, wondering why I'd black out like that. I walked away from the others, and Phi followed.

 

"Do you remember anything?" I asked Phi.

 

"Vaguely. I seem to recall a coin. You?"

 

"Nothing. I thought Akane promised that our memories would be perfect when we SHIFTed."

 

"SHIFT?" Phi asked.

 

"Ah, right, you were asleep all those years. It stands for 'Spacetime Human Internal Fluctuating Transfer.' It's the more proper name for what we called 'jumping.'"

 

"Ah. Well, in that case, we'd have to consider if we really did jump."

 

"You're saying that it might have been amnesia."

 

"Yeah. The fact that the others can't remember suggests that someone doesn't want us at Dcom."

 

"Which means we need to double our efforts to go back inside."

 

"Hey, can someone tell me who this kid is?" we heard Mira shout.

 

"Wait, where did he come from?" I asked.

 

"Never seen him before," Phi replied.

 

Everyone else gave equally confused answers.

 

And then, I was enveloped by a white light, and I felt my entire body tear itself apart.

 

----Segment 4: The Decision Game---

 

I awoke to find myself in a lounge, only it wasn't inside of Dcom. Phi and Diana were lying down next to me, yet to awake, and all three of us had a bracelet on our left wrists. I realized that this had to be another Nonary Game, then wondered inwardly if this somehow was connected to the events of the future. When Phi and Diana stirred, Diana said, in a slurred voice, "Where...are we...? Are we still in Dcom?"

 

"I doubt it. The last thing I remember was passing out from some white smoke," said Phi. "At least our kidnapper seems to want us to be comfortable."

 

"A bunch of couches?" asked Diana.

 

"Hey, the comfort level of a sofa is very important," I said.

 

"Especially when you reach his age," Phi muttered under her breath.

 

"Gah, what's this supposed to be?" asked Diana, yanking at her bracelet. Phi pulled Diana's right hand away and said, "Give it up, Diana. I doubt it can be removed so easily."

 

"How do you know?" asked Diana.

 

"I've seen one of these in the past," Phi answered cryptically, leaving Diana with a blank look on her face.

 

The next thing we knew, a TV screen turned on to reveal a man who was dressed like a plague doctor.

 

"Greetings. How are you feeling?" He spoke with a voice changer, making his voice deep and muffled.

 

"Could you maybe tell us where we are?" Phi asked calmly, but the man continued speaking as though he didn't hear Phi.

 

"I am Zero. The second Zero. I require all of you to take part in a game. The Decision Game."

 

"What's that?" I asked.

 

"Let me make one thing clear," said Zero. "This is a recording, so don't bother asking questions, as I cannot answer."

 

There was silence between the three of us, then Zero continued, "Seventeen years ago, a woman was killed while jogging through the park. Normally, she chose the right path, but this day, she chose the left. When she bumped into a senior citizen that she saw every day, he asked her, 'Why did you go this way today?' This was her reply: 'Because there was a snail.'

 

Her body was found a few hours later. Murdered, with the chest ripped open and the heart entirely removed. A male suspect was quickly caught, and though he claimed innocence, he was convicted by the jury and sentenced to death. In her grief, his wife killed herself. Before his arrest, he called a taxi, but instead, a genius surgeon climbed inside, on his way to performing a critical operation on a small child. On the way, an accident occurred, causing the taxi driver and the surgeon to both die. As a result, the child awaiting the operation also perished.

 

All in all, six people were killed. But why did these six people die? Because there was a snail. A single, solitary snail caused those six people to lose their lives. No, not just those six, but six billion. Life is simply unfair. Don't you think?"

 

"So he is connected to Radical-6 somehow," I pondered inwardly.

 

"One tiny snail caused a ripple of drastic effects in these people’s lives. It is the same with all of you. A series of unfortunate events has caused you to be trapped within this bomb shelter fifty meters below ground."

 

"What?!" exclaimed Diana. "I... What if we choke?"

 

"Calm down, Diana; it's a bomb shelter, not a suffocation chamber," said Phi, looking as though this situation was familiar to her.

 

"This shelter contains three wards," continued Zero, with a map of the shelter appearing on the screen, with each section colored red, green and blue. "Carlos, Akane, Junpei. You three are in Ward C. Your leader will be Carlos. Therefore, you will be known henceforth as C-Team."

 

"Teams, huh? Well, this is new," I thought.

 

"Q, Mira and Eric, you three are located in Ward Q. As evidenced by the name, your leader shall be Q."

 

"Q? I bet Mira and Eric aren't too thrilled about that," said Phi, frowning slightly.

 

"And finally, Diana, Phi and Sigma. You three are in Ward D. Diana is the leader of this team, so your name will be D-Team.

 

You are free to wander as you like, so long as you remain within your respective ward. There is a time limit, however. Once ninety minutes are up, an injector in your bracelet will activate. An anesthetic and an agent to erase your memory will be administered.

 

If you wish to escape the shelter, seek out six X-Passes, and enter them into the input device that you see beside the large X-Door in your respective lounges. One X-Pass will be announced each time someone dies."

 

Phi and I looked at each other in terror.

 

"In blunter terms, if six of you die, the rest will gain all of the passwords and will be able to open the X-Door.

 

Oh yes," he prattled on. "Some of you are surely thinking, 'How can I kill six people?'"

 

"What?! No one would-" began Diana.

 

"I will give you one opportunity. Do you see the monitor in the corner of your lounge? It will display the team names of your newfound enemies on the display. You will need to vote for whichever team you wish to eliminate." My stomach groaned in sympathetic pain, and slight fear of what the other teams might vote. "If a team receives two or more votes... every member of that team will be executed."

 

"Executed?!" I shouted out in rage before Phi shushed me.

 

"Your bracelets serve an additional function: a watch. Press the buttons on both sides of the display to show the time." I did so, and the time was displayed in military time. "Your deadline is 13:30. The team leader must be the one to enter the vote. If a team has not voted during the time limit, that team will be executed.

 

Today is December 31, 2028. The year turns over in less than half a day. Unfortunately, very few of you will find yourselves able to welcome a new 2029 after the vote.

 

Let the game commence. This is the Decision Game. The fates of you, me and all of mankind rest on your decisions." The monitor went statticky.

 

----Segment 5: The Execution Vote---

 

"Woah, an execution?" said Diana shakily. "You don't... really think Zero will kill off a whole team, do you?"

 

"I doubt he was lying back then. The last Zero I knew was pretty truthful, after all," said Phi, smirking up at me. I folded my hands and said, "Zero did say that we have free reign of the shelter." I looked down and saw a map on the table. Diana picked it up and said, "So, we can go wherever we want, so long as it's on this map?"

 

"Yes, that's what Zero said," said Phi.

 

"Then let's go!" said Diana excitedly.

 

I wasn't sure what there was to be excited about within a bomb shelter, but I followed her anyway, wondering if perhaps we'd find an exit other than the X-Door.

 

The rooms we found seemed designed for a long-term stay, and seeing as I arranged for such a setup myself for my plan, I was impressed by how well thought-out the layout was. We found the Prep Room first, which contained only an empty locker, and a door leading into the Decontamination Room. Inside were several showerheads, though Phi suggested that it was more likely to be for washing off contaminants from a nuclear war than an actual communal shower.

 

In the Trash Disposal Room, there was a garbage chute that lead to the inside of an incinerator, visible through a yellow window. We could have used that as a means of disposing of cans of food or burnt clothing.

 

The Healing Room was a room filled with mostly white colors, some lounge chairs and a harpsichord, so I explained that the name "healing" was mostly referring to mental healing, as opposed to physical treatment.

 

The Manufacturing Room contained an assortment of robots of different colors. I had spent too many decades of my life in the company of robots, so I didn't speak very much during our tour, though I did find it amusing that Diana tried to initiate a conversation with a few of them.

 

I couldn't quite make out the purpose of the Transporter Room; the name implied that it had something to do with SHIFTing, but when we tried to mess around with the lever on the monitor in front of two pods that looked like beds, nothing happened. We were further confused by two large objects in the back that looked like chrysalides, an upright pod that looked like it had a door, and a large structure that looked like a tree root.

 

Finally, we arrived in the Locker Room, where we found actual lockers, a bench and true showers, including a VIP stall. I told the girls that we ought to wait to bathe, as we only had until 13:30 to vote.

 

Diana looked downcast as we starting walking back toward the Lounge. I asked, "What's the matter?"

 

"Well, I was hoping to find another exit."

 

"You were seriously expecting one?" asked Phi. "We're inside a bomb shelter. Too many exits would defeat the purpose of what it was built for."

 

"Then that means the X-Door is our only way out," said Diana sadly.

 

"We should see if the other teams made it outside or not," I said. I ran over to the door and shouted, "Hey, Mira! Eric! Carlos! Akane! Tenmyouji!" There was no response.

 

"What did you expect? The door is so thick that I'd be surprised if a drunk toga party at full volume could hear us," said Phi.

 

"Then I guess we'll have to rely on those X-Passes," I said, slumping down onto one of the couches.

 

Phi and Diana walked away, spotting an anagram on the wall, which read "When a curious hate oozes calamity." Akane and I had brainstormed so many of those for my project that I didn't bother paying attention to Phi's and Diana's guesses at the meaning, so I directed my attention instead to a red box on the table which had the words "Force Quit Box" on the front, and a keyboard below the letters. I knew that random keys would do no good, so I tried lifting it, but the box wouldn't even budge.

 

"What are you doing, Sigma?" Diana asked.

 

"Investigating this box."

 

"What's so special about it?" asked Phi.

 

"The only thing I can make out so far is that it's heavy. It's definitely not made from any substance on Earth."

 

"Well, you are getting up there, Sigma," said Phi with a smirk.

 

"Hey, my body hasn't lost it yet!" I shouted, pointing to my well-exercised body. Diana looked like she was about to giggle.

 

"I'll try lifting it instead," said Phi slyly. She put her hands on both sides of the box, then grunted when she had no better results than I did. I glared down at her and said, "Believe me now?"

 

"Yeah, yeah, whatever," she said, sitting down next to me on the sofa. "Do you suppose we ought to get to voting?"

 

"I think we should talk it through before casting the actual vote. What say you, Diana?" I asked.

 

"Sigma, that is such an illogical thought process. We have no idea what C-Team and Q-Team are thinking. The only thing we have to go on is voting in the first place," said Phi.

 

"Wait, do we have to vote?" asked Diana, holding her hands close to her mouth.

 

"Yeah, unless you want our heads to be on the chopping block."

 

Diana clutched her neck in response. She swallowed, then said, "Can I ask you guys a few questions?"

 

"What do you need to know?" I asked, crossing my arms.

 

"First, I was wondering: who is Zero? Do you two have any ideas?"

 

After Phi briefly looked at me, I quickly said in reply, "I haven't the foggiest, but he did say that he was the second Zero, so he must have a connection with whoever was responsible for the kidnapping case last year."

 

"I can't say for sure who it is, but it might be easy enough to deduce a few possibilities," said Phi.

 

"Like... what?" I asked, wondering how any deduction could be done with someone wearing a mask.

 

"Think about it: Why did Zero pre-record his speech to us? If we're underground in a bomb shelter, it would be impossible for the outside world to communicate with us, due to the lack of satellite signals. Therefore, Zero must be somewhere inside this shelter. But then that begs the question of where. There are two possibilities: Either he's already bit the bullet, or..."

 

"Zero is one of us," Diana finished, and I nodded in grief. Diana took in a deep breath and asked, "Do you guys have any idea where we are? Apart from being inside a bomb shelter, obviously."

 

"I doubt we're very far from Dcom," said Phi. "This may be part of the experiment. After all, one of the tests was meant to simulate an actual Mars mission."

 

"And since the Earth rotates around the sun, Dcom won't be able to send their signal when the sun is blocking the satellite," I continued.

 

Diana started giggling. She responded, "You two seem like siblings. You're totally in-sync with each other."

 

We gave each other a knowing look yet again. Continuing to giggle, Diana then said, "This may seem rude of me to say, but... Sigma, the way you talk is rather strange."

 

"Forgive him," said Phi quickly, thankfully sparing me the embarrassment of how I had behaved toward her in the past. "His mental and bodily age are completely different."

 

"I told you at Dcom that my consciousness came from the future, and now I've returned here to stop the world from a crisis," I responded.

 

"And that's how both of us know about what will happen in the future," Phi said.

 

"Uh.... That's a lot to take in," said Diana, rubbing her head in confusion.

 

"It doesn't have to make sense. You just need to believe us," I urged her.

 

Diana got a rather sad look on her face. Phi asked, "What's troubling you?"

 

Diana turned away from the two of us and moaned, "Why me, of all people? I shouldn't have listened to Rebecca."

 

"Rebecca?" I asked.

 

"She's the head nurse at the hospital where I work. She suggested joining the experiment."

 

"I recall you once told me that there was another reason, wasn't there?" I asked. Diana gave me a confused look, but I was spared from answering yet another awkward question when we heard a crash coming from the Prep Room.

 

"C'mon," ordered Phi. "It might be one of the other teams."

 

When we arrived in the Prep Room, we found one of the dogs that stayed with us at Dcom, whose name was Gab. He was incredibly old. Diana knelt down and looked inside the medicine case. It was empty. I clenched my fists, thinking that Zero may have taken the medicine instead, but Diana was smiling. She said, "Take a look at this! The other teams gave us a note."

 

"What does it say?" I asked.

 

"'Hello, Carlos here,'" Diana read outloud. "'C-Team is voting for D-Team, so D-Team should vote for Q-Team, and Q-Team for C-Team.' And there's some more handwriting at the bottom. 'Q-Team: Got it!'"

 

"I get it," said Phi, looking at the map. "Carlos sent Gab through the vent into Ward Q, then they let us know that they received the message so that we could vote accordingly. They want to make it a three-way tie, since Zero said that only the team with two or more votes would lose. But that brings up a dilemma."

 

"A dilemma?" asked Diana.

 

"Follow me to the Lounge," said Phi. "It'd be easier to explain when we're next to the voting machine."

 

When we got back to the monitor, Phi began her explanation: "We should consider the possibility that the letter is a trap."

 

"A trap?" asked Diana.

 

"Q-Team wouldn't just announce their plans of voting like that," Phi continued. "It would seem pointless to send Gab, in that case. They would otherwise have just accepted C-Team's message and betrayed us."

 

"Which means that Q-Team is indeed following the note and will vote for C-Team, because the note implies that they received the note second and gave us a warning," I continued.

 

"So therefore, we have no choice but to vote for Q-Team," Phi responded. "Otherwise..."

 

"Our single vote could cause the death of C-Team," I finished. "Anyway, you're the leader, Diana, so think about what we've told you, and then come to a decision."

 

The few minutes we had remaining to talk it over felt like hours. Diana paced around the Lounge quite a few times before coming to her conclusion. She picked Q-Team. I breathed a sigh of relief.

 

"I'm glad you followed the note," I said.

 

"We're not in the clear yet," said Phi. "Our whole theory is based on the premise that C-Team kept their word. No matter what we vote, we may still have a chance of being executed."

 

"Then when will we know the results?!" asked Diana frantically.

 

Right on cue, the monitor turned on, and Zero's voice was heard.

 

"Congratulations, D-Team. You have gone through with the vote exactly as I commanded. You deserve a reward for obeying. The memory loss drug will not be injected into the three of you. When next you wake, those who survived will be able to regret the decision they made, when all members of a single team will perish as a result of the vote you entered. Pleasant dreams." And we blacked out.

 

----Segment 6: Our Execution---

 

I awoke to the sound of Phi's voice urging Diana to wake up. My neck was stiff. I wondered at first if it was my old mind catching up to my body, but then I realized that all three of us were wearing a strange collar around our necks. Diana tried to pry hers off, but Phi responded, "There's no keyhole, Diana. Give it up."

 

"But what are these even for?!" she shouted.

 

"And now for the voting results," came Zero's voice over a loudspeaker. "The team who received two votes... was you, D-Team. Therefore, every one of you will be executed."

 

"What?!" said Phi. I was surprised that she was actually caught off-guard by something for a change. "What in the world is Q-Team thinking? If they were going to vote for us, there was no need for them to send Gab." Even at a time like this, when Diana and I were frantically trying to yank our collars off, Phi still looked pensive. "There must be a trick to this game, something nonsensical, illogical even."

 

"You're trying too hard," responded Zero. "Think about who it was that made the decision to kill you. In a way, they are the true culprit."

 

"Stop talking nonsense and let us go!" screamed Diana.

 

"Zero! I swear you'll-" I began, but Phi, as calm as ever, said, "Sigma, let's jump."

 

"Huh?!" I shouted back.

 

The collars began making a faster beeping sound. Diana screamed so loud that it nearly broke my eardrums, but then everything went black.

 

----Segment 7: First Come, First Saved----

 

I awoke to the sound to Diana's screaming.

 

"Hey, what's wrong?!" I shouted, rushing to her side and touching her shoulders.

 

"W-We had these collars... on our necks... and we were executed by the vote!" she said, feeling her neck, her breathing sounding erratic.

 

"Wh-What are you talking about?" I asked. "We're here right now, see? Come on, feel me."

 

"B-But... It was so clear. It was like..."

 

"A bad dream?" I asked.

 

"Y-Yeah, maybe."

 

I knew that Diana couldn't have actually SHIFTed, because I would have remembered dying, due to my training with Akane in strengthening my memories during a jump, and yet my last memory was of Zero telling us that we would not be injected with the amnesia drug because we went through with the vote. If Phi agreed with me, that would confirm my theory, as she underwent the same trials.

 

"Yeah, he's right," said Phi. "I specifically remembered Zero telling us that he wouldn't inject us. Besides, you went against the note and voted for C-Team, so you're probably just feeling empathy for them, as it's highly unlikely-"

 

"Wait a minute, what are you saying?!" I shouted.

 

"Your memory is going already?" Phi sighed in exasperation, giving me a look that I was all too familiar with when I was younger. "Diana went against the note and voted for C-Team, so-"

 

"Nonsense, you must be out of it. I'm certain that Diana voted for Q-Team, because we weren't injected."

 

"You're the one out of it, you senile old man! She definitely voted for C-Team!"

 

We continued glaring and bickering at each other for a few minutes before I broke it up and said, "What about you, Diana? Which team do you remember voting for?"

 

"I don't know," she said, looking down at the floor.

 

"That's not possible," said Phi in defiance. "You don't remember what Zero said after the vote? I thought Sigma was the old one here."

 

"No, I remember what Zero said, but I don't remember what I voted," insisted Diana.

 

"But if you remember what he said, then you'll know that you voted for Q-Team, because it was only seconds later that-"

 

"Get out of it, you fossil! She definitely voted for C-Team."

 

"Maybe you're just groggy with sleep," I shouted back.

 

"Guys, please, stop! Does it really matter?" asked Diana, trying to pry Phi and me apart.

 

"Yes, it... Wait, maybe... No, don't tell me," said Phi, putting her hand to her forehead. "Maybe... we jumped from another timeline."

 

"Jumped?" asked Diana.

 

"It's a simpler name for the process Phi and I went through to get to this year from the future," I said. "I believe Phi's theory is worth looking in to, as that could very well explain the discrepancy in memory."

 

"Wait, what do you mean by getting to this year from the future? How exactly did that happen?" asked Diana, looking from Phi to myself in total bewilderment.

 

"Well, we haven't heard anything from Zero yet, so I guess we can try to tell you," replied Phi. "It's highly-likely you won't believe us, though."

 

I started: "Anyway, Phi and I were both born in 2008 and 2006, respectively. A can of white smoke assaulted us on December 25, 2028, which sent our consciousnesses to January 2074. After we witnessed the horrible future that wiped out humanity, we were sent back to April 2029, where we spent forty-five years of normal time until we were sent back to December 25, 2028."

 

Diana gave us a blank look.

 

"I told you that you wouldn't believe us," said Phi with her trademark smirk.

 

"What matters is not the legitimacy of our story, but the implications of the future."

 

"And... how exactly did humanity die out?"

 

"Well, as I said at Dcom, a virus called Radical-6 was leaked from Dcom and became a pandemic. The virus causes those infected to have the irresistible urge to commit suicide. The dead... numbered six billion."

 

"Once we returned to this time," said Phi, "we found Akane, and with the help of her organization, Crash Keys, we were able to infiltrate the Mars mission test site. However, in light of our current predicament, I think we got one of the details wrong."

 

"What do you mean?" asked Diana.

 

"We were told, back then, that the virus originated from Dcom, but perhaps that was misinformation. Instead, it's very possible that it actually came from this shelter instead."

 

"But... if you guys saw the future, how come you didn't try to stop the game?!" asked Diana.

 

"We didn't know anything about a game, or a Zero," I responded. "We just followed our orders. But because Phi and I can SHIFT, or jumping, as Phi knows it, we are able to rotate between histories and find a way to create one where Radical-6 won't spread."

 

"Histories? Jumping?"

 

"It's why Sigma thinks you voted for Q-Team, but I came from a history where you voted for C-Team. That's just one version of jumping. How we got here was another."

 

"Can you tell me more? I'm not sure I understand all of it, though, so you might have to go more slowly."

 

"We can't sit around here forever," I said. "Zero said we only have ninety minutes to explore before the amnesia drug knocks us out, so it's possible that we may have already told you all of this, and we just forgot. Or we'll forget about this conversation. Now, what do you say to a little 'Escaping the room,' Phi?" I asked.

 

"I would agree with you, but we only have two options, and not many hints to work with," said Phi. "According to the map, there are only two doors, since we're in the Decontamination Room. This door here leads to the Prep Room, and this other door looks like it'll take us to an elevator."

 

"An elevator to the surface, maybe?!" asked Diana excitedly. "Maybe we should go through that door, and then the other teams won't have to die!"

 

"There's just one problem with that," I said, walking over to the door Diana was pointing at, and trying to open it. "There's no door handle, and it feels like it's welded shut."

 

"Then... how are we supposed to open it?" asked Diana.

 

"Perhaps by pressing this button," said Phi, pointing to a yellow button on the right side of the door.

 

"Didn't you just hear that the door is welded shut?" I asked.

 

"Then what do you propose it does?" Phi responded.

 

"A little late, perhaps, but I will now announce the voting results," came Zero's voice over the loudspeaker. "All three leaders voted for different teams. Therefore, none have been executed."

 

"Oh, thank goodness," said Diana, breathing a heavy sigh of relief. "I guess it doesn't matter which team I picked, then."

 

"I can't say this is an ideal situation for any of us involved," Zero continued. "Think back on the rules you were told. You will remain in this shelter for eternity until six people are killed. I will give you one more opportunity to take my offer.

 

The other two teams are listening to a message just like this one in their ward's Decontamination Room. I'm sure you all see a yellow button on the wall. Pressing it will activate the showers in the other wards, and they will rain down a solution of hydrogen fluoride."

 

"Hydrofluoric acid?!" I shouted. Even I didn't try to put my subjects through that much agony in my project.

 

"It's not only acidic enough to melt a body, but it also dissolves glass and iron. Explaining what would happen if you were under it seems unnecessary. I have a word of advice for you: The early bird gets the worm. Once one team has pressed the button, it will become inactive for both of the other teams. What will you do? Press the button or refuse. Your time limit is three minutes."

 

"C'mon, let's hurry!" I shouted, rushing over to the button. Diana stood in my way.

 

"Hold on, Sigma, what are you doing?!"

 

"I'm trying to protect you two!" I shouted. "Of course I don't want the other teams to be killed, but if we don't act quickly, we'll be the ones killed! Do you really want to be washed down the drain?"

 

"Sigma, wait, please listen. Zero said that we had three minutes."

 

"That's right," responded Phi. "He never said what would happen if no one pushed the button after three minutes."

 

"So you want me to just WAIT?!" I screamed.

 

"Please, Sigma. Have faith. Trust the other teams," begged Diana.

 

I was sweating like crazy. I looked deep into Diana's eyes and couldn't bring myself to lose her again. I stared at Phi, whom I had gone through so many ordeals with. The thought of either of them being taken from this life at such a young age felt like a burden to me, but I also knew that Diana was the leader of our team, so I said, "Very well. I'll leave it up to you, Diana."

 

All three of us waited with bated breath. Every sneeze, footstep, cough or breath made me jump, thinking that maybe the showers had started on us. I looked at my bracelet every couple of seconds, until finally...

 

"Sigma, it's been three minutes," said Diana calmly.

 

"Wait, then that means..." I said, trying to think of the ramifications of waiting.

 

"It means the other teams could be trusted after all!" said Diana in more joy than I'd ever seen her.

 

"It appears there may have been a miscommunication, so I shall clear it up for you," came Zero's voice over the loudspeaker. "I never said that the showers would activate as soon as the button was pressed."

 

"Wait, no, don't tell me..." began Phi.

 

"Your thinking is correct. You have yet to find out whether or not the button has been pressed by another team."

 

"Wait, so we'll be asleep when we find out?" I asked to thin air. I checked the bracelet. "I guess it is almost time for our injection."

 

"Assuming you're still alive, you will now sleep and forget everything that just happened here. Have pleasant dreams, while you can." We immediately passed out afterward.

 

---Segment 8: Outbreak----

 

We awoke to find ourselves in the Manufacturing Room. I took one look at the robots across from us, and I immediately fell silent; in my project, I had programmed robots, which I called GAULEMs, and I had actually based one of them off of Diana. Hoping not to bring up that painful past, I let Diana's curiosity get the better of her, as she prodded and tapped the robots, hoping they'd answer her.

 

"Give it up, Diana," said Phi. "Their power probably isn't on."

 

"Aw man. I wanted some friendly conversation. I like the pretty purple one, though."

 

"Well, old man, I think you've seen more than enough purple for a lifetime," said Phi in a snide remark.

 

Pretending that I was angry at Phi, I walked away and checked the door. I was unsurprised to find that it was locked. Without looking at the girls, I said, "It seems like we're trapped."

 

"Again?" asked Phi in exasperation.

 

"What do you mean by that, Phi?" asked Diana.

 

"Nothing. Let's just find a way out of here."

 

"Right. I think our first step is looking through these manuals on the table; they might tell us how to boot up the robots," I continued.

 

"These look like instructions straight from the manufacturer," said Phi. "Wait, I think there might be a pattern if we look at these two."

 

Phi laid out two pieces of paper that had the words "Red, White, Blue" from top to bottom, and "Alex, Betty, Charley" in the same alignment. She continued, "If we placed these words side-by-side..."

 

"I see what you're getting at," I continued. "Red is Alex, White is Betty and Blue is Charley. I bet those are the names of the robots."

 

"And if that's the case, we could probably figure out which wire to cut."

 

"Wire cutting? How do you figure that we'll be doing that?" asked Diana.

 

"Because these diagrams show wires, and they said, 'Cut Charley' or 'Cut Alex,'" said Phi.

 

"And given my extensive time with robots, I know that these aren't their internal circuitry systems," I responded.

 

Diana giggled. "Oh, you two. I wouldn't be surprised if you were twins by the way you finish each other's thoughts."

 

"We've... had our fair share of escaping rooms together," said Phi, again giving me a smirk. She looked around the room and said, "Speaking of wire cutters, here's some right here. You take them, Diana."

 

"Huh? Me? You guys have solved all of the puzzles so far."

 

"She probably wants you to feel useful," I said. "Here's a stun gun over here."

 

"And I just found a screwdriver," said Phi.

 

"So now, we need to power up the robots. We first need to reboot their electrical systems, so this stun gun would probably be useful here. Phi, read out the paper with the numbers in a horizontal formation."

 

"1, 5, 4, 2, 6, 3."

 

"Got it," I said, electrocuting the knobs with the stun gun in conjunction with the clues on the paper. "The robots should be fully functional."

 

"HI! I'm Betty! It's time to SHaKe things UUUUUUUP!"

 

"Wh-what's with this one? It's surprisingly-hyper," said Phi, looking slightly nauseated.

 

"Set Timer. To. 0 Seconds. HUUUUUUURY! The Doctor Is Coming. Who?!"

 

"Uh, right. C'mon, let's do what it says," I said.

 

"Dumbbell, are you really going to listen to the logic of a machine? It's programmed to say whatever Zero wants. What if we're walking into a trap?" said Phi.

 

"If Zero really didn't want us to listen to the robot, then why did he bother leaving papers on the table to help us power them up? It must be part of the test, to help us escape."

 

"And how would you know how Zero thinks?"

 

"Because I-" I was going to say that I designed puzzles just like these for my project and also called myself Zero during that time, but I was interrupted.

 

"How do you do, young man? I'm Charley. It's my pleasure to meet you," said the green robot.

 

"Huh? Who's it talking to?"

 

"You, dummie," said Phi, slapping her forehead. "Do you see any other young men in this room?"

 

"Uh, no, but... Oh, right, my body. But why is it staring at me like that?"

 

"It probably feels an affinity to you, since it's an OLD model."

 

"I suggest that you obey Betty, for you will otherwise be unable to escape."

 

"See? If Charley agrees, then we should follow Betty's original instructions," I retorted.

 

"Sigma, didn't we go through two separate timelines trying to deal with Dio's bombs?! Do we really want to go through another one?" shouted Phi, tugging my arm away from the Start button.

 

"If Zero wanted to kill us, he could just use the bracelet," I said, holding up my left wrist. "Besides, do you have any other bright ideas on escaping?"

 

"Um, guys, do you mind if I interrupt?" asked Diana. "Betty did say to set the timer to zero seconds. Wouldn't that mean that we're actually turning off the bomb?"

 

Phi and I stopped. Now it was my turn to smirk.

 

"I guess that means you're outvoted, Phi."

 

"Diana, listen to me. Please don't push that button."

 

"But Phi-"

 

"Don't listen to her. Just do it. Otherwise, what would be the point of all these papers?"

 

Diana pressed the button at the bottom, and suddenly, a ticking sound started.

 

"What?! I thought we were supposed to set it to zero seconds!" I shouted. "Did you press the wrong button?!"

 

"I-I..." stuttered Diana.

 

"The young woman is correct," said Charley. "You must disarm the bomb before you can leave."

 

"Disarm the- Oh, you're gonna get it if we escape from here, you stubborn old man!" shouted Phi.

 

"Hey, Diana pressed it!"

 

"Guys, stop arguing! We need to figure out what to do."

 

"Let's check out that box that just materialized," I said in desperation. We ran over. I took one look at the shape of the bomb in comparison to the diagram and I said, "Diana, cut the red wire!"

 

"A-Are you sure?!" asked Diana frantically.

 

"Yes, just do it!" I screamed.

 

Diana did so, and nothing happened. She asked, "Did I do it wrong?"

 

"No, that's what supposed to happen," I said, my breathing frantic. "C'mon, let's keep going. My heart rate can't take much more of this."

 

Phi then unscrewed the cover, and we found a contraption that had a bunch of hammers held in place by screws. There was a pendulum in the middle that I said, "Be careful not to hit that, Phi." She responded, "Oh, this is easy. On the right side, we can go from top to bottom." She did so, and the hammers rested in mid-air before they hit the pendulum. "Now, for the left side, it looks like... second-from-the-bottom, the top one, then the second-from-top, and then the bottom. Okay, let's screw this cover and move on!"

 

"More wires?!" asked Diana. "Which ones now?!"

 

"The blue one, according to this hint," I said.

 

"How can you be so confident?!" asked Diana frantically.

 

"I've had my experience with this. Please do as I ask!" I urged her.

 

"Okay, okay, but how long will our luck last?" asked Diana shakily.

 

She cut the blue wire, and nothing happened yet again. Once Phi removed the cover, though, we now had to choose between three wires, and this time, there was a countdown timer.

 

"We're getting close to the end," I said. "Don't panic; just cut the red wire."

 

"But-"

 

"Diana, just shut up and follow Sigma; there's a timer, remember?!"

 

"Ah, right."

 

"Hey, I heard the ticking from the bomb stop. I think we're good," said Phi, sounding exhausted.

 

"Phew; I thought my heart was going to explode like that bomb," I said, slumping down on the ground.

 

We heard the sound of metal creaking, then Diana said in joy, "Hey guys, the door's open."

 

"Finally... Let's get through before it closes on us," Phi said, and once we ran through the door and safely back into the Lounge, I collapsed onto one of the couches. I heard Phi say, "I'm going to see if I can find Gab. Diana, stay here and watch Sigma."

 

"I don't need a babysitter," I said indignantly, sitting up at once.

 

"No, but maybe hospice," Phi retorted, walking away. Diana sat down next to me and asked, "Sigma, I know you're still feeling tired on the outside from disarming that bomb, but I could tell that something was bothering you throughout our time in that room. Did the robots trigger a painful memory?"

 

"Oh, those?" I asked, looking away from her. "It's just that I once made robots."

 

"You made robots?!" asked Diana, sounding both excited and disbelieving.

 

"Well, I actually only made the outer appearance and AI. The frame was built elsewhere."

 

"Uh, isn't that pretty much the same thing?" asked Diana.

 

"The reason I built the robots was to support my plan. No, maybe that's not the entire reason. To tell you the truth... I was lonely."

 

"You didn't have any friends?" asked Diana, holding my hand. I felt goosebumps erupt up my arm, but I continued talking and tried to ignore them.

 

"I spent several decades of my life alone, working deep underground, where no sunlight could reach. I couldn't hear rain or wind. I never received an email, or a phone call. It was utter, painful silence. An acquaintance actually joined me to support me, but that was it.

 

Shortly after I came to the facility, a young woman helped me for a few years. We studied genetics, quantum mechanics, cosmology, biochemistry and artificial intelligence. But then..." A tear dropped from my eye as I tried to finish speaking. "The woman... passed away."

 

"I'm so sorry, Sigma. Do you mind telling me what happened to her?"

 

"You remember me telling you at Dcom that Radical-6 destroyed the world? In order to isolate ourselves, our base was founded underground on the moon. The woman had always dreamed of going to the moon as a child, but she didn't realize that the place's weak gravity took a toll on her circulatory system. With overwhelming grief filling me, I spent twenty-five years creating a robot to replace her. When I finished, I named her Luna, to honor the young woman's dream to be on the moon. Luna was... very kind and gentle." I looked straight at Diana and said, "I think you would have really liked her. I began to love her like a father loves a daughter. Does that sound so horrible to you?"

 

"No, of course not. You missed this woman, and so you felt like you had to create a memento of her to continue living. But I'm really confused about one detail."

 

"Yes?"

 

"It took you twenty-five years to create that robot?"

 

"That's correct."

 

"But... How old are you, then?"

 

"67."

 

"What?!"

 

"Hey, Sigma! Diana! C'mere!" came Phi's shout just in time. We rushed toward the sound of her voice, which lead us into the Decontamination Room.

 

"I've come up with an escape plan," said Phi smugly.

 

"Oh? What do you propose?" I asked politely.

 

"On this map, it shows that, beyond this door, is an elevator. It'll likely lead us to the surface. The question, then, is how to open this door."

 

I put my hands on the door, which had no handle, and tried to push it open, but I felt that it seemed to be welded shut.

 

"According to my analysis, nothing less than a bomb would even dent this door," I told Phi.

 

"Then... let's use one," she remarked slyly.

 

Diana and I gave each other looks of both confusion and terror.

 

"And where exactly do you expect us to find this bomb?" I asked.

 

"Follow me, and it'll all be clear."

 

We followed her to the Manufacturing Room and pointed to the bomb we spent all that time disarming.

 

"Ah, I see. This does look like it would have enough power to blast away the door," I remarked.

 

"Good. Get to it, Sigma. Diana and I will be waiting for you in the Lounge."

 

"Wait a second! You're just gonna leave me to carry this by myself?!" I asked with anger, as I felt like Phi was thinking very little of the value of my life, or at least doing a poor job of showing it.

 

"Ever since the days of old, men have done the heavy lifting," she responded.

 

"But I'm the old one!"

 

"Your body isn't. You should have more than enough strength to take it to the Decontamination Room."

 

"For real, Phi?" I asked, shaking my head.

 

"Oh, and don't drop the bomb or do anything stupid; that thing blows up on you, and Diana and I won't have a way out anymore."

 

"Your concern for me is touching," I remarked with equal sarcasm, and I gathered up all of the strength this young body had, and heaved it to the door. I then walked back into the Lounge to see Phi looking incredibly relaxed, and Diana filled with anxiety. Still seething with anger myself, I simply said, "Come," to the both of them.

 

"Congratulations," said Phi cynically when I showed her the bomb.

 

"Who made you head honcho?" I asked grumpily.

 

"Call me Boss Phi."

 

"Since when did you get all high-and-mighty?"

 

"Since birth," she said with a wink.

 

"Your parents must have been real characters," I said, shaking my head in disbelief that anyone could be so bossy and snarky, and yet, I somehow still deeply cared about her.

 

"Please, you two. Can't you stop bickering long enough to set the bomb and get us out of here?" asked Diana.

 

"Five minutes should be enough time," said Phi. "Okay, press the button, Sigma."

 

"Not again... Why now?"

 

"You've lived long enough to make your peace. Diana and I are still young and have a lot left to experience."

 

"Hmph," I retorted, and I pressed the button. We bolted to the Lounge as quickly as we could.

 

Once I caught my breath, I asked, "How much time do you suppose we have remaining?" I asked Phi.

 

"Three minutes, thirty seconds, I estimate," Phi responded, clutching a stitch in her side.

 

"You kept track in your head?" asked Diana.

 

"Yeah. It's a piece of cake. You should try it sometime, Sigma."

 

"I spent the last forty-five years of my life keeping track of numbers and mathematics, thank you very much," I calmly responded.

 

We then heard a chiming sound from above us, and a female voice said, "Now announcing the current casualties. C-Team: Carlos, Akane, Junpei. These three are now deceased. As a result, three X-Passes will be revealed: FIRE, CRASH, FIVE. That is all."

 

"What?! C-Team is dead?" I asked in horror, with memories of Akane and Junpei flooding my mind.

 

"They must have been killed by the vote," reasoned Phi. "Diana did vote for C-Team after all."

 

"Wait, what are you saying? I remember she voted for Q-Team," I retorted.

 

"Sigma, did you ever take a logic class? There are only two possible ways of dying during the vote, according to Zero," explained Phi, speaking as though I were a two-year-old. "Either they abstain from voting, or they get two votes against them. You're not suggesting that Q-Team got to vote for C-Team twice, are you?"

 

"Not necessarily. It's possible that C-Team was killed in another manner."

 

"Well, no use speculating, since they're dead," Diana said in defeat. "How much more time do we have with the bomb?"

 

Before Phi could answer, the monitor turned on.

 

"What kind of nonsense are you trying to pull? Did you really think I wouldn't notice?" asked Zero, sounding angry, though his voice was still muffled by his mask.

 

"What are you talking about?" asked Diana.

 

"What you are doing right now is considered a rule infraction. You are not allowed to leave by means other than the X-Door."

 

"What?! You never mentioned that!" I argued at him.

 

"As such, I decided to break the rules myself. Q-Team is currently asleep outside the door leading to the elevator. It's true that, if the bomb explodes, it will open the door in the Decontamination Room, though it will kill the oblivious, slumbering Q-Team in the process."

 

My stomach filled with hatred toward Zero at this unfeeling disregard to Q-Team's situation.

 

"So, what will you do? Will you try to stop the bomb, or let it explode and make your own escape? If my calculations are correct, you should have about two minutes left. The choice is yours."

 

The monitor went blank, and without discussion, we ran to the Prep Room, but as soon as we tried to enter the Decontamination Room, the showers were pouring acidic liquid into the room. I quickly slammed the door shut, and we coughed and wheezed for a couple of seconds before Diana spluttered, "Why would Zero use hydrofluoric acid again?"

 

"Again? When did he use it the first time?" asked Phi.

 

"I don't remember, but I just know, okay?" Diana bickered back.

 

"Stop it, Phi; she's right. There's no way we're getting through there."

 

"Wait, Sigma, let's check the locker," said Diana excitedly.

 

"But it was empty when we last checked it."

 

"Maybe something was put in it after we were injected," Diana said in reply, opening the locker and revealing a protection suit.

 

"Ah, that would allow one of us to go through," I said in subdued relief. Phi must have been thinking along the same train of thought, as she remarked, "But there's only one. Stand aside, Diana; I'll do it."

 

"No! I won't let you risk your life. I'll go," said Diana.

 

"It'll be too hard for you to get changed quickly enough with that dress," said Phi stubbornly.

 

"Stop it, both of you. We're already too late. We need to get out of here as quickly as possible!" I urged them. When they hesitated, I shouted, "Do you want to be blown up?!"

 

Diana and Phi ran out of the room as quickly as they could. I locked the door behind them, and began to change into the suit.

 

"Sigma, open the door!" came Diana's voice, muffled and pounding on the door.

 

"You would have tried to hold me back if we kept this up," I responded.

 

"You lied?!" asked Diana indignantly.

 

"I'm doing this to protect you two. Don't worry; I won't die. I will save everyone in Q-Team."

 

"Shut up, Sigma, you can't just die like that," came Phi's voice.

 

I didn't answer them, so I kicked open the door to the Decontamination Room and ran toward the bomb as quickly as I could, but I was too late. A colossal explosion blasted me backward, and my body hit the switch keeping the door locked on the girls. Thankfully, Phi's mental math was impeccable, as they had backed away from the door in time to avoid the explosion. However, their screams were the worst thing I'd ever heard in my life, and I didn't blame them, as I was in excruciating pain. My right eye and both of my arms had been blasted off from the explosion, and I couldn't even look at them. I had never heard Phi so worried until she said, "Diana, you're a nurse, right?! Get Sigma some medical attention, quickly! I'll go check the Decontamination Room."

 

I blacked out shortly after that, so it's unclear to me how Diana was able to find a room that supplied bandages and anesthetics, but I was thankful for her hospital background. She tried her best to prop me against the wall, while I tried not to upchuck all over her.

 

"It's all right, Diana! The showers have stopped. I'll help you carry Sigma; we're gonna get out of here!"

 

The girls helped drag me onto the elevator, but my strength gave out again, and I fell to the floor. I heard footsteps that suggested that Diana and Phi were looking to see if Q-Team miraculously survived.

 

"This child... What's this small child doing here?!" asked Diana in a concerned, motherly tone of voice.

 

Despite my pain, I felt a deeper surge of anger that Zero would drag an innocent child into his despicable game.

 

I heard a faint groan next, and the following conversation reached my ears:

 

"Phi, where are the others?" It was Mira, and she sounded as though she were on her deathbed.

 

Phi didn't answer, so Mira continued, "I see. They're all dead. I'll be joining them soon. It was you, wasn't it? You set the bomb. Zero told us what happened. But that's okay," she said, her voice now sounding sinister. "You'll receive a gift in return." I heard Phi shriek next, but I couldn't tell what happened, other than Phi's voice in even more terror than before.

 

"What... did... you... just...?"

 

"Well...? Do you... like... it...? You've heard of it, right? Radical-6?"

 

Phi ran past me without looking at me. I tried to gather up the strength to tell Phi to stay put, but it wasn't necessary. The explosion had caused the ceiling of the Decontamination Room to collapse, leaving us stuck on the elevator.

 

I let out a faint laugh as the girls propped me into a sitting position against one of the elevator rails. Phi, her eyes choked with tears asked, "You big jerk! How could you have acted noble at a time like this?"

 

"Phi... we have bigger problems. You do... realize what timeline we're in... right?"

 

"No... No, it can't be," said Phi, frantically grasping her hair and running in circles. "No, no, Sigma, you're wrong. It can't be that future... well, my past, I guess, but still!"

 

"Diana, listen to me...." I grunted. "This future... is the one I warned you all against. Listen to me very carefully, or six billion people will die!"

 

"Wh-What is there to discuss? We're escaping!"

 

"Phi is infected with Radical-6. If she leaves this shelter, the virus will become a pandemic, and history will repeat itself."

 

"You two need to get out of here as quickly as possible. I'll stay behind," shouted Phi.

 

"No, that's not possible," I said, closing my eye a bit. "A rescue team will eventually try to reach you."

 

"Then... kill me," Phi demanded, shaking Diana. "Kill me, burn my remains and get Sigma to the surface! Hurry up, why are you hesitating?!"

 

"You can't ask me to murder you, Phi! I can't do that!" said Diana, prying herself free from Phi's grasp.

 

"Kill me, or six billion people will die!!!" bellowed Phi. "We have to stop the virus from-"

 

Phi let out an ear-splitting scream, then she dropped to the ground. I looked up to see Diana holding the stun gun that we found in the Manufacturing Room.

 

"Diana, no... Please, don't use this lift. If you do..."

 

"I know... But you and Phi are more important. I'm going to save you both," said Diana, tears pouring down her cheeks as she pressed the Up button, and we began ascending.

 

I couldn't even bear to look at Diana. Any feelings I had once harbored for her were long-gone, now that I knew that she was the cause for those forty-five years of misery. But one thing still bothered me: Akane and Junpei were both vital elements to my plan; did that mean the announcer was lying about their deaths?

 

When we reached the surface, it was nighttime. There was a walkie-talkie bellowing, "This is Control, I repeat, this is Control. Someone please respond!"

 

"This is Diana," she said. I couldn't hear what Control was saying, now that Diana was holding the phone against her ear, but I didn't need to know. I had heard a recording of this dialogue forty-five years in the future, and I had no desire to hear it again. Diana continued speaking, "Six of us are dead... Counting myself, there are only three left. They were killed. I guess you could say... I killed them. No, not just them. Not just these six. Soon, I will have killed six billion people."

 

She dropped the phone, and sat next to me. I refused to meet her eyes. She tried to rub my shoulder, but my gaze remained firmly away from her. Her voice sounding numb, she said, "I'm sorry, Sigma. What can I do to make it up to you?"

 

"Nothing. In this history, we'll just have to place our hopes in the next Sigma; the me who returns from the future." I blacked out after saying that.

 

----Segment 9: Crash Keys----

 

I awoke to find myself lying on a soft bed. My arms had been replaced with robotic ones, and I now had an eye patch. I heard some footsteps hurrying toward me, then Akane, Diana and Phi burst into the room, all hugging me. I was grateful that my new arms could hug them back. I asked, "Am I in a hospital?"

 

"You were, but we had to use an anesthetic on you. You had lost so much blood, and I couldn't bear you being in more pain," said Diana, tears pouring down her face.

 

"You... You patched me up?" I asked.

 

"Yes.... Like I said before, I'm so sorry I caused all of this. I figured I had to do something."

 

"Well, Young Me is about to meet you, so you can go to the moon with him, and the next me will return to another version of 2028."

 

"You... forgive me, then?"

 

"Yeah," I grunted in mild pain. "I should have known that you wouldn't be able to harm an innocent."

 

"Sigma... The next time we see each other, we won't recognize one another," said Phi sadly.

 

"Then let's make this good-bye count," I replied, giving Phi a kiss on the cheek. "The two of us that travel from the future WILL find a better timeline."

 

I finally turned to Akane and said, "But... How did you get here? We all heard the announcement and thought you were dead."

 

"In this history, yes, but another version of us SHIFTed to a timeline where alternate versions of you and Diana told us about a transporter that allowed us to jump physically INTO this history."

 

"A transporter that allows one's whole body to SHIFT? Ah, we could use that to bring Clover and Alice back to their proper time after the AB Project is completed. Where are they now?"

 

"Sleeping inside the pods. They'll be in there for the next forty-five years."

 

"And Phi, you know we'll need to do that to you too, right?"

 

"Yeah... Seeing as I was the one that was infected, I figured that this will be my way of making amends," said Phi sadly.

 

"And what of Junpei and Carlos?"

 

"Carlos is helping to save as many victims of the pandemic as possible. He's setting up shelters for the uninfected, and doing his best to put out fires and the usual firefighting duties."

 

"Good. I'll keep him occupied with that so that this future can be kept in good hands. And Junpei?"

 

"On his way to become Quark's grandfather when the time comes."

 

"All according to how I remember it. Thanks, Akane."

 

"Now, is there anything you'd like me to tell your young self when he comes into this body?" asked Akane. "If everything goes according to plan, he should be arriving soon."

 

"Right. Then there's no time to lose." I jumped out of the bed and said, "Phi, I need you to get into one of those pods."

 

"Got it. Lead the way, Akane."

 

"After you take Phi to the Cold Sleep Room, tell Young Me that I failed to stop the virus from becoming a pandemic. Tell him that I sacrificed myself for the woman I fell in love with, and that I came to lose my limbs through the events of the test site."

 

"But Sigma, we know about the Decision Game now," interrupted Diana. "Why can't we tell Akane all that we know?"

 

"Because we still don't have all the answers," I responded. "Let's say that we don't go to Dcom. Then the virus might leak out anyway. All we know is that Mira injected Phi with it, but we don't know when she came in possession of it. Therefore, it's possible that she got it in Ward Q, which we have no control over."

 

"Then why don't we go kill Mira at Dcom?" asked Akane. "That would prevent all of this from happening."

 

"Not necessarily. Right now, the past is filled with possibilities, and we have to go with the safest bet. There may be a timeline where no one gets executed by the vote, or I will find the transporter myself and change things with it, and so on. When I become Zero, my agenda will be to get my old consciousness into this body in 2028; I'm sure this Zero has similar reasons for the game. If you don't tell the original Sigma to go to the test site, that may create an even worse future. Besides, we need to create a stable time loop that illustrates how I was able to get to the shelter as an old man in the first place."

 

"Preserving your own existence... That sounds an awful lot like the Zero from last year's motive," said Akane uneasily.

 

"And that's why I'll call myself Zero III in the future, because my motives are similar to that of the first Zero's. Anyway, Phi, are you ready for what needs to be done?"

 

"Yeah... We'll meet again someday, Sigma. I promise."

 

"Me, too."

 

Diana, Phi and I followed Akane to the Cold Sleep Room. There, Phi climbed into the pod, and then she finally said, "Sigma, Diana... I love you guys. I want you both to have a full and happy life in the days to come. Diana... Don't let the young Sigma forget about you."

 

"I won't. Good-Bye, Phi," said Diana sadly, kissing her on the cheek.

 

After the pod lid closed, Akane said, "It's almost time for Young You to appear. Diana, this Sigma will never have met you, so be prepared to re-explain most of the stuff you learned at the shelter."

 

"I guess you weren't talking nonsense after all," said Diana sadly.

 

"Yeah, you're..." And then my consciousness jumped forty-five years into the future, so that I could die properly as an old man, both in and out.

 

---Segment 10: Suppression----

 

We awoke to find ourselves in the Healing Room. Since the girls were still a little bit groggy after I opened my eyes, I checked the door. It was locked. When they finally were fully awake, I said, "It looks like we're trapped in here."

 

"Not again?" moaned Phi.

 

"Again? You mean we've been here before?" I asked.

 

"Yeah, I'm getting a strong sense of de ja vu."

 

"You're saying we might have jumped from another history?"

 

"Possibly. Oh well, it doesn't really matter. Two things are important right now: the results of the voting, and getting out of this room."

 

"Yeah... Explanations can wait," said Diana. "This room looks super cool. Personally, I wouldn't mind being trapped in a place like this."

 

"Don't jinx it, Diana," said Phi with a sigh. She walked over to the harpsichord.

 

"Oh, a piano!" exclaimed Diana happily.

 

"You play music?" asked Phi.

 

"Uh-huh! I was in a band in high school. I was so good at the tambourine that it made people cry."

 

"...I can think of at least two reasons for that," said Phi with a very awkward pause. "Anyway, this is a harpsichord, not a piano."

 

"How can you tell the difference?"

 

"Easy. In a piano, when a key is pressed, it strikes the strings. However, a harpsichord plucks the strings, making a sound like this."

 

Phi pressed one of the keys, and after sounding the note, it fell out.

 

"What?! Phi, you broke it!" said Diana in shock.

 

"It's no big deal. I doubt Zero will send us a bill," said Phi casually.

 

"Not a big deal? This is an antique, so you have to treat it more gently," I scoffed.

 

"Then show us how it's done, old timer," Phi retorted.

 

I sat down on the bench, reminding myself that I'm no musician, but I at least knew how to use my fingers delicately. I pressed down on another key as gently as possible... and it still fell out.

 

"Wow, what a stunning performance... Thanks for setting a great example, old man," said Phi mockingly.

 

"Zero... Making me look like an idiot," I grumbled.

 

"Come on, grandpa, stop being a grumpy old sourpuss, and let's play the rest of these keys."

 

"You mean we're just gonna break the harpsichord?"

 

"Yep." And before long, all of the white keys were lying on the ground. Phi bent down to pick them up and said, "Hold onto these, Sigma."

 

"There's no need. The room is small enough that we can just leave them on the bench."

 

"Or are you just feeling sorry for your precious antique, or that your hair will fall out in the same way eventually?"

 

"You saw my hair in the future; you know that it was perfectly intact, thank you very much."

 

"You two..." sighed Diana. "Sigma's right; let's keep looking, since the black keys seem to be staying in place."

 

"Here's some matches. If we light that candle on the table, the fumes might help clear our minds," I said.

 

"Let's see what else is in this cabinet," said Phi, walking past me as I lit the candle. "There's a... water bottle and a tumbler."

 

"Oh, water, good! I'm thirsty!" exclaimed Diana.

 

"I don't think it would be a good idea to drink this," said Phi, backing away from Diana. "Zero probably put it here to help us escape this room."

 

"And how do you think that'll be accomplished?"

 

"Just look on top of the harpsichord. There's a pitcher and a glass. This bottle looks like it has enough water for both."

 

"Ah, the Lounge puzzle. That brings back fond memories, especially of you wanting to get drunk," I remarked, hoping that I could catch Phi off-guard for a change.

 

"There's enough booze in this shelter's Lounge after we escape this room, if the urge returns," said Phi calmly, pouring the water into the pitcher and glass. She then tried to pick up the glass, but it seemed to be stuck to the harpsichord, as did the pitcher. I asked, "Why would Zero just want to keep these there?"

 

"Beats me, but I did just hear a beeping sound near the entrance a moment ago. Maybe we should try that first," said Phi, pointing to a red knob on the wall.

 

"Do you suppose we should turn it?" asked Diana.

 

"It's a knob. Why else would it be here if not to be turned?" I asked.

 

"It looks like there are five possible notches this knob can be turned to," observed Phi. "I wonder if we need some kind of combination."

 

"Unless it changes settings," I observed. "Why don't we try turning it to the first notch?"

 

"Yeah, Phi, it might be fun," remarked Diana.

 

"I suppose 'fun' might be a nice change of pace," said Phi, and so she turned it. Upon doing so, the entire room's motif changed to a flowery pattern- the walls, the furniture, everything. I was mesmerized by this technology, as even I had never dabbled in something so complex.

 

"I wonder how the room will have different clues now that it's this color," said Diana. "Let's look around."

 

We split up to see if anything looked different, and we found a pillar with green water inside. It looked like a bunch of random tiles mixed together. "I don't see how this is relevant just yet," I said.

 

"Not the water, but this knife," said Phi. "Clever. It blended in with the checkered wallpaper of the previous setting."

 

"There's also this beautiful puzzle on the other side," said Diana. "How cute, more flowers, but it looks like they're not fully grown yet."

 

"Then let's see if we can make them bloom," I said. "Phi, you were always the expert at solving puzzles. Think you can have a crack at this one?"

 

"You were the one who designed all of those puzzles in the first place," Phi retorted. "But fine, for old times' sake, if this is a 4x3 grid, we'll need to press them in this order: 1, 3, 8, 9, 11. There, now the flower above the pattern has bloomed."

 

"But its stem looks very strange. I suppose we can come back to it later," I said.

 

"It doesn't look like there's anything else in this room we can do," said Diana after thoroughly examining the place. "Should we try reverting back to the original pattern?"

 

"Might as well," said Phi. "Black and white, like Sigma's hair will be."

 

"Not another hair joke..." I sighed. "If you're going to make puns, at least make it be a cat pun."

 

"And trigger your tick? No thanks. I had enough of that in the future," sighed Phi.

 

We changed back to the checkered pattern, and we found a poster of a demon with the words "Kill me" across its chest.

 

"Well, this is straightforward," said Phi simply. "We'll just stab this with the knife, and we should be good to go."

 

"I doubt it would be that simple," I said. "It's probably some very involved riddle. Zero wouldn't just leave the answer right there; he would want us to use our brains."

 

"We don't have time for brains; we have a knife, and I'm going to use it. If it doesn't work, maybe you can stare a hole into the poster instead," said Phi, and she thrust the knife into the demon's chest. It immediately faded away, and we heard the console near the entrance to the room rev on.

 

"I don't believe it... It wasn't a riddle...? Zero WAS giving us the answer?" I asked myself, dumbfounded and continuing to stare at the spot where the knife was sticking through the wall.

 

"Let's go, Diana, and leave this old fogey to his overthinking," said Phi with a snort. I eventually joined her to find Diana looking at an old camera. I smirked and said, "How old-fashioned of Zero to have an outdated model here; first the harpsichord, now this?"

 

"What are you talking about, Sigma? This is the newest model," said Diana in confusion.

 

"Huh? But that's an old model," I retorted.

 

"It's new for THIS time period, idiot," said Phi, slapping her forehead. "Anyway, Zero doesn't seem to want to be subtle for this room; the monitor seems to be pretty blunt about our next move."

 

"'Shoot more keys'", said Diana, reading off of the text on the console's screen. "But we don't have a gun."

 

"Yet we do have a camera," corrected Phi. "So maybe we need to find key-shaped objects throughout this room and 'shoot' pictures of them. Besides, this model can transfer pictures straight to the computer using wireless data, correct?"

 

"Yeah, that's right," said Diana. "I thought you would have known all about this too, Phi."

 

"Ah... Well, it's been a while since I've dealt with a camera; I have a really good memory to make up for it," said Phi, with me now smirking at her. "Anyway, let's see what patterns we can spot."

 

"So now we have to carefully examine every pattern we see," I said.

 

"You mean that I see," corrected Phi. "Your eyesight wasn't so great the last time I saw you."

 

"My eyesight is perfectly fine, thank you very much."

 

"Then let's see if you can spot the out-of-place key spot for yourself without needing me," she mocked.

 

I carefully looked around the room, trying to spot anything that looked like a key. I settled on the bench in front of the harpsichord and said, "There are plenty of keys here that have fallen out of the piano. Diana, try shooting these."

 

"I doubt it would be that simple," said Phi. "Zero gave us very explicit instructions before, and this time, it seems that way, too. The monitor said, 'Shoot MORE keys,' so it's probably inferring that the keys on the harpsichord aren't enough. In fact, it looked like there was sections that those keys would fit into if we figured out how to open them."

 

"So you're saying that every time we shoot an image of a key, we'll be able to place those harpsichord keys into the console?" asked Diana.

 

"Correct. And I've already spotted a discrepancy. Shall I play Easy Mode, or do you still think your young eyes are up to the task, old timer?"

 

"No, I've got it, but you can go ahead and say what you will, because of the injection in our bracelets," I said.

 

"Cop-out," she snorted. "Look at the pattern of this wall behind the chair, Diana. The wallpaper looks a bit different here. Try taking a picture."

 

Diana did so, and we heard a clicking sound on the console.

 

"Let's put a key in there," said Diana excitedly, scooping up the keys from the bench. I stood there in defiance, realizing that Phi was exactly right about my observational skills compared to hers, but I didn't want to provoke her any further.

 

She continued looking around the room before saying, "I think we'll need to try another pattern. Shall we head back to the flower theme?"

 

"I suppose it wouldn't hurt," I said, and Diana turned the knob back, though she remarked, "Hey, there was no friction this time. I think it's possible we can get to a third pattern."

 

"Let's look around this version first, so that we can keep our search organized," I said, determined to beat Phi to a symbol this time. It didn't take long before I said, "Got you, Phi. This flower's stem from the puzzle looks weird. Diana, I believe this is in the shape of a key."

 

"Got it," she said, now placing the next key in place.

 

"Well done. It seems that this version of you may not need a monocle."

 

"It was a glass eye, Phi, and do you really think this is the time to joke about such a thing?" I asked, pondering her insensitivity.

 

"Well, it doesn't seem like there's anything else. Let's try the next pattern," said Phi, ignoring what I said.

 

We next saw the room take on a forest feel. Diana breathed in and said, "I love being in the woods; there's so much green. It makes me feel peaceful... Hey, Sigma, is something the matter?"

 

"Oh, nothing. It's just... Phi's jokes," I lied. What I was really upset about was that she reminded me of a conversation I had with a robot I created named Luna, who also loved the color green and being in nature.

 

"Deep breaths, grandpa, or do we need to get you a breathing machine?" asked Phi.

 

"Whatever. Anyway, I spot another weird symbol. There's a strange white light shining down on the ground."

 

"Hmm... White light. It seems like we'd need to reflect it somehow," said Phi in speculation. "Any ideas, Diana?"

 

"Well, we have a tumbler, and there are holes cut into it. Why don't we try placing it in the center of the light?"

 

Diana did so, and some bizarre symbols shone from the tumbler. Diana shot a picture, and another slot opened up.

 

"Good eye, Diana," said Phi, in a rare complimentary state.

 

"It was actually just a lucky guess," she said, blushing. Let's keep looking."

 

We stopped by the pillar that used to be filled with green water, now to be flooded with red water.

 

"What's so special about this?" asked Phi.

 

"Knowing the way this room has operated so far, I bet we don't even need to try too hard to figure this out; those tiles are probably in the shape of a key," I said.

 

Diana tried taking a picture, and it worked, revealing another slot for a key. The knob for changing the pattern didn't seem to be moving, so we assumed that we needed to take more pictures.

 

Phi was looking at the table where I had lit a match. At the same time, we said, "The candle!" because the candle holder was emitting key-shaped shadows from the open slots. Sure enough, we were right, and Diana giggled, saying, "Are you guys sure you're not related?"

 

Phi chose not to answer her, and instead said, "Hmm... This rip wasn't on this chair with the other patterns... It must be..."

 

Phi placed her hand against the cut and said, "Ah, I see. It's not part of the... Sigma, this is no time to act like an old man!"

 

"But I am old, and tired," I complained, getting off of the other chair. Phi glared at me, then said, "It looks like this is merely projection technology. I bet this would make the shape of a key if we aligned it with the tear in the wall right behind it."

 

Phi's gaze was dead-on, as always, and we finally saw another light around the knob for changing the pattern. I turned the knob once more, but backed away instantly, for there were clouds soaring toward me.

 

"What is this?! My heart can't take this! Why are we in the sky?!" I shouted, clutching my chest.

 

"Ugh, Sigma, how often are you going to show your age in this one room?!" asked Phi in exasperation.

 

"No, it's not that. It's... Well, I'm afraid of heights."

 

"You are?" asked Diana.

 

"Yeah, I've had a long history of falling off of roofs, into frozen rivers and nearly breaking bones. It's a bad habit of mine ever since I was a youth."

 

"I guess some things never change," sighed Phi. "You had some nasty spills on the moon, too. C'mon, let's explore, and remember, Sigma, it's just a hologram. See? The floor is solid red."

 

"Yeah, I feel a bit better. Thanks."

 

"Now, what about this glass and pitcher? We should be able to get something accomplished with them now."

 

"Hey, there's a sparkle on the wall. You don't suppose...?" began Diana.

 

"Yeah, it's probably true. If you angle the camera so that it goes through the distorted water in the glasses..." continued Phi.

 

Diana took the picture, and another slot opened up.

 

"Yay, just one more to go!" exclaimed Diana in joy, but then, some strange shapes popped out of the wall.

 

"Look out!" I shouted, pushing Phi and Diana to the ground.

 

"They're just holograms, Sigma; feel them," said Phi, putting her hand through the shapes.

 

"Oh... right... Sorry," I said again.

 

"What's wrong now, Sigma? I thought you were only afraid of heights," said Diana in a concerned voice.

 

"I guess you could say I also have a protective instinct. You remind me a lot of Luna, who I saw very much like a daughter."

 

"You're no one's parent in this body, Sigma, so let's hurry up and take a picture. But aim it properly, Diana; the shapes look like they're rotating."

 

Diana waited until the symbols flashed green in the shape of a key, then we were finally able to place all of the harpsichord keys into the slots on the console.

 

Before we had time to react, we heard a series of notes fly by really quickly, then the keys toppled onto the floor.

 

"Not again... Zero really needs a better maintenance staff," complained Diana.

 

"I think we can listen to it again if we press this button," I said.

 

"No need; I've got it memorized. Follow me," said Phi.

 

I was again astounded by Phi's amazing memory as she placed the keys back into the harpsichord and said, "All right, we'll play the keys in this order, from left to right: 5, 3, 4, 8, 1, 2, 6, 7."

 

After all of our trials, the pillar containing the fluid opened up to reveal a large blue button with LCD lettering rotating around the button, reading, "Warning! Do not press this button!"

 

I looked around at the knob; no new patterns seemed to be available to us. I next checked the door; it was still locked.

 

"What are we supposed to do now? We've checked everything in this room," I said.

 

"Except for this button," continued Diana. "Do you suppose it's important?"

 

"Obviously not. It says not to push it, so let's leave it alone," said Phi.

 

"But what if it opens the door?" I asked. "Zero's probably just making an empty threat to mess with our minds. He's placed everything else in this room for a reason; why would he now give us a button and expect us to ignore it?"

 

"Sigma, have you even considered the possibility that this button may also do something far worse? Like maybe kill us?"

 

"Zero doesn't need this button; he can just put poison in our bracelets, or kill us in our sleep," I argued. "Besides, how can you always trust a warning? If Zero wrote, 'Don't leave this room,' would you stay?"

 

"I get it; it's all a game," said Phi, getting her thinking face on. "Zero said that our fates will change based on our decisions. It's the next Decision Game."

 

"So... If this works like the vote did..." I pondered.

 

"Right. Diana, Zero appointed you as the leader of our team. You'll be the deciding vote. You'll be the one that chooses not to press the button."

 

"No, she'll press it, right?" I argued back.

 

"Listen, Diana, you mustn't press the button. This button is just bait."

 

"Diana, Zero can't be trusted. He's our enemy, so we need to do the opposite of what he says."

 

"Diana, I have a really bad feeling about what will happen if we push this button. You mustn't push it!"

 

"Diana, hurry up and push it, or we'll starve to death."

 

"Diana, leave it alone!"

 

"Push it!"

 

"Enough!" screamed Diana, pushing both myself and Phi aside. She walked away from the button, turned her back on both of us, and said, "I've decided not to push the button."

 

At that precise moment, the door opened.

 

"Well, would you look at that? I told you so, Sigma," said Phi with a smirk.

 

"Hey, we don't know what could have happened if we did press it," I pressed on. "The door may have still opened anyway."

 

"Ugh, stubborn old man. Let's stop discussing possibilities and go, or else it'll close on us."

 

We walked back to the Lounge, where Diana said, "Hey, Sigma, why did you act so strange in that room? And Phi, you were being awfully rude to him. He may be older than you, but that's no reason to call him awful names like 'grandpa' and 'old fogey.'"

 

"I'm telling the truth, you know," said Phi gently.

 

"What? No way! Sigma looks about my age," argued Diana.

 

"Well, he's not. As I said at Dcom, he's..."

 

"No, I want to hear it from Sigma," said Diana. "I've heard enough from you."

 

Perhaps taken aback that someone else was giving her orders for a change, Phi paused, then said, "I'll be heading back to the Healing Room, then. There's something I want to check; I think one of my memories came back to me."

 

After Phi's footsteps receded into the hallway leading back to the room from whence we came, Diana asked, "Okay, Sigma, please tell me the truth, in your own words. Why did Phi say all of that to you back there? How old are you?"

 

"Phi was telling the truth. My body looks like it's 22, but my mind is actually 67."

 

"What?! How is it possible for you to return to this time then?!" she asked incredulously.

 

"My consciousness came from the future, and I spent forty-five years working on a project to make the version of me you're speaking to exist right now."

 

"Um... Does that mean you were 67 in the future?" asked Diana, rubbing her forehead.

 

"I can tell this is a bit over your head, so I'll just say that you're more or less correct," I said simply.

 

"But what about Phi? How does she know all of this?"

 

"Because Phi is also from the future. However, her mind is still young, because she was frozen in cold sleep for forty-five years. To her, when she woke up, it only felt like a few minutes had passed. Mentally and physically, she must still be around twenty years old."

 

"But... How?"

 

"How what?"

 

"How exactly were you and Phi able to return to this time?"

 

"It was because of the SHIFT phenomenon. It stands for 'Spacetime Human Internal Fluctuating Transfer.' Essentially, it's when a person can send their consciousness through space and time... Hmm... Yes, I'll use the blue button we saw earlier to make it easier for you," I said, seeing that Diana wasn't grasping the concept. "In this history, you chose not to press the button, and we're here now. However, somewhere in spacetime, there's a history where you did press it. A person who can SHIFT is able to access both timelines. To a person without SHIFT, their only reality is the one they are presently in, so to a person like you, the only Sigma, Phi and Diana that you know are before you right now, but Phi and I know that there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of other versions of ourselves that were created because of momentary decisions."

 

"Uh... Okay, this is still a bit hard to grasp," said Diana, now sitting down on the couch in her frustration.

 

"Well, it may have taken me several words to explain the basic concept, but I can tell you WHAT it is using only one sentence."

 

"Really?!" asked Diana excitedly as I sat down next to her.

 

"Yep. 'I dunno.'"

 

"Really now?!"

 

"Did I come across as if I didn't care? I've come to this conclusion after forty-five years of research and after jumping across perhaps twenty-six timelines. I can tell you how SHIFT is triggered, though."

 

"Yes, please!"

 

"First, you need to be born with the innate ability. I've also heard of a theory: it's called Quantum Mind, and it says that it may be possible for non-SHIFTers to experience quantum effects in the brain. The first condition is to be in the vicinity of a group of SHIFTers."

 

"So... if you and Phi both have this strange ability, I too could see other histories?"

 

"Precisely. It would, however, drain us of our powers as you were developing your abilities if you haven't experienced a quantum mental state prior to today," I stated. "Junpei, Akane and Clover helped Phi and me become SHIFTers during my project, so it's possible that the same thing may happen to you."

 

"So... What does it feel like?"

 

"At first, it feels like a flash of insight; it may even seem like a vivid daydream. One typically can't remember what happened in the previous timeline at first, and says things like, 'I just know' or 'It just popped into my head.' Eventually, those who have received full training can recall every history they've ever been in."

 

"And that's how your mind is so old?"

 

"Yes, but there's one more detail that is required to push one's access into the fourth dimension further, and that's a crisis. One needs to be faced with a life-threatening situation to boost their consciousness. For Phi and myself, she was about to get stabbed by a knife. I jumped in the way to save her, and that caused my consciousness to jump back into the past. Think of it like a slingshot trying to gather energy."

 

"So, let me see if I've got all of this," said Diana slowly. "If I were around a bunch of weirdos like you and Phi, I could eventually know what happened in other timelines. I would also need a life-or-death situation. And... my memory would also be wacky at first."

 

"It seems like you've grasped the basics well enough," I said, holding her hand briefly, but then I pulled it back, looking at the time on my bracelet.

 

"Huh... It's 19:03, and we woke up at 18:05. I wonder what's taking Phi so long," I pondered, beginning to worry about her.

 

"Do you suppose we should follow her?"

 

Just as the question left Diana's mouth, we heard a voice overhead that said, "Now announcing the current casualties. C-Team: Carlos, Akane, Junpei. Q-Team: Eric. These four are now deceased. As a result, four X-Passes will be revealed. FIRE, CRASH, FIVE, LAKE. That is all."

 

"C-Team is dead?" I asked out loud, wondering if this was a separate timeline than the past I came from, as Akane and Junpei were both a huge help in my plan.

 

"And so is Eric?" asked Diana, bending over as though she was about to throw up on the carpet.

 

"It.. It had to have been the vote that killed C-Team," she said shakily.

 

"Wait, that's not possible," I said. "You voted for Q-Team, and Q-Team couldn't have voted twice."

 

"Agh!" screamed Diana, rolling on the floor, clutching her neck.

 

"Diana! Diana! What's wrong?!" I asked, shaking her.

 

"C-Team... They're definitely dead," said Diana with heaving breaths, after actually throwing up. "I saw it."

 

"You... Wait, you SHIFTed?"

 

"Maybe... But what does it matter right now? Four people are dead!"

 

"Well, we... We can't be certain that it was the vote. If you voted for Q-Team, then C-Team had to have been killed in another-"

 

"No, they were killed; I know it!" argued Diana vehemently.

 

"Okay, okay, let's say you're right. That doesn't explain how Eric died."

 

Just as I said this, the monitor flashed on, and we saw a vision of Q-Team's Lounge, with Eric lying face-first on the ground, with what looked like a knife wound on his back.

 

"No! Who would kill Eric in cold-blooded murder like that?!" asked Diana frantically, practically squeezing the blood out of my hand.

 

"W-well..." I said, trying to collect my thoughts as best as I could without Phi here to be the level-headed one. "In Ward Q, there should only be Mira and Q left, so- Look out!"

 

I pushed Diana onto the floor as a hooded figure wrestled me to the ground and stabbed me in the side. I screamed in pain, but summoned all of my strength to grab the attacker and pin them to the ground.

 

"Hurry up and get Phi!" I shouted.

 

"But Sigma, I can help!"

 

"There's no time to argue! I'll only slow you down! Just get her and hide!"

 

"Okay!" shouted Diana.

 

When Diana's footsteps faded away, I saw blurry images of people in my past. Muffled voices were shouting, "Sigma! Sigma, hang on! We'll get you to the Infirmary as quickly as we can!"

 

"Sigma, please, hold on! I've got you!"

 

"Oh, Luna," I said, my strength rapidly leaving me as everything seemed to be spinning. Warm hands wrapped themselves around my head and I reached up, feeling the blue bird necklace and saying, "Luna... You came back for me."

 

"Sigma, please, stop talking!" came Luna's muffled voice from above me. "I'm going to be okay! I'm a nurse; I can help you."

 

"No, Luna, it's too late," I told her. "History has changed. This me won't be coming to the future. You won't be born in this world. Kyle, Lagomorph, G-OLM... I'm sorry. I just wish... I could have said... Good-bye. Now... Maybe Radical-6... Won't be released... Phi..."

 

"Sigma, don't talk like that! It's going to be okay," came Phi's shout. "Just hold tight!"

 

"No, Phi. I want you to live your life in happiness. After all, it's in dreaming that we find true joy. Wait for me, Luna...."

 

And with that, my consciousness faded, though I died with a smile on my face, knowing that I was within Luna's arms, father and daughter reunited.

 

 

----Segment 11: Fire----

 

We awoke to find ourselves in the Trash Disposal Room. However, I noticed immediately that something was amiss, as Phi was missing. Terror filling my heart, I shouted out for her. As I frantically raced toward the locker in the back of the room, hoping Phi was locked in there instead of being in a worse predicament, Diana said, "Sigma, the door's already unlocked."

 

"Oh, that must mean Phi left without us. But why would she do that?"

 

"Should we check the Lounge?"

 

"No. I think I hear a faint knocking noise," I said as I walked toward Diana. I looked to my left to find a see-through yellow window, and Phi was standing on the other side of it.

 

"Phi! Thank goodness we found you!" I exclaimed in relief. "What are you doing in there?!"

 

"Cutting my next album," she responded sarcastically, then assumed an angry face and said, "What do you think I'm doing in here?! When I woke up, I was locked inside this incinerator!"

 

"An incinerator?!" asked Diana. "W-well, maybe Zero shut it down, and we can get you out."

 

Just as Diana said this, an announcement came from overheard, saying, "Thirty minutes until incineration."

 

Even Phi was looking frightened, but she at least was keeping her composure. I frantically paced the room, yanking on the door to the incinerator, but it wouldn't budge. Pounding on the glass, I screamed, "Just stay calm, Phi! Diana and I will find a way to free you."

 

"You're the one freaking out over here! I should be telling that to you! But we don't have time for this. Stop panicking and see what you can find on your side; I'll check in here for some clues."

 

"We're counting on you, Phi," I told her.

 

"That should be my line, as I'd like to avoid being barbequed alive," she said, rolling her eyes and turning around to see what she could find.

 

"All right, Diana, let's check the control panel first and see if pressing any of these buttons will do the job," I said.

 

"I dunno if that's a good idea, Sigma. You're not thinking clearly, and we might set off the incinerator earlier if we press the wrong button," said Diana shakily.

 

"Well... What are these sliders?" I asked in desperation. "They seem to be a three-letter code."

 

"Is there a hint around here?"

 

"Let's start looking, then!" I ordered, and I ran back toward the locker earlier. I found a gas mask inside and said, "I bet with this, we might be able to see hidden things."

 

"Oooh, can I try it on?!" asked Diana excitedly, pointing to the gas mask.

 

"Now's not really the time for dress-up," I responded angrily. "But it does look like it will fit your head, so go for it."

 

As Diana put on the gas mask, memories of Akane flooded my mind and I wondered if she and the others on C-Team were doing all right, or at least better than our screwed-up situation.

 

"Hey, I think I see a few hints," said Diana. "On this poster on the wall, there's the word 'plastic,' but 'tic' is circled in green."

 

"Hmm... Those three letters might be the combination for the sliders," I said, setting them into place.

 

As soon as I did so, the shutters blocking the view of the incinerator opened. Phi shouted, "Thanks, guys. Now it's a lot easier to see."

 

"Whew, this mask sure is sweaty," said Diana, quickly taking it off.

 

"I'm sure Phi will be a lot sweatier if we don't fix this," I muttered. "Speaking of which, there's a gas torch right here, as if we weren't heated enough already. Hmm.. It doesn't look like there's anything we can use the gas torch for, so maybe we can send it to Phi."

 

"How do you propose we do that? Isn't the door locked?" asked Diana.

 

"It's the Trash Disposal Room, so there has to be a garbage chute," I responded, walking back toward the locker. "Great, of course there would be another combination. Diana, see if you can find another clue with that mask."

 

"Ugh, not again..." groaned Diana, and as she put it back on, she said, "Wait, yes, I do see something. A screwdriver and two screws."

 

"Maybe Phi has the answer to that. Hey, Phi!" I shouted. "Look over in the incinerator and see if you can find a screwdriver and two screws."

 

"On it," her voice responded. We waited for a few minutes anxiously until she said, "There's a scale in here. I measured the screwdriver and screws, and it looks like the screwdriver weighs 133 grams, and the screws equal 22."

 

"Thanks, Phi!" shouted Diana.

 

"Wait, there's more!" said Phi in exasperation. "I got the screws from unscrewing a plate in the wall, and underneath that was a message that said, '188 pounds.' Is that how much you weigh, Sigma?"

 

"I haven't exactly measured this body, but I guess so," I shrugged.

 

"Keep it in the back of your mind. Zero never tells us anything without a reason."

 

"Okay, so it seems like Phi gave us a mathematical equation. Diana, if we add 22 to 133, it gives us 155. Try entering that into the garbage chute combination lock."

 

"It worked, Sigma!" she exclaimed. "Now we can send the gas torch through the chute!"

 

"Phi, we're sending a gas torch your way!" I shouted to her.

 

"Got it. Thanks, guys," came Phi's voice. "Wait a bit, and let me experiment with it, and I'll shout back if I find anything."

 

We again waited what seemed like an eternity before Diana said, "Hey, a coin flew out of the dashboard!"

 

"What would we need a coin for?" I asked.

 

"Hmm... There's no slot machine in here, and I doubt we'd need to send it to Phi. Maybe..."

 

Diana looked over at a strange grate covering a red button. "Maybe we can get rid of the screws with the coin."

 

"Seriously?!" I asked, but when Diana tried it, the grate came off nicely. I now stared at the red button and said, "Should we press it?"

 

"Like Phi said, Zero doesn't just leave stuff in a room for its own sake. Plus, we have to hurry up and save her!"

 

"Okay, okay, I'm pushing it," I said.

 

As soon as I pressed the button, a chair rose out of the ground. Diana said, "That chair looks really uncomfortable, but again, what else are we supposed to do?"

 

"Do you want to try sitting in it?" I asked her.

 

"I guess..." she said, sounding doubtful, but when she did, nothing happened.

 

"It looks like I'm too small for this chair," said Diana, jumping down. "What about you, Sigma?"

 

"I suppose I could give it a try; Phi's hint must have been talking about my weight on this chair," I said. Once I sat down, tight chains wrapped around my arms, legs and neck so that I was almost completely immobile. I could only turn my neck.

 

"What the heck?! I can't move!" I shouted.

 

"Diana, what's wrong with Sigma?" asked Phi.

 

"He's trapped on this weird chair thing."

 

"What?! Hurry up and save him! Is there anything that you see nearby, like a switch?"

 

"There's this pedestal that says, 'Insert here,' and I think I heard something drop."

 

"Diana, save Phi first. She's the one who's going to be burned," I grunted. "Go check out what fell."

 

"R-right," said Diana nervously. "It looks like there's a revolver inside this glass case, but it's shut with a strange lock."

 

"Phi has a screwdriver, so send it to her side," I said.

 

"O-Okay, I'll see if that works. Phi, I'm sending over a glass case with a revolver inside. See if you can unlock it for me."

 

"Got it. Now pull it back, Diana!"

 

"Okay, Sigma, I've got the revolver, and I think it's supposed to go into this hole on the pedestal."

 

"Then what are you waiting for?! Put it in there," I said.

 

"Um, o-okay," she said nervously.

 

I felt bad for yelling at her; I knew that she didn't have the experience of escape rooms like Phi and I did, but Phi's safety was important, so I knew that I had to pressure her somehow. I heard some mechanic movement, then Diana said, "Oh no! The gun is pointing at your head, Sigma!"

 

"I have a bad feeling about this..." I groaned. As soon as I said this, a voice came from overheard.

 

"It appears the preparations are complete," came Zero's voice. "But first, I'd like to tell you an old story."

 

"Not now, of all times," I said, rolling my eyes.

 

"Seventeen years ago, a woman was killed. As a result, after a falsely-accused man was sentenced to death, his wife took her own life. A taxi driver died in an accident along with his passenger, a surgeon. The child who awaited a critical operation also perished. Six people altogether were killed. But why did this six people die? Because of a snail. A single, solitary snail killed those six people. No, not just those six, but six billion. Life is simply unfair. Don't you think?

 

Now then, I believe it is time to explain the rules. You of course see the revolver in the pillar. It contains six rounds. Three of the bullets are live, and three are blank, though they are set randomly within the chamber. Pull the trigger, and the odds a live round will be fired are six to three, or 50%. If the sound of the gunshot is detected, the door to the incinerator will be unlocked. Live round or blank, it doesn't matter which shot is fired.

 

Three minutes remain until the incinerator fires. What will you do? Pull the trigger, or refrain. Diana, both of their lives rest on your decision."

 

"Ugh! I should have known Zero would make this worse!" shouted Phi.

 

"Diana, there's no time to argue. Pull the trigger!" I urged her.

 

"But Sigma, you heard Zero; there's a chance I'll kill you!"

 

"We need to think about this logically," I said calmly. "How does the door to the incinerator open?"

 

"By detecting the sound of the gunshot," she said nervously.

 

"And what happens if you don't pull the trigger?"

 

"Phi dies."

 

"And what would be the ideal solution to all of this."

 

"Isn't it obvious?! That both of you stay alive!"

 

"Then think. Which of those options allows for that possibility?"

 

I could tell that deductive reasoning was hard for her, so I answered for her, "Zero said that the odds for a blank bullet are 50%. If the bullet is blank, I'll live, and Phi will be set free. But if you don't pull the trigger, Phi will definitely die. If you want the chance of both of us surviving, your only choice is to pull the trigger."

 

"Sigma, how dare you not consider the feelings of Diana and me here!" Phi shouted angrily. "If the shot is a live bullet, then you'll die, and Diana will be responsible for murder, and I'll..."

 

"Phi, we promised that we'd protect you. All of our efforts in this room would be wasted otherwise," I said.

 

"But Phi, if I don't pull the trigger, you'll..." said Diana nervously.

 

"Don't worry about me. Sigma's life is more important."

 

"No, Diana! Trust in possibilities. Pull the trigger!"

 

"No, stop! Sigma is..."

 

"Diana, Zero said that we only have three minutes. Hurry up and decide!" I urged her.

 

A moment later, I heard the sound of the gunfire, and piercing pain hit my temple. Thankfully, the chains unlocked, and I tumbled out of the chair onto the floor.

 

"Gunshot detected. Incinerator door unlocking," came a female voice from overhead, though it was muffled because my left ear felt like it was ruptured.

 

"Sigma, Sigma, are you okay?! Can you hear me?!" came Phi's concerned voice.

 

"Ow!" I merely responded. "My ears are killing me!"

 

"Come on, Diana; help me lift Sigma. We'll take him to the Lounge."

 

"O-okay," said Diana's shaky voice, and the two girls laid me on one of the couches.

 

As soon as I was laid in a comfortable position after that chair nearly caused me to lose circulation in both my arms and legs, Phi rounded on Diana and shouted, "What were you thinking?! Why did you pull that trigger?!"

 

When Diana didn't answer, Phi continued, "We got lucky that the bullet was blank, but if it wasn't, then Sigma would..."

 

"Hey, enough, Phi! You should be thanking her," I said, forcing myself to stand and pushing Phi away from Diana. "She saved both of our lives. A little gratitude won't kill you!"

 

"There's no way I'll accept that the end justifies the means! Listen, Sigma, she made the decision to pull the trigger. That means that she didn't care that there was a 50% chance you'd die!"

 

"But Phi, if I hadn't, you would have definitely died!" said Diana, tears rolling down her cheeks.

 

Perhaps not wishing to see such a display of emotion, Phi turned her back and said, "I never asked for this. Just... leave me alone."

 

As we stood there for a few seconds in uncomfortable silence, the female voice started talking again and said, "Now announcing the current casualties. Q-Team: Q, Mira, Eric. These three are now deceased. As a result, three X-Passes will be revealed. EYE, KILL, FOOL. That is all."

 

"What...?" I asked weakly. "But, even Q...?"

 

"He had to deal with a handicap," said Phi softly, coming back over and looking downcast. "Hopefully, Zero made it quick enough that he didn't notice what was happening."

 

"Urk!" came Diana's voice, and she suddenly fell on the floor and started thrashing about violently.

 

"Hey, Diana, what's wrong?" I shouted, but then Phi and I, one after another, joined her. I felt like my insides were on fire, and my strength was gradually weakening me.

 

"Wh-wha...?" I asked weakly. "Is this... an injection from our bracelets?"

 

"No... I think we were poisoned in our sleep," choked Phi.

 

We heard a dog's whimper, and Diana ran over to check.

 

"Gab!" came her voice. "You came to rescue us! Hey, guys, look! Gab brought us a medicine case and a note!"

 

"What... does the note say?" asked Phi weakly.

 

"'These are the antidote. Please drink them. Akane.'"

 

"We should trust her. They're from Akane," I said. "Besides, that handwriting is definitely hers."

 

"Wait, Sigma," said Phi weakly. "Carlos betrayed the note and voted for Q-Team. It's possible that C-Team is actually trying to kill us off."

 

"But... what would be the point of that?" I argued. "We already have poison being pumped into our veins. We're about to die anyway, so why would they send more poison?"

 

"Diana, I forgive you," said Phi, trying her best to look in Diana's direction. "What do you... say we should do? You saved both of us back there. I trust you to do it again."

 

After Diana had a massive coughing fit, she said, "I'm going to trust C-Team."

 

"Down the hatch, then," said Phi weakly, and we drank like we were dying of thirst... almost literally.

 

We recovered within just a few minutes. Once we were well enough to stand up, Phi looked perplexed.

 

"Now I'm even more confused. What in the world is C-Team thinking? They betrayed Q-Team, but decided to save us? Did Akane and Carlos have some kind of fight, and she knocked him out while she sent us the antidote?"

 

"I think you're thinking too hard on this one," I remarked. "I highly doubt Carlos intended for Q-Team to be executed."

 

"How can you be so sure of Carlos' motives?"

 

"He's an honorable firefighter who tries to save lives. I bet taking a life is the furthest thing from his mind."

 

"Ugh, Sigma, must you still be so simple-minded?" asked Phi, rolling her eyes upward. "We've only lived with and known him for five days. How can we have any idea what he's thinking? I mean... It's just not that easy to see a person's true self."

 

"Even yours, Phi?" asked Diana.

 

"Especially mine," she responded quietly.

 

"Does that mean you're hiding something from us?" I asked.

 

"Yeah... But promise not to laugh." She finished this with an angry look at both of us. When we both continued staring at her, she pulled at her hair and said, "My hair color is... actually red."

 

There was a long and awkward silence. I had expected some horrible secret, like a traumatic memory of her childhood, or some kind of buried fear or emotion, but why was the color of her hair something to be protective of?

 

Diana giggled.

 

"I told you not to laugh!" said Phi angrily, now turning her face from Diana.

 

"I mean... It's nothing to be ashamed of. I'm a redhead too, and I think it's cute," said Diana, smiling.

 

"Yeah. You're being rude to Diana," I scolded.

 

"Well, her hair actually looks good on her. But just try to envision my face and hair length, but colored red."

 

We paused for a few seconds to contemplate. Diana started giggling again and said, "Awww! I think you'd be super-duper-adorable!"

 

"Yeah. The look would suit you. But why did you dye your hair white?"

 

"I figured, with all the other girls dying their hair, I wanted mine to be unique," said Phi, slowly turning back to look at Diana. "Being very logical, I always felt out of place among other females and developed a complex over my appearance. I figured that I might as well embrace my difference by cutting my hair short and dying it white."

 

"Well, don't let those girls bother you anymore," said Diana, hugging Phi. "I like you just the way you are."

 

"Okay, enough mushiness," said Phi, pushing Diana aside.

 

"Phi, I think you need to learn how to thank people," I told her, crossing my arms. "If it wasn't for your intelligence and cool head, my project wouldn't have been able to succeed."

 

"Whatever. Save your praise for after we escape from this mess. After all, that future hasn't happened yet, by linear timeline standards."

 

"'Yet'? You make it sound like it WILL happen," said Diana, looking mildly frightened.

 

"C-Team has survived, so we can't rule out the possibility," I said. "However, we don't have time to further discuss this, as my bracelet says that-"

 

Zero interrupted me on the monitor and said, "Ah, good. It seems you three are okay. Rejoice while you can, because you can look forward to a dark future ahead of you. But for now, it is time for you to sleep. When next you wake, know that you will have no memory of these past ninety minutes. Pleasant dreams."

 

But we never did get to experience that dark future, as we never woke up.

 

---Segment 12: Phi's Farewell---

 

"Diana, Zero said that we only have three minutes. Hurry up and decide!" I urged her.

 

"I... I can't," said Diana, backing away from the gun. "I know Phi is going to die, but... I can't just murder you!"

 

"M-maybe Zero will let her go?" I asked in desperation, though in the back of my mind, I knew that he wasn't the persuadable type.

 

"Incineration now commencing," came the female voice from earlier.

 

"Zero! ZERO! I know you can hear me! Please, you have to stop this! I don't care what happens to me! Just save Phi, please!"

 

"That's... all I needed to hear from you, Sigma. Thank you," said Phi loudly, though seeming like she would have spoken softly, had her voice not been muffled by the glass.

 

"Phi, I'm so sorry..." said Diana, choking back tears and putting her hands against the glass. "I wish there was a way I could have saved you both."

 

"It's okay, Diana. You made the right decision," came Phi's voice, a bit softer now that Diana was closer to her, but yet I could still hear her just fine. "I want you and Sigma to keep on living, and be happy. I love you both. Make sure you both never forget it, especially Sigma. Tell him thanks for..."

 

She never got a chance to finish that sentence, as a piercing scream came from inside the incinerator, and Diana backed away in terror. The chains released me from the chair, and though I wished more than anything to burst open the incinerator, I knew that it was too late. All my body could do now was sit numbly on the floor, both from the tightness of the chains, and from the numbness of knowing that Phi was no longer by my side.

 

Once the incinerator stopped, Diana walked in and picked up Phi's brooch. I remembered it vividly from my time on the moon, and how it had been a memento from her birth mother, as she was adopted. The words on the back were in Latin: "Elapsem semel occasionam non Ipse potest Juppiter reprehendere," which means "Not even Jupiter can find a lost opportunity." Phi had explained to me that this means that even the ruler of time itself can't take back what's already been done. I wished more than anything that there was a way to undo this horrible timeline.

 

As Diana continued crying onto Phi's brooch, the announcer decided to pick the worst time to talk: "Now announcing the current casualties. Q-Team: Q, Mira, Eric. D-Team: Phi. These four are now deceased. As a result, four X-Passes will be revealed. EYE, KILL, FOOL, RED. That is all."

 

"It must have been the vote that killed Q-Team," I said, not caring whether Diana heard me or not. "Stabbed us in the back, huh, Carlos."

 

The loudspeaker came on again, and Zero's voice said, "Plans are proceeding smoothly, and it's all thanks to you, Diana."

 

"Zero, you monster!" I shouted in a low, dangerous roar, but knowing that I didn't know where he was, I couldn't do anything to prevent the next part of his speech.

 

"Now it is time for you to sleep. When next you wake, know that you will have no memory of these past ninety minutes. Pleasant dreams."

 

----Segment 13: Transporter----

 

We awoke to find ourselves in the Lounge. I checked my bracelet, as Diana was still asleep, and I was shocked to find that it read "00:04," which is 12:04 A.M. of military time. I shook Diana out of her sleep and said, "Diana, it's time to get up! We've been sleeping so long that we're in the New Year now!"

 

"2029?" she asked, still a bit groggy. "Wait a minute, where's Phi?"

 

"Oh no, I hope she hasn't escaped without us!" I said hastily.

 

Without listening to Diana's protest, I ran through every room in our ward and screamed for Phi's name, begging her to even just make a noise if she couldn't talk.

 

Our search led us to the last room of the ward: the Transporter Room. As soon as we entered, we heard Zero's voice over the loudspeaker, saying, "Welcome to the Transporter Room. I assume that you are here because you are searching for something. If you wish to find what you are looking for, I suggest you do as I say."

 

I bared my teeth in anger, but knew that this was just a recording, so I let him continue, especially if by "something," he was indirectly referring to Phi.

 

"As evidenced by the name, this room contains a transporter. It's unique in that, it can not only send one to the past or future, but to other histories as well.

 

A group of Germans on an expedition to the South Pole discovered this transporter in 1888. They brought the device to their homeland to study it in secret. They eventually discovered that this device was not made by man. They believed that perhaps it came from another world, or a species with intelligence far surpassing that of humanity that created it.

 

My history lessons end here. I shall now explain how to use the transporter.

 

If you look to your left, you'll see an object that looks like a large tree root. This is the nucleus, which controls the transporter's functionality. To the right of this are the input pods, which look like beds. Place the people or objects you wish to transport into the input pods, select the transfer point on the monitor in front of them, then pull the lever. The transported will then come out of the export pods on your right, which are shaped like chrysalides.

 

In the back is a material tank which contains... a variety of chemical elements on Earth used to recreate the individual proteins of every possible person or object in existence.

 

Let me be clear that what is transported is only the atomic data; the object itself does not get transported. Think of it like a 3D printer. A variety of objects may be placed into a pod, but two or more people cannot go into the same pod. It is... very difficult to recreate human cells.

 

Once you have used the device, it cannot be used again for ten months. It takes a lot of energy to recharge.

 

I obtained this device in 2009. After the German loss in World War II, it was confiscated by the American troops and stored in one of their research facilities.

 

My explanation ends here. As you can see, no power currently runs through the nucleus. Your job is to restore the power. If you do so, you may be able to obtain that which you desire."

 

Zero's long, drawn-out speech ended there. I looked over at Diana and simply nodded.

 

We immediately noticed that the room was full of blue, square-shaped cards all over the floor. We picked them up, and I noticed that they had strange symbols on them.

 

"I guess Zero wasn't joking when he said that an alien civilization created these," I said slowly.

 

"What are we supposed to do with all of these?" asked Diana.

 

"We've gathered thirteen of them. Now, let's see if there's a place we can put them."

 

We looked around for only a few seconds before Diana said, "This monitor says 'Place Card Here.' Let's try one."

 

"Why not just try them all at once? That would be faster," I argued.

 

I tried shoving the whole pile against the monitor, but it continued saying "Place Card Here." Diana grimaced and said, "I guess Zero is teaching us patience. Here, you scan them one by one, and hand the scanned ones to me when you're done."

 

"All right, I guess we have a bit of time before our injection," I groaned, then scanned one card... two cards... three cards...

 

"Ugh, Zero, could you make this any slower?!" I shouted.

 

"Please, just keep going, Sigma. Remember, this might help us find Phi," Diana reminded me.

 

"Whew, all thirteen cards. Now what?"

 

"Hey, a holographic book just appeared."

 

Diana placed her hand on the cover of the book, then removed it. Doing so made the book open up.

 

"Woah, check it out, Sigma! I think I can actually flip these see-through pages!"

 

"That's great and all, but do they give us any hints about what to do with these cards next?"

 

"It says in Chapter 1: "Wind=0."

 

As Diana said this, we heard a slight whirring noise, and the nucleus opened up to reveal four slots for cards, and five strange symbols above them.

 

"Sigma, maybe those icons are the answer," said Diana excitedly.

 

"No, there's only four slots for cards. It must be more like a hint than the answer," I speculated. "But if the wind card equals zero, then there must be a value to the rest of the cards."

 

"Maybe we can find out with this strange thingy."

 

"What is this? Some kind of card-gambling simulator?" I asked.

 

I placed one of the cards into the square-shaped slot on one of the desks. It got beaten by another card. I kept this up with various other cards, saying, "Diana, check the book again. I might have spotted a pattern here."

 

I found a pen and paper inside a nearby drawer, and I wrote down a few of my answers, as it seemed like certain cards were of greater or equal value to others.

 

"Sigma, Chapter 2 is all about equations. Are you any good at math?"

 

"Quite. Let me see it."

 

"Ah, I see... Give me a few minutes to decipher the value of each card based on this chart."

 

After I scribbled some more, and took more notes with the sliding puzzle, I got the following results, which I read aloud to Diana:

 

0=Wind.

1=Sun

2=Moon

3=Human

4=Two Moons

5=Star

6=Human and Moon

7=Flower

8=Three Moons

9=Two Humans

10=Star and Moon

11=Bird

12=Human and Two Moons

 

"Phew, that took forever," moaned Diana. "Now what?"

 

"Let's check the next chapter," I said, wiping some sweat off of my forehead. "This next chapter wants us to input each card's value, so we'll slide them into place, and... Oh, the next chapter says to multiply the symbols in front of the nucleus together."

 

"And you know how to do that without a calculator?"

 

"Forty-five years of figuring this stuff out gives one quite the ability to do mental calculation. Besides, even if I didn't, we could just use the pen and paper, plus the values we just put down."

 

"O....K..." Diana said slowly. "While you're doing that, I'll check this monitor."

 

She came back a few minutes later with a set of Decagon and Tridecagon Reels.

 

"We can put these across from the card reader on the opposite desk," I said, and we inserted them into place. "Now, let's get back to the equation: BirdXBirdXBirdXFlowerXHuman is 27,951, but how can we convert that to just four cards?"

 

"The reels, perhaps?" asked Diana.

 

"My thoughts exactly. We'll set the horizontal card reels to 27,951. That should give us the hexidecimal equivalent of the cards 'Human and Two Moons, Two Humans, Star and Sun.'"

 

"Wow, you are such a genius!" remarked Diana as I placed the appropriate cards into the nucleus. I threw the rest of them on the floor, and shoved my notes into my pocket. When Diana asked why I did so, I said, "Just in case we need to turn this thing on again in another timeline."

 

As soon as the cards were in place, the nucleus had some swirling green gas floating around it. I sat down on the floor, then breathed a sigh of relief and said, "We finally did it!"

 

"You're the math expert here! When you get so good?"

 

"I'm 67, so I've had a lot of time to figure this out."

 

"Riiight, the age nonsense. Anyway, Sigma, who cares about that right now? Let's go find Phi!"

 

But a female announcer interrupted us from above and said, "Now announcing the current casualties. C-Team: Carlos, Junpei. Q-Team: Q, Mira, Eric. D-Team: Phi. These six are now deceased. The X-Door has been opened and subsequently closed. The successful escapee is Akane Kurashiki. Escape is no longer possible. Please enjoy the rest of your stay."

 

"What happened while we were asleep?!" I asked frantically.

 

"Q-Team must have been killed in the vote, but then what happened to Phi, Carlos and Junpei?" asked Diana. "And why did Akane leave without us?"

 

"It doesn't matter anymore. We're escaping this horrible history!" I said in desperation. I pressed some random buttons on the monitor, then pulled the lever. The input pods opened up. I got into the left one, then said, "Hey, aren't you coming? They won't stay open forever."

 

"Um.... Yeah, I'm coming," she said, after way too long of a pause. "But where are you sending us?"

 

"You'll find out after we walk out of the export pods," I responded, and we soon were engulfed with such a bright light that it left me briefly unconscious.

 

----Segment 14: The Stranded Pair----

 

I woke up to find myself lying in the same spot as where I started: inside the input pod. Shocked, I climbed out just as Diana did, and I wondered out loud: "What happened?! We fixed the machine and did what Zero told us to do, but why didn't we transport?"

 

"Do you think we might have done something wrong?" asked Diana.

 

"I doubt it. The nucleus was glowing green, and I remember seeing a bright light before the pod lid closed on me. Give me a few seconds of silence, and I'll try to figure this out."

 

As I thought long and hard about what Zero told us, which was a lot harder without Phi around, I suddenly had a realization of what the problem was.

 

"It's because we're the originals," I told Diana. "Another version of us was sent to a different timeline, but Zero said that only our atomic data would be transferred. It's like when you send a fax; the original paper remains behind."

 

"So... Do you want to try again, then?" asked Diana, apparently not understanding what I had just told her.

 

"We can't. Even if we wanted to, it takes ten months to recharge. But that's not what's bothering me."

 

"What is?"

 

"The fact that I'm surprised that I wasn't transported. I doubt I'd be able to figure out the answer in a lifetime, so I suppose there's no use speculating on it."

 

"So... What can we do now?" asked Diana, grabbing her arm uncomfortably.

 

"All I know is... We've run out of cards in our deck," I said, as I tossed the notes onto the floor.

 

We returned to the Lounge, dejected. A sense of total hopelessness and deja vu washed over me, recalling the many years I spent in solitude in Rhizome 9. I sincerely hoped that, like that time, some good would come out of this situation.

 

"Sigma," said Diana, looking at her bracelet. "It's 02:33. I guess that means we're not going to be injected anymore."

 

"Akane's already escaped, so the game's over," I said in a low voice. "Without the Decision Game, there's no reason for Zero to take our memory anymore."

 

"Do you think Akane will return to save us?"

 

"I don't know... She's quite the enigma," I simply said.

 

"So... Do we have enough food and supplies for a long stay?" Diana asked, looking down at the ground.

 

"Well, let me check the bar," I said, remembering the Pantry in my own project, and how I stuffed the place galore with space food, and had a sad chuckle at how Phi gorged herself trying to impress Kyle.

 

"It looks like we have enough for ten months with frugal eating."

 

"That long?" asked Diana incredulously.

 

"I said 'frugally,' didn't I? My calculations are based on half a can a day, and that also includes Gab. But right now, you shouldn't be exhausting yourself. It's early in the morning. Go rest; we'll figure things out when we wake up."

 

Diana laid down on the sofa, but I stayed wide awake. I walked through the rest of the rooms in Ward D, wondering what could have happened to Phi, still in mild disbelief that she was actually dead. I checked the Locker Room first; it looked like there were more than enough hygiene supplies to help us maintain our appearances. I opened the lockers, but didn't find any spare clothes. I realized that there were shower stalls that had mere water faucets, so I figured that we could go here if we needed our clothes to be washed.

 

I next walked over to Manufacturing. I put my hand on the purple robot, and I said to it, "Luna... I don't know if you can hear me right now, but I'm sorry that I won't be able to join you. This timeline won't lead into that future, because Tenmyouji is dead. I would give anything to see you again, Luna. But for now, know that I truly did love you, even when you showed me what you really looked like."

 

I finally walked back to the Lounge, looking at Diana sleeping peacefully, or at least putting on a good show of resting. I gave her a slight kiss on her forehead, then laid myself onto the opposite couch.

 

When we woke up, I divided up our rations. Diana wrinkled her nose, as it looked like dog food, and said, "That's it?"

 

"It's better than starving," I simply said and I told her, "I don't care if you're not hungry. Just eat it anyway."

 

"Hey, Sigma," Diana asked, after washing down her food. "Would you mind coming to the Trash Disposal Room with me?"

 

"Why there?" I asked.

 

"To burn these cans, for one, and for two, I have an odd feeling that I might remember what happened to Phi if I go there."

 

"Oddly enough, I had the same thoughts," I said, picking up our food remains. "Sure, I'll come with you."

 

We walked inside the open incinerator and stared as hard as we could at the pile of trash, but couldn't find anything that might have told us about our lost memories. Diana pulled a brooch out of her pocket and I said, "Hey, that's Phi's brooch! How come you have it?"

 

"I dunno. It was in my pocket when we first woke up. Maybe Phi gave it to me?"

 

"But when I knew her, she never let it out of her sight, as it was the last thing her mother gave her."

 

Diana paused for a very long time. She turned to look at me, slowly and sadly, and asked, "Phi's safe... right, Sigma?"

 

"I... truly hope you're right," I said in earnest.

 

Diana walked out of the incinerator, and I followed her back to the Lounge. She pounded her fists against the X-Door and screamed, "Please, Zero! Let us out of here! I know you're hiding somewhere out of sight, just watching us! You could at least tell us why! Zero!!!!"

 

"We haven't heard his voice since he told us to start up the transporter; I don't think he's going to talk to us anymore," I said softly.

 

"Wishful thinking," said Diana grumpily, and she pushed past me and said, "I'm going to take a shower. Don't follow me."

 

A week passed, and while Diana was resting in the Lounge, I was in the VIP shower in the Locker Room, but I hadn't undressed. In truth, I was here to vent without Diana hearing me.

 

"Why, Zero?!" I shouted at the top of my lungs. "I already spent forty-five years trying to save the world, and THIS is what I have travelled back in time for?! At least Rhizome 9 had hope that this younger me would make a difference, but how am I supposed to save the world when I'm in here, and they're possibly suffering out there?! How did Radical-6 leak?! Who are you really?! How did I lose my arms and eye?! Zero!!!!!! Give me some answers!"

 

I kicked the walls in frustration, and threw the bar of soap across the room. I eventually started crying and lost track of how long I sat on my knees, weeping to thin air.

 

A week after that, Diana and I were sitting miserably in the chairs of the Healing Room. We found incredible technology that allowed the entire room to change its color by turning a red knob. We set the room to look like we were inside a forest, and I found some matches to light a candle with. The scent, the atmosphere and the relaxing chairs were great at soothing my troubled, violent mind.

 

"Sigma, how long has it been?"

 

"Two weeks," I said weakly. "I've been marking the wall."

 

"Isn't it so peaceful within this shelter, Sigma?" asked Diana, stretching back her arms and closing her eyes slightly. "All of this green; it reminds me of being in a happy field. It makes me grateful."

 

Recalling that Luna, a robot I had created for my project, had the same thoughts, I kept silent and let Diana continue, "And while we're in here, there's no war, no violent murders, no rapes, no child abduction. Everything is quiet, serene and good."

 

"But it's all going on in the outside world," I moaned, panicking that perhaps Radical-6 had been leaked in this history.

 

"At least this way, we don't have to know about it," said Diana, still keeping her eyes closed. "I got tired of all the drama I kept seeing on social media, like 'I got a new boyfriend' or 'My child just turned one!' or 'I ate all this amazing food at this restaurant!' I got sick of hearing the same old things. I wanted one of my own dreams to come true."

 

She pulled out a bluebird music box from underneath her dress, and I immediately said, "That's..."

 

"A music box. It plays a lovely chime when you turn the handle. I'd like to think that, if there's a name for the song, it's 'The Blue Bird's Hope.'"

 

She began playing the song. Trying my best not to break down in front of her, because I knew what was coming, she next said, "Have you ever read Maeterlink's 'The Blue Bird'? Um, Sigma, are you okay?"

 

"Oh, um, yes, I have. Please continue; I'm fine," I lied. In truth, I wasn't fine at all, because Luna had this exact conversation with me before, in addition to all the misery I felt about going through yet another timeline where I'm in isolation.

 

"Well, the story says that a brother and sister named Tyltyl and Mytyl searched all over the world in search for their blue bird. When they finally returned home, it had been in their house all along. They thought it was missing because they forgot that birds need to go hunting to get food. The moral of the story is 'Happiness is closer than we think,' and even in this shelter, we can find true joy."

 

I folded my arms and said, "I'm sorry, Diana, but you have the wrong interpretation." Not looking at her, I continued, "In the original writing, the blue bird escaped the cage and flew away, never to see the children again. The moral of the story is actually 'Happiness slips away the moment you believe you have it, so it's through dreaming that true happiness comes.'"

 

"Well, you just ruined my dream then," said Diana glumly.

 

"Sorry..." I said softly, now trying very hard to hold back tears.

 

"Sigma... Promise me that you won't disappear, like that bluebird. Please?"

 

I still couldn't look at her, but I did say, "At the rate we're going, you're going to need to rename that song. I think it should really be called 'Blue Bird Lamentation.' There is nothing good to be found in this shelter."

 

I slumped out of the room, wishing more than anything that I could never see Diana's face again.

 

After the month mark, I told Diana for the umpteenth time that she needed to eat, but she knocked the can out of my hands. Thankfully, Gab was nearby, and he licked up the mess, but I shouted, "Diana, I carefully calculated our provisions! What's gotten into you?!"

 

"I'm sick and tired of eating this muck that tastes like dog food! It's been a whole month! Where the heck is Akane?!"

 

"Probably scheming something or another," I grumbled, eating my own can of food grudgingly, inwardly feeling exactly the same as Diana was.

 

"Akane betrayed us!" Diana shouted, now running around the room in circles and flipping over the table in between the couches. She now looked straight into my face, and I could see every tear clinging to her cheeks, and how she had started neglecting her appearance; her hair was now tangled, she was covered in sweat, and some holes were starting to appear on her dress and socks.

 

"She murdered Carlos and Junpei, and then used their X-Passes to escape alone, not even bothering to wait for us! She probably also manipulated Carlos to vote for Q-Team to get them out of her way."

 

"Diana, you were saying half a month ago that the shelter was peaceful," I said through clenched teeth, barely holding in my own anger. "What's changed?"

 

"Nothing! Absolutely nothing's changed! That's why I'm annoyed! Every day, we eat the same old food. We never go anywhere new, we can't go outside, Zero won't even tell us why we're trapped in this stupid shelter in the first place! I feel like I'm losing my mind! Argh, it's all Rebecca's fault! She suggested that I join the Dcom experiment in the first place! If it wasn't for her-"

 

"Diana, you shouldn't be entirely blaming Rebecca. She was just trying to protect you from your abusive ex-husband," I said, grabbing her arms and sitting back down onto one of the sofas.

 

Her rage seemed to subside as she asked, "How do you know about my ex-husband?"

 

Knowing that she wouldn't listen to the rest of my story if I told her, I continued, "He was also an alcoholic, recently unemployed and garnered a rather large debt at work. When you first started dating, he came across as serious and kind. But once you were alone in the house, the mask came off, and he showed you his true colors. He beat you black and blue if you refused him any favors; he'd be up all night gambling or drinking, then blaming all of his problems on you. He'd even laugh as you were moaning on the ground. Of course you divorced him.

 

But even after the divorce, he kept following you. One day, you were having lunch in the hospital cafeteria. Out of the blue, he showed up, flipping over the tables and screaming his head off like a banshee. But every time he would have one of these episodes, he'd end with, 'I love you, Diana. I love you so much, and I'm so sorry.' He would then weep, and you gave in to his pain.

 

Eventually, you couldn't take it anymore, and you brought it up with Rebecca in private. That's when she told you that Dcom was looking for a nurse, and you joined the experiment to cut off all contact with him."

 

Diana slapped me across the face and shouted, "Stop it! How and why do you know all of this?!"

 

"I doubt you'd believe me if I-"

 

"Shut up and tell me already!"

 

"I heard it from you. You told me when we lived together."

 

"Stop talking your stupid nonsense! You've watched too many science fiction movies!" she shouted, slapping me again and running off to another room.

 

This time, I snapped. I grabbed one of the pillows and tore it apart with my teeth as best as I could. I grabbed the monitor that Zero appeared on, and threw it at the X-Door. I found Gab, then most of my rage subsided. I grabbed Gab and petted him for a bit, saying, "Thank you, Gab. You've put up with my anger and frustration for so many weeks. I owe you everything."

 

A month and a half had now passed since we woke up from the input pods, and Diana was becoming a heavy alcoholic herself. In the span of an hour, she had drunk through four bottles.

 

"Diana, will you give it a rest? You're acting like an idiot!" I shouted.

 

"You're the super-weird one here," she responded with a drunken slur, spilling some of her beer down her dress. "You're so calm! How the heck are you not flipping out?"

 

"I have been... But I have gone through this kind of isolation before," I said softly, pouring myself a drink and taking a small sip.

 

"Oh, your stupid trip to the moon, right?! What, did you find aliens there or something? Thought it was fun to leap around? Well, I can leap around just fine, see?"

 

Diana raised herself from her seat at the bar counter, tried to gracefully jump, then tripped, and her beer spilled all over the carpet.

 

"Diana, that's enough!"

 

"No. Gimme more!" she shouted, running back toward the bar counter.

 

"You've had more than enough!"

 

"Give me a drink, Sigma!" she screamed so loud that I was momentarily taken aback. She grabbed the bottle from me, and I leaped on top of her. We struggled for a few moments, then I grabbed the bottle and threw it against the wall. I pinned her to the ground with my arms and knees.

 

"You let me go this instance, Sigma!"

 

"No, you're not acting like yourself!"

 

"Of course not! We've been trapped in here for a month and a half, and you're a crazy lunatic! If you're going to keep antagonizing me, just kill me."

 

"What?!" I asked, now getting up. She got up as well and started crying. I backed away, not being able to take in all of this emotion and frustration.

 

"Diana, what-?"

 

"I'd rather be killed now than slowly die, wasting away in this-"

 

"Just cut it out!" I bellowed, and I pinned her against the wall. "Just quit playing the pity party! I'm upset too, and your belly-aching is not going to get us out of this mess!" I threw her to the floor. "Now stop acting like a baby, and get your act together!"

 

Diana didn't move. Instead, her lips curled into a smile, and she got up, rubbing my arm in a seductive manner.

 

"Hey... If you won't kill me, will you sleep with me?"

 

"H-Huh?!" I asked in utter terror; my feelings for Diana were strong, but no way was I expecting them to manifest in this way.

 

"We might be here the rest of our lives... just you and me," she said, now putting her hands on my chest and talking in a soothing voice.

 

"I don't know, Diana; I think you're making a mistake," I said warily.

 

"Oh... You don't have the guts, do you? What, your moony fantasy girl has swooned you over! Sigma, take a reality check; she's not here! I am! You might as well get over her, and get onto me!"

 

"Don't you dare speak against her!" I bellowed, punching her in the cheek. Diana turned away, now crying again.

 

"Wait, Diana, come back!" I shouted, immediately regretting my temper.

 

I allowed Diana some time to cry and rage on her own while I slumped against the wall. I knew that Diana had put on a brave face back when she said the shelter was peaceful. I just didn't want to admit my own emotions to her. I thought that, if I lost her, it would be like losing Luna again, and the original Diana that came with me to the moon. I knew that this Diana couldn't be held responsible for a Diana in another timeline, so I knew that I had to apologize to her.

 

I found her in the Transporter Room. Saying nothing, I wrapped my arms around her from behind. I was pleasantly surprised that she patted my arms in response.

 

"I'm so sorry, Diana. I know this is really hard for you. All along, I sensed your pain and confusion, but not once did I offer a hand. I'm a coward and a wimp. I couldn't handle the possibility of losing you, like I... Like when I lost her."

 

"Sigma, I shouldn't have said that about her," she responded, crying harder than ever. "I know you must have loved her deeply."

 

I turned her face toward mine and said, "I did love her deeply. But... It's as you said. I've moved on."

 

"You mean...?"

 

"Yes. I love you, Diana. Will you marry me?" I asked. "I don't exactly have a ring with me, all things considered, but..."

 

Diana fully embraced me and gave me a full kiss on the lips. Without speaking to each other, we climbed into one of the input pods, and I pulled on one of the bars above, closing it over us.

 

We woke up the next morning with Diana leaning against my chest. She spoke softly.

 

"Sigma, when I was little, I always wanted to go to the moon."

 

"You've been obsessed with it since you were a kid," I responded. "Even your name comes from the goddess of the moon. In another timeline, your wish came true, and you got to join me on the moon."

 

"That sounds wonderful," she said, giving me a peck on the cheek.

 

"It wasn't all fun and games," I said. "I built a robot named Luna to replace you. I couldn't bear the grief of losing you."

 

"Sigma..." Diana asked, very slowly, sitting up a bit to look me straight in the eyes. "Can you tell me, now, how you know so much about me?"

 

"But I already told you-"

 

"I know. But I want to hear it one more time."

 

Sighing, I said, "I'm from the future. My body came from this time, twenty-two years ago, but my mind is sixty-seven. I came back to this time period to stop Radical-6 from leaking into the world."

 

"I think... I think I finally believe you, Sigma," she said softly.

 

"What changed your mind?" I asked.

 

"I don't know... Maybe I just want to have a good dream, and what girl doesn't get dreamy over an older man?"

 

"Haha, I suppose you have a point there."

 

"But... How are you able to be in this timeline, and yet still remember living with me in another?"

 

"The best way I can describe it is by using my legs." I stretched myself out as far as I could; the pod was just long enough to fit my tall body. "Imagine history starting right here." I pointed to the top of my left thigh. "To the average person, time started here, and continued down to the toes, which is the end of their life. They don't even know about the path on my right leg. However..." I contorted my legs to twist together. "I can do this... which means that I know about both leg histories."

 

Diana looked slightly confused. I said, "Sorry. I'm talking nonsense again, aren't I?"

 

"No. It's a lovely bedtime story," she said, smiling at me.

 

Three months later, Diana woke me up and said, "Sigma, I have some important news!"

 

"What's up? Has the X-Door opened?" I asked groggily.

 

"No, but this may be better. Sigma, I think I'm... pregnant."

 

"You are?! That's wonderful! Here, let me re-divide the rations; you're going to need a lot more food than I do."

 

"Th-Thank you, Sigma," said Diana weakly.

 

"Don't thank me yet. You're in for a rough couple of months ahead."

 

"Yet I know that I can face them with you by my side, Sigma."

 

"Please. I'm not the one giving birth and most of my nutrients to a life form inside of me."

 

"But it's thanks to you that this life form exists," insisted Diana. "Besides, in the future you came from, you sounded like you had it pretty rough. Please, Sigma; it's my turn to help you."

 

"A-All right. I'll do what I can."

 

The next several months were brutal, with Diana's morning sickness, her ever-growing appetite and occasional bouts of anger, but on November 16, 2029, I finally rushed her to the Locker Room, where I tried my best to follow her instructions on helping an expectant mother giving birth.

 

"You're doing great, Diana!" I encouraged her, as I could tell that she was in excruciating pain. "One more push, Diana, you're doing so well!"

 

Diana gave another loud groan, then I held my son in my arms. I was temporarily speechless; I had never seen a baby up close like this before. The closest thing I ever had was Kyle, but he was only ever my clone, not an actual human being conceived through the union of husband and wife. I was in the middle of saying, "Diana, it's a beautiful-"

 

"Sigma, hurry! I think... there's another coming!"

 

"Wh-What?!" I shouted, and I got back into position. A few agonizing shouts later, Diana gave birth to a second child, a girl this time. I ordered Diana to rest after she gave me instructions on cleaning up the children.

 

Once we finally got both twins to settle down, I held our daughter, and she held our son in her arms as we both sat on the sofas. Dark shadows were forming under our eyes from lack of sleep, but our joy at seeing these new lives was far greater than any discomfort we might be feeling. I had never been more joyful in my life.

 

"I can't believe you managed to give birth to fraternal twins within a bomb shelter, of all places. Did you know?"

 

"I had a hunch, but I didn't have my usual medical equipment to be sure," said Diana. "Sigma, I'm really thankful for all of your help as a makeshift nurse. You did wonderful for your first attempt."

 

"Diana, I know you're trying to make me feel better, but I don't want you to downplay your own efforts either. You did really well. I have never been more proud in my life. Seeing these children... makes my entire, long life worth every second. I used to hate the phrase 'unconditional love,' but now I know that such a love exists in this world. I don't believe in God, so I'm not doing it for a higher power's approval, or for gratitude from anyone else. Even if I rot away, I want these children to have a happy future. That's all I ask. Zero can do whatever he wants to me, but these children... They deserve it all."

 

"And this... is this what you came back for? You know, from the future?"

 

"I certainly wasn't expecting this," I admitted. "But I can say that this is probably the second-best alternative future to Radical-6's eradication that I can think of. But, Diana, I have some sad news to give you. Brace yourself; this is going to hurt."

 

"Why? What's wrong, Sigma?" asked Diana.

 

"First, we've run out of food for Gab. We... We need to put him to sleep."

 

"No, Sigma. You can't..."

 

"Would you rather him starve to death?" I asked. "This is better for him. I promise, I'll make it quick and painless."

 

"How can you guarantee that?" asked Diana.

 

"The gun in the Trash Disposal Room. I want you to take the kids and put yourselves into the VIP shower, then calm your emotions in the Healing Room. You're not going to want to see or hear this."

 

"O-Okay, Sigma. But please, give Gab my thanks."

 

"I will," I said bravely, then I quickly did what needed to be done. Very softly, I buried Gab within the incinerator. A tear fell down my eye as gratitude for all of the times Gab had helped me, and even carrying the note from C-Team, whether it was a trap or not. I hoped that Gab was now at peace, whatever happened to him now.

 

I walked back to Diana and the twins and guided them to the Healing Room. It took several hours for us to fully process our emotions, but eventually, I said, "Diana, I'm afraid we can't stay here very long. I have something else to show you."

 

"Sigma, please, we just lost Gab. Don't tell me the twins are next."

 

"No, of course not. Human life is so sacred; I've tampered with it so much in my project that I want to respect it, now that I have children of my own. Follow me."

 

I took her to the Transporter Room and pointed to the nucleus. Diana's eyes widened and said, "Oh! Now we can escape!"

 

"No, we can't," I said sadly. "Zero said that only two humans can be transported."

 

"Only two? But... Does that mean we'll have to say Good-Bye to our children?"

 

"No," I said, smiling gratefully. "We ourselves know from experience that only their atomic data will be transported. We'll be able to take care of the original babies for as long as we still live. But I want these children to have a better future than being stuck in a bomb shelter for the rest of their lives, so we're going to send them elsewhere."

 

"Do you have an idea?" asked Diana.

 

"I'm going to send them to the past, before the year 2008, so that Zero will not have obtained the transporter yet." I selected the transfer point on the console: April 1904. We then placed each of the twins within a pod.

 

"Do you want to name our kids before we send them off?" asked Diana.

 

"Of course. You can name the boy," I said.

 

"Well, since my first letter is a D, I wanted something similar to that, so I thought the Greek letter Delta would work, as it looks like a vertical triangle."

 

"Delta? I like it. And I'm named after the Greek letter 'sigma' too."

 

"That's the second reason I chose it, in honor of my loving husband," said Diana sweetly. "Do you have a name picked out for the girl?"

 

"Yes. Oddly-enough, I was thinking of a Greek letter too. I want to use the one that means the most to me: Phi. I'd like to name our daughter after her."

 

"Phi... What a lovely name," said Diana.

 

"Are you ready to transport them?" I asked.

 

"Not quite. There's still two more things we need to do." She ran over to one of the desks and grabbed one of the markers. "We should make sure that no one changes their names in 1904, so we'll write their names on their feet."

 

Diana did so, then took her music box and gave it to Delta. She then gave Phi the brooch. She kissed both of them good-bye, then stood next to me and linked hands with me as both of us pulled the lever and sent Delta and Phi to a happier past.

 

 

 

----Segment 15: The Door of Truth----

 

When the bright light subsided, Diana and I walked out of the export pods. Diana looked at me in excitement and said, "We did it, Sigma! We're in a new history now!"

 

"Y-Yeah, I guess you're right. Wow," I said, wondering why I was shocked to find myself walking out of the export pods. Oh well, there was time to worry about that later. I checked my bracelet.

 

"It's 18:05 right now. Since it was 1:30 in the morning on New Year's Eve of 2029 when we climbed into the input pods, we must be back in the year 2028."

 

"But what if it's 18:05 on a different day? Sigma, are you saying you don't know where we are?"

 

I grimaced, then looked down and said, "I was so worried about finding Phi that my mind wasn't thinking clearly, and I pressed a random button."

 

"A random-?! Well, does that mean we've escaped from the shelter?"

 

"I doubt it, since we can still see the Transporter Room around us. The good news is-"

 

"Phi might be alive in this history!" said Diana excitedly.

 

"Exactly. C'mon; let's look for her."

 

We ran through the rooms of Ward D yet again, shouting her name as loudly as we could. When we got to the Healing Room, we backed away in horror as we saw huge blood stains on the wall and floors.

 

"What happened in here?!" asked Diana.

 

"No time to find out; we need to see if this is Phi's blood or not. She could be seriously injured," I urged her, and I ran out of the room.

 

We finally arrived in the Locker Room. I called for Phi again, but she still wouldn't answer. Since the area filled with water in front of the stalls was so dark, and the water was so gunk-filled, I tried opening the lockers, but Phi wasn't in any of the unlocked ones. I pressed my ear against the ones with locks on them, but I didn't hear any sign of breathing or struggling.

 

"Um, Sigma, I think I know what history we're in..."

 

"No offense, Diana, but I really don't care at the moment," I said curtly. "All that matters right now is finding Phi." Dejected, I turned to leave the room, only to find that the door was locked behind us.

 

"Great, another puzzle. Let's hope it's easier than starting up that transporter," I said.

 

"We've got one clue already," said Diana optimistically. "There's a hair dryer on the sink."

 

"Why would we need a hair dryer?" I asked.

 

"Maybe it can activate that fan up there," said Diana, pointing slightly above the sinks.

 

"Well, we need to find a two-prong adapter, since it won't fit this outlet," I said.

 

I took a closer look at the sinks themselves; the sink on the right was clogged up and filled to the brim with water. I tried unplugging the sink, then the water drained out, and filled up the leftmost sink.

 

"What do you suppose the point of that was?" asked Diana.

 

"There's something at the bottom of the drain," I said, leaning in closer to the water. "My fingers are too big; can you get it, Diana?"

 

"No, sorry," she said after a few seconds. "Maybe we need to fill up the rightmost sink."

 

"This is a Locker Room, so I'm sure finding enough water won't be a problem," I said with a slight smile.

 

"Finding clean water might; the water all along the stalls is filled with greenish gunk," said Diana, wrinkling her nose in disgust.

 

"Maybe we can find a way to drain the water by looking through these lockers," I said. "I checked a few of them; the rightmost one has a music box inside it."

 

"Ooh, can we play some soothing music to calm our nerves?" asked Diana.

 

"It doesn't seem to be working at the moment," I observed. "There's a circular spot at the bottom, but what could possibly go down there?"

 

"Maybe it's activated by water?" suggested Diana. "If this is a Locker Room, I mean."

 

"I wouldn't put it past Zero to have unintuitive puzzle solutions like that," I said. I next checked the leftmost locker to find a note.

 

"'The power supply must be restarted to unlock the door.' Well, that must mean this device on the left," I noted. "This solution is pretty easy; we'll just plug it back in."

 

"The power's on, but it looks like it's still screwed on," said Diana sadly.

 

"What a weird-shaped screw. I don't remember seeing any screwdriver that would fit this," I said, perplexed.

 

"You're saying we need something else to get this screw off?"

 

"Yeah, something small and hard should work. Let's check the other lockers."

 

I checked the locker second-from-the-left and found a conversion plug.

 

"Ah, good, this'll get the hair dryer working," I said, inserting the converter into the plug. I then aimed the hair dryer at the fan blade above the sinks to find some words that were easier to read now that the blades were spinning and not stuck in place.

 

"Woah, this could give someone an epilepsy attack!" I said, getting a bit dizzy from the words being behind some rapidly-spinning blades.

 

"Can you tell what they're saying, at least?" asked Diana.

 

"Yeah. Violet, white, blue and red."

 

"Hey, this locker looks like it has a color lock. Let me try entering that code," said Diana excitedly. A few clicks later, and the second-to-the-right locker opened.

 

"A coin and a remote control. What do you think we'd need a coin for?"

 

"Perhaps to open the screw off of the machine. Let's give it a try."

 

I did so, and the screw came right off. I saw what looked like three switches. The one on the right had an indentation that looked like the letter "C." It seemed like the other two were light switches, so I pressed down on the center switch, and the lights turned on for the gunk-filled water, but it turned off the lights by the lockers.

 

"Hmm... I suppose that leaves us with finding out what this remote does," I said in response, pressing the red button. The corrupted water drained away.

 

"Oh good, we can investigate over here now!" said Diana excitedly.

 

"Don't get too excited; there's still residue on the floor, so try not to slip," I warned. "Anyway, there appears to be something stuck on the grate of this drain." I pulled out a round piece that said "Start."

 

"I'm guessing this goes on some sort of device in here. Let's check the shower stalls," I said.

 

The rightmost stall didn't even have a door, and when I tried turning on the shower, only the lower faucet turned on.

 

"I guess this is where we'll get the water to pour down the sink, once we find a container," I said.

 

I next checked the stall next to this one; it looked the same, but with a note taped to the wall.

 

"'Fully submerge the power supply in water to restart,'" I read. "What, Zero expects us to fully flood the room?"

 

"Um... Let's worry about that when we have to," said Diana nervously. "We still have a few more stalls to check."

 

"The VIP shower is locked," I said. "But it looks like we can open the other two."

 

For the second-to-left door, we found a machine that looked like a fish tank, though with no life forms inside it.

 

"This looks like where we should put the round piece, but the cover is screwed on." I tried using the coin like I did with the power supply machine, but the coin was too big.

 

"I think we actually do need a screwdriver this time. Let's check the last stall."

 

For the leftmost door, we found a bucket.

 

"Ah, we can use this for carrying the water!" I said in joy. I took the bucket over to the faucet, filled it up, turned the lights to the locker side back on, then dumped the water down the right sink. A key popped out of the left sink.

 

"Hey, do you suppose this'll fit the door to the VIP shower?" asked Diana.

 

"Let's find out," I said. As I turned back to turn the lights back on, I said, "Hey, I see some glow-in-the-dark writing on the underside of this drain. It's a 3x3 grid with numbers on it. I'm guessing it's the combination to the central locker. Diana, enter the following code: upper right, middle left, bottom center, upper center, upper left, bottom left, middle right, bottom right and finally, the direct center."

 

"Got it!"

 

"What did you find?"

 

"A die with the pattern of a Chinese dragon on it. It doesn't look like it's complete."

 

"Do you want me to give it a try?"

 

"Yeah. I don't want us to get injected too soon," said Diana.

 

I matched up the dragons and clouds as best as I could, and found a screwdriver inside.

 

"This should work for that fish tank we found earlier," I said. "But let's get this key out of the way first, in case we drop it down the drain." I turned the key on the lever to the VIP shower, and it worked. I peered inside to find a hose.

 

"Hmm... It looks like one end of this hose might fit into the music box. But to do that, we'd need to find a steady stream of water to connect the other end into."

 

"We can't just use the faucet?" asked Diana.

 

"The water pressure wouldn't be strong enough," I countered. "If we could remove the shower head, that would probably work."

 

I walked back over to the rightmost stall and tried fiddling with the shower head. I noticed that a few screws were loose, so I unscrewed them and inserted one end of the hose into the resultant hole. I said, "Let's look around a bit more and see if we can find a way to get both lights on at the same time so that we don't fiddle around in the dark."

 

I went back over to the fish tank and unscrewed the cover at the bottom. I inserted the round piece into the hole, pressed it, then the tank drained of water, and out came a C-shaped piece.

 

"I think this is exactly what we'll need," I responded, and placed it into the indentation on the power supply machine. We were now able to have the room fully-lit. Now that I could see properly, I placed the other end of the hose into the bottom of the music box, then turned on the water flow. Before long, some musical notes hit our ears.

 

"Oh, I love this song! Let me sing along to it!" said Diana joyfully.

 

"Diana, we really don't have time for-" I began, but it was too late; the peaceful melody was interrupted by her voice being very off-key and loud. Trying not to hurt her feelings, I waited for the song to stop, then said politely, "Very nice, Diana, but look in the drawer that just opened."

 

"Oh! My singing opened the drawer!"

 

"Sure... But what's inside?" I asked.

 

"A note. It says 'Fill the room with water.' But how are we supposed to do that without drowning?"

 

Right after she finished reading, the wall behind the shower handle that I unscrewed cracked, and water was now flooding into the room.

 

"Quick, into the VIP shower!" I shouted, dragging her along.

 

"Whew, I think we'll be safe in here," she said, slightly out of breath. "But it might still take a while for the water to completely fill the room."

 

"We could probably speed up the process with the remote control and closing the drain," I said, pressing the red button. Diana clutched onto my shirt desperately as we anxiously watched the water rising above our heads, but the glass seemed to be reinforced against water. We heard a faint beeping, then I said, "I think that might have restarted the power supply machine. Let's close the drain and take a look."

 

I pressed the button again, then went back over, holding Diana's hand to keep her from slipping on the wet floor. The room was now glowing red, but the "Restart?" button on the machine was now glowing green. Without hesitation, I pressed it, and the VIP shower sank completely into the ground and revealed a yellow door.

 

"Wow! I didn't expect this to show up. Does this mean that we need to escape through this door instead?" asked Diana.

 

"Well, the way we came in is still locked," I noted, walking back over. "It looks like there's a combination lock."

 

"Were there any hints we missed?"

 

"I doubt it; there's only so many places you can look in a Locker Room. It looks like we'll need an eight-digit number."

 

"An eight-digit number... But if there aren't any hints, then how are we supposed to reference anything?"

 

"Hmm... Maybe my notes from the Transporter Room could help," I said, showing them to Diana. She looked at them long and hard, then fell to the floor.

 

"Diana! What's the matter?!" I asked, holding her up.

 

"I think I just remembered what the code is!"

 

"Huh? Did we see anything like that?"

 

"I don't know how to explain it, but I just know."

 

"You mean... You SHIFTed to another timeline? But... I don't remember any other histories."

 

"We must have learned it somehow," said Diana. "Anyway, let's enter it first, and see if I'm right."

 

The combination was 11162029. It turned out that Diana was correct, and the door opened.

 

"I didn't know you were a SHIFTer!" I exclaimed.

 

"What are you talking about, Sigma? What's a SHIFTer?"

 

"Never mind. Let's go through this door right now, and see if Phi is through here."

 

"Yes, let's," said Diana excitedly.

 

We found ourselves in a strange room that was cylindrical, with what looked like a dart board all the way in the back, a shotgun on the ground, Q's wheelchair fallen over on its side, and some pods along the edge.

 

"Where in Ward D are we?" asked Diana.

 

"I don't think we're in Ward D," I said, looking at the map. "It's possible that we might have entered another ward, judging by Q's wheelchair."

 

"Should we check out those pods?"

 

"Yeah. Phi could be inside one of them." I opened the hatch on the nearest pod, and found Q inside. I shook him, and I could tell that he was still breathing, but since I knew from Dcom that he couldn't see or hear, I heaved him out of the pod, and placed him back on his wheelchair. I pulled down the next one, and found Eric inside.

 

"Eric. Eric! Can you hear me?" I asked.

 

"Ugh, yeah, but my head really hurts," he moaned.

 

"Can you stand?"

 

"Yeah, I think so."

 

"Hey, Eric, what are you doing in here anyway?" asked Diana.

 

"I was just going to ask you guys the same question," he responded with a bit of an attitude. "How did you get into Ward Q?"

 

"Ward Q?" I asked. "Anyway, questions later; let's open the other pods."

 

The next pod contained a very strange-looking kid with a helmet on. He was apparently a tenth player of the Decision Game, as he was wearing a bracelet like all of us.

 

"Who's this?" I asked, wondering why Zero would pick a small child to be in the game.

 

"He calls himself Sean," said Eric. "I think his entire existence in this game is suspicious, but I've got a shotgun nearby if he tries to make any sudden moves."

 

Diana looked mortified at Eric's lack of sensitivity toward the child, but a few moments later, the kid stirred, and presumably looking up at Diana, asked in a little boy's voice, "Who are you? And who's that young man with you?"

 

"I'm Sigma, and this is Diana," I answered. "We're two of the members of D-Team."

 

"Huh? But how are you guys here?" asked Sean; his helmet swayed a bit, so I guessed that he was having a headache like Eric did earlier. He climbed out of the pod and ran toward Eric. I heard him whisper, "Eric, what's going on?"

 

"Don't ask me; I have no clue," answered Eric.

 

"Let's check the other pods, and then we'll explain everything," I said curtly. When I opened the third pod, there was a cloth covering the person inside.

 

"What?! No, don't tell me someone died!" said Diana in terror.

 

Though I was inwardly as scared as she was, I pulled off the cover before my nerves could give out, only to find that it was Mira. She didn't have any external wounds, but had some red marks around her neck, so it appeared as though she was strangled to death.

 

"Mira!" shouted Eric, yanking her out of the pod. "Mira, wake up!"

 

"It's no use, Eric; she's not breathing," I said, trying to be as sensitive as possible. "C'mon, let's put the cloth back over her and check the other pods."

 

Eric didn't appear to have heard a single word I said, as he continued shaking Mira fruitlessly. Sean and Diana watched with bated breath as I turned the next knob. Thankfully, the next pod was empty, but I knew that this would mean nothing if it wasn't compared to the contents of the remaining pods, so I continued my search.

 

In the next pod, we found yet another cover, this time soaked with blood. Diana was now biting her knuckles as I yanked off the cover to find...

 

"Akane?! No! Why?!" I shouted. She had a deep gash on her neck, and some dried blood had spilled onto her dress and onto the bottom of her ponytail. My immediate thought was that perhaps this would be the history where mankind would be saved from Radical-6, now that Akane was dead, but I didn't want my journey to be just for this tragic ending.

 

"S-Sigma, let's check the other pods," came Sean's shaky voice. I was surprised by how calm he was over seeing two dead bodies in the span of just a few minutes. Sure enough, the next cover had even more blood all over it. Diana let out a piercing scream and fainted as we saw Junpei's body, mangled beyond belief, possibly the worst way of someone dying that I'd ever seen. As much as it pained me, I had to lift his... corpse... onto the ground, and cover it, just as I did with Akane. My heart felt like it couldn't take much more of this, but then I realized that there were still three more pods to check.

 

As I opened the next pod and tore off the bloody cover, I gasped, but forced myself not to puke, as I knew that I had to be the strong man for Diana and Sean, but nevertheless, it was the strangest sight in the world to see Diana's headless body.

 

"What's going on?" I asked inwardly. "If Diana's fainted all the way over there, does that mean this version of her is a fake?"

 

Eric finally got over his incessant shaking of Mira and walked over, not being as strong as I was in holding in his guts.

 

"Urk! How on Earth is this possible?!" he asked, shaking uncontrollably.

 

"I wish I knew. I know this is hard for you, but can you help me check the remaining pods?"

 

"Uuuuh... Yeah..." said Eric weakly. "But you'd better have answers if we see worse results!"

 

The next pod contained my own body, beheaded as Diana's was.

 

"What the heck?!" Sean, Eric and I all screamed at once.

 

"I don't think this is Kyle," I said, with a pain at the further realization that he would probably not be created in this history.

 

"Just one more to go, guys. Hold it in just a little bit longer," I urged them. As I opened the last pod, my heart skipped a beat, and it felt like all of the oxygen had been sucked from my lungs, as Phi now appeared, in the same condition as the me and Diana from the pods.

 

There was dead silence between myself, Eric and Sean as we covered the three D-Team members in their cloths. Eric went back over to Mira for a bit, and when I tried to console him, he didn't look at me. I didn't blame him; seeing someone alive and dead at the same time certainly would be bizarre.

 

Diana finally stirred after about ten minutes, then asked, "Sigma... Who are the three people under the sheets?"

 

"You shouldn't look," I urged her. "The truth is beyond comprehension."

 

"No! She needs to see them!" demanded Eric. He was not sounding charitable in the slightest.

 

"No, Eric!" I bellowed, but before I could stop him, he ripped off all three covers.

 

Diana's reaction was shocking. She let out a brief moan, wiped her forehead, then said, "I knew it."

 

"You knew?!" shouted Eric, now flailing his fists indignantly.

 

"Yeah, what do you mean by that?" asked Sean, a bit more calmly.

 

"You didn't tell them about transporting yet?" Diana asked me.

 

"Transporting?! How is that even a thing?!" asked Eric, his voice nearly shattering glass in his terror.

 

"In Ward D, there's a machine that can transport people and/or objects through spacetime," I explained.

 

"What?! So... so..." prattled Eric, but Sean interrupted.

 

"So, how then did you know about these three bodies?"

 

"Because the history we're in... is the history where we were executed by the vote..." she said slowly.

 

"What...? So that means it was all for nothing!" I said, pounding my fists on the ground. "We transported to find a history where Phi existed! You tricked us, Zero!" I bellowed into the air.

 

Diana ran over to Phi's body, grabbed her hand and sobbed onto it. Eric pushed her aside and said, "Hey, what's going on?!"

 

"Eric, leave her alone and calm down. We're all frazzled here!" I shouted.

 

"My girlfriend's been murdered, and you're spouting nonsense about spacetime and transporting! How can I possibly be calm?!"

 

I was spared from answering Eric's anger when a monitor turned on, and we witnessed the inside of a cupboard, where we saw Junpei's head atop one of the shelves.

 

"Junpei!" shouted Eric. The scene shifted to a view of C-Team's Lounge, with Carlos and Akane sitting across from each other on the sofas. The video played in bits and pieces at this point, and we heard, over the loudspeaker, Carlos saying, "All I wanted was that three thousand dollars for signing up."

 

We next saw a side shot of Carlos carrying an axe and screaming, "Akane, why did you kill him?! You killed Junpei, and if you kill me, you'll get an easy X-Pass!"

 

We watched as Carlos plunged the axe into Akane's neck, and she fell to the floor. As she choked from blood loss, she spluttered, "Junpei... I'm sorry... I couldn't avenge you..."

 

The monitor turned static at this point.

 

"So Carlos killed Akane?" asked Eric in disbelief.

 

"It seems like it. But we didn't see all of the footage," I argued.

 

"It doesn't matter. Akane is dead; she's lying right there!" exclaimed Eric, pointing to Akane's corpse.

 

As if the Decision Game could hear us, the female announcer came back on.

 

"Now announcing the current casualties. C-Team: Junpei, Akane. Q-Team: Mira. D-Team: Diana, Phi, Sigma." It sounded so strange to hear my own name over the loudspeaker, and I imagined Diana must have felt the same way.

 

"These six are now deceased. As a result, six X-Passes will be revealed. FIVE, CRASH, HEART, RED, BLUE, DAD."

 

"Six X-Passes... And besides us, Carlos is still alive..." said Diana slowly.

 

I nodded, then continued, "He murdered Akane and Junpei, and voted against us in the vote so that... No more time to explain; he's going to beat us to the X-Door!"

 

Without turning back, I raced out of the Pod Room as quickly as I could, down a few unfamiliar hallways. Thankfully, Sean was quite the fast runner for his age and managed to lead us back to Ward D.

 

"Wait, where are we?" asked Sean, looking around.

 

"This is Ward D," I answered.

 

"Ward D? But I thought we were in Ward Q this whole time," Sean responded, putting his hands against his helmet.

 

"Sigma? Diana? What are you doing here?" came Carlos' voice from a distance. I held out my arm to prevent Sean and Diana from rushing toward him. As he walked in front of the X-Door, I could see that his left hand had been chopped off, and his right hand was carrying an axe.

 

"You've got some explaining to do!" I shouted at him. "Now drop the axe and start talking!"

 

"Uh, I think there's been a misunderstanding," Carlos said, raising his arm slightly.

 

"Drop the axe first, then explain," I repeated.

 

"As you wish," sighed Carlos, throwing it aside.

 

"Carlos, your hand!" exclaimed Diana in shock. "Let me have a look at it!"

 

"Ward C has an Infirmary, so I patched it up with some anesthetic and bandages that I found in there, so the pain's dulled a bit," said Carlos, watching Diana observe the wound, but not removing the bandage, presumably to avoid ripping over the scar.

 

"How did this happen?" she asked.

 

"I didn't actually see it happen myself, but it was Akane."

 

"You didn't see it?! How can you miss your own hand being cut off?!" I asked in disbelief.

 

"You probably wouldn't believe me if I told you the truth," shrugged Carlos.

 

"We just saw our own bodies beheaded a few minutes ago," I said. "So we might just believe anything now."

 

"Okay... I SHIFTed from several histories to get here, so the Carlos that you saw on the footage was the one that originated from this history, and he was the one who killed Akane."

 

"Wait, you transported too?" asked Diana.

 

"No. SHIFTing and transporting are two different concepts," I told her. "But I didn't know you could SHIFT, Carlos."

 

"I've been able to do it ever since saving my sister from an inferno. I could hear voices calling out from fires after that, and I now know that it's thanks to SHIFTing that I've always been able to rescue future victims. Akane said that being in countless dangerous situations like fires awakened my powers. Throughout our time in this shelter, Akane, Junpei and I have been through so many life-threatening situations that my memory is fully intact. Now, can someone finally explain why you're angry at this me?"

 

"Well, we saw the footage, so I guess I kind of didn't realize you could SHIFT," I responded, embarrassed by my rashness.

 

"Hey, look at the X-Pass input device!" shouted Sean.

 

"Did you do that with the axe?!" I shouted at Carlos.

 

"Um, Sigma, did you even look at the thing?" asked Carlos, slightly more polite than Phi would have been, but I made the connection about my cluelessness regardless. "There are bullet holes on there. How could an axe have done this?"

 

"Then who-?" began Diana, then we heard a loud gunshot go off.

 

"I did," said Eric in a deadly voice. He was now pointing the shotgun from the Pod Room in our direction.

 

"Want to know how you win at horse racing? You bet on every horse," said Eric, his eyes now contorting wildly. "By process of elimination, I'll kill all of you if one of you doesn't fess up to killing my Mira."

 

We all stayed silent; I inwardly wondered how much more imbecilic Eric could get.

 

"I'll start with you," said Eric, pointing the shotgun at Carlos. "We all saw the footage. We know for a fact that you killed Akane. So you must have killed Junpei and Mira too!"

 

"No! I may have killed Akane, but I had nothing to do with Mira! Besides, I'm on C-Team. How would I get to Ward Q?"

 

"Hey, aren't we in Ward D right now?" asked Sean.

 

"Ward D? Ah, I guess that explains why the wording on the wall is different," said Carlos, pointing up at the red lettering that said, "When a curious hate oozes calamity."

 

"Are you saying there's a secret door that connects all of the wards?" asked Eric, somewhat sarcastically.

 

"No, wait... I think there might be another explanation," said Diana, pacing around the room. She rubbed the wall, looked at her bracelet, then stared at the Ward D map. "Carlos, do you have your map of Ward C?"

 

"Right here," he said, showing it to her.

 

"Now, Sean. Do you have Ward Q's?"

 

"I do," said Eric. "But before I give it to you, tell me why I should. I might be letting Mira's killer run free."

 

"Very well... I see you've forced my hand," sighed Diana. "Eric, would you please shoot the wall?"

 

"What?!"

 

"Please. It'll make my explanation easier if you see for yourself."

 

"Hmph. Fine." Eric did as Diana asked. We heard the wall make a cracking sound, then a ripple effect seemed to fill the walls, ceiling, floor and furniture. Before long, everything was a dull shade of grey.

 

"Woah! Wh-What is this?" asked Eric.

 

"This... is the ward we've all been in," explained Diana. "Or, to be more accurate, we were never in any wards to begin with."

 

"But what about the maps?" asked Carlos.

 

"The maps were part of a bigger puzzle that Zero cut into pieces," said Diana with a smile. "Since Eric won't cooperate, we'll just take Ward C's and Ward D's, rotate the angles a bit, and assume that Q-Team's ward goes here. Zero wanted us to think that we were separated, but in reality, it was all a lie."

 

"So then, how did we never bump into each other?" I asked. "If we all shared a Lounge, then how did we not see the other teams during the vote?"

 

"First off, the rooms that were the same used the projection technology to look different. Second, C-Team was the only team that voted at 13:30. The rest of us were asleep inside the pods."

 

"But... It said 13:30 on our bracelets at the time," Carlos argued.

 

"Then let's see what they say now, to prove my point," said Diana. "Carlos, this may be awkward of me to ask, but..."

 

"No worries. I have my bracelet right here," said Carlos, lifting his bloody bracelet from his pocket. "It says 23:23."

 

"Huh? Mine says "21:23," said Sean.

 

"So does mine," exclaimed Eric.

 

"And ours says 19:23," I said, looking down at my own bracelet, and Diana nodded to show that hers was the same time.

 

"So if I'm following your train of thought," I continued. "Then C-Team voted at 13:30, Q-Team at 15:30, and D-Team at 17:30."

 

"Then the drugs put us to sleep, and we were carried into the pods while the other team was awake," finished Diana.

 

"That's... a lot to take in," said Eric slowly.

 

"Speaking of taking in..." I said nervously. "Diana, our injections should be starting any minute now."

 

"But we're dead in this history! Shouldn't we be exempt?" she argued.

 

"I wouldn't count on Zero making such a mistake," said Carlos. "In one of the histories I SHIFTed to, we heard an announcement that X-Passes from other timelines couldn't open the X-Door."

 

"That's not good. So how do we keep our memories?" I asked frantically.

 

"I have an idea. Follow me, everyone," said Diana.

 

We arrived in the Transporter Room. Diana said, "Okay, Sigma. Take this card, and..." she whispered the remainder into my ear. "In case Zero is watching us, slip in under your bracelet right after he says 'Pleasant dreams.'"

 

"Got it," I whispered back.

 

"What do you want us to do?" asked Eric.

 

"You and Sean should both be asleep right now, so you don't need to do anything," explained Diana. "And Carlos obviously can't do anything."

 

"All right, guys, it's about time," said Carlos, checking his bracelet.

 

"Now, it is time for you to sleep," came Zero's voice over the loudspeaker. "When next you wake, know that you will have no memory of these past ninety minutes. Pleasant dreams."

 

Diana and I quickly inserted the cards underneath our bracelets, and we heard the needles strain themselves, then bend. I breathed a sigh of relief and said, "Whew! I guess we don't have to worry about the amnesia drug anymore!"

 

"But... Why were those cards able to block the shots?" asked Carlos.

 

"Because Zero told us, in the original timeline we came from, that they were not made by man, so needles wouldn't be able to penetrate them," said Diana gently. "Anyway, Eric, are you satisfied now?"

 

"I get what you're saying," he said slowly. "The three teams were in the same ward all along, but were just asleep at different times. As for the timing of the vote, there was a time lag in Q-Team's and D-Team's bracelets."

 

He then shrugged, pointed the gun toward Diana and said, "But no! That doesn't clear your name! It just means I suspect you even more now! Since we were never separated by wards, it means that no one has an alibi."

 

"So then, you're saying one of us had to be Mira's killer?" suggested Sean, looking all around the room.

 

"Exactly. Diana and Sigma, you two are now the most suspicious, since you're fakes, so the rules wouldn't apply to you."

 

"Eric, didn't you just see us block the needles?" asked Diana in exasperation. "Of course the rules still apply to us."

 

"We transported into this history FROM the timeline where Q-Team was executed via this transporter machine," I said. I pulled my notes out of my pocket and showed Carlos, Eric and Sean how we booted up the nucleus. "We placed these four cards into the nucleus, then selected the transfer point on this console. We then climbed into the input pods, and came out of those export pods into this history."

 

"If what you're claiming is true, then show me!" demanded Eric.

 

"We can't," said Diana in defeat. "After you've transported, it won't work again for ten months."

 

"Wait... If it HASN'T been run, it won't work again for ten months?" asked Carlos.

 

Eric pointed the gun at him and asked, "What are you plotting?! You're admitting your defeat, aren't you?"

 

"As I said before," sighed Carlos. "I came from another history as well, and it was the me from THIS history that killed Akane. Anyway, Diana, are you saying it'll definitely run if it hasn't ever been used?"

 

"Y-Yes, if you follow the instructions Sigma showed you."

 

"Thanks, Diana. This may be just what I need," said Carlos, smiling at her.

 

"Hey, if she can't start the transporter now, what makes you think you can be any better?" asked Eric.

 

"I need this transporter if I'm going to save Junpei and Akane," Carlos responded simply.

 

"But they're-" began Eric.

 

"Dead... in THIS history. In the history where I came from, they're still alive, though in danger, so I'm going to go save them."

 

"Hey, idiot! Keep spouting more nonsense, and I'll shoot you!" shouted Eric.

 

"Then what are you waiting for?" asked Carlos, putting his hand in a posture of determination. "That's how SHIFTing works: by putting your life in danger. So shoot me."

 

"You're just messing with me, aren't you?" said Eric, looking more paranoid by the minute.

 

"Hey, Eric, please put the gun down," said Sean. "You've been angry enough; we need to stay calm if we're going to get through this."

 

"No, kid. I need him to do this," Carlos reassured Sean.

 

"But you'll die!" Sean shouted.

 

"No, I won't. This body will die, but my consciousness will be-"

 

Before Carlos could finish his sentence, Eric pulled the trigger, and Carlos fell to the floor.

 

"Carlos!" shouted Diana.

 

"Why, Eric?!" I bellowed.

 

"He was trying to make me look like a fool," snorted Eric. "Besides, he proved his own idiocy by not showing us how he SHIFTed, or whatever it's called. And I'll shoot the rest of you if you won't tell me who killed Mira!"

 

"Eric, that's enough!" shouted Sean. "Please, point the gun down, and let us explain!"

 

"Ah, I knew you were suspicious from the moment I laid eyes on you," exclaimed Eric. "If you're really innocent, then prove it!"

 

Sean paced frantically, then said, "All right..." He took deep, heaving breaths. "I have a way of proving to you that I didn't kill Mira."

 

He pushed a green button on his helmet, and an input device appeared. He pressed a code, then smoke came out of the back of the helmet, which rolled onto the floor to reveal that he was headless.

 

"What?! What are you?!" shouted Eric, backing away and pointing the gun at him again, this time with his hands shaking.

 

"I'm a robot. Zero created me to help support his project." He put his helmet back on after saying this, perhaps to help ease our nerves.

 

"But that just makes you more suspicious," shouted Eric. "If you were created by Zero, then you're working for him."

 

"Even if that's the case, I can't be Mira's killer because of one simple factor," explained Sean. He picked up one of the cards from the floor and slashed his hand. He started oozing white blood, and immediately, I recalled a similar incident happening to me in the past, when my artificial hand was cut by a scalpel.

 

"ABT!" I exclaimed. When the others looked confused, I said, "It stands for Artificial Biological Tissue. It's a cover that can be spread over a robot to make them look like a human, and when the tissue is teared, it produces white fluid, because robots don't bleed. It can also be used when a human needs to have artificial limbs."

 

"How do you know this, Sigma?" asked Diana.

 

"Because I used to make robots," I said shortly, giving Diana a hand gesture as to not continue.

 

"But how does having white blood prove your innocence?" asked Eric.

 

"Because I took a look at Mira's body after we opened her pod," said Sean. "She had skin and blood under her nails, but since she didn't have any external wounds on her own body, and strangulation marks on her neck, it means that the skin and blood wasn't from her own body, but that of the killer; she probably put up a struggle as she was being strangled. And since my blood is white, I can't have been the killer."

 

"Then... Does that mean you did it, Sigma?" asked Eric, now pointing the gun at me. "You're nice and tall. I bet it would be easy for you to overpower Mira!"

 

"Wait, Eric! If this boy is working for Zero, maybe he knows Zero's identity!" shouted Diana, standing in front of me.

 

Eric finally lowered the weapon and asked, "Do you know who Zero is?"

 

"Yeah, I do. Since I'm a robot, my brain is located in the central control computer, and it has information on Zero's real name."

 

"Then tell us already! What's the name of the one who locked all of us in here, and forced us to play this messed-up game?!"

 

Sean took another deep breath, then dramatically pointed at Q and said, "It's you, Delta! You're the real Zero!"

 

"Delta?" I asked.

 

"I don't know why, but I feel like I've heard that name before," said Diana slowly.

 

"Would you quit yapping, Sean?!" asked Eric, now pointing the gun back at Sean. "You weren't at Dcom with us, but this old man was, and we know for a fact that his name is Q. Besides, even if he wasn't, you can't deny it, because he's the leader and namesake of our team."

 

"Yeah, I called him Q. I wasn't included on the team listing or during the death notifications because I'm a robot, and can't die. The Decision Game only picks up on humans who have died."

 

"But this man is deaf, blind and lame," I said. "How could he be Zero?"

 

"Because it's all an act, isn't it, Delta?" asked Sean in a commanding voice; I assumed he would have been glaring if he had a face.

 

"Yes, indeed," came Q's voice, and he stood up out of his wheelchair.

 

"Wh-Wha?! He... He totally stood!" shouted Eric.

 

"I am Zero II, though you are free to call me by my given name, which is Delta."

 

Diana made an audible growling noise, then Delta calmly responded, "Why so angry, Diana? You were the one who named me."

 

"Why would I give a precious Greek letter name to someone as vile as you?" she asked.

 

"Hey, who cares right now? I'm going to kill him, and have this all be over with!" shouted Eric.

 

"No, Eric. Now that we have Zero in the flesh, we can ask him some questions," I said.

 

Eric pressed the gun against Delta's neck and said, "Did you kill Mira?"

 

"Yes, I did. And I have proof." He pulled down his turtleneck collar to reveal scratch marks on his neck.

 

"Then did you kill Junpei as well?" I asked.

 

"No. Mira did that."

 

"Mira?! But she's my angel!" demanded Eric.

 

"No. She's a serial killer, known as the Heart Ripper. She's the one who killed your mother, Eric, in my old story; she was the woman jogging in the park. Because of that, the other five people in the story were killed by the ripple effect, which included Akane's parents and the original human version of Sean. And it wasn't just that one woman; many innocent lives were taken by her. I only gave her the just reward."

 

"Mira would never do something like that! She's so sweet and innocent! She would never hurt a fly."

 

"On the contrary, she has committed murder even in this shelter," continued Delta. "In the history where C-Team was executed, you, Sean, and all of D-Team were murdered by her."

 

"No... No, this can't be real," stammered Eric, still pressing the gun hard into Delta's neck.

 

"How did she know about Ward D, then?" I asked.

 

"Because she was, in a sense, a collaborator. However, it wasn't as though I gave her a specific set of orders. She simply was able to roam free, since I exempted her from the drug injections. She was also responsible for leaking Radical-6 in the history you're from, Sigma, allowing my plans to proceed smoothly!"

 

"Then that means you're Brother, doesn't it?" I asked.

 

"Yes, it does. I founded Free the Soul, and gave Dio all of his orders."

 

"And how come you didn't kill Mira when you had the chance at Dcom?" I asked angrily. "You desperately wanted the AB Project stopped, and your backup plan was to have Dio either win the game, or have Rhizome 9 blown up."

 

"Because, in that history, a religious fanatic would have wiped out all of humanity. Thanks to Mira taking the vial in the Biolab, I orchestrated the release of Radical-6 to kill six billion people, and since there was a 75% chance that the fanatic was among the victims, I was able to spare two billion lives."

 

"But that doesn't mean the end justifies the means!" I shouted.

 

"You're one to talk, Dr. Klim," said Delta, while laughing. "I happen to know that you were Zero III in that same timeline, and forced many innocent people to put their lives on the line, too, all for the sake of getting back to this timeline."

 

"Then... You knew from the beginning that Radical-6 would lead to the AB Project?" I asked, clenching my fists.

 

"Wait, you were Zero too?" asked Eric.

 

"In another timeline!" I said hurriedly.

 

"It was a necessary element of my plan to have your consciousness, complete with your experiences throughout all of the future timelines, back in this history, but now is not the time to fully explain it, not when this is an incomplete history."

 

"An... incomplete history?"

 

"Seven people have died so far. I want my most critical information told when we're all alive."

 

"Wait... what do you mean by 'when WE'RE all alive'"? asked Diana.

 

"I'm the leader of Q-Team," he responded, showing Diana his bracelet. "Therefore, in the history where you came from, I was executed along with Eric and Mira because of the vote. Since Sean is a robot, his name never registered, making it seem like Q-Team only had three members."

 

"And how do you know so much?"

 

"Because of these," he said, pointing to his red-tinted glasses. "There are a wide variety of security cameras throughout the shelter. They've allowed me to keep an eye on you... well, in the histories where I was alive, that is. For the other histories, I had other robots that looked like you, Sean, that were programmed to take over after my death."

 

"I've heard enough of his spiel! Let's just kill him and get this over with!" shouted Eric.

 

"No, Eric!" shouted Sean. "We have a way of opening the X-Door!"

 

"W-We do? How?"

 

"The old man can tell us. Right, Delta?" I asked with a smirk.

 

"With pleasure, Dr. Klim," Delta responded.

 

"Lead the way, Sean," said Eric, finally sounding happy for the first time since Diana and I arrived in the Pod Room.

 

Sean took us to the Quantum Computer Dome, then entered the password for his helmet yet again.

 

"In order to hack the shelter's systems, I'll need to plug in the cord under this cover into my head. But to do that, I'll need him to tell me the code."

 

"Hey, answer him! What's the password?" asked Eric.

 

"3808-0832."

 

Sean started typing, but before he could finish, I heard the sound of a gunshot, and everything went black.

 

 

----Segment 16: Force Quit----

 

We awoke in the Lounge, and as I checked my bracelet, it said, "00:03."

 

"Phi! Diana! Wake up! We're in the New Year!" I exclaimed.

 

"Wow, what a great way to start off 2029," said Phi sarcastically. "What do you say we celebrate with a shot over at the bar? Maybe Zero will be kind enough to give us some fireworks."

 

"But... We only have ninety minutes until we're injected," said Diana fearfully.

 

"Exactly. 'Not even gods can return to the past, so live in the moment, so you have no regrets.'"

 

"Who said that?" asked Diana.

 

"You, when we were back at Dcom. You thought it was the interpretation to my brooch's inscription."

 

"Ah, right. It felt like so long ago, considering how scary the vote was," said Diana, clutching her heart.

 

"Speaking of the vote, what do you suppose the results were?" I asked.

 

Right on cue, a female announcer started speaking above us.

 

"Now announcing the current casualties. Presently, there are..."

 

She waited for an awfully long time before saying, "None. Please continue enjoying the Decision Game!"

 

"Yay! No one's died yet!" said Diana in joy.

 

"'Yet'? What, you're excited to get those X-Passes?" asked Phi.

 

"That's not what I meant!" she said indignantly.

 

"Anyway, the Force Quit Box is open, so we should check that out before we plan our next move," Phi continued.

 

We walked over to the table between the sofas and knelt down to see some text on a monitor that wasn't there when we first investigated it. "To initiate, two key items must be set. Each is a mother's memento."

 

"A mother's mementos? You got anything from your mother, Phi?" I asked.

 

"Yeah, my brooch, but that's about it. What about you, Sigma?"

 

"Nothing. Zero even took my wallet," I said grumpily. "And Diana? ...Diana, what's wrong?"

 

Diana was clutching her forehead and then rubbed her eyes. "No... No way! That can't be right..." she muttered.

 

"Earth to Diana, can you hear me? This is Phi, do you copy?" asked Phi sarcastically.

 

"Phi, your brooch! I know what the other memento is!" said Diana in excitement.

 

"What?! Where is it?" Phi and I asked at the same time.

 

"It's right here," said Diana, tears now rolling down her cheeks as she pulled a blue bird music box from underneath her dress. "You know what this means, don't you, Sigma?"

 

"A mother's mementos... Phi's brooch... And your music box...? Wait..."

 

Suddenly, a rush of images flooded through my mind; memories of other histories within this bomb shelter raced through my brain, and before long, I hugged Phi and said, "Phi! Oh, Phi, I'm so glad you made it!"

 

"Uh, Sigma, have you gone senile? What's with you getting so touchey-feeley all of the sudden?" she asked.

 

"Phi, you've grown up to be so beautiful," said Diana sweetly, as I moved aside to allow her to embrace Phi as well.

 

"You too. What's....? Wait... Diana, where did you get that music box?"

 

"I gave it to my son before transporting him to another history," she explained. "And to my daughter, I gave her the brooch."

 

"You mean... this is..." asked Phi, looking down at her brooch. "Your interpretation, my hair color.... Diana, Sigma, you two are..."

 

Soon, Phi went through the same sensation as Diana and I had with our heads. She exclaimed, "I remember everything! But how can you possibly be...?"

 

"Nothing more needs to be said," I responded, with Diana and me giving Phi a double hug. For once, she reciprocated it, with rare tears soaking my shirt. "Welcome to our family, my daughter."

 

----Segment 17: The Final Decision----

 

"So, you two remember the other histories?" Phi asked.

 

"Yeah, I do. Let me prove one of the most amazing things we learned," I said.

 

I hurled one of the TVs in the Lounge at the wall, and soon, Phi saw for herself the true color of the Lounge.

 

"Woah! So the Healing Room walls were the secret all along?" asked Phi in amazement.

 

"Yes," said Diana. "So you remember everything too?"

 

"Yeah. You two mind filling me in on the stuff that happened in the history where I died?"

 

"Well, we figured out the purpose of the Transporter Room," I said. "It can take people and objects into other histories. Diana and I transported to the history where we were executed, hoping we'd find you there, but we only ended up in that timeline because I was in a hurry and pressed the wrong button."

 

"Same old Sigma, or should I call you 'Grandpa' now?"

 

"Uh... 'Dad' is fine, thank you very much," I responded. I continued, "And that's when we found a secret door in the Locker Room leading into Ward Q, where we told Eric and Carlos about how we were in the same ward all along, and about how each of the teams voted separately. It turns out that we were last, and whenever we were sleeping, we were placed in one of the pods."

 

"And we found out that Q is actually named Delta, and he's the real Zero," said Diana excitedly.

 

"The old man?" asked Phi, not sounding surprised at all. "So that's where you got it from, huh, Sigma?"

 

"I thought I just gave you permission to call me 'Dad,'" I grumbled.

 

"Look, it's gonna take a while to get over how you were hitting on me in the future," said Phi, tugging on her hair a bit.

 

"You what?!" asked Diana, looking jealous.

 

"Hey, it was 22-Year-Old Me, and we had never met at that time. At the very least, you can now refrain from saying that Phi and I were talking nonsense."

 

"Yeah, I guess so. And all of the times you two couldn't remember the other histories...?"

 

"Likely because Zero wanted you to become a SHIFTer, so he had you absorb the powers of Sigma and me," answered Phi. "Somehow, we were able to trigger our memories back upon getting near the Force Quit Box. Perhaps the 'Force Quit' represented the amnesia, and now we're recovering."

 

I explained to Phi the rest of Delta's speech, then she said, "Interesting. Armed with all of this information, now we can SHIFT back to Dcom and end Mira once and for all."

 

"It doesn't have to be that way," I said. "Delta told us that Mira got the Radical-6 virus from the Biolab in Ward Q. Now that we know about how the wards really work, we can intercept the lab before Q-Team gets there."

 

"What were you saying about Q-Team?" came Mira's voice, shortly followed by Sean and Eric. Sean ran up to Diana and me and asked, "Do you guys remember me?"

 

"Yeah, you're Sean," said Diana in excitement.

 

"Ah, now I remember where I first met you; Eric was freaking out about you during the coin toss," said Phi.

 

"Hey, you would have been scared too if some kid was in a jail cell with you and wearing a strange helmet!" Eric said in defense.

 

"I wouldn't; not much phases me," said Mira.

 

"Me neither," said Phi.

 

"Sheesh," said Eric.

 

C-Team walked into the Lounge just a few moments later; Carlos' face was covered in bruises.

 

"Carlos, what happened?!" asked Diana. "Do you want me to patch you up?"

 

"Thanks, Diana, but I'll be fine. This is a token of friendship between me and Junpei," shrugged Carlos.

 

"You should have just told me what was up all along," said Junpei grumpily.

 

"You look like you'd be a lousy actor. I didn't want Zero to catch on to what we were doing," said Carlos.

 

"You have some explaining to do, Carlos, as do the rest of you," said Phi. "I presume we all got our memories back."

 

Everyone nodded except for Mira and Eric. Bewildered, I said, "How come the Force Quit Box didn't work for you two?"

 

"Because we can't travel between histories," answered Mira simply. "Instead, Sean told us what happened... and what other versions of me did to you all."

 

"You say that with no remorse whatsoever!" shouted Junpei. "You chopped me like literal liver."

 

"Hey, that was another me! This Mira has done nothing of the sort, so why should I apologize on behalf of a stranger?" she argued back.

 

Junpei folded his arms, then said, "I suppose we'll start, since Carlos told Akane and me that C-Team was the first to awaken. We had a lot of histories to jump through; just to name a few wonderful things that happened, we were shot by gattling guns, blown up by a reactor, injected with Soporil, suffocated to death, were poisoned and had acidic liquid dumped on our heads."

 

"Junpei! You're leaving out the critical details!" said Akane. She held up her right hand with a ring on it.

 

"Is that what I think it is?" I asked.

 

"Yes. Junpei proposed to me, and we'll make our marriage official after we escape from the shelter," said Akane in excitement. "Anyway, the important thing to remember is that the Soporil was actually what helped me teach you about the AB Game, Sigma."

 

"You mean the prisoner's dilemma?" I asked.

 

"Yes. Carlos and Junpei played the AB Game in a prototype version in the Power Room. After we found out that Carlos could SHIFT, we decided that, rather than just mutual alliance, we'd SHIFT."

 

"And then she went crazy on us and turned the reactor into a bomb!" shouted Junpei. "And here I thought you wouldn't pull any more stunts on me after the Nonary Game last year!"

 

"Uh, Junpei, you kinda did the same thing, because we shielded Akane from gattling guns in the history we jumped to," said Carlos. "Why don't you two just say that you're even on being jumpy?"

 

"Whatever; Akane's impossible to argue with anyway," said Junpei.

 

"Anyway, after that, we SHIFTed to a history where we weren't shot down, and there, Junpei gave me the ring as an apology, and we tried entering the X-Passes of the Junpei and Carlos that died, but Zero wouldn't allow X-Passes from other timelines."

 

"So that's what you meant earlier," I told Carlos. He nodded and said, "Yeah. Zero knew that we were SHIFTers and came prepared. He built a robot that looks a lot like Sean and he beat us nearly to death. Thankfully, I SHIFTed to the history where I met your copies, and learned the truth about the wards. That's when Diana taught me about the transporter."

 

"There's one thing I don't understand, though," I said, trying to piece it all together. "So the Junpei and Akane that helped me in the AB Project were from the reactor history, right?"

 

Akane and Junpei nodded.

 

"But... Radical-6 was leaked in the history where you were executed. How, then, did you get there?"

 

"We transported," said Akane simply. "There was only room for Junpei and me, so Carlos stayed behind and SHIFTed to another timeline." She said this a bit grumpily.

 

"Yeah, let's not get into which one," said Carlos, rubbing the back of his neck. "Suffice to say that it was a history where C-Team survived, and the rest of you were dead. I used the unused transporter to reach the history where Junpei and Akane were transporting to in order to create a stable time loop, and that's how all of us got involved with this AB Project of yours. I didn't end up helping Akane because I needed to help the victims of the virus."

 

"And while we were waiting for Carlos to rescue us from outside the shelter, since the transporter took ten months to recharge," continued Junpei. "Zero spilled the beans on his identity, and that he is actually Brother, founder of Free the Soul, and was even born here in this shelter, and that it was thanks to his screwy dream that Radical-6 was released and Akane's parents were killed..."

 

"...Which is why my brother Aoi and I moved town after Junpei and I graduated elementary school and ended up in the Nonary Game. My father was the man sentenced to death, and my mother committed suicide in her grief."

 

"Apparently, his stupid reasoning was to kill one person," Junpei continued.

 

"Yeah, we heard that part loud and clear," I said, not wishing to hear it again. "Speaking of which, Carlos, why did you kill Akane?"

 

"It was in self-defense! She was wielding a chainsaw, accusing me of killing Junpei."

 

"But now we know that it was Delta who killed Mira, so I hope you two can bury the hatchet," said Phi.

 

"Yes. I would never want to kill someone who never wronged my Junpei."

 

"What about Q-Team? What are some of your stories?" asked Phi.

 

"Hey, they're Sean's stories, not ours," said Eric indignantly. "Didn't you forget that Mira and I can't SHIFT?"

 

"Whatever. Just spit it out, kid," said Phi.

 

"Well, I'm a robot, so I can't exactly SHIFT, but because my mind is inside the Quantum Computer, my consciousness can jump to any body in any history in which the computer was built... or basically, every possible Decision Game.

 

As far as Radical-6, we had pricked our fingers on some needles in the Biolab as we were trying to get out. Zero then told us that we had two choices: either we were infected with a virus that was going to kill us and use Radical-6 as a counter, or believe that he never stained the needles in the first place. In the history where we injected ourselves, that's where Mira... I mean, A version of her, killed Eric and D-Team. She tried to kill me, too, but I'm a robot, so I can't die. That's when Zero came to me, and told me about my nature, and my origin story. A clone of me was even given a chance to live in virtual reality, and in the history where I stayed, that's where I learned the password to open my helmet."

 

"And in the true Radical-6 timeline?" I asked angrily. "Assuming Mira didn't leak it out in the other one?"

 

"How many times do I need to tell you that it wasn't me?!" asked Mira.

 

"Just let me do the talking, guys," said Sean calmly. "I don't know how Radical-6 got out at that point, but..."

 

"We get the picture. I think we know everything we need to know about the Radical-6 history," I said. "Anything else, Sean?"

 

"Nothing of significance to the big picture," he shrugged. "Just a lot of arguments and gunfights, though there was one history where we found a yellow door in the Pod Room that said 'Twins' Birthday' on the bottom."

 

"And that's the door we came through," I exclaimed. "But Diana, how did you know that password?"

 

"Because of the morphogenetic field," explained Akane. "It's a special field in a dimension we can't see that stores information. Because Q-Team saw it, Diana could access the field and get the answer."

 

"Ah, so that's your version of SHIFTing, then," I said.

 

"They're the same thing?" asked Diana.

 

"They're all part of quantum physics is what the old man is trying to say," said Phi.

 

"Now, what about you guys?" asked Carlos.

 

We repeated everything that happened to the others. Once everyone had finished telling each others' stories, Diana said, "I just want to confirm a few more things. So, how did C-Team and Q-Team avoid the injections?"

 

"We took a page from your book, Diana, and grabbed the cards from the Transporter Room when the injection time came," said Carlos. "But, since we didn't want to risk Zero finding out, we had to be sneaky, so I climbed on top of Akane and-"

 

"You WHAT?!" I shouted.

 

"Relax, it was just an act!" Carlos shouted in defense.

 

"Sigma, you were quite the pervert yourself in your young age," Phi said, contradicting me.

 

Feeling like I really was young now, I said, "So... How did you take it, Akane?"

 

"I was scared at first, but what Carlos was actually doing was whispering into my ear to grab the transporter cards," explained Akane.

 

"And that's when Junpei's feelings took over, so I lured him over to the Power Room so that I could be his punching bag, so that Zero could watch us, and not be focusing on Akane running to the Transporter Room. When we returned, we hid behind the bar counter and blocked the injections."

 

"As for Q-Team, only Mira and Eric needed to block the shots," said Sean. "Since I'm a robot, the only thing injections did to me was force me to go into sleep mode and placed my memories within a locked file of the computer. So, I went to the Quantum Computer Dome and hacked my own system and downloaded all of the other histories' memories. I then cancelled the surveillance cameras so that I could tell Eric and Mira about the other timelines without Zero catching onto what we were saying, as you all know that he relied exclusively on those glasses of his for seeing and hearing."

 

"Okay, so that explains all of the important memories we gained," said Diana. "But I have one more question: Why do we remember all of the timelines?"

 

"That's probably because-" Akane began speaking, but we heard a gunshot interrupt her.

 

"You really want to know?" came Delta's voice, walking out of the Pod Room corridor.

 

"Where were you that whole time?" demanded Eric. "And don't play dumb; we all know that you're Zero."

 

"You are free to call me by my given name, which is Delta," he said. "I was solving the Pod Room puzzle to get the shotgun and bring it here, giving you all a chance to catch up."

 

"Did you know about our attempts at blocking the injections, too?" asked Carlos.

 

"Yes, I did, but I allowed you to proceed anyway, because I wanted you all to play the Final Decision Game."

 

"The Final Decision Game?" asked Carlos.

 

"One step at a time," Delta said calmly. "First, to answer your question, Diana. I trust, C-Team and D-Team, that you are all aware that you are SHIFTers. Throughout the multiple histories of being inside this shelter, you've been SHIFTing back and forth many times. When you would make a bad decision, you went back to correct your fatal mistake. C-Team, you had quite the jumping ordeal in your timelines, and for D-Team, that didn't happen as much because, as you surmised, Sigma's and Phi's SHIFTing expertise was needed to help Diana access the morphogenetic field to learn those crucial clues. You regained your memory by the triggers created by the Force Quit Box. You forgot about the other histories at the time as a side effect of the amnesia drug, or possibly as a side effect of SHIFTing."

 

"Possibly? You've been so confident about everything else. Why are you confused about SHIFTing?" I asked.

 

"Because I am like Mira and Eric," Delta responded simply. "I cannot SHIFT, so while I understand it, I don't have firsthand experience."

 

"You... can't SHIFT? Then how do you know so much?" asked Mira.

 

"Because I have another power: the ability to Mind Hack. I can read people’s minds, and therefore, I know about the other histories because I Mind Hacked you all. And I also know exactly what Phi is trying to do." Delta cocked the gun and pointed it at Phi, who had slowly been trying to place her brooch into the Force Quit Box. She backed away with her hands up.

 

"So... It wasn't just because of the glasses that you could tell we were blocking the injection, then," said Carlos.

 

"Correct. I saw through your ruse, but allowed you to continue anyway so that we could have this conversation."

 

"But why did you hold the Decision Games in the first place?" asked Diana.

 

"I find human decisions fascinating. More specifically, the world-branching that occurs as a result. Every time a momentary choice is made, it creates an entirely new universe. By forcing so many decisions upon all of you, I was able to create countless universes and histories."

 

"So... Your entire motive was curiosity?" I asked, a little let down.

 

"When a person does something of significance, it's hard to boil it down to one reason. In order to accomplish several objectives, it was necessary to trap all of you down here."

 

"And what was so important that you forced us to kill and be killed for who knows how many times?!" shouted Junpei.

 

"It's so that Diana would give birth to Phi and myself," Delta responded calmly.

 

I blushed, and noticed that Diana and Phi were doing the same thing. The other team members were staring in shock.

 

"Wait, her children?!" exclaimed Junpei.

 

"Allow me to put this on more of a linear timeline: on November 16, 2029, Sigma and Diana became the parents of twins, which were myself and Phi. We were able to remember our names because Diana wrote them on our feet. We were sent all the way back to April 1904."

 

"1904? Then that would mean you're actually-" I began.

 

"Yes. I'm 124."

 

"But Phi is much younger!" exclaimed Mira.

 

"What was sent into the past was atomic data of our bodies. Therefore, Sigma and Diana still got to take care of our original baby selves, while our atomic data was copied into the past. In Phi's case, she was transported twice, as part of an experiment. The Phi of 1904 lived well into her hundreds and helped to create the transporter of the future that this Phi that you know was sent to: 2008. There, Phi spent twenty normal lives under the care of the first Phi and her husband, and is the version you see today. The reason why we are able to exist in multiple timelines is because the transporter creates atomic data in ALL possible histories of that spot in timespace. So when you sent us to April of 1904, that included every possible branching history, which has allowed us to be born in our current forms in this and all of the other histories you remember us in."

 

"So, there were three Phis?" Diana asked, slightly dizzy.

 

"Yes. However, simply giving birth to us wasn't enough. I had to trigger an epigenetic change within the reproductive organs of both yourself and Sigma. According to recent research, the parents' organs are affected the most when placed in life-threatening situations. Had you both not been forced to play so many Decision Games, and that even includes the decisions in the Nonary Game of the future, Phi and I would never have been born with our powers. D-Team, do you recall what is written on your wall?"

 

"'When a curious hate oozes calamity,'" said Phi with grated teeth.

 

"And when you rearrange those letters, you get...?"

 

"'What you choose can materialize us,' finished Akane, ever the expert on anagrams even as a young adult.

 

"Your decisions were what brought us to life. I was born a Mind Hacker, and Phi a SHIFTer. It all went according to plan."

 

"Okay, okay, I get why Diana and Sigma had to go through the Decision Games, but what about the rest of us?" asked Junpei.

 

"If you hadn't been part of the Decision Game, Junpei, you would not have been able to participate in the Nonary Game of the future, and Sigma and Phi would not have been able to properly develop their powers in order to return to this history. The same goes for Akane. Had she not abandoned Sigma and Diana in the shelter, they might never have been trapped inside, and never had a chance to give birth under the right circumstances. Had I not been executed in the vote, and Phi burned in the incinerator, we might have had a time loop where we would see multiple versions of ourselves in the same timeline. Sigma and Diana, you of course know how strange it was to see yourselves in the very history you were executed in. Trying to prevent mistakes like that was a major part of the orchestration of all of the histories."

 

"Enough talk! You're finished, old man!" shouted Phi.

 

"Phi, no!" I shouted.

 

Delta aimed his gun at Phi, but she jumped into the air and kicked him against the wall. Eric now picked up the gun and pointed it at Delta.

 

"It's over!" said Eric.

 

"You may be right about that," said Delta, as calmly as if he were simply drinking tea.

 

"Diana, take this," shouted Phi, tossing her brooch. "Put in your music box as well."

 

After we heard two clicks, the female announcer said, "Mother's mementos were verified. Ten minutes until explosion."

 

"Hey, what's with that announcement?!" shouted Eric, panicking.

 

"Must I explain everything?" asked Delta, a hint of impatience finally reaching his voice. "In ten minutes, this shelter will be blown up."

 

"Sean, access the central control computer-" urged Mira, but Delta interrupted her.

 

"There's no point. There's no way to force quit the Force Quit program. Regardless, I have two things to tell you."

 

"We don't want to hear anything you have to say, you murderer!" shouted Eric.

 

"I suggest you look behind the bar counter. I left a little something there for you."

 

Junpei ran to the other side and shouted, "No! Gab's dead!"

 

"Did you kill him?!" asked Eric.

 

"Yes, with the shotgun you're holding. I knew that you would successfully activate the Force Quit program, and didn't want a dog caught up in the explosion. Besides, there wasn't much life left in him anyway, so I put him out of his misery."

 

"You monster!" bellowed Sean.

 

"I never expected that to come from you, Sean," said Delta.

 

"Hey, you said you had two things to tell us," Mira reminded him.

 

"I have the ability to Mind Hack, but I've not told you everything about it. I can read peoples' minds, yes, but I can also control them. It only lasts a moment, but I can manipulate someone's body as I wish. That's how you were able to vote against the note in the other timelines, as well as pressing the yellow button in the Decontamination Rooms."

 

"So you were the betrayer all along, not Carlos or Diana?" I asked. He nodded. "I knew Carlos and Diana would never want to take a life, so I Mind Hacked them to create the histories that required Q-Team and C-Team to be executed. As far as D-Team, since I'm the leader of Q-Team, all I had to do was vote against them, and simply have C-Team follow their note, as was their original intent."

 

"He's just bluffing because he's got a gun pointed at him," said Phi. "He probably has other methods, like the Quantum Computer."

 

"Allow me to prove it to you," said Delta calmly. A second later, a loud gunshot was heard, he let out a loud scream, and he fell to the floor.

 

"Hey, Eric, what was that for?" asked Carlos.

 

"No, I swear I didn't! My finger moved on its own!"

 

"So he WAS telling the truth!" said Phi angrily. "Now what are we going to do?!"

 

"What about the X-Door?" suggested Eric.

 

"Only one person has died so far, so unless you want me to start killing people, it's going to stay closed," Mira retorted.

 

"Zero said that he wanted us here to play the Final Decision Game. What choice do we have?" asked Junpei.

 

"It's no coincidence that he gathered six SHIFTers in one bomb shelter. I think he intends for us to jump to another history," I suggested.

 

"What?! But Mira and I-" began Eric.

 

"Don't worry, Eric," said Sean, patting Eric's arm. "Remember what I told you in the Quantum Computer Dome, about the Quantum Mind theory? If certain conditions are met, your brain can learn how to SHIFT."

 

"What are the conditions?" demanded Mira.

 

"First, to expose yourself to danger. And second..."

 

"To be surrounded by a group of SHIFTers," continued Akane. "We'll resonate with you, and we'll all SHIFT together."

 

"Then... why couldn't Phi and I SHIFT earlier? I thought Diana was draining our power?" I asked.

 

"Temporarily, but she couldn't completely remove it," said Akane in response. "Since Mira and Eric are around six SHIFTers, and all of us have been SHIFTing to countless histories, especially Sigma, myself and Phi, in quite extraordinary ways, we may be able to retain our powers and memories, and SHIFT with them!"

 

"But what history are we jumping to?!" asked Carlos. "The countdown isn't going any slower!"

 

"None of the similar histories will work, as one team is likely to be dead by either the vote or the showers in the Decontamination Room," said Phi, getting her thinking face on. "We need to find a history where we're all alive."

 

"Wait... You don't mean...?"

 

"Yeah, Sigma. The history where we won the coin toss," said Phi triumphantly. "It's time to infiltrate Dcom properly, like we were meant to do in the first place."

 

"But... to do that, wouldn't we be sacrificing our other selves in the other history?" asked Carlos.

 

"Look, we don't really have time to argue right now," said Mira. "Unless you all want to be blown up after learning all this, and not do anything about it."

 

"But all they did was win a coin toss. They've done nothing wrong," urged Diana.

 

"You could say the same for us!" argued Junpei. "From the first Nonary Game, to this, to even a future where there's ANOTHER Nonary Game in the future, we've been forced to endure so much misery! It's time that we set history on its proper course!"

 

"Besides, we regained our memories from the other histories, so we've experienced them all. Eventually, our consciousnesses may even merge together into this one, happy history," I said. "Phi and I didn't come all the way back from 2074 to 2029 just to have it all end here. If you guys won't SHIFT, we will."

 

"You said it, Sigma," Phi agreed, taking my hand.

 

"I'll go too, since I helped you guys," said Akane, grabbing my other hand.

 

"Hey, don't leave without me, Akane. We're engaged now!" shouted Junpei.

 

"A future where lives can be spared? I guess it's worth a shot," said Carlos.

 

"Hey, Eric. After what Sean told me in the other histories, I believe you now. I know you really loved me. If we survive to reach this good history, I'll marry you," said Mira.

 

"R-Really? Okay, count me in!" exclaimed Eric.

 

"Um, okay, Sigma and Phi, I trust you two to do your 'nonsense' again," said Diana.

 

"What about you, Sean?" I asked, as the countdown was now ticking down the seconds.

 

"You all don't remember this, but I saw you after the coin toss. I'm sure we can ask Delta how he's keeping me alive when we get there," he responded.

 

"Okay then, follow my lead, everyone," I shouted, and the whole world went blue.

 

----Segment 18: The True History----

 

We awoke to find ourselves on the sand outside of Dcom. I looked down at my left wrist; sure enough, there was no bracelet.

 

"Mira? Eric? Do you remember everything?" I asked them.

 

"Uh... I remember everything you told us," said Eric groggily. "And this boy's name is Sean, right?"

 

"Yeah, I remember you too," Mira told Sean.

 

"Then let's finally get this started!" I exclaimed. "We're going to storm Dcom!"

 

"There's no need," came a voice behind us. We turned around to find Delta and Gab standing in front of Dcom. He was no longer wearing a bracelet.

 

"Gab! You're alive!" exclaimed Diana as Gab ran toward her and tried to lick her.

 

"Of course we are. Dcom was preparing for a trip to Mars, including one for animals, so they found a way to give him proper medical treatment to survive long enough for the test... or, at least, that's what you were told."

 

"You mean, this never was about Mars?" I asked, clenching my fists.

 

"It was a backup plan if a religious fanatic were to destroy the world. We'd gather up as many survivors as possible and colonize a new planet before he created a nuclear war."

 

"Wait a second... You're trying to fool us, aren't you?" asked Carlos in a demanding voice. "We all know who you are, Zero, and I know that you're aware that we SHIFTed from another history."

 

"Indeed I am, or rather, I was in the histories when you lost the coin toss, and you've done exactly as I had hoped," he said, smiling a little. "Free the Soul's plan has gone smoothly."

 

"Nice try, pal, but Radical-6 hasn't been unleashed in this history," said Junpei. "So Free the Soul can go burn!"

 

"True, Radical-6 has not been released in THIS history because this is a new Free the Soul."

 

"Don't tell me you guys transported too..." moaned Phi.

 

"Oh yes. The transporter was the vital key to how we got our organization in the first place. I obtained the device in 2008, and from there, created clones from the genetics of my younger brother, who was killed by the soldiers who confiscated the transporter in the first place. Therefore, his genetics were cloned, but not his entire body, which allowed all of them to look alike, yet still have minor differences in personality. He was transported alongside Phi in 1904. The son of the couple that raised me was named Left, and he became the first Myrmidon. From there, we used the transporter to create a never-ending supply of clones to continue our ranks, one of them being Dio in the AB Project history.

 

However, in this timeline, things have changed. Another version of me, with the combined efforts of alternate variations of Mira and Free the Soul, released Radical-6 with the intent of killing six billion people, in turn, killing the fanatic. You all SHIFTed to a history where the virus hasn't spread, and so neither has the fanatic died."

 

"So now humanity will go extinct?" asked Phi.

 

"Are you angry about this, Phi?"

 

"What do you think, old man? Genocide is a terrible way to celebrate New Year's Day, or whenever we are in the timeline!"

 

"Hmm... If that reasoning is correct, then we have a serious contradiction. You see, you and Sigma went through the ordeals of the AB Project to bring your consciousnesses to a future without Radical-6, hoping that it would be a 'happy future.' But now you're unhappy in a history where humanity will go extinct over six billion dead. In essence, you've chosen a worse timeline to jump to."

 

"No! You're wrong, Delta!" claimed Carlos. "The future has infinite possibilities, and we're going to stop that fanatic!"

 

"With the help of Crash Keys, and my access to the morphogenetic field, we can put a stop to that horrible future," said Akane.

 

"You're right! With all of us working together, we can create the perfect timeline!" I shouted.

 

"Heh, me and Zero Sr. working together? Color me surprised," said Junpei in his usual snarky tone. "Well, whatever, I'm in, but first, we're going to take care of this guy!"

 

"Oh? And what crime am I accused of?" asked Delta.

 

"Murder!" we all exclaimed, walking closer to him.

 

"But I haven't killed anyone. More specifically, in this history, not a single life has been taken by my hand. I'm sure I told you before that I am unable to SHIFT, so the murderous Delta that you all know is a completely different person than the one before you."

 

"But what about conspiracy to commit?" asked Sean.

 

"Yeah. I bet if we were to search the bomb shelter, we'd find a bunch of dangerous gimmicks and machines," said Carlos.

 

"Unfortunately, I have removed them all. Even the transporter has been loaded into a truck and taken away. Sean is able to move right now due to satellite signals. I strongly doubt the police would arrest me based on my crimes in another history. If that were the case, this world would be filled with criminals of all kinds. Isn't that right, Dr. Sigma Klim? And Akane Kurashiki? Or should I say, Zeroes I and III? Or you, Mira, the Heart Ripper? You all aren't so innocent either, so do try not to contradict yourselves."

 

"Yeah, well, I've decided to turn over a new leaf," said Mira. "After Eric and I get married, I'm turning myself in to death row to atone for my sins."

 

"Mira!" exclaimed Eric. "I always knew you had it in you."

 

"I didn't, actually," she said, pushing him aside. "It was after Sean told me about how much you've shown your love for me again and again that I knew that I didn't need to tear out hearts to find true joy."

 

"And even if I WAS Zero in the past, it doesn't mean I am now. People can change and evolve. I was so worried about seeing Junpei's attitude after all that I put him through in the Nonary Game that I regretted my actions. Crash Keys is going to vow to change the world without violence as much as necessary now," said Akane, putting her hand on her heart.

 

"And hey, maybe now, Quark will have a grandma," said Junpei, pecking Akane on the cheek. "I'd like to create a future where he doesn't have to live with just one parent, and maybe even have siblings."

 

"After seeing my children on my lap, I realized how sacred life is, and how much I had messed with lives for my own purposes, which I thought were selfless at the time," I said in regret. "I want to create a future that doesn't involve a mastermind plan that requires sacrificing any more lives."

 

"Now that I have my real parents back, I have a reason to keep living," said Phi, allowing me to put my arm over her shoulder. "I'm going to do what my mother taught me in Dcom." She now smiled at Diana who took Phi's hand. "Not even gods can return to the past, so live in the moment so you have no regrets."

 

"With Sigma as my husband, and Phi as my daughter, I have the perfect family now," said Diana. "And with all of you as my friends and family, we can stay protected from my abusive ex-husband, and maybe even get him some help."

 

"If some other version of me could help Mira to become even more of an angel, I bet I'll be able to help save the world, too!" exclaimed Eric.

 

"Dcom promised me reward money for joining the experiment, but I'm not going to use it for myself. I'm going to use those resources to catch the fanatic so that my sister can live happily ever after," said Carlos.

 

"If Mira and Eric could learn how to become SHIFTers through the Quantum Mind theory, I'm sure I can research a way to control the Reverie Syndrome and help Maria live a normal life... or any of you, if you wish it," said Sean. "That's why you built the Quantum Computer, isn't it, Delta? The original version of me was well-advanced in intelligence, and the Quantum Computer helped support that original goal after he died, so while I may not be him, I'm going to do what he did, and use his knowledge for good."

 

Delta began laughing.

 

"What's so funny now?" asked Carlos.

 

"I'm sure I mentioned to you in another history that my motives were complex. One of my biggest goals, by creating that mere coin toss, was to create several histories that would result in you needing to work together to accomplish a common goal, as well as evolve your morals, just as you did with disarming those bombs, Sigma, Phi, Tenmyouji and Akane. Because of everything you've all experienced at Dcom, in the shelter, and on Rhizome 9, you're now so determined to change the future. For the version of me before you, this is the best possible outcome I could have hoped for."

 

"But did you REALLY have to have us endure gattling guns, revolvers, an incinerator, poison and so on just to get us to this point?" asked Junpei. "You sure your plans didn't get too high-level?"

 

"So, are you angry, then, that your lives were toyed with in other histories? Are you going to be angry at this version of me because I set up the bomb shelter, yet took it down after you won the coin toss? I will allow you to play a game to determine my fate."

 

He tossed a handgun to Carlos and said, "With this gun, you can decide for yourself whether you will pull the trigger or let me go free. I promise that I will not use Mind Hacking on you, with the remaining eight of you as witnesses. Decide carefully. The fates of you, me and the rest of mankind revolve around your decision. This is the Decision Game. The world now hangs in the balance."

 

----Segment 19: Reunion----

 

Carlos chose not to shoot Delta; after all the speeches we gave about wanting to preserve life, it seemed like a contradiction to want to take a life now. Since Delta kept his word on refraining from Mind Hacking, we never did find out if there was a history where Carlos shot him or not.

 

We decided to hold a massive wedding ceremony for many couples, thanks to the Nonary and Decision Games bringing us together: myself and Diana, Seven and Lotus, Junpei and Akane, and Eric and Mira. We invited everyone who remained our allies in the games to join in a Nonary Reunion, as Akane wished to call it.

 

"Wait, so you were going to freeze us for forty-five years?!" asked Alice indignantly. She was a tall black woman with long, dark hair and Egyptian-style makeup. There was a legend that said that she was once known as "All-ice" because her body was made of a substance called ice-9, which prevented her from melting at room temperature, should she have been frozen.

 

"Sorry... It was a necessary element of my plan," I said with my head hung low. "In this timeline, we have stopped Radical-6 and now, you and Clover can live out your young lives. What are you going to do?"

 

"The SOIS and Crash Keys have decided to merge. With our combined knowledge, it'll be easier to catch the fanatic. You're certain that it's one of the clones?"

 

"Yeah. Akane said that even Delta didn't know the terrorist's identity."

 

"It's a good thing we've got that cult leader in interrogation. He's giving Seven the lowdown on all that he needs to know about the Myrmidons and Free the Soul."

 

"I see. You're not... still angry at me, are you?"

 

"A little. I'm ashamed that you thought of us as nothing but pawns in the grand scheme of things, but it seems like you have changed, so I'll let it go... just this once," said Alice, winking slightly. "You do look much more handsome in this young body."

 

"Ah... Don't let it get to your head," I said, scratching the back of my neck.

 

In the histories where a bad decision was made that killed me, my old consciousness transported back to Rhizome 9, to relieve all of the Nonary Game participants from the moon and allow them to live in the good history. There were, of course, a few exceptions.

 

Tenmyouji (the old version of Junpei) did not wish to come back with me. He wanted to remain a grandfather to Quark and help fix the damage done in the bad timeline. Quark also said, "I've known Grandpa for so long that the young version of him wouldn't be the same person. Besides, I agreed to come to the moon, and even though you succeeded, Dr. Sigma, I wouldn't have met Grandpa if you hadn't failed, so I want to stay with him."

 

We locked up Dio alongside Ace, who was the original mastermind of the first Nonary Game. He confessed that he never did belong to Free the Soul, but lied to Delta to get funds for his game.

 

Clover and Snake, whose real name was Light Field, decided to return to living with their parents, since Free the Soul was no longer a threat. Snake was an accomplished musician, especially with the harp, and he played for all of our weddings.

 

"I'm so glad that June... I mean, Akane... and Junpei are together now!" said Clover joyfully. "I mean, they helped save each others' lives."

 

"Oh? Akane never did tell me all of the details of that game," I said.

 

"It was more like two games," said Snake. "There was a Nonary Game nine years before the one she designed and Ace forced young Akane to be trapped in an incinerator. She used the morphogenetic field to reach out to the Junpei of the future to save her. To create a stable time loop, it was necessary to recreate that timeline she saw ahead of time to avoid fading from existence."

 

"Wow! SHIFTing has so many potentials!" I exclaimed.

 

"Yeah, it was pretty wild the first time around," said Junpei, holding Akane's right hand, with the ring now placed on her correct hand. "I knew at the time that this may have been part of a diabolical scheme, but I'm over it now. According to Sean's research, it was the power of love that caused me to enter the fourth dimension in the first place."

 

"That may have also been what caused all of us to retain our SHIFTing powers after we resonated with Mira and Eric," Akane chimed in.

 

"Speaking of Mira and Eric, I heard that they left the party early," I remarked, trying to see them through all of the crowd.

 

"Seven took Mira into custody. Sean and Eric are now visiting her," explained Akane.

 

"Just imagine if there were a history where Mira didn't murder Eric's mother. We would have lived completely different lives," said Junpei, scratching his head.

 

"But aren't you glad that you met so many friends?" asked Akane.

 

"Yeah, yeah. Let's just hope I never have to go through a fourth game."

 

Lotus walked over at that point and said, "You must be the doctor that Clover has told me so much about."

 

"That's correct," I said curtly, shaking her hand. "Are you a friend of Clover's?"

 

"Yes. I was in the second Nonary Game, and my daughter, Nona, was in the first. The entire experiment the first time around was to test out the capabilities of the morphogenetic field. It must have skipped a generation, as I was never able to see other timelines."

 

"I don't think you'd want to, Mom," said Lotus' other daughter. "I'm Ennea, by the way. My sister has woken up screaming from all of the nightmares."

 

"Th-That's why I had an anesthetic for the bracelets," I corrected myself quickly. "I wanted peaceful deaths, if they had to occur at all."

 

"I'm glad you changed your ways; Hongou tried to roast us in an incinerator," said Nona, crossing her arms.

 

"Seven will be along once he's finished with some detective work. He's been promoted to the Chief of Operations for Crash Keys," Lotus continued. "After he rescued those children, including my daughter, from the first game, Akane felt that it was long overdue. He'll join the party later when he's finished."

 

"So... What's his real name?" I asked.

 

"Seven. What irony, since his bracelet number was seven," she responded, playing with her wedding ring.

 

"I guess that would fit the Japanese language nicely," I said politely.

 

Phi became very close friends with Clover and Snake. She was relieved to finally meet another girl that was a SHIFTer that wasn't related to her. Clover insisted that I drag along as well, as, in her words, "You look young enough to be my friend too."

 

In the history where our group decided just to be blown up, and not SHIFT to the good timeline, Phi and I approached Luna, and I said to her, "We finally found a history where mankind can be saved. I know you're unable to leave this facility as it stands, but would you be comfortable if I saved your data to a hard drive, and worked to find a program to keep you alive in the good timeline?"

 

"I'd love that, Sigma! Does that mean you'll let me meet my original?" she asked excitedly.

 

"Yeah," said Phi. "Kyle and I are technically brothers, and since you're also a mother figure to him, Dad and I have agreed that we can all live together once that day comes."

 

"I am relieved that you were able to succeed," said Kyle. "I would be most gracious to have the opportunity to get to know you properly, Phi, as this timeline is the one where Akane was inside the suit."

 

"Yeah, it might be cool to know a proper young man, though you may need to wear a different shirt, as it'll be hard to tell you and my dad apart once we return to Earth," said Phi.

 

"I've gone my whole life wearing that robot suit that it'll be quite the relief to be able to walk in my own body. And you said that the transporter will allow Luna and me to still remain mother and son here on the moon?"

 

"Yes," I replied. "The transporter copies automic data, so both realities will be possible."

 

"Thank you, Sigma. I'm sure your wife is a lovely person," said Luna.

 

"Well, until I'm able to SHIFT to the proper history, shall we talk a walk around the garden, and Phi and I can tell you both how we managed to succeed?"

 

"I would love that. I do love being around the color green," said Luna happily.

 

"I spent most of my time sleeping in this garden, so Phi, how about we tour the rest of Rhizome 9 and you can tell me the story in your own words?"

 

"Sure. I know you don't remember this, but do you want to see me stuff myself in the Pantry?"

 

"I suppose that could be workable," said Kyle hesitantly. "I do hope it won't lead to a betrayal this time.”

 

Back in the good timeline, Aoi, Akane's brother, never allowed his work at Crash Keys to interfere with his love for partying and a good time.

 

"Hey, you only live once, so you have to grab life by the horns and run with it," he said. "Junpei, what do you say to a drink, to clean the slate between old friends?"

 

"Sure, though I don't know if we were ever 'friends' in the traditional sense."

 

"C'mon, man, that was then, this is now. You saved my sister; for that, I owe you my life. Besides, you're now my brother-in-law, so that makes us family."

 

"I don't need you to tell me twice. Speaking of family, how come Carlos and Maria didn't join the party?"

 

"They said something earlier about spending time together, now that she's out of the hospital. He made a good best man at your wedding, dude."

 

"Yeah. Carlos was a true hero, no matter what timeline he was in," said Junpei, with a rare smile cracking his face.

 

"So, now that you know the truth about your parents, are you doing all right?" I asked Aoi.

 

"Call me Santa; it's a name I used to give myself when Akane was young, as I was the one that got her Christmas presents. I'm all right. It stinks how it happened, but this new history has given me an opportunity to be the White Santa, and give my little sister a proper family."

 

"Since Santa is a receiver, we work in separate divisions of Crash Keys," said Akane. "We can communicate with each other through the morphogenetic field, and we'll be using the abilities of all of the other participants from the Nonary Games to make it easier to spread out."

 

"We better catch this nut job so that we can live a decent life. I'm sick and tired of my stomach being turned inside out and backwards from all the sickness of the game."

 

"Don't worry, Santa; I'll keep a close eye on her, and make sure that she stays away from any spray bottles at the store that might have white smoke in them. I've already checked the toilet spray, the window cleaner and the air freshener, just to be safe," said Junpei.

 

"Junpei!" shouted Akane.

 

"I'm kidding. Sheesh, you sound like my mom," he moaned.

 

When the party was all over, Diana and I crashed into bed.

 

"Whew! I'm sure glad that things have gone back to normal," I said as I combed my hair and brushed my teeth.

 

"Not quite. You're still an old man with a young body. I'd say that's as far from normal as possible."

 

"And yet you still agreed to marry me?"

 

"My memory of our time on the moon has returned to me. I remember both the young you, and the you in front of me, and now they're the same person. So yes, I do still want to be your wife."

 

"Well then, what do you say to having another child? Technically, in this timeline, you haven't given birth."

 

"I'd love to, Sigma. I'm sure Phi would be glad to have a younger sibling that doesn't turn out to be a psychopath."

 

"Hey, he's our son, so show him some respect!" I said.

 

"Well, right now, he's an old man from the future, so come on, Sigma, let's hurry!"

 

Before we could say anything else, I got a phone call. I opened my phone to see that Seven was calling me.

 

"Doctor Klim speaking."

 

"Doctor, it's really bad! You've gotta come with me, now! You and Phi!"

 

"Whoa, calm down, Officer. What happened?"

 

"We caught the fanatic, but it turns out that there's an even worse plan being set in motion!"

 

"What could possibly be worse than nuclear warfare?" I asked in shock.

 

"How about a time collapse? Mira broke out of death row. On our surveillance cameras, we heard the kid telling her what they're gonna do with the transporter. She's gonna go back in time to stop her young self from committing murder, which means-"

 

"No! Everything that happened will be undone," I said calmly.

 

"Hey, I don't want to just vanish from existence!" shouted Seven.

 

"You won't. This timeline can't just vanish, because there will be a history where Mira fails to stop her younger self, because the future is full of infinite possibilities that may intervene with our plan. We have nothing to worry about."

 

"But what if Mira succeeds? What if it creates a worse future?"

 

"We've already been through several bad histories, including one where six billion people died. Though we managed to create this history, where the virus didn't spread, that history wasn't eradicated from existence, because you can't take back what's already happened. But, as I know from my experience in Rhizome 9, there was still hope to be found, even in the midst of tragedy. Junpei managed to adopt a grandson, and after my old body's self inevitably returned them to Earth, they will be willing to work together to keep protecting as many lives as possible."

 

"So... you're sayin' people are just gonna die anyway?"

 

"Good people die, Seven. There's nothing we can do about that," I said sadly. "The good news is that we who are SHIFTers can learn from other histories and maybe even use the resonance effect to help those in other timelines to SHIFT themselves, allowing the world to experience peace."

 

"Uh... I'm not sure I get all that yer sayin'. Junpei did talk kinda funny during the Nonary Game."

 

"Faith, hope, love and luck. Just remember those four words, and no matter what happens, in any timeline, the morphogenetic field, the love of friends and family, and the transporter, can ensure that we will all live happily ever after."

 

"Okay, good to know. Well, come see me next morning anyway. We gotta talk about what to do with the fanatic."

 

"Will do. Good night, Seven."

 

"Hey, Sigma," asked Diana, as I hung up. "I thought you said that you didn't believe in God."

 

"Honestly, I'm still questioning that myself," I said slowly. "But I have now accepted the fact that I've evolved from atheist to agnostic."

 

"Huh? Where did that come from?"

 

"Akane believed in God, and while she may not have always acted like a theist, she had something to root her beliefs in, and that something helped us all get here. Free the Soul was a cult that also treated Delta like a god. And we know, from our experiences in the shelter, that there are forces beyond our full understanding, like the morphogenetic field and SHIFTing. Whoever or whatever created them had to have taken care of the bodies that were destroyed whenever we SHIFTed, or else how would we have retained those memories?"

 

"But... Couldn't the answer also just be that they faded into nothingness?"

 

"Now that I know about the morphogenetic field, I doubt that's the case anymore," I responded simply. "But, there is an easy way to find out."

 

"How so?"

 

"In this body, I'm still in college. Once the spring semester starts back up, I'll start a religion class and learn everything there is to know about quantum physics and how the ancients have viewed deism. After that, I'll make up my mind on my true beliefs."

 

"Well, in the shelter, you were happy enough to be the father of twins. Will you still be happy, even if you discover that there is no God, or I miscarry?"

 

"Definitely. I love you and Phi, and I may even grow to love Delta. True agape love can't be denied, and I feel it every day, more powerfully than ever before. Truly, fate has smiled upon us... or God... or whatever forces are at play."

 

"Well, this force wants you, body and spirit, so can you hurry it up?"

 

"Okay, okay, I'm coming."

 

And we all lived happily ever after. I lived a peaceful life the remainder of my days, and never had the need to SHIFT again. I died at peace, knowing that my life's purpose had reached its conclusion.

 

The End... Of This Timeline...