When Junpei opened his eyes, he was inside a containment room with Carlos and Aoi. There was no way to tell what time it was, but judging by the looks on their faces, they had no idea what was going on. The second thing that Junpei noticed was the weight on his wrist- a bracelet. It looked like the game wasn’t just for the luckier him, then… oh joy.
Carlos and Aoi had both stood up to try opening the door, but Junpei continued to sit down. There was no possible way to escape one of these rooms if it had been locked from the outside, and considering the bracelet, escape wasn’t going to be easy- if it was even possible at all. All he could remember from the nightmares was that there was going to be a game, and it was likely going to be even worse than the nonary game, but he knew nothing more. That was the problem with dreams, after all- you tended to forget them so quickly…
He could hear the voices of the others from other containment rooms, but he couldn’t see them from where he was seated. Why bother even getting up, if there was no hope of them getting out? He could hear the gasps as footsteps made their way down the hall, and a harshly distorted voice started to speak.
“Life is simply unfair, don’t you think? There are moments where even a single snail can cause a whole world to go extinct… I am Zero- the second Zero, I suppose you could say. And now, we are all going to play a game.”
Everyone started talking over each other at once, a mix of nerves and anger in the group, but Junpei stayed quiet. Why bother talking, considering what he knew? Getting mad would only delay the inevitable, and the fact that they’d all been doomed the second they’d signed up for Dcom. He even wondered if it had really been his ‘convincing’ argument that got him into the experiment, or if that had already been predetermined. Considering the laughably unfair situations life liked to throw at him, the latter was entirely possible.
He couldn’t see the coin flip, but he heard the sound of metal on metal, and the clink of it hitting the ground then being stepped on. Zero was playing with them, as should be expected.
“This coin has two sides- one red, one blue. You are going to make a guess, and tell me which side it landed on.”
“Why should we? Do we get something if we get it right?”
It was the first time Junpei had spoke, and Carlos and Aoi spun around to look at him. Aoi seemed furious that he was playing along with Zero at all, but Junpei shrugged it off.
“If you guess right, then you shall be released. Nothing bad shall come of you.”
“..and if we guess wrong?”
“Then the game continues. You will be stuck in the decision game until six of you are dead.”
He could hear sharp gasps of shock from everyone in the room, but Junpei was suppressing a laugh. How wonderfully, terribly perfect. There was no way Junpei would end up on the timeline where they succeeded at the coin flip, he already knew that. Life hated him too much to give him a chance to actually live peacefully.
“Well, Carlos? The choice is yours. Red, or Blue?”
“B-blue! Pick blue!”
“Red. It’s got to be red.”
“Y-yeah, totally! It’s definitely red!”
Junpei couldn’t see them, but he could imagine the look on Eric’s face as he was speaking. The guy oozed desperation- Junpei didn’t hate him, he just felt sorry for him. Mira always looked like she was playing with the guy, just toying with his feelings to see what she could get away with.
It was his own turn to speak up again- he knew that there was no way Carlos would listen to him, but maybe on another timeline he wasn’t lucky enough to see, Carlos would trust him.
“L-let’s take a vote!”
“Hold on, I can’t believe you are even considering this! Don’t answer him, Carlos.”
Sigma spoke over Diana, and Junpei could hear the disdain in his voice. Seemed like Sigma wasn’t enjoying this little game at all, in fact he seemed downright pissed off. Aoi joined in on the sentiment, fists clenched.
“Yeah, don’t listen to him, Carlos. Don’t answer him, do you hear me?”
“I’m waiting, Carlos.”
Zero’s voice was cold and emotional, clearly uncaring for the pressure Carlos was under. The man was practically shaking from the stress- firefighter or not, it would be next to impossible to keep calm under odds like those. If he picked wrong, then over half of them would need to die… wasn’t that just lovely.
“It’s… It’s red.”
Zero lifted his foot, and even though Junpei couldn’t see it, he could hear from the reactions that it was very clearly blue.
“And, who was it that said it was red again?”
He could hear Mira’s angry muttering even from across the hall, but she said nothing more. Carlos looked like he was about to collapse, Aoi staring at him angrily.
“What were you thinking, moron! He couldn’t do anything if you never picked-“
“Aoi, don’t be unfair. Zero would have just made someone else chose.”
Phi was defending Carlos, but it didn’t seem to do much help for the blond. He was visibly shaking, and although Junpei couldn’t see his face, he was sure it was wracked with pain and guilt- a feeling Junpei knew all too well. Zero didn’t seem to care about any of that, as he continued to speak.
“Most unfortunate for you all. The game shall continue as planned- but for now, I need you all to sleep. I’m afraid you won’t remember any of this the next time you wake…”
“Won’t remember? The fuck’re you talking about?”
“There are memory erasing drugs in those bracelets, Aoi, as well as an anesthetic to put you all to sleep- I’m quite certain you’ve heard of it, Soporil ß.”
That was the last thing Junpei heard before he felt the sharp pain in his wrist, and his body immediately grew sluggish and heavy. The concept of having a good dream was so foreign to him that he couldn’t help the smirk that made its way onto his face, staying there until he passed out completely.
“Where… where are we?”
“I dunno, Carlos.”
Junpei watched as Aoi and Carlos spoke, examining the room they were all trapped in. He had no idea how they’d gotten there, but considering the bracelet strapped to his wrist, things couldn’t be good. He was certain that this was the game he’d been getting vague memories from in his nightmares, but he couldn’t recall anything about it- how fortunate he was.
Carlos had started tugging at the bracelet, trying to get it off, but Junpei shook his head.
“There’s no point, Carlos. The bracelet won’t come off.”
“Well, that’s what it was called a year ago- right, Aoi?”
Aoi shot him a glare but didn’t respond. Junpei wasn’t going to tell Carlos about the past Nonary game (considering that would only make Carlos distrust Aoi), but didn’t mean he wasn’t going to bring it up at all.
“A year ago?”
“Yeah. We were both locked up in the Nevada desert, with bracelets just like this on our wrists. And if this game is anything like that one, then we’re already screwed.”
“H-huh? What do you mean.”
“Six people died.”
“Yep. If we’ve got bracelets on our wrists, then we’re already almost dead.”
“Junpei, stop it. There’s no proof stating we have to die. You’re just overreacting.”
“That’s amusing, coming from you Aoi. I was sure you’d want me to be the first one to go.”
“Tch- just shut up, idiot.”
Aoi was glaring at Junpei, who shrugged it off. Carlos looked back and forth between the two with obvious confusion, but he wasn’t getting any help from either of them.
“Hey, stop it guys. Arguing isn’t going to get us anywhere, we need to look for a way out of here.”
Aoi looked like he was going to protest, but he clearly thought better of it. Carlos had stood directly between them as if to be a physical block to any potential fights, and was going to say something more, when all the screens in the room crackled to life.
“Hello. I am Zero. Before you try to protest or ask me things, I should tell you: this is a recording. I am incapable of answering any of your questions at this point, so do not bother.”
The one claiming to be Zero had an old-styled plague doctor mask on, and his voice was harshly distorted. There was no possible way he could tell who it was just from this video- damn, if only he’d been able to remember this from the dreams…
“Now, before we begin, I would like to tell you a story. Seventeen years ago, a young mother was jogging down a path in a park. Every day she would come to a fork in the road, and every day she take the same path, however this day she took another. A little further down the road, she met with an elderly woman who she came across every day, who asked her why she had chosen this path today. The woman responded ‘There was a snail’. The woman was found dead later that day, murdered. Life is… simply unfair, don’t you think?”
Junpei couldn’t repress a smirk at that- oh yes, life truly was unfair. He was horrendously, painfully familiar with that fact, after all.
“It is this same unfair life that has led to the group of you being locked up here, in this bomb shelter fifty meters below ground.”
“Are you serious?!”
“You have been separated into three teams, and put in separate wards. You may wander as you like, so long as you do not leave them. Carlos, Diana, and Q are your respective team leaders. As such, your teams will be named C team, D team, and Q team. Oh- but there is a time limit. You have only ninety minutes to wander as you wish, before you will be put to sleep and you will be injected with a memory loss drug.”
Ignoring the bizarre existence of a memory loss drug, why would Zero put such an arbitrary time restriction on them? If he truly wanted them to wander and play his little game, wouldn’t allowing them full active time make much more sense? There had to be a reason for it, but Junpei couldn’t possibly imagine what.
“As well, I’m sure you must all be wondering how to escape from here. The answer is simple- you must obtain six X passes, and open the X door. As for how to obtain the X passes, that is simple as well. Six people must die.”
Carlos was visibly shaken, and Aoi looked offput as well. Junpei had more or less been expecting something like this- it would explain why all his nightmares had ended with at least one person dead, or maybe he was just numb to it all by now. Either way, it didn’t matter.
“Each time a person dies, one X pass will be revealed. Once you have obtained all six, simply input the passes into the panel beside the X door. But be careful- the door will only open once, and for only thirty seconds. After that, it will never open again. Now, I am sure some of you are wondering, how do I take care of one team? The answer is simple- I have provided all of you with a computer, and inputted into it is a voting software. You simply choose which of your new enemies to execute. The team with two votes will die, and refusing to vote will automatically get you two votes. Now, Farewell.”
With his last words, the room fell silent and the TVs simultaneously clicked off, leaving only them and their thoughts on what they needed to do.
“Are.. are you serious? Six people…”
Carlos didn’t seem to be taking the news well, as was to be expected. If he was a firefighter, then the concept of letting people die (or even killing them) must have been entirely abstract to him. Aoi had stuck to just kicking the coffee table located a short distance away, clearly working through some frustration. Junpei couldn’t bring himself to move- what was the point? He’d already had an inkling that something like this would happen, so doing anything to vent his frustration would be little more than a waste of energy.
“Well, we shouldn’t just sit around. We need to check for any hidden exits, it’s possible Zero missed something.”
Carlos had shaken off his worry, and was trying to rouse them into moving. Junpei shrugged and followed, with Aoi scowling but doing much the same. Their ward contained a decontamination room (with a prep room), the power room, control, an infirmary, a pantry, and the rec room. Really, if they were going to be stuck somewhere for who knew how long, they’d managed to luck out- it wasn’t that bad of a setup. Carlos and Aoi didn’t seem to share his sentiment, the latter of the two muttering more curses under his breath.
“Damn, no way out…”
“Well, it’d hardly make a good bomb shelter if you could stroll on up to the surface. Besides, the person running this is named Zero. There’s no possible way that he’d overlook something as obvious as a secret exit. Right, Aoi?”
Aoi shot yet another glare at Junpei, while Carlos looked between the two of them with a mix of exasperation and worry on his face.
“Hey, c’mon guys. You fighting will get us nowhere, let’s head back to the lounge and try to think things through. Okay?”
There was no reason to disagree, so the three headed back. They ended up taking a seat on the couches, looking around the lounge while each person tried to think of a way to break the silence.
“So… any idea who Zero is?”
Aoi and Junpei both shook their heads, but it was Aoi who responded.
“I don’t know, but there’s a strong chance he’s one of us. Why else would his messages need to be pre-recorded?”
“Huh? But that doesn’t make sense, why would you set up a game like this and then put yourself in the line of fire?”
“To be Zero is to put your own life on the line- this Zero knows this as well as the last one.”
It was ironic to hear that coming from Aoi’s own mouth, but Junpei said nothing. Aoi had summed up Junpei’s own thoughts anyway, so there was nothing for him to really add.
“Okay then… why do you think Zero is doing this? You keep talking about the last time, do you think that these Zeros are connected?”
Aoi’s arms were crossed and he was looking to the side, away from Carlos.
“You can’t just dismiss the possibility like that, Aoi. For all we know, they could be working togeth-“
Carlos was taken aback from the force behind Aoi’s words, his eyes opening wide. It was clear that he was fumbling for something to say, so Junpei decided to save him from his own awkwardness.
“The first Zero already failed. He lost his game and admitted defeat- there’s no way he’d take part in the creation of this game. It would be… entirely and completely pointless.”
Akane Kurashiki was dead. She’d died last year and ten years ago, because Junpei had taken the wrong path. Nothing that happened here could change the fact that they were stuck on a timeline where Akane was dead, and had always been dead.
“Okay, I think I get it… but I do have one last question.”
“Sure, go ahead.”
“Just what exactly are you guys to each other? Junpei, you mentioned that you were childhood friends with Aoi’s sister, but you’d only actually met last year- why’d the two of you decide to sign up?”
“It was just coincidence, that’s all.”
“No Aoi, it wasn’t. Things happen for a reason, and you know that.”
Aoi continued to scowl, but Junpei shrugged it off.
“Well, how about you, Carlos? Why’d you join the experiment?”
“Well…” He seemed a bit embarrassed to admit, but spoke anyways. “I kinda need a lot of cash. They said they’d give 500 thousand to anyone who joined the experiment, right?”
“Well well, I didn’t think a Hero of Justice would have a need for money.”
“You are a firefighter, aren’t you? Dashing into burning buildings to save lives is your job, I thought- and from the sounds of it, you seem like you’re pretty good at what you do.”
“Nah, I’ve just got good instincts, is all. My instincts tell me which way leads to danger and which way is safe, so I just go with my gut.”
Carlos was clearly trying to shake off Junpei’s claim, but he only made it sound more convincing. Wasn’t that what most comic book or manga heroes were like, throwing themselves into danger in order to save people? He was the polar opposite of Junpei, who’d undoubtedly ruined far more lives than he’d saved.
“Hey, what do you guys think this is?” Junpei hadn’t noticed Aoi leave their little circle, but apparently he’d made his way over to a red box placed on the floor. Junpei and Carlos both walked over to examine it, but none of them had any idea what it could possibly be.
“Force quit box, huh…”
“Must force something to end.”
“Yeah, but what?”
“…Maybe the game?”
All three of them were crowded around it, but none of them knew what to do with it. Aoi had punched at the keyboard a few times, trying to figure out what to do, but there was no response. It figured, punching in keys at random was hardly the way to succeed.
Junpei was preparing some snarky comment to quip about, but the sound of a dog’s whining interrupted him from finishing his thought.
It was pretty quiet, but he could tell it was coming from the prep room. Carlos and Aoi followed after him. He found Gab in the vent, behind the grate cover- he got it off easy enough, allowing the small dog to step down onto the floor and take a seat.
“How’d he get here? Do you think the vent leads to the outside?”
Carlos seemed perplexed, but Aoi shook his head.
“No, I doubt it. A bomb shelter would be pretty useless if anything could travel down the vents, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, I guess you’re right… but then how’d he get here?”
“Maybe from another ward?”
“Well, the position does suggest it came from ward Q… actually, wait here guys. I’ll be right back, I just got an idea.”
Junpei and Aoi looked at each other and shrugged, while Carlos darted out of the room. Aoi had taken a seat beside the vent, while Junpei had knelt down beside Gab and started to absentmindedly pat the dog. He wasn’t sure why, but for some reason Gab had tended to spend the most time near Junpei back at Dcom- even more than he’d spent near Q, who he was supposed to be there for. He couldn’t help but appreciate the little dog, who was always trying his best despite his age.
“Well, do you think you could fit there, Aoi? You’re pretty skinny.”
“I’m not that skinny, Junpei. And besides, I’ve been working out.”
“Really? You look like a twig.”
“Oh, well I’m sure if we cut your arms off, then you’d be able to make it through the vents. Wanna try it?”
Junpei rolled his eyes and shrugged, not willing to answer. Carlos had re-entered the room during their little squabble, and he looked just plain exasperated by this point.
“Really, guys? Are you ever going to stop arguing- you know what, don’t answer that.” Carlos had clearly seen the look on Junpei’s face, and decided to continue talking. “Anyways, I got this. If we send it to Q team, then there’s a good chance that we’ll be able to spread the votes, and nobody will have to die.”
Carlos handed the thing in his hand to Junpei, a small paper coaster with words written on it.
‘Hello. Carlos here. C-team is voting for D-team, so D-team should vote for Q-team, and Q-team for C-team.’
“Ah, smart. If no team gets two votes, then no team gets executed. Simple as that, huh?”
“Yep. We’ve just gotta hope that Gab can carry our message.”
Junpei tucked the coaster into the medicine container around Gab’s collar, and gave the dog one last pat. Carlos waited for Junpei to finish up before tossing a piece of cheese down the vent, Gab slowly padding along after it. Once he was out of sight they all got up and walked back to the lounge- there wasn’t much time left, so they needed to make a decision.
“Alright, so, we’re voting D-team. Should I input it now?”
“You know, Carlos… that’s not our only option.”
“Huh? Junpei, what are you saying?”
“I’m saying, you could pick Q-team.”
“Wh-what? Why would I do that?”
“Well, it’s not like we have any proof Gab has actually reached any of the other teams. As far as we’re aware, he hasn’t, or he made it to ward Q and then stopped. If we imagine that possibility, then it’s fully possible that Eric and Mira would force Q to pick D-team as well, to kill them all off. In that case, isn’t it best for us to choose Q-team?”
“Shut up, Junpei. Mira might do something like that, but Eric wouldn’t just let an entire team die.”
“Wow Aoi, never expected you to stick up for somebody.”
“Just shut up. There’s also no way that Diana would go against the note if it meant that someone could die, which means all you’re really hoping is to get Q-team killed.”
“Oh Aoi, I’m wounded. Do you really think that poorly of me?”
“No, but I know you’d do anything to get out of here. Isn’t that right? ‘Seek a way out’, as you’d put it?”
It was Junpei’s turn to scowl now, but he didn’t let Aoi’s taunting get him too worked up. He knew better than that, after all. Besides, Aoi was an idiot to think Junpei only wanted to get himself out- no, the only person Junpei wanted to get out of here was Aoi himself.
“Both of you, stop it. This is getting old.”
Despite his best efforts to sound relaxed, there was clear tension on Carlos’s face. Junpei raised his arms in a gesture of surrender, and walked a short distance away.
“Well, it’s up to you, Carlos. I guess in the end, it all depends on how much you can trust the other teams.”
He didn’t see the results, but judging from Aoi’s sigh of relief, Carlos had done as the note had said he would. They hardly had time to relax, however, as Zero’s voice echoed over the speakers as the screens in the lounge crackled to life.
“It would seem your time is up, and your votes have been recorded. When next you wake, it will be time to continue our game; although the team who you have chosen to execute will unfortunately… not be joining us. As well, you have done exactly as I commanded by going through with the vote. You three will not be injected with the memory loss drug- it wouldn’t do for you to forget about the lives you’d taken. Now, sleep well.”
The screens flicked off again, and Junpei felt the quick pain in his wrist from the needles injecting him with the sleeping drug. He didn’t even bother trying to fight it- he collapsed to the ground quickly and without resistance, too tired to try.
As his mind slipped into unconsciousness, his last thoughts were about the vote, and the execution- it was them or D-team, and he supposed he’d find out who’d lost the next time he was awake…