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No-Leaf Clover

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Ughhhhh…

I shift on the surface I’m laying on, which is way too hard and cold to be my bed. It’s very uncomfortable, and I’d gladly get off of it, if not for the fact that I feel like I recently got run over by a truck. I must have been really tired last night, because I don’t know why else I would possibly have passed out on the floor. When did I even lie down? Is this what a hangover feels like? I don’t drink…

Slowly, unwillingly, I lever myself up on to my arms, blinking groggily at my surroundings- which I don’t recognize. What the… am I still dreaming? This looks like the inside of a dingy elevator or something…

Finding myself more awake all of a sudden, I start to look around with some degree of actual alertness. The room I’m in is small, cubical, and made of metal. There’s a fire extinguisher in one corner, a fire extinguisher box in another corner, a couple of weird posters on the walls, and a large machine with a screen on the front attached to the back of the room. Directly underneath it is an odd looking safe, and to its right is some sort of big red lump of cloth, with what looks like shifting machine parts peeking out from under-

The lump suddenly stands up and turns around. I nearly bang my head against the wall as I scramble back- staring down at me is a tall, yellowish-white robot, with glowing orange eye panels, an almost insectoid mask, and a long red cloth draped around its shoulder that falls down around the rest of its body like a toga. Before I can even really process its appearance, it begins to speak to me in a calm, measured tone.

“I see that you are awake. Please, do not panic. I know I must look frightening… though I admit, I cannot tell precisely what I look like right now.”

…that voice. That… armor. Am I looking at K right now? K, as in the game character? How-

My thought process cuts off as I happen to look down at myself for the first time since I woke up.

Stockings. Short shorts. Spotted pink bra.

What the SHIT.

I don’t scream, but I must make some sort of noise, because K begins trying to reassure me again. I don’t hear a word of it. Why the hell am I in Virtue’s Last Reward?! Why am I a girl- no, why am I Clover?! What- just, WHAT?!

I spend roughly 30 seconds freaking out before my mind calms down enough for me to think properly again. The conclusions I immediately come to, however, are almost enough to make my heart stop. Please tell me this is a dream, or a simulation or something, because if this is real, then I am utterly screwed. Not just normally screwed either; I’m screwed regardless of virtually ANYTHING I do. I’m sure that there are worse universes to be bizarrely and randomly dropped into, but at present none are coming to mind- due to the way this game’s plot is entirely reliant on a massive time loop, I am currently an unknown variable in a situation that is going to fail if literally anything about it is not known. If everyone doesn’t do exactly what they need to do/did, then the information Sigma/Zero used to set it up was faulty. Except it can’t have been faulty, because his experience in the Nonary Game is what he used to set it up to begin with. In other words, I may literally break time here if I say or do the wrong thing. How the everloving hell am I supposed to avoid that?!

“Miss? Miss, are you alright? I promise, I will not hurt you.”

K is currently holding his hands up, having backed away and bowed his head slightly. He must think I’m not responding because I’m scared of him or something, since he seems to be trying to be as unaggressive as possible. Panicking aside, I suppose I should probably reply at some point…

“I… I’m fine. Just a bit… freaked out, I guess.” I tell him as I stand up, my voice coming out exactly the way I remember Clover’s sounding.

“That is perfectly understandable.” K replies, sounding slightly relieved that I finally spoke. “I apologize for my appearance. I’m fairly certain that this is some sort of suit, but I’m not quite sure how to get it off.”

Do I play along and act like I don’t know anything about him? I guess that seems like the safest course of action. In as much as any action can be safe in this scenario.

“You’re ‘fairly certain’…?” I ask, feigning confusion.

“Hmm.” K places a hand behind his head, appearing to be thinking. “I don’t… remember… to be honest, I’m not quite sure who I even am. Are you perhaps experiencing something similar?”

I shake my head no, feeling Clover’s long pink hair tickle my back. “Not at all…” I know who I am, I just seem to have been a bit bodily displaced is all. “You’re saying you have amnesia?”

“Well… yes. I suppose I do.” If K could visibly frown, I’m sure he would be doing so right now. “If you aren’t experiencing the same problem, perhaps you could tell me where we are, and why we’re in here?”

“Ah… sorry. I have as little idea as you do.” I tell him, blatantly lying.

“I see.” K says, placing a hand on his chin. “That is regrettable. You do not know who I am, correct?” I shake my head no. “If that is the case, perhaps we have been kidnapped.”

Not a bad conclusion, but not technically correct. I guess I- or rather, Clover- technically was, but you’ve lived here your whole life. Although granted, it was not inside this little cube we’re currently stuck in.

“Are you familiar with that bracelet?” K asks, pointing at my wrist.

I hold up my arm. As expected, there sits the Nonary Game Bracelet, its face proudly proclaiming me to be a green pair with 3 BP. It’s heavier than a normal watch, but not enough to be hugely impactful on my arm movement.

“No… where did this thing come from?” I make a show of trying to get it off by wildly pressing the buttons. “Does it come off? Who the heck put this on me?”

“I would assume the culprit to be whoever put us in this room.” K notes. “Perhaps this armor was placed on me by them as well, as it appears to have been built to accommodate a bracelet of my own.” He shows me his arm as proof.

Before I can respond, the hum of something flickering on suddenly emanates throughout the room.

“How’re you feeling?” a smirking, self-satisfied voice asks.

K and I look as one at the small monitor built into the wall just above the “elevator” buttons. A small white rabbit wearing a miniature set of Chinese clothes has appeared on it.

Oh joy, look who it is.

“I am Zero |||! The king of this kingdom!”

I listen to the half-deranged sounding AI talk for a short while, but it quickly becomes evident his message to the players at this stage is exactly the same as I remember, holding nothing of any real relevance beyond the announcement of his name and the Nonary Game. Deciding I’m going to get no new information from this, I return to my whirling, frantic thoughts.

Okay, I’ve got to calm down. In a situation like this, I need to be as logical and careful as possible, or everything could come crumbling down around me in a spectacularly short period of time. Let’s think about this- the information on how the game eventually proceeds that Sigma-Zero used to set up this game in the “past” comes from the “present”, wherein he went through the game himself. It’s a classic self-fulfilling time loop, at least in that regard. So… maybe things have already changed retroactively, and my presence has therefore already been accounted for? Perhaps the scenario to follow doesn't have to be identical to the game's, since it will have been set up with my actions in the roughly 20 or so timelines “to come” in mind, rather than the original Clover’s. In fact, now that I think of it, if we assume that this plan could only have been set in to motion if it ends up working in some reality, then I shouldn't even have to worry, right? Right! We’re already in the AB game, and since time isn’t broken, there shouldn’t be anything to worry about!

…although then again, that’s WHY time might break. I know how this situation is supposed to proceed, and in the VLR universe time doesn’t retroactively change. You can “trick” it in a couple of ways, or alter the flow of parallel timelines which were initially going to proceed identically to the original, but you can’t change things in an already defined timeline outright. Which means unless this is all taking place in an entire parallel set of timelines, which is a bet I can’t possibly risk, any action I make that Clover didn’t goes against the way this universe’s time physics are supposed to work. While the fact that the stable time loop isn’t already broken could be taken as a good sign, now that I think about it, Sigma/Zero never saw what went on inside Clover and K’s cube. Since his viewpoint is the only important one here, it may not matter what I do regarding things that happened “offscreen”. Time might actually only break when we get out of here, and I’m not still unconscious the way Clover is supposed to be. I guess I could maybe knock myself out again somehow, but K would surely tell the others about that, which also didn’t happen in the game, and thus might just as easily... god damn it, this isn’t fair! It’s not like I had any control over when I woke up! And even if I somehow did, I wouldn’t have known NOT to do so before-!

“Hey, you! Pay attention!”

My gaze snaps back to the monitor. Zero Three stares back at me with an unamused expression.

I am a very busy bunny, and I do not. Have time. To repeat myself.”

Er… sorry? Wait, is he directly addressing me? Did he do that at all in the game, before you actually escaped the AB room?

“…and, as it happens, you don’t have that time either!” Zero shrugs, continuing in a much cheerier tone. “You’d better get out quick, because that elevator you’re in? It’s gonna fall in a few minutes. Waaaaaay down.”

“…oh dear.” K says, sounding rather disaffected. I guess he always sort of sounded like that in the game, but it is kind of jarring to hear someone actually talk like that. Personally, I'm more worried about what might happen when we DO get out than what will happen if we don't, especially as these aren't even elevators. That being said, Zero Three could still “punish” us if we fail to even try, so I guess we don't really have much choice.

“So, hop to it! I’ll see you later. Have a nice trick!”

The screen goes blank, and K turns to me. “We should make haste to escape.” he tells me, as if that isn’t really stating the blatantly obvious. Then again, since Zero pointed out how I seemingly wasn’t paying very close attention, he might think he actually needs to.

“Yeah, we should.” I agree, practically hearing the “SEEK A WAY OUT!” music play in my head.

I turn to the wall and begin pulling the brightly colored knobs off the bar, doing so almost on autopilot as I’m still desperately trying to form a viable plan. Alright, assuming I don't cause a critical spacetime error a few minutes from now, and ignoring the fact that I already may have nixed the viability of this idea by sheer virtue of waking up, do I just go along with the normal timeline as best I remember? As long as I don’t reveal to anyone that I’m not Clover, and take the same actions she did, then by almost the same principles that Akane used to be “K” in the timeline where she lived, I shouldn’t actually affect anything. But even if I somehow managed that, given that I really only remember the broad strokes of this game and thus can’t even hope to replicate Clover’s actions exactly, the best timeline ends with everyone besides Sigma and Phi left to deal with living in a doomed future. All others end with “me” either dead, stuck on the surface of the moon slowly running out of oxygen, or trapped in here forever with the others. Or rather, trapped until the Radical-6 everyone was secretly infected with takes full effect I suppose. Wow, okay, I hadn’t even considered all that when I said I was screwed regardless; if time doesn’t fall apart the second we walk out of here-

“Excuse me, Miss…?”

It takes me a moment to realize K is talking to me. I spin around to face him.

“Uh… C-Clover.” I answer uneasily.

“May I ask what you’re doing? I’ve no issue with it, but I imagine it will be easier to escape if we’re working together.”

“Oh, uh…” I actually don’t really know, I just remember they needed to come off at some point in the process of getting the code you need to escape. “I guess these knobs drew my eye since they’re all so brightly colored, and they seemed to be loose, so I just sort of took them off? I mean, it can’t hurt, right?”

“Hmm… I suppose not.” K concedes. “I’ll get the other two.”

K moves away to remove the other handles while I examine the rest of the chamber. I don’t think I have to try too hard to recall how it worked in the game- this was the first puzzle room, and thus not particularly hard to get out of. Which is honestly something of an issue for me, as despite skipping directly from denial to acceptance in regards to my presence here, I still feel like I need more time to figure out what to do. In the short term, I just need to survive stepping outside this room, followed by the “game” that comes immediately after. Long term, I ideally need to figure out how I ended up here, and somehow reverse the process. Consciousness travel is the obvious answer for that, but 1) Clover’s body should have been occupied, because she’s not capable of consciousness travel so far as I remember, 2) I’m not Clover, so even if she could transfer her consciousness I most certainly shouldn’t be here, and 3) this is a VIDEO GAME! At least in the version of reality I exist in! How the hell can I even be here?!

My mind briefly stutters as I glance at K, suddenly remembering something else. Wait. There was a scene at the end of Virtue's Last Reward: a “secret ending”, of sorts. A consciousness of unknown origin woke up in “Klim”, which was heavily implied to be the player... does that have anything to do with this? It’s not quite the same situation, and the ending got declared non-canon later, but maybe there’s somehow actual precedent for this, at least from this universe’s perspective. In that miniature scenario, Akane treated the player as a theoretically higher dimensional being, who could freely observe multiple timelines and travel between them- sort of like that one version of String Theory, and something proved by the fact that the player had been doing exactly that all game, through Sigma. She also vaguely hinted about how you’d be traveling to the Nevada test site soon, which was referencing the sequel of Zero Time Dilemma, again something that the “player” did in fact end up observing. Which means Akane may in fact know about “entities” like me, and thus may also know something about how I can get back to my own dimension.

Okay, in that case, the plan is now to do everything I can to steer myself into the “true” ending timeline so that I can speak to Akane. She almost certainly won’t be willing to drop the facade of being K before then, since that would cause the whole Schrodinger’s Cat gambit that allowed her to live to begin with to fall apart, but at the end of the timeline she’ll have already done everything she set out to do, and will have no reason not to help me. Non-canon or not, that secret ending is hope, at least, that maybe I’m not stuck here permanently.

…I just have to not die along the way, and also hope I don’t cause spacetime to divide by zero the second I step out of this box.

I tell K to take the fire extinguisher pin out and use it as a key on the fire extinguisher box, which is not a terribly difficult leap of logic since there is a poster on the wall literally demonstrating how to do so. Meanwhile, I busy myself with the old people and babies poster, and punch the numbers of such into the matching railings, indicated by the tiny plaques on their sides. This is a more difficult task than one might imagine, because it requires one to cross the room, something Clover’s four inch heels are making very difficult for me. I’m basically walking on my tiptoes here, and as if that wasn’t enough to throw me off balance already, gravity itself feels extremely wonky. Not completely off, which I assume is due to the tandem effect of the Radical-6 and the moon partially canceling each other out or something, but enough to make me extremely wary of falling over every other step. I’m having to walk around the edge of the room to get to the other side, using the wall to support myself.

K quickly opens the extinguisher box, revealing four small socket wrench heads. While we’re attaching them to the handles we pulled off the bars, I find myself lamenting something else as well- Clover’s fingernails. I don’t particularly care about how they're painted a pale shade of silvery-white; it’s more the fact that her nails are less nails so much as miniature half-inch long DAGGERS. I don’t feel like I remember her possessing near literal claws in the game, but apparently she does. While I suppose it’s good to know I have the option of gouging someone’s eyes out if need be, they’re incredibly difficult to handle anything with- manipulating small objects with tooth-like points sticking out of your fingers is a real exercise in frustration. I’m fairly sure they’re fake to boot, but trying to peel them off doesn’t work, so they must be glued in place somehow. How incredibly annoying.

Regardless, we do get the socket wrenches together eventually, and given the literal color coding that’s been done for us with the handles, it’s clear that they're meant to match the similarly colored screws on the elevator panel. Unscrewing and removing the panel reveals a tilting puzzle with a memory card inside. It doesn’t take long to solve, and a small green memory card soon pops out. I slip it into Clover’s shorts (good thing the card is so small, because these pockets won’t hold anything bigger) before turning to the elevator buttons. The rabbit placard is supposed to represent Zero Three I guess, so I press the 3 button, and from a slot in the wall out pops a similar memory card in red. Satisfied, I wobble across the room and stick the two cards into the machine’s obvious card ports, causing the screen to light up with a pattern of stars, suns, and moons… surrounded by blue.

“Well done. I believe we can enter this combination into the safe.” K says.

“Yeah, I guess we can…” I agree vaguely, slightly confused, since I know what a blue code means.

Unsure of what I’ll find, I slowly lower myself into a crouch and tap the buttons of the safe to create the indicated pattern. The safe clicks open, and I pull out the contents before standing back up.

“What is that?” K asks, looking confused.

“I’m… not sure.” I reply, staring at the golden colored folder in my hand.

Actually, I know exactly what this is, but from K’s perspective I definitely shouldn’t. Truth be told I’m not sure how I’d explain it anyways, because in-universe, it makes no sense for this to exist. In the game, Sigma can pick up a secret file from every escape room by finding a secondary passcode, which usually contains extra information relating to terms, science, and thought experiments mentioned in the dialogue. The other characters will see Sigma get the second combination and open the safe twice, even mentioning as such aloud, but they never comment on the files themselves, nor do they ask to see them, or really react to them at all. Sigma also clearly isn’t toting them around with him everywhere, nor does he ever attempt to share them with anyone else. In other words, they have no plot impact, and once taken out of the safe they aren’t even tangible items. They aren’t supposed to impact the story at all… yet this doesn’t seem like it’s going to just vanish out of my hand, and K is asking about it, so it’s clearly real. I’m not really sure what to think about this.

“…hang on a moment.”

I walk back over to the elevator buttons, still using the bar on the side to support myself. Usually the difference between getting a green escape password and a blue file password is just a single difference in how you solve the final step, and since the baby and old man buttons are locked in and the sliding puzzle is already finished, this is the only thing in the room that can still be manipulated. Seeing as how there’s no penalty for being wrong, I decide to just press the buttons in one by one without bothering to think about it.

I start with the zero button, and a blue memory card immediately pushes its way out of the slot. The answer was 0? Why- oh, right. Duh. Not sure why that didn’t come to mind first, actually.

I slot it into the machine alongside the green and red cards, and this time the screen turns green, displaying a different pattern. Closing the safe, I input the new pattern and reopen it, this time finding a key inside.

“A different code results in different contents?” K notes as I hold it up for him to see. “How does that work? A trick back, perhaps? And what exactly is the purpose of that folder?”

“I dunno.” I tell him, trying to sound confused. “It doesn’t look like we needed it to escape though. Let’s just get out of here, we’ll look it over outside.”

K nods in agreement, and I walk over to the elevator panel again, finally starting to get the hang of doing so without a hand on the wall. The key opens the plastic door covering the button (could we have just smashed that open? Probably not advisable, but still). I press it, and a hatch in the ceiling opens.

I look at K. He looks at me.

“Hmm. Miss Clover, if you would step over here for a moment?” K asks after a few seconds, positioning himself beneath the hatch.

I comply, assuming he’s going to tell me to climb up on his shoulders. Instead, to my surprise, he bends down and lifts me off the ground in a bridal carry.

“Hey! W-What are you-”

I don’t have the time to say anything else, as I’m instead forced to cling on for dear life as K leaps off the ground and out of the hatch…

Chapter Text

K’s suit must assist his jumping ability, because even accounting for the moon’s lower gravity, he easily goes over 20 feet up, over twice the height of the AB room itself. When we land, with a remarkably soft impact, I’m almost surprised he doesn’t bounce off the floor.

“…I could have done that myself you know.” I tell him as I push myself out of his arms, crossing my own irritably. “And some warning might have been nice.”

“Ah. My apologies.” K says, seeming about as apologetic as his tone ever gets. “I assumed this would be the simplest solution, but I suppose I should have asked first.”

I look over at the people clustered around the number 9 door, bracing myself, until I realize that the crowd appears to be two people short. Dio, Quark, Luna, Alice, and Tenmyouji… apparently, we aren’t the last to escape as Clover and K were initially supposed to be, which I guess means we’re postponing the moment of truth until Sigma and Phi actually manage to get out here.

Everyone is staring at us, which I’m not sure how to react to. Shock is evident on most of their faces, though Tenmyouji seems to be alternating between looking warily at K and squinting at me, while Alice…

“Clover!” she calls out, sounding worried.

I do my best to smile. “Alice!”

I walk over to her as fast as I really can in heeled shoes, inwardly grimacing. I've already decided on playing the part of Clover for now, and keeping events as close to how they went in the game as possible so I can reach the true ending. However, Alice knows Clover better than anyone here, so she’s a lot more likely to notice something wrong than the others. I’m not sure how, or even if I can bluff my way through this…

I don’t have any time to really come up with anything, as Alice meets me halfway to her, grabbing me by the shoulders in a semi-embrace.

“Are you okay? Are you hurt?” she asks, looking me over.

“No, I’m fine… a little off balance, and kind of sore from lying on the floor, but otherwise fine.” I reply.

Alice looks over at K, flinching at his appearance, before turning back to me.

“Who or… what is that?!”

“Oh, uh, that’s K.” I tell her, watching as K begins approaching, and the others start tensing and backing away. “I was kind of scared of him when I woke up, but he seems nice enough, armor aside.”

Alice pulls me in close, suddenly choosing to whisper in my ear. “Don’t think like that Clover. You of all people know that in a situation like this, we can’t trust anyone, especially not someone wearing something like that.”

Crap, that's right. Alice doesn’t have any idea what’s going on beyond that she thinks the Myrmidons are involved, and as a member of her organization Clover would naturally be suspicious too, especially of the 7 foot tall guy who can’t even be confirmed as a person.

Right, sorry.” I whisper back.

We’ll talk more later, when we’re alone.” she continues, looking over at K again. “For now, keep the airhead act up in front of these people. It’ll help keep attention off of us.”

Oh, lovely. She’s planning a private meeting, where I’m going to have to act exactly the way Clover would in front of a person she considers a very close friend. Even if I know VLR’s story, these two would know way more about each other than just what the game showed. In fact, given how long it’s been since I played it, I probably can’t hope to replicate even what little conversation we did hear between them. It’s not like I took the time to memorize every single line of dialogue. Damn, I should have told K I did have amnesia, if I hadn’t already told him I didn’t it could have covered for so much-!

My internal lamenting is interrupted by the sudden noise of a hatch opening on top of one of the AB rooms. Everyone briefly turns away from K as a white haired girl leaps out the hatch and lands on the roof, crouching to pull up an old man in a jumpsuit with gray, neck length hair. They quickly spot our little group, and after a moment of discussion they drop to the ground and begin walking over.

Well, I don’t FEEL as if the universe is collapsing…

I let go of a breath I hadn’t even realized I was holding. Thank goodness. There are plenty more pitfalls to avoid here, but at least the one I was most worried about doesn’t seem to be an issue.

As the pair gets closer, I can’t help myself from staring at Sigma’s bionic eye. Seriously, how does no one ever bring that up? The metal eyepiece jutting out of his head is pretty obtrusive, and you’d think someone would question it, especially given how distrustful everyone is of K for looking like a robot. Not that I’m planning on saying anything about it either, since that could mess up quite a lot of things, but really? Then again, I suppose no one ever questions Dio’s ringmaster outfit, Clover’s (currently my) lack of an actual shirt, or Alice’s… ring either, so I guess they’re only interrogating K because his appearance is outwardly intimidating. Everyone else is free to be as weird looking as they like.

“Uh… hey there! Any of you guys know what the hell’s going on here?” Sigma asks the moment he gets close enough for any of us to hear. His voice is surprisingly strong for someone over 60 years old, which I guess is why he never noticed a difference in the game. “And… what’s with the guy dressed like a robot?” he continues, squinting at K.

“That’s what we’d like to know.” Alice says as K lingers near the outside of the group, keeping his distance.

“I assure you, I am not a robot.” K protests in a rather robotic tone that does not remotely help his case. “At least, I don’t think I am.”

“You don’t think?” Phi repeats, raising an eyebrow.

“I can’t seem to remember who I am… or anything else, for that matter.”

There’s a round of shocked faces for everyone again, besides me.

“Seriously?” Sigma asks, disbelievingly.

“Yes. I have no idea where I am, who I am, or… even what day it is. If any of you happen to know any of those things, I would very much appreciate if you shared that information. Not knowing one’s identity is… vexing.”

Dio immediately starts going off on K about how we can’t take a guy wearing a robot suit and whose face we can’t see seriously, and asks if we’re supposed to assume someone forced him into the armor, which sounds vaguely familiar to me. K’s response and Tenmyouji’s follow up about how calm he seems are equally so. Is this the normal dialogue? I’d say that’s a good thing, since it means less changes I have to worry about potentially affecting the path to the true ending, but no one’s introduced themselves yet, and that was supposed to happen first, so it can’t last.

“Hey, you. Clover, was it?” Tenmyouji suddenly speaks up, looking at me. “Do you believe this guy?”

I definitely don’t remember that line, which makes sense since Clover was probably still unconscious during this scene. Since the “normal” course of events is already ruined to some extent, I guess I’ll just give him my honest opinion.

“I guess? I mean, I don’t really know him, but he was perfectly nice while we were stuck in that room.” I answer, shrugging. “I don’t think he’s going to hurt anyone at least, and I do think he’s telling the truth about his memory.”

That doesn’t exactly satisfy everyone, but it does seem to lower tensions a bit. Tenmyouji in particular seems to lose most of his accusatory tone, even if Dio still doesn’t seem remotely convinced. After that, the group begins asking K questions about pretty much every personal subject under the sun- his birthday, his favorite food, even the last time he went to the toilet (which I imagine might be rather difficult in a suit like that), but as expected he doesn’t remember a whit of it. Luna concludes he has generalized amnesia, which K attempts to make a very bad joke about, and which Dio continues to call bullshit on.

“Well, whether it is or not, it doesn’t seem like we’re getting anywhere with this.” Tenmyouji concludes. “Since the rooms should all be empty now, I assume this is everyone. We might as well introduce ourselves.”

Everyone seems to either agree with or have no issue with that suggestion. Tenmyouji goes first, followed by Quark. My eyes wander over each person as they announce their name, recalling everything I know about each of them in turn. There are so many secrets between this group’s nine members, and I know virtually all of them… not that I can use that information, or even really mention it since that would probably screw a lot of proceeding events up, but it’s kind of weird to consider.

“I’m Alice, and this is Clover.” Alice says, introducing me simultaneously.

“Huh. I take it you two know each other?” Sigma asks.

“Yes. Clover and I are… coworkers.” Alice finishes vaguely. I notice Sigma squint and mutter something under his breath at that, but decide to ignore it.

“And just what are we supposed to call you?” Dio asks once we get around to K.

“Hmm…” K places a hand on his chin, clearly giving it some thought. “Well…”

“If you’re not gonna admit you’re lying about this amnesia shit, just make something up.” Dio snidely comments. “Call yourself ‘Asshole’ for all I care, just pick something.”

“…I suppose you can call me… K.”

Everyone seems a bit nonplussed. “K?” Dio protests, looking caught between being annoyed and confused. “The hell does ‘K’ have to do with anything?”

“I don’t know.” K answers. “I feel as if it’s somehow important, however…”

…whoops. I just realized I told Alice his name was K before he actually had a chance to come up with it. Hopefully she didn’t notice that…

“Alright then.” Tenmyouji says, looking around at everyone. “Now that that’s settled, I’d like to make sure of something. Besides those of us that can’t remember, we were all gassed and grabbed, right?”

Weird that he’d be the one to bring that up, since I know that he himself wasn’t.

“Yeah, sounds about right.” Sigma replies. “I got in my car, tried to start the engine, and white smoke started pouring out of the AC…”

“I believe we all experienced something to that effect.” Luna chimes in. “The smoke seems to have acted as some kind of general anesthetic. When I woke up, I was in one of these ‘elevators’.”

Sigma then chooses to ask the rather stupid question of whether we all woke up in the same elevator (would we have even fit?), leading to the “reveal” that Alice, Luna, and Tenmyouji woke up alone, while Quark woke up with Dio and I woke up with K. They start talking about the bracelets and what the solo/pair assignments could mean as something occurs to me- come to think of it, how did Alice manage to get out of her room without realizing she suddenly had super jumping powers? Tenmyouji and Luna already know where we are, so it wouldn’t have surprised them, but Alice doesn’t, and I don’t recall her ever bringing it up in the game. Sigma never does either, despite how I believe he explicitly notes Phi’s incredible “flying” abilities at one point, which Phi herself doesn’t even seem to question. Is that a plot hole, or just something none of those three found interesting enough to mention for some reason? Should I ask Alice about it? I don’t really want to rock the boat any more than I already have, so probably not…

Discussion eventually ceases, with no one really knowing what else to say. Phi wanders off towards the “Two milkmen go comedy” graffiti written in what looks like blood at the back of the warehouse, while Sigma begins fruitlessly trying to open the magenta chromatic door, which is honestly kind of funny given that it doesn’t even have a handle. I’ve no idea what exactly he thinks he’s going to accomplish just shoving on that thing, but perhaps he simply feels compelled to at least give it a try. I’m about to go join Phi, since I don’t really remember what the message was an anagram of or if it was remotely important, until I’m suddenly interrupted.

“Hey- Clover, right?”

I turn around and almost wince. Dio, everyone’s least favorite character, appears to be attempting to talk to me.

“What’s that folder you’ve got?”

I blink, honestly having forgotten that I’ve been holding that at my side this whole time. The others turn to me as well, most of them apparently having not noticed it until now.

“You mean this?” I say, holding the folder up. “I’m not sure. It was inside the safe in our room, but I haven’t really looked at it yet.”

“Well why not? There could be important information in there.” Dio points out. “Hurry up and-”

“He he he… eee he he he he he he… eee he he he he he he he he he…”

Everyone looks around wildly as Zero Three chooses to giggle manically over the intercom for a few seconds before projecting himself onto the wall.

“Welllll now. Looks like someone found one of the secret archives! Congratulations, Cleaver!”

I startle at the rabbit AI directly addressing me again.

“You’d better not tell anyone what’s in there yet! I do have a plan here you know, and I can’t just have you revealing things out of order.”

“So that folder IS important!” Dio exclaims, rounding on me.

“Oh, I wouldn’t say that.” Zero replies, waving a paw nonchalantly. “I just don’t want its contents spoiling you all on what’s to come. It’s far too exciting! Eee he he he he…”

“Why you…” Dio’s temper swings back around as he turns back towards the wall. “Show yourself you little bastard!”

As Zero begins mercilessly baiting Dio, I look down at the folder in my hands. Was that call out some sort of indication that Zero knows I’m not really Clover? I... kind of hope it was, since that would imply Sigma-Zero knew when he was programming the AI, which in turn implies I’ll at least survive long enough for it to become known I’m not her at some point in the timeline. Since I only plan on revealing that when I talk to Akane, it would be near ironclad assurance that I’ll be making it to the true ending. Unfortunately, that seemed more directed at my having found the file than anything to do with who I actually am…

“Ooooh, you mean you want to see the person who’s controlling me?” Zero coos in response to Dio demanding to see the man behind the curtain. “Well, in that case, maybe you need to take a look around!”

“What are you talking about?” Dio scoffs. “This place is empty! There’s no one here but-”

“What he’s saying,” Phi mutters, loudly enough for everyone to hear, “is that the real Zero could be one of us…”

“Well done, Phido!” Zero praises. “Minus points for needing a hint, however. You’re cleverer than that, aren’t you?”

The group looks more confused than surprised by this potential revelation. “How can that be?” Quark asks, speaking up for the first time since he told us his name. “You’re speaking and responding to us right now…”

Zero goes on to tell everyone that he’s an AI, before finally beginning to explain the Nonary Game proper. I start listening more carefully once he gets to that part- unlike in the elevator, I figure that this time I should try to actually pay attention to him. Sure, I theoretically already know the rules here, but it’s been a while, and I want to make sure I remember everything correctly. Though annoyingly, Zero’s… theatricality means he is not exactly doling out the information quickly. It takes him over two minutes just to explain the function of the number 9 door, which I feel could have been summarized in all of 10 seconds: here's the way out, it opens once and once only, don't get left behind. I’ve never been the most patient person- by the time he starts explaining the bracelets, it occurs to me that I could probably get all this stuff from the file if I wanted to. The early ones were basically just term glossaries, and since Zero told me not to “spoil” things, this one almost certainly goes over what he’s talking about right now. He just said not to tell anyone yet, not that I couldn’t look at it myself, right?

I scoot to the back of the group and flip the folder open. There’s a single sheet inside, which I quickly skim over. Yep, basically just a glossary of terms and objects relevant to the Nonary Game, though it’s a lot less useful as a reference than I thought it might be. It does go over what the AB rooms are, explains what a quantum computer is, and mentions how and why the bracelets might kill us- well, actually it just heavily implies that they will, oddly enough- but for some reason, it also covers the phrases Zero Three uses before he leaves, makes a joke about AI standing for Artificial Insemination, and pointlessly talks about how unsafe the elevator doors are, rather than utilizing the space for more useful information. Well, I guess these were mostly just meant as a “bonus” for the player to collect, so they’re free to be a little silly… which only highlights how weird it is that they now seem to be included in the rather more serious plot.

Zero has moved on to talking about the AB rooms and the keycards needed to access them, which I’m fairly sure I haven’t forgotten anything about, so I continue ignoring him. There’s nothing else to gain from looking at the file any longer, so on another note entirely- what was that thing about “keeping up the airhead act” Alice mentioned? I guess she thinks my acting like a ditz will help us here somehow? Did Clover do that in this game? That’s kind of distasteful to be perfectly honest, and either way, I think that ship may have already sailed. I solved the first room pretty much on my own after all, and while it was relatively simple, I was also the only one to get the secret file. Besides which, a lot of the people here are going to be suspicious of everyone else regardless, so it probably doesn’t matter how intelligent I act in regards to drawing attention. That said, I don’t want Alice to think I'm just ignoring her… but this is a minor issue all things considered, so I suppose I'll just cross that bridge when I get to it.

I tune back in just in time to hear Zero literally reviewing what we’ve gone over so far. Nice to know I’ve missed absolutely nothing by almost completely ignoring him.

“Cleaver, can you tell me what the three primary colors are?” he suddenly asks.

I tilt my head at the unexpected question. “I… assume you mean red, green, and blue, not red, blue, and yellow. But why ask me?”

“Because. You’re the only person I haven’t talked with yet.” Zero snappily replies. “No reason to go mute around me, communication is a wonderful thing. And yes, of course I don’t mean red, blue, and yellow. You’re not in elementary school anymore Cleaver, you should know better!”

I glare at the projection for a moment, which Zero giggles at.

“Now, what colors do you need to make Magenta?” he asks, drawing out the name of the color.

“Red and blue.”

“How about y-”

“You use red and green to get yellow and blue and green to get cyan.” I say impatiently. I kind of want to sarcastically ask if we should just intuit the rest from that, but I can’t think of a way to phrase it that doesn’t sound stupid, and it probably isn’t the best idea to tick Zero off, no matter how annoying he is. We shouldn’t have to deal with him much longer anyways.

The rabbit sniffs huffily at my preempting him before resuming his explanation. Man, I forgot how long these little infodumps took. Didn’t we just establish that we only have 10 minutes left before the doors open? How can this feel like an eternity? Can’t be the Radical-6; that makes things seem sped up, not slowed down. I’m doing my best to look as though I’m still interested, but I’m increasingly less concerned that anything about this scenario is different from the one I’m already familiar with, besides my being in it. VLR lets you skip dialogue you’ve already heard for a reason, and this would be that reason.

I'm a little surprised the whole death penalty thing hasn’t been mentioned yet. Does that come later? I thought for sure it was part of this scene, but maybe Zero doesn’t explain that until the first AB game, which I suppose makes more sense now that I think of it. Honestly, I’m not all that worried about the bracelet killing me regardless- I’m far more concerned about all the OTHER potential causes of death this game presents. If I recall, just going by things seen onscreen, I could get murdered by Dio, blown up by antimatter bombs, or fall victim to plague-induced suicide. Lovely. Hopefully I won’t have to deal with any of those, but each of the three main timelines beyond the first chromatic doors has one of those as an overall theme, so that’s probably not really possible.

An activation sound suddenly plays, and the chromatic doors slide up. Akane’s voice rings out over the warehouse, announcing there are 5 minutes until the chromatic doors close. Zero still isn’t gone yet, but I guess that means it’s time to move on. I should- shit, I should have started thinking about this sooner. I need to get to the true ending, which means I need to end up in the bomb timeline. How did that one start? I think Sigma and Phi went to… dang it, it definitely wasn’t the Lounge… I’m pretty sure it was the Crew Quarters? Yeah, the first bomb was under one of the fold out beds, it was definitely there. It may not actually matter who goes there as long as someone discovers the bomb, except that I don’t remember if Dio even planted them in the murder and sickness timelines. Much like how Quark somehow doesn’t get sick in at least one of the timelines but does in the other(s), I don’t fully understand the factors in play there. It’s not worth risking.

So, I need to make sure I’m in the timeline where Sigma chooses to go to the Crew Quarters. Problem is, I have no way of making Sigma want to go to the Crew Quarters. The pairings are ultimately left up to him in the game, and he makes his choice at close to the last second every time, so I’m not going to have much chance to object if he chooses to go to the Lounge or the Infirmary. How would I even justify asking a team I’m not even paired up with to go to a specific door, unless- wait, there’s a much easier way! If I insist on K and I’s partner, then I can “choose” where the others go- once one team is decided, everyone else only has one option. I need Sigma and Phi to go through the cyan door, so they need to pair up with… crap, maybe I should have been listening to who had what color after all.

“Well… death.” Zero says nonchalantly.

Everyone looks horrified. It takes me half a second to catch up with them, as I missed the context, though I think I can guess what it was. Sure enough, Zero finally begins explaining how the bracelets can kill us if we don’t follow the rules. For the love of- he’s choosing to do this NOW of all times?! Oh wait, of course he is, he wants us all as stressed as possible. It’s only natural he’d choose to run down the time we have to decide who goes where.

Once Zero finishes lighting a fire under everyone’s collective backside and finally disappears, Phi quickly starts going over our options, which means I get to hear everyone’s colors again. In order for Sigma and Phi, the red pair, to access the Crew Quarters behind the cyan door, they need to go with Alice, the red solo. Which means K and I, the green pair, need to insist on… Tenmyouji. Damn, what reason can I give for that? A 19 (I think) year old girl requesting to pair up with a strange dude in his 60s. Right, no one will question that whatsoever, especially since Clover would probably be far more likely to want to pair up with Alice… hold on, maybe that’s it!

I tap Alice lightly on the shoulder from behind, and begin whispering in her ear.

Alice, we should try to gather information on these people. Don’t request me- we can find out more on different teams.

Alice seems surprised, as one might expect. “I agree that we need to figure out who and what we’re dealing with, but are you sure?”

Yes, I’m sure. I’ll ask to pair up with Tenmyouji, you ask for Sigma and Phi. We’ll have a better chance of getting our choice that way.

Alice slowly nods, and I back away, just as Phi finishes explaining the option I’m hoping we take. Luna frantically begins asking that someone pick, deferring to Sigma at first, but conveniently proceeding to suggest that either I or Alice pick once he protests being put on the spot. It sounds like she’s going to go on to suggest any of the others as well, but I don’t think I’m going to have a better time to make my move.

“I’d actually like to pair up with Tenmyouji and go through the magenta door.” I say, cutting Luna off.

Several people, including both Tenmyouji and Sigma, turn to give me bewildered looks. Multiple “Huh?”s go unheard as the announcement that we only have one minute left plays over top of them.

“Now there’s a choice I didn’t expect to hear…” Phi murmurs, crossing her arms.

“And as it happens, I’d like to pair up with Sigma and Phi to go through the cyan door, so that works out perfectly.” Alice continues, which seems to shock Sigma.

“Wha- wait, why would you want to go with-”

“What, am I not good enough for you?” Alice pouts indignantly, placing a hand on her collarbone and giving him a sly look.

“No, I just don’t understand-”

“We don’t have time to argue about this.” Phi interrupts. “That’s two people who want Option C. Does anyone have any objections?”

“That means me, Mr. Dio, and Ms. Luna would be going through the yellow door, right?” Quark asks. “I’m alright with that.”

“Yeah, think I’m all right with that as well.” Dio says, giving Luna an appraising look.

“Don’t see a reason to say no.” Tenmyouji mumbles, still looking at me with a puzzled expression.

“Ten seconds remain until Chromatic Doors close. Nine… eight… seven…”

“We need to hurry!” Luna cries, prompting everyone to make a break for it towards their doors. Thank goodness the magenta door is the closest one to where we were standing, because I don’t think I could have run to the others quickly enough in Clover’s shoes.

“Three… two… one…”

We slip into the room, just before the final announcement plays.

“Zero. Chromatic Doors closing.”

The door descends, and the three of us are swallowed by the darkness.

 

Chapter Text

For a few moments all three of us are completely blind, since the tiny room we’re now standing in has no lights. Then a dull white glow of some sort moves over the room, presumably scanning the bracelets present, before a door opens up in front of us. Breathing out a sigh of relief, I move out into a relatively clean grayish-teal hallway, K and Tenmyouji following just behind me.

Okay, I managed to make it into the bomb timeline. Just gotta hope things keep going right.

“Oh yeah- sorry for not asking for your input back there K.” I turn and say apologetically. Truthfully it didn’t even occur to me to do so, but doing so may have made things more difficult anyways, so I don’t really regret it. Better to ask for forgiveness than permission and all.

“It’s quite alright.” K replies evenly. “I had no particular preference on who to go with in any case.”

“Yeah, on that subject,” Tenmyouji interjects as we continue moving, “not that I really mind, but why exactly did you want to pair up with me?”

I place a hand on the back of my head, idly rubbing Clover’s weird hair ornaments. “I dunno… you… kinda feel familiar, for some reason? I guess I just sort of wanna know why…”

Given that Tenmyouji is in fact Junpei from 999, and knows that Clover is the girl he went through the second Nonary Game with, I think this is a pretty decent justification. Telling him he seems faintly familiar should make perfect sense, at least to the man himself, and quite neatly explain why I’d want to pair up with him.

Sure enough, Tenmyouji nods, seeming slightly cheered. “Well, I can’t say why you’d feel that way, but I do appreciate it. Thanks.”

I smile in response. Tenmyouji may be familiar with Clover, but to a much lesser degree than Alice, and a hell of a lot less recently. Any personality quirks I may show that he doesn’t remember Clover having he can probably explain to himself as having been picked up between now and the last time he saw her. Thus, I can probably relax a little.

The Lounge is just up ahead. I walk up to it, the door opening automatically upon my approach, before suddenly freezing in the doorway as several things occur to me, followed by an extremely unfortunate conclusion:

  • I just forced my way into the bomb timeline, in order to set myself on the path to the true ending.
  • In order to get here, I essentially took the decision out of Sigma’s hands at the primary timeline divergence point.
  • Sigma and Phi need to be able to access all of the timelines possible in order to train their consciousness shifting to the point that they don’t lose most of their memory upon arrival.
  • They also need to access all the available timelines to obtain the four passcodes that can stop Dio’s bombs.
  • Because Sigma did not get the ultimate say on who went where, the main timeline will not have split, and the other two primary lines will have been prevented from forming.
  • Therefore, Sigma and Phi will not be able to access them.
  • Therefore, they won’t be able to stop the bombs.
  • Therefore, SHIT.

“Is something wrong, Clover?” K asks.

I don’t say anything in response, instead simply moving into the Lounge so that K and Tenmyouji can enter. Plopping down on the nearby couch, I place the stupid folder I’m still toting around beside me and put my head in my hands, trying not to stab myself with Clover’s fingernails.

This is bad. If Sigma and Phi can’t access the timelines where they interrogated the bomb passwords out of Dio, we’re all doomed. I certainly don’t remember them, they were all just random strings of letters… actually, I think some website I checked pointed out they were key shifts of specific phrases come to think of it, but I don’t remember what those phrases are and I don’t think it was ever even mentioned in the game proper, so that doesn’t help at all.

“You okay there?” Tenmyouji asks me, sounding concerned. “You don’t look so great.”

“I’m fine. Just… give me a minute.” I answer, waving him off. “I need a moment to process things.

Tenmyouji seems to quietly accept that, and turns away, leaving me to continue thinking about how to fix my self-made crisis. Can we maybe interrogate all the passwords out of Dio in just this timeline…? No, that won’t work, the only reason he was willing to give singular ones up in disparate timelines was because he knew Sigma and Phi couldn’t stop the other bombs even if they stopped one. Frankly, that was pretty stupid of him regardless, but even if we did somehow manage to get the first three passwords out of him, there’s also the one Sigma-Zero provides, which Dio manages to never even let on about. Maybe if we prefaced the interrogation by telling him we know there are four bombs… are there enough places where the timeline splits left that Sigma and Phi can still potentially get the passwords in separate lines? There’s the ally/betray choice, then the second chromatic door choice, followed by the second ally/betray choice… so theoretically, yes. Except that without the information from the murder and sickness lines, they might not even know Dio is responsible for setting the bombs until it’s too late. If they could split the timeline at will then it might be okay, but they probably can’t do that unless the Nonary Game does it for them, since their memories don’t tend to show back up at all until...

Hold on. No, I can’t have screwed up that badly. Like I reasoned before, the Nonary Game clearly still has to come to a successful conclusion somehow, given that it’s happening in the first place. Meaning that for whatever reason, the timeline must still split enough times for everything to work out, despite my press-ganging my way into this one. Does that mean I can stop worrying?

…no, probably not entirely, but let’s cling to that thread of hope and assume as much for the moment, since I don’t really know what else to do about this otherwise.

I stand up, feeling at least slightly less apprehensive, and see that K and Tenmyouji are still examining the room. Specifically, they’re looking over the door that refuses to open, despite K’s best attempts.

“It does not seem we will be able to proceed without the key that unlocks this door.” K notes as Tenmyouji gives it a try, scowling as he also fails to budge it.

“It’s probably in the safe on that shelf, like the key to the elevator was, dontcha think?” Tenmyouji says, rubbing his back. “Clover, are you up to helping?”

I nod. “Yeah, I’m okay now.”

“Alright. Then let’s find that password.”

With that, our search begins. By unspoken agreement, K and Tenmyouji seem to decide to cluster around me so we can examine the room as a single unit. This leads to a lot more commentary than I’d honestly expected.

“Ho ho, looks like we picked the right room.” Tenmyouji smiles as we look over the bar at the many types of alcohol on display. “The door said this was the Lounge, right?”

“Correct.” K answers.

“Well, if we get any free time later, I know where I’m coming back to.” Tenmyouji says, turning to me. “Say, Clover, are you old enough to drink?”

Good question, since I have no idea what the minimum drinking age is in Japan. Not that it’s all that relevant when it comes to me.

“I’m nineteen, but it doesn’t really matter. I can’t even stand the smell of most alcohol, let alone the taste.” I tell him, crossing my arms and raising one eyebrow as I stare at him. “Why? Were you about to invite me to do something… untoward?”

“Oh, uh, not at all…” Tenmyouji grins with closed eyes, sheepishly rubbing the back of his head.

Rolling my eyes, I grab the gold needles and the little fastening piece sitting in one of the martini glasses on the bar, followed by the martini glass itself and its two brethren. Seeing no reason to hold on to the glasses for the moment, I move them over to the nearby drink mixer, placing one inside to be filled and the other two at its side.

“What do you suppose this is?” K asks, referencing the mixer.

“It’s a-” I start.

“It’s a limited edition space crusader helmet from the Clash of the Galaxies series!” Tenmyouji interrupts. “Man, I haven’t seen one of these since I was a kid.”

“…somehow, that doesn’t seem quite right to me.” I deadpan. You’d think that out of the three of us, he would be the one most qualified to know this. “I’m pretty sure it’s actually a machine for mixing drinks.”

Tenmyouji’s grin doesn’t waver in the slightest. “Even better!”

I snort. I think I was set up for that.

Since we’re already working with the drinks, I move behind the bar to take the ten bright bottles of alcohol down, placing them next to the mixer as well.

“So many varieties…” K muses. “I wonder how they taste? Not that the option is even open to me…”

“Don’t worry, I’ll test them out for you.” Tenmyouji says, grabbing up the container labeled 'ISLAND'. “Ooh, this stuff looks nice… don’t mind if I do.” He motions to take a swig straight from the bottle.

“We probably need that for a puzzle.” I tell him while grabbing the globe piece squeezed to the right of the remaining bottles. “Let’s please not trap ourselves in here by accidentally chugging the solution.”

“Aww…” Tenmyouji pouts. Wow, Junpei is still just a giant child, isn’t he?

We haven’t found the actual instructions for the drink mixing yet, so I steer our little trio over to the room’s sole table. As this is where the full globe is eventually going to sit anyways, I place the piece of it I have on the table alongside the other two.

“What’s this, an oversized hook?” Tenmyouji asks, looking genuinely confused about what the object at the center is.

“I believe it is some sort of stand.” K explains, conveniently preempting me. “These pieces appear to be parts of a small model of Earth. I would assume that once we have them all together, this is where it will be placed.”

“Ah, I see.” Tenmyouji smirks, holding his chin with his thumb and index finger. “That reminds me of my youth, back when I was on top of the world…”

“Were you now?” I ask.

“Yep. Course, then I got in trouble with my geography teacher for standing on the class globe…”

I find myself giggling under my breath at that, despite how lame it was. Weird, why is Tenmyouji being this... well, goofy? I don’t remember him being like this in the game, though I suppose I don’t remember a lot of the dialogue that happens in the escape rooms. Is it just because he’s trying to come off well to Clover? I’ll admit that the lighthearted nature of it all is making me feel a bit better… maybe that’s the point? He’s trying to lighten the atmosphere a bit; make things seem less dire. He’d probably be doing it if Quark were here too... that’s honestly kind of sweet of him, in a grandfatherly sort of way.

I move over to the back left corner, grabbing the globe piece brazenly lying in the middle of the floor. Meanwhile, K stares deeply into the couch I sat down on a minute ago, apparently really trying to find something notable about it.

“If any of us get tired, this couch could probably be used as a bed in a pinch.” he notes. “Look, it even has pillows.”

Tenmyouji hums, rubbing his chin thoughtfully before turning a smoldering gaze towards K. “Right you are. Wanna lie down and share one?”

The straightfaced eyebrow wiggle he proceeds to add causes me to actually bust out laughing. Alright, that one was legitimately funny. Tenmyouji looks pleased.

“I’ll… pass. Thank you.” K holds up a hand, looking up at the ceiling as if embarrassed.

I decide to pass on checking out the weird sun-clock thing for the moment and move on to the final section of the room. The back right corner contains a medium sized shelving unit, with the room safe sitting on it at about shoulder height. At the bottom is a two door cupboard, which I open to reveal the final globe piece and a small piece of paper. Tenmyouji picks up the page, which seems to have been ripped out of something, while I grab the final fifth of the model Earth and move back to the table to assemble it.

“This paper appears to have been ripped out of a bartender’s journal.” K says, looking over Tenmyouji’s shoulder at the page. “I assume this is meant to be part of a puzzle, though the specifics escape me at the moment.”

“Can I see?” I ask, placing the now-complete globe on its stand.

Tenmyouji hands me the paper, which I scan over. Ah, I remember this.

“Okay, so we probably just need to figure out where everyone was sitting and which drinks they had.” I say aloud. “I guess we’re supposed to just ignore the fact that the kid was also getting smashed. Anyways, with the alcohol and the mixer over there, we can make those drinks, place them on those little pads the same way the page describes, and that’ll be the end of it. So, if someone is lying-”

“Actually, would you mind if I solve this one Clover?” K unexpectedly interrupts. “There’s no need for you to do everything by yourself.”

I look over at him owlishly. “Um… sure…” I say, gingerly handing over the sheet. “Go right ahead.”

K nods, and begins looking over the page. I continue to stand and stare at him for a moment, still a little stunned, before backing away and seating myself at one of the table’s chairs. I guess I could go fiddle with the sun-clock, but… well, it seems kind of wrong to leave K out now, so I guess I’ll just wait for a bit.

While K continues to try and work out the logic puzzle, Tenmyouji sits down next to me, causing me to tense slightly.

“Looks like we’ve got a moment to relax.” he says casually. “Feeling any better now?”

“A little, yeah.” I reply, internally frowning. Damn, an unprompted conversation. Not good.

“I’m glad to hear it.” Tenmyouji smiles sincerely before it fades into a more quizzical expression. “Hey, do you mind if I ask you something?”

I hesitate for a moment, then shrug, not having a justifiable reason to say no. “Not really, I guess. Go ahead.”

“That woman, Alice. She said you two work together?”

I simply nod, not wanting to say anything that could be contradicted later.

“This might sound like a weird question, but- that jewelry she wears is real gold, right?”

I blink at him for a moment, not seeing what that question has to do with anything. “I’ve… never really asked.” I eventually reply. “I guess it could be? I hope you weren’t planning on trying to steal any of it.”

“No, it’s not that.” Tenmyouji says, looking contemplative. “It’s just… do you know where she got it from?”

I don’t get it, what is with this line of questioning? What difference does it- oh, right. All-Ice. The only big question in the series whose answer I remember being utterly disappointed in. Honestly, I guess that’s sort of a good thing. With the way that whole mystery ultimately ends up going nowhere, and is brought up all of once in this game, it probably doesn’t matter what I say about it. In fact…

“You know, now that you mention it, I don’t really know.” I say, placing a finger on my lips and looking at nothing in particular, as if trying to remember something. “She’s worn it for as long as I’ve known her, so you’d think it would have come up at some point. Weird, huh?”

Tenmyouji nods to himself, his expression stern. I hear him mutter “Thought so…” under his breath and mentally snicker. Yeah, he definitely thinks she brought it with her from her tomb.

“Why’d you ask?” I continue, figuring I’m sort of obligated to ask that as a follow up.

“Just trying to confirm a theory.” Tenmyouji mutters, waving me off. “Don’t worry about it too much.”

I let the subject drop after that, and return to absently watching K as he begins mixing drinks. Unfortunately, that little discussion has brought to the forefront of my mind something I’ve been trying very hard to ignore- namely, that it is freezing in here. I guess that makes sense, given that outside this base is nothing but the cold vacuum of space, but I wish I at least had something more to cover myself. Why the hell does Clover wear this? Or rather, NOT wear this, seeing as how her clothing encroaches on the nonexistent. Meta-wise it’s for the sake of fanservice I'm sure, but that doesn't make it any less stupid in-universe, and I don't recall it ever being explained why she went from a perfectly reasonable outfit in 999 to essentially stockings and her underwear in VLR. I suppose she could be modeling herself off of Alice, but her outfit only got a pass from me during my playthrough because it actually played into the mystery of her character- if Alice truly was All-Ice, formerly frozen Egyptian princess/queen/whatever it was preserved into the modern age by virtue of having Ice-9 in her body instead of water, then she would need to always keep her body temperature relatively high to prevent herself from “refreezing”. Her outfit, however, is notably about as far away from the concept of heat preservation as possible, and the inherent contradiction this posed made Alice’s ridiculous outfit potentially justifiable as a literal plot point. One naturally assumed that it would eventually be explained, perhaps by some sort of inherent cold resistance, or some other supernatural element not yet introduced by the series, but as it turns out, there is no mystery. Alice is NOT All-Ice, which explains why she isn’t a frozen stiff throughout the game, but also means that she has absolutely no good reason to dress that way. She does, however, have every reason to be just as cold as I am right now, if not more so. So I hope she’s silently suffering like me over in the Crew Quarters, because it’s likely her fault that two particular parts of Clover’s upper anatomy feel REALLY uncomfortably hard right now-

“Oh hey, how’d we miss this before?”

I turn around, rubbing my arms in a futile attempt to warm myself. Tenmyouji is looking at a series of partially faded black and red letters painted on to the wall behind us, which make no obvious sense in and of themselves.

“Is this some kind of code?” Tenmyouji wonders aloud, scratching his head. “RLRL could mean right-left-right-left… but what does the rest of it mean?”

If I recall, it’s actually just a bunch of letters hiding the name of one of the drinks we need to mix for the password K isn’t currently working on, which will be revealed after we do something else. I don’t particularly want us to waste time on a wrong assumption, so I’ll have to say something.

“Maybe, but I don’t think so.” I reply after taking a second to organize my thoughts. “The stand is stuck to the table, so the globe must be needed in this particular spot for a reason. I have a feeling it has something to do with those letters, since they’re the only other thing nearby.” I don’t actually remember how that specifically works, but I’m fairly certain of it.

“Hmm…” Tenmyouji looks unsure, but before anything further is said, we’re both interrupted by a robotic sounding noise of puzzlement coming from a few feet away.

“Strange…” K says, looking over the martini glasses he’s arranged on the bar. “I am certain that my logic is correct, yet nothing seems to be happening.”

“Can I see the page again?” I ask, getting up from my seat.

K hands over the journal page. “From what I can gather, the mother has a mix of Red and Planet, the father one of White and Island, and the son one of Blue and Ocean.”

I look over the page again, taking a minute or two to work out the logic from scratch. Yeah, that seems right… weird, what’s the issue?

“You have them in the right order, right?” I ask, puzzled.

“They are arranged as described.” K answers. “I re-mixed the drinks, in case I had made one improperly, but there is no reaction. Perhaps there is a button or switch that must be pressed which we are not seeing?”

“Actually, I think you just have to flip the left and the right glasses.” Tenmyouji interrupts. “The bartender is the person describing this, right? He’s on the OTHER side of the bar.”

K and I look at him, then each other, before K experimentally exchanges the positions of the two martini glasses. The screen on the right instantly lights up.

“Oh. I hadn’t even thought of that.” K says, sounding ever so slightly embarrassed. Honestly, seeing as how I didn’t remember that bit, nor did I notice it upon actually examining the problem, I don’t really think he needs to be. VLR is tricky like that sometimes.

Briefly wondering how the tech here even works that it can detect different kinds of mixed drinks (some sort of chemical analysis?), I move to the right to take a look at the screen. The screen around the code is blue… which means we somehow found the secret file password before the escape one. Again.

…how do we keep doing that?

Chapter Text

Opening the safe finds another dark gold file waiting for us inside. Funny, for some reason I half expected it to change to a silver file because K and Tenmyouji helped out. Admittedly, without the framing of a video game around this scenario that would be extremely weird, since the safe most definitely does not have the space for a triple back. But it’s weird that the folders exist without that framing at all, so I don’t think it was unreasonable of me to anticipate that.

“Another one of these…” I murmur as I remove the file from the safe. “Do we wait to look at this until later, or do it now?”

“Hmm…” K looks at me. “Come to think of it, we still haven’t even looked over the first one, have we?”

“No, I did.” I reply. “I took a quick look at it while Zero was wasting our time back there. It only has one sheet of paper in it, and all it does is explain things we already know and give useless little pieces of trivia. Feel free to take a look if you want.” I gesture in its direction.

“Actually, I don’t know if I trust that we’re not working on some sort of secret time limit.” Tenmyouji says, looking up at the ceiling. “Unless we actually need that to get out of here, I think it can wait. Do we?”

I flip the file open and scan it over. It’s a slightly better reference than the last one, but bestows roughly the same amount of new information, which is to say none at all. “I don’t think so.” I say, setting it down on top of the other before stepping forward into the corner. “If we do, it’ll only take a second to find out though. We’ve only really got one obvious item left.”

Removing the small gold needles from my pocket, I take a moment to attempt to place them in the little sun-clock thing hanging on the wall. However, even in heels, Clover is not tall enough to reach it, forcing me to stand on the couch.

“Are you certain those go there, Clover?” K asks, just as my foot nudges one of the pillows and reveals a magazine, which Tenmyouji picks up.

“Pretty sure.” I answer absently, finding a new challenge in trying to balance on the unstable surface of the couch in Clover’s shoes. “They look like clock hands, this thing looks like a clock, and I don’t see anything else in the room they could go to.” The needles click in with the fastener, proving the theory. “See? They fit.”

“Hmm. Take a look at this.” Tenmyouji says aloud, brandishing a magazine that was lying nearby. “Total lunar eclipse, December 31st, 2028, at 4:50 PM…”

I don’t even bother listening to the rest of what he says, because that’s all I really needed. I rotate the now very obvious clock needles around to 4:50, which leaves them on “Green Sun”. To my confusion however, there is no reaction whatsoever. Hmm, I’m certain that was supposed to do something. Maybe I need to activate it somehow-

An extremely bright beam of light abruptly shoots out of the center of the clock, striking me directly in the face. I cry out and flail backwards, losing my already tenuous balance as I begin to topple off the couch. My fall is thankfully arrested midway by a cold metal hand, letting K gently push me back up into a position where my face is NOT directly in front of the light.

I hear Tenmyouji stifle a laugh as I groan and sit down, squeezing my eyes shut tightly, but still seeing a big bright blob in the center of my vision. Alright, that was dumb, and not a little humiliating. How did I manage to forget that would happen when it’s probably the most memorable part of the room?

I shake it off after a few seconds, and stand up to see that the intended path of the light beam takes it right into the semi-transparent globe, which refracts it into five distinct circles of light over the letters on the wall. The globe now has the words “Blue Planet” lit up from within, while the wall reads “Red Moon”… though the four red letters spelling out “Lion” are also still visible.

“Well, looks like we have our answer.” Tenmyouji says cheerfully. “No idea what that ‘Lion’ is there for though…”

Me either, truth be told. I can’t remember all the places the whole “lion eating the sun” thing is referenced in VLR, but I feel safe in saying this is the one that makes the absolute least sense to me. If it was a solar eclipse it would be fine, but trapped inside a lunar eclipse, the “lion” it is about as far away from eating the sun as it can possibly get. Maybe I’m misunderstanding it…? Whatever, it’s not that important, and K is already mixing the next set of drinks.

A minute or so later, I key the second safe password into the safe. “Let’s see… a map…” I hand that to K. “Two keycards…” I hold on to one of them and give the other to Tenmyouji. “The key we’ve probably been looking for…” I slip that into one of Clover’s mini-pockets. “And a list of additional rules… written in Rabbitese.” I sigh lightly upon seeing that. Zero Three’s ongoing attempts at lapin based wordplay are already starting to get on my nerves.

After giving the “rules” a quick look over (which just say that any doors we’ve already opened are free for us to use after we escape the room, and anyone can go through them), we grab the secret files and move to the exit.

“According to this, we are currently on Floor A.” K notes, staring at the map. “Shall we attempt to proceed forward after escaping, or move back to the warehouse? I have no strong opinion regarding either option.”

“I say we go forward.” I reply. “Dunno how far we’ll be able to get, but we may as well try.” We can’t get past the second set of chromatic doors, but we can at least see them in advance.

“I’d like to get back to Quark, but as long as it’s quick I guess I don’t really mind.” Tenmyouji says. “Let’s just get out of here first.”

I nod, take out the key, and turn it in the lock. The door slides up, allowing us to step outside into a hallway not much different from the one we entered from. K and I immediately begin proceeding down it, but halt when we notice Tenmyouji has yet to exit the room. Just as we’re about to walk back to see what’s wrong, he finally emerges and swiftly walks over to us.

“Sorry about that. Let’s go.”

I raise an eyebrow, glancing down at the martini glass in his hand.

“What? We already got out, and I didn’t hear any rules against taking it.” Tenmyouji protests, taking a small sip of the martini. “Mmm… that is pretty good. Can’t quite place the flavor though.”

I figuratively throw my hands up and start moving down the hallway again. He has a point, there aren’t actually any rules against removing objects from the rooms they started in. I just didn’t think he’d really try and drink any of that stuff.

At the end of the hallway is an elevator. Before any of us can comment on it, the sound of loud panting, as if from a team of wild dogs, comes running up behind us. We turn to see both of the other two teams sprinting in our direction, thankfully slowing down before anyone actually crashes. Sigma is holding a golden file under his armpit.

“Uh… hey…” I greet as most of them put their hands on their knees. “Why are you guys in such a rush?”

“What, you ain’t in a hurry to get out of here too?” Dio snipes, still out of breath.

“I am, but somehow I don’t think running around like headless chickens is gonna help that much.” I reply.

“How strange… we all managed to meet up.” Luna comments, having regained her breath first. Probably by virtue of not actually needing to breathe.

“Not that strange.” Phi says. “Let me see that map.”

A quick exchange of information occurs regarding how everyone found a map in their respective rooms, and all of them exited to hallways that ultimately led here. Phi urges us into the elevator immediately after, declaring that we can share our findings later.

“Huh? Where the hell’d you get booze in here old man?” Dio asks, noticing Tenmyouji’s martini as the surprisingly spacious elevator starts heading down. “I know I could use a drink.”

“We went to the Lounge.” Tenmyouji replies nonchalantly as he takes another sip. “Turns out they’ve got a whole bar in there.”

“You’re not worried about that being poisoned?” Alice asks, hiding her probing with a semi-teasing tone.

“Eh, if we’re stuck playing this game to begin with, and whoever’s doing this went to all the trouble of making these bracelets, I doubt they did anything to the drinks. If they wanted to kill us outright, they’d have done it while we were all unconscious.”

Quark looks like he wants to say something, but is interrupted by the elevator door sliding open. We step out into a small room, and are confronted by the next set of chromatic doors. As expected, this is as far as we can go. Dio, as should have been expected, starts complaining about it.

“Oh, what the… this is exactly the same as the last floor!”

Well, if you think magenta is green, yellow is blue, cyan is red, and imagine this tiny room as a giant warehouse, sure. Exactly the same.

Sigma makes another pointless attempt to open one of the doors by force, followed shortly thereafter by Alice informing everyone that according to the watches, we have over two hours before they’re scheduled to open. Dio proceeds to throw another miniature temper tantrum about how we have nothing to do until then, which everyone else proceeds to largely ignore.

“Looks like we don’t have a choice. We have to head back.” Tenmyouji mutters. “Clover, could you show everyone that page we found?”

“Er… I don’t think I actually picked it up.” I sheepishly admit. “K, did you grab it?”

K rubs the back of his armor covered neck. “I’m afraid not… eheh…”

“If it was a page titled ‘Supplementary Rules’, we found a similar one in a safe in the infirmary.” Luna says.

“Yeah, I’ve got it right here!” Quark exclaims, fishing a folded piece of paper out of his pocket and holding it up.

“Same here.” Phi says. “According to what it says, we can get back into the warehouse now. Which only makes sense, given that we found these.” She holds up two keycards with a sun and the word ‘Ambidex’ on them. Weird, I thought Sigma was usually the designated item bearer. “Did anyone else?”

Everyone nods assent. “Just as I thought…”

“Well, since we’re on the topic of sharing things, what’s that under your arm, Sigma?” Dio asks, his tone calmer now, but still containing the suggestion of a sneer.

“Oh, this?” Sigma asks, bringing the folder out into plain view. “There was a second safe password in the crew quarters, which got us this. We think it’s like the one Clover found back in the elevators- in fact, looks like she found another one too.”

All eyes turn to me. “Well, actually K got us this one, but yeah.” I hold out the folders in my hand, displaying them like a pair of playing cards.

“Great- either of you two care to share the contents with the rest of us?” Dio prompts. “We still ain’t even seen what was in the one from earlier.”

“We already looked over the one we found.” Phi says, crossing her arms. “Sorry, but the contents are effectively useless.”

“Same here, for both files.” I add. “They pretty much only tell us stuff we already know.”

“I’ll be the judge of that.” Dio replies disdainfully.

“Fine.” Phi says with ill hidden irritation. “But let’s get back to the warehouse first. If we want to get enough BP to leave, we’ll have to return eventually, regardless of what these have in them.”

“What, and do what Zero wants?” Dio sneers. “You think I’m gonna just keep dancing to the tune of a damn cartoon rabbit?”

“Well, feel free to stay here then.” Tenmyouji remarks, looking like he’d very much like to toss the rest of his drink in the fake ringmaster’s face. “If you want to stick yourself in self-imposed solitary confinement for the next two hours, I really can’t see anyone here objecting.”

“Tch… at least it would keep me away from you, you self-satisfied old turd.”

“Well, make a decision.” Alice says as she presses the elevator button, showing that I’m obviously not the only one who thinks we don’t need to hear any more of this, “because the rest of us are leaving.”

Everyone boards except for Dio, who after several seconds of stewing wordlessly climbs in as well. When we get back upstairs, we decide to pass through the Lounge to let everyone skip a bit of walking.

“So this is the Lounge…” Alice remarks as we enter. “Looks like we managed to get in here easily enough. Which means the crew quarters should also be open.”

“The infirmary too, I’d assume.” Dio adds.

“Huh. Why are all these rooms so dark?” Sigma wonders aloud. “You’d think whoever is running this place would install better lighting.”

Well, the sun beam in the corner seems to have turned itself off while we weren’t looking, but if you’d been here when it was on? Trust me, there was light aplenty.

“The infirmary is better lit, but… I kind of like this room as it is.” Luna says, smiling and bringing her hands beneath her face. “It seems… cozy.”

“It’s well stocked, I’ll give it that.” Phi comments, staring at the bar. “These do look nice… maybe Tenmyouji has the right idea.”

After Sigma drags Phi away from the alcohol and Quark and Tenmyouji have a small, sweet little bonding moment about root beer, we exit and return to the warehouse. Zero Three is projected on the wall again, laid out with his eyes closed and a little snot bubble at the tip of his nose. Once everyone steps fully back inside and the door shuts behind us, he pretends to snap awake, rubbing his eyes and yawning. Cute.

“Oh, you’re finally done? You were taking so long I hopped off for a little nap.”

I settle in for another wait at explanation junction, hoping that this one is shorter than the last. Having to act interested as Zero slowly sprinkles bits and bobs of information in between his casual insults and name calling is not going to be easy for me if this goes on for too long.

Thankfully the AI ends up being a lot more succinct this time, and after a few minutes claims we’ll probably learn better by doing than hearing, leading the group to distribute the keycards and head over to open the AB rooms. Everyone just sort of picks at random, which lands K and I with the 3rd room to the left- the one Sigma and Phi came out of. I swipe the card, and Akane’s voice rings out over the intercom that we have 45 minutes to finish as the door slides open. I wonder why we’re given that long? Was that a planned feature before Sigma-Zero knew that the players would always need those 45 minutes for something, or- hold on, he always knew- gah, nevermind. We really don't need them in this timeline anyways, at least not right now, so-

“Hey! Guys!” Sigma’s voice yells out just as we’ve stepped inside. “Guys, get over here! We found someone!”

My veins turn to ice at the shout as K immediately rushes back outside. A moment later I run out after him, only to trip on Clover’s shoes, almost twisting an ankle as I just barely manage to catch myself on the side of one of the rooms. No... it can't be...

My stumble ends up resulting in everyone besides me making it over to the room first. I look into it just in time to see Sigma and Phi turn over a prone old woman in a purple dress, revealing a bloody, lethal wound.

Akane is dead.

Fuck.

Chapter Text

Thankfully, the shock and horror in my expression is not remotely out of place, given that that’s how most of us seem to be handling the situation.

Akane is dead. Which means I'm in either the murder timeline or the sickness timeline, NOT the bomb timeline. What did I do wrong?! Sigma, Alice, and Phi all went to the Crew Quarters, and I’m almost certain that was the line where Akane was still alive and in K’s armor. Were we supposed to find the bomb first...? No, I don't think Dio could even have planted it yet, he hasn't had the chance! In the bomb line the body wasn’t found, so everyone spent 45 minutes trapped in the AB rooms twiddling their thumbs before finding the bomb while exploring. I know I have that order of events right, so what the hell?!

Is it because I forced the choice for the chromatic doors? Assuming I outright prevented the divergence still doesn’t make much sense, but I can’t think of anything else I could have possibly done to cause this... and, ultimately, I guess it doesn’t really matter, does it. Whether by my presence or my actions, this can only have been because of me. Regardless of exactly how, I've screwed myself out of my only chance to live- the Nonary Game still clearly succeeds, but the timeline it eventually “concludes” in must have changed. I can’t reach the true ending anymore.

The others are currently tossing around theories as to who and what killed Akane, with Phi suggesting that K could have shoved his hand into her heart to kill her, Mortal Kombat style. Considering how obviously wrong that seems looking at the wound and tear in the dress, I’m not surprised that she quickly claims it was a joke, before changing the subject and suggesting we do an autopsy in the Infirmary. Everyone seems to agree on that, and thus Dio, K, and Sigma pick up Akane’s body before we all head towards the yellow door. I stay at the back of the pack, trudging after the others with my head tilted down in depression.

I'm not dead yet, but it's just a matter of time. Same for everyone else for that matter, besides those two of us here with convenient timeline jumping abilities. For Sigma and Phi, even if they don't know it, this is just another doomed world that they'll eventually have to vacate from. The rest of us, however, lack that option- we can only move forward, and make the best of the timeline we’re in. Unfortunately, the “best” we can hope for in this scenario is just slow, stagnating death as opposed to an immediate one. Or perhaps I have that the wrong way around.

When we get to the Infirmary, Akane’s body is laid down on the table with her hands clasped over her stomach. Luna uses the ADAM to scan the corpse, which turns up exactly the kind of results one would expect- death by exsanguination, caused by a knife. Or at least by a “short, single-bladed instrument”, which amounts to roughly the same thing. I wonder where that knife is now? Dio tossed it behind one of the AB rooms in one line, and if I managed to find it, I could at least end this on my own terms…

I almost slap myself. No. Absolutely not. Suicide is something I refuse to resort to, regardless of the circumstances. Think, me- it seems kind of futile to even consider it, but is there any, any way out of this? I'm pretty damn certain that every ending sans the true one will inevitably, inexorably result in the death of everyone here, and I can’t really change that. I could maybe stop Dio if we’re in the murder line, since he’s the cause of most of the deaths, but even if I somehow managed that I still can’t stop the Radical-6, nor can I stop the antimatter bombs if Dio planted even a single one of them, which he likely will have given that it was why he was here to begin with. I suppose if I could learn consciousness jumping- I think the official name was SHIFTing- it would be a different story, but even assuming I inherited Clover's esper powers, she could only send information through the Morphogenetic Field, not her consciousness.

Although... I haven’t played Virtue’s Last Reward in a while, but I think it’s mentioned that stronger espers sap the abilities of weaker ones in their nearby vicinity, which is why Clover, Tenmyouji, and possibly Alice (was she an esper? I can’t remember...) were wanted in the game at all- to strengthen Sigma and Phi. As a clone of Sigma, I assume K was also good for that when he wasn’t Akane, and Akane herself probably provided the same benefit. However, in Zero Time Dilemma, the sequel I played much more recently, it’s said that espers strengthen others in their vicinity, boosting each other’s abilities beyond where they can normally reach. Which... if true, means I may still have a chance. But those are mutually exclusive ideas; which one is-

“…you and Clover.”

I snap back to attention upon hearing Clover’s name. “Huh? What?”

“I am currently being accused of murder.” K explains succinctly, apparently understanding that I’ve been in my own little world for the past couple of minutes.

“Actually, I’m accusing BOTH of you.” Phi elaborates, her gaze shifting to me. “I admit, it’s a bit of a stretch to think of you two as accomplices. But until now, you were the only ones who’d been in that room.”

“Wha- hey, wait a second! I didn’t kill her!” I exclaim, taken aback at the sudden turn this has taken. “Neither of us did!”

“I will vouch for Clover as well.” K says. “The room contained only myself and her when we awoke within it. The woman must have been put there later.”

“But… the doors were all locked, weren’t they?” Quark asks, the question innocent but damning. “I don’t think anyone could get in without a key…”

K points out that someone could have gone in through the ceiling hatch, which Luna responds to by noting Zero said he locked them all. Of course we had to have the room Akane was found dead in. One would think this event would go better than it did in the game, since “Clover” was conscious this time and can confirm K's innocence, but evidently it just means I’m now a suspect as well. Figures.

“You fucking bastard!” Dio snarls in K’s direction. “Why’d you kill her?! I knew it, you’re him, aren’t you! You’re the real Zero!” His gaze flips to me. “And I guess that makes you Zero’s pet bitch, huh? His little fucking helper?”

I take an involuntary step back, legitimately frightened. I don’t think I’ve ever had that much raw contempt directed at me before. I know it’s fake, HE was the one who really did it, but still…

“HEY!” Alice moves in front of Dio and slaps him across the face hard enough to drive him stumbling backwards. “Back off! Clover would never do something like this. And don’t you dare call her that again!”

Dio scowls, holding his quickly reddening cheek. “So, you’re in league with them too, huh? You fuckers, I’ll kill all of-!”

“Dio! You’re crossing a line!” Sigma yells, looking ready to try and restrain him.

“Can we all calm down for a minute, please?” K asks the room. “Let’s think about this logically. Suppose Clover and I are both Zero- if that is the case, then we are the ones who brought everyone here, and set up the game we are all being forced to play. But if that is so, what reason would we have to murder this woman? If we did not want her in this game, we could have simply not brought her here to begin with. Additionally, why would we leave her body in our room? All it does is draw suspicion upon ourselves, and we wouldn't have had to.”

“Uh… well…” Dio grits his teeth, desperately searching for an answer. “Maybe you wanted her here at first, but realized she was a problem for some reason when she woke up! So you killed her, and thought you could hide her body outside, but it took you too long to get out! We were all outside already, which meant you couldn’t get rid of it!”

“Yes, but if we were the real Zero, we could have escaped before any of you by simply telling Zero… Jr, I suppose, to open the hatch.” K calmly retorts. “The AI can open any of the doors in the facility, remember? We would have had no need to take the time to find the escape passcode, and thus would have had plenty of opportunity to move the body out of our room.”

Dio doesn’t seem to have a response to that beyond gritting his teeth.

“I do believe you are correct in at least one regard, however.” K continues upon hearing Dio's silence. “Namely, that the killer is almost certainly the real Zero.”

K goes on to explain how the only logical conclusion as to Akane’s murderer is ‘Zero Sr.’, as they can open any door, and thus easily could have accessed our room. He further points out that Zero Jr. has not stopped the game, despite ostensibly being able to see everything in the facility, and thus knowing exactly who truly killed the woman. Thus, Akane’s death was an intended part of the game all along. It’s a good speech, and his logic makes sense for the most part, even if he’s wrong. But there’s a flaw in it- sure, Zero can open any door, but from what we know, no one besides K and I have had any opportunity to do this. No one could have done it while we were all in the warehouse, since we were all in plain sight of each other. Since then, we’ve all been stuck in groups of three, making an unnoticed return to the warehouse impossible. Based on the information we have, K and I technically are still the most likely killers, unless we assume that Zero Jr. was lying and Zero Sr. isn’t actually part of the group at all. Not that I point any of this out, for obvious reasons.

“Ten minutes remain before Ambidex Game polling closes.” the intercom states measuredly. “All players, please enter your votes. If no vote is recorded before the deadline has passed, any non-voting parties will automatically ally.”

With the announcement confirming that Zero Jr. really is pressing forward despite this, Phi suggests that we all head back to the AB rooms to figure out what this game is about. We move back to the warehouse and split into out pair and solo assignments again, naturally gravitating towards the same rooms we were planning on entering earlier. This is a good thing, as the first thing I notice when we step inside is the two gold files thrown carelessly on the ground. Whoops, must have dropped those earlier. I didn’t even notice I wasn’t holding them anymore.

I take a moment to pick them up as K and I move to the back of the room, noticing that the screen we got the passcodes from is lit up again. On it, there’s a short little explanation about how we’re stuck here until polling is finished, and a giant START button at the bottom. I press it, and the doors close, sealing us inside. Zero Jr. chooses that moment to make his reappearance, popping up on the panel above the elevator buttons.

“Hooray! Everybunny’s finally here! I’ve been waiting…”

K pays rapt attention as Zero begins the explanation he explicitly said he wouldn’t be giving us. “Learn by doing”, right. Well, I’m supremely confident I remember everything I really need to know about the Ambidex Game in that it's essentially just the Prisoner's Dilemma, so I feel perfectly safe in just blatantly ignoring him again. I have a bigger issue on my hands that I have yet to actually solve, due to being interrupted by an unexpected murder accusation.

As glad as I am that Zero Time Dilemma disagrees with Virtue’s Last Reward on the topic of esper power dynamics, thus granting me a potential chance at survival, I’m not thrilled that my life currently depends on the resolution to an apparent plot inconsistency. How do I resolve this…

Well, if I think about it, VLR had to be wrong if we assume both games actually happen/ed, right? Even in VLR, information seemed to occasionally get sent through time by people other than Sigma and Phi. Both Tenmyouji and… Alice? change their decisions at some point depending on what Sigma chose, which may not imply a full consciousness shift, but does imply that in the line they betray him, they were getting information from themselves in other timelines via the MGF. Neither of them can naturally do that, at least so far as the player is made aware. Even better, if Alice isn’t an esper at all then it’s almost certain that ZTD has it right, since power-by-vicinity would be the only way she would be able to use something like that, even unconsciously.

But if that’s the case, then why did this game say more powerful espers drain less powerful ones? The person who says that is… shoot, was it Alice, Clover, or Akane? Hell if I can remember… if it was Alice or Clover, I think I can assume they were just wrong, since their organization still didn’t fully understand esper powers when they were put in cold sleep. But if it was Akane… maybe she didn’t completely understand them either, despite having so long to study the phenomenon? I mean, espers aren’t exactly all that common, and once the world ended there’d be even less, particularly ones actually known to be so. It’s entirely possible Akane just went off the research that already existed, particularly considering something like THIS is needed to spur most esper powers into use, so she and Sigma certainly couldn’t have tested any theories all that easily…

It doesn’t really matter. New plan- first, pray my conclusion that ZTD is correct is itself correct. Second, pray equally that I’m currently receiving the esper-vicinity benefit of Sigma, Phi, Tenmyouji, K, and possibly Alice, so it’s possible for me to use more advanced esper skills than I should be able to (particularly since this seems like a “soul” sort of thing, and thus having Clover’s body might not help me at all). Third, figure out how to SHIFT before something inevitably kills me, and get the hell out of this timeline. I mean, if I’m putting this much stock in the third game then it shouldn’t be that difficult, seeing as how absolutely everyone manages it there, even the people with no natural esper ability whatsoever. It can’t be that hard to grasp.

I finish finalizing my revised plan of action just as Zero Jr. wraps up, leaving K and I to look at each other awkwardly as the one minute remaining announcement plays.

“Hmm. To ally, or to betray…” K says, mostly to himself. “Allying is the riskier move, requiring trust in the opposing team, but building further trust if both parties choose it. Betraying is sure to lose you nothing, and has greater potential reward, yet it all but ruins any chance of allying with the opposition in the future- at least, assuming that there will be more than one round...”

Normally, I might be debating this too. I definitely don’t remember how the AB game’s first round went down for all the different combinations, and even though I know it probably doesn’t ultimately matter in any timeline but the true one, it may still determine when this timeline ends up finishing. However, seeing as how Tenmyouji wants “Clover” to trust him…

“I think we should pick ally.” I say, breaking K from his reverie. “We didn’t get to discuss it with Tenmyouji before we started, but I think we can trust him on this one.”

“Oh? But if we betray, and Tenmyouji allies, then we would only need 3 more BP to use the number nine door.” K points out. “Surely it does not matter who escapes, so long as whoever leaves goes to the authorities about the situation?”

Ha ha, trust me, not happening. Unless the Earth invested in space police at some point, I can guarantee you there are no “authorities” to be found outside. I can’t really tell him that, unfortunately… not without casting a LOT of suspicion upon myself, anyways.

“Just… please.” I say awkwardly, crossing my arms and looking away. “You said it yourself, he’s not going to trust us if we betray him. In a place like this, it doesn’t seem like a good idea to be making enemies.”

“True…” K admits. “It does not seem as though there is a truly right or wrong answer here.”

That’s debatable, but as long as you’re wavering, we’re going with my answer.

I tap the ally button before K can discuss it with me any further, locking in our choice. Unlike Sigma, I didn’t press it at the very last moment, which makes Akane’s countdown seem a little silly honestly, as it becomes more of a countdown to the elevator doors opening than an intense, last second choice of ally or betray.

Once said doors slide apart, K heads out to see the results. I almost follow him, but pause for a moment to remove the two sheets of paper within the secret files. I fold them up and stuff them into Clover’s back pocket, placing the folders they came in at the back right corner of the room. There, much less of a pain to carry around now.

I walk outside to find that everyone already seems to have gathered near “Zero's Wall” again save Sigma and Phi, who are lingering near the entrance to their room having some sort of discussion. Zero for once seems to be waiting patiently, only calling out to the two of them once they’ve already started walking over.

“I do hope that you made the right choice, Clover.” K says quietly to me as I walk up behind him. I merely nod in response, hoping the same.

“Let’s get ready to rock!” Zero exclaims. “AM. BIDEX. GAAAAAAAAAME! Rouuuuuund one! The resuuuuuuults!”

You’d make a terrible wrestling announcer Zero, but good effort I guess.

“If everybunny would please direct their eyes to this monitor…”

A table with everyone’s names and BP in it appears in place of Zero Jr, and slowly fills itself in:

Dio + Quark: BETRAY
Luna: ALLY
Clover + K: ALLY
Tenmyouji: ALLY
Sigma + Phi: BETRAY
Alice: ALLY

I smile as I see the “ALLY” appear in Tenmyouji’s square. Looking over at him, he seems pretty happy about it too, and is already making his way over to me and K.

“Here are the results from your game! Now, lettuce check the numbers on our bracelets.” Zero says excitedly.

I give mine a cursory glance- as expected, it says I have 5 BP now. In truth the points are pretty much irrelevant, since escaping isn’t really an option, but it still feels nice. Sure, I knew most of the factors involved here, but it’s still gratifying to put your faith in someone and find out that it wasn’t misplaced.

“So… you two picked Ally, huh?” Tenmyouji asks rhetorically.

“Mmmhmm.” I answer, feeling slightly smug.

“Thanks. Seriously.” he says, looking from me to K. “For trusting me, I mean.”

“I confess, I had little to do with the decision.” K states. “Clover was the one who ultimately chose to ally with you.”

Tenmyouji gives me a subdued smile. “Thanks, Clover. BP aside, I’m just glad we don’t have to deal with something like… that.”

He motions with his neck to the other two trios, whose members are currently at odds with themselves. Luna is just about in tears, with Dio smirking back at her as Quark apologizes and protests that it wasn’t him who chose betray. Meanwhile, Alice is really going off on Sigma, who seems very confused about the fact that she selected ally. I’d feel sorry for her, but I think this was one of the times her choice is always the opposite of Sigma’s. I never liked that in the game- the fact that “pre-information” only ever seemed to result in someone betraying someone else was never not frustrating. Sigma allies with someone, only for them to betray him, so later he hops back and betrays them instead, only for them to have allied with him in that timeline, thus leading them to betray him in the original line due to that information being passed through the MGF. Or vice versa on all that, I suppose. Multiple pointless mobius loops of distrust, caused entirely by the fact that the separate options existed to begin with. Just… awful.

Once everyone is done arguing, Alice asks Zero when the next round starts. I immediately assume the pose and expression of pretending to be interested in what he has to say, since I remember this scene going on for quite a while. As one might expect, Zero acts all coy about whether or not there’ll even be another round before admitting that yes, there will be, and closing all the elevator doors. Akane’s voice speaks down from the ceiling to inform us that we need moon cards to open the AB rooms now, which Zero follows up by explaining that we’ll be having as many rounds as it takes until someone opens the number nine door. He also gleefully claims that point-wise, we might just keep going back and forth and back and forth, never getting anywhere, for upwards of hundreds of rounds. I barely stop myself from contradicting him on that- while I guess we technically could, it would probably take conscious effort to actually pull that off. A deadlock, where everyone does nothing but betray each other over and over because no one trusts anyone, seems a lot more likely to get us “stuck” than the constant vacillation Zero is proposing.

When Sigma asks some clarifying questions about the stipulations surrounding the number nine door, Zero uses them to segue into how we don’t really need three people to get through the chromatic doors, just three bracelets. Naturally, this leads to the others questioning how you can possibly take a bracelet without taking the person it’s attached to, and the annoying little AI gets all giggly as he dances around the only way to get the bracelet off without outright escaping, taunting us with information that I honestly can’t help but think is pretty obvious. Admittedly, Zero actually echoes this himself, before finally just telling everyone outright.

“You. Die.”

Again come the shocked faces and sudden flinches, which I imitate alongside everyone as Zero begins detailing the heartbeat sensor. I wonder, is there a way to trick that without resorting to the cold sleep pods? If the Infirmary has a defibrillator… though, I don’t know how you’d stop your heart on demand, so maybe not. There was something else, wasn’t there…?

Zero then makes the audacious claim that we might see some of the bracelets come off during the next round, and of course everyone asks why that would be now that they know what that implies, letting Zero steer the conversation further down the proverbial… *ahem* rabbit hole. I’m not sure why they’re letting him so easily dictate the flow of conversation, but I suppose this is kind of important for them to know.

“If I had to guess…” Zero titters. “I’d say it’ll probably be either Moony or Alas. Yep, one or the other. Ooooooor… it might even be both of them! He he he he he…”

Thus begins Zero Jr.’s final big “infodrop”- anyone who drops to 0 BP or below gets pricked by the needles in their bracelets and injected with soporil and tubocurarine, which will cause them to fall unconscious and asphyxiate to death. To my surprise, there’s no mass wave of shocked reactions this time- everyone looks unsettled, particularly Sigma, who gives Phi a wary glance, but that’s about it. Not to say no one is upset about this…

“What the hell?!” Alice yells. “This is important stuff! Why didn’t you tell us about this earlier?!”

“Awwww, I’m sorrrrrrry…” Zero mocks.

“That’s not going to cut it! I thought you were supposed to tell us the rules, not hide them!” Alice continues, perhaps rightfully furious. “Is there anything else you conveniently left out?! It’s not fair to make people play a game without explaining all the rules!”

I think it’s fair… after all, it’s not like anyone else knew… right? Right, Phido? Cleaver?”

…huh?

“Wha- what…?” I stutter out, legitimately shocked. Phi herself seems more surprised at Zero’s implied accusation of me than the one leveled at her.

“I didn’t- I didn’t know about this!” I protest. “How would I have- what?!”

Why do I keep getting tacked on to indictments that were originally aimed at other people? First that thing with K and I both being accused of being Zero, and now this? I mean, this one is at least technically correct, but how the heck does Zero know that?! Phi may have told Sigma, but I’ve said nothing...!

“Well, maaaaaaaybe not Cleaver.” Zero shrugs. “Maybe she’s just a poor reader. That means I don’t get to penalize her for spilling the beans early though, so lucky her!”

Poor reader? Reader of wh- the files.

I grab the loose papers from my pocket and unfold them, wildly scanning over their contents. Nonary Game, Card Keys, Lunar Eclipse…

[BP: This refers to ‘Bracelet Points.’ The number of BP you have will be displayed on your bracelet. If your BP is greater than 9, then you can open the number nine door and escape. However, if your BP drops below 0, then the needles built into the bracelet will activate.]

And there it is.

“Oh…” I say weakly, under my breath. “I guess it does say that…”

“Huh? What’s that?” Dio reaches over to snatch the page away from me, which I hurriedly back away from. “Hey!”

“Oy, B.O.!” Zero snaps. “I’m not done here! You can bicker with Cleaver later! Now, one last thing…”

Dio makes a sound of annoyance and glares at me, but backs off. Alice, however, gives me a look that tells me she will almost certainly be asking me about this later. Lovely.

Zero explains the bracelet color/pair/solo changes and makes us all check what we are. I’m now a magenta solo, while K and Phi are the cyan and yellow ones respectively. The pairs, meanwhile, are Tenmyouji and Alice (cyan), Luna and Quark (magenta), and Sigma and Dio (yellow). That last one is… troubling. I’m very certain Sigma was never paired with Dio in the game (man, how would the decision in the AB room even go?), meaning I now have absolutely no way to predict what’s going to happen next. Just another reason to figure out how to SHIFT quickly, before I inevitably get blindsided by whatever “ends” this timeline.

Finally, Zero bids us adieu, telling us there’s nothing more he really needs to explain from here on out. He puts on a little fake crying show while I internally celebrate- I never had any problem with Zero Jr. in the game, but having to deal with him face to face… yeah, he’s really annoying. Mostly because he’s deliberately trying to be.

“Anyways, good luck!” the little rabbit exclaims. “I may be gone, but I’m aaaaaaaaaaalways watching. Maybe I’ll see you again someday… Have a nice tragedy!”

With that parting contradiction, Zero disappears, leaving only silence in his wake.

Chapter Text

“So…” I say, breaking the quiet that seems to have descended upon the group. “Now what?”

“Yeah, we still have a while before the Chromatic Doors open.” Quark adds.

Everyone checks their bracelets to see that we have 41 minutes left before then. Wow, only 41 minutes? A single timeline of this game really doesn’t take all that long, does it? Ignoring the whole Radical-6 time perception thing, this game could be finished in less than a day.

“In that case, we should go and see if we can find any other exits.” Alice says, holding her head with one hand. “Maybe there’s a vent system, or a disposal shoot. Something Zero overlooked.”

K concurs with her, as does Dio, surprisingly.

“Let’s split up for now.” Phi suggests. “Hmm… given the contents… let’s look around for the next 30 minutes. We can regroup in front of the chromatic doors about 10 minutes before they open to share what we found.”

“10 minutes?” Dio squints. “Ain’t that a little early?”

“No. We’ll need a bit of extra time to discuss things.” Phi states cryptically. “Everyone alright with that?”

No one objects, so we all begin splitting off in different directions. I start making my way towards the Crew Quarters, wanting to be alone so I can attempt to SHIFT- except that Alice appears to be following right behind me. Ohhhhhh dear, I think she wants to have that “talk” she mentioned earlier. And no one else is walking this way… crap, I’m not getting out of this, am I?

Resigned, I enter the cyan door and head into the front-right room of the Crew Quarters, figuring that I might as well get this over with. Alice walks in after me, an unreadable expression on her face, before shutting the steel door behind her.

“This is probably about as secure a place as we’re likely to find around here.” Alice says. “So let’s talk, Clover.”

I nod, sitting down on the thin metal bed chained to the wall. Before anything else, I should probably at least try to head off any questions about what Zero was implying back there…

“Alice,” I start, “what Zero said back there about me knowing the rules- it turns out that the file we found in the Lounge said something about that, but I’d only skimmed it. I didn’t know, I swear I would have told you, I’d have told everyone-”

“Shhhh. I believe you, Clover.” Alice says soothingly as she sits down next to me, forestalling my false confession. “Before anything else- are you okay?”

Huh?

“Um… well, I guess I’m alright…” I mutter.

“Are you sure?” Alice asks, moving closer. “I can’t imagine how you feel, being forced into yet another Nonary Game. You don’t have to hold it in for my sake.”

Oh… that’s right. Clover was forced into not one, but TWO Nonary Games before this one, so she was really scared when she woke up in VLR and found herself in a third one… and I haven’t been acting like it even remotely affects me. Damn. Maybe if I fake having put on a brave face, and then let it crumble in front of her, that’ll be enough? I can’t really cry on command, but it’s the best idea I’ve got on short notice.

“I… no.” I say, adding a bit of quaver to my voice. “I’m not… I’m not okay. I can’t believe that this… that this is…”

To my surprise, my voice breaks for real, and true, genuine tears begin trailing down my face. With all the stress and panic this situation has been putting on me, maybe it shouldn’t be such a shock, but somehow it catches me off guard. Alice hugs me tightly, which I return, crying into her shoulder.

“I’m scared…” I sob. “I don’t wanna die… why is this ha- happening…?”

“I’m here, Clover.” Alice whispers, rubbing my back in soothing, circular motions. “I need you to be strong, okay? We will get out of this alive. I promise…”

 

-~.~-


-~.~-

 

A few minutes later, I’ve managed to calm down, at least for the most part.

“Thanks, Alice.” I say gratefully, wiping my eyes. “I really needed that.”

“Of course.” Alice says, smiling, only for the expression to fade a moment later. “I need you in work mode for the moment, okay?”

I assume that means she’s going to actually ask me questions now. I sit up straight and breathe in deeply, preparing myself. “Right.”

Alice’s expression shifts, becoming more… professional, I suppose. “Have you tried to contact your brother yet?”

I nod, having predicted she would ask that much. “I tried almost as soon as I woke up, and a few more times after that. It isn’t working. I haven’t been able to contact Light at all.”

While technically a lie, Clover really did have that problem in VLR. Unfortunately, in all likelihood it’s because her brother was dead by this point, whether by Radical-6, the nuclear fallout from the response, or the chaos that ensued immediately afterwards.

I hug my arms and look away. “I hope he’s okay…” I say, knowing he’s probably not.

Alice gives me another quick, warm hug. “I'm sure he's fine. Sounds like we can’t send a message to the outside though…” She brings one of her nails to her lips. “Do you still have those files you found? We found one in here too, and I'd like a closer look at the others.”

I fish the pages out of my pocket and hand them over to Alice. She scans over them briefly, taking about a minute before handing them back to me. “Those seem a little more informative than the one from the crew quarters, but I don’t see anything new.”

“Some of it was new before we finished the AB game, but Zero just told us all of it afterwards.” I reply. “So yeah, nothing helpful. I still should have noticed the bracelet point rule though…”

“I’m actually glad you didn’t.” Alice says, to my surprise. “Zero mentioned he would have penalized you if you told anyone before he did, remember? I wouldn’t have wanted you dying just to prevent me from losing a few BP.”

Oh, right. Not a rule that existed in the game, for obvious reasons. That’s… sweet of her to say, considering that her life is on the line now instead. She really cares about Clover…

“In any event, how did information gathering go?” Alice prompts me. “Did you learn anything?”

I look down. I could tell her a lot of things about K and Tenmyouji, but I think I’ll just stick to what was actually said. “Well, K is as hard to get a read on as you’d imagine. He always sounds kind of emotionless, and he still either doesn’t remember anything, or is acting like he doesn’t. He was able to solve the puzzle to get the file, so he has decent reasoning skills at least, but I couldn’t really figure out much about him.”

“That’s fine, I doubt I could have done much on that front myself.” Alice says. “What about Tenmyouji?”

“Tenmyouji seems… nice, I suppose.” I tell her, hoping my “analysis” won’t be too sparse for her. “I’m guessing you already figured out he’s probably a pretty regular drinker, and that he’s most likely related to Quark somehow?” Alice nods. “Well, he wasn’t much help solving the puzzles in the Lounge, but he did seem to be making a serious effort to lighten the mood. He kept cracking jokes about stuff, which I think was mostly for my sake.” Er… what else… “Oh, on that note, I’m not sure why, but he really seems to trust me.”

“Hmm? What makes you say that?” Alice asks.

I place a hand behind my head, wondering how to go about explaining this. “Well… remember back when K and I first came out of the AB Room, and Tenmyouji asked if I thought K was telling the truth about his memory? I said I did, and he calmed down a lot right after that, like my word somehow meant more than anyone else’s. And he said some stuff in the Lounge that kind of implied… well, I dunno. It was why I figured he’d ally, and he did. I don’t really get it, but for some reason he just… believes in me, I guess.”

“Strange…” Alice says, not seeming sure what to think about that. “Well, we’ll tentatively call him trustworthy for now then, but if you get the chance, try to find out why he’d act like that.”

I nod, essentially giving her the non-verbal form of lip service. All these lies don’t exactly feel good, but I can tell her the truth if the need actually arises, which softens the blow a little.

“Now for what I found out.” Alice pronounces. “Sigma is somehow both intelligent and clueless at the same time. He managed to figure out the passcode to get that file, and solved quite a few of the puzzles, but it took him a while to figure out a few really basic things for some reason. He’s also a bit of a perv- he was practically drooling over Phi and me, as well as a poster in the other room with scratch-off clothes. Why that was incorporated into the escape method I don’t know, but if you want Sigma to do something, seduction might be a decent bet.”

…yeah, not happening, but I’ll be sure to keep that in mind, thanks.

“There’s also something else about him that’s incredibly… you know what, I’m sure Phi will be bringing it up, so I’ll let you find out with everyone else in a bit. It’s hilarious.” Alice says, stifling a laugh. “As for Phi… she was a lot more difficult to get a read on. It didn’t help that we were all investigating separate rooms- Sigma was in and out a lot, but I barely saw her. Honestly, at the moment I’m more wary about her than anyone else here. Try not to get grouped with her if you can help it.”

I nod again. That’s probably fine. Not exactly difficult this round, since it’s literally impossible with us both being solos.

“That’s about it, I think.” Alice concludes as she stands up, her back to me. “But… there is one more thing, Clover.”

I don’t like the tone she said that in…

“What’s that?” I ask nervously.

“When you and K first came out of the AB room… you told me his name was K. But when he finally introduced himself, it sounded like he’d only just come up with it.”

Damn. I’ve been praying she hadn’t noticed that...

Before I can try to babble out some pathetically inadequate excuse, Alice continues. “Also, just now you walked directly here, without any prompting from me. How exactly did you know this is where I wanted to speak with you? I hadn’t told you yet, and this should be the first time you’ve even seen the crew quarters.”

My mouth hangs open. I didn’t even think about that- I just walked to where I remembered Clover and Alice talking early on in the game automatically. I screwed up… there’s nothing I can really tell her.

Alice turns and focuses on me, causing me to cringe. “Clover… are you seeing the future?”

That was not the question I was expecting. Is she thinking that…

“I… maybe?” I start tentatively, latching on to her idea. “This does all feel kind of… vaguely familiar, actually. You’re right- I don’t know why, but I somehow just sort of… knew K’s name, and that we’d be coming here to talk… do you think it’s esper related?”

Alice smirks. “I think I can say for certain it is, actually. Congratulations, Clover.”

I look up, doing my best to seem confused. “Congratulations?”

“Up until now, you’ve only been able to resonate with Light through the morphogenetic field.” Alice states. “This is the next step up- you’re resonating with yourself through parallel worlds.”

I’m not sure what expression is appropriate to make in response to that, so I just keep my look of slight confusion plastered on.

“SOIS hasn’t seen it much, but we know that it’s possible.” Alice continues. “Seems you’re a stronger esper than we thought…” She trails off, looking thoughtful. “Unless…”

I tilt my head to the side. “Unless?”

“Do you remember what you were taught back at the base?” Alice asks. “About what happens if espers are placed in close proximity to each other?”

“You mean how some espers get stronger around others?” I say, trying to be as vague as possible about how I word my answer, as I have no idea the depth of Clover’s actual knowledge on this subject.

“Right- but more specifically, the stronger ones absorb the power of the weaker ones, leaving only one person able to truly use their abilities. It’s why we kept the other receiver-transmitter pairs almost completely separate from you and Light.”

I shift uneasily at that, disliking the reminder of how VLR describes esper group mechanics. Given that I’m currently banking on that not being true, I can only hope that Alice is just plain wrong here. Guess this means it probably was either Alice or Clover who explained this to Sigma in the game though.

“Do you get it?” Alice asks. “If you’re stronger than usual, then that means…”

“…that there might be other espers in this game.” I finish for her, receiving a confirmatory nod in response. “Do you think that could be a problem?”

“Honestly, given the reasons the first two Nonary Games happened, I should have considered this before now.” Alice says, berating herself. “But no, I suppose it shouldn’t matter that much. If you’re the one receiving the benefit, other nearby espers shouldn’t be able to use their abilities anyways. I don’t know why whoever put us here would want that, but we can definitely use this to our advantage. If you ‘remember’ anything else-”

The door swings open. Sigma stands there, obviously not having expected to find the two of us in here, at least if his stupefied expression is anything to go by.

“Oh, uh. Hi? What are you two doing in here?”

“Nothing that important.” Alice says as she moves to leave. “If you’d get out of the way?”

Sigma awkwardly stands aside to let Alice by. She turns back and looks at me briefly, giving a parting wave.

“Talk to you later, Clover. Make sure to inform me if there are any new developments regarding what we discussed, okay?”

I smile and nod eagerly. “Right!”

Alice walks away, and I hear the door down the hallway open and shut behind her. Sigma is, quite irritatingly, still hanging around in the door.

“So, what were you two talking about?” he asks.

I raise an eyebrow. Like it’s any of his business?

“I don’t know Sigma. Girl stuff? Maybe coworker stuff? Not to be rude, but it really doesn’t involve you.”

“Er, sorry. I was just curious…”

I roll my eyes. “Right. So are you just going to hang around in the door all day, or…?”

“Well, no, but could I talk to you for a bit?”

Ugh, he’s not going to give this up, is he? I check my bracelet for the time- still 20 minutes or so until we need to head downstairs. “Fine, I guess. What about?”

“Well…” Sigma casts his eye(s) around the room. “Have you found anything yet?”

“If I had, I would have told you when you walked in.” I tell him. “I haven’t really gotten to look much yet. I was too busy having a minor breakdown for the past few minutes.”

“O-oh. Sorry. Guess being stuck in a situation like this must be hard on someone like…”

He trails off, probably realizing how insulting it would sound to finish that sentence. I let it go, since he’s not really wrong. Someone that knows every bad thing that could potentially happen in this game, trapped in a body not their own, whose life currently rests on mastering a skill they have no experience with and which they might not even possess within a very limited time frame- yeah, this IS hard on me, thanks. And you’re not making it any easier by wasting an increasingly large chunk of said time.

“Sigma, I’m sorry, but I really do have stuff I need to get done.” I say in the ensuing silence, exasperated. “I know that sounds ridiculous given the situation, but I’m serious. Could you please go talk to someone else for now?”

“Stuff? What do you mean, ‘stuff’?” Sigma asks.

“Just- stuff, okay?!” I almost shout, my temper beginning to fray. “I can’t really explain it to you, so don’t ask. You’ll probably figure it out on your own eventually anyways- god I hope so, at least. Now could you PLEASE stop bothering me?!”

“Wait, what is that supposed to-”

I leap up and throw the door shut again, giving Sigma just a moment to move back and avoid having it slam into his face. Screw off already you overly-persistent jackass! I get that you’re not trying to be a nuisance but you are really, REALLY being one right now!

I hold the door shut for a few moments, but the handle remains unturned. Presumably, Sigma finally figured out he wasn’t going to be getting any pleasant conversation out of me right now and left. Finally…

I sit back down on the uncomfortable “bed” and close my eyes. Alright, I’m alone. Now how did they do this… I don’t recall the specifics, but I need to think of both where and when I want to be, right? While I would love to skip straight to the part where I’m no longer in this game, I should probably start small if I want this to work- how about just before we entered the first chromatic doors? Is that exact enough? That’s one of Sigma’s “nodes” so I’m going to assume yes.

Concentrate… concentrate…


A short while later, I peek my eyes open, and am once again confronted with the dingy, dull green walls of the Crew Quarters.

Yep. I'm screwed.

Chapter Text

I force myself to breathe deeply through my nose, trying to calm myself down.

This is bad. I've now tried thinking of different times, different places, tried to envision my "soul" moving out of my body, and even attempted to recall the information from back when I was trying to induce an out-of-body experience in hopes that it might somehow help. I’ve gotten absolutely nowhere thus far, as the fact that I’m still here plainly attests. Damn it, am I really even doing anything right now? Or am I just sitting here ~imagining~ myself getting shot into a different timeline while not doing anything that would actually accomplish such? How would I even tell the difference for something like this? It’s not like I’ve ever done this before; I don’t even know what it feels like to “resonate” with someone, assuming it feels like anything at all.

Again the thought strikes me that this might not be working because esper powers don’t work the way I’m reasoning, and I just plain don’t have the capability to do this. But that’s not particularly helpful, so I discard the thought almost immediately in favor of trying to figure out what else could potentially be the problem. Let’s see… could it be the lack of pressing danger? That's supposedly what usually triggers a SHIFT, but given my foreknowledge of what lies ahead, I feel like this whole situation should qualify as danger aplenty. If not that though... I suppose in ZTD’s penultimate scene, everyone was holding on to each other when they mass SHIFTed out. Do I need to be in even closer proximity to other espers for this to work? Maybe I should grab hold of Sigma and Phi or something, and then try. Now I kind of wish I hadn’t chased Sigma off…

I check the time on my bracelet. Fifteen minutes left, so five minutes until Phi’s meetup time. I guess I’m not making much progress like this anyways- I might as well head down now, and keep trying once I get there.

I stand, finding myself again thinking how nice it would be to kick Clover’s shoes off entirely (if only the floor wasn’t so cold), when my eye catches on the aluminum foil sheet covered by the glass top of the “table” to my left. It was presumably used by Sigma’s group to solve some sort of puzzle when they were trying to escape from here, but something about it strikes me as important for a reason beyond that. Didn’t someone do something with this at some point...?

My eyes widen as I remember. Yes, someone most definitely did- in Luna’s ending, she used this to remove her and Sigma’s bracelets. Aluminum foil can fool the heartbeat sensor. That was the method I couldn’t think of earlier!

I open the glass cover and carefully pull out the foil underneath. I can’t really take the bracelet off without causing a major commotion with everyone else, and in truth there’s not any pressing reason for me to do so right now anyways… but, as Tenmyouji pointed out, there’s no rule preventing us from taking things from the rooms. So, just in case…

I carefully fold the aluminum over on itself, trying to keep the sheet as intact as possible, and slide the resulting square into my empty back pocket. I gotta say, I’m getting way more use out of Clover’s short shorts than I would have thought possible just a few hours ago. The rest of… her is still pretty inconvenient to be stuck with, but at least carrying things has somehow yet to be an issue. Plus the material is tight enough across the rear that I’m pretty sure the aluminum and papers won’t get crumpled or torn, which is… alright, that’s kinda reaching. I’m looking for any positives I can find at this point.

I briefly check out the other three rooms of the Crew Quarters before I go, making sure there aren’t any bombs hiding under the beds, but find nothing. I suppose I didn’t really expect Dio to set any, seeing as Akane is dead, but I’m glad I checked. Sure, I probably couldn’t do anything about it even if I’d found one, but I’d still rather know than not.

I end up bumping into Luna and Phi on my way back to the elevator. Though it’s somewhat hard for me to tell given that her default expression is a frown, Phi appears to be distinctly unhappy about something.

“Something wrong Phi?” I ask as I fall in step with them, vaguely curious.

“No.” Phi bluntly replies. “Clover, you still have those files, right?”

“Yeah, they’re in my pocket.”

“Did you look at them already?”

I squint at her. “Of course I did. I mean, I just skimmed the second one at first, but I looked at the whole thing later. Why?”

“Just wondering. Can I see them?”

Figuring it can’t really hurt, I pass the pages over. Phi raises an eyebrow.

“Where are the folders these were in?”

“In one of the AB rooms where I left them.” I huff, starting to get annoyed. “Any reason for the sudden interrogation?”

Phi says nothing as we walk into the elevator and begin to descend, too engrossed in the documents to bother responding. Figures. I’m not getting those back, am I…?

Emerging from the elevator on the floor below, we find Alice, and surprisingly Sigma have beaten the three of us here. The latter gives me an odd look as I walk in, probably due to how our last encounter went. Yeah yeah Sigma, I’ll apologize later, assuming I’m still alive to give you one.

“Hey guys.” he eventually says. “Or, well, girls.”

“Hello Sigma.” Luna greets back.

I stay quiet, instead simply giving Alice a silent wave, which she returns.

To my surprise, Phi does in fact hand back the files I gave her, before finally looking around and noticing we’re still short a few people. “We’ll wait until the others arrive to start- no point in going over all this twice.”

The room falls silent in record time. Shrugging, I put the papers away and sit myself down in front of the red chromatic door before closing my eyes to make another attempt at SHIFTing. Hopefully just having Sigma and Phi in the same room as me will be enough, since I don’t really want to try justifying my sudden and inexplicable need to grab hold of the two of them.

Come on… come on… work…!

“…heh. Stuck in a small room, surrounded by four beautiful women.” Sigma suddenly says, breaking my concentration. “This is like a dream come true. Don’t worry ladies, there’s plenty of me to go around...”

I open my eyes to glare at him for that. Phi makes a disgusted noise, Alice glares right alongside me, and Luna very quickly looks away. Sigma just grins sheepishly in response. Ugh, dude, even if you WERE still in your 20s like you think you are, how exactly did you expect a room of girls- well, three girls and one “girl”- would react to that kind of skeevy non-joke? Keep it to yourself, if you absolutely have to think it.

Thankfully, the awkward air Sigma just put in place is broken when the elevator door opens up again a moment later, revealing K, Tenmyouji, and Quark.

“Where’s Dio?” Phi asks as they walk out to join us.

“Do we really care?” Tenmyouji “mutters” loud enough for the entire room to hear.

“We informed him that we were heading down here, but he did not seem to regard it as particularly important.” K says.

Phi looks vaguely annoyed by that. “Fine. Guess we’ll start without him then. First off, seeing as how no one has said anything yet, I assume that none of us found a way out?” she asks, waiting for everyone to regretfully confirm this to be so before continuing. “In that case, did anyone happen to find anything else that could be important?”

As the discussion begins, I resume my efforts, albeit with my eyes open now. It’s hard to concentrate what with all the talking, but with everyone important gathered in one place this is my best chance to pull this off. Come on, SHIFT! Do it, me!

“Well, there was a newspaper clipping in the Infirmary.” Luna contributes. “It was an article that mentioned a plague called Radical-6 sweeping the land, killing off tens of thousands of people.”

“A plague…?” Phi mutters, looking thoughtful.

“Does that mean we’re in some sort of quarantine?” Sigma asks.

“I doubt it.” Alice replies. “If this is all for our safety, it doesn’t really make much sense that we’re being forced to play a game that could kill us. Besides, a disease that dangerous would have made national news. Has anyone here ever heard of it until now?”

Silence and a smattering of no’s is the response. Alice crosses her arms. “Didn’t think so. For all we know, that article was planted by Zero to throw us off the trail of whatever is really going on here. On another note, K, want to share what we found out?"

K nods. “It seems as though we may all have been unconscious for quite some time." he says solemnly. "While I cannot remember my own kidnapping, Alice and Sigma were abducted on two different days.”

The statement prompts the two of them to share which days those were, which Phi nods in agreement with.

“I wasn’t taken on either of those days.” she says quietly. “We can’t have been out too long though, or our muscles would have degraded... anything else?”

“Well, the infirmary has both soporil and tubocurarine in stock, not that we need any more of those.” Tenmyouji puts in. “Doesn’t look like the place has been used too much. Far as I could tell, everything is fully stocked.”

“Yes, I noticed that as well.” Luna adds. “It’s very well supplied- you should be able to treat anything short of a fatal injury there.”

“Well, maybe you could.” Tenmyouji replies. “None of the rest of us have medical training-”

The elevator door opens again, and Dio swaggers in like he owns the place, halting all conversation as everyone naturally turns to look at him.

“What? I’m here before the doors opened.” he says defensively, shrugging. “I miss anything?”

Phi just looks at him for a moment, her expression unreadable, before replying. “Not really. We were just about to discuss the files you were so interested in earlier.”

“Oh, so we’re FINALLY going to be allowed to find out what’s in those things, huh?” Dio places a hand on the tip of his hat and smiles smugly. “‘Bout time.”

“Unless anyone had anything else to add?” Phi inquires, eyes sweeping the room. “We’ve only got a few minutes left until the doors open, so make it quick.”

No one has anything to say, least of all me given that I’m sort of occupied at present moment, so Phi continues. “Alright then.” she says, withdrawing a golden folder from within her clothing… and immediately handing it to Sigma. “Sigma, you take over.”

“Wha- why me?!”

“I’ve done the talking up until now.” Phi answers plainly. “Now it’s your turn.”

In other words, she doesn’t want to be in charge for the moment. Fair enough I suppose, I wouldn’t want to be doing all the talking either.

Sigma stumbles over his words for a second before starting in. “Okay. Uh… if everyone remembers, Zero Jr. called these ‘secret archives’.” he says, brandishing the folder. “They seem to have been placed inside the room safes, and are accessible through an alternative combination you can find in each room. We have three of them right now- unless someone got the one from the Infirmary?”

Phi speaks up again. “I tried, but couldn’t. I’d guess we’ve been locked out since the initial team to go through didn’t get it while escaping.”

“Oh… I’m sorry…” Luna apologizes.

“It’s okay Luna.” Sigma reassures her. “I’m not really sure how helpful these are anyways…”

“What do you mean?” Dio says crossly, pointedly glancing at me. “That rabbit sure as hell kept acting like they were, didn’t he?”

“Well…” Sigma waffles. “…you’ll see. Anyways, inside each one is a single page of paper with small tidbits of information on it.” An embarrassed expression crosses his face as he apparently considers something. “Uh, why don’t we start with the ones Clover has, since she found the first one.”

Everyone turns towards me, causing me to send Sigma another glare. Really? You’re passing the buck to me now? I’m already racing the clock as it is. Gah…

I have a large sigh and stand up, pulling the files out of my pocket and unfolding them again. “The one from the AB room was basically just an overview of terms about the Nonary Game. It’s literally all stuff Zero told us about immediately after we got out- well, what isn’t random trivia and bad jokes, anyways.”

I pass the page to Tenmyouji on my right, with the intention of having the group pass it around to look at. “The one from the Lounge is essentially the same thing- we all know pretty much everything in it already. If you were wondering what Zero was talking about earlier, it does mention the death-by-BP thing, but I didn’t do more than skim it before leaving the Lounge, so I didn’t know. Tenmyouji and K can back me up there.”

I pass the page to Luna this time, on my left. I didn’t really have to tell them that bit about the BP thing, since no one even has asked about it since then, but I’d prefer to cover my bases.

“Sigma, back to you.” I say as I sit back down and resume my silent endeavor.

Sigma fidgets, looking somewhat embarrassed. “Er… could everyone just take on faith that the only important thing we found in the archive from the crew quarters is that there are seven types of Chromatic Doors? The rest of it is kind of useless, not to mention boring-”

“Oh but Sigma, that’s not at all true.” Alice cuts in, making Sigma appear to briefly panic. “It also mentions something called ‘Erotic Units’ and Tenmyouji’s collection of adult films, doesn’t it?”

Tenmyouji stumbles in place, while Sigma looks visibly relieved. “Well, yeah, but those aren’t really that important, do you think?”

“Well, it also has that adorable little cat story, which I personally found very entertaining.” Alice says with a devilish grin. “I’m sure everybody would love to hear it.”

“Ah… I don’t think-”

“Here, I’ll even read it out.” Alice says, swiping the folder from Sigma’s hands. “Ahem- Sigma has a strange verbal and possibly psychological tic which causes him to make cat puns whenever he talks about cats…”

The files make it back around to me, and I stow them back in my short shorts as Alice proceeds to regale us with a bizarre little tale explaining the “origin” behind the cat speak tic I’d forgotten Sigma even had, involving magic cats, curses, and a literal happily ever after ending. The room is quiet once she finishes, until Sigma suddenly decides to speak up.

“I know that all sounds crazy, but it’s true! Really!”

Most of the group openly stares at him. I don’t think anyone in here expected him to defend what Alice just read out, Alice included.

“Seriously?” Dio snickers. “You’re telling me you can talk to cats, and can’t help but talk like a cat whenever they come up in conversation? Have you gone senile?”

Sigma blushes like a schoolgirl, prompting Phi to interject. “Whatever the cause, he really does have a verbal compulsion- it came up while we were trying to escape the crew quarters. Funny as it may be though, combined with that bit about Tenmyouji’s ‘videos’, I don’t like what this implies. How many people have you shared that story with, Sigma?”

“…just the girl in the story, and my parents.” Sigma mutters. “It was private…”

“In other words, it seems whoever put us here knows some very personal things about us.” Phi concludes. “Things they probably shouldn’t be able to know.”

An uneasy air descends upon the group, though to my knowledge at least half of the people present pretty much have to be faking their unsettled expressions. Before the feeling can linger for too long however, an activation sound cuts through the room. I’m forced to stand again as the door at my back slides up, and the five minute warning announcement plays. Oh no, I’m running out of time!

“Looks like we’re out of time to talk about this.” Tenmyouji states as I attempt to double down on my SHIFTing efforts. “We need to decide who’s going with who.”

“Yes, but who should decide that?” K asks. “As with the last round, a single choice will automatically make everyone else’s for them.”

“I think those of us with the least BP should get to decide.” Alice declares. “I mean, they’re the ones at the greatest disadvantage, so it only seems fair.”

“Convenient that you happen to be part of that group...” Sigma quietly comments.

“And whose fault is THAT?” Alice scathingly retorts, quickly shutting Sigma up.

“Hey, wait a minute.” Dio complains. “Why should you pick? You got your choice last time!”

“Maybe we should at least go over our options before we start arguing.” Tenmyouji growls.

God damnit, this isn’t working, and all the noise going on around me definitely isn’t helping. Do I wait until we finish these rooms and hope I get a less conspicuous chance to do this before somebody ends up dead, or just go for Plan Grab and pray I’m successful? Phi isn’t even close enough to Sigma right now for the latter option to work, but I guess I could just forcibly drag one of them over to the other. Then again, I’m not confident that I could even manage that in this body, and how the hell would I explain myself it doesn’t work? It would definitely make them suspicious of me, which would likely ruin any chance I might get to try properly later…

Phi is rapidly summarizing our options again, but I already know that my personal options for the round boil down to either going with Luna and Quark through the green door, Alice and Tenmyouji through the blue door, or Sigma and Dio through the red door, and so spend the time warring with my indecision instead. Unfortunately, I still haven’t come up with my answer by the time she finishes.

“Now that that’s settled, I’m going with Clover this time.” Alice says, the mention of my current namesake temporarily pulling my attention back to the conversation. “I trust her far more than I do any of the rest of you.”

“I like that option too.” Tenmyouji adds. “After last round, I think I can trust Clover not to betray me.”

I briefly acknowledge the two of them with a small smile, despite my inner anxiety. Sure, they’re only partially basing that judgment on things I actually did, but it does feel nice to be the first choice.

“Afraid I can’t say the same for you, K.” Tenmyouji continues as I go back to attempting to debate the pros and cons of my options. “You did tell me it was mostly her decision after all.”

“That’s alright.” K replies neutrally. “I would rather not go with Alice in any case, nor Luna for that matter.”

“Oh… how come?” Luna asks, sounding marginally hurt by the comment. “I was hoping to go with either Clover or you, since you two chose ally last round.”

“It’s nothing personal.” K assures. “Both of you only have 1 BP, so I highly doubt either of you will be willing to risk allying next round. Even if you promised you would, I would not necessarily be able to trust that. But if I betrayed to protect myself, and you kept your word, I could… kill you. There is much less risk if I pair up with Sigma and Dio, who both have 6 BP.”

“Well, that’s too bad.” Dio smirks. “Because I want to pair up with Clover.”

My head snaps around. What the heck? Alice, Tenmyouji, and even Luna I understand, but Dio?

“Like everyone keeps saying, she chose ally last round.” Dio smiles, holding the brim of his hat up. “I think I like the sound of that. A round where I don’t have to worry about being betrayed would be pretty nice.”

“I didn’t realize I was such a hot commodity.” I can’t help but say aloud. And if he thinks I wouldn’t betray him in half a second, he’s got another thing coming.

“You do want to come with us, right Clover?” Alice prompts.

I cross my arms and consider for a moment. By now, I think I’ve made up my mind- risking everything on a single chance is a last resort sort of deal. As dire as things will likely very soon be, no one’s been knifed (bar Akane) or succumbed to the suicide plague thus far, and we haven’t discovered any bombs, so we haven’t reached that point just yet. By default, that means I’ll be proceeding through the next puzzle room and waiting for a better opportunity. But, as I’d kind of been counting on having escaped this timeline by now, I haven’t really thought about who I’d prefer to team with. I suppose since the Alice situation is mostly resolved, I don’t need to be as worried about pairing up with her as before, so I guess…

“Yeah, I’d like that.” I reply, trying to put some enthusiasm in my voice. “I mean, you’re my first choice, but honestly I guess I‘d be okay with Luna and Quark’s group too. So long as I’m not stuck going with Dio, I think I’m alright.”

“Hey!” Dio snarls. “The hell’d I ever do to-”

“You really think I’ve forgotten about what you said back in the infirmary?” I shoot back before he can even finish. “You’ve been nothing but rude and accusatory towards me this entire time; why would I ever want to pair up with you?”

“Then that’s four votes for Option B.” Phi notes as the one minute reminder plays. “I’m fine with that, so Sigma, Quark, unless you have something to add, that’s what we’re going with.”

“I don’t really mind.” Quark says. “I’d be okay going with Miss Clover, Miss Phi, or Mister K.”

“And I guess that means my vote doesn’t really matter, huh?” Sigma says, looking away with a hand behind his head.

Uh oh. Sigma not getting to choose again? Maybe I should have betrayed last round after all, because I’m really screwing with the timeline splits now.

“Wait a second!” Dio objects. “That means we’re stuck with the robot!”

“As I have said before,” K states in a firm tone, “I am not a robot. I would appreciate if you would stop referring to me as such.”

Dio glares scornfully in his direction. “Well, you sure as hell look like one. Either way, I don’t see why Sigma and I should have to pair up with the walking tin can.”

“Perhaps I was wrong to suggest this then. I will say that while you were my first choice, you are quickly making the others seem far more appealing.” K responds in about as harsh a manner as I’ve yet heard him use.

“Just deal with it!” Phi shouts as the ten second countdown starts. “Time’s almost up! Get through the doors!”

With no time left to figure out something else, our groups quickly hurry past the primary doors and into the small scanning rooms. The concluding countdown only serves to remind me of the noose rapidly tightening around my neck, and the sound of the door sliding closed feels a lot more final this time.

I hope I made the right choice…

Chapter Text

Once the secondary door releases the three of us, it doesn’t take long before we come to a three door nexus with a suspicious looking lever at the center. Alice and Tenmyouji banter for a bit regarding who exactly is going to activate said device, which Tenmyouji eventually ends up losing. He pulls the lever with seemingly all the bitter crankiness that he can muster, but the brewing bad mood is forgotten entirely the moment we step into newly unlocked room.

I find myself marveling right alongside my teammates as we take a proper look around the area we suddenly find ourselves in. Before us is a startling beautiful landscape of greenery and rushing water. A giant tree stands to our right, while in front of us is a small stream, fed by a miniature waterfall that falls from a wall of rock. The stream winds around the room, followed by a narrow boardwalk that lends the image of a pleasant garden path. The only thing that breaks the atmosphere are the strange, transparent seeming panels that make up the “sky” that hangs above.

Seems we ended up going down the route that grants access to the B. Garden, which looks rather more majestic in person than it did in the game, not to mention a hell of a lot bigger. Compared to the rest of the base, it’s also remarkably pleasant- I feel relaxed by the mere ambiance, and that’s coming from someone who doesn’t really spend much time outdoors. The fact that it’s far warmer in here than everywhere else has been thus far also helps.

“Where ARE we?” Alice asks aloud, not seeming to really expect an answer as she turns in place. “We can’t be outside, I can see the ceiling.”

“Dunno.” Tenmyouji replies anyways. “The panels up there make me think of a greenhouse, but the door said it was some sort of garden. Wonder what it’s for.”

“Growing food, maybe?” I say absently, pointing to the small patch of growing vegetables a little ways past the tree. “Though I guess that looks more like someone’s hobby garden than anything else, so maybe not.”

“Well, here’s the exit.” Tenmyouji says, turning to the door to out left, the safe sitting out in plain sight on the floor beside it. “Think maybe they forgot to lock this one?”

As it turns out, no, they did not forget. I guess the cursory attempt just felt necessary, even though we all pretty much assumed it wasn’t going to work.

“This place is huge.” Alice notes, seeming slightly exasperated by that fact. “We should split up to search, or we’ll never get out of here.”

“Agreed.” Tenmyouji nods.

I hesitate, but ultimately end up nodding as well. I’d actually been planning on letting them take charge for this room so I could keep concentrating on my increasingly futile-seeming efforts at SHIFTing, but I may have to help here in order for us to even finish in time. While there isn’t any nominal time limit, if I remember correctly Dio is going to open an AB room the second he gets back, which will get our entire trio executed if none of us are there to enter a vote in time. Guess I was getting tired of failing anyways. Maybe a break will help…

Following the miniature boardwalk, Alice heads off towards the back of the room, while Tenmyouji advances towards the tiny waterfall in the corner. After quickly looking around for anything of interest and finding nothing beyond a weird panel in the wall with an x-shaped hole in it, I follow after, heading for the small shed just past Tenmyouji. I don’t remember much about this room, but I know there was digging and metal detecting involved, so the shovel I can see in there seems like a decent place to start.

Hefting the seemingly unused digging implement, I also notice a small bronze key lying on the ground, and subsequently pocket it. Moving forward brings me to what looks like a large signpost displaying an overhead map of the garden, which Alice is currently standing in front of, muttering to herself.

“Alice?” I say as I approach, breaking her from her contemplation. “Something wrong? Beyond the obvious, I mean.”

“Oh… not really, Clover.” Alice assures me. “It’s just… who would install all of this in the middle of a warehouse? Why would someone build this here?”

Probably so that they didn’t go stir crazy from being stuck on the moon and unable to go outside for years on end. I mean I’m sure there’s a purpose beyond that, but that’s the one that immediately comes to mind.

“Hmm… well, in any event, what do you suppose this means?” Alice asks, changing the subject as she takes a closer look at the map. “This map looks like an aerial view of the room, but these drawings on the right have to be important. They take up more space on the sign than the map itself.”

I give it a quick look. There are pictures of grass, a mushroom, and a flower, each with an arrow beneath it pointing to a differently colored metal box. Seems pretty obvious to me.

“Well… I found a shovel. It could be like a treasure map.” I point out. “The boxes are the chests, and the pictures are the Xs that mark the spot.”

Alice gives the idea a few seconds of thought. “Hmm. Not a bad idea… there’s that mushroom near the entrance, so that’s probably one of them. But what does the grass mean? There’s grass everywhere in here, so how does this indicate any-”

A sudden cry of surprise rings out from our left, cutting Alice off as she and I both quickly swivel in its direction. The source appears to have been Tenmyouji, who’s still over near the waterfall, clutching at his pants for some reason. We both run over to him- well, hastily tiptoe over in my case, as I’ve yet to figure out how to run in heels- alarmed.

“What happened? What is it?” Alice asks, slowing down as it becomes evident that Tenmyouji isn’t actually hurt.

“Nothing. I just found out how stupidly this bench is designed is all.” Tenmyouji grumbles, gesturing behind him.

“What’s wrong with it?” I inquire.

“Just sit down if you wanna find out.” Tenmyouji vaguely replies. “Anyways, have you two found anything yet?”

“A map to buried treasure, possibly.” I respond, raising the shovel. “And also something to dig it up with.”

“Really now?” Tenmyouji says, looking intrigued. “Interesting… who’s gonna be doing the digging then?”

“Are you volunteering?” Alice replies with a semi-playful tone. “I mean, Clover and I are both women, after all. Surely you don’t expect us to do it.”

I look away. While I wouldn’t exactly object to having someone else do the manual labor part of this, the reminder of my current sex wasn’t exactly necessary.

“Yeah, well, I’m almost 70 years old.” Tenmyouji retorts, raising an eyebrow. “So surely you don’t expect me to do it either. Unless you’re a whole lot older than you look...”

“Hmmph, as if I’d share my age with you.” Alice sniffs haughtily. “It seems we’re at an impasse then.”

…I think this is just good natured teasing right now, but I also think I should cut this off before it turns into an actual snit.

“Um, there are three spots you know. Maybe we could all just do one each.” I suggest, which earns a sort of tacit approval when no one objects. “Anyways, have you found anything Tenmyouji?”

“Eh… so far, just this weird looking pipe.” Tenmyouji replies, lifting up a small length of metal with a strangely octagonal head. “Those buttons on the podium thing to the right don’t seem to do anything, and I think there might be something behind the waterfall, but I can’t reach it.”

A strange expression suddenly creeps on to his face. “Hey Alice, you want to give it a try?”

“What? Reaching behind the waterfall?” Alice asks doubtfully. “I’m fairly certain my arms aren’t any longer than yours are.”

“It’s, uh… more that I couldn’t straighten mine enough to properly check.” Tenmyouji says, clapping a hand to his right elbow. “Water's coming down harder than it looks, and, well, old bones.”

What, seriously? He’s in worse shape than I thought.

“Someone’s got to check though, and you’re taller than Clover.” Tenmyouji continues. “So unless you want to be stuck in this room...”

Alice looks slightly annoyed, but eventually relents. “…fine.”

She steps towards the waterfall, rolling up her right jacket sleeve as she peers into the endlessly cascading veil. “Well, I think you’re right that there’s something back there.” she announces as she stretches her arm forward. “If it’s a switch, I might be able to-”

Alice suddenly stops mid-sentence, inhales sharply, and recoils from the waterfall for no apparent reason. I blink. She moved so fast that I doubt she’d have withdrawn quicker if she’d stuck her hand into an open fire… but she hadn’t even touched the water yet. Huh?

“Something wrong?” Tenmyouji asks with a strangely forced sounding casualness. “It’s just water.”

I turn to Tenmyouji, who now looks almost expectant, then back to Alice. Um, what? Someone care to inform me why everyone but me is suddenly acting all weird?

I walk over to Alice, noticing her grim-looking expression as I move to her side. “Alice, what’s-“

Alice holds up one finger towards me in a “hush” gesture, before closing her eyes in seeming concentration. Slowly, she reaches forward, her arm piercing through the waterfall to touch the back of the hollow. Some of the spray bounces off and hits me, causing me to shiver- brr, that’s cold.

About 20 seconds later, Alice pulls back, shaking off her now wet limb as she reopens her eyes and breathes deeply.

“Whatever’s back there, it’s not a switch.” she announces, sounding somewhat aggravated. “Felt more like a series of indents. I think we’ll have to be able to see them to do anything with them. There must be a way to turn the water off.”

She turns back to Tenmyouji, who just stares at her for a moment or two before slowly nodding.

“Yeah, guess so...” he replies, his tone still seeming slightly off.

Meanwhile, I just stand off to the side of the two, feeling highly confused. Is there some sort of hidden subtext here I’m missing? What is going on?

Alice walks off without another word. I trail after, feeling sort of concerned, and catch up just as she removes a silver key from under an out of place flowerpot. Tenmyouji’s footsteps come up behind me a few seconds later.

“Didn’t we agree we were going to split up to solve this room?” Alice asks aloud, not turning around.

“Well… it seemed like a good idea at first,” I slowly admit, “but I don’t think we can get a full understanding of anything if we’re all looking at only one part of the picture. It’ll be a lot easier to get out if we’re all on the same page.”

Honestly, now that I think about it splitting up is actually kind of counter-productive, given how a lot of these puzzles and mechanisms usually require the item from a different puzzle to do anything with them. Also, the group certainly didn’t split up in the game, unless the implication was that they were yelling all their dialogue to one another from across the room.

Alice sighs, but doesn’t object as Tenmyouji and I join her in front of the small garden. Neither of them say a word to each other, and I don’t know what to even ask, so I decide to let the subject of… whatever just happened back there drop for now in favor of working on the room. Speaking of which, cucumbers, onions, and tomatoes seem like strikingly odd choices for a garden if you ask me, but then again I haven’t been living on this base. Maybe Sigma, Akane, and Kyle really liked them or something. There’s also a split pepper lying on the ground, despite there being no peppers plants growing here, making it obviously suspicious. I grab it up to give it a closer look.

“This pepper has a coin embedded in it.” I note as I pry the little yellow disc out. “Don’t ask me how someone got it in there, but apparently they did.”

“Really? Weird...” Tenmyouji mutters. “Think there are any others?”

“Even if there are, we’re not splitting open every piece of produce in this garden searching for coins that might not even be there.” Alice declares. “Unless we get stuck on something that looks like it requires them, let’s move on.”

Thinking that’s probably a good idea, I pocket the coin and follow her lead further down the boarded path. The river ends in a little circular pond here, with another one of the lion-eating-the-sun motifs displayed at the bottom in mosaic form. There's a gravestone with a metal detector lying on it just off to its right, and beside it is a patch of white flowers, which…

I gag at the awful scent that suddenly invades my nostrils, cringing backwards so hard that I nearly end up knocking over Tenmyouji.

“What IS that?!” I cry, trying not to breathe in.

Alice wrinkles her nose, her expression morphing into one of disgust. “I think it’s this patch of flowers…”

“Looks like skunk cabbage.” Tenmyouji comments, not looking all that bothered as he strolls right up to it. “As the name implies, it’s not the best smelling of plants.”

I stumble forward and thrust the shovel into his hands. He looks confused for a second, until I explain, my voice sounding extremely nasal due to the fact that I'm now pinching my nose shut as hard as I can. “This is one of the clues on the signboard, which means there’s probably something buried under this stuff. Please take this one, I think I might pass out if I have to stand near these things much longer.”

Seriously, Clover must have a better sense of smell than I do, because this is horrible. The game probably mentioned these things, but the sheer repulsiveness of their odor was most definitely not communicated. I’m starting to feel physically nauseous.

Tenmyouji accepts the shovel, and I all but sprint away from him to the left, where Alice is now examining the set of scales on top of the small table that stands there. In her hands are a small paring knife and a golden key, which were previously sitting on top of them. I release my nose and gasp for clean air, feeling like I just escaped a field of toxic gas. Thank goodness the smell doesn’t seem to carry far.

“Are you okay Clover?” Alice asks, turning towards me.

I nod as I continue to draw in air, realizing I probably seem like I’m being overly dramatic at the moment, but also not particularly caring. God, they should call it corpse cabbage. Why would anyone plant that?!

Evidently trusting that I’ll get over my sensory-induced issues, Alice turns back to the scales and removes a weird, semi-cylindrical piece of metal from the drawer at the bottom. The top looks sort of like a thick screwdriver, and ends in a weird, sort of x-shaped point, while the bottom is shaped like an octagon.

“There’s a lot more stuff just lying around in the open this time.” Alice comments.

“Yeah, way more.” I agree. “We should probably figure out where some of this is used so we don’t have to keep toting it all around the room. That metal thing probably goes in the panel on the wall back there, so maybe we should go place that first.” I say, gesturing towards the area we entered from.

Alice nods, and begins walking in that direction. I follow behind, but take a moment to cover my nose and grab the pipe Tenmyouji set on the ground nearby before hurrying to catch back up. Just as Alice inserts the metal thing into the wall, I attach the pipe to the other end, creating a handle.

“Well done.” Alice praises. “Let’s see if this turns the waterfall off then.”

She gives the handle a quarter turn, and the sky rapidly dims, bathing the room in shadow.

“Looks like it’s just a glorified light switch.” Alice says, looking around with mild disappointment at the newly darkened room. “I guess if the ‘sun’ is gone, that means it’s nighttime now… I wonder why that would be important.”

“Probably those.” I say, pointing out the various glowing star patterns that have appeared along the length of the miniature river.

“Hmm… I see.” Alice replies. “Has anything else changed?”

“Not that I-”

Hey! Can we turn the lights back on please?” I hear Tenmyouji yell from midway across the room, utterly ruining the otherwise tranquil atmosphere. “I can’t see anything!”

I bemusedly turn the handle back to its original position, returning the room to daytime. Tenmyouji appears to have unearthed the first box, and is trudging over to us with it, the shovel, and the metal detector all in hand, though he looks like he’s having trouble finding a way to carry them all at once.

“Thought I was gonna trip over my own feet for a second there.” Tenmyouji gripes, placing the golden box down in front of us and hefting the metal detector. “Oh, and I’m guessing we’ll probably be needing this for one reason or another.”

“Most likely.” I agree, as Alice kneels down to unlock the golden box with the golden key, and withdraws a small strip of torn paper.

“Hmm, just a couple of dots...? Looks like we probably need the full page to do anything with this.” Alice muses as she looks it over. “Mind holding on to this for me Clover?” she asks, holding the scrap out to me. “My outfit is a little short on pockets.”

“No kidding.” Tenmyouji whispers under his breath, just loudly enough for me to catch.

I take the paper, slipping it into the same pocket currently holding the hidden file pages. I’m beginning to run out of room myself, truth be told. These pockets were clearly not intended to ever be used in any truly meaningful capacity, and they’re already holding the previous round’s AB room keycard, the two hidden file papers, a square of aluminum, and the bronze key and yellow coin from this room. As unexpectedly functional as Clover’s microshorts have been so far, I’d still gladly take something with a bit more storage space… and some better insulation, for that matter.

My thoughts are interrupted by a loud beeping as Tenmyouji runs the metal detector over a raised mound of grass just across from the empty shed.

“Hey, looks like there’s something under here.” he says aloud.

“That’s probably the second box.” Alice replies. “We should check the mushroom under the tree next.”

Sure enough, the mushroom results in more beeping.

“Here, give me the shovel, I’ll get this one.” I volunteer.

Tenmyouji obligingly hands over the garden implement, and I begin spooning up dirt. It's not an easy task- once again, Clover's overly long nails are getting in the way, and her body is clearly not built for anything particularly strenuous to begin with. You know, aside from Quark, I wonder if there's a single character in this setting it would have been less convenient to get stuck as, at least physically speaking. Gah.

As it becomes clear that I’m not making particularly fast progress, Tenmyouji starts using the metal detector to scan the ground nearby. After about a minute of him finding a whole lot of nothing, Alice speaks up, looking vaguely irritated.

“What are you doing? We already know where all the boxes are.”

Tenmyouji shrugs, continuing to scan. “Yeah, but who says those are all this is for?” He replies, taking a moment to grin. “Besides, I haven’t gotten to use one of these things in years.”

Alice scoffs. “In case you've forgotten, this room is enormous. It's pretty unlikely you're going to find anything by just waving that thing around at random.”

…correct me if I’m wrong, but that is how one usually uses a metal detector, isn’t it? Why so snippy, Alice?

“Well, the coin I found in that pepper was made of metal, so maybe he could try waving it around the vegetable patch?” I innocently suggest as my shovel finally hits something hard.

“Hmm... good thinking Clover.” Tenmyouji replies as he strolls around the tree to do just that.

Alice gives me a strange look and taps me on the shoulder as I work the silver box free of its earthen prison.

Clover, we’re trying to keep a low profile, remember?” she whispers. “We may all need to help to get out of this room, but we still want to be underestimated. Don’t just start handing out free advice.”

…oh, right, that. Yes, I do remember, but… ugh, I’m just not willing to put on that sort of act on top of the one I’m already kind of performing, especially given how pointless I know for a fact it would be. Thankfully, I think I can justify refusing to do so.

I know Alice,” I whisper back, beginning to pull the box out of the ground, “but Tenmyouji mentioned earlier that he was worried there might be a secret time limit on solving these rooms, and with the way the other Nonary Games were designed, I don’t know if he’s necessarily wrong. Honestly, I think right now we should be more worried about finishing quickly than not drawing attention.”

Alice is silent for several seconds before she speaks again.

“…I have to admit, that’s a valid point, and this room is probably too big to risk wasting time.” she quietly replies, handing me the silver key. “Just don’t overdo it, okay?”

I pause, a bit surprised that Alice didn’t require more convincing, before silently nodding as I unlock the lid of the box and summarily slip the dotted paper scrap inside into the same pocket I stored the other in. We quickly move over to the final “treasure” spot in front of the shed, just as Tenmyouji returns to us with a tomato, an onion, and a cucumber in hand, looking rather pleased with himself.

“Looks like you were right Clover.” he says, setting the metal detector on the ground as he holds up the pieces of produce. “Think we’re gonna need something to cut these things open though.”

“Like this, perhaps?” Alice asks rhetorically, placing the paring knife she’s been holding into his free hand.

“Perfect.” Tenmyouji smiles. “Now, if I recall correctly, it’s your turn to do the digging Alice.”

Alice sighs. “Fine. Clover, hand me that.”

I pass her the shovel, and she quickly gets to work.

…okay, maybe not that quickly. I take it back; maybe Clover isn’t the most inconvenient character I could have ended up as after all, because Alice seems to somehow be having an even more difficult time at this than I was. Admittedly, I think that’s mostly because she’s trying to keep her ring from swinging around too much and exposing her chest, which prevents her from really bending over to any useful degree. Not that she particularly needs to worry, because Tenmyouji isn’t even looking at her, he’s actually looking at… me, for some reason?

I turn towards him, wondering why I’m being stared at, when he suddenly opens his mouth and speaks.

“Say, Clover. Have you ever heard of a man named Wim Hof?”

I blink, baffled by just how out of nowhere that question was.

“What?”

“He’s also known as ‘The Iceman’.” Tenmyouji elaborates, seeing my confusion. “He’s most famous for climbing up Mt. Everest in nothing but shorts, but he set a lot of other records for stuff like taking the world’s longest ice bath, and running a marathon above the Arctic Circle.”

…oh hey, I think I do know who he’s talking about, actually.

“You mean the guy who can supposedly control his own body temperature?” I clarify.

“You got it.” Tenmyouji smirks. “Pretty incredible, huh?”

Well, I did find him on a list of “People with Real Superpowers”, so I suppose so. If I recall, he supposedly uses some sort of special meditation and/or breathing technique to keep his internal temperature constant? They even publicly tested it, I think. Of course, in this universe, he’s probably long dead.

“Yeah, it’s pretty cool.” I admit. “What brought him to mind though?”

“Dunno.” Tenmyouji shrugs. “Guess I was just wondering if there might be anyone else out there with that sort of ability.”

He takes a moment to look pointedly at Alice, who gives no indication that she’s listening to either of us.

I frown and tilt my head to the side, crossing my arms beneath my chest. Wait, is he implying…

Several things suddenly begin sliding into place. Oh. Oh, so THAT’S what’s that weirdness earlier was about! Tenmyouji thinks Alice is All-Ice, so he challenged her to stick her arm under a waterfall- an icy cold waterfall- thinking she wouldn’t be able to do it, but since she was, now he thinks- you know, that’s actually a fairly decent hypothesis, all things considered. It’s wrong, but in the context of all the sci-fi stuff that happens in this game, someone theoretically having control over their personal body temperature is actually quite plausible, especially since there’s even an actual real world basis for it. Regardless, why is he so fixated on this All-Ice thing? I mean, I’d be curious too, but what does he expect to get out of it? And why bring this up with me, especially when we’re right in front of Alice? Is he trying to probe for information based on our reactions, or…? Oh, that’s probably why he was referencing her age earlier too, isn’t it? That flew right over my head.

“No idea, but I wish I could do that.” I eventually remark. “So far, every room besides this one has felt like a walk-in freezer.”

Now that I’ve figured out why he brought it up to begin with, this topic ultimately seems harmless enough. In the end, Tenmyouji’s still chasing the answer to a mystery that doesn’t really exist, so as with back in the lounge, I don’t see any real problem with it.

“Maybe you can.” Tenmyouji says, looking thoughtful. “I mean, it’s supposedly a learnable skill, after all.”

“Really?” I idly reply.

“Yep. Going by what the guy has said on record, you just need the right mental frame of mind, and-”

“As fascinating as this topic is, in case you’ve forgotten, we still have the rest of the room to solve.” Alice cuts in. “You could at least work on getting whatever’s in those vegetables out.”

Tenmyouji opens his mouth to reply, then closes it. “…fair point. We can talk later. Here, Clover, could you hold these for a moment?”

He passes me two of the pieces of produce, and begins using the paring knife to slice into the tomato. A red coin is quickly extracted, followed by a white one and a green one from the onion and cucumber, respectively. I fish out the yellow coin from my pocket and hand it over to complete the set.

“Hard to believe these were in the vegetables… just how long has this all been planned out for?” Tenmyouji mutters.

Yeah, really. Now that I think about it, this puzzle is actually a pretty huge clue that this whole setup has been in the making for years and years, isn’t it? I never noticed that while playing the game proper.

Tenmyouji puts all four coins in his right hand and slowly moves it up and down. “These are heavier than they look. Wonder where we use them… I'm gonna go look around for that.”

I don’t follow Tenmyouji as he walks off, instead wandering off on my own after telling Alice that I'm going to look around a bit more. I end up back in front of the tiny pool and headstone that the room's miniature river terminates at- now that the skunk cabbage is lying off to the side buried under a mound of dirt, the air over here is a lot more tolerable.

I crouch down in front of the grave, tracing the inscription of “Tu fui ergo eris” it’s been marked with, my gaze lingering on the tiny keyhole on its front. Kyle should be directly underneath me right now… or rather, he would be, if Akane wasn’t dead. Which reminds me.

Sitting down next to the pool, I use the moment’s rest to make another attempt at SHIFTing. This goes just as poorly as the last dozen or so attempts, as determined by the fact that nothing has changed when I open my eyes again. I sigh. I didn't really expect it to work right now, but I had to try...

Noticing that Alice is pulling the final box out of the ground, I return to her side and help her heave it up and out. I take the bronze key from my pocket and hand it to her, allowing Alice to unlock the box and unearth the final slip of paper. We put the three pieces together on the ground, revealing a small vertical pattern of red dots, with a long red arrow going down the edge of the page.

“...well, seems obvious to me what these are for.” I say, looking over at the three red buttons on the podium that stands beside the waterfall.

“Same here. Want to do the honors?” Alice asks.

I shrug, and walk over to input the button combo indicated by the page. Alice follows, as does Tenmyouji, who walks up to us with a disgruntled look on his face.

“I sure hope we didn't need that scale back there for anything important, because ah... it kinda broke.” he informs us somewhat sheepishly, causing both of us to freeze in place.

“Wait a second, you broke part of the room?!” Alice almost shouts, swiveling around to glare at him.

“Yeeeeeeeah.” Tenmyouji says, holding the back of his head with one hand. “Sorry. I barely touched it and the thing fell apart. I'm guessing it was pretty old.”

Alice looks about ready to start verbally tearing into him, and I honestly can’t blame her, as I'm fairly certain we did need that scale in order to properly rank the coins by weight. If Tenmyouji broke it, without managing to do that first... well, we might be in trouble.

“Okay, that's not good, but let's not panic just yet.” I say aloud, hoping to keep my partners from getting into a huge row while simultaneously trying to reassure myself. “We haven't come across anything that needed relative weights yet, right? Let’s hold off on yelling at each other unless we do.”

Alice still doesn’t look happy, continuing to glare angrily in Tenmyouji’s direction, but says nothing further. Tenmyouji winces.

Somewhat unsure myself now, I press the buttons on the podium as the paper strips indicate, and the waterfall ceases to flow. With the way cleared, the three of us step into the tiny alcove it hid, trying not to accidentally push each other off the side of the narrow walkway. There's a small metal panel in the wall, containing four small holes in a line with < signs between them.

“Looks like this is where the coins go.” Tenmyouji says, holding them out. “Less than signs... wait a second, is this what that scale was for? Ranking them by weight?” he asks, sounding rather befuddled.

“Yes, I would assume so.” Alice snaps, obviously still mad.

“Can't I just judge how heavy they are by hand?”

Alice and I both turn and blink at him for a second. That's... a very good point, actually. Without the framing of the game, it shouldn’t exactly be hard to tell when one coin outweighs another. In fact, even if he gets it wrong, I don’t think there’s anything stopping him from just trying every combination until he gets it right.

“Perhaps... but there’s probably a trick to it.” Alice points out. “What if they don’t come out once you insert them, meaning we only have one chance at getting this correct? What if one of them is made of a material that feels lighter than it really is? It could even be that-”

Tenmyouji steps forward and inserts the coins, and the panel swings open to reveal a computer screen showing nine stars of various colors.

“...it really is that simple.” Alice says, holding a hand over her face. “Well, that turned out to be a lot of fuss for nothing. Sorry about that.”

“It's fine.” Tenmyouji replies, looking rather surprised that worked himself. “Can't really blame you for getting mad- lucky that scale wasn't important after all, I guess.”

Alice shakes her head, evidently still in slight disbelief, before turning her attention to the screen. “Stars... like the ones we saw when we darkened the room. Clover, do you remember what colors those had and what order they went in?”

I do not, and Tenmyouji didn't even see them, necessitating another quick flip of the day-night switch as a refresher. After all three of us take the chance to examine the glowing shapes in the river again (and just admire the garden in the dark for a bit), we turn the sun back on and return to the alcove, where I tap the purple, blue, yellow, green, and red stars in order. The screen turns green- looks like for the first time thus far, we actually found the non-secret password first.

After memorizing the combination, we move to the safe near the entrance. Alice does the honors of opening it this time.

“Let’s see. Two key cards with moons on them…” she says, handing one to me, “a map of Floor B, which I assume is where we are right now... the key to the room… some sort of diagram… and a piece of paper that says ‘IG = immunoglobulin’.”

She holds the latter two out to me and Tenmyouji to look. The diagram is the one that shows the timeline of Sigma’s consciousness, which isn’t terribly important to me, so I don’t focus on it for long. As for the other paper… I actually don’t remember what the purpose of this was. Immunoglobulin is like… something inside the body, right? Why is that important again? Gah, why couldn’t I have been dropped into the universe of a game I played somewhat recently?

I’m not alone at least, as neither Alice nor Tenmyouji seem to have any idea what to make of the page either, nor the timeline page for that matter. Tenmyouji eventually ends up folding them up and sticking them in his shirt pocket, along with the map- not without minor protest from Alice, but perhaps due to the earlier “argument”, she doesn't push it much.

“So, are we going to try and get the file password too, or are we just leaving?” I ask.

“We should probably at least attempt to get it before we go.” Alice replies. “Any ideas as to how we might do that?”

“Yeah, actually.” Tenmyouji says, walking back over to the recessed panel. “I noticed something else about those stars. Let me try… this.”

He taps the screen several times, though it’s covered by his back from where Alice and I are standing. Sure enough though, I see the outer edges of the screen turns blue, and Tenmyouji begins walking back to us, looking slightly smug.

“Well that was fast.” Alice notes.

“Yep.” Tenmyouji replies with a grin as he crouches down to unlock the safe again. “Same colors, but ordered by size, if you were wondering.”

Punching in the second passcode, he pulls out the expected golden file, and immediately begins pouring over its single page of contents.

“Nicely done.” Alice says. “We can look at the file later though. For now, let’s get out of here and meet back up with the others.”

Tenmyouji doesn’t respond. After several seconds of silence, Alice raises an eyebrow.

“Are you ignoring me? Come on, let’s go.”

Tenmyouji still says nothing, his gaze so focused on the page in his hands that he appears to have stopped blinking. Just when I’m beginning to think he’s gone into some sort of meditative trance, his head suddenly snaps back up, turning towards Alice.

“Back from La-La Land, are we?” Alice sarcastically asks, an undercurrent of annoyance running through her voice.

“I knew it…” Tenmyouji mutters.

“Hmm?”

Tenmyouji looks down at the paper again, and begins reading off one of the entries. “Ice-9 is a special form of water with a melting point of 36 degrees Celsius. In other words, it freezes at room temperature. There is a rumor that says all the water in Alice’s body is actually Ice-9. Who knows whether it’s true or not, but if it is then she always has to keep her body temperature above 36 degrees Celsius.”

He punctuates the final sentence by looking up at Alice accusingly, pausing for a brief moment before he continues.

“Well?”

Alice crosses her arms, looking thoroughly unperturbed. “Well what?”

“You don’t have anything to say about this? It’s clearly referring to you.”

Alice rolls her eyes. “What exactly are you expecting me to tell you? Yes, I’ve heard that rumor before, and it’s ridiculous. Isn’t that obvious?”

“…really now.” Tenmyouji flatly replies. “Is that your final word on the matter, All-Ice?”

Alice’s expression melts into a scornful glare. “Oh, now I see. You’re one of those…”

I quickly look back and forth between the pair as they begin glowering at each other, trying to figure out what to do. Of all the possible team combinations that could have found the file describing Ice-9, why did it have to be the one that contains the only two people the subject is remotely relevant to? We should have just gone on without it…

“Come on, just admit it already!” Tenmyouji insists, his tone growing more accusatory. “You’re All-Ice! I know you are! This folder practically proves it!”

Alice snorts derisively. “Proves what? That you’re falling for the same absurd fairy tale so many others do? The one Zero probably wants you to fall for, if it’s mentioned in that file? News flash, Ice-9 is fictitious. It doesn’t exist, and neither does the so-called ‘All-Ice’ you seem to be fixated on.”

“Uh, guys? Can we maybe calm down…?” I ask, trying to intercede, only to be summarily ignored by both parties.

“You’re not fooling anyone!” Tenmyouji accuses, beginning to sound genuinely angry. “I’ve seen you before, MET you before almost four decades ago, and you looked exactly the same as you do now! There’s no way you could still look like that if you’re not her!”

“You met someone who looked like me.” Alice scathingly replies, glaring daggers in Tenmyouji’s direction. “Up until today, I’ve never seen you before in my life. And I most certainly am not that old you ass!”

Alice steps forward and angrily grabs the file out of Tenmyouji's hands, bringing it up to her face to examine herself. “Look, this even explains that Ice-9 is just an idea pulled from science fiction! Seems you conveniently overlooked that part while you were…”

She looks as though she has more to say, but abruptly trails off instead, her expression first shifting to shock, then fury. “Wait, what?! That’s highly classified information, how did they-?!”

Before I can even ask what the issue is, Alice shoves the folder at me, pressing it into my hands.

“Clover, look at this.”

Confused, I rapidly begin scanning over the page, trying to figure out what so very quickly sidetracked her from the whole All-Ice thing. Okay, there's entries on Ice-9, tu fui ergo eris, integer factorization- oh hey there’s one on immunoglobulin!-, Morphogenetic Field Theory, H, and SOIS. Wow, this might be the most useful file we’ve found thus far. I don't think she's talking about the Ice-9 or the Morphogenetic Field entries, since neither of those are exactly classified... what's “H”?

[H: This refers to Gentarou Hongou. He was one of the [REDACTED]. He was the person who supervised the kidnapping of the children who participated in the Nonary Game in 2018. He is the CEO of Cradle Pharmaceutical, and a devoted follower of Free the Soul.”]

...huh, I’d actually forgotten that Hongou/Ace was a follower of Dio’s cult. What's with the redacted part though? Don't think that was there in the game; that’s weird. Is this what Alice is upset about, or-

Wait. There's an entry on SOIS. The department whom Alice and Clover are a part of, the existence of which is supposed to be top secret.

…ah. So that’s why she's pissed.

“That's... not good.” I say. “Zero definitely shouldn't know about that.”

“Definitely not.” Alice echoes, sounding more distressed than I've yet heard her. “I think it's safe to say we've been compromised.”

“What are you two talking about?” Tenmyouji interrupts, scowling. “Our conversation isn't finished yet, Alice.”

Alice turns and scowls right back. “Yes, it is. We have bigger problems right now than listening to you rave about your inane delu... sions...”

Alice trails off again, swaying on her feet as if she's suddenly gone punch drunk.

“Um, Alice? You okay...?” I ask uneasily.

“…speaking… too… fast…” Alice slurs, taking a stumbling step forward. “…world’s… spinning… what’s… happening…”

…oh no.

“Seriously?” Tenmyouji scoffs. “You're going to fake being lightheaded, just so you don't have to-”

“I don't think she's faking!” I frantically inform him, hurriedly propping myself underneath one of Alice's arms to support her. “Quick, help me sit her down!”

The genuine worry in my voice must be obvious, because Tenmyouji's expression softens, and he gingerly helps me lay Alice down on the nearby bench. She's holding her head as if it’s throbbing, and her breathing is shallow.

“Any idea what's wrong with her?” Tenmyouji asks, now apparently fairly concerned himself.

I do. I wish I didn’t.

“...Clo… ver...” Alice murmurs softly.

I bite the inside of my lip. I haven't really thought about it in more than an abstract sense up until now, but regardless of which timeline is chosen or what choices are made, someone ultimately ends up succumbing to the Radical-6’s full effects early on in the game. Usually, it’s Quark. But when it’s not, it’s…

I look down at Alice again, who appears to have passed out where she lies.

…damn it....

 

Chapter Text

I get Tenmyouji to agree to put off exploring the rest of this floor until we get Alice to the Infirmary, which he thankfully agrees to. Seeing as she’s out cold, we end up having to carry her, which is an awkward affair, particularly given the rather narrow hallways. Tenmyouji is quiet as we go, Alice’s episode having completely killed his conversational momentum. That's just fine with me, as I’m having a bit of an episode myself right now.

It feels like every time I turn around, there’s something new for me to worry about. Perhaps that’s to be expected in this sort of situation, but this is different, because it’s not me I’m concerned about this time. If I remember correctly, it’s either right before or right after this round’s AB game that the Radical-6’s suicide-inducing effects will cause Alice to stab herself through the heart with a scalpel. That gives me next to no time to figure out how to stop it from happening, and even with my prior knowledge of what this facility contains, my options are… limited. I could take the scalpel ahead of time so Alice can’t use it, but that won’t stop her if she becomes actively suicidal; she’ll find a way to off herself regardless. We could put her in one of the cold sleep pods and place her in stasis, but I don’t remember if that room is ever open in the same timeline as the B. Garden. Other than that… damn, wasn’t there anything else?!

I desperately wrack my memory for a solution as a lump begins to form in my throat. Is there really nothing I can do? I… surely there’s… something...

I bow my head as I fail to come up with anything. This game isn't designed to leave the players any easy outs. Most likely, there's not-

“An Ambidex Gate has been opened.” the facility intercom suddenly alerts us. “Forty-five minutes remain until Ambidex Game polling closes.”

Tenmyouji briefly startles at that, before becoming incensed that someone opened a door before everyone's gotten back. With Alice weighing us down however, we can't really move any faster than we already are, forcing him to temper his anger for the moment. The distraction does help me to get my mind off my increasingly despairing thoughts however, allowing me to draw my focus back to simply keeping Alice's lower body well supported. Best not to think about this right now…

Eventually we come to a door that leads us into another warehouse, about as large as the one on the first floor and with three white doors on the back left wall. I don’t pay it much mind, and urge Tenmyouji into leaving the room quickly so we can take the door on the right back to the elevator. Once back upstairs, we manage to slowly make our way to the Infirmary, where we find Luna… looking over Quark, who’s lying on the examination table, also unconscious.

“Oh dear. Alice too…?” Luna asks worriedly as she looks up and notices us walk in.

“Quark!” Tenmyouji yells, quickly helping me lay Alice down on a bed before running over. “What happened to him!?”

“While we were searching our room, he suddenly collapsed.” Luna explains. “We brought him here as soon as we got out.”

“Collapsed? Oh no…” Tenmyouji mutters, staring down at his adoptive son.

“Where’s Phi?” I ask, turning to Luna. “Wasn’t she with you?”

“She went to the warehouse to inform the others just before you came in. They’ll probably be here in just-”

Before Luna can even finish her sentence, the door on the other side of the room opens, and Phi, Sigma, K, and Dio all run in.

“Clover, Tenmyouji-” Sigma starts, before noticing Alice on one of the beds. “-wait, what happened to Alice?!”

“Pretty much the same thing that apparently happened to Quark.” I tell him, my voice betraying my anxiety. “Just after we finished the room, she got really dizzy, said we were speaking too fast, and passed out.”

“Both of them… is it the same cause?” Phi asks no one in particular, holding a hand to her chin.

“…ngh! C’mon kid! Get a hold of yourself!” Tenmyouji suddenly shouts, grabbing Quark’s shoulders and shaking him back and forth.

“Hey, stop that!” I cut in, running over and pulling his arms away. “I’m just as worried about Alice as you are about Quark, but that’s not going to help him and you know it! You’ll just give him whiplash on top of whatever he already has!”

“Then what am I supposed to do?!” Tenmyouji cries. “I have to save him!”

“‘Save’? That seems a little extreme…” Dio says, shrugging. “Maybe he just has anemia or something.”

“No, that’s not it.” Tenmyouji refutes, shaking his head. “I know him better than any of you. He doesn’t have anemia. He’s never just… collapsed, before.”

“Well then call an ambulance and stop freaking out about it.” Dio sarcastically suggests.

“You son of a bitch!” Tenmyouji yells, raising a fist. “This is serious!”

As much as I’d like to see Dio get punched, we have bigger concerns at the moment.

“Luna, you have a medical license, right?” I ask.

Luna looks rather surprised at the question, as do several of the others. “Um, well, yes, but how did you-”

“That’s right, you said something about that earlier!” Tenmyouji says. “You have to take a look at him then! Please! Quark needs your help!”

“Alice too.” I tack on. I may already know what’s wrong with them, but maybe there’s something I’ve forgotten, or even something they missed in the game. Maybe…

Luna’s expression firms. “Okay. I’ll see what I can do.”

After "finding" and briefly explaining the function of the ADAM to everyone, Luna sets about scanning Quark with it. The others wait tensely for the results, while I start searching the medicine cabinet, trying to see if there’s anything potentially useful here. Maybe a mood stabilizer or something could help ward off the worst of the Radical-6’s effects…

I notice Phi giving me an odd glance out of the corner of my eye, but ignore it as I’m not really concerned about her right now. What I am concerned about is the fact that besides the Soporil and Tubocurarine that Tenmyouji mentioned earlier, none of the jars in here have any labels, leaving me clueless as to what the vast majority of them do. Who's responsible for this?! Why in the hell would you not mark what a chemical is and what it's for on the bottle?!

Luna’s face grows dark as she finishes scanning Quark, but she doesn’t say anything just yet. After requesting Tenmyouji and K’s assistance in moving Quark to a bed and Alice to the examination area, she begins scanning Alice as well. When she finishes…

“Well, I… I know what’s wrong with them. Both of them.” Luna says quietly, biting her lip. "I feel so terrible saying this, but... they... Quark and Alice have an infection. A viral infection."

Phi and Sigma are the first to catch on.

"Oh no..."

"Dont tell me..."

"Yes... they've been infected with a virus called Radical-6."

Everyone balks at the declaration.

"The disease we assumed was a hoax?" K asks, looking as sympathetic as a man in full body armor really can.

"It can't be... that isn't possible..." Tenmyouji desperately tries to rationalize.

“Have you heard of this virus?” Sigma asks Dio, seeing that he reacted as well. “You weren't there when we talked about it, after all.”

"Yeah, but I was there when Quark found the article.” the other man replies, holding the brim of his hat. “I didn't really believe it. I mean, how could-”

"It doesn't matter!" I interrupt, unwilling to waste time on Dio pretending to be ignorant about his cult's own virus. "Luna, is there a way to cure it?"

"W-well, ADAM says there's an anti-viral serum called 'Axelavir'. It's the only way to counteract Radical-6. If we can inject them with some, they should... they should be okay."

I nearly smack my forehead in disbelief. Axelavir! The chemical this base made specifically to cure Radical-6! There’s a jar of it that’s used to cure Quark and Alice in some of the timelines; how did I forget that? We just need to find it, and… damn it, can we find it? I know it isn't in the Infirmary, it wasn't that readily available, but where was it...?

"Where is it?!" Tenmyouji asks, echoing my thoughts. "Shouldn't it be in the infirmary somewhere?!"

"We looked around, but we didn't see anything." Dio says.

"I don't trust a damn thing you say!" Tenmyouji yells. "I'm asking Luna!"

"I-I'm sorry, but... Dio's telling the truth. We didn't find anything." Luna replies. "Clover was just looking through the cabinets, maybe she..."

I shake my head preemptively as Tenmyouji turns to me. "You looked through them earlier, so you should already know. Barely any of the jars in there are labeled, and there isn’t any Axelavir among the few that are.”

Tenmyouji looks down at the ground, gritting his teeth.

“I don’t suppose anyone found any while they were searching the rooms downstairs?” I ask.

“The archives didn’t have anything like that.” Sigma replies, shaking his head. “Not that we found, at least.”

“Neither did the pantry.” Phi confirms.

Shit... I think it was in one of the safes, so if they didn’t find it…

“Yeah... the B. Garden didn’t have any either.” I say for the benefit of the others, looking away.

"Oh god, then... then he's going to... both of them are...." Tenmyouji mutters.

“Maybe we can just pick a medicine and hope for the best?” Sigma suggests.

“That's way too dangerous Sigma.” Phi replies. “You can't just administer an unknown substance to people without knowing what it is; you could end up killing them.”

“Alright, well, maybe there’s some in one of the rooms we didn't search?” Sigma tries again.

“It doesn't matter if there is, Sigma.” I say, despair setting in. “The other rooms are locked off. The only places we can go are the places we’ve already been, so unless we just missed something-!”

"Q-Quark?" Luna suddenly says.

Everyone turns around to see Quark standing beside the divider. His eyes are both open, but seem dull and glassy.

“Quark! Oh, thank god! You're awake!” Tenmyouji cries, moving forward to embrace his adopted son.

“Get away from me!” Quark shouts, startling Tenmyouji into backing off.

“What...?”

With no further words, Quark lunges for the scalpel lying on the nearby cart. Thankfully, due to him having been moved to one of the normal hospital beds to make room for Alice on the one attached to the ADAM, he’s not in immediate grabbing range of it. I, however, am. My arm already in motion, I quickly snatch up the small bladed tool and dodge around Quark to shove it down the open drain of the nearby sink, the pipe beneath it too deep and narrow for there to be any hope of getting it back out. Quark rams me aside and goes for it anyways, all but throwing himself at the basin and frantically scrabbling at the opening in the bottom. When he proves unable to reach far enough down, however…

“QUARK!” Tenmyouji yells fearfully as his adopted son begins smashing his head into the dirty mirror above the sink, presumably trying to either break off a sharp piece of glass or induce some sort of brain hemorrhage. Thankfully, Sigma rushes forward and grabs hold of Quark’s arms before he can do it more than once, dragging him away before he can further injure himself.

“Let go of me! I have to escape! I HAVE to!”

“Hnngh! How is this kid this strong?!” Sigma grunts. “Guys, I could use a little help here!”

At that, the rest of the room finally springs into action. Each of them grabbing and restraining one thrashing limb, K, Dio, Phi, and Sigma manage to wrestle Quark back on to the hospital bed he just got out of.

“STOP IT! LET GO OF ME YOU JERKS!”

Tenmyouji stands there with his head down, unable to even bring himself to look at the scene unfolding in front of him, until Sigma's yelling finally penetrates his depressive reverie and he moves over to help. I just watch, knowing there's not much I can do to assist anymore- even if I could help hold Quark down, which is in question given how easily he just shoved me aside, there's no room to do so with the five other people crowded around him right now.

“DAMN IT! BASTARDS!” Quark screams. “WHY WON'T YOU LET ME GO?! I HAVE TO GET OUT OF THIS BODY!”

I wince as Quark starts ranting and crying about how he needs to die so his soul can escape, getting progressively louder and more unhinged sounding as he continues. Seeing and hearing this in person is... very different to experiencing it through the framing of a video game.

“Luna! Are there any tranquilizers in here?” Phi asks loudly, trying to be heard over the horrid racket Quark is making.

“N-No... W-Well, I mean...”

“What?!”

“There's Soporil Beta...”

“Soporil?” Dio questions.

“It's the same anesthetic as the one in our bracelets...” Luna says, barely audible over the din.

“Good! Perfect!” Phi declares. “Hit him with some of that!”

Tenmyouji protests, but Phi assures him that Quark will be fine. With another bit of prompting, Luna rushes to the desk at the left of the room and pulls a pistol-like object out of the right drawer- the injection gun, if I recall. Meanwhile, I run to the cabinet and grab a jar of Soporil, trying to make myself useful in at least some fashion. Luna accepts the container from me and loads it into the gun before hurrying back to Quark, the others squeezing aside to make room for her.

“Okay! I’ve got it!”

“Good!” Phi yells. “Wait until he’s… Now! Do it now!”

Timing it against Quark’s thrashing, Luna swiftly darts in and depresses the injector’s trigger against his leg. Quark gives one last anguished howl before his movements start to slow, and his eyes droop down into sleep. After several seconds of silence, everyone steps away from the bed.

“We need to… check and make sure he’s okay…” Tenmyouji insists, panting heavily alongside the others.

After we exchange Alice and Quark’s positions again, Luna runs another quick scan on the latter with the ADAM and confirms that everything is normal aside from a growing bruise on his forehead, mollifying most of Tenmyouji’s concerns. Phi asks how long the anesthetic should last, and Luna tells her it should keep for at least a few hours.

As Dio starts talking about how abnormally strong Quark seemed and Luna begins explaining how that's probably the virus' fault, I walk back over to Alice, staring down at her sleeping form. Is she going to wake up and try the same thing Quark just did? I actually don’t remember the Radical-6 ever rendering her unconscious in the game… not before she ran off with the scalpel, at least. So I don’t know what’s going to happen. Can we preemptively anaesthetize her just in case? Should I ask?

I turn around to suggest the idea to Luna, only for it to suddenly occur to me upon seeing the others in such close proximity to each other that once again, everyone in the game is in the same small room. I... should really be trying to SHIFT or something right now, shouldn’t I? Can’t lose sight of that…

I move slightly closer to the group and give it a try, but my attempt ends up being halfhearted at best. I just can’t seem to muster the will or concentration to make a full-fledged effort, my brain continually flickering back to the woman lying asleep just a few feet away from me instead of focusing on the task at hand. Oh, come on, me! Forget about Alice! Forget about this timeline entirely! I can’t afford to focus on things that won’t even matter soon…!

“We're lucky Quark didn’t get his hands on that scalpel.” Sigma says in response to something Luna said, his gaze turning to me. “Good job with that Clover.”

I jolt at being addressed, my thought process temporarily drawn back to the present. “O-oh? Um, thanks… it was nothing.”

“I second Sigma’s opinion.” K follows up. “With how Quark was acting, I’ve no doubt he would have attempted to stab himself had he managed to obtain something sharp enough to do so, and the rest of us failed to react quickly enough to stop him. It is likely only thanks to you that this did not end far more poorly, Clover.”

“I didn't even realize he was going for the scalpel to be honest.” Sigma continues, rubbing the back of his head. “How'd you figure that out so fast?”

Er...

“What’s going on…?”

An unexpected voice suddenly speaks up from behind me. I whirl around to see Alice slowly sitting up from the bed.

“Alice!” I exclaim.

“Clover…? Hang on, I’m a little dizzy.” Alice says, gingerly holding her forehead.

For a moment that scares me, but it seems to wear off pretty quickly, leading me to breathe a low sigh of relief. She's lucid... which is a little odd actually, since that’s again not in keeping with how I remember things, but I’d much rather just be thankful than fret about it.

“Oh, you're awake!” Luna says happily as she and the others join us on the other side of the divider. “Welcome back!”

“She's not gonna go crazy on us too, right?” Dio asks, clearly skeptical.

“Crazy?” Alice repeats, taking a moment to push herself off the bed and into a standing position. “What's that supposed to mean? Why would I go crazy?”

“Well, you've got the same disease Quark does-”

“Dio, wait-!”

“-and seeing as how we just had to wrestle the kid into submission and stick him with Soporil,” Dio continues, completely ignoring me, “I'd say it's a valid concern.”

For god's sake, could he have been any blunter?!

“The same... what?” Alice stares at Dio uncomprehendingly, then turns to the rest of us. “Alright, I'm lost. Anyone care to tell me what's going on? Or, for that matter, how I got here? This is the infirmary, isn't it?”

I sigh. I don't want to do this...

“Alice, what's the last thing you remember?” I ask.

“Suddenly getting dizzy while arguing with him about a truly ridiculous topic down in the garden.” Alice replies, gesturing at Tenmyouji. “Mind filling me in now?”

Hesitant but resigned, I begin explaining. It takes a bit, but with some help from Tenmyouji, a display of the unconscious Quark, and the occasional comment from the others, we manage to jointly recap to Alice what's gone on since she passed out. Since Dio's already pretty much let the cat out of the bag, it's not really possible to break Alice's infected status to her in a particularly gentle way... but surprisingly, she remains almost unnaturally calm when the topic is broached, doing nothing more than raise an eyebrow in response to her diagnosis. Strange, Alice isn't usually this stoic...

“...and then you woke up.” I finish. “That's about it.”

“Right. So, let me get this straight.” Alice says almost immediately. “You're saying I'm infected with a disease. A disease that's supposedly the cause of a widespread plague, but which no one here has ever heard of. That we only know about because of a possibly forged newspaper article, which was left right out in the open for us to find. And that you were able to diagnose solely through the use of a strangely convenient piece of medical equipment, presumably provided to us by the very same person who trapped us here to begin with.”

...oh, so that's why she took it so well. She doesn't believe us.

“You understand why I'd have trouble accepting that conclusion at face value, right?” Alice asks, crossing her arms under her chest.

“I do see what you mean,” Luna replies, “but the ADAM-”

“-can't possibly be trusted.” Alice points out. “That thing could have been tampered with in any number of ways.”

“True,” Phi acknowledges, “but I doubt Quark just up and decided to try and kill himself for no reason. Unless you have an explanation for that, we don't really have much choice but to accept the disease as real.”

“Are we sure it isn't just that the pressure of the situation got to him?” Alice asks. “I mean-”

“How dare you...” Tenmyouji suddenly interrupts. “Quark would never do something like that if there wasn't something wrong with him!”

“You can't know that-”

“Yes I can!” Tenmyouji snarls, steamrolling right over whatever Alice was about to say. “I know just about everything about him!”

“Alice, I know you weren't awake for it,” I interject, hoping to stop a fight from breaking out, “but there was definitely something wrong with Quark. Even for a suicidal person, that wasn't normal behavior. Please, just trust me on this...”

Alice stares at me for a long moment, before looking away and audibly exhaling.

“...fine. I suppose that even if I can't trust the evidence, I can't technically rule out the possibility either.”

Tenmyouji mutters something doubtless less-than-flattering about Alice under his breath, but I can't bring myself to really care. I'm just relieved that she's at least willing to entertain the idea that Radical-6 is real now, even if she's clearly not truly convinced yet.

“So, assuming I do have this supposed virus, what exactly are we planning on doing about it?” Alice asks. “Is there anything that can be done?”

“There's supposedly a cure for Radical-6 called Axelavir, but we don't know if there's any in this facility.” Phi explains. “To be safe, we'll probably need to use Soporil to put you under until-”

NO!

Alice’s response is sudden, loud, and extraordinarily vehement, enough so that our entire group takes a collective step back from her. After a few seconds, the wild look fades from her eyes, but not from my mind. What the hell was that about...?

“...sorry. I didn’t mean to shout.” Alice apologizes, her expression having reverted to one of perfect composure. “There’s just no need for anything like that, is what I meant to say.”

I'm kind of nervous to refute her after that bizarre outburst, but I do it anyways. “I'm... pretty sure there is, Alice. Even if it isn't Radical-6, you still passed out, so something is definitely wrong...”

“I feel fine now though.” Alice replies, apparently unconcerned. “If that was because of the disease, perhaps I have a partial immunity to it.”

“That seems… unlikely…” Luna says.

“I’m with Luna.” I say, knowing that the fact that the opinion came from her probably makes it a pretty definitive answer. “Alice, is there a reason you're so against the idea…?”

Alice looks at me as though the answer should be blatantly obvious. “Clover, think about the situation we're in right now. Our lives are hanging in the balance. I’m not letting myself be put in a medically induced coma for an indefinite period of time when by doing so I might not ever wake up again.

“But if you start acting like Quark-”

“Do I seem like I'm acting like him?”

“No, but the Soporil can-”

“Clover,” Alice cuts me off, clearly irritated, “I am perfectly rational right now, and I plan on staying that way. I promise you, I don't need it.”

I bite the inside of my cheek and turn to the others, several of whom look somewhat uncomfortable watching Alice and I argue. “Someone, please, help me convince her?”

“Well... I don't know Clover.” Sigma says, rubbing the back of his head. “She does seem a lot more stable than Quark…”

“I must admit, while I too am concerned, Alice does have multiple valid points.” K notes. “Whether we like it or not, our lives currently depend on continuing and finishing this game, which she will obviously be unable to do if she is forced to remain unconscious while it proceeds. Additionally, unlike Quark, she does appear to be clear of mind. Perhaps she truly is partially immune to the effects of the virus?”

“Heh, maybe.” Dio adds, smirking. “Honestly, I’m starting to think she might just be right. We don't know if any of this Radical-6 bullshit is real. Maybe it really is something Zero made up just to make us all paranoid. I say let her do whatever the hell she wants.”

“I’m on your side here Clover,” Phi says, her hands in her pockets, “but somehow, I get the feeling Alice isn’t going to listen to me. Sorry, can’t help you.”

“If she's really that against it, I suppose we can’t force it on her…” Luna softly concedes.

Temyouji remains silent, and my heart sinks. Here I am trying to save Alice, and not only is she completely refusing to listen to me, but apparently I have no support whatsoever. Why is she being so stubborn to begin with?! I mean yes, I get why she’s concerned, but-

“Ten minutes remain before Ambidex Game polling closes.” the intercom suddenly rings out. “All players, please enter your votes. If no vote is recorded before the deadline has passed, any non-voting parties will automatically ally.”

“Sounds like we all should be heading to the AB rooms.” Alice remarks as the announcement ends.

“Not every player has to participate.” I remind her. “I trust Tenmyouji to vote ally again.”

“Well, I don’t.” Alice bluntly replies. “I’m not willing to leave this round up to chance in the event that he suddenly decides allying with you is no longer in his best interests.”

“You don't need to worry.” Tenmyouji says before I can respond, his expression dour. “I’m not participating this round. I’m staying here to watch over Quark.”

“Oh. That's... perfect!” I exclaim, perhaps a little too enthusiastically. I guess he just decided that, because this is the first any of us have heard of it, but that works out for me.

“See Alice?” I say, turning back to her. “You don't need to be concerned. As long as you and Tenmyouji both stay here, your vote will default to ally, which means there's no way he could pick betray… in fact, maybe I’ll just stay here too, that should ensure that all of us-”

“I’m afraid that won’t work.” K interrupts. “Our group found some supplemental rules in the archives. They state that at least one person from every group must vote each round, or else the entire team is penalized.”

...oh, right. I’d actually forgotten about that rule.

“That reminds me.” Tenmyouji says irritably. “Who was the person who opened an AB room before everyone else got back?”

Good question. I didn’t really care earlier, but I'm less than pleased about it now, since it means I only have so long to argue Alice around to my point of view when there was really no reason I had to be on a time limit. Although, I’m fairly certain I can guess the answer anyways, since it was almost certainly…

“Dio.” Phi says, not looking terribly thrilled about it herself.

…yep, gold star, me. Although… wait a minute...

I turn towards Dio. “Weren’t you with K and Sigma?”

“Yeah.” Dio replies nonchalantly. “So?”

“Your team was the one that found those rules, and you STILL opened a room before everyone got back?” I ask, glaring at him.

“We tried to stop him, but…” Sigma starts, then trails off.

“Hey, come on.” Dio says defensively. “It’s not like I knew any of this was gonna happen, and I figured there was no way it was gonna take 45 extra minutes for your groups to finish on top of how long it took us. The faster we get this game over with, the faster we can get out of here. Sue me for trying to speed things up a little.”

“Speaking of which, we really can’t afford to keep standing around discussing this any longer.” Phi states. “We’ve wasted too much time talking already, and if we’re too late getting back to the AB rooms, we’re all going to end up getting ‘penalized’. I doubt any of us are fond of that idea.”

Everyone seems to agree on that point, at least. Phi turns towards me. “You three figure out the rest of this yourselves. Just make sure at least one of you shows up before time runs out.”

With that, she begins ushering everyone else out of the room. Sigma and Luna throw a couple of brief backwards glances at us, but ultimately leave as well, and a few seconds later the room's occupancy has dropped by over half. Only myself Alice, Tenmyouji, and a sleeping Quark remain.

“So… what do you think?” I ask Alice, the atmosphere having turned somewhat awkward with everyone else's abrupt departure.

Alice gives me an exasperated look and sighs. “Fine, Clover. I’m willing to stay here for this round.”

I smile-

“…but I’m still not letting you inject me with Soporil.”

-only for it to immediately drop away.

“Alice, that defeats the entire purpose of you staying here!”

“I’m not changing my mind on this Clover.” Alice insists, one hand on her hip. “Give it up and head to the warehouse.”

For the love of- what the hell does it take to convince her?! I've got nothing left! I have no idea how I'm supposed to prove to Alice that Radical-6 is real and she really is infected with it without telling her that-

...I'm an idiot.

“Alice,” I start once more, “I-”

“Clover, seriously! Just drop it already!” Alice all but shouts, her temper clearly beginning to fray.

“No, Alice, I-!” I plead. “Just- listen!”

I move in close, putting my mouth right near her ear so that Tenmyouji won’t overhear us.

Alice, I know that Radical-6 is real.” I whisper to her.

No you don't!” she hisses back. “We have nothing to go off of besides-

No, I know.” I repeat, emphasizing the word. “Remember that talk we had earlier?

It takes a second for her to get it. Her neck snaps around to look directly at me, her eyes widening.

“O-oh. I see.” she says, now at a normal volume. “Then you… you’re sure?”

I nod.

“And... I have it?”

I nod again. “So do you believe me now?”

“Y… yes.” Alice stutters, clearly shaken by the information.

“It was that simple the entire time...?” Tenmyouji mutters from off to the side. “Just what did you say to her?”

“That's private.” I deflect. “Now that we're finally on the same page though Alice, please, you need to let us sedate you. It's only temporary, and you'll be in danger otherwise...”

“...”

“Er… Alice?”

“…I can’t.” Alice says weakly.

“What?”

“I can’t.” Alice reiterates, voice so tiny it’s barely audible. “Please don’t.”

What the…? What is this reaction?

“Uh... you okay there, Alice?” Tenmyouji asks.

“Please...”

Alice steps back and slumps against the wall, not crying, but looking more frightened and vulnerable than I've ever seen her. I... honestly have no idea why she's acting like this; she never does anything even close to this in the game so far as I recall. Even when she broke down and confessed everything to Sigma in the B. Garden, she didn't seem nearly this... cornered...

“Alice...?” I try.

She says nothing in response, and it quickly becomes evident that neither I nor Tenmyouji are going to get anything more out of her. She's practically shut down. Argh, there's no time for this!

Grabbing the injection gun off the desk where Luna left it and loading it with a fresh jar of Soporil, I thrust it into Tenmyouji's hands.

“Clover, what...?”

“Here. I don't know what's going on with her either, but if Alice starts freaking out or acting erratic- like, more than she is right now I mean- use it. If not, just leave her be. That's the best compromise I can come up with at the moment.”

Tenmyouji gives it a brief moment of thought before answering.

“Alright, I can do that.”

“Thank you.” I tell him honestly, before turning to Alice one last time.

“I'll... be back soon, okay?”

Alice squeezes her eyes tightly shut and slowly, jerkily nods, which is more of a response than I was expecting. Slightly encouraged, I finally leave the room, the door shutting behind me with barely a sound.

 

Chapter Text

I spend a few moments in the hallway connecting to the warehouse just standing in place, thinking. Try as I might, I cannot come up with any explanation for Alice's behavior back there. She seemed downright terrified, but not even of the Radical-6... so, of what? The Soporil? I mean yeah, it's the stuff in our bracelets, but it's the Tubocurarine that actually kills us. The Soporil is honestly a mercy if you think about it...

Shaking my head, I decide to try and not let it bother me for now. Hopefully by the time I get back Alice will have recovered from... whatever that was, and we can figure out some alternative solution. There's nothing I can do about it until then.

As I enter the warehouse, I'm surprised to see Phi leaning up against one of the AB rooms, seemingly waiting for me. The others are nowhere to be seen, presumably having already entered rooms of their own.

"I see you managed to convince Alice to stay behind." Phi says.

I nod absently, and begin walking towards one of the rooms on right. Before I can even get close to it however, my arm is suddenly grabbed from behind. I spin around to find Phi latched on to it, staring at me with a rather intense expression.

"When this round finishes, we're going to have a talk, and you're going to explain everything you know about our situation. Understood?"

I blink at her in confusion. "What?"

"I've been suspicious for a while, but you know more than you're letting on, don't you?" Phi accuses, her tone brooking no argument. "That scene back there pretty much proved it."

"Wha- because I was trying so hard to convince Alice that she's sick when she was utterly refusing to believe it?" I ask, stunned. "How does that prove anything?"

"It's not that." Phi says calmly. "Or at least, not just that. What I mean is that until Quark went off the deep end, none of the rest of us had any idea that the virus would cause him to try to kill himself. I mean, who's ever heard of a suicide plague? But when he woke up, you immediately tossed the only bladed object in the room down the sink. Sigma and the others might have passed it off as you just reacting quickly, but I saw you- you started moving before Quark did. Meaning, you knew exactly what he was going to attempt."

…alright, that's admittedly more damning than what I thought she was talking about.

"I'm not saying I don't appreciate you stopping Quark from grabbing that scalpel," Phi continues when I don't reply, "but if you know about Radical-6, I'm guessing you probably know a little more than that too. You'd better have a good reason for not informing the rest of us, or it's gonna be a real unpleasant talk."

With that, Phi releases my arm, scans her moon card at the AB room she was leaning on, and walks inside. The entrance closes behind her mere moments later.

After taking a moment to process what just happened, I tilt my head back and sigh. It's not that I'm the only one who already knows about Radical-6, it's just that I'm apparently the worst actor- er, actress- of the group. Honestly though, whatever. It's not like Phi really has anything to back up the implicit threat she just made, so of all the things I'm worried about right now, she is not one of them. Don't have a clue what I'm going to tell her though...

As I fish the moon card I got from the B. Garden out of my pocket, a stray thought suddenly occurs to me. Moving over to the rightmost room, I peer around its side and quickly spot a small white rag with disconcerting red patches on it sitting right out in the open on the floor. I pick it up and nervously scan my card in the card reader of the adjacent room, ducking inside as soon as I can.

As I press the start button on the touch screen and the doors close behind me, I unfurl the handkerchief, revealing the still bloody knife that Dio used to kill Akane. I immediately rewrap it, having confirmed all that I needed to. Good, now Dio won't be able to use this... well, as long as I keep it well hidden, anyways. I don't know if it's even a concern right now, given that he's yet to actually kill anyone directly thus far, but I'd definitely rather be safe than sorry. This is the one method by which I might die that I can actually control, so I'm not just going to ignore it. In fact, I might want to keep this on me for self-defense purposes... although...

I look down and lament, not for the first time, Clover's minimalistic clothing choices. Yeah, unless I want to flat out advertise to everyone else that I'm carrying a knife I obviously didn't have before, I don't think that's happening. I'll just hide it in here; that way even if Dio does go looking for it, it'll be inaccessible once the doors shut us out until we finish the next round of escape rooms.

Looking around for a good spot, my eye lands on the empty fire extinguisher box at the back right of the room. Opening it, I place the bloody knife and handkerchief inside before closing it back up. It should be pretty well hidden there. With the puzzles necessary to escape the room already complete, I doubt anyone is going to think to open that up again.

"Thirty seconds remain until Ambidex Game polling closes."

Standing up, I hit the ally option on the screen without really thinking about it. Even if I wasn't the only member of my group playing this round, I have next to no investment in this. Knowing that it's impossible to truly leave this place really takes away from the tension of the choice. Not great, given that I actually need to be stressed in order to SHIFT- wait, did I seriously- gah, I forgot to keep trying to do that, again! The whole Alice situation has been way, way too distracting…

I spend the countdown of the last ten seconds making another attempt at ejecting my consciousness into another timeline, which once again turns up no real results. As the end of the round is announced and the doors reopen, I decide to give it up until everyone's in one place again, no matter how that hasn't seemed to help me very much thus far. That decided, I walk back outside, antsy to get back to the Infirmary.

"You son of a bitch…"

Surprised, I look over to my right. Sigma is staggering out of his AB room after a smirking Dio, one hand cradling his nose and mouth. I'm not the only one to notice, as the others, still exiting their own AB rooms, are also staring at the pair right now.

"Did something happen?" K asks.

"Yes something happened!" Sigma yells, furiously pointing at Dio with his spare hand. "He punched me in the face so he could pick what he wanted is what happened!"

Everyone turns towards the smirking faux-ringmaster, who looks far too pleased with himself.

"What? Yeah, he didn't agree with my choice, so I laid him out."

…well, looks like I have my answer as to how the AB room decision between those two would go...

"Despicable." Phi says with an air of disgust, crossing her arms and looking away.

Luna rushes over to check on Sigma's wound, a large bruise already visibly forming on his skin, while I just narrow my eyes in Dio's general direction. K, surprisingly, says nothing.

"Results from round two of the Ambidex Game will now be displayed." Akane's voice informs us over the speakers. "Please direct your attention to the results screen."

As one, we turn to see the results...

Luna+Quark: ALLY
Phi: ALLY
Tenmyouji+Alice: ALLY
Clover: ALLY
Sigma+Dio: BETRAY
K: BETRAY

"Points have been assigned or subtracted accordingly. Please check your bracelet to see your updated Bracelet Points."

I don't even bother looking this time, since there's hardly any point.

"Well well, would you look at that?" Dio smugly announces. "Looks like I was right to pick betray, huh Sigma? Knew we couldn't trust a robot."

"Screw you…" Sigma replies through gritted teeth.

"Oy, you should be kissing my ass right now! I just saved you from losing points." Dio says, crossing his arms and raising a finger in annoyance.

"Actually," K interrupts, "I primarily made the choice I did because I assumed something of this nature might occur. You were not particularly subtle about your thoughts concerning my trustworthiness, after all."

"Oh please! You just wanted to get enough points to escape and leave everyone stuck here. Don't bother denying it, bastard!"

"I could accuse you of the very same thing." K replies calmly. "Either way, it does not justify physically attacking your partner."

"Yeah, seriously!" Sigma adds.

"That so?" Dio says, sneering derisively. "Well, sorry if I didn't feel like leaving my fate in the hands of the guy who's deluded enough to claim he can speak cat."

"I told you, I'm not-"

"Crazy? Cracked in the head? A few yarn balls short of a basket?"

"Dio, I swear, I will punch you right back if you don't-"

"What, stop?" Dio taunts. "Nah, pretty sure I'm safe. I'd bet you're probably as weak as a kitten anyways, and too much of a scaredy-cat to try taking a swing. Too much of a pussy, one might even say-"

"Alright, THAT'S IT!" Sigma roars. "I've had just about enough of mew! You are the WORST purrtner that anyone could pawsibly-"

As his brain catches up with what his mouth just said, Sigma cuts himself off and flushes while Dio almost doubles over, howling with laughter. Jeez, give the guy a break you jackass, it's not that funny…

"…heh." Dio grins, his laughter tapering off. "You know, hearing a guy your age talk like that is actually kinda creepy. Old farts should not be using speech I'd expect more from a toddler or a teenage girl."

"Hey! I'm no older than you!" Sigma protests.

Dio full on cackles at that. "Your dementia must finally be setting in, because I reallllly doubt that."

Wait, they aren't supposed to be referencing his age that explicitly-

"So do I, actually." Phi interjects. "What are you talking about Sigma? There's no way you're as young as he is."

"Of course there is!" Sigma exclaims defensively. "He can't possibly be that much younger than me! I'm only 22 years old!"

A moment of flat silence passes through the group.

That… definitely wasn't supposed to happen…

"You're… you're not." Phi slowly replies, sounding rather off-balance from Sigma's claim. "There's no way. You look like the oldest person here, period."

"Wha- no I don't! What?!"

Sigma looks around wildly, obviously desperate for someone to refute the two of them, but finds only faces of doubt and disbelief in varying degrees.

"Sigma, are you okay…?" Luna asks.

"Mirror. I need a mirror…"

"Heh, looks like the old timer's finally lost it." Dio casually remarks as Sigma's voice turns ragged and begins trailing off into a series of incoherent mumbles. "Bets on what's wrong with him?"

"It isn't Radical-6 again, is it?" Phi asks worriedly.

"I don't think so..." Luna says, a concerned expression crossing her face as she watches Sigma sway almost drunkenly on his feet. "At least, this doesn't fit with the known effects of the virus so far."

"I would tend to agree." K adds. "Sigma simply seems... confused, at the moment. Regardless, I suggest that we move him to the infirmary to ensure he does not accidentally hurt himself."

Luna nods in agreement, while Sigma's gaze swivels to K, his normal eye widening. Rapidly stumbling forward, he all but throws himself at the armored man, staring into the yellowish metal that covers him with a near manic intensity. Unfortunately for him, it isn't anywhere near well-polished enough to reflect more than vague blurs.

"Sigma, you are unwell." K says gently, preparing to restrain him. "Forgive me, but I must-"

Sigma twists, his eyes alighting on the bracelet on K's left arm. Tearing away before K can grab him, he wrenches his arm up to his face, twisting the bracelet on it back and forth to try and make it catch the light. Realizing what he's doing, I look down at my own bracelet, bringing it close to my face and tilting it to try and get the right angle. After a few seconds, I manage to make out a dim image of Clover's face staring back at me from within the dark, polished looking surface.

So these are reflective enough for that. Which means that any second now, Sigma is likely going to-

"AHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!" Sigma screams.

…see himself…

"Sigma!" Luna and Phi simultaneously cry out.

One of Sigma's hands frantically reaches up to his face, fingers curling around the bionic eye he didn't know he had and tugging on it as if he's trying to tear it out by force. Then suddenly his normal eye rolls upwards in his head, and he crumples to the floor, unconscious.

…well. That happened.

"Man, people are just passing out all over the place today, huh?" Dio comments.

Phi shoots him another nasty look before running over to Sigma's fallen form, followed by Luna and K. I run over myself a few seconds later, my mind awhirl.

Given what went down between Tenmyouji and Alice earlier with the whole All-Ice thing, perhaps I shouldn't be so surprised about something going completely off the rails, but... that was one of the biggest reveals of the game just now. Sigma wasn't supposed to know about his age until after literally everything else is already resolved. Should I have tried to prevent this, somehow? I barely realized what was going to happen before it did, but maybe if I'd said something early on... well, too late now. I suppose if I ever manage to get out of this timeline, I'm going to have to hope the others aren't completely different as a result of what just happened here. Lovely.

Once again I find myself helping haul an unconscious body off the floor, the four of us lifting Sigma up in tandem and slowly carrying him towards the Infirmary. Meanwhile, Dio walks off in the opposite direction, apparently to inspect the number 9 door. Ass...

Luckily, the Infirmary isn't far away, so we don't have to carry Sigma long. About half a minute later, the four of us shuffle into the room... and are greeted with the sight of Tenmyouji kneeling on the floor, holding his stomach. Oh for the love of- what now?!

"Tenmyouji?" Phi says, sounding shocked. "What happened?!"

"Alice..." Tenmyouji moans in a strained voice, as if it pains him to talk.

...Alice?

I frantically look around the room. She's not here-!

Letting go of Sigma, leaving the others to set him down on the examination bed, I run to Tenmyouji's side.

"Where's Alice?!" I almost shriek.

"She's gone..." Tenmyouji wheezes. "It was just like Quark... she just suddenly stood up… started saying we were all going to die... wouldn't listen to me..."

"What about the injection gun?!"

"Tried that..." Tenmyouji feebly gestures to the right side of the room, where I notice the tool lying discarded on the ground. "...she smacked it out of my hands... kicked me... took me down almost instantly..."

"How long ago?!"

"Can't have been more than half a minute…"

Without another word, I leap to my feet and burst out of the room, heading for the next floor down. Alice goes to the B. Garden in the game when this happens, right?! If I don't get there in time-!

The short elevator ride feels like an eternity, my mind spending the entirety of the wait fretting over every little thing I could have done differently. Ten minutes, we weren't even gone for ten minutes! Damn it, I should've known the Radical-6 would hit Alice in full at the worst possible time; how else does it ever work in this sort of scenario?! She shouldn't have the scalpel at least, but that doesn't really guarantee anything; please, let me make it!

The second the elevator lets me out, I scramble back to the B. Garden as quickly as I can (falling once along the way because of my stupid heels) and duck under the door before it's even fully raised. Inside, I find…

Nothing.

My head turns rapidly from side to side. The room is empty, just like we left it, and despite its size there isn't anywhere to really hide. She's not here?! Then where...?!

Barely thinking, I rush back to the Floor B nexus. As I arrive, the elevator doors open again, revealing Phi, K, and Dio.

"Have you found her?" K asks, his tone grim.

"No, I haven't!" I yell, already shoving myself through the green door. "Check the pantry and the warehouse!"

Leaving the others behind in record time, I sprint down the hall towards the Archives. If I can't rely on knowledge from the game, I'm just going to have to check everywhere Alice could have possibly gone!

I eventually find myself at another three door nexus, panting heavily and aching from a second shoe-induced fall, fairly certain that I pulled a muscle in the process this time. Tugging on the lever at the center to open up the door on the left, I stagger at an only slightly less frantic pace down the revealed hallway, my lungs still burning from lack of air. Thankfully, my destination isn’t far now, and a few seconds later the door of the Archives automatically slides up in response to my presence. I stumble inside... and stop dead.

The room I've just entered is fairly tall, its walls lined with bookshelves over twice the size of the door. At the center left is a large desk with a mechanical scale and a small ink bottle sitting on it, the latter knocked on its side and dripping its contents all over the soft blue carpet below. The shelves directly above the desk appear to have had the books they housed pulled out and haphazardly thrown around the room, as if someone grabbed and tossed them out of the way in order to use the shelves as handholds. Presumably, they were trying to reach the ledge at the top.

That someone is lying in the center of the floor, her neck snapped backwards at a truly sickening angle.

A lump wells up in my throat as I stare at Alice's body. Turning away, I leave the room and lurch down the hall at a much slower pace than I arrived. The door at the other end slides up before I get there, spitting out Phi. She opens her mouth to speak-

"Alice is dead in the archives." I tell her, monotone.

Having headed her off before she could say anything, I brush past the girl without another word, heading back to the nexus. I… I need to be alone right now…

When I step out of the elevator back on Floor A, I find Luna and Tenmyouji standing there waiting, the latter supporting himself via a hand on the former's shoulder.

"Oh, Clover." Luna says. "We were just about to head down to help."

"Did you find Alice?" Tenmyouji asks.

"Yes." I whisper as I walk around the pair, never once meeting their gaze.


I end up going to one of the rooms in the Crew Quarters, the one place I can think of that I'm likely to have any privacy. As soon as I've closed the door behind me, I curl up in the back corner and immediately break down. Heavy tears stream down my face, my body trembling as I weep without restraint. Why did she- why did she have to-! It's not fair! Why couldn't I- I should have… should have insisted she let us use the Soporil on her, no matter how much she didn't want us to, why didn't I just insist?! I knew this would happen, and yet I…! I...

I let her die…

I don't know how long I sit there, but my tears eventually slow. I don't feel any better however, and a small part of my mind begins to wonder if something is wrong with me, as I honestly don't understand why this is affecting me so badly. Why do I care so much about this? Why do I care at all?! Alice isn't important in the ultimate scheme of things! She dies in almost every timeline, has no truly critical role to play besides helping Sigma get one of the bomb codes out of Dio, and until literally hours ago, I only knew her as a fictional character, and not even one I was particularly attached to! So why… why am I…

A fresh wave of sobs overtakes me, and I bury my face in my knees. Is… is it because I'm Clover? Are her own feelings for Alice somehow carrying over to me? It's got to be something like that; I've basically been fixated on her ever since she collapsed in the garden, and while Alice may have held me and let me cry on her shoulder for a bit, surely I can't naturally be this upset about her death when I barely even knew her. There's got to be some physical component in play here; there has to be… right...?

The sound of the door opening startles me from my thoughts. I look up to see who it is... only to see Dio standing in the doorway, blocking my access to the hall.

"What are you doing here…?" I murmur, instantly on guard as I hurriedly stand and wipe the tears from my eyes.

Dio smiles, one hand in his coat pocket and the other on the brim of his hat. "Calm down there Clover, I just came to find you. Phi and Luna were worried you might be about to do something stupid, so I offered to go look for you."

Dio, volunteering for anything that doesn't ultimately benefit him? Yeah, right. This is bad; why would he be here, if not to… no. Surely, without the knife, he wouldn't try...

"Why are you actually here?" I ask.

"Uh, didn't I just tell you?"

"Yeah. I just don't believe you." I clarify, glaring at him with as much ire as I can muster. "What's in your hand?"

Dio frowns, but pulls his other hand out of his coat, holding up his empty palms in a placating manner. "Nothing. Hey, I know you're upset about Alice and all, but that doesn't have anything to do with me. No reason to be so suspicious, I'm just here to help."

I bare my teeth as he walks into the room. My back is already against the wall; I don't have anywhere to go…

"Back off, Dio." I growl, though it hardly comes off as intimidating with my voice still all tremulous from crying.

"Look… I can empathize." Dio says, ignoring me. "I… I've had someone close to me die too. I won't say it gets better, but what I can say, is that-"

"Go AWAY!" I shout, cutting him off. "In case you didn't realize, it's a little too late for you to try playing the nice guy!"

He halts, apparently considering that, then shrugs.

"Alright, fair point."

Balling his hand into a fist, Dio lunges, aiming to punch me in the ribs. Having already expected an attack, I manage to dodge to the side, and Dio's fist impacts the wall, causing him to recoil in pain. I clamber over the metal bed, trying to get to the door, but before I can get there an arm lashes out from behind me and grabs me around the waist, sending me crashing to the floor. Dio's weight comes down on top of me and smashes my chest into the ground, eliciting a heavy gasp of pain from me and giving my attacker the chance to tighten his grip. Shit!

I thrash wildly as Dio tries to pin me to the floor. Unable to turn around, but knowing our rough positions, I bring my head up as quickly as possible to smash into his face. I feel the back of my skull hit teeth, and a satisfyingly pained cry rings out from right above me, but the arm around my waist doesn't loosen enough for me to escape it. I do manage to get my own arm free however, which I blindly reach backwards with in hopes of perhaps shoving one of Clover's nails through an eye-

Dio manages to get his other arm around me, and I feel something sharp settle across my throat. I freeze, and Dio laughs.

"You fucking bitch... gotta give you credit, I didn't expect you to put up that much of a fight."

I'm dead. He's going to kill me; I have to SHIFT now.

"Where the hell did you get a knife from?!" I scream, legitimately unclear as to how the situation I'm in right now is even possible. I already took care of the only two blades in the facility!

"Funny story, that." Dio drawls. "I had a better one, but it seems to have gone missing. Luckily, while everyone was running around looking for your dead friend, I just happened to find this one lying on the floor in a room set up to look like some sorta giant garden."

…the paring knife. God DAMN IT-!

"Hey, that was the one you went through, right?" Dio says, his voice practically radiating smugness. "Thanks for leaving this out for me to find. Really, I appreciate it."

"Why are you doing this?! Because I didn't want to pair up with you?!" I ask, desperately trying to stall for time. Come on asshole, you never know when to shut up in the game…!

Dio laughs again, not bothering to try and make it sound non-maniacal. "Nah, that's just a bonus. I was gonna do this from the start. Don't feel too bad though; by the end of this game, I plan on being the only one to walk out of here alive."

SHIFT! SHIFT already! How is this not enough fucking crisis to activate it?!

"There's no way you won't get caught." I spit. "The others aren't that stupid."

"Eh, maybe." Dio admits. "But they're down three people already, and everyone who isn't out like a light right now is busy dealing with the body downstairs. Without any witnesses, I'd bet I can blame this on Zero easily enough. Or, maybe I'll make it look like a suicide! The poor teenage girl, hysterical over the loss of her only friend, decides to join her in death. Kinda poetic, huh? I'd buy it. Besides, even if the others do see through me, I've always got my trump card…"

Why isn't this working?! Shit, there's got to be something else I can use to keep Dio talking! Something, anything-!

"Why even bring bombs in here if you're just planning on killing everyone yourself?!" I try.

I feel Dio tense in surprise, but he seems to get over it much faster than I would have expected, his voice dropping into a snarling hiss. "I don't know how you know about that you little bitch, but it's not gonna matter in a few seconds, so I think I'll just leave you to wonder about it in the afterlife. So long."

Wait-!

Dio’s hand moves to the left. A burning pain envelops my throat, and I choke, feeling as if something just went down the wrong pipe. A spray of blood exits my mouth, coating the ground beneath me with flecks of red.

No...

The arm uncurls from around my stomach as Dio stands back up, setting the paring knife on the floor next to me. I try to push myself up as well, but the world suddenly starts spinning around me, and I collapse back to the floor before I'm more than a few inches off of it. I manage to shakily bring a hand up to my neck, finding it covered in a warm, sticky liquid that seeps between my fingers like water from a broken faucet.

I can't... breathe...

Dio steps over top of me, deftly avoiding the rapidly pooling puddle of blood as he strolls out of the room. I desperately want to curse him, to spit in his face at the very least, but I can barely even lever my head off the ground. My killer looks down at me for a final time, grinning, and slowly closes the door, the slam of the metal a death knell in my ears.

I gasp again, every attempted breath more agonizing than the last as I slowly drown in my own blood. More tears slip down my face as my thoughts begin to slow, feeling as if they're being dredged up from the bottom of the ocean.

I failed... I couldn't do anything...

Darkness begins encroaching on my vision, threatening to blind me.

...why... why did this... happen...?

My body feels numb.

...too much wishing to be in.... any world other than my own... I guess... careful what you wish for... and all that...

Unable to keep it raised any longer, my head slumps to the floor. A single strand of curled pink hair falls down in front of eyes that I can't seem to keep open.

...don't even get to die... as myself... in the end...

...heh... what a joke…

...

..

.

.

.

 

 

 


I'm floating. Bodilessly drifting through a void of nothingness. Everything feels far away.

A glowing line gradually comes into view. Small, pulsing nodes are spaced unevenly across its length, seeming to crook the line where they lie. I look down upon it with my nonexistent eyes, regarding it with all the uncaring incomprehension of a soul trapped within an endless dream.

As I drift closer, an unseen force seems to pull at me, steadily drawing me down towards the line. I can’t summon enough conscious thought to care, and so just let it happen, feeling nothing but a vast, overpowering sense of detachment. Soon, I find myself slowly gliding towards one of the strange nodes, which thrums like a beating heart in the distance.

The closer I get to the node, the stronger the pull seems to become. Unable and unwilling to resist, I continue to accelerate until I’m hurtling downwards towards the node like a meteor in freefall. Before I even know it, its light engulfs and swallows me completely.

There's a sudden falling sensation, and then...


 

"You do want to come with us, right Clover?"

...what?

I blink reflexively, my mind still playing catch up. I- I'm-?

"Clover?"

My eyes dart over to the speaker. Alice. Alive. Not dead. Not... dead?

My hand snaps up to my throat. It's whole. Intact. Clean. But… it wasn't. Just a second ago, it was...

"Clover...?"

I slowly look around the small room, finally starting to process what's going on. I'm... back at the doors. Everyone's here... Sigma, Quark, Luna-

Dio.

I scramble backwards, my back slamming into the wall behind me. My heart flips into overdrive, pupils dilating as my breaths start coming short and fast, too fast, no, I can't breathe again, no, NO-

"Clover?! What's wrong?!"

"She's started hyperventilating!"

"Some sort of panic attack?!"

"The hell are you looking at me for?"

"We don't have time to deal with this! We need to make a choice now!"

"Fine! Luna, take her!"

"Wh- what? Why-"

"Tenmyouji said you have medical training, didn't he? Help Clover!"

I feel somebody pick me up and thrust me into someone else's arms.

"Everyone, get to the doors!"

My vision blurs, and I sink back into darkness.

Chapter Text

When my eyes open again, I find myself staring up at a low ceiling, lying on something flat. As the fog of sleep lifts from my mind, I slowly pan my eyes down, hoping against hope...

…nope, still Clover.

I quickly sit up and look around, unsure of exactly where I am. I appear to be on a bed- one of three, all of them sheetless, lined up beside each other in a neat little row. To my right is a sink with a dirty mirror hanging above it, while the rest of the room is hidden by a dark blue room divider… I’m in the infirmary?

Footsteps from the other side of the room draw my attention. A second later, Luna rounds the divider, and spots me sitting up.

“Oh, you’re awake!” Luna says with undisguised relief. “Wait right here, I’m going to go get the others.”

Before I can ask or even say anything, she’s already left. Questions dying in my throat, I let myself slowly lean back against the wall, trying to process everything.

I made it. I can SHIFT. In fact, not only can I SHIFT, but my memory apparently stays with me in its entirety, unlike Sigma and Phi’s until the very end of the game. That’s incredibly useful. Not having to rely on “flashes of insight” should give me a huge advantage in making it to the correct timeline…

I draw my knees up to chest, quivering.

…if only I hadn’t had to die for it to work. That was the single most terrifying experience of my life, though I guess that’s only natural seeing as how it literally killed me. I can almost still feel the paring knife pressed up against my throat, with Dio’s weight bearing down upon my back… even though I took precautions, they didn’t make any difference in the end. I shouldn't have isolated myself; I should have known. The fact that I had such a huge advantage information-wise and yet still ended up dead by Dio’s hand is honestly an extremely depressing thought. Worse, I only managed to go back as far as the second set of doors: Akane is still dead, and I still need to make it to a timeline where she's not. But it seems like in order to do that, I'm probably going to have to...

I shut my eyes, squeezing back the oncoming tears before they can fall this time. No. I'll figure out how to SHIFT without dying; I will. I know it’s not an absolutely necessary step of the process, and now that I’ve done it once, surely-

My mental self-reassurances are interrupted as the door slides up, and an entire throng of people rush into the room. Alice, heading the pack, is the first to spot me.

“Clover!”

Alice runs to the side of my bed, and I stand up just in time for her to envelop me in a tight, obviously relieved hug. Even with her strange chest ring pressing into parts of my anatomy that I'm still not exactly used to, I can't help but feel comforted, particularly given the state I last saw her in. I find myself hugging back almost immediately, smiling despite myself.

“Alice...”

I look over her shoulder at the watching crowd, which thankfully seems largely content to let us have our moment. After a little while, Alice breaks our embrace, which the others take as their cue to speak up.

“Welcome back.” Sigma starts.

“Grandpa was worried about you.” Quark says, smiling. “We’re glad to see you’re okay Miss Clover!”

“Indeed.” K adds. “I believe we can all agree that it is good to see you are alright now.”

“Yeah… had us pretty nervous for a bit there.”

The last voice sends ice racing up my spine, and I flinch backwards as Dio steps past Phi and Sigma to the front of the group, trying to force myself not to panic. Have to stay calm… don’t want to pass out again…

I quickly wrench my eyes away, trying not to focus on the man who murdered me. He wouldn’t try anything while everyone else is around, right? Then again, I’d thought he wouldn’t attack me without his knife, but that just made him go find a different one-

“Clover?” Sigma says. “You’re still with us, right?”

I shake my head to try and clear it. I need to focus on the here and now.

“Y-yeah.” I stutter out. “Hey, everyone… what did I miss?”

“After you passed out, I did my best to regulate your breathing.” Luna explains. “Your respiration stabilized before too long, but you didn’t wake up, so I carried you to the next room.”

“Miss Luna said we should still check you in the infirmary, so we solved all the puzzles as quick as we could, and got you back here as fast as possible!” Quark adds.

Looks like I was out long enough to miss the escape room entirely… I’m not sure if that’s a problem or not, but right now I’m leaning on the side of not.

“Thanks. Both of you.” I say. “Sorry to have caused so much trouble.”

“Our team escaped and made it back here not long after.” K adds. “Sigma’s team showed up about ten minutes later.”

“I’m just happy you’re awake.” Alice says. “You really scared me back there…”

“Well, let's not celebrate just yet.” Tenmyouji interrupts. “I'm glad Clover's awake and all too, but we can't just forget what we found out.”

The mood of the room abruptly darkens. I look from face to face, trying to figure out what’s wrong, but can’t discern anything from them.

“What’s wrong? Someone mind cluing me in?” I ask, when no one speaks up after several seconds.

Alice bites her lip and turns to look me straight in the eye.

“I’m sorry Clover, but… you’re infected with Radical-6.”

I sit back down on the bed and lower my head into my hands, unable to stop myself from letting loose a small giggle at Alice’s solemn pronouncement.

“Clover, that wasn’t a joke.” Sigma says seriously.

I know it’s not, but the irony of this situation is too staggering for me not to laugh at it.

“So, you used the ADAM on me while I was out then?” I ask, raising my head again.

Alice nods, her expression still grim. “As soon as we escaped and made it back here. Luna wasn’t sure why you started hyperventilating, so she scanned you, and… the machine diagnosed you as positive for the virus.”

Not exactly surprising, seeing as how literally everyone here except Luna would show positive for said virus. Though, come to think of it…

I lean over and count the number of heads. Everyone still seems to be up and about, Quark and Alice included… I guess no one’s actually been hit by the Radical-6 yet, somehow? That’s strange. And makes me the only one who’s suspected of being sick, apparently.

“Don’t worry,” Alice says reassuringly, “I promise, we'll find a way to cure it.”

“…you can say that, but I don’t really see how.” Tenmyouji says dolefully, looking away.

“Yeah, have you forgotten where we are?” Dio asks, raising a finger and tilting his head to the side. “Luna already said she can't cure it with anything in here, so what exactly do you think-”

“Did I ask for your input?" Alice says irritably, speaking over him. “We'll find a way.”

I just sit there, watching the others talk. I don’t know how to convince them that Radical-6 isn’t why I collapsed, and frankly I’m not sure I even want to. It’s a convenient excuse, really.

“Until then though, you’ll need to stay here, okay Clover?”

...or maybe a not so convenient excuse.

“Wait, what do you mean?” I protest. “If we can’t treat the virus anyways, I don’t see how me staying in the infirmary helps.”

“We barely have any idea what the effects of Radical-6 are.” Alice explains. “All we know is that it caused you to hyperventilate and fall unconscious, but there could be any number of other symptoms. If something else happens, it’s best for you to already be here, so you can be treated as fast as possible.”

…right, most of the group doesn’t know that Radical-6 causes suicide, they just know that it's supposedly deadly… and now they’re getting the wrong idea about it on top of that. Damn, I really don’t want to be stuck in the infirmary. Not only is it bad to be left out of current events, but staying in one place and having everyone know about it is practically inviting Dio to come kill me again. Luckily, I have what might be the perfect answer for this.

“Alice, the ADAM isn’t trustworthy. We found it in here after all- it could have been tampered with in any number of ways.” I say, using her own words to make my point.

“Yes, it might have been.” Alice admits. “But we can’t take that risk.”

I stare at her for a second. What the- are you- Miss Hypocritical here- arrrrrgh, the humor of this role reversal is not lost on me, but I'm not finding it quite as funny anymore. Okay, so if that didn’t work, then… this is still after I told Alice about “seeing the future”, right?

“Look, Alice, you don’t need to worry about me anymore.” I say, trying to put the same sort of emphasis on my words as last time. “I’m certain of it.”

“I would not be so certain.” K says. “The newspaper clipping we discovered seemed to indicate the disease as being highly dangerous.”

“No, I just- I know I’m not in any more danger, alright?” I say, giving Alice a pointed look and willing her to understand it.

“Huh...? Clover, what are you talking about?” Sigma asks, confused.

“It’s a private thing between me and her. You wouldn’t understand.” Alice says aloud, then drops her voice to a whisper and speaks directly in my ear. “I’m sorry Clover, but I can’t accept that. Even if you mean it, I can’t trust that your judgment hasn’t been compromised by the virus too.

…you’ve got to be kidding me.

“Don’t worry too much Clover.” Dio says airily. “Luna’s already agreed to stay here and watch over you, since she’s got the most chance of being able to do something about it if anything does happen.”

I shudder, squirming away from the sound of his voice again. No, I can’t stay here, I can’t- actually, wait, I shouldn’t even be staying in this timeline, let alone this room. I know I can SHIFT now, and even if I only managed it in... the circumstances that I did, maybe now that I’ve actually experienced it…

Closing my eyes, I try once more to eject my consciousness from the timeline. When nothing happens, I reach for the feeling of how it happened before, trying to draw on that for reference… only for my mind to immediately connect it to the sensation of choking on my own blood, the memory sending another full body tremor through me before I manage to wrench my thoughts away from the subject.

“Luna, she’s shivering!” Alice says worriedly, placing a hand on my forehead. “Is that another effect of the virus?”

“Not that any of us would know, but I’d actually guess that Clover’s just cold.” Tenmyouji remarks. “It’s hardly any wonder; we’re all cold. This place doesn’t really seem to have been built with comfort in mind.”

“Yeah, and she’s… not exactly wearing much…” Sigma adds, rather obviously eyeing me. I let it slide, too caught up in my own head to pay him much mind right now.

“...oh.” Alice says, evidently not having thought of that. “Well, just bear with it for now, Clover. We'll be out of here soon.”

I acknowledge her with a sort of shaky nod, no longer willing to argue the point.

“That’s a nice sentiment and all, but it's only going to come true if we keep looking for a way out.” Phi says, the only words I’ve heard her speak since she first entered the room. “We need to get back to it. Come on.”

The white-haired girl moves to the door and walks out of the room without another word. Realizing that she’s probably right, the others begin to trickle out after her, most of them wishing me well as they go. Alice, now at the back of the group, gives me a final parting look and a promise to check in soon before the door shuts itself behind her, leaving me alone in the infirmary with Luna again.

“Just lie down and rest for now, okay?” Luna soothingly instructs as quiet falls over the room.

“…yeah, alright.” I say dully, flopping back down on the uncomfortably hard bed.

Luna seems to accept my words despite my unhappy tone and sits down two beds away from me, presumably wanting to keep close while also trying not to invade my personal space. I don’t know why she’s even bothering, since there’s nothing she can do if the Radical-6 really does kick in, but I guess she promised the others or something.

I sigh, staring up at the ceiling. Great… so, to summarize, I’ve been semi-permanently confined to the infirmary, I still can’t SHIFT on demand, and I probably have a touch of PTSD from Dio slicing my neck open. Hard to believe my situation has somehow gotten even worse, but apparently I have a real talent for making that happen.

I roll over on the bed, pressing my face into the overly firm mattress. What the heck am I going to do about Dio anyways? Since I seem to be trapped in this timeline for now, I have no choice but to think about it, especially since it's entirely likely he's going to start killing people again the second he gets the opportunity. I guess if I’m ever allowed out of here I could try to take him by surprise; ambush him before he does it to me or anyone else… but even if I succeeded, his bombs are on a failsafe, so they’d probably activate and blow everyone up anyways. That would admittedly be a quicker way of going out than having my throat slit again, but I’d really prefer to find a way to move timelines that doesn’t involve me getting killed, especially since I have no guarantee that will even work a second time. I certainly can’t seem to do it now after all, and even just trying was…

I shiver again and roll back over, finding my previous position uncomfortable. I can’t let what Dio did to me affect me like this; I’ll never manage to SHIFT again if I do. Usually nothing does affect me like this, honestly. Granted, I’ve never been murdered before, but other negative experiences have always tended to affect me more… abstractly, I guess?

I think about that for a moment before deciding it's not the right word. “Clinically”, maybe? There just... usually feels like there's a certain degree of separation between an issue and how I actually process it. Kind of like I’m always looking at things from an outside perspective, even when a problem directly affects me, I guess? This, though… I don’t know if it’s because of how it happened, or because of the severity of the event, or just because I have Clover’s brain right now, but I can barely even think about my own death without panicking, which is completely unacceptable given the circumstances. But I can’t really force myself not to panic…

I groan quietly and bring my hands up to clutch my face, not seeing a way to move forward.

“Are you alright Clover?” Luna asks, clear concern in her voice. “Do you have a headache?”

…well, even if I don’t know what to do right now, I suppose gathering a little more information couldn’t hurt.

“No, but I do have a question.” I reply, looking over at her. “Did the others already open any of the AB rooms?”

“Oh, um,” Luna says, seeming a little startled by the sudden inquiry, “yes, I believe they did that just before you woke up. We weren’t sure when… or, even if you’d awaken, so it was agreed that it would be best not to wait.”

Okay, so that leaves me with probably… somewhere around 30 minutes before the AB room decision happens? And then a break afterwards before the next set of doors. That’s at least a fair amount of time to come up with a new plan of attack, I suppose.

“Alright... and what rooms did everyone go through again?”

“Quark and I went through a room known as the GAULEM bay.” Luna replies. “I believe Tenmyouji, Alice, and K went through the control center, and Sigma, Dio, and Phi went through a place called the PEC. I’m not… entirely sure, I’m afraid. They were only mentioned in passing.”

Yeah, but you’d know anyways, so I have little reason to doubt any of that.

“Was there anything else you wanted to ask me?”

I glance over at Luna, deliberating. There is, actually: I’d kind of like to ask her about SHIFTing. The only time I’ve done it so far, it wasn’t really under my control, and it’s become pretty clear by now that even aside from my newfound issues there’s something I’m just not doing right. The problem is… I’m not sure how much Luna really knows about it? I would think that she has to know something, since she’s definitely aware of at least the broad strokes of how this whole plan is supposed to work, but she’s also a robot- a GAULEM, that is- with no personal experience with SHIFTing, or anything else involving the Morphogenetic Field for that matter. Not to mention she has a rather vested interest in seeing said plan not get screwed up by some random unknown consciousness from outside the universe that just happened to somehow end up in Clover. So…

“…no, that’s it.” I tell her.

“Okay then. Feel free to tell me if you think of anything else.” Luna offers.

That ends the conversation, and the room is plunged into silence once again.

I spend more than a few minutes just lying there on the bed, idly fidgeting with Clover’s strange hair ornaments as my mind circles itself like an empty ouroboros, completely failing to come up with any feasible way to make progress. Why does my grand objective have to hinge upon a skill that I’m so clearly terrible at? Hell, my objective in part is that skill, and not only can I not use it properly, but if I don’t manage to unlink the concept from my recent more-than-near-death experience such that I don’t flash back to the memory just thinking about using it, it’s going to end up being a one-time only deal- ouch!

As I take a moment to disentangle my hand from where one of the nails got snagged in Clover’s bright pink curls, the door on the other side of the room- the one Luna and I can’t see- audibly opens. My heart starts beating faster as footsteps sound out, worry that the visitor might be Dio briefly overtaking me. The person rounds the divider…

“Oh, hello Phi.” Luna greets as the girl comes into view.

“Hey Luna. Clover.” Phi says in return, her eyes slightly lidded.

My heart begins to calm. Just Phi... nothing to worry about…

“Is something wrong?” Luna asks.

“No.” Phi replies. “I’m here to give you a break, actually. I figure it’s not really fair to you that you’re stuck in here while the rest of us are off investigating, so I can take over watching Clover for a little while if you’d like.”

…well, maybe a little something to worry about. Phi said that casually, like she’s just trying to be nice, but I don’t buy it for a second. She is way too suspicious of everyone else for the vast majority of the game to just spontaneously do nice things for them, not to mention she was the one urging everyone out the door not too long ago. Phi mentioned in the last timeline that she was suspicious of me even before I preemptively grabbed the scalpel away from Quark, so I’d guess that she’s planning to try and interrogate me or something? This would be the perfect time and place for that... or at least, it would be if Luna wasn’t here.

“Oh, it’s alright, you don’t need to do that.” Luna says. “It's no trouble.”

Phi's annoyance at that answer shows on her face, but she quickly smooths it over.

“Are you sure?” she persists. “Even if it’s just for a few minutes, I wouldn't mind.”

Wow. Subtle.

“That's... kind of you,” Luna says hesitantly, “and I don't mean to offend, but...”

“I have taken first aid classes before, if that's what you're worried about.” Phi interrupts.

“Oh?”

Phi nods. “I'm obviously no doctor, but if Clover starts showing any other common viral symptoms, I should be able to treat them about as well as you could.”

“I see.” Luna says, looking thoughtful. “Well, there is one thing I wanted to do. It shouldn't take too long, but if you could take over until I get back-”

“Sure, of course.” Phi interrupts again, looking increasingly impatient and seeming as though she'd like to just physically shove Luna out the door. “I was the one who offered after all, so go ahead.”

“Ah, wait one moment.” Luna says, turning to me. “Clover, are you okay with Phi taking over for me for a short while?”

Phi looks at me and grimaces, presumably thinking I'm going to try and veto the whole idea. However...

“Yeah, I'm fine with it.” I say. “I don't mind at all.”

Phi's eyes widen in surprise. True, I’m hardly particularly eager for her to try and grill me for information, but at the same time, I rather want to know why it is Phi thinks I’m so suspicious when I haven't done anything obviously questionable yet. Besides, just like last timeline, Phi doesn’t have any real leverage that could force me to tell her anything, so I’m not truly all that concerned about talking to her. At least it will give me something constructive to do.

Luna nods. “Alright then. I'll be right back.”

With that, Luna stands from the bed and walks out of the room. As soon as the door closes behind her, Phi turns toward me with a rather less-than-friendly expression, clearly unhappy about something. I sit up, preparing myself for the coming cross-examination as the white-haired girl walks to the side of my bed, opens her mouth, and says:

“How do you remove the bracelets?”

I blink. “I- what?”

“I know you know how.” Phi continues, crossing her arms. “Tell me.”

I stare at her. She... okay, so she knows I know how to do that, but how does she know? It’s not like I’ve removed my own bracelet, and I don’t recall even so much as hinting about it to anyone else. Even if Phi saw the missing aluminum, she shouldn’t know what that means. In fact, if she did, she wouldn’t need to be asking this question to begin with. Is this some sort of test, or-

An important realization strikes me.

“You,” I start, “you’re from later on, aren’t-”

“That doesn’t matter right now!” Phi nearly shouts. “Just tell me how to remove the bracelets!”

Geez, unpleasant much?

“How about a little courtesy first?” I say, rather annoyed. “I don’t see what I’ve done to you to warrant being treated like the enemy.”

I get that she suspects me of being up to something, but if this is Phi from much later in her own, personal timeline, you’d think she might have realized by now that I’m not working against her.

Phi glares at me. “Look, you’re the one who told me to ask you, okay?” she says, sounding highly frustrated. “So, just… please!”

My eyebrows shoot up. I was the one who told her to ask me?

That… changes things. If that’s true, then…

“…fine.” I say, considering my next words carefully. “But I want to know something in exchange. If I really was the one who told you to ask me about this, then… I should have given you a certain secret phrase to tell me. What was it?”

Phi's expression flattens, dropping into a near unreadable mask. She stares silently at me for several seconds before finally replying.

“Against all odds, luck remains.”

Relief flows through me, and I smile widely, my grin threatening to burst my cheeks. Yes! That was the phrase I just came up with, which means I must manage to SHIFT again at some point, because this Phi already spoke with future me in a different timeline! I’ve confirmed my own eventual success!

Highly satisfied with this unexpected turn of events, I happily fish the square of aluminum foil out of my back pocket and hold it up in front of me.

“Is that… aluminum foil?” Phi asks, squinting at it.

“Yep.” I say, still grinning.

“How is this helpful?”

“If you slip a piece under the top of the bracelet, it should block the heartbeat sensor from reaching your arm.” I explain. “Once the bracelet doesn’t detect a pulse anymore, it unlocks.”

I hold out the foil to her in case she wants to test my words. Phi doesn’t take it from me however, instead seeming merely contemplative.

“Where did you get this from?” she asks.

“I took it from one of the puzzles in the crew quarters.” I reply. “Why, did you want your own?”

“Got it.” Phi says, not actually answering me. “Thanks.”

Without another word, Phi moves away, props herself up against the wall next to the mirror, and proceeds to start staring off into nothing for no apparent reason.

...um, alright then. Not really sure what’s up with her... I guess I'll have the chance to find out later though, given what I just learned!

I lay back on the bed, giggling softly to myself. Phi doesn't know it, but there was even a little word play referring to the real me in that phrase I asked her for. “Luck remains”, hehe… what a surprising way for things to turn out! I would never have expected to be able to outright confirm my future survival like that. That's a huge load off my mind, knowing for absolute certain that I'll manage to continue SHIFTing...

...or at least, some version of me will?

My mood somehow manages to fall even faster than it rose. I was so giddy that my spur-of-the-moment plan worked that I forgot- stable time loops don't necessarily assure anything in this universe. Events aren't circumstantially guaranteed by them, a timeline just stops being the “true” one when it can't fulfill the conditions of a loop anymore. I could still screw up and fail; the me that told Phi to ask about the bracelets might have just been a different me from another timeline, who also learned how to SHIFT. Having come up with the phrase on the spot isn't a foolproof measure of knowing; an alternate me could have come up with the exact same thing for the exact same reasons. After all, we’d think just like each other.

I frown. Although… is that really how it works? I think that's how Zero Time Dilemma explains it, with all the various timelines already existing alongside each other from the start, but up until now I've been operating under the assumption that each line only comes into existence once someone SHIFTs back to change something. That's what the interface of Virtue's Last Reward implies after all, and also just what makes the most sense to me, especially because- and this just occurred to me- ZTD's version of the concept opens up a really weird question: if all the alternate timelines exist even without any SHIFTing being required to create them, then wouldn't the Sigma we follow all throughout VLR have, in all likelihood, gotten forcibly jettisoned out of his body at some point by some other him in another timeline? They would have had the exact same potential and requirements to SHIFT, right? And if they all exist simultaneously, then-

I shake my head. I'm getting myself confused; most of what Sigma does in Virtue's Last Reward was probably just him resonating with himself in alternate timelines through the Morphogenetic Field rather than SHIFTing outright, so that isn't actually an issue.

Or... no, it was SHIFTing, wasn't it? The player is sort of led to assume it's just Sigma receiving information through the MGF at first, but the end of VLR reveals what SHIFTing is, and that the AB Game had been meant to train Sigma and Phi in that specific skill all along. So… how the heck did that work then? Sigma replaced his alternate selves countless different times, yet none of them, despite being in equally SHIFT-prompting conditions, ever replaced him?

And that’s another thing, actually: the switch of consciousness. ZTD states that when someone SHIFTs, they replace the consciousness of their other self, completely exchanging places with them... which is rather horrifying come to think of it, in that it means I probably sent another version of myself to my own death out of absolutely nowhere. Ignoring that for now (and forever), we know this to be true, as Sigma’s two 40-year jumps are completely dependent on the concept. Except, that being the case, how did I end up traveling back to where I did? I supposedly should have replaced my alternate timeline self there, but I came back to the door choice before a choice was actually made. Meaning there was no alternate self, because the timeline hadn't split yet, something that should be true by both VLR and ZTD's conflicting rules. Sigma does that too in the game, usually traveling back to just prior to one of the AB Game’s decisions instead of just after, but if I take into account how SHIFTing is presented as working even just in VLR, then that... doesn’t seem possible. I mean, it was probably just a detail intended to make gameplay flow smoother by reminding the player of what came prior, but since almost everything else about the interface was meant to be taken literally- arrrrrrrgh, this doesn't make any sense!!!

The sound of the door opening again thankfully interrupts my increasingly confused thought process. I sit up to see Luna walk in, carrying a couple of small pillows I recognize as coming from the couch in the lounge.

“I’m back.” Luna announces.

“Hi Luna.” I say. “That was fast.”

“I did say it would be.” Luna says, smiling as she turns and gives Phi a small bow. “Thank you for watching over her.”

“You're welcome.” Phi replies almost tonelessly.

Without any further ceremony, she turns and walks out of the room. Yeah, really starting to wonder what's going on with her...

“Here you go, Clover.” Luna says, distracting me from that mystery by walking over and holding the cushions out to me. “I checked all the open rooms for something to help you keep warm, but I'm afraid that these were all I could find. I’m not sure how much they’ll help, but hopefully they’re better than nothing.”

I blink at the unexpected gesture before taking the offered pillows, hugging one to my chest and placing the other between my legs. The cushions aren't any warmer than the room is, but my body heat begins to seep into them as I keep them pressed up against me, making them increasingly more comfortable.

“Thank you, Luna.” I say gratefully. “This was really thoughtful of you.”

The cold wasn't why I was shivering in this specific instance, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t still been feeling it this entire time. Anything that can help me ward off the near-fridge level ambient temperature of this place is highly prized at the moment. Besides, even if Luna hadn't found anything, just the fact that she bothered at all without even being asked was... kind of her.

“I'm glad.” Luna says happily. “Please, do tell me if there's anything else I can do to help you feel more comfortable.”

“No, I think I'm fine for now.” I tell her. “I should... get back to resting, I suppose.”

Luna nods, and I lay back down again, a tiny smile tugging at the corner of my lips.

My time in this universe hasn't been a pleasant experience thus far. Not by any means.

But... at least it's not all bad.