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CORDYCEPS: Too clever for their own good

Chapter Text

Honestly, who hasn't woken up in a hospital bed with no memory of how they got there? Like, that's a universal human experience, right? It's not weird? I'm asking because I actually don't know.

I wake up in this room, right? And like, it's pretty clearly a hospital room. There's like, instruments on the walls, and a little sink thing, hand sanitizer, a curtain dealie that cuts the room in half. I think I know what a hospital room looks like. It looks a lot like, but not quite exactly like, this room I woke up in.

I didn't panic when I woke up. It didn't feel like, oh, crap, how did I get there, this isn't my room! That's how I eventually realized I should have reacted when I woke up, but I didn't. It felt... totally normal, like yeah this was just another day. I got out of bed and stumbled groggily over to the sink. Turned on the water, started washing my face, got a little shocked by how cold it was.

You know how when you use a sink for a while, you get used to its... personality? Like, you turn on the hot and cold to get warm water, but it takes a while for the hot to get hot, so it's cold at first? Or sometimes it's the other way around, and it's really sensitive to how much you turn the hot handle, so you need to learn the right angle to get water that's warm but not scalding. A lot of it becomes muscle memory, but you can come back to the same sink years later and be like “oh, yeah, it's THIS guy, the handle's loose so you need to push it until you can FEEL the bit inside move”.

So I got shocked by how cold the water was. It was one of those sinks where the heat takes a second to warm up.

You get why that's weird, right?

You don't expect anything, when you meet a new sink. You've got to be ready for anything, experiment a little to get a feel for it. You run your hand in the water and adjust the knobs until it's just right. That's standard procedure.

But I'd turned the sink on without thinking about it, and then gotten surprised when it was cold. That's weird. You only turn the sink on without thinking when you know the sink, when you've been using it every day. Muscle memory. My muscles remembered how to turn on the sink, but my brain didn't remember to wait for the heat to come on.

I'd never been in that hospital room before, as far as I could remember.

(Maybe you already see where this is going. Maybe you've at least started to think about it, started questioning my assumptions, been like “hey, this is obvious, why didn't you pick up on it?” and stuff. Me, though... I was sleepy and I'd just gotten a faceful of ice water. Cut me some slack. The other shoe dropped later.)

Anyway, I didn't pick up on the muscle memory thing at the time. The jolt made me acutely aware of how I was not in a place I remembered being. That got me panicked, got me looking around. Had to figure out where I was.

The first thing I noticed was the counter next to the sink. There were a bunch of papers I wanted to read, but my hands were wet. Can't pick up paper with wet hands, I'd wreck it. So I looked around for something to dry them on.

There was the curtain, but this was a hospital room. Who knew what gross bodily fluids that thing was covered in? My gray hospital gown- which I didn't remember putting on- looked kinda grody, like I'd been lying in it for a while. There were the blankets and sheets on the bed, but, again, hospital. Box of tissues, no. You ever try to dry your hands with tissues? They fall apart and stick to your hands. It's a bad time. Curtains on the window, same problem as the divider curtain. Potentially gross.

I was eying a little thing of sanitary wipes on the wall when I realized my hands had pretty much dripped dry while I was looking for stuff. I shrugged. Went back to the papers. Grabbed a plastic folder, first, since my hands were still a little wet.

“Emergency Meditation Guide”, the first page read.

Yeah. Weird title. You'd think in an emergency, you'd want to, like... not meditate. Maybe it was about meditating on the concept of emergencies? Whatever. I flipped open to the first page, my interest piqued.

 

ELEPHANT WARNING: PERSONNEL SUPERVISION REQUIRED

This copy of the Shelhart EMG belongs to Dr. F Orchard . The EMG is to be administered only by the EMG's owner. If you are not the EMG's owner, do not read any portion of this document except that which is shown to you by the owner as part of the Shelhart Procedure v1. THIS DOCUMENT IS HAZARDOUS. Unsupervised reading of this document is typically followed by severe legal action, amnestic relapse, and death.

Unsupervised patients are urged in the strongest possible terms to restrain their curiosity. This warning does not constitute a test, trick, or joke.

 

So I immediately turned the page and kept reading, right? Obviously that's what you do when you encounter something weird and you're looking for information. Everyone knows you ignore stuff like that. You read The Monster At The End Of This Book, right? Did anyone ever just listen to Grover when he begged and begged you not to keep turning pages? Did anyone even consider that their lovable, furry blue pal had some key insight they were missing? No way.

Except I did listen. Something about it spooked me. There was a part of me screaming that I was being stupid, that sticks and stones could break my bones but words could never hurt me... but for some reason, it felt important to ignore that voice.

If I couldn't find out anything else, after looking around, maybe I'd go back to it.

The papers surrounding the EMG were my medical charts. My height, weight, blood pressure, a bunch of acronyms and jargon I didn't get. I'd never really paid attention to all those stats- if someone had asked my height, I probably would've been like “...five and a half-ish feet? Maybe?” and moved on. Numbers like that never seemed important to me.

Nothing seemed unusual about the medical records- the section on medications I was taking included an antibiotic and a multivitamin, brand names I recognized. Nothing that indicated that there was anything wrong with me.

Anyway, I looked around some more. Remember earlier I said that hospital rooms looked almost, but not quite, like this place? Because it had some key differences from your average hospital room. Most of them indicated that the place was... lived-in.

The bed was cozy. Like, really plush. It had decorated pillowcases, a memory-foam mattress, and several layers of blankets and comforters, like someone with disposable income would set up for their own bed. Not like a hospital would throw together so some sick rando would have a place to sleep for a few nights.

A bookcase, with some science fiction books. A series, actually- The Light Marathon. I'd read some of the early books, which were sci-fi thrillers about an interplanetary cyberpunk conspiracy. I'd been planning to read the rest.

There was a table. Wooden table, with wooden chairs, with a board game in progress. Risk, it looked like. It looked like it had been two players- only green and brown were on the board, and the map looked pretty evenly matched. This was a game that had been left in the middle. (Don't judge me, but I peeked at both players' facedown cards. Brown had three soldiers and a cannon, and Green just had one soldier and two horses. So Green wouldn't be able to turn in three of a kind for extra armies next turn, by the looks of it. Or it might have been the other way around, if I had the cards mixed up.)

There were cabinets next to the sink, mostly empty except for some bottles of medication I didn't recognize, and didn't want to mess with. There was a cabinet under the sink with plastic bags and cleaning supplies. There was a mirror above the sink, and on the mirror was a sticker. A big red sticker with a number, (404) 555-9733, purporting to be a Prevention Suicide Hotline. It was placed right in the middle, so I had to kind of bend down to see my reflection, which was annoying.

And there was a window.

Well, no, there wasn't a window. There was a big blue rectangular light, the color of the sky, behind some blinds and curtains. Some kind of natural light generator, but not a view of the outside world.

“Huh,” I said, to no one in particular.

There was also a phone. I didn't bother calling the hotline, because it was labeled with a few internal numbers, written in in pen. Figured those would be better to call before the emergency number. I tried the one labeled Reception. It rang for a few seconds, and then a woman's voice responded.

“Hello-”

“Hi! Listen, I don't think-”

“We're sorry, but no one is available to take your call,” the pre-recorded message continued. “The receptionist on duty is diverted for- TEN- minutes, and has recorded the following hold message:”

Well, crap. I'd try a different number, then. I reached to dial, but the receptionist's hold message played.

“-god, oh god. Listen, I've got to-” the voice said, and then became a little more distant, as if he were facing away from the receiver.

“-no, Lissie, I know! But if any of the patients call while I'm- no, they might try to- shush! It's recording! Give me five seconds, for the love of god! Uh-”

The voice came back to full volume. “-sorry, just- sorry, please, I'll be right back, don't leave your room, just- okay, fine! Yeah, I'm-”

-and back down again-

“-done! I'm coming! Jesus!”

And then silence. After a few seconds, a dial tone.

I tried a few of the other numbers. Cafeteria, Dr. Orchard, Nurse, Dr. Parik, Nurse... all of them had “We're sorry, but no one is available to take your call.” And then I could leave a message, after the beep. So I did, on the ones that offered the option. Orchard and the two Nurse options, but not Dr. Parik or the Cafeteria.

“Hi- I'm here in room-” I looked at the room number, on a plaque by the door- “-room 440-3, and I think I was probably asleep until now, and I don't know how I got here, and... if anyone's available to come explain what's going on, I could use some help.”

Variations on that message, for Orchard and the two nurses. Every time I got a little more confident, less shaky, repeating the message to anyone that would listen.

I sat there for a while. Didn't leave my room right away. Figured someone would come, call back, check on me... I read some of the fourth Light Marathon book, for a while. It was about fifteen minutes, before I remembered. The receptionist was supposed to be back in ten minutes, so... he'd be back now, right? I picked up the phone and dialed.

“-god, oh god. Listen, I've got-” the voice repeated when I reached it. The same spiel. He'd been gone for longer then ten minutes, for sure.

How'd the machine “known” how long he would be gone? He probably punched in an estimate himself, right? And everything always takes twice as long as you think it will, so really he'd be gone for 20 minutes. Maybe he'd recorded that message right before I called, maybe he'd be back in another three, four minutes...

Five minutes of Light Marathon later, I tried again. Same message.

The door had a little window in it. I could see a bit of an empty hallway, the lights dimmed, identical numbered doors stretching in both directions. Nobody I could see waiting to stop me from leaving.

So I left my room.

 

Chapter Text

Dim hallway. Like, not so dark you can't see stuff, but deliberately darker than it could be. Weird recessed lighting strips on the corners of the ceiling, softly glowing with that same artificial natural light as my windows. I thought maybe it was supposed to be nighttime, and they'd dimmed the lights to make it easier for people to sleep, but that didn't make sense. My own window was lit up all the way.

The hallway didn't seem to be... connected to anything, besides a bunch of rooms. There were elevator doors on either end- maybe they'd let me out, maybe I could get out of here and find someone.

The doors were all numbered- each with a 3-digit number starting with 4, and the occupant's name. I didn't actually investigate any of them too closely, besides the nameplates- didn't look inside the little window or try and open them. Every other door's lights were out, and I didn't want to risk waking anyone up.

(Yeah, I know that's kind of a dumb priority when you're in a situation like this. Like, hey, I ended up in a hospital with no memory of how I got here, maybe that's worth disturbing someone's beauty sleep? But, listen. The real reason I didn't check was because there was already a door hanging open, and I figured I'd start with that one, just in case. Yeah?)

The door was labeled 412-F, and it was ajar- someone had left in a hurry, maybe? The room inside was dark, but I could see someone sleeping in the bed. The cozy-looking bed, next to a bookshelf and a table with a game of Zendo set up on it. So, like my own room. Whoever was in the bed... were they in the same situation I'd-

Oh, whoops. I'd entered the room, and the window snapped on, flooding the room with light. It was motion-activated, then? That explained why my own... no. No, it didn't explain that. Mine was on when I woke up, right? Had I tossed and turned in my sleep, setting off the motion sensor? Is that why I woke up? That... couldn't be right. They wouldn't have it set up to be that sensitive, or everyone would be waking up in the middle of the night.

“Wha's... why... where's...?”

My eyes darted to the person lying on the bed, who I'd just woken up. And- this ratcheted up my confusion a bunch- I recognized them.

It was Archive05. One of my internet friends, who I knew from the Light Marathon official forums. I'd read their fanfic, hung out with them on IRC a bunch. They had a lot of opinions on Zack Mainframe's decision to destroy the fourth lightspeed archive in book 3. A REAL BIG NERD, was the term of endearment we used. I knew their face from the odd Skype call. Baggy eyes, kinda dumpy. Looked a little different without the glasses.

So, one part of my brain was like “OMG, LMOF MEETUP, THIS IS GREAT”, and that part of my brain was being violently shouted down by the parts that were going “WHY ARE WE IN A HOSPITAL WITH THEM, THIS IS REALLY WEIRD AND SUSPICIOUS, THEY LIVE IN FREAKING IDAHO”.

They fixed me with a furious stare. “This isn't my room. Who are you? Tell me how I got here.”

Who are you? That wasn't right. I was pretty sure I had my webcam on when we skyped together. Maybe they were bad with faces?

“Arc- it's me! From LMOF? I was, uh...”

What was my most recent handle? I changed it every week or so, every time a hot new meme came off the assembly line. I was probably-

“You're hesitating. To give me your name. You're coming up with a lie, and I don't appreciate being lied to.” they said, menace rising in their voice.

“No- no, I'm-” I was, um... I'd been- oh, right. “-datacrawlers_georg, for like a month back when book 4 came out. I forget what my handle is right now. You know me!”

“Book 4? Datacr- that's not a name. What are you talking about? Stop screwing with me!” They sat up in bed, swinging their legs out from under the covers in one motion.

I stepped back. “Whoa! Arc! Calm down! I'm not- what do you think I'm-”

“Answers, George! What's “arc”? Why am I here? I have no intention of being given the run-around!”

...They had amnesia. Or were pretending to have amnesia.

“Your name...” I began, slowly, “is- uh, I don't know, actually, but you're Archive05 on the Light Marathon official forums. I'm called you Arc for short. Like I always do.”

They were out of bed and backed against the wall, fists raised, but they froze.

“My name isn't...” they said, faltering.

“Are you okay? Arc?”

They held a finger up, gesturing for me to give them a minute. “No. I'm... my name's not F.”

Well, I knew that. “Archive05. Not F. I didn't say anything about F.” ...The nameplate on their door said something about F.

“YOU shut up. Something's wrong. I'm thinking here,” they said.

...Rude. “What happened to 'answers'? Can't I-”

“UP! Shut it! Something is WRONG and I need to THINK!” they shouted.

I frowned, but backed away and took a seat in a chair as Arc sat back down on the bed, holding their head in their hands. Eventually, they looked at me.

“I think my name's F. But it's not.” they said.

“...You're going to need to unpack that.” I responded.

They gave me a sharp look and explained. “I mean what I said. My brain, formerly my ally in all things connected to the quest for truth, has decided that my name is 'F'. But my name is not 'F'. My own brain is lying to me, and this is wrong.

I raised an eyebrow. “And... you're sure it's not just F, and the part of your brain that's lying to you is the one that saying it's not?”

“Really? What kind of name is 'F'?” they spat.

“Short for something? Nickname? Who knows?” I answered.

“Look. I know. If F were really my name, I'd remember... at least ONE instance of someone calling me F, at some point in my life. I don't. In fact, I don't remember anyone calling me anything. If it were just my name, there'd be no reason to scrub my memory clean of anything connected to it.”

Arc broke eye contact and fell back onto the bed, letting out something that was either a growl or a sigh (couldn't tell which). And then, realizing they'd taken their eyes off the mysterious stranger, scrambled back to a sitting position.

“So, you've got... amnesia, or something? Is that why you're in the hospital?”

“Hospital?” they asked. “This is- this looks like a hospital room, but it's all- you don't know why I'm in the hospital?”

“No, I- I don't know why I'm here, either. I was in a room down the hall, and I just walked into the first open room I saw.” I said.

They stared at me, and I'd call it like... appraising? Like they were trying to figure me out by looking at me. It made me a little uncomfortable, honestly- I don't like it when people think they can judge me by getting all Sherlock Holmes on parts of my wardrobe or whatever. After staring for a bit, they frowned- or, frowned harder.

“You said you knew me.”

“Yes! And you know me! You've seen my face! We're practically best friends! Did the amnesia get rid of that, too?”

They paused. “...no. That's unlikely. You claimed to be from the Light Marathon forums, and I don't remember anyone like you. I don't have any best friends. Amnesia's not that precise- I wouldn't have detailed, continuous memories of my social network, and just forget one person. Try a better lie, if you're going to keep that up.”

I boggled. “S-seriously? We talked for like, hours about your Better Choice AU. I practically wrote half of it for you! I- you can't seriously remember everything except-”

They held up a finger again. “Wait. No. Yes, that's... I planned BC with someone. I remember that. And I don't remember who. That's who you're claiming to be?”

“...I guess? I mean- that's not the only time we talked, just... the thing that you'd probably remember the best.”

They nodded, sat silently for a moment, and then tilted their head, as if expecting me to continue.

“So... I mean, you- you don't remember your name, but you wrote like, more fics than I can count for Better Choice, and... do you remember Laserbrain? Drew fanart of Integrated Zack?”

They nodded again. “Yes. Clearly. She drew his facial projection all wrong, but I didn't say anything about it. I have a good memory, and you're not in it.”

I fiddled with one of the Zendo koans on the table. Couldn't be a coincidence that we both had abandoned board games on the table, could it? Did everyone? I figured I'd check other people's rooms to see if someone had, I dunno, Monopoly or something.

“Why are you here? In my room?”

“I- like I said, I just walked into the first open-”

They said... the cuss word that means like “that's nonsense”, starts with B. I'm not going to reproduce it here. “You just claimed to be my best friend, and you just happened to walk into the first open door you saw?”

That... was suspicious, actually. I didn't have an answer for that. “And... you live in Idaho, so the fact that we're even in the same hospital is...” I trailed off. This did seem contrived.

“Right. Suspicious. And- I didn't know I lived in Idaho until you just reminded me, but yes, I live in... Idaho.” They rubbed their head.

“Hold on- I honestly don't know why we're- I'm telling the truth! It was random!”

“Shut up. I'm still hung up on the Idaho thing. I wasn't even thinking about Idaho, I wouldn't have known I'd forgotten until I remembered just now. What else am I... missing?”

I ran through a list in my head. “Uh, so- your name is missing, including your online handle, but you remember what you did with that handle, and where it happened- but not where you lived? This... hang on, I can't figure out a pattern. Do you remember, like, what town you lived in?”

“No.”

“Meridian. Meridian, Idaho.”

“That's- that's correct. Ow.” They rubbed their head.

“You remembered again, when I told you?”

“Yes, and it's giving me a headache.” they said.

“It shouldn't,” I pointed out. “I- no, I don't actually know how amnesia works. Wait. Is that a thing that happens, or is that just in movies?”

“Just- wait. No.” They looked at me with a new expression of horror. “You- if you're here to mess with me, you... all you've been doing is trying to fill in holes in my memory. But these things- I didn't remember them until you said them. How do I know you're not just... putting it there?”

Putting it there? Like, they thought I was, what, brainwashing them? I was pretty sure I wasn't- they'd told me where they lived, at some point- I don't remember when exactly, it was in IRC. A bunch of people were there. I- why was I considering they might be right? “Putting it there? I'm not trying to mess with you, you told me-”

“Cui bono? To whose benefit? I don't understand what's happening, but the situation looks intentional and controlled. Something is happening, it's likely happening because someone wanted it to happen, and so I have to ask- who benefits from this happening?”

“Arc, you're going to have to-”

“Arc. You gave me that name. It sounds familiar. So do Idaho, and Meridian. You've been helping me to remember things, and the result is that- is supposed to be that- I believe you when you tell me important facts about my own life. I'm supposed to stop thinking, stop trying to figure out the truth, because I'm supposed to think I already know.

“Wh- dangit, Arc, you're being paranoi-”

“Your mistake was making me doubt my own memory. When I realize that I only believe things because I remember them, and suddenly remembering isn't a reliable indicator of something being true... it's obvious.”

“Paranoid! Seriously! I'm not trying to- brainwash you or something, just- listen to me!”

“So what I actually know is that someone appeared, with a low prior likelihood that they were actually who they claimed to be, and started filling in gaps in my memory. Tried to establish themselves as trustworthy. Took actions that they might have predicted would get me to lower my guard.”

“Oh my god, Arc. Stop.”

“Professing ignorance of my circumstances, claiming to know nothing I didn't know, so that they could tell me only what they wanted to tell me, and nothing else. No answers. Very convenient.”

“Aaaaaaaaaaargh you're always like this-”

“Drop the act. Just tell me what you came here to tell me, and I'll decide whether to believe it. Not my brain.”

I let out a groan. Archive05, ten-time winner of the Overthinking Things World Championship, taking home the gold medal for the conclusion long-jump. I could never tell which random turn of phrase they'd seize on and tear to pieces like a wild animal. They insisted on knowing exactly what you meant to say, with no room for ambiguity. It was... a lot more frustrating in real life.

I'd have to put it in terms they would understand.

“So... crap. I guess... I mean, like, I'm still not trying to pull one over on you, I really am telling the truth, but...”

“Spare me.” they scoffed.

But, you don't believe that. So just pretend that I'm like, a nefarious agent of whatever secret conspiracy, but I'm not s'posed to drop the act if you call my bluff. So, I have to pretend that I don't know what you're talking about, and you need to... act like... you believe me, so that I can say what I was, like, ordered to say, with plausible deniability.”

“...It'll have to do,” they admitted.

“So... what do you ask the evil conspiracy spy, if they're pretending to just wanna talk to you and find out what's going on here?”

“I ask them to continue telling me who I'm supposed to be. Who they want me to think I am. Go ahead and fill me in.”

I threw up my hands. “Fine. You're, um... I think 20 still? Maybe 21? I don't know how long you've been here, and your birthday's in April. Last I remember it was like, mid-January?”

They winced. The headache?

I continued. “Your parents are like, real hippies, like your dad's obsessed with gardening and your mom has a “seance club” that meets on, I think Thursdays, and they smoke incense that you suspect is actually something illegal because you feel funny when you accidentally get a lungful of it. I know whatever your real name is starts with “R” and your last name starts with “S” because I saw your initials on a school project you showed me once. You-”

“Stop,” they said. “Hurts. Give me a moment.”

I obliged. “You okay?”

“Yes. I'm fine. It's... this all sounds 'right' to my brain, but I still don't know if it's all just... since I think you're lying anyway, try... try mixing in some lies, see if I 'remember' them.”

“Huh?”

“If I'm under some kind of suggestion effect that's making me believe everything you say, you should be able to prove otherwise by telling me things you know are wrong. So lie.”

“I... um. You... really like spicy food, you have a pet dog, you...” I decided to mix in a truth, to see if they'd pick out the right one. “...own the full run of Deep Space Nine on Blu-Ray. One of those statements was actually true, by the way.”

“Deep Space Nine. That was true. I don't- my brain thinks I don't have a dog, and that I hate spicy food. That's... helpful.” They were rubbing their temples pretty hard, now.

“So... what is it you weren't remembering? Stuff from your personal life? You remember Light Marathon just fine, but maybe that's not... connected to you?”

“Quit speculating. You know exactly what's happening, so just tell me instead of playing games to try to get me to figure it out. More details.”

“More true things, um... you live across from a municipal park, you flunked AP Literature in 11th grade, you-”

Archive05's expression changed, and a strangled scream escaped their throat.

“N-no! Wait! No! No! No!” they cried, clutching at their hair and staring at me. There was a look of desperation in their eyes. Horror. Like they'd realized something was very, very wrong, and that they needed to do something about it now. Were they that upset about failing AP Lit?

“What?! What did I say?!”

They lurched forward and grabbed my hospital gown, yelling, stumbling over themselves. “I know- I know about...! Aaaaagh! Help me! Fudging help me! AAAAAAAAGH!” (Only they didn't say fudge.)

Then they collapsed on the floor, face-first.

 

Chapter Text

For about twenty seconds, I thought I'd just accidentally killed my friend. There's not much interesting to report about that experience, though. Like, it was mostly frozen horror? Lot of staring, deliberate breathing, my mind running around in circles trying to decide how to feel about it. Maybe if I'd thought that for a full minute, I would have taken away something useful or interesting about the experience? Something other than nebulous fear and confusion?

Doesn't matter. Twenty seconds after they hit the ground, Arc moaned and pushed themselves off the ground, rubbing at their head. And then locked eyes with me.

A furious stare. “This isn't my room. Who are you? Tell me how I got here.”

Being relieved and panicked at the same time was pretty interesting. They weren't dead, but... that was exactly what they'd said when they woke up the first time.

“You- oh, god, you're alive! Don't scare me like that, christ.”

Rising menace again. “You're hesitating. To give me your name. You're coming up with a lie, and I don't appreciate being lied to.”

Yeah, they had amnesia. Amnesia had just happened again. Because they hit their head on the ground? That seemed... too clean. Why were they exactly reset? Shouldn't they have said something different, waking up on the floor instead of in a bed? They... they had skipped the “what, why, where” mumbling, but otherwise the delivery of those lines was uncannily similar.

“Crap, okay- let me try this. All the answers I know, right away.” I said, composing myself. Arc raised an eyebrow, surprised and maybe a little impressed. “You're in a hospital. I woke up here with no idea how I got here too, and I just came into your room because I was looking around for someone to explain what was happening. I know you, from the internet, but I don't know how-”

They held up a finger to interrupt me. “You know who I am? But I don't know who you are? No, I'm going to call that a trap. Too convenient. Prove it. Tell me who I am, in detail.”

I forget the exact look I gave them in response. Disbelief? Annoyance? I'd been volunteering the information before, and they'd refused to believe any of it. Now they were going to consider it proof that I wasn't a fake? It kind of confirmed some of my suspicions about them- that they were paranoid on purpose, thinking up what a paranoid person would say, and saying that. They weren't actually really clever and careful to avoid being tricked. They were playing a role, rehearsing a script.

What a poser!

I indulged the poser. “Personal details, fine.” I started counting on my fingers. “You live in Meridian, Idaho, with your hippie parents, you don't own a dog, you have DS9 on Blu-Ray, you hate spicy food, you live across from a park...”

A pair of hands grabbed me and slammed me against the wall.

“AAAAAGH! Stop it! What are you doing?!” they screamed, holding one hand over my mouth. “What was that?! My head lit on fudging fire when you said that stuff!” Again, no fudge. They never said fudge, they always said the other thing.

“Mmhpphmhrgl!” I mmhpphmhrgled frantically.

“It still... hurts. I remembered- all that stuff at once, it hurt like... god, what did you do to me?” They let go, but stood ready to charge me again if I did anything nasty.

...An idea.

“AP Lit?” I asked, testing a theory.

Their face contorted, they grabbed at their hair, they screamed a few more cuss words, and they staggered over to the bed before collapsing again.

That was it. “AP Literature” was some kind of... code word, for knocking them out, and maybe giving them amnesia. Undoing the amnesia hurt them, so they were only allowed to remember so much. That meant... they knew something important, and they needed to keep them alive for some reason, but they didn't want them remembering anything dangerous. If they ever remembered too much, they'd get a headache, and whoever did this to them could reset them to the factory default with the code word! Mystery solved.

I rehearsed what I was going to say in my head, and braced myself when I heard them groan and start moving. I wasn't ready.

A furious stare. “This isn't my room. Who are you? Tell me how I got he-”

“AP Literature.” I said, to buy some more time.

“The hell? Are you trying to distract me with... some non sequitur? I have no intention of being given the run-around!”

Oh. That didn't work.

“Okay, sorry. I was just checking something. Um- listen. Something weird is happening, and I need you to trust me.”

They guffawed so powerfully that their throat got startled and forced them into a coughing sound. “Tr- gh'ck- trust you? No, I don't think I will trust a random stranger who's immediately demanding I let them dictate what I believe, thank you very much. Wow!”

I sighed. Classic Archive05. “How about this? You don't remember your name, but you do remember a fake name, 'F'. You know it's fake, that your name isn't 'F', even though your brain is all like 'yeah it is!', and you're really frustrated that it's fighting you on this. When I tell you that you live in Meridian, Idaho, and that your parents are total hippie losers, you suddenly get a weird headache. Believe me now?”

New facial expression this time. Fear, apparently. Not panic fear, just general dread. They slowly made their way around the foot of the bed, and took a seat in a chair at the Zendo table. I sat down across from them.

“You... you're not reading my mind. That's not possible. What you're doing is... you did something to me, and you know what it is, so that you could pretend to read my mind. Better- better luck next time.” They smirked, and then unsmirked. They weren't sure if it had been a good idea to try and annoy me. Could I use that? Pretend to be someone they'd believe?

“Heh. Never said I was reading your mind.”

“Obviously. You got the name wrong. My name- the thing that's not my name- is 'H'.”

H? What- why would it- what did THAT mean?

I played it off. “Oh, I see. It's H this time. That's... within expected parameters.” Had to pretend I knew what I was doing. Or, no- wanted to pretend I knew what I was doing, based on a whim.

“Explain parameters.”

Oh. Nuts. I couldn't explain parameters. Uh, new approach. Go fishing. “Well, you tell me. Why would your name be 'F', and then later be 'H'?”

They stared at the Zendo pieces, breaking eye contact.

“I don't... have any idea why. Thanks for letting slip that my name was previously F, though. Establishing a chronology." They smirked.

So... if I could tell the truth in a way that made it seem like a slip-up, they'd believe it because they'd see it as them cleverly noticing the hidden reality behind the lies. Useful.

"As for why, like I said- I don't know. Was there a 'G' in between?”

Was there a G in between? They hadn't given me their fake name, last time. It... needed testing.

“Um, sorry- let me check something real quick,” I said, and rattled off some facts. No dog, Blu-Rays, spicy bad, AP Lit. Look of horror, aborted cuss words, eyes glazed over. Was I going to get used to this?

They woke up. Again. “This isn't my room. Who are-”

“WHO ARE YOU?!” I demanded. “Tell me your name. Tell me right now. It's important.”

“...I don't think I will, actually,” they responded. “Why should I?”

Son of a- of course. Why had I expected any different? Never mind. “Is it 'I'? Your name's 'I', isn't it?”

Their eyes widened, but they didn't say anything. They put their hands to their head and took a deep breath, and then replied “No.”

“Right, it's not. You thought it was I, but I wasn't actually right- it was some kind of trick meant to make you think-”

“I knew it! You've been screwing with me!”

“What- no, it's- the letter I, like the names are in the alphabet-”

“...What about U?”

“What about me- oh, no.”

“No, U is a letter of-”

No, no, no, no, no, no, no. Nope! None of this! I saw the smug smile on their face, I knew what they were about to do. I was not about to let this devolve into some deranged Who's On First routine. I was not gonna spend the next five or ten minutes trying to talk to someone who was being willfully ignorant for laughs, no way no how. Dogs, pepperoni, Deep Space Nine, hippies, flunking AP Lit, TRYING AGAIN.

Maybe that was a shortsighted move, actually. They were progressing through the alphabet, and there were only 26 letters in the alphabet. I'd just burned through four of them, and I had no idea what would happen after Z. Was repeatedly inducing amnesia causing some kind of brain damage? Who knew? I might have risked... I don't know, killing them, just to get out of a tedious comedy setup. I'd have to make the next one count.

“J. J, wake up.”

J woke up, J told me that it wasn't their room and asked who I was and where they were.

“You're not in your room,” I said. “You're in a hospital room, because something happened to you.”

“Is that so. What happened to me, exactly?” They folded their arms and leaned back in their chair. “You better make this good.”

“Well, I don't kn- I, uh, don't have the charts on me right now. I'm just a... nurse. But I can tell you what happened as a result.”

They looked skeptically at my hospital gown. Not nurse scrubs. They didn't bring it up, though- most likely because they'd already decided I was lying to them, and that they'd rather fish for information than call me on it, for once. That suited me well enough.

“You got amnesia, kind of. It's only about things directly related to you, I think- as far as I can tell, your memory of the Light Marathon series is unaffected, among other things. You can talk, you can identify a hospital room, and so on.”

They gave me a look, choosing their words carefully. I couldn't read their expression, this time. “So who am I? I'm not 'J', that's for sure. My head hurts when I try to remember what it really is, but it's not-”

“Not J, no. Your brain's telling you that's your name, but it's not. And you need to know- your amnesia is... recurring.”

“Recurring?” They frowned harder at this.

“I mean, it keeps reasserting itself. Every time you remember... personal stuff, you black out, and your amnesia comes back. You forget finding out about your amnesia, or talking to me, or anything. This is like, the fifth time we've had a conversation like this. You need to... avoid thinking about it, and just take my word for-”

Wait, crap. There's no way they'd- “OH! Is THAT it? Awfully convenient, hm? The first person I meet when I wake up, with curious gaps in my memory, is telling me that I need to just not think too hard about it, and- 'take your word for it', unbelievable. The audacity! Really?!”

“Oh my god, Arc, don't do this-”

“I honestly don't know if I could think of a more blatant attempt at manipulation! This is really quite special, actually. If there's a more contrived excuse to demand I trust you, I can't think of what it would be! Bravo!”

“Arc I am going to kill you-”

They stood up on their chair, parking one leg on the table and pointing at me. A dramatic pose. This was just going super great. “Threats will get you nowhere! Your mistake, 'nurse', was underestimating my intellect! Don't insult me like that again!”

I buried my face in my hands and moaned.

“Upset I nipped your ill-conceived scheme in the bud, genius? I don't blame you. It happens to everyone, you know.”

“No- seriously, you are not that important, I'm not trying to manipu-”

“Excuses, excuses!”

“Why would I want to- you're just- I'm seriously not lying! If you remember too much about your life, you freak out and go all glassy-eyed and then fall unconsc-”

“Again, very convenient. Anyone wanting to manipulate me would go to great lengths to make it look like they have no reason to do so. They'd frame it as trying to help, hide all the evidence that their suggestions are designed to use me as a pawn.”

That didn't even make- “That doesn't even make sense! Even if I was manipulating you, why are you immediately assuming it's to get you to do something... horrible? You haven't even figured out- haven't even made up what it is I want you to do!”

They laughed again, that guffaw-into-choke thing. “That- egkhAH- that's obvious! The only reason you'd need to trick me into doing something is if I wouldn't do it anyway. And if it's something I wouldn't do without being tricked, that means that doing it doesn't align with my values. It's almost tautological that I'll regret whatever it is you trick me into doing, since otherwise you could just tell me the truth right away, and have me help you of my own accord.”

I... couldn't even process how circular that reasoning was. Was it circular? Or did it actually hold up? It felt intuitively right- maybe my objection had been dumb- maybe- no, this idiot was bamboozling me again!

I dropped my head onto the table with a thunk. “That's... that's exactly what I'm doing, you- you fudging nimcompoop!” I did say 'fudging', by the way, because I have manners. “I'm telling you the truth, so that you'll take- actions that align with your values or whatever!”

“That you want me to think that is so obvious I'm a little disgusted I even have to point it out,” they pointed out.

“Listen. I'm your friend. Your actual friend, Arc. Just trust me for- you don't even have to trust me, you can just not go out of your way to dial up the paranoia to freaking eleven!”

I was losing my temper a bit, there. 'Freaking' was starting to push it. I figured I could keep my cool enough to keep from slipping into “fricking”, or god forbid “fuggin'”.

“What's this 'Arc' you speak of- no, never mind, I just remembered. My internet handle. Archive05. Not my name, but close, isn't it? Shouldn't have let that one slip.”

Why, exactly, was I friends with this smug tool again?

“You said you're my friend. Earlier, you said you were a nurse, so that's clearly a lie, unless I've forgotten about a friend that went to medical school. Unless I've forgotten all of my friends, because as far as I can tell I don't have any.”

Gee I wonder why” I muttered.

“I don't have friends. That's another thing I remember. I practically- I do live in my parent's basement, that's another bit coming back.”

“Wait, stop-”

“Shouldn't have clued me in on the 'personal stuff' thing, I think. With that clue, I don't think I need your help. It's coming back to me already.”

“No, oh my god, you realize what's going to happen if I'm telling the truth-”

“Parents' basement. My parents- they're- my parents' house, there's... basement... there's a garden outside. Dad. Dad's garden. Yes, him and his herbs. All flooding back- my head's throbbing with knowledge, now...”

I decided I'd write this one off as a loss. I decided to ignore J, who wasn't long for this world, and try to think up a way to get through to K.

 

Chapter Text

Yada yada they were confused yada yada. “This isn't my room. Who are you? Tell me how I got here!” I knew the drill. This time, I was going to try time pressure.

“K! Listen, I know you have questions, but we've got maybe four minutes before they get here, and we need to act fast!”

They were surprised. That was actually new- they hadn't been surprised, before. It was weird, like they were excited about their situation. They'd been quick to try and take control of the conversation. This time, I'd managed to get them to be actually paranoid, not faking it to seem smart.

“Who? Who's coming?”

“Bad people!” I said, completely making stuff up. “That's not important- you can ask more questions later- the important thing is, you have amnesia.”

“I-”

“Have amnesia! Your name isn't K- think about it, it's not.”

“My name's... not-”

“Yeah, I know. They messed you up.” Probably true, actually. I bet someone did do this to them on purpose. “Listen- your amnesia is messed up. Every time you remember too much, it comes back, wiping out your memories and knocking you unconscious.”

They looked angry, but this time didn't look me in the eyes. “Those- how dare they try and...”

It was kind of surreal, seeing them believe me this time. They'd been so ready to jump to the conclusion that it was all a trick, before. Why was it happening differently now? Did they just... run with the first idea that popped into their head? Could I control their reaction just by figuring out how to make them think something first? If that was true, I wouldn't have to bother coming up with ways to defend myself from accusations I could stop them from thinking of, by getting them on a different train of thought. Adding a nebulous “them” into the picture seemed to put them in a totally different headspace.

...I could use their old idea to my advantage, though. I knew they'd be willing to believe it- unless they were motivated by the need to be contrary, more than real suspicion.

“They've been using it to control you- forcing you not to think too hard about what they're up to, to avoid losing your memories. Trying to scare you into turning off your brain.”

Their face went red. “Wh- no! I wouldn't! I wouldn't fall for that!”

“You'd be surprised,” I said. “It didn't matter how smart you were- they just reset you over and over, by telling you the personal info that triggered the amnesia thing, until they figured out exactly what you'd fall for and what you wouldn't.”

Their expression changed, suddenly. They locked eyes with me, and I groaned- it was the same look they'd given me every time they'd hit upon a new and exciting reason to suspect I was behind this.

“This- no. This isn't the first time we've had this conversation, is it? You're the one who's been resetting me over and over!”

Cuss word, I thought to myself. “No, no, no- please, not again! Listen, every time you do this, you start- remembering stuff, and then you reset, and-”

“You're doing exactly what you said they were doing! No wonder I couldn't read the lies in your face- you were using the truth, twisted just enough to trick me!”

“God- Arc, you need to cut this out! This is the sixth time! Last time I didn't even have to tell you that much, you just started- remembering on your own, and then you-”

They held up a finger for silence and grinned.

“No! Not the finger thing! Not the darn finger thing! You're just going to come up with some stupid reason I'm lying, and-”

“I see what this is. It's an expertly crafted threat, actually-” “Arc please don't” “-because it threatens to rob me of my agency forever if I make the wrong-” “you need to stop this” “-choice. If I decide to doubt your word, I start over, don't I? It becomes a cycle of-” “aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa” “-resets, because if I'm really repeating myself, I'll always choose to doubt you and return to-” “I can't believe this is happening in the year of our lord 2018” “-the beginning. I can only escape the cycle if I trust you. Very clever! Very clever indeed! What an elegant trap!”

I stared at them. “Are you done?” I asked.

“Done? I'm just getting started!”

“Of course you are. Listen, I can prove it.”

I could prove it, I realized. It wasn't some kind of total impossibility to show them that they'd looped before. It'd be easiest if I had a video camera, but all I needed to do to convince them of their amnesia was to have them leave a message to themselves, and then try to call my “bluff”. When their next iteration woke up, they'd have a note from themselves telling them that I'd been telling the truth and that they'd get amnesia if they went out of their way to remember personal information.

Their overly-dramatic voice again. “Proof? Ha! I'd like to see what kind of proof you can offer that'll cover for your lies.”

I looked around for a paper and pencil. There were some blank prescription forms on the counter, but I couldn't find anything to write with. “Do you have a pen? No, you don't. Duh.”

I went around opening drawers, and eventually found... a case of mechanical pencil leads, alongside some office supplies. They'd followed me around the room, keeping what I'm sure they thought was a safe distance.

“What are you doing? Is this your 'proof'?”

“Look, this is... I guess just break one into pieces and try writing with the little stumps.”

“Why? What are you doing?”

I explained the plan. They gave me a drawn-out “Hmmm.” Then, they did something really unexpected.

“Well. I don't have the faintest idea how this could be a trap. I'll do it.”

My jaw fell open. “Wha... you actually- you seriously don't think this is a trap?”

“Don't get me wrong. I'm positive that this is a trap- I just don't know how, and I'm confident I can find a way to stop you once I... satisfy my curiosity.” they said.

Right. They were being a pretentious dirtbag. Should have seen that one coming, really.

I watched them fiddle with the pencil leads, scratching out some test marks on the table and wiping them away with the sleeve of their hospital gown. Then they wrote out a message on the back of the prescription form- and then grabbed another to continue the message. It ended up taking four forms, before they finished. I looked over the message.

K- THIS IS A MESSAGE FROM YOURSELF, SEVERAL MINUTES IN THE PAST. IF YOU ARE READING THIS, THE PERSON IN THE ROOM WITH YOU IS TELLING THE TRUTH. THERE IS AN INFORMATIONAL HAZARD THAT TRIGGERS AMNESIA, WIPING YOUR SHORT-TERM MEMORY AND RECOLLECTION OF TRUE NAME AND PERSONAL

Good lord. No shorthand, no abbreviation. They were even wordier when struggling to write out a message with snapped bits of mechanical pencil lead than they were when talking to my face. I grabbed the next prescription form apprehensively.

DETAILS. SAID INFORMATIONAL HAZARD IS THE CONTENT OF THE AMNESIA ITSELF- THE PERSONAL DETAILS YOU HAVE FORGOTTEN. IT IS, OF COURSE, POSSIBLE THAT THEY ARE LYING ABOUT THE MECHANISM OF THE AMNESIA- I AM WRITING THIS NOTE BEFORE WILLINGLY SUBJECTING MYSELF TO WHATEVER

PROCESS THEY PLAN TO USE, THOUGH I WILL ATTEMPT TO STOP THEM IF IT APPEARS TO DEVIATE FROM WHAT THEY'VE TOLD ME OF IT. ACCORDING TO THIS PERSON, THE AMNESIA IS TRIGGERED ONLY BY PERSONAL DETAILS- CONTINUE TO SEEK THE TRUTH AS TO THE SITUATION YOU FIND YOURSELF

IN.

For Pete's sake. They'd stared at the fourth form, trying to come up with something to say to fill the space (space they wouldn't have had if they'd even tried to squeeze their handwriting to fit), and eventually decided against it.

“One thing- they're not going to think their name is K. It'll be... L, this time. It changes every time, in alphabetical order.”

“You mean... I'm the eleventh iteration, if by some contrivance you're telling the truth?”

I nodded, and they smudged out the K and wrote down an L- then added a section about that to fill the rest of the “IN” page, signing it with a K.

“So. You're going to give me answers about myself, right now, and if you're telling the truth, you have no reason to worry that I'll be able to use them against you, am I right?”

What? Use against- oh. They figured I was reluctant to tell them about themselves because... it was dangerous information, or something. Not because of this whole stupid situation. “Yeah. You ready?”

“Let me get comfortable, first.”

They climbed into bed, so they wouldn't hit their head on the floor, and I rattled off the list of facts again. I started with AP Lit this time- didn't appear to be special, I'd just given it to them last by coincidence before. They zonked out around the bit about not owning a dog, this time.

The bit happened where L woke up, and then the bit happened where I told them stuff, blah blah blah. I handed them the note, and-

“...Handwriting. It's a little bit off, and I don't let that kind of thing past my notice. You forged the handwriting. I'm actually insulted you thought that would work on me.”

“A little bit off- you wrote it with PENCIL LEAD! Look! It's right here!”

“Planted, to give yourself an excuse. Obviously.”

“Would anybody else fill FOUR PAGES with this stuff? You realize NORMAL people sometimes try to save space when they're writing things down?”

“You've clearly analyzed my handwriting and writing style- thanks for giving yourself away. It makes it all the more likely that you forged this, your attempts to cover it up with a contrived writing instrument notwithstanding.”

“I can't believe this. You literally don't even believe YOURSELF! How am I supposed to deal with this?”

“Myself, huh? You'd think a letter from myself would contain some detail that only I would know, instead of keeping it vague.”

“It doesn't have any details only you would know because you FORGOT all the details only you would know!”

“...Convenient, isn't it?”

“STOP SAYING THAT!”

So, L did not work out. I had them write another letter- using up another 6 prescription forms and leaving the little tearaway pad thing in dire straits- and this time, instructed them to optimize for having themselves believe it. Fed them some personal details they could use to try and remember some stuff- kind of a balancing act, giving them enough to figure out some “things only they would know” without setting off the amnesia. Their head hurt pretty bad by the end of it, and I sent them off to dreamland with the Blu-Rays this time.

That was when I heard footsteps. Two people, coming down the hallway. Could have been a lot of people, potentially. People I'd woken up while shouting at Arc? Doctors? The nurses I'd left a message for? Someone else entirely? There was a pretty large space of possibilities, but I didn't have time to consider it. I considered hiding, but- why would I hide? Did I need to hide? Could I trust whoever was approaching?

It didn't matter. They stopped in the doorway before I could collect my thoughts.

“Wh- 3?” the tall woman asked.

“You said he'd- they'd be sleeping! Why...?” the short guy said.

Both of them were wearing gas masks. I couldn't see their faces, but the man's voice was familiar- the receptionist I'd heard over the phone.

The woman had called me “3”. Which was my name. I'd read it on my room nameplate, and medical charts, and hadn't thought about it. It didn't seem weird at the time, but now-

She spoke, her voice somehow undistorted by the mask. “Your name is Gavin Batra. You live in Newark, New Jersey. You are estranged from your parents.”

Wait- no- my name was 3. Right? No, it wasn't- Gavin? That- oh, no. No, wait, why hadn't I even thought... Arc had asked my name, and I hadn't responded- why hadn't I-

“Lissie, what- what are you doing? We haven't even asked-”

“It's possible he's been talking to F. Probably G by now, if not H. We don't know what they talked about, we can't predict the residuals, we reset.”

My head was throbbing. My name was Gavin Batra. They were right about where I lived- and I hadn't even thought about it! I wouldn't have known until she told me, and... this was the same as... the same as Arc. I was the same as Arc.

“Li- Doctor, this is way too risky! You know what their condition's like! We need to at least ask-”

“We don't need to ask. We need to run damage control, and we need to do it now. We don't have time for this.”

I was ignoring them. I wasn't the same as Arc. I hadn't realized my name was wrong. I remembered them, and they didn't remember me. If I was the same, wouldn't I have forgotten them too? I couldn't be... was it the elephant?

Wait, was what the elephant? Why was I thinking about elephants?

The doctor continued. “Art school. You graduated at the top of your animation program. You recovered from a debilitating addiction to amphetamines.”

“Seriously! I know it's an emergency, but this is only going to make things worse!” the receptionist whispered frantically.

It was true. That stuff was all true. I'd been in the hospital for an overdose. Recently. But a different hospital, for different reasons. Where was I? Where- elephants. Elephants were the key. If I could remember what elephants were... I had to remember what elephants were. I had to-

 

Chapter Text

 

I stopped being asleep. On seeing the ceiling, three thoughts immediately sprung to the forefront of my attention.

The first thought was “this isn't my room”. Because it wasn't. I was sleepy, and had to force myself to realize the urgency of the thought, but it wasn't my room. Looking around, I could see that nothing in the room belonged to me. This could only mean one thing- that there were several possible explanations for this unusual phenomenon and I needed to be careful not to make dangerous assumptions.

The second thought was... missing. I'd forgotten it, after getting wrapped up in the first thought.

The third thought was “how did I get here?” It stuck in my mind, because I couldn't recall where I'd fallen asleep. This wasn't my room, and furthermore I could not remember my room, or for that matter any other place I might have fallen asleep. I had clearly been transported here while unconscious, but I had no way of gauging how long I'd been asleep.

Those thoughts duly entertained, I lifted myself from the bed and began taking in my surroundings. A hospital room, by the looks of things, albeit sumptuously appointed with domestic conveniences. Sumptuously. What did “sumptuously” even mean? Was it used apart from the verb “appointed”? Not a relevant question.

On the table was a game of Zendo, seemingly in-progress, and a handful of forms for prescribing medication. I inspected them, and found a message had been left for me. It was written on multiple papers, out of order. I assembled it from the scattered pieces.

TO UNCOVER THE TRUTH BEHIND OUR CIRCUMSTANCES. HOWEVER, MY OWN LABEL LETS ME DEDUCE THAT SEVERAL ITERATIONS OF MYSELF HAVE TRIED AND FAILED TO DO THE SAME, AND THUSLY I HAVE ELECTED TO LEAVE MYSELF A WARNING TO IMPROVE MY FUTURE CHANCES SHOULD I LIKEWISE FAIL

THIS EFFECT. EACH TIME OUR MEMORY IS RESET, A NEW FALSE NAME IS SOMEHOW IMPRINTED ON OUR CONSCIOUSNESS- ALPHABETICALLY SUBSEQUENT TO THE LAST. I RECEIVED A MESSAGE MUCH LIKE THIS ONE, FROM “L”. L'S NOTE MADE REFERENCE TO SOMEONE IN THE ROOM WHO WE WERE MEANT

WITH WHEN I LEAVE IT HERE UNGUARDED. LIKEWISE L'S NOTE, WHICH I HAVE HIDDEN IN A NEARBY DRAWER. EXERCISE CONSTANT VIGILANCE AND USE YOUR OWN BEST JUDGMENT, FOR THERE IS NO BETTER JUDGMENT. GOOD LUCK, NOT THAT LUCK IS REAL. I RECOMMEND YOU LEAVE A NOTE FOR O, JUST IN CASE.

TO SPEAK WITH, TO OBTAIN INFORMATION ON OUR CONDITION, BUT THIS PERSON WAS NOT PRESENT WHEN I AWOKE. L'S NOTE IMPLIED THAT THIS PERSON WOULD INFORM US AS TO THE NATURE OF OUR AMNESIA'S TRIGGER, BUT THAT INFORMATION IS DENIED US. I INTEND TO LEAVE THE ROOM AND ATTEMPT

IN MY ENDEAVOR. IF YOU ARE READING THIS, SOMETHING UNEXPECTED HAS HAPPENED, AND YOU SHOULD HEIGHTEN YOUR GUARD ACCORDINGLY. TRUST NO ONE BUT YOURSELF. THAT INCLUDES THIS LETTER, AS I HAVE NO GUARANTEE IT WILL NOT BE DISCOVERED AND TAMPERED

N- YOUR NAME IS NOT N AND YOU ARE AWARE OF THIS. MY NAME WAS NOT M, AND I WAS AWARE OF THIS. I AM YOU, SOME AMOUNT OF TIME IN THE PAST, ATTEMPTING TO CIRCUMVENT WHAT IS IN ALL LIKELIHOOD ARTIFICIALLY-INDUCED RECURRING AMNESIA. I DO NOT YET KNOW WHAT TRIGGERS

I drew in breath sharply on reading that last- likely first- part of the message. My name was N, but... no, it wasn't. If N had really been my name, I'd have remembered... at least ONE instance of someone calling me N, at some point in my life. I didn't. And yet, when I tried to remember my name, it continued to only offer up N, regardless of how wrong it felt. My own brain, formerly my ally in all things, had betrayed me.

My own identity was a complete blank. Not only did I not know my name- I didn't know my age, my profession, my gender, my hometown, my... anything. I could feel around the edges of it- there were places and things that felt familiar, but everything in them that was me was completely blank. This was irritating, and I took it to be a sign that someone had gone through a lot of trouble to keep whoever-I-was from posing a threat.

I'd show them.

I spent some time reordering the notes- the last bit first, the second one left in place... “were meant to speak with”, “attempt to uncover the truth”, “fail in my endeavor”, “tampered with when I leave it here”. They told a suspicious story, and I inspected the note for signs of fabrication. It appeared to be written in pencil- probably the shattered graphite sticks nearby- and had very few smudges that might indicate alteration. It was in my handwriting- more or less. It could have been a forgery, but the awkward writing tool likely employed was sufficient to explain any discrepancies.

Unless... had those pencil leads been a plant? Something to give the forger an excuse for any slip-ups? Why just leads? Considering how much had been written, it must have been frustrating to wrestle with those tiny, fragile sticks. It would have been messy, too, and-

I grinned, and checked my own fingers. They were slightly raw, and smudged gray with graphite. Either the forgery had been very thorough, or the note was genuine. It did seem to be consistent with my usual style- although that, too, could have been forged.

I would proceed by taking the note's contents as my primary hypothesis. Should I encounter evidence that the contents were false or misleading, I would make sure to reevaluate its claims in light of that evidence. Should I encounter situations where the contents of the note would compel me to take some unintuitive action that seemed to be against my own interest, I would regard it as a trick. If it were meant to work deceit against me, I would show the fool responsible the error of underestimating my intellect.

I began checking drawers, and as promised, one contained another set of prescription forms with notes on the back. L's note was just as described, referring to a thin, dark-skinned stranger with a high voice. No name was given- L mentioned the stranger's reticence to name themselves.

Alright, then. It was time to investigate.

I took M's advice and decided to write a note to O. It appeared that the pad of prescription forms was denuded save for a single page. Rather than waste time writing out a personalized message, I wrote a short note on the single page and placed it on top of the stack of notes from M and L.

I AM N. I HAVE NO ADDITIONAL INFORMATION TO PROVIDE, OTHER THAN NOTING ONE MORE FAILURE. PLEASE READ THE NOTE UNDERNEATH AND CHECK YOUR NOT-NAME OFF ON THE LIST TO THE RIGHT, TO WARN YOURSELF FOR NEXT TIME.

I left some space on the side for a column of letters and checkboxes, O through V. Ran out of space at the bottom, and decided to leave the task of making additional space to V, if I failed catastrophically and actually got that far. It would have to do.

I contemplated hiding the notes, to keep them from being tampered with by non-me saboteurs. I'd need to hide them somewhere that I'd be sure to search, if I woke up. I tried to put myself in my own shoes from several minutes ago- I'd seen the papers on the table, but if they hadn't been there, where was the next place I'd look?

Several possibilities presented themselves, but none of them qualified as hiding places. I suspected my instinct, after finding nothing interesting in obvious, non-hidden places, would be to leave the room and search elsewhere for lower-hanging fruit, clue-wise. I couldn't think of a way to direct myself to search a hiding place that wouldn't also give away the location to anyone else who happened upon the hint. If I knew more about my own default behavior, I could try and exploit it, but...

Hm. Maybe I could use that. The alternative to not hiding it was leaving it out in the open, but I didn't have to leave it in the same place every time. I could leave the notes in the obvious places that I'd think to check, and leave instructions telling myself to note down their actions prior to finding the notes. Each time, I'd have a more complete picture of how I behaved without having read the notes. Eventually, I might be left with enough information to formulate a better plan.

...But I couldn't do that without more paper, and ideally a real writing instrument of some kind. Hm.

I decided to prioritize fixing the note-leaving situation. I had no particular plan for making my escape, other than snooping around, so an intermediate goal would help. My objective, until it was accomplished, would be to find paper and a more reliable marking instrument- a pen, ideally. I might find some more important clue while searching for those mundane supplies. Even if I didn't find anything else useful, I'd have made permanent progress on improving my later selves' chances.

The door opened with no resistance. Step one was complete.

 

Chapter Text

Gee well where do I begin with this whole kerfuffle? See my grandkids always liked it when I told them stories God rest their souls but I never got the sense I was any good at telling them in earnest. Family will love and laugh no matter what you do isn't that right? Can't stop family from being the way they are except if real dark malarkey goes down. So I want you to promise me you'll forgive me if these old bones don't hold your interest too long. I can ask that of you right? Thanks for putting up with my self since I know you folks have things figured out better than me these days.

So boy it was a real confusing situation right from the start. It really was! I didn't know beans what was going on at the time because Avanell was running the show God rest her soul. I don't reckon her boy knew what was going on either what with being distracted by the kids God rest their souls running all over the place. Hong Kong was a big place as near as I could tell from what she told me on the plane and from how the airport was. Couldn't read any of what all the signs said except when they were in plain English which was often enough but always smaller underneath the fancy Chinese letters. So honest to God if anything was happening there besides the big thing you're asking me about I don't have the foggiest about it!

See it happened right when we got off the plane so I didn't notice that everyone was hooting and hollering about it. Just thought the airport was loud! Everything's so loud these days such like people have to shout to be heard or at least that's how things were before I came here I suppose. Sorry I got off track there you don't want me doing the usual thing for folks my age and yammering on about how much everything's changed. Change is what keeps the world turning or at least it used to!

Point is there was a fireball in the sky like a plane had caught fire and was trying to land. That's what everyone thought right up until it crashed on the runway and knocked the landing gear out from under a jet that was taxiing its way back. I think everyone on that jet was fine at least for a little while until things got bad at which point they probably got offed like the rest of them God rest their souls.

Now I wasn't so frail at the time and really I'm not even frail now! I got some zip in my step and I've always been a spectator at heart you see so I went right down there to check it out with my own two eyes! Probably I was one of the first folks down there no thanks to Avanell God rest her soul trying to slow me down and keep me safe like she always thought I had to do. Took me a while to even find the stairs down outside with the whole family chasing me trying to get me to ignore it but you don't ignore a thing like that! It's just not right to be somewhere God put you to see something that only happens once and just walk away like he didn't steer your whole life to that place! There were airport folk trying to keep me away too but I just pretended not to understand what they were saying because surprise I didn't! They were all speaking the Chinese! And none of them wanted to strongarm an old man I supposed because they let me get up close to that thing.

Did I ever tell you my brother got kidnapped by extraterrestrials once? He was out in New Mexico for having some kind of demonic spiritual experience with his friends so serves him right that it happened. They experimented on him is what he said and I don't call my family a liar even when family's calling my family a liar so I believed him about them extraterrestrials. Turns out I was right! Had a laugh about that one I tell you what. Because that thing was a darn spaceship is what it was! Whole darn spaceship was just completely on fire like you wouldn't expect it to keep being what with being made of metal.

Now what I did there was I went and ran over to the building and grabbed a fire extinguisher and got a few folks who spoke English to get some more. And now maybe you can blame me for all this but I tell you what I am pretty sure the thing in there was fireproof because there wasn't anything that wasn't on fire til we put it out. I don't blame myself for getting the door open and I don't want any of you blaming me either! Would've got out either way is my position on the matter. Better I tried to help whoever was inside and not let them cook is what I figured and I wouldn't choose different today!

Anyway everyone in that thing was dead which is not surprising all things considered when you think about it God rest their souls if they had them being extraterrestrials and all. Couldn't make out what they were besides burnt and maybe kinda horse-shaped if you looked at how the husks were laid out.

I guess that thing slipped out in the commotion is probably what happened. My theory's that it was invisible which I guess it'd have to be what with how nobody noticed it before it started killing folks left and right. I could tell you all about the gruesome awful details if you wanted that but I know you folks already know how that thing operates.

I got nothing else to say about how I lived through that. That's why I'm here isn't it is you people want to find out am I right? The story's all so you can learn yourselves why that son of a gun spared me so's you can try and do the same for yourselves am I right? That's the impression I got. But now that I think about it- you know I'm thinking about that thing some more lately because it's really been on my mind like a song that keeps playing over and over in your head. Now that I think about it I think that that's a special sort of monster and hey now just what exactly are you doing with that electronic taser doohickey young miss-

 

Chapter Text

Honestly, who hasn't woken up in a hospital bed with no memory of how they got there? Like, that's a universal human experience, right? It's not weird? I'm asking because I actually don't know.

I wake up in this room, right? And like, it's pretty clearly a hospital room. There's like, instruments on the walls, and a little sink thing, hand sanitizer, a curtain dealie that cuts the room in half. Plus, there's a doctor sitting in a chair by the foot of the bed. She looked kind of familiar, in a way I couldn't place.

“Four?” she asked. She was disassembling a syringe and placing it in a plastic box.

“Yeah?” I answered. “I'm awake. What's... what am I doing here?”

“You were injured, I'm afraid. You suffered severe amnesia, and you've been recuperating here at St. Shelhart's for several weeks,” she said, in a gentle voice. Not a quiet voice- unusually loud, actually- but deliberately gentle, if that makes sense. Kinda weird to listen to.

“Amnesia?” I asked. “What... what did I forget?” I didn't feel like anything was missing- I knew my name, for one thing. Knew who my parents were, knew my friends. And I knew-

No, wait. Yeah, I didn't know where I lived. That was strange.

“You forgot a number of central personal details, as well as about two weeks of recent long-term memory. And I'm sorry, but we believe the damage to be permanent.”

Took me a second to process that bit. Permanent brain damage? Eesh.

“...Dang. What happened? Car accident or something?”

She took a deep breath, and turned her eyes away. That wasn't encouraging. “Four, I am Dr. Felicity Orchard, and I've been assigned as your personal care professional during your stay at St. Shelhart's. You're going to be staying here for a little while longer while you undergo constructive therapy.”

That was a pretty good distraction. “Okay,” I said. “That's cool, but what happened?”

Another deep breath. “Four, when I say the damage is permanent, I mean that you're not going to be able to re-learn your lost memories. The parts of your brain set aside to store those memories have been damaged in a way that prevents your interneurons from forming those connections again.”

That was a really good distraction. “Sure. That sucks,” I said. “But like, I'm kinda picking up on how you're not telling me what happened. Was it bad?”

Deep breath again. She didn't look that nervous. “Four, please pay attention. Your short axons in the affected region have been dessicated. You cannot retain the lost information, even if I tell it to you.”

...Huh. “Well... try?”

“Four, I have repeated the circumstances of your injury to you three times in the course of this brief conversation.”

What.

“Your brain completely failed to store the information once your linguistic processing was done with it. Memory lost in the manner in which yours was lost does not come back.

What.

“So please. I'm sorry, but you're going to need to pay attention to the treatment plan I'm about to lay out, and forget about trying to get those answers.”

What?

No. That wasn't right. I hadn't forgotten what she said. That was... impossible, right? It had felt exactly like she'd just been speaking directly to me. I couldn't point to any gaps or missing pieces in the conversation. It was too smooth. Shouldn't I have felt... confused, or disoriented?

“Please- one more time- maybe, like, give me an analogy? So I can sort of remember it, without remembering the exact thing?

Another deep breath. Were those deep breaths... were they the parts of the conversation that I'd forgotten?

“Alright. Let's say you're in a burning building, and you see a dog trapped behind a fallen section of ceiling. That dog barks at you. You leave the building without saving the dog, and feel guilty about it. When you escape, you find the same dog waiting for you outside, and...” She paused for another deep breath. “That's why the dog still likes you. You take the walking stick and head to the grocery store, like you planned, and the dog follows you.”

What? Had I missed something?

“Sorry- wait, I found the dog waiting outside, and- what's why it still liked me? That I, like, felt guilty about it?”

She gave me a tired look. “No, the...” and then she breathed deeply again.

“I... completely don't see what you're getting at with this.”

“I know. I'm sorry. We're still studying your condition, but we haven't found a way to make anything stick. Can we please move on to the treatment plan?”

...No. No, that wasn't right. It couldn't be right. It was... what was it they always said in Light Marathon? “Too convenient”, that's what it was. It was like a meme. Put it in Impact font over a picture of a smug-looking cat.

There had to be a way to be sure. A test. Those suspicious deep breaths- they were always the same length, but they were pretty short. Not long enough to explain anything complicated, for sure. If she was really explaining things to me, it meant I was feeling time all wrong. Like I was just skipping over the parts I couldn't remember, like they didn't happen. If I asked her one more time, and watched the clock...

There was no clock. Nowhere in the room was there a clock. Nothing at all that told time.

“Hey, do you know what time it is?”

“Sorry?”

“What time it is. Like, there's no clock in the room.”

“That's standard in hospital rooms. Often bedridden patients who're staying for a long time get frustrated watching the slow passage of time. Easier to get rid of them.”

Was that true? It felt rehearsed.

“You- you've got a watch, though. What time is it?”

She looked. “10:03 pm. Why?”

I looked at the window. It was bright as day outside. Was it...? “Natural light generator,” she explained as I pushed aside the blinds to find a featureless sky-blue screen. “Patients here often have abnormal sleep cycles, so it's important to be able to set the daylight level individually in each room.”

So I couldn't track time by watching the movement of the sun, either. “Can I see your watch?” I asked.

“What? Sorry, no.”

“Why?”

“...It's expensive!” she protested, looking angrily at her own watch.

“I'm not gonna steal it. I just want to look.”

She hesistantly offered me her hand, and I looked at the watch, which did look expensive and did show about 10:03 pm. It had a second hand.

“Okay, now- can you tell me what happened to me again?”

She pulled her hand away and took a deep breath.

“No- sorry, while I'm looking at the watch. I need to check something.”

She glared at me, her gentle bedside manner falling apart into pure annoyance. “No, you don't. You need to listen to your treatment plan. I'm tired of explaining stuff you're not going to remember.”

“Please.”

“No!”

“Why not?!”

“I just told you! Shut up and- I mean, please, stop interrupting and let me help you get to know your treatment plan.”

That was it. It had to be deliberate, keeping me from watching the time. I probably wasn't the first person to try measuring those supposed gaps. I gave her my best smug look, the one I'd learned from an internet friend. “Yeah, no. I see exactly what you're doing here.”

“What I'm doing is trying to help you! Just... stop this!”

“If you're being straight up, you won't mind explaining one more time while I look at your watch, right?”

She stared at me for a tense eleven seconds or so. And then dropped her gaze, and growled “They're primed. Great. Amazing! Gosh DARN it, I am going to throttle that gosh darn alphabet kid! Sssssssshoot!” (She didn't say “gosh darn” or “shoot” but I won't repeat what she actually said 'cause it was seriously rude.)

 

Chapter Text

A long, largely lightless hallway met me when I left my holding cell. Doors lined the hall- I guessed more than twenty on each side. Dim blue recessed lighting was enough to keep things visible, but not enough to perceive colors, except where the light spilled out from my own door. The small windows on each door were dark, except for one door on the other side of the hall to my left. The ends of the hallway were capped with elevators.

Before moving, I checked for traps. Squinting, looking out the corner of my eye, tilting my head- all to uncover any optical illusions. Unlikely, but worth checking. I'd have snapped my fingers to attempt to gauge the acoustics, but that would alert anyone listening. I saw nothing unusual, and proceeded.

The door across from me was labeled 436-Leviticus, where my own room was marked 412-F. I wasn't sure what this signified, besides that there were 22 doors on each side, numbered in rows rather than alternating odd/even across the hall. If these were names, then my own nameplate hadn't been changed lately- not since my first five attempts. Whatever force was responsible for my past selves' repeated failures was not the same force that administrated this facility, or the nameplate would have been updated.

Alternatively, the notes were forged entirely and were intended to establish the pattern that would lead me to conclude that the administrators were not so dedicated to thwarting me.

437-February. 438-1am. 439-, blank. Each dark, with the bed inside hidden behind a curtain. What was the pattern? 440-4 was the door with the light coming through the window, before which I hesitated. Would someone see me if I were to peek inside, or even walk past it without crouching?

I had to consider each new choice as something that had tripped me up in the past. Was it more likely that I'd considered the light dangerous, and avoided it to my peril? Or that I'd considered it safe and interesting, and investigated (again to my peril)? Most previous selves hadn't been warned by the others, and consequently not been on their guard against anything that wasn't obviously risky. My previous self, M, had failed, however. Had this light been their undoing? Had they come to the conclusion that it was dangerous, avoided it, and regretted that choice? Or had something else resulted in their failure and return to my room?

(A voice in my head mused that it couldn't be that big of a deal- it was just a light- and I promptly bid it be silent forever.)

...Either way, though, I couldn't know. My immediate surroundings were likely not designed to trick me and keep me trapped, as my door had been left unlocked and unbarred. The light was probably not a deliberate attempt at reverse-psychology. So it was probably safe enough to indulge my curiosity.

The first thing I saw was someone who fit the description in L's note sitting on the bed. Thin, dark-skinned. Couldn't hear their voice, but they looked like someone whose voice might have been high. Not impossible. Was this a trap? Was I meant to make a beeline for this room, discover the allegedly-trustworthy person, and fall for whatever machinations they had in store? Even if M was telling the truth, perhaps they'd been deceived by L, who wasn't myself at all, and gone in to talk to this person. It wasn't worth the risk.

Regardless of whether that was a good decision, I realized that my prior decision- to look through the window- was potentially fatal. Because the thin person was not the only person in the room. There was also a tall, dark, muscular woman in a lab coat standing at the foot of the bed. And she looked quite angry. And she was looking directly at me.

She would come for me immediately, capture me, and reset my memory. I needed to escape, I needed to hide, and I needed to do so within the space of perhaps ten seconds, at best.

My prodigious mind went into overdrive. Time slowed down, or at least it seemed to, figuratively, because I was thinking very quickly. I needed to hide. The hallway was featureless and long. There was nowhere to hide in it. There were many rooms I could hide in, to throw her off the scent- but I couldn't move quickly enough and stealthily enough to open and close another door silently. Moving as fast as I'd need to, I would make a noise closing it, giving away which room I was in. It would be the first place she would check. The only door I could enter both quickly and quietly was my own, which I had left open- but it was brightly-lit, and the first place she would check when she made it to the door.

...No, that was it. The first place she would check would be a nearby door that she heard closing, and the second place she would check would be my own room. That was all I needed to start moving.

I grabbed the handle of 439-(nothing) and quickly opened and slammed it. Serendipitously, a motion-activated light triggered, making it all the easier for her to assume I'd ducked inside. That would buy me time. Time enough to run a few doors down, back to my own room, through the open door, making no sound. I ducked and rolled behind the door the instant I heard the click of 440-4's door opening.

“You arrogant punk! Get back here!” a voice boomed, and then I heard a nearer door open. She was checking 439, just as planned. I waited until her footsteps moved further away, into the room, and then slipped out. Moving slowly, I could open the door to my right and close it quietly, hiding myself for good.

My plan was flawed. My body was already in motion through my door when I heard a high voice ask “Wait, what alphabet kid? What's happening?”

The subsequent “I told you to STAY in your ROOM!” barely skimmed my awareness, because I'd been seized by panic. The dark-skinned person was staring directly at me, standing in the doorway. I froze.

Was this person trustworthy? Who were they? Why had they left L behind? My decision whether or not to trust them... was completely irrelevant. I had to trust them. They were looking right at me, and it was only their decision that was keeping me safe from the shouting lab coat woman.

I did the only thing I could do. I lifted one finger for silence, and held it to my lips. A silent “shhhh”.

...L's friend nodded. I breathed a sigh of relief, gave a thumbs-up, and silently slipped into room 411-Magician. “Hey, I'll help you search this room. They're hiding somewhere in here, right?” “I said get BACK in YOUR OWN ROOM!”

The door quietly clicked shut. I was safe.

...The previously serendipitous motion-activated light turned on. I was suddenly NOT safe.

I looked around for a lightswitch. No lightswitch made itself apparent. I looked around for the light- no light on the ceiling, where was... the window. The window? It had turned on? Yes, it appeared to be a window-shaped light fixture, not a real window. There had to be a way to deactivate it. I hurried over to the bed to try and find a way to turn it off.

Nothing presented itself. I didn't want to risk smashing it and starting an electrical fire- and more importantly, leaving obvious evidence I'd been here. Instead, I'd have to cover it up. Cover it up with... with a heavy blanket, perhaps. The privacy curtain and window curtains wouldn't be enough to keep the light from being visible in the dark hallway. I turned to rip a blanket off the bed, in hopes of being able to hang it from the curtain rod- and found myself eye-to-eye with a smiling old man.

“Hello there!” he wheezed cheerfully.

I frantically shushed him. How to communicate the pressing need for silence, without saying anything myself? A wild series of hand gestures. Finger to my lips, pointing at the door, shaking my head and crossing my hands in front of each other. I contemplated another “shhh”, but decided complete silence would better sell the urgency of the situation.

He got the idea. Mimicked my finger-to-the-lips gesture, and then grinned. It was possible the muffled angry yelling from outside the room helped him decide he'd be better off helping me than drawing attention. Or he may have just been an overly trusting person. I didn't complain.

I pointed at the window, and- crap. I didn't know any hand gestures for “darkness” or “light”. Instead, I moved to grab one of the heavy blankets, trying to hide the window's light.

No, no, no! I couldn't reach the top! Light was still leaking out, past the blinds and past the curtains and making the room's interior noticeably brighter than the hallway outside. Any moment, she'd conclude I tricked her and retreated to my own room, and then see the suspicious light from the room next door, and-

A hand suddenly grabbed the blanket, and I reflexively tugged it back, panic flooding my system. The old man! He was trying to...

...to help me cover the window. He'd stood up from his bed- tall. Very tall. He lifted the blanket over the top of the square window and held the blanket in place against the wall, completely blocking out the light. I caught a brief glimpse of a conspiratorial grin before the room was plunged back into darkness.

I let myself breathe. So many things had very nearly gone wrong with that plan- I might not have thought of it, I might have spent too much time slamming the other door, the stranger might have given me away to the woman, I might have decided to close my own door when I left, the old man might have been loud enough to hear, he might have decided to call for the woman, he might simply have been unwilling or too confused to help me. I'd been forced to put my complete trust in two total strangers in the span of less than a minute. It was a scenario with an enormously low chance of success.

Which was a good thing, I realized. The odds of all that happening in my favor were bad. Too many factors had been unpredictable. If someone had been repeatedly trapping me in a plot to take advantage of my predictable amnesiac behavior to capture me and wipe my memory, that plot had just failed. The alternative- that someone had planned for all of that to happen- was beyond ludicrous. If there was a pattern, I had just broken it.

I became aware of the old man's breathing. He was still standing there, perfectly silent. I couldn't tell if he was looking at me, couldn't read his expression, couldn't tell what he was thinking.

A sound from very nearby. The door to my holding cell being flung open and into the wall with a thud. She was searching in there, now.

“Just a couple minutes,” I whispered. “Until she's gone.”

“Mm-hm,” he responded, quietly. Why was he trusting me? There had to be a fifty-fifty chance, to someone who'd just woken up in an unfamiliar situation, that I was the one in the wrong and that he should have alerted the woman. Even if he was uncertain, he should have simply done nothing, and waited for events to take their natural course. He was going out of his way to help me, even though he knew nothing about me.

...I picked up on the note of confusion in my thinking. If it didn't make sense that someone completely oblivious person would choose to help me, then maybe he wasn't completely oblivous. Did he know me? Did he know who the woman was? I'd unconsciously assumed that he was like me, amnesiac, but what were the odds of that? The place looked something like a hospital, and hospitals treat all kinds of people.

Why had I assumed that? Because all the rooms looked the same? That wasn't very strong evidence. Residual memory from previous cycles? I didn't even know if those had really happened, much less that the amnesia effect worked that way. Had I just been... I just hadn't been thinking straight. Full of adrenaline from my escape. The growing headache I was getting wasn't helping.

So who was he? What potential reasons could he have to protect me? Was he protecting me? Or was the woman actually on my side, whatever side that was? She'd called me an “arrogant punk”, which made that unlikely, but on the other hand, there'd been two people so far who'd helped me escape from her and only one her. If I'd failed thirteen times, would it really have been against a lone angry woman, or against multiple people who'd managed to make me lower my guard and trust them?

Thoughts like that occupied my brain for a few long minutes, as I listened to the woman seem to turn my cell upside-down looking for me. On the bright side, the shouting and stomping didn't stop for any period of time long enough for her to have read through my notes. Did she not notice them? Or had she been the one to plant them, making it unnecessary to look through them again?

Eventually she was gone. Or, at least, quiet. Quiet could mean lying in wait for me to decide the coast was clear and step out of wherever I'd hidden, but it could also mean gone to go get help. I'd heard a rumbling noise and a “ding”, which implied that she'd used one of the elevators.

“...Okay,” I said, tapping the old man.

“Hoo! Alrighty then! My arms were getting tired y'see,” he said. He let the blanket drop, leaving the room slightly lit through the curtains and blinds. “So what was all that about hm?”

What was that all about? Why had she been chasing me?

“...I don't know.” I said, truthfully.

“You don't know what that one was after you for then? That's pretty unusual I think even though I'll be the first to admit I don't have an inkling what passes for usual around these parts. Where am I?”

I had to pause to take in what he'd said. Not because it was important, just- his nonstop cadence. Like that line from TNG- “he just kept talking in one long incredibly unbroken sentence moving from topic to topic so that no one had a chance to interrupt it was really quite hypnotic.”

He was confused. Or pretending. “I don't actually know,” I said. “Possibly a hospital, but it's weird enough that it might be something else, pretending to be a hospital.”

Should I have been telling him that? Actual information was something to be careful with, but I supposed speculation was safe enough. At worst, if he was in on whatever had reset me thirteen times, he'd have a better picture of my thought processes. And if he was in on that, then he already knew enough about those.

“Pretending to be a hospital! Well that's an interesting idea though likewise as to my not having inklings about things I don't have an inkling about why any place should be pretending to be a hospital while not being such so I would reckon that it is the real McCoy.”

“Just because you don't know why they might be doing it, doesn't mean they don't have a reason,” I pointed out. “I just haven't figured out what it is yet.”

He chuckled. “Well isn't that a way to think. I suppose if you've been outside of this here room then maybe you've seen a thing or two that made you start suspecting things I don't suspect yet! Though even this room is maybe the sort of thing to get you asking questions about how normal it all is around here.”

I looked around, and saw what he meant. It was like my room- not quite like a hospital room. There was a table, with unopened packs of cards where a Zendo game had been on mine. A bookshelf, empty. More blankets and bedding on the bed than you'd expect from hospital accommodations. And, of course, the light on the wall that was pretending to be a window.

“So why were you on the run from whoever that was that made you want to hide? You said you don't know what it was all about but surely something had you wanting to run instead of talk or whatnot.”

He was asking why I'd run. And the answer was... well, I could say that it was because she'd called me an arrogant punk, but that had been after I'd bolted. I'd bolted before she even started running for me. I'd made the decision to be afraid of her in a split second, without hesitating or evaluating the situation. That wasn't like me, was it? My brain was working fast, but a threat assessment had not been part of that lightning-speed calculation. It should have been.

Or... no. I'd already made a threat assessment. I'd decided to be afraid of everyone. The skinny one had been recognizable from L's note, so they'd slowed me down and forced me to rethink, but the woman- a doctor?- was an unknown. So I ran. It had been lucky- no, a positive consequence of proper paranoia.

I'd been paranoid because of the notes from M. That was the reason I'd run. Did I want to tell him that?

No.

“...I didn't trust her. I was just... I woke up here, didn't know what was happening, and got scared. Decided not to trust anyone, so I ran when she saw me. It turned out to be the right call, in hindsight.”

The old man frowned. “Decided not to trust anyone? Gee that's kind of extreme in my opinion and it looks like you trusted me! Why the change of heart there I wonder?” Frown became a grin again.

“You- I had no choice! There wasn't anything I could have gained by not trusting you, and nothing to lose by hoping you'd help!”

“You had no choice, huh.” He went back to a frown. “Now see I had it all up in my head that you liked me for whatever reason and believed I would help you and so I did. Now you tell me you don't trust me at all and you had to be strongarmed into it so well that's just a little hurtful!”

“I don't even know your name!” I protested.

“It's, eh. Magician is what my name is I think but to be one hundred and ten percent honest I'm not completely sure about that because I suppose my wits are starting to pack up and leave me in my old age you see. Magician's-”

“Not really a normal name, is it?” I finished.

“That's precisely it yes so I think I might be confused about...”

So, he was in the same boat as me. A false name stuck in his head, a name that didn't quite feel right. Not sure where he was or how he got here. Or, rather, he knew those were the symptoms of whatever I was afflicted with, and was pretending to have the same thing in order to gain my trust and lower my defenses. His attempt to guilt-trip me into trusting him didn't help matters.

And that confirmed that the room labels had names on them (or that he wanted me to think they did.) That meant 436 had someone named Leviticus in it, 437 had February, 438 had 1am, 439 was empty, and I'd seen the woman and the skinny person in the room belonging to someone named 4.

Was that either of them? Was the woman 4, or was it the dark-skinned stranger? They'd been sitting in the bed, while the woman was dressed up like a doctor and standing at the foot. In fact, she'd said... right! She'd told them to go back to their room! The stranger was named 4. Which meant... if the old man was telling the truth, 4 was probably another “wrong” name. It might have explained why L claimed the stranger had been avoiding giving their name. It might have explained why they'd disappeared- that woman had probably brought them back to their room!

...But was it that simple? M had failed and become me in the intervening time. The doctor had been sitting in room 440, talking to 4. Had M been noticed and dealt with? Or had they met with some other fate? If the doctor had taken 4 to their room, how long had she been in there? How long had M lasted?

There were too many questions. I'd come up with some answers, but all of them were tainted by the possibility that the old man had set me up to believe them. I wanted to come up with... some theory, some explanation, any kind of concrete picture of the situation, but there were too many variables. I couldn't trust myself to build up a chain of logic, because any link in that chain could be a fabrication designed to lead me into a trap.

A distant rumble shook me from my train of thought.

“...and magic I have to tell you is bad news and I have had bad experiences with it. My brother- I haven't told you about my brother but he got into magic and tried to drag me down with him and let me tell you-”

Oh, he was still talking. I hadn't been paying attention. My own thoughts had been more pressing.

“Sorry- magic?”

“Yep that's what I'm saying is that magic you know it's not good for you but I don't doubt it's real that the devils opposing the Lord have power and they'll poison your mind and get you into drugs and all that sort of thing like my brother was always stuck in.”

Oh. Just a tirade, likely about his name. Probably unimportant. I wasn't sure what to do about this guy.

He kept going on. “Lot of folk these days think magic's not a dangerous thing because it's not real! You see these kids with their weegee boards and let me tell you I'll eat my hat if it's not demonic influence at work in those poor kids I will.”

His hat? He didn't have a-

Oh. He was wearing a hat now. A worn bucket hat, like fishermen wore. It had dried flowers pinned to the top, and some little buttons with words I couldn't make out at a distance.

“Sorry- where'd you get that hat from?” I asked.

“Eh? My hat? It was sitting here on the counter by the bed is where I found it which I take to mean is where it was put when I was put to bed.”

Oh. Well, that made sense, then. He'd-

No. Wait. No, that was wrong. His hat? I hadn't had any of my own possessions in my room. All I had was... this gray hospital gown, actually. And this old man was wearing clothes. A unzipped zip-up green hoodie, plain white shirt, cargo shorts. He had shoes on his feet, even- well, sandals. Socks and sandals. I wasn't going to judge on that front.

“Those clothes you're wearing. Where did you get them?”

“From the thrift store's where they're from as far as I know. Can't say I thought much about it come to think of it!”

'As far as he knew?' That was suspicious. Did he not know?

“As far as you know? You mean, you're not sure where those clothes are from? You don't know whether they're yours?” I applied pressure. “I want to you be completely clear with me, here. I can not work with incomplete information.”

He gave me a funny look. “Well! I don't see what's so pressing about that question but yes I just meant in the sense that I don't keep track of where everything I have comes from in these years of mine. It's all sort of a blur actually-”

Not wearing a gray hospital gown. Not like me. Not like 4. His own clothes. Did that mean anything? Was he not really a patient? Or did they not make everyone wear the same thing?

“Listen. I need to check something. Let me see inside that shirt.”

He looked taken aback. “Golly! Forward with this old silverback we're being right now hm?”

NO NO NO NO NO NO NO. “NO NO NO NO NO NO NO. I mean the inside! The tags! Does it have your name anywhere on it?”

His eyes lit up. “Oho! Yes that seems like the sort of thing I might do to keep track of things. You feel it all start to slip away after this long and it's just good sense is what an idea like that is,” he said. He took off his hoodie and looked through the tags.

“Nothing not so far as I can see actually. Maybe if-”

I snatched the hoodie from him. I'd see for myself. “Let me see,” I said, too late for him to protest.

The main pockets were empty, but there were more pockets on the inside lining. I felt for a bulge, and found... yes! A wallet. That was what I needed. However thorough a job they'd done of hiding all clues to my own identity, they'd done a slipshod job on the old man. Credit cards, photo ID, coupons, the works. Also some money, but it was like, a handful of ones. Not worth trying to pocket.

His name was Orson Liang. I showed him.

“Orson L- yes that's my name! Boy I knew my memory was starting to slip these days but I don't think that's ever happened before forgetting my whole name! I really ought to let Avanell put me in a home at this point or actually hold the phone is this the home that I'm in right now?”

“Not unless I'm secretly a senile old person, no,” I said. He didn't say “Are you?” which marked him as insufficiently paranoid.

“Lot of things slipping my mind these days come to think of it. Only just now remembered I had to clean the gutters in my house and clean up after Linda you know but I suppose all that's not getting done with me in the hospital here.”

“In what might be a hospital,” I corrected him.

“Might be a hospital, sure. Reminds me of- reminds me in the sense that I forgot and just remembered not in the usual anecdote sense- of the other day when I was delivering mail. You know I'm a mailman by trade? Just remembered that bit. That's what I do is deliver mail even when people mix up the address to the hospital and I end up delivering these letters to sick folks to a health insurance place on the same block. No end of confusion that caused!”

Loved the sound of his own voice, clearly. People like him thought their perspective on things was more important than mine. Still, I could use it- if he was going to run his mouth, he might let something slip.

“Now I told this to Avanell God rest her soul and she told me I needed to be more careful and start thinking sometimes people make mistakes and I need to step up and take responsibility for other folks' mistakes I can fix. And she started using language I want to say isn't the kind of thing she should have said around her kids God rest their souls but I wasn't going to question how she did parenting Lord knows I didn't get it right when I tried it.”

A note of confusion sounded in that, and I pounced on it like a starving mountain lion.

“You said, just now- God rest her soul? Avanell is dead?”

Pain shot across his face- a shock of realization- and he took a deep breath. “She- Lord, yes, of course she is, she was killed by the elephant not too long ago. Not too long ago that happened and it slipped my mind. Hurts to remember it all over again she was a good daughter you know-”

No. No, that wasn't going to fly. I could tell when someone was trying to cover for a mistake.

“I don't think so.” I grinned. “You messed up, didn't you? You said you should let Avanell put you in a home, which implies that she's alive, but just now you claimed she's dead. Killed by an elephant, no less. I think one of those things was made up, and I'm inclined to think it's the second.”

He frowned. “No see I just forgot is all what with my head hurting and losing track of things you know how what age will do to you-”

“Nice try. I'm not falling for that, Orson. You're going to tell me exactly which one of those two things is true, and the real reason you lied to me. You're not going to fool me with the senile act.”

He sat down on the bed, holding his head. He was pretending to be upset, still clinging to the hope that I'd fall for his denials.

“Elephant- Lord, the elephant got her- the elephant got everybody...”

“No, I asked for the truth. Not some ridiculous story about elephants, thanks. Get your story straight, or don't give me a story at all.”

He was... crying? Give me a break. “Not an elephant. The elephant. You know the elephant? No, you shouldn't know about the elephant, I'm the only one I know that the elephant can't hurt...”

This was ridiculous. I supposed next he'd be telling me my amnesia was caused by purple monkey dishwashers and we were being held in the banana factory by sentient waffles. Lol, so random! Did this guy know what he was doing? Was he just a low-level goon, forced to come up with a story on the spot? I'd have expected someone sent to trick me to come up with something more believable.

He was red in the face, now. A good actor, maybe, if not a good liar.

“Can you shut up about elephants? It's obvious by now that you're not willing to give me any information, so the least you can do is cut it out with the pathetic ruse.”

“Shut up about elephants haha well I suppose that's the thing to do in case the elephant's got you in its sights that's one thing I can do. See the elephant always left me alone so I don't have to worry about thinking about the blasted thing no matter what I do it'll go after everyone I love and leave me alone is what it'll do...”

I sighed. This man was not being useful. I contemplated leaving him here, but I wasn't sure if it was safe to go outside. I'd heard that additional rumble- had the elevator returned, with a search party? It'd been a while and I hadn't heard anything, but they might have seen the light and decided to wait to approach.

“Elephant- Lord it was in the spaceship wasn't it? I knew that much actually already and maybe it took that away from me or was it something else?” His face was getting even redder- it was bright pink, now. “Feel like something else not the elephant did it but it had to be connected to the elephant. Elephant...”

“Will you SHUT your MOUTH about the flipping ELEPHANT already?!” I said, maybe a little louder than was wise with the possibility of an-

-angry woman in a lab coat throwing open the door and shouting “RUN, you idiot! RUN!”

 

Chapter Text

So I wasn't, like, completely sure what she meant by “alphabet kid”, but threatening to throttle them probably wasn't the best sign ever. Like, don't real doctors have a hippo oath to Do No Harm? Maybe she was just mad and exaggerating, but still. Not super legit doctor behavior.

And then there was the part where she suddenly looked at the window, and then I looked too and saw a face peeking in (a kind of familiar face?) and then suddenly disappearing. Dr. Orchard gave a scream of rage and bolted for the door, really highkey angry at whoever.

There was a slamming sound from nearby- a door closing- and Orchard fumbled with the handle of my room, cursing under her breath. She burst out into the hall and shouted “You arrogant punk! Get back here!”

I decided to follow. Like, why not? Something was happening, and I didn't want to miss it. I needed to figure out what was going on, more than anything else. I stepped out into the hall, just in time to see Orchard storm into the room next to mine.

“Wait! What 'alphabet kid'? What's happening?” I asked, stepping towards the room- 439, apparently. She yelled at me to go back to my room, but I was distracted.

Down the hall, stepping out of a different room, was the face I'd seen in the door. And it was familiar. It was someone I knew from... the internet. A message board for a series of sci-fi books. I'd skyped with them- their handle was Archive05.

Our eyes met. It was a pretty tense moment, honestly- a few feet to my left, an angry fake doctor was turning a room upside-down looking for them. They looked terrified, seeing me.

They held up a finger to their lips. I nodded. A tiny part of my brain asked me “wait, who should you trust?” and the answer was obviously “the person I knew, who this angry stranger who'd lied to me wants to hurt”. The tension left their face, and they gave me a thumbs-up. They quietly snuck into the room next door, leaving their own room open.

I decided to cover for them some more. I didn't know how long that motion-activated light would stay on for, but I could try and keep Orchard tied up in the other room until it went out.

I stepped inside. “Hey, I'll help you search this room. They're hiding somewhere in here, right?”

“I said get BACK in YOUR OWN ROOM!” she snapped. “I don't need you turning this into an even bigger disaster!”

I helpfully looked behind the door, where Archive05 of course wasn't. “Just want to help,” I said.

“You're not helping. You can't help. You're literally only capable of making this situation worse,” she objected.

I mean, it was a fair rap. I had decided to actively work against her, here. If that was making the situation worse in her eyes, that was... good, right? Because she was... kind of mean? And a liar? Yeah, that was reason enough for now.

“Christ, I'm lucky they hid in this empty room,” she said, checking under the bed. “We have too many patients in delicate conditions to risk letting them talk to anyone.”

“Is that a bathroom in there?” I asked, pointing at a door off to the side that was clearly marked as being a bathroom.

“I said go BACK to your ROOM! I'm not negotiating with you on this! If this weren't incredibly urgent, I'd be trying to restrain you myself!”

Sheesh. This lady had no chill, did she? “What's urgent about this? Are you worrying about them getting sick?”

“No,” she said. “I'm worried about them getting someone killed. We have at least three patients in this ward alone who could die if they were disturbed by the wrong sort of person.”

That... was actually kind of worrying. It could be a lie, again, but this time she wasn't sitting in front of me with a script memorized. This was a totally unexpected situation for her, and it was pretty obvious she was panicking. She hadn't been that great at fooling me when she was in control of the situation, either. If it was a lie, then... well, it'd mean she'd deliberately let herself get caught in a lie, so she could pretend to get her bluff called, so I'd trust her after...?

No, that was Arc's kind of thinking. That guy- were they a guy? I never actually found out- was the champion of overthinking things. Odds were that this Dr. Orchard actually was afraid for people's safety, even if she'd been lying to me earlier for some reason. And running amok in a hospital, endangering people's lives... that was probably a good reason to be mad at Archive. Maybe I'd made the wrong call.

She checked the bathroom and found nothing. Frustrated noises ensued.

“Do you think they're really in here? Maybe they just looked inside to see whether it was a dead end.”

She gave me a cold look, like I'd brought up a really good point but she was too mad at me to actually say thanks or whatever. She stalked past me and out into the hallway, giving me another “go back to your room” but not because she actually expected me to listen. I followed her out.

I figured I could still decide to get in her way, if it turned out she was lying and Archive wasn't dangerous to anyone. For now, though, I'd help her with...

Well, hm. I knew where Arc had gone. But I couldn't just tell her- she'd want to know how I knew, and I'd have to tell her I'd covered for them, and I'd waste whatever shred of goodwill she had towards me. I'd need to steer her in the right direction, somehow, without giving it away.

...Or I could just deal with the awkwardness, but I didn't feel like it.

“So- you said people could die? Is this some kind of... ICU thingy? Intensive ca-”

Yes, it's some kind of ICU thingy, whatever. Stop following me around and go back to your room.” She really wasn't giving up on that, was she?

Cabinets flew open, cabinets slammed shut, her hand groped around under the bed. She was checking this room- Arc's room? way faster than the last one. It looked to be identical- identical to my room, too. A really comfy bed, no clocks, bookshelf, privacy curtain. A game on the table, except Zendo instead of Risk. I guessed all the rooms here were laid out the same way.

“No luck?” I asked, after she gave a particularly strangled groan of frustration.

“You don't understand what kind of problem I'm dealing with, here. It's not okay that I can't find them. I can't- nobody can afford my failure.”

I was getting really bugged by how this lady wasn't, like, answering any of my questions. Had she been telling the truth about the mental block thing? When she'd refused to let me test it, had there been a real reason for her to give up on convincing me?

“If you want me to believe that,” I said, “you've got to actually tell me what's going on. I don't know why you're trying to keep secrets from me, but I'm kinda worried it's a bad reason.”

I was getting pretty used to her glare. It was indignant, almost disgusted. Like she thought it was, like, totally outrageous that I was existing in the same room as her. She looked tired, too. It reminded me of how people at the supermarket would look after they'd just got off their shift in customer service. The “sick of dealing with idiots” look.

“I promise I'm not going to flip out if you tell me! I'm not an idiot. If it really is important, I can help you look!”

The glare softened, and she broke eye contact. She growled, but not at me this time. I got the sense she thought she'd just... lost, or something.

“I'm sorry,” she said through gritted teeth. “I know this... is confusing for you. It's not that I don't trust you. But I can't tell you, and I can't tell you why I can't tell you.”

Oh. This situation.

“Can you tell me... why you can't tell me why you can't tell me?”

She sighed in exasperation. “No, and it goes all the way down. Trust me.”

Well, that wasn't good. I remembered this conundrum from some of Arc's fanfic. “So... I mean, that's pretty extreme. That sounds like... you don't trust me to do the right thing if I knew anything about it. And that means, like... you either think I'm stupid, or your idea of 'the right thing' is different.”

She looked at me funny. “Where'd you hear that?”

“Where'd I hear... what?”

“That line about- you either being stupid, or having a different idea of what was right.”

“From... I mean, it came up in a... game, once, on the internet. Like a role-playing thing. One of my friends said- how did you know it was 'from' somewhere?”

She thought about it for a second. “Wait, I can just tell you that- you heard it from that idiot we're looking for. They keep saying stuff like that whenever I try to tell them the same thing.”

“...Are they wrong?”

The glare. “Yes, they're wrong! This is not about what you would do if you knew. This is not about someone watching you, or torturing information out of you. This is not about sparing your feelings, or any stupidity like that! It's not any of that moron's nine billion conspiracy theories! I swear to god this is actually for your own good.

That left... startlingly few explanations, actually. If it wasn't any of those, what reason could there be?

“Listen. You can help me. Fine. You're persistent enough that it'd be safer to just keep an eye on you. But I can't tell you what's going on here, except that lives are at stake. You're going to do what I say, and you're going to trust that I have good reasons for saying it.”

“Okay,” I lied. I didn't actually trust her at all, but it didn't cost me anything to say that I did. Besides feeling a little bad about lying, I guess, but I was already feeling that.

“So... they're in one of these rooms, yeah? I'll start searching right, you start searching left?”

“Are you dense?” she asked. “I already said we have delicate patients here. We can't go into every single room and risk waking them up! That's why this is a huge problem right now!”

I knew exactly which room Arc was hiding in, but my plan to safely find them had failed before I'd even consciously come up with it. I couldn't just happen to come across the right door in my search- I needed a way to make that particular room seem naturally suspicious.

“That room before was empty, right? We can search the empty ones.” She could search the empty ones, I could search the one I knew Arc was in and claim I got confused.

“No. We can't search one-by-one like that. They might change rooms while we're looking around in one.”

“I could wait out in the hallway to catch them if they try,” I offered.

“...It's possible, but only about half of these rooms are unoccupied. We only have a fifty percent chance of finding them, even if we search every unoccupied room. And we don't have time for that.”

“We don't?”

“We don't. Another thing you'll need to trust me on.”

I didn't like that. It was getting increasingly tempting just to point out the room, even though it'd be obvious that I knew- how else would I have picked out one dark room out of all the other identical dark rooms?

...Wait. It was dark. It wasn't dark when Archive went inside. The motion-activated light had triggered. But it was dark now, which meant they weren't moving. They'd probably kept perfectly still, in hopes of it turning back off, and it had. But that meant the instant they moved again, the room would light up and we'd have them.

How to get them to move?

“Hey- those elevators at the end of the hall. Do they work?”

“Of course they work. Why wouldn't they- how else would you get in here? You just need a staff key to open them.”

“And do they make any noise when they move? A ding, or even just, like... a low moving-elevator noise?”

“Yes...” she said, not sure where I was going with this.

“If you were keeping perfectly still in a dark room, and you were listening for sound to tell you when the person looking for you had left, would the sound be loud enough to hear?”

“...Yes,” she said. She looked like she was picking up on the idea.

“So, we call the elevator, send it back down empty, and then wait for them to think the coast is clear. Then we, like, watch the rooms to see if a motion light lights up, and we've got them. Right?”

She frowned. “It could work, but I don't know how patient they are- how long they'll wait before moving. I told you time was a factor.”

I remembered Arc in IRC one time, asking if someone had gone AFK after they'd taken less than two minutes to respond to a question. Arc was not patient. We'd have them instantly.

“Let's give it five minutes. Can you do five minutes?”

“...I can do five minutes. Just so you know, though, I would hold you responsible if it didn't work and something horrible happened, if I were allowed to do that.”

“Allowed?”

“Patients, unfortunately, have zero liability here. If you fudge this up, it's going to be on my head. So don't fudge it up.” (She didn't say fudge.)

We moved for the nearest elevator. Like she said, it needed a key. The up and down buttons were dark, but lit up when she took out a key from her lab coat and inserted it into a keyhole on the panel. She pressed the up button- not down?- and I could hear the sound of a descending elevator coming down the shaft.

“You think they'll get suspicious if you go up higher in the building, instead of down to the ground floor?”

She looked at me like I had said something too stupid to dignify with a response.

A ding sounded, and the elevator opened up. The doors opened startlingly fast, like they'd been slammed open except for the lack of noise. Otherwise, it was a pretty ordinary elevator, nothing too special about it. In really good condition, like it was new, but didn't have much else going on.

...An idea crashed into my head like a bolt of lightning. It was an awesome idea, it was a hilarious idea, and it was just a really really bad idea in retrospect but I decided to go with it anyway.

“Hey! Look! There they are!” I shouted as I pointed down the hall. Nothing was there, but she spun around and ran, before even checking to see where they were. It was a single narrow hallway, after all- it's not like she'd miss them.

She only made it a few strides before asking “Wait, where?”, but I was already enacting the terrible plan. It was terrible on a lot of levels, actually. It should have failed when I stepped inside the elevator and pressed the Close Door button, for one thing. Most Close Door buttons on elevators are placebo- the door will shut on its own time, and it'll usually do it slowly, so as not to crush any stray limbs. The plan should have failed then, but the doors snapped shut as quickly as they'd opened, leaving me only a glimpse of the unfiltered rage on her face before I was alone in the elevator.

It should have failed when she pressed the call button again- usually those things open when the elevator's still on the same floor, and it took me a little while to find the ground floor button- on the top of the selection of buttons, not the bottom. There were a lot of floors- we were, like, underground, with the ground floor being the top, and it took me a while to decide. She had time. The door should have opened for her, but it didn't. For some reason, whoever put in this elevator wanted to be able to shut people out. Probably the same reason it needed a key to operate.

So she didn't get in, and the escape plan didn't fail there. Instead, it failed later.

 

Chapter Text

The plan failed when the door opened to a well-lit lobby. Sun was streaming in from outside, there was a receptionist at a desk with fake flowers, and relaxing music was playing from speakers.

Also, the receptionist was wearing a gas mask, as were the several heavily armed guards in position around the room.

The receptionist turned to look at me, and so did most of the guards. The receptionist screamed when he saw me, and the guards instantly had weapons trained on me. Some had firearms, others seemed to have tasers and other nonlethal equipment. They all had body armor, and I was in a gray hospital gown, cornered in an elevator.

In an elevator. Right! Of course! I pressed the Close Door button again, and the door snapped shut. I heard shouts from the other side, and hit 4 before they could decide what to do about me. Better the devil I knew than the devil I didn't. Also, better the devil that didn't have lots of guns pointed at me than the devil that did. Really there were a lot of devils that were preferable to the kind that had lots of guns pointed at me.

I felt pretty stupid as the elevator descended. I was going to open that door, she was going to be there, and if she didn't punch my lights out right then and there, there was no way she was going to trust me again. I didn't deserve to be trusted after the stunt I'd just pulled.

What had just happened, anyway? Gas masks? Armed guards? The receptionist had been terrified of me, before I'd said or done anything. The only thing I could think of was that I was wearing a hospital gown, and he'd mistaken me for a lookalike with a really infectious disease. Or... maybe I did have a really infectious disease. Did it really call for a room full of armed guards, though?

I didn't finish the thought. The door opened onto floor 4. Dr. Orchard was... sitting quietly in the corner right outside.

“You lied to me,” she whispered.

“Look, I'm sor-”

“You promised me you weren't stupid. You were wrong.” She put a finger to her lips and pointed at a door down the hall with her other hand.

“There,” she whispered. The room Arc had entered was lit up.

“Why aren't you going after them?” I said, lowering my voice.

“Shh. It just turned on. We wait for them to leave the room, so we don't disturb the patient inside.” She got up, carefully and quietly. Not really paying attention to me. She didn't seem as bothered by my escape attempt as I thought she'd be. I guess... she knew there'd be people there to keep me from getting away?

She started inching down the hallway, sticking close to the wall. Ten doors between us and Arc's room. She moved quietly, and could have probably afforded to move faster. It took us about two minutes, in total. Every time I accidentally made noise, she'd silence me with a “Shh!” that was louder than the noise I'd made.

The rooms had numbers and nameplates. There was a 419-Gamma, 417-Leo, 416-Third, 414-Blue, and the rest were blank. I peered inside each of them, but they all looked identical with the privacy curtain obscuring the bed.

Arc's was 412-F. I didn't know what to make of that.

When we got close enough, I could hear voices from inside room 411.

“...fool me with the senile act...”

“...I'm the only one I know that the...”

It was hard to make out, but I could hear snippets. I could probably hear more if I listened at the crack in the door, but... well, two things. The first thing was Dr. Orchard was listening at it instead, crouched down on the floor, and she wouldn't have liked it if I'd leaned over her to listen too. The second thing was that there was no crack in the door. I checked 412-F's door and it matched- a rubber seal around the edge. The room was supposed to be, like, airtight?

Dr. Orchard apparently heard something, because she drew in a sharp breath.

Go back to your room! Now!” she yell-whispered. I hadn't listened to her the previous twenty times, so I didn't listen to her this time.

“Go! You need to go back right now! I'm serious! Go inside and shut the door tight, right now!” Her attention was suddenly on me, for all she'd been more or less ignoring me before. “I'm not messing around! Do it!”

That was not the plan. My plan was to help her search, and then be, like, ready to intervene if it turned out she was going to do something nasty to Arc. I wasn't about to remove myself from a situation like this.

“I don't think so. I'm going to stay right here and keep an eye on-”

A familiar voice sounded from inside the room, shouting.

“Will you SHUT your MOUTH about the flipping ELEPHANT already?!”

Dr. Orchard growled at me, then spun around and threw the door open.

“RUN, you idiot! RUN!”

 

Arc was standing there in the room, next to a man who was pink in the face and murmuring faintly. They spun around in panic, eyes locking with Dr. Orchard.

It didn't take them very long to make a break for it. Whatever was going through their head, they'd decided that it was better to trust Orchard and run. Maybe they'd decided not to risk-

Oh, wait, no. Sorry, my bad- they didn't decide to trust Dr. Orchard, they just saw a good excuse to charge at her full-tilt and body-slam her to the floor. She hadn't been expecting it, and she buckled under the impact. All of a sudden, Arc was on top of Orchard in the hallway, trying to hold down her arms.

I took a moment to glance inside the room at the man. He'd gone silent, and was softly shuddering. His blush- no, it wasn't a blush- had spread, turning his whole head a bubblegum pink. Was he going to be okay?

Twin howls of rage snatched my attention back to the unfolding brawl. Arc had gotten the upper hand with their charge, but it hadn't lasted. They were short and unathletic, and Orchard was just plain stronger than them. She'd tried to flip them over, but they'd moved fast and put her in some kind of wrestling hold. The fight was a mess of limbs and noise that only needed an obscuring dust cloud to turn it into something from a cartoon.

Orchard stole a glimpse of the room and gasped. “Four! Four, shut the door! Shut the door right now please just shut the-” she was cut off by Arc's hand in her mouth, which she bit down on, hard.

I looked at the pink old man inside. The color had... had reached his hair, turning the white bright pink. That was... bad. That was probably bad. I figured I ought to do what the lady said and shut the door, but Arc suddenly yelled “DON'T! DON'T DO IT!”

I hesitated. Was there some reason-

“WHAT?! No! Do it! Do it NOW! Do you want to DIE?!”

“Don't do it! That's what she wants!

...“Doing what she wants” seemed to me like a little less bad than “dying”, but I still hesitated and stared at the old man. Maybe out of curiosity, more than any kind of decision.

“SHUT THE FUDGING* DOOR FOR THE LOVE OF-”

The old man's head exploded.

It exploded, and then froze in mid-explosion. There was a mass of pink goo outstretched into... I couldn't describe it, really. Maybe as... the 3D equivalent of the Nickelodeon logo? Like a blob of pink paint had splashed onto his neck stump and then someone paused the video. There were little bits of bone, but it was otherwise... not like an exploded head. No blood, no bits of gore, just undifferentiated pink Play-Doh.

“THE DOOR! SHUT THE-”

I snapped out of my trance the instant the old man's splatter-head started falling apart and spewing pink dust everywhere. That took it from gruesome spectacle to actual danger, and my hands fumbled for the handle. I pulled it shut, but not before a few puffs of the stuff made it out the door and into the hallway.

I coughed. Some of the stuff had splashed across my face.

A groan and subsequent thud indicated that Dr. Orchard had succeeded in kicking off Arc, who was now collapsed against the wall.

Orchard was coughing. “Guh- koff- no! No! Retirement! Or... no!” She glared at me- then at Arc, then at me again. “Did it- just dandruff? No- no, you- this is your fault!” It wasn't clear which one of us she was talking to. Both?

“What was that? Did we catch it? Am I going to die?!” I back away as she staggered to her feet.

“No. No, you'll be fine. I'm going to- retire. Fudge. Fudging- you two. You two stay right here and wait for help. I really hope I never see you again.”

What did she mean by-

She sat down, cross-legged, and started humming.

“Who are you? Are you working with her?” Arc said, startling me.

“Me? I'm- you know me, right?”

“No, I've lost my memory since I met you. You knew L. I'm N. What happened to M? What's your agenda?”

This was- pretty standard Archive05, except for the not knowing me part. Rapid-fire words that would make sense as soon as I figured out what they were saying. They said they had amnesia- the same kind of amnesia Orchard said I had, probably. How much of that had been a lie? And-

“Wait, L? I don't know any L.”

“You- don't lie to me! Are you working with her or not?”

Arc got to their feet, tripped, and stumbled their way over to where Orchard was sitting. She didn't react, except to go from humming to murmuring something indistinct.

“Arc, someone's head just exploded! Is this the time for that? We need to go get help!”

Arc said “She said to stay-” and then stopped mid-sentence, thinking. Two equally suspicious people wanted them to do two opposite things, which I can only imagine was intellectually difficult for them.

I leaned in to listen to what Orchard was murmuring under her breath. “...am Dr. Felicity Orchard I am Dr. Felicity Orchard I am Dr. Felicity Orchard I am...”

I saw movement as she pulled something from her pocket, and jumped back. A bright pink plastic device, with two metal prods on the end. It began to crackle with electricity- a taser. I'd been smart to jump out of the way. Arc had done the same, getting to their feet.

Without opening her eyes, continuing to chant her name, she pressed a red button on the back of the taser, which began to flash and softly beep.

“A bomb?! Gah! You! We need to run! She's trying to set off a bomb!”

“Are you sure?” I asked. “We don't know it's a-” No, that wouldn't sway the Archive I knew. Bombs were way more exciting to think about than what it could be besides a bomb. There was a better way to catch their interest. “...It could be a bluff. To get us to run, so she can escape.”

They paused at that, rubbing at their chin.

A ding, the noise of the elevator opening, and a cacophony of heavy boots stomping down the hallway. The soldiers from the lobby. Gas masks.

Dr. Orchard plunged the taser into her own side, making a strangled sound. Her arm reflexively pulled away, but she tried again, holding it steady with her other hand as she continued tasing herself.

Arc shrieked and ran the other way. I didn't shriek, but I also ran the other way. Towards the elevator on the other end of the long hallway, which... also opened and deposited a number of armed guards into the hall. I skidded to a stop, and Arc tripped over themselves again, coughing.

“We surrender!” I yelled.

“We do- *cough* -not surrender! We do not surrender!” Arc protested. What? They were lying on the floor! How did they plan to not surrender?

One of the guards spoke. “Gavin Batra! Riley Shanstein! Stand down!”

Wait, what? Gavin Batra? What kind of name was... Gavin Batra? That was... that was my name, wasn't it? No- my name was 4. Right? No, it wasn't- that wasn't my name. It was Gavin. What?

“Gah! No! You sons of guns* can't mind-control me! I'm not falling for your false memory implants!” Arc held their head in their hands.

“Newark, New Jersey. Amphetamine addicition. Art school.”

What? That was- I'd- this had happened before. I'd already remembered this. Elephants- elephants were the key. What? To what? What were elephants important for?

A different soldier. “Uh, Mainland, Idaho?”

“No, Meridian. Meridian, Idaho. Supportive parents. Infatuation with Batra.”

“Wait, what? They know each other? How'd they get assigned to-”

“Don't ask me! Just- hurry! What else do we have on them?”

“Batra was into those books, right? We put them on the shelves.”

“Wait, what books?”

“Shanstein has something about books on their file too, right?”

Arc howled. I ignored it. I ignored the guards, too. Elephants. I had to do something about elephants. No... no, that was wrong. I remembered. I had to not do something about elephants. It was connected to... to pink. Pink elephants. I had to... not think about--

 

 

Chapter Text

Dr. Parik was sitting in a chair at the foot of my bed when I woke up.

“Are you feeling alright?"

I was feeling alright. What kind of question was that? Amit had never asked me personal questions like that before. He'd always been professional.

“Yes.” I didn't say anything else. Something told me he'd know.

“Can you tell me your name?”

“Hydrogen,” I said. Another confusing question. It didn't feel wrong, though. Confusing, but at the same time expected. Almost deja vu but not quite. He thought for a second, then wrote “Helium” down on a card next to the number 439.

“Hydrogen. That's good. You'll fit on this floor, then. Though... we'll probably want to move you soon, since your situation's obviously going to be an issue for the other patients.”

That response felt like it made sense. It didn't actually, when I thought about it, but it felt like it. I wasn't worried.

He held up a photograph. “Just checking- you know who this is, right?”

It was a picture of a bald man with a long white beard. He had kind eyes. I recognized him. “That's St. Shelhart. It's good that he protects us.”

Amit nodded. “It's good that he protects us. That's right. I was worried that you might not think so.”

Why wouldn't I think so? St. Shelhart protected us, and that was a good thing. It was the sort of thing that was important to believe, so I did.

...A voice at the back of my head told me that was wrong, but I told it to shut up.

“So. You know it's important to obey St. Shelhart, right?”

Of course it was. If I didn't obey St. Shelhart, I'd die. That was pretty obvious to me. They'd told me all about that when I got here. I said as much.

“Good. That's right. You'll die if you don't obey St. Shelhart, and it's good that he protects us.”

I nodded.

“You know who I am, right? Why I'm here?”

He was wearing a white coat. He always wore the white coat, whenever I'd seen him. That meant he was one of St. Shelhart's doctors, and he'd come here to help me and give me instructions from above. I said as much.

“Good. So, now that we've checked everything important, I've got some information for you. I want you to learn it, and you need to make sure to learn it outside of yourself. Do you remember that training?”

I remembered the filmstrips and orientation exercises. I knew how to learn things outside myself- keeping my knowledge set apart from my being, which was the permanent way to learn things. I nodded.

“Okay,” he said. He held up a folder marked “Emergency Meditation Guide”. “You see this folder?” he asked. I nodded. “You're not supposed to read what's in this folder. If you ever see this folder- or anything like this folder- and a doctor isn't there, then you need to find a doctor and give it to them right away. It's not to be read by patients under any circumstances.”

I nodded. “You want me to learn this outside of myself?”

“If possible, yes. You haven't been tested yet, but you should have an advantage over some of the other patients.”

I mentally went over what he said. The folder was not supposed to be read by patients, and any patient who sees it was supposed to give it to a doctor. Nobody who was a patient was supposed to read it. Since I was a patient, those general rules applies to me.

Amit held up a photograph of an animal. “What's this?” he asked.

“It's an elephant,” I responded.

“That's right,” he said. “It's an elephant. An elephant is a large mammal in the pachyderm family, and it's got large ears, a long nose, and tusks. They're indigenous to parts of Africa and India. That's... pretty much all you need to know about elephants.”

I nodded. That made sense. He hadn't told me anything new about elephants, really.

“Now,” he said. “Learn this outside of yourself: remembering things you forgot is bad. If you start to remember something, stop and find a distraction. If you notice someone else remembering things, you need to distract them.”

Outside of myself, that was... any patient remembering things they forgot is bad. If any patient starts to remember something, they need to stop and find a distraction. If any patient notices another patient remembering things, that patient needs to distract the other patient. Since I was a patient, those general rules applied to me.

Amit pointed to the mirror. “You see that sticker?” he asked. “That sticker has a phone number on it for a Prevention Suicide Hotline. If you find yourself starting to remember lots of things you forgot, and you've been remembering those things for more than ten minutes, you need to dial that number and speak to the people on the other end. They'll help you avoid terrible consequences.”

If anyone finds themselves starting to remember lots of things they forgot, and they've been remembering those things for more than ten minutes, they need to dial that number, et cetera. I understood. Or, no. It was understood, by no one in particular. Was that right? That was probably close enough.

“Okay. So, all that big important safety stuff out of the way- I'll just tell you what you're going to be doing here. It's best if you learn it outside of yourself, but it's no problem if you don't.”

I nodded. I trusted Amit, which made this easy. He represented St. Shelhart, who I also trusted. I'd learned that from the filmstrips and so on, so it wasn't as hard as it might have been.

...Might have been for who? No, that wasn't a thought I was supposed to pursue.

“So, you're going to be here for at least a few months. We'll be checking in on you when you're awake, and you'll attend a few events with the other patients. The idea is to get you ready to leave, so that you won't be lost when your sickness gets better. You won't have any responsibilities, we won't ask you to do anything hard. You're going to be fine. All right?”

No responsibilities? That... I didn't like that. What would I do with myself?

I nodded anyway.

“Cool. So... now that you've soaked all that up... I've got to start you clean. You'll eventually get suspicious of all this... y'know. Kind of reminds you of a cult or something, doesn't it?”

“...A little. I wasn't worried about it.”

“Yeah, you're not supposed to be, since you had the staff training, but we don't risk it.”

The staff training? I didn't... what?

“So, the idea's to get you set up with all the patient procedures, from the patient perspective, then do a hard reset to push that all into the background. Turn it into instinct and knowledge, not like... stuff someone told you to do. It's better if you don't know why you believe what you believe, right?”

That... I knew about this. No, I remembered about this. That was bad.

“So, let's see... we don't have a robust core profile for you yet, but I can guess. Your name's Felicity Orchard, you came to work here as a doctor-”

“Stop!” I yelled. I was remembering! I'd just been told that was bad! Amit was breaking the rules!

“No, no, it's cool. You've got the antibody. The reason you're not supposed to remember is that it'll set off the amnesia and waste all your recovery. We're doing it on purpose. Calm down.”

Gah! I remembered that, too! I was remembering all of it! “No! Stop!”

He frowned. “Jeez, Lissie. I guess it's a good sign that you're taking it seriously. And, oh yeah, me and Raj call you Lissie, that's a thing. You pretend you don't like it, but you know you do.” He smiled.

I was a doctor. I'd come here to cure the- oh, god. It got me. The elephant got me.

“So, like I was saying- you came to work as a doctor, but a couple hours ago there was an accident with a new patient who hadn't been treated with the full course yet, and you got a lungful of the stuff. So... sorry, but you've gotta retire now.”

Retire from being a doctor because the elephant was inside me it got inside me because I hadn't treated the survivor with V2 because I'd left off my mask because I was in a hurry because the alphabet designation and numerical designation had had some kind of unregulated contact because oh no the elephant was inside me it was inside me get IT OUT-

“It's too bad. You were one of our best, and it's going to be hard to get new senior staff. We might have a few coming off treatment in a week we can train, but... man. You never wanted to retire. I can tell.”

I didn't want to retire I didn't want to die I was going to die and die and die because the elephant was going to kill me-

 

Chapter Text

...

 Unsupervised patients are urged in the strongest possible terms to restrain their curiosity. This warning does not constitute a test, trick, or joke.

 

  • Elephant Warning                                                      1

  • Table of Contents                                                      2

  • Preparatory questions                                               3

    • Sedative allergies                                             3

    • Personal priming                                              3

    • Identity                                                            4

    • Familiarity with Vipassanā meditation              6

  • Four Foundations (Shelhart alt.)                                8

    • Kāyā (ignore)                                                   8

    • Vedanā (ignore)                                               8

    • Cittā                                                                9

    • Dhammā                                                         12

      • Shelhart restructure                               12

      • Ignoble truths                                        16

  • Pink Elephant                                                           22

    • Ironic process theory                                      23

    • Self-identification                                           24

    • Fear                                                                25

  • Immediate Emergency                                              28

    • Vipassanā crash course                                   29

    • Self-centeredness                                           30

    • Fear (internal)                                                 30

  • Variants                                                                   31

    • Catatonia                                                        31

    • Inactive exposure                                            34

      • Safe CEW application                              35

    • Distorted information cascade                         37

  • Personnel safety note                                               40

  • Appendix A: Antimeme antibody application            42

    • Initial AAA                                                       43

    • Reapplication formula                                      45

      • Resets                                                    45

      • Duration                                                 46

      • Information density                                46

  • Appendix B: Intuitive natural orderings                     47

    • Numerical                                                        47

    • Alphabetical                                                     49

    • Other                                                               51

 

Chapter Text

I stopped being asleep. On seeing the ceiling, three thoughts immediately sprung to the forefront of my attention.

The first thought was “this isn't my room”. Because it wasn't. I was sleepy, and had to force myself to realize the urgency of the thought, but it wasn't my room. Looking around, I could see that nothing in the room belonged to me. This could only mean one thing- that there were several possible explanations for this unusual phenomenon and I needed to be careful not to make dangerous assumptions.

The second thought was... missing. I'd forgotten it, after getting wrapped up in the first thought.

The third thought was “how did I get here?” It stuck in my mind, because I couldn't recall where I'd fallen asleep. This wasn't my room, and furthermore I could not remember my room, or for that matter any other place I might have fallen asleep. I had clearly been transported here while unconscious, but I had no way of gauging how long I'd been asleep.

Those thoughts duly entertained, I lifted myself from the bed and began taking in my surroundings. A hospital room, by the looks of things, albeit sumptuously appointed with domestic conveniences. Sumptuously. What did “sumptuously” even mean? Was it used apart from the verb “appointed”? Not a relevant question.

Half of the room, closest to the door, was occupied by a number of countertops and cabinets. The cabinets were all wide open, as if someone had been searching them recently. On the floor, a pile of blankets and other comforters were heaped in a pile. My bed was fairly spartan- I was unsure why those things had been removed.

On the table was a game of Zendo, seemingly in-progress, and a handful of forms for prescribing medication. I inspected them, and found a message had been left for me.

I AM N. I HAVE NO ADDITIONAL INFORMATION TO PROVIDE, OTHER THAN NOTING ONE MORE FAILURE. PLEASE READ THE NOTE UNDERNEATH AND CHECK YOUR NOT-NAME OFF ON THE LIST TO THE RIGHT, TO WARN YOURSELF FOR NEXT TIME.

I was immediately struck with a headache, and a sense of disappointment that seemed to be totally unconnected to any conscious understanding of the note's contents. What had just happened to me?

Whatever had just happened, it wasn't going to stop me from seeking the truth. I read the contents of the notes underneath the first one.

My name wasn't O. That was important. N had been instructed by M to leave a note for me, and they had. I checked the box labeled “O” on N's note, and contemplated the implications of what I'd just been exposed to.

Epistemologically, the series of notes was a mess. The least straightforward implication was that which assumed that the notes had all been engineered to deceive me- someone wanted me to think that there were potentially three people who had all left different notes, attempting to sway me in different directions. If all of the notes were lies, then the fact that M had instructed me to doubt them meant... that whatever multitude of deceivers at play was split into factions, each following different incentives to get me to believe different things.

No. No, I was jumping to conclusions. All I'd seen was a note that implied more than one intelligence was at work. I had no reason to trust that implication. If they'd all been left by one person, and that person wanted to conceal the fact that they alone had left them, they'd have the “people” leaving the notes openly doubt the other notes, to imply that there were multiple agents who could perhaps be played against each other- when in reality, the notes had all been left by one person, who had scenarios prepared to manipulate me by making me think that I was manipulating other parties.

Still jumping to conclusions. What if there were multiple parties involved? L, M, and N. M doubted L, N trusted M. M provided the most actionable instruction, but also told me to use my own judgment and not trust any of the notes, which I was already doing. Was I playing into their hands? No, I couldn't think like that. That wouldn't get me anywhere.

Oh! What if... the possibility was distant, but it could be the case that L, M, and N were all in fact me, and were telling the truth. That... what would that imply? That armed with the knowledge contained in L and M's notes, N had failed to avoid having their memory reset. And if assuming they were telling the truth implied that, then if it were a fabrication it would have been designed to make me think N had failed despite their advantages. Intimidate me, force me to make unpredictable, nonoptimal moves and disregard the notes' apparently useless warnings, where I might have otherwise heeded them.

Wait. No. That made no sense. The mastermind wouldn't need to engineer a plot to get me to ignore genuinely helpful advice that they wrote. I was getting twisted up in knots.

I couldn't be sure how many levels my opponent was playing at. But... if the notes were true, then they hadn't helped N escape. So it was useless to leave them in place. And if they were meant as tricks, then it'd make sense to get rid of them, so that the next me who woke up here-

Wait, no! No, no, no! If they were meant as tricks, that meant that I wouldn't be resetting, so it was useless to get rid of them- they'd been a one-off ruse meant for me, right now. Why had I implicitly accepted the reset framing? I was getting sloppy. I needed to step up my game.

I was about to inspect the Zendo game for a hidden message when the door opened.

Someone in full body armor was standing in the doorway. They wore a gas mask and held some kind of semi-automatic weapon in both hands.

“You're awake?” they- he, judging by the voice- asked.

I didn't respond right away. I dove behind the counter, in case the soldier had been about to fire that gun. I had no information on how trigger-happy he would be, and it cost me nothing to take cover.

“Don't move!” I yelled from behind the counter next to the bed.

I didn't hear footsteps, so it seemed he'd complied.

“Alright,” he said. He didn't say anything else- he just closed the door behind him.

I had bought myself a little time to think of a way out of this situation. Was there anything around me I could use as a weapon? It had to be something I could hit with fast, without giving him time to train that gun on me. I looked around, but there was nothing under the bed, nothing behind the privacy curtain...

I looked up from where I was crouched. The privacy curtain! It was hanging from a shower rod- it wasn't attached to the wall, just stretched between one wall and the other. It was held in place purely by friction between rubber and plaster.

I gave it a hard tug, and the privacy curtain- with the shower rod- came crashing down on top of me.

“Hey! What are you doing!”

I didn't answer his question. “What are YOU doing?”

He didn't answer my question either. “Eh,” he said, and I heard him... sit down on the floor, I thought. Silence stretched for another ten seconds are so.

I needed to analyze the situation. I was confused by his behavior, which meant I was operating off of incomplete or incorrect information about him.

Why was I confused? He had a gun, he had body armor, he had a gas mask. He was prepared for a violent confrontation, but then completely failed to do anything that might spark such a conflict. He was just sitting there. His equipment didn't seem appropriate for carrying out a task that appeared to involve absolutely nothing.

I had to look at it from another angle. To figure out a confusing plan, you have to look at what it accomplished, and ask yourself why someone would want that to happen.

It didn't look like it was accomplishing anything. All that had happened so far was that I'd pulled down a shower rod on my head, but even if he could have predicted that happening, I didn't see what purpose it served. I was now hiding from him, so I couldn't see him, but I hadn't been able to see him before. Why had he entered the room?

...Well, I wasn't able to leave the room, now. And I'd been prepared to use violence to overpower him and escape. That kind of gear was well-suited to the task of not being overpowered, and his sitting in front of the door certainly prevented my escape.

“I figured it out,” I said. “You're here to keep me from leaving this room.”

“Yep,” he said. More silence.

...Hm. Okay. I'd identified my opponent's intentions. Now I just needed to find a way to defeat them.

I couldn't plan without information. I crawled to the edge of the counter, and quickly peeked at the soldier. He was sitting against the door, fiddling with the barrel of his gun. I yanked my head back before he could... take aim, maybe. He didn't seem to be threatening me, but it didn't hurt to be careful.

I had some time I could use to take him by surprise, while he was messing around with his weapon in a unusable position. The curtain rod had proven to be less than weighty, given how little it hurt when it fell on me. Even with its substantial reach, I wasn't sure I could put enough weight behind it to seriously hurt the solder with all his armor.

That just meant I needed to use my head. Fine by me. My brain was a more powerful weapon than any gun.

“So. What do I need to do to get out of here?” I asked.

“Nothin',” the guard responded. “You don't.”

Hm. That was more or less expected, although it didn't hurt to check my options.

“That can't be right. This clearly isn't a prison cell, or they wouldn't need you to keep me trapped inside. Under what circumstances am I supposed to leave the room?”

He shrugged. “Don't know. You're just not supposed to.”

He was being recalcitrant. I'd need to worm information out of him indirectly, it seemed. He'd already given away that he wanted to seem like he didn't have any information, which was information by itself. He was either genuinely ignorant, or he'd known in advance that I would try to get information from him. Either way, he didn't want me bothering him with questions.

“Not supposed to? Who told you that?” I said, hoping to get information about his superiors.

“Eh,” he said, again.

“That's not an answer!”

“You don't need one.”

“Yes I do!”

Another “eh”. I was beginning to hate the word eh. “Fine, then. What would happen if I did... this?”

“This” was risky, but I moved out of cover. I walked briskly up to the door where he was sitting, and lunged for the doorknob. I pulled hard, straining my arms, and the door began to swing open, sliding the soldier across the floor.

A hand grabbed my leg and pulled me to the floor, and another hand caught my head before it could slam against the wall. He was strong, he was fast- before I could react, I was rolling across the ground, back into the room. I heard the click of the door shutting as I came to a stop against a counter, dazed.

“I reckon that would happen, if you did that.” He relaxed back into a sitting position against the door. I'd thought maybe he wouldn't have been prepared for a move like that, but... he had been. That particular brand of audacity wasn't going to catch him off-guard. I had, however, learned that he wasn't about to use lethal force.

“You can't sit there forever. How long until you have to leave to eat, or use the bathroom?”

He... didn't answer. He said nothing at all.

“Are you afraid of me?” I asked. More silence. I couldn't read his expression through the gas mask.

“Why am I being kept here?” met another lack of reaction.

I could change gears. “We can work this out. You don't have to keep me here. I don't know what incentives are being used against you to force you into keeping me prisoner, but there's got to be a way around them. Let me help you!”

A breath that might have been a chuckle, or might have just been a breath. No words.

“Incentives. What could they be, I wonder? You've got a gun, so whoever's controlling you clearly isn't afraid that you'll turn on them. Either you're getting something really good out of helping them, or you're being blackmailed in a way you can't solve with violence.” Still no reaction.

“Maybe I should look at this from another angle,” I thought out loud. “Why me? I'm nobody, as far as I know. Unless this... amnesia, or whatever it is, has made me forget that I'm someone important, with power and enemies who want to seal or control that power. Am I the president, maybe?”

Again, he was a complete wall. I couldn't see his eyes- was he even awake? Had he dozed off?

I'd test it. I walked up, slowly, quietly, reaching for the doorknob- maybe I could shift him bit by bit if I was careful- and he shook his head, reached up, and pushed me away. So much for that.

He was only blocking one exit, though. There could be another way out. I started searching the room, starting with the door I'd thought was a bathroom. And it... was a bathroom, or so it seemed. A toilet, toiler paper, sink, soap, mirror. Nothing unusual in the mirror. I had bags under my eyes, since I'd just woken up.

I didn't find a secret passage in the bathroom, which had been a long shot to begin with. There were more places I could check- the backs of cabinets and so on- but it was unlikely I'd find anything. If the people controlling this place thought one soldier blocking one door was enough to trap me... it probably was.

There was one obvious way out, of course. The window. I'd need to check how high up I was, maybe fashion a bedsheet rope if necessary, but it was a problem I could tackle in a way I couldn't tackle a large man with a gun. I'd need to move fast, to get out the window before the guard could realize what I was doing and stop me.

I casually walked over to the window and opened the blinds. The sky was a bright blue, and the ground was also a bright blue. There was not, in fact, anything but bright blue outside the window. Nor was there, technically, an “outside the window” to begin with. It was a square light fixture attached to the wall. I cursed under my breath.

I'd have to go back to trying to weasel answers out of the guard. But he'd clammed up, which meant I'd first need to come up with a way to get him talking. To get him to talk... he'd need to feel like he needed to talk. All I knew he needed, or at least strongly wanted, was to keep me in this room. Could I say anything that would make him think I would escape if he didn't talk?

“...I've already escaped, you know. You think you have me trapped in here, but this is actually just a trick.”

He tilted his head doubtfully. No talking. Rats. Maybe... well, hm. He'd wanted to keep me from getting hurt, when he'd stopped me earlier. He could have let me hit my head, but he caught it to protect me. So he was either under orders to keep me alive, or he just wanted to, personally. And I could...

“Fine. If you don't let me out, I'll kill myself.”

His head tilt indicated that he didn't believe me. And... he was right. I didn't have a weapon I could realistically use to do that. The shower rod couldn't be held in place firmly enough to hold a noose, either. Maybe I could set something up with the curtain and one of the higher cabinet doors? Or...

Oh, I had it. The “Prevention Suicide Hotline” sticker on the mirror made it obvious.

I picked up the shower rod, collapsed it to make it a little more wieldy, and drove it as hard as I could into the mirror. It shattered into plenty of nice glass shards. I picked up a long, knife-shaped one from the sink, and held it to my neck.

“I'll do it! And then you'd be in trouble, wouldn't you?”

The guard sighed, and shook his head. He didn't talk, and he didn't move. Either he'd called my bluff, or protecting me earlier hadn't indicated a real need to keep me unharmed.

Still, that'd given me some information. It told me that the people running this place didn't really care if I lived or died- that if the guard didn't try to stop me, and I went through with it, it'd maybe be sad, but not a considerable problem for them either way. That narrowed the hypothesis space substantially.

(Or, alternatively, L M and N had been telling the truth, and previous mes had tried similar stunts and chickened out. In that case, the guard's sigh would be exactly what I'd expect from someone who knew for a certainty their opponent was bluffing. But... no, both mirrors in the room had been intact. Had previous letters had other weapons available to them?)

I'd tried so many different angles on this that the figurative polygon was starting to approximate a circle. But... there were still options. I couldn't get the soldier to talk about anything important, but maybe I could make small talk. Get him talking about something that couldn't give away anything about my situation- or so he'd think.

My eyes fell on the table near the foot of the bed. A game of Zendo was left open, next to L, M and N's letters. I looked it over, but concluded there was no code in how the pieces were arranged that I could decipher. I put everything back in the box, and carried it over to where the guard was sitting.

My foot came down on a small piece of glass, and I dropped the box. “Gah! Ow! Who left...” Me. I'd left glass on the floor. This was my fault. Fine. I sat down and dug it out, leaving the ball of my foot bleeding. I could... I could ignore that. I scooted closer to the guard, and opened the box.

“I want to play. Do you know how?”

The guard shook his head, which wasn't quite talking but was at least an answer.

“It's like this,” I said. I grabbed a handful of pieces and put them on the floor in front of him. Plastic pyramids in different colors and sizes, with the bottoms open so they could be stacked. “I've got a rule in my head, and you have to guess what it is. It's a rule about how these pyramids can be arranged.”

I picked up some of the black and white stones. “You can build as many arrangements of the pyramids- called koans- as you want, and I'll put a white piece down next to it if it fits. If it doesn't fit, you get a black piece.”

He looked interested, but he still wasn't talking. That was okay. We could play the game without talking, but he'd eventually have to speak up to guess at the rule.

I built my two example koans, to give him a place to start. One that did fit the rule- “had the Buddha-nature”, in the game's parlance- and one that didn't. Three large pieces stacked on top of each other, red green and yellow, I gave a white stone. The black stone went next to a tower with a large green piece at the base, a red medium piece in the middle, and a small blue piece on top. I pushed the rest of the plastic pyramids over to him.

He built a tower that was the same as my white example koan, but made out of small pieces instead of large ones. I put a white stone down next to it. It didn't have a blue piece on top, which meant it fit my rule.

He built another one- the same three colors in the same order, but stacked in order of decreasing size this time, like my black koan. It didn't have a blue piece at the top, so I put down a white piece.

His third koan was the same as the first two- red on the bottom, green in the middle, yellow on top- but with a random mishmash of sizes- medium then small then large. No blue piece on top, white stone.

He spoke. I was making progress. “Has to be red, green, yellow. Doesn't matter what size.”

He was wrong, of course. Classic mistake. He hadn't even made any black koans. He'd guessed it was about the color order, and then built three koans that matched his guess. Confirmation bias in action. So he was either not as smart as I was...

...or he was trying to trick me into thinking he was stupid. It had been a remarkably quick failure. He hadn't tried any two- or four-piece koans, or anything arranged in ways that weren't towers, or any other colors. Like he'd been trying to lose quickly? I couldn't be sure.

Either way, I shook my head. “No. You're wrong,” I said, and built a tower with blue, yellow, red, next to a white stone.

“Red green yellow or blue yellow red,” he guessed. The pretending-to-be-stupid theory was amassing evidence.

I shook my head. He took the hint and built another koan. This time, he stacked a green medium on a red medium. I gave it a white stone. He furrowed his brow, which was just about the only part of his face I could see past the gas mask.

He scrutinized my black koan, with the small blue piece on top, and then swapped the green medium on his two-pyramid koan for a blue medium. I grinned and gave it a black stone.

“It can't have blue in it,” he said. I shook my head and pointed at his blue-yellow-red koan. “Hmm,” he said, which was a good sign. He was vocalizing more than he absolutely needed to. Soon, he'd be a regular chatty Cathy.

“It can't have blue on top?” he guessed.

“That's it!” I said. “And it only took you four tries.”

He made an annoyed sort of half-growl, and slumped back against the door. That wouldn't do- we weren't done. I had to get him to loosen up and start talking. I held out my handful of black and white stones. “Your turn?” The guard hesitated, but reached out and cupped his hand to take the pieces. “First, you have to build one koan that fits, and another koan that doesn't.”

He dropped all the black and white pieces on the floor at once, because he'd been startled by his radio suddenly going off.

“Pickup! Do you have subject's INO index?”

The guard raised his eyebrows, which were still the only part of his face I could see. He raised his radio and said “Negative. Forgot. One minute.”

He'd forgotten something? What had he forgotten? What was an “INO index”?

He turned to me. “Sorry- quick question- what's your name?”

I froze. What did he need my name for? I didn't know my actual name- did he want that? Or did he want the fake name that I was supposed to think I had? That foreign thought- that my name was O, that it'd always been O and I knew it with total confidence- wasn't mine. Like L and M had said, my brain was wrong about my name.

The guard probably wanted the wrongname. That didn't mean, however, that I should tell it to him. If L and M weren't a trick, then my name indicated how many times I'd failed and lost my memory. That meant... that had to be the connection. The radio had asked for the “subject's INO index”, and the guard had immediately asked my name. They were probably the same thing, or else one could be derived from the other.

I wasn't sure what to tell the guard. I would have expected him to already know- for him or his superiors to be responsible for the failures of L, M, and N. If they didn't know, that meant they hadn't read the notes, which meant they probably hadn't left the notes. Which meant LMN, whoever they were, weren't on the same side as this guard and their radio accomplice. It meant they hadn't known N's name, because otherwise they'd have known I was O. They probably didn't know L or M, either. In fact...

I looked up at the room number listed next to the door. It said “412-F”. So... they knew I'd just woken up, but they didn't know how many names I'd been through since they'd last known me as F.

“Hey. Your name. Can you tell me?” Gah! I wasn't done thinking! I held up a finger for silence.

I could be named anything between F and O- or, no, I could potentially be something later, too. What did I want them to think? Did I want them to think I was later in the order than I already was, or earlier?

If they didn't know my name, that meant they didn't know how many names I'd been through, which meant they didn't know how much I'd done in the time between F and now. More names meant more amnesiac me doing more unknown things. Fewer names meant there'd been fewer mes, each lasting longer individually. More names meant I'd failed more often- that I was weaker. Fewer names meant I was stronger. Which one did I want them to believe?

If I was stronger, I was a bigger threat. They'd be wary of me, avoid giving me information I could use, pay more attention to me. If I was weaker, I was comparatively harmless. I'd be underestimated, ignored, they'd tell me things “knowing” that I wouldn't be able to do much with them. I didn't like it, but the choice was obvio-

No. Wait. I only had one shot at this. If I told them “S” and the pattern held, they'd note that down and from then on, they'd assume I'd be weak in all future names. Worse than that, I wouldn't be able to go “earlier” without raising suspicion later. If I picked “S” and then got reset, and for some reason decided to go with “K”, they'd notice the discrepancy. Even if I told the “truth” and said P, they'd still know I'd lied at some point. I didn't want to make things harder for myself later down the road, if succeeding had been difficult enough for A through N so far.

I'd paused too long. The guard was getting suspicious. “I'm just asking. This isn't a trick or anything, just... what's your name?” I had to think fast.

I'd have to go with an earlier letter. But which one? G was too suspicious- they didn't know how many times I'd been reset, which meant that I'd presumably been unmonitored for a significant period of time. If I claimed I'd just been reset from my original F, without any intervening time, they'd wonder how that was possible.

I went down the list a few more letters to deflect suspicion. “Fine. I'm J,” I answered.

My suspicions about the INO index were confirmed when the guard radioed back “INO 10, alphabetical.”

“Good. That's safe- we don't need to do an extra triple-A. Take J down to lunch at fifth wing. Trial. 5 and Helium are clear,” the radio responded.

I scrambled away, backing myself against the counter. He'd just been instructed to “take me down to lunch”, which had to be code. What had the voice meant by “trial”? Or five, or helium? I didn't like that I didn't understand.

The guard stood, and then slung his gun behind his back on a strap I hadn't seen. He started advancing towards me. I frantically looked around for a weapon- the shower rod! I dove for it, rolling onto my back and brandishing it against the guard.

“Hey. Come with me.”

Come with him? Was he joking? What made him think I was going to follow him anywhere? I backed up, using precious seconds to twist the center piece and extend the rod's reach. Fallen bits of glass dug into my back as I slid, failing to get to my feet. They didn't make it through the hospital gown.

I managed to stand, but he was already closing the distance. I thrust out with the shower rod, yelling a battlecry. I wasn't going to let him-

I was suddenly tugged towards him- he'd grabbed the rod, and suddenly we were face-to-face. His arms were suddenly around my waist, and before I could move I was upside-down. He lifted me off the ground, and pulled me in tight to his chest.

“Jesus- calm down, I'm not-” I kicked. He'd made the mistake of putting my feet near his head, and now he would pay the price.

He paid the price. “Ow,” he said. Then he said “ow” again, several more times, as I kept kicking at him. Why wasn't he letting go?! How long could he withstand my flurry of blows?

I had my hands free, but there wasn't anything useful to grab at. Legs, boots... a pocket, velcroed shut. I reached for it, trying to fish out whatever was inside, but as soon as the tearing sound reached the guard's ears, one of the arms holding my by the waist let go and grabbed my own arm to bind it. I struggled, but his remaining arm was more than enough to keep me in place. He switched arms and grabbed my other arm, holding them both in place against my side. I continued to kick ineffectually at his head.

“Ugh. Cut it out. I'm not going to hurt you,” he said. As if I would be willing to bet my life on that! I tried another angle, kicking at his neck. He flinched, and then- used one of his hands to reach up and wedge one of my legs in between his head and shoulder, holding it in place with his neck muscles. How strong was this guy?

Perhaps, I mused, this would have been easier if I'd ever been in a real fight before. Or... exercised, at all.

Or maybe if he hadn't been able to restrain me so easily, he would have just pointed his gun at me. There might not have been a winning move here. If there was, I couldn't think of it- the blood was rushing to my head, making my thoughts swim.

Holding me upside-down against the front of his body, he waddled over to the door and opened it with his free hand.

 

Chapter Text

Dr. Parik led me down the hall. Someone called 5 was with us. Dr. Parik had been talking to them before he woke me up. 5 was like me- a patient. They were under the protection of St. Shelhart, and so was I. This was all fairly straightforward.

We had been told it was time for lunch. Because it was our first lunch here, we would eat on another floor of the building. Later, we would eat lunch with the others in our ward. But not today, because St. Shelhart said we needed to first eat with people who would never see us again. That felt perfectly reasonable to me, but I couldn't say why. But I trusted his judgment. St. Shelhart was the only person here who I remembered from before my accident.

5 wasn't so sure. 5 kept asking why, even though Dr. Parik had already told them that St. Shelhart had decided it. Dr. Parik told them that St. Shelhart wanted to see how we'd get along with other patients. 5 asked why again, instead of just doing what they had to do. It was annoying, but I didn't say anything.

When we were halfway down the hallway, we heard a yell from room 412. There were sounds of a struggle inside, and then one of St. Shelhart's guards emerged carrying another patient.

“That bad, huh?” Dr. Parik asked the guard.

“Yeah. It's... 'm not a shrink or anything. I got this, though,” the guard responded.

“You! Help me! This guy's going to KILL me! Do something!” the upside-down patient shrieked.

5 asked Dr. Parik if that was the person he'd told them about. Dr. Parik nodded. 5 gave the patient a sad look, and then kept walking. I also kept walking. The only person who didn't walk wordlessly down the hall, then, was the screaming patient who didn't know anything. They didn't believe Dr. Parik when he said everything was fine, so they kept yelling and trying to fight the guard.

The rooms on this end of the hallway were spaced further apart than the other rooms, and their interiors didn't look like bedrooms. It was too dark for me to see what was inside, though. We reached the end of the hallway. Dr. Parik put his key in the elevator and pressed the down button.

When the elevator arrived, the yelling patient was calling me a sheep. We all stepped inside, and Dr. Parik pressed the “5” button. The yeller called him a lying fascist, and swore that they would get to the bottom of this. I told them that we weren't getting to the bottom of this, though. We were only going down one floor. I thought my joke was funny, but it only made them more upset.

The elevator door opened. The hallway in front of us looked exactly like the one we'd come from, except that a lot more lights were on in the doors. Nearly half of them were hanging open, and I could hear a murmur of conversation from the various rooms. Dr. Parik opened the door to 523, which was spaced further away from the other doors.

There were a lot of people inside. A short woman in a lab coat was seated alongside a number of people in hospital gowns at a row of tables. They were all eating mashed potatoes and cheese sandwiches off of paper plates.

“This is the cafeteria,” Dr. Parik told us. “There's one in each ward of the hospital, where we serve food to the patients. You're here to socialize with the other patients under observation.” The yelling patient muttered something I couldn't hear, apart from the word “observation”, spat like it'd been an insult.

I looked to Dr. Parik for further instruction, and he simply nodded. I walked up to the tables.

The people in hospital gowns were talking to each other. It was lively. I heard laughter coming from a number of them- they seemed to be friends. I could see most of their gowns weren't plain, like mine- things had been written on them in what looked like black marker. Jokes, drawings, messages, and slogans, all in different handwriting. It looked like they drew on each other's gowns as a social activity.

Dr. Parik called me back. He gave me a sticker that said “Hello, my name is” and then “Helium” written in underneath. I put it on my gown and took a seat on the far side of the room, nearest to the food.

There was a woman in doctor's uniform at the table. She greeted me politely and introduced herself as Dr. 4. She had a startling number of freckles and what I recognized as a heavy southern accent. When she spoke to me, she had a sad, nostalgic expression that I didn't know what to think about. She pointed me to the back of the room, where a table was spread with various foods. The potatoes and sandwiches seemed to be the main course.

“See? No tricks. We're actually serving you lunch. Please behave yourself,” I heard Dr. Parik say behind me. The yelling patient had been set down, and was tugging at the doorknob. The guard held it firmly shut.

“Are you going to give me answers if I cooperate? No? Honestly, I can't believe you think any of this is OK!”

Dr. Parik groaned and ignored them, sticking a nametag to their gown. “Hello, my name is...” something. Maybe a U, or a J- I only got a glimpse of it before they ripped it off and- and stuffed it into their mouth. Another groan from Dr. Parik.

I ignored the ensuing argument and went to go fill my plate. The mashed potatoes looked good, but I passed over the cheese sandwiches. I didn't like cheese very much. They had a jar of peanut butter, but it was marked “Ask Dr. 4 if you're allergic to peanut butter.” I suppose it was possible- my condition meant I couldn't remember personal details like allergies. But... I could remember that I didn't like cheese? I hadn't actively remembered it, so it was probably safe. That it broke the rule Dr. Parik had said governed my amnesia worried me anyway, though.

I tapped Dr. 4 on the shoulder. “Dr. 4? Am I allergic to peanut butter?”

She turned around and frowned at me. “I'm afraid I don't have your charts- seeing as you're a visitor from upstairs and all. Don't believe Amit woulda forgotten something like that, though. My guess is you're clear.”

Despite her permission, I decided against risking it, and went back to get a cheese sandwich. They looked like American cheese, which wasn't great, but also wasn't much of anything else. If they'd been provolone, I would have had a real problem.

It seemed my opinions on cheese were intact. I could have jumped for joy. But... sarcastically.

I saw J alone near the door. Dr. Parik and the guard appeared to be gone. What had they said to make them agree to stay in the lunchroom? I supposed it wasn't any of my business.

I decided to sit away from Dr. 4, as I'd been instructed to socialize with the other patients. I took a seat next to 5 and a younger-looking girl with blue eyes. Her gown was decorated mainly in flowery patterns, all in the same style. She didn't have much in the way of messages from others. Was she alone? The people on this floor didn't have nametags, so I asked her name.

“I'm Exodus,” she replied. “You?”

I pointed at my nametag. “Helium. I'm from upstairs.”

“Oh! How long have you been here?”

“Just woke up a few minutes ago. Dr. Parik brought me down here for lunch.”

“Me too,” 5 cut in.

“That's too bad,” she said. “Are you new, or-” she cut off.

“New?” I asked.

She made an “eep” noise. “You- you're ward 4, so... uh...”

She was lost in thought. She had the kind of look on her face that people get when they're trying to remember the answer to a question on a test. Eyes closed, one hand on her mouth, her other hand idly twirling her pencil- no, her fork. It was a familiar look, although I couldn't remember where I'd seen it before. My memories of school were a blur.

She spoke up as J sat down a few seats down from us. They were craning their head, not touching their food- clearly trying to listen in. Why hadn't they sat closer? Had they been listening from somewhere else? ...It didn't matter.

“I, uh... didn't mean to say 'are',” Exodus said. “I meant 'you knew?' That you were coming down here.”

That made sense.

“You are knew, huh? You know, I like to think I can recognize a deception when I see one,” J said. They'd shifted over a few seats to sit next to 5 without me noticing. “I don't think you made a mistake at all. I think you accidentally let a secret slip, and tried to cover your tracks. You asked her whether or not she was new- as in, opposite of old, right?” They had an unfriendly grin plastered on their face.

“Aw, man... don't do this,” 5 said.

“You hush. I'm talking to Exodus.” They knew her name, so they'd been eavesdropping before they sat down. “You asked her whether she was new, even though she just told you she woke up a few minutes ago. That's a weird question to ask, isn't it? Implies something unusual.” They offered a handshake, and managed to make it look threatening. “The name's... Rogue. Pleasure to meet you, milady.”

“It's not Rogue,” 5 said. “They just made that up to sound cool. It's J.”

“Hey! Nobody asked you, narc! I'm trying to extract useful information here!”

Exodus panicked. She got up from her seat and called “Dr 4!”

Dr. 4 was suddenly by our seat at the table. She was short, but she somehow loomed large with the look she had on her face. Exodus looked afraid, and Dr. 4 was playing the mama bear.

“What's all happening here?” she asked.

J spoke up immediately. “Your girl here lied to me, doctor. I don't appreciate being lied to.”

Really? 'I don't appreciate being lied to'? Who did they think they were? They urgently needed to get their head unswelled.

“Exodus, what happened?”

J interrupted her. “She asked us if we were “new”, and then panicked and pretended she'd said something else. I saw right through her pitiful ruse.”

“I'm sorry!” Exodus sobbed. “I forgot they had different rules upstairs! I wasn't- wasn't-”

Dr. 4 patted Exodus on the shoulder. “It's all right. You just made a mistake. It's my fault for not preparing you all better.”

She turned to J. “You. Uh...”

“Call me 'Rogue',” they said.

“J. Their name's J.” 5 corrected, again.

“Shut UP!”

“J. Don't you harass my patients! The rules about what patients can know ain't the same down here, dig? She's not allowed to tell you any of that, and neither is anyone else. Siddown and eat your mashed potatoes.”

J fumed. “The rules are different? So I'm not allowed to know the truth, but they are? Or do you just tell them more lies than you tell me?”

Dr. 4 sighed. “Listen, it's for your own good. You really don't want to know, and I mean it. You'll actually regret it if I try and fill you in, never mind that I'm not allowed.” She put on a pair of glasses she pulled from her pocket and glared at J through them.

Predictably, J took that as- “I'll take that as a challenge, doctor. Hit me with your best shot.”

“No dice. Eat them taters and forget about what this little lady said, understand?”

I looked J in the eye and told them that they weren't supposed to act like this, and that was that. They boggled, asking me why I thought they weren't “supposed” to seek the truth (their words). I told them that some things were better left unknown, and they responded by laughing in my face and making several disparaging comments about my intelligence. Dr. 4 went back to her seat.

The next several minutes were, in my opinion, some of the least interesting minutes of my life. The cheese sandwich was uninteresting. The mashed potatoes were uninteresting. J theorizing out loud about what the word “new” could mean was the most uninteresting of all. It was even less interesting when 5 joined in and started coming up with their own theories. It was like the two of them were trying to remember things, and I wanted no part in it. I was going to do my duty and eat my uninteresting lunch, and not do anything foolish that would make St. Shelhart upset.

 

Chapter Text

Let me tell you something- it was a lot to take in. When Dr. Parik woke me up, told me about the amnesia and all that, I'd been kinda frazzled. Plus, like, I wasn't totally sure I believed what he was saying about instantly forgetting anything I remembered- it seemed kinda fishy. I was about to try and test it, but I got distracted by what he told me about next.

Somehow I'd ended up in the same hospital as my internet buddy Archive05. Like, from Idaho, which was weird because I was pretty sure I didn't live anywhere near Idaho. Although I guess maybe I could have lived in Idaho, but didn't remember it. Anyway, it was pretty surprising, but that wasn't the important part.

He told me their real name was Jay, and that they had the same condition as me, but a little more severe. Apparently they didn't remember me at all, and it was part of the same... interneuron destination thing he'd been talking about. Like, if they ever remembered me, they'd instantly forget- and, the doctor said, they'd suffer serious health problems that could cause worse brain damage. So, I had to pretend to have no idea who they were. That was kind of weird to deal with. I could probably do it, though, since I hadn't actually met Arc in person besides a few Skype calls.

And, like I said, I didn't actually believe most of what he said right away. But, like, he seemed pretty legit, and it wouldn't hurt to play along for a while. So he said he was going to take me and Arc and another patient (who looked kind of familiar, in a way I couldn't place) down to eat lunch downstairs, I was like, okay, sure. Shot him like a zillion questions about the situation, but didn't make waves.

Then some military looking dude came out of Arc's room carrying Arc- or, Jay, I'd have to call them- upside-down. And Jay was just throwing a total tantrum about it, which I can't say I wouldn't have done in their place. The fact that the guy had a gun was super suspicious.

So we got down to the lunchroom, and Jay caused some hijinks with another doctor- seized on how some girl asked if we were “new”, which they apparently thought was super significant for some reason. After that whole thing played out, we started talking. And talk we did. I learned a lot from Archive05.

First off, their name wasn't Jay, it was J, but they said that it wasn't right- like it was their name in the part of their head that said what their name was, but not anywhere else. And then they asked me whether I had the same thing, and I realized I did, that I thought my name was 5 but when I thought hard about it it didn't really fit, you know?

And then they told me what they thought was the explanation for Exodus asking if we were “new”. That we had amnesia because the doctors gave us amnesia, and that every time we learned too much, the doctors would drug us and erase our memories. She'd asked if we were new patients, with the alternative sorta implicit in the question: that we'd been here a long time but had only just now been mind-wiped again. That the rules on this floor allowed the patients to know about it, but that patients on our floor would all think we'd only lost our memories once.

It was the looniest pile of conspiracy theory garbage I'd ever heard in my entire life. I loved it.

And then they brought up the names. That their name wasn't really “J”- it was “O”. Or, it wasn't O, but they thought it was O, but they'd told the doctors it was J and they'd believed them. And that meant the names were changing every time. And I started thinking along the same lines, and I wondered if maybe that was because when you get amnesia, you forget your name, so you have to come up with a new one every time. And they said they thought so too.

And then they pointed out that the names had orders. That I was “5”, and there was a Helium and an Exodus, and over there was a Gamma and an Empress and a March. That there was no “Blue” or “Triangle” or “Underpants”. And their theory was that where your name was in that order was how many times you'd gotten amnesia.

Honestly, it was pretty crazy. If you'd asked me a few days ago if that made sense as an explanation, I'd probably have told you you needed to get off of whatever you were on. But to me, right there, it sounded like the most obvious thing in the world. Not quite like remembering- kind of like someone telling you something you already knew and had heard a thousand times, except without the part where you actually knew the thing beforehand.

(Does that make any sense? It's kind of weird, taking a reaction you've gotten familiar with, and like, breaking it up into pieces that should go together for the emotion to make sense, except they just don't. It makes you realize how much your brain is just, like, doing whatever it wants, and it just happens to usually have something to do with the actual truth.)

“...Wait. J- I'll keep calling you J just so I don't blow your cover-”

“Oh, so now you're concerning yourself with my cover, are you?”

“I didn't know! Also Rogue was a stupid name!”

“It was NOT a stupid name! You're a stupid name!”

“Come on! Like, if you're right, then they wouldn't have believed you anyway because 'Rogue' isn't part of some order of things!”

“That's...!” They didn't have an answer for that one.

“So, J- I think you're onto something about the doctors giving you amnesia. I remember- when I woke up, Dr. Parik was putting away a syringe. He must have just stuck me with it!”

“Did he? I woke up in the same situation, but with no doctor and no syringe. It could take an unpredictable time to activate...”

Wait. No, I had been wrong about that. Dr. Parik hadn't been putting away a syringe. He'd been playing around with the Risk game on the table. There hadn't been a syringe, or anything- it'd been like twenty minutes ago, and I remembered just about every detail of the encounter.

But... I remembered the doctor putting away a syringe. Not Parik, but who else? A visual detail that was too clear to be a dream. It just... wasn't connected to any other memory in my head. Something I'd remembered, all by itself, because something about Arc's idea had made it seem important. Not important enough to make me remember anything else useful, though. Why? Another example of my brain just doing whatever it wanted to do, even though it didn't really make sense.

“No, hold on a sec. That's not right,” I said, and told them about what I'd just realized. That I remembered a needle, but not the doctor who used it on me.

“You're remembering stuff from before! That has to be it! You're 5- so Parik wasn't the first time you woke up in that bed. Another doctor, most likely, when you woke up as 1 or 2 or 3 or 4.”

“Does that happen? He told me we weren't supposed to be able to remember stuff, no matter what- even if someone told us what happened before.” I went over Dr. Parik's description of the dessicated interneuron whatever thing.

“Lies. That one's obviously lies, unless...” They seemed to be thinking something over. “...the notes...”

“You okay?” I asked.

“Yeah. No. Fine. Just a headache. I got... I'll just say I've seen evidence of certain things that would have happened in my previous names, and was able to know about them without it instantly leaking out of my brain. Unless that evidence was faked for reasons I can't think of off the top of my head.”

We talked some more. We pretty much came to the conclusion that the whole place was a big amnesia conspiracy to keep us trapped here, but Arc didn't seem interested in like... figuring out why. It seemed like an important question to me. Like, they were people, doing this. They didn't do things for no reason. Arc, though, thought the fact that they were amnesia-fying us was proof enough that they were bad news.

I eventually got through to them, pointing out that you get more answers if you ask more questions. Even if we were totally sure they didn't have our best interests at heart, we could learn a lot of practical stuff if we figured out their motives. If we were going to escape, we'd need to figure out exactly what they wanted, and how we could use that to get them to let us do what we wanted- which was to learn why we were here, and ideally get the heck out of dodge.

So we started thinking. Here's the ideas we came up with:

  1. The hospital was motivated by the usual motivation- money. Maybe we had families on the outside who were paying for our care, and they'd just set us back every time it looked like we were recovering, so they could keep on charging thousands of dollars in medical bills. Hospitals were expensive, and people were willing to pay out the nose to keep their family alive. Like a hostage situation, but framing sickness as the hostage-taker.

    (Obvious Problems: why the tight security? We wouldn't need to be locked up if their evil plan could be accomplished just by hiding the amnesia juice when we had visitors. And why make some patients think they only got amnesia once, and others know about it recurring somehow?)

  2. Maybe it wasn't just about money. They wanted to keep us here for longer than we really needed to be here, sure, but was it really about hospital bills? Maybe we were being experimented on in other ways, an the amnesia was an excuse to hold on to their test subjects. Dividing us up into different wards with different rules and procedures made sense for that kind of thing.

    (Obvious Problems: what experiments were they doing? It didn't look like they were doing any tests on us, or asking us to do anything- but like, maybe they did do that kind of thing and we just hadn't gotten to that yet because we were “new”.)

  3. We hadn't forgotten everything- just stuff about us, not about the rest of the world. We even both knew some stuff about Light Marathon, which wasn't general knowledge- sci-fi trivia was very specific, and said something about us in particular. So what if we were somehow important people, and had forgotten? Maybe they wanted to keep us from remembering who we were, so we couldn't do something they didn't want us to do?

    (Obvious Problems: most people here didn't look very important. There were a lot of kids and young adults, and it kind of looked like a random sample of our country's population- if it were about power, we'd at least expect to see more old white guys.)

  4. What if we'd all learned some kind of secret they wanted to keep hidden? Something that wasn't a big enough deal to kill people over, but something that was a big enough deal to pay off a hospital's staff to drug anyone who knew too much?

    (Obvious Problems: Even assuming they were nice enough to leave us alive, why bother giving us amnesia? We obviously couldn't leave, what with the locked elevators and armed guards, and it was a heck of a lot of trouble to go through to keep most people thinking nothing was wrong. Why not just make the place a prison and forget about the amnesia? And more importantly, if the amnesia only made us forget things about ourselves, why would the amnesia even work?)

We settled on some kind of combination of the above, to use as a kind of blueprint of the situation that we'd use whenever we needed to guess at what the doctors would do.

We'd all learned a dangerous secret about ourselves, but they didn't want to kill us over it. They had a really shady hospital that they could use to hold onto people, and make a profit off them in the meantime. They had us poisoned with something as an excuse to get us into the hospital, and then told our families we'd caught some contagious disease and we needed to be kept quarantined. They promised to research our disease until they found a cure, and put it all on our health insurance. Then they gave us amnesia so we wouldn't remember the secret, because the secret could somehow threaten them even with us locked up.

It didn't feel quite right. Like, when Arc had been talking about the name system, that had just clicked with me, like I'd already known it. With this, it felt like any other theory or guess- plausible, but not... how would I say it... like, revelatory or something? It seemed to fit, but not because all the pieces fit into place by themselves.

We were missing something, but that's what investigation was for.

I held off on telling Arc how I knew them, just in case Parik had been telling the truth about their different amnesia. For all I knew, he could have been right about the brain damage- maybe Arc didn't react well to their amnesia formula for some reason. Could have been a bluff, but maybe not. I'd save it for if we reached a dead end, or if it suddenly ended up being important information.

“So, aight. What's the plan now? Where do we find the evidence?” I asked.

“Hm,” Arc said. “Well, probably not here. Not this floor, certainly. Not where patients have the run of the place- they wouldn't risk leaving clues where people could find them.”

“Maybe they weren't that careful,” I offered.

“No, we can't rely on that. If there is stuff like that, then they know how to deal with it. Not everyone's on their first name- people figure stuff out all the time, and most of the time they just reset them. We need to do something they're not expecting.”

“What aren't they expecting, though? Like, you're O, right? So even you get reset most of the time, and that's probably with you, like, trying to do unexpected things.”

We lowered our voices as one of the other patients walked by us on their way to go get some food from the back table.

“Don't remind me,” they said. “We might have an advantage this time- if you're 5, that means you're not usually with me when I fudge* up. If we put our heads together, we might come up with a different approach.”

I nodded. “So... hm. What do I know, that you wouldn't think-”

They drew in a breath and gave me a look. Like, an accusing look?

“Hold it. If you're 5. I nearly made a costly assumption, there.”

An inexplicable sense of dread. Deja vu. “J, I'm not-”

“I only think you weren't with me all those times, influencing my behavior, because of your name. But what if that's the trap? What if the reason I haven't been able to do anything unexpected is because you keep convincing me to give up trying to be unpredictable, and use you as the seed for my RNG?”

What? I didn't even get what they were- oh, whoops, they were still talking. “The reason I'm here, talking to you now, is that the doctor brought you here! You were with him when I first saw you! I assumed you were just another patient, in the same situation... but anybody can put on a hospital gown!”

No. No, this was stupid. It didn't even make sense.

“Wait- so you think that I'm actually a patient who's been reset more than I've been claiming to be, an that somehow makes me in league with... what?”

Arc frowned. They started counting on their fingers, for some reason.

“You think I was there for... all of the times you tried to escape? And every time I somehow tricked you the exact same way?”

“Stop talking! I need to think!”

“No, seriously. You're also saying... that right now is the first time you ever realized it, and that you can... break the cycle now, by not trusting me?”

“It's this! You use this argument every time! Maybe I do realize it every time, and you use this argument to succeed in getting me to...”

I stared. How twisted-up could one person possibly get inside their head?

“Hey. J. I know how I can convince you.”

“Oh, I bet you do.

I explained. “You could flip a coin on whether or not to trust me, right? That's my idea. You could totally do that, and I'm telling you about it now, so if I were somehow... constantly being really good at tricking you, it wouldn't even matter because you'd just ignore me half the time. And since you still messed up...”

They were staring at me with... I couldn't read their expression. It looked kind of like awe, and kind of like disgust?

“...No, but that could be the trick you keep using to... get me to...” they trailed off, lost in thought.

“...Well. If you are working for them,” Arc said, “then I'm already as good as done for this time. I might as well at least pretend to trust you.”

It had only been like, one minute, but something inside me said “...Finally.”

 

Chapter Text

The Mission Impossible theme began playing in my head as I outlined the plan with the one calling themselves “5”. The goal: to escape the building. Instrumental goals: scout the building's layout while avoiding detection, distract or deter pursuers. Instrumental goal to the instrumental goals: Gain access to the elevators. Another step up: acquire one of the doctors' elevator keys.

We had two possible routes to this goal. We could attempt to wrest the keys from the doctor by force, or we could attempt to pickpocket them without being detected. Neither of us had any experience picking pockets (or at least, neither of us admitted to having experience picking pockets- I hadn't discounted the possibility that 5 was lying to me.)

Either way, we couldn't pursue either avenue in our current circumstances. We were surrounded by patients, and whether they were genuine or plants was irrelevant- they appeared to trust this “Dr. 4”, and would likely interfere with any use of force. Likewise, their multitudinous eyes would frustrate any attempt at stealth.

Thus, we developed a plan of attack. Immediate goal: Isolate the doctor.

After finishing their mashed potatoes, 5 approached Dr. 4. “Sorry- Dr. 4? Dr. Parik told me I had a peanut allergy and lactose intolerance- is there, like, any other protein I can get?”

Most cheese didn't actually contain any lactose, but apparently Dr. 4 didn't know that, and I mentally lowered my estimate of the chances she was a real doctor. “Oh, I'm sorry- stay right here, I'll go heat you up a can of beans.”

Hm. That wasn't quite according to plan. I'd known that this lunchroom didn't have a kitchen in it, but I'd expected her to take 5 with them to wherever the kitchen was.

“Uh... can I come with? I'm not sure about beans- there's some kinds I don't like.”

She huffed, but agreed. It was my turn.

“Hold it right there! You're going to go be alone with a patient, where no one else can see you? I'm not about to let you cart 5 off somewhere when you've been refusing to tell us what's going on!”

She groaned. “Fine. You can both come. It's a kitchen, there's no big secrets or anything. I swear to Jesus...”

Intermediate goal achieved. That had been the easy part.

She led us out of the room, leaving an older patient she called Virgo to “keep watch”, in her words. I wasn't sure what to make of that, but following her took priority over investigating why she trusted that patient with such a task.

She led us... directly across the hallway, to room 501. Not ideal- we risked being seen by anyone keeping an eye on the door. Still, if we moved quickly enough, we could be gone before any prying eyes had time to react.

501 was apparently a pantry of some kind, with a pair of stovetops and some refrigerators along the back wall. A large machine- an industrial freezer, by the looks of it- dominated the center of the room. Sort of a storage room, sort of a kitchen. I noted that it had been unlocked, much like every other door- patients were presumably allowed inside.

“Beans, beans... lemme look for beans in here,” she said, opening a cabinet full of canned food.

I took stock of our surroundings. There was very little room to maneuver- only about two to three feet of space on either side of the freezer. That was good, for our purposes- the plan relied on restricting Dr. 4's movements. There was nothing we could quickly turn into an improvised weapon, however- food was stored high off the ground in cabinets, and reaching for it would arouse too much suspicion.

“Mm, nothing in this cabinet. Think someone's been reorganizing in here.” Dr. 4 closed the cabinet she was digging in, and turned to 5.

Right. It was time to get the keys. I'd been watching when Parik opened the elevator- he'd taken them from his left coat pocket. I had to hope she did the same. 5 went into action to give me a window of opportunity.

“Hey- while you're here, can you look at my hands? I think some stuff got on them from that thing earlier, you know?”

She didn't know. We'd made that part up to confuse her. She stopped looking for beans, and turned around to look at 5's hands. She held one in each hand and...

5 grabbed her hands tightly as soon as I gave the signal, and I lunged for her coat pocket. “What- what are you- stop!”

Her left coat pocket... didn't have keys. I pulled out... some kind of pink device, with a switch on the side and a big red button in the middle with a picture of an elephant. I didn't have time to experiment with it- she was beginning to struggle against 5, who was apparently pretty strong for being so skinny. She kicked at their legs, but they dodged, and her attempts to pull away failed to unbalance them. When I saw my chance, I went for the other pocket and found a keychain with four keys on it. That was my ticket out of here.

An elbow dropped onto my shoulder as I tried to pull away, but I shrugged off the glancing blow. “You- stop right now! You don't know what you're doing!”

“That's too bad,” I said. “If only someone had told us.”

“Let GO,” she growled at 5, who was still holding on. She wasn't strong, but she was heavy enough to lunge forward and pin them to the freezer in the middle of the room.

...That was my cue to escape. I was willing to work with 5, but if it came down to it, I was going to leave them behind to secure my own freedom.

Or... was I? I liked them, unfortunately. They were fun to talk to. They got what I said, so I could actually spar against them instead of just making them angry. I had to consider that they might be working against me... but if they were working against me, then their predicament was an act, and leaving them to their own devices might be exactly what they wanted.

I decided to run for it anyway, turning to the door and-

Stopping. Because someone was standing in the door who had followed us. Tall, muscled, dark skin, furious expression- something inside me told me to be instantly afraid of the woman called Helium.

“Help!” 5 cried, possibly to me. Or possibly to try and get the new arrival to take their side. It did look like they were the one being attacked, with Dr. 4 holding them against the freezer.

Unfortunately, I was holding the doctor's things, which was apparently enough to make Helium decide I was up to no good. She charged for me, and I barely had time to react.

I dropped to the floor an instant before she tried to tackle me, and she ended up kicking me in the ribs as she tripped over me. It hurt, but she was on the floor and- was up almost before I was, staggering and looking around while I ran for the door.

“Help!” Dr. 4 cried. “These two attacked me, they're trying to-” A shove from 5 interrupted her. It was a good thing for me- she hesitated while I ran, unsure whether to help the doctor or chase me down. I made it out into the hallway. No way was I going to risk my own freedom helping 5 escape from two people.

The elevator door was directly to my right. I tried each key in the keyhole, getting increasingly nervous as they failed to turn. It turned out to be the very last one, and I heard the rumble of the elevator approaching.

I still wasn't being chased. I heard sounds of a struggle from the kitchen, but they'd apparently decided to ignore me. The doctor was less afraid of me getting out than she was about... what? What about 5 necessitated she focus on containing them, and not me?

The door opened. Whatever was going on in there, I couldn't wait for it to resolve itself. I stepped in, and...

I didn't pick a floor. I held the Door Open button. I could hit Door Close at the first sign of trouble, if I needed to. Maybe 5 would make it out, maybe they'd be able to reach the elevator, maybe... maybe! It didn't hurt to keep my options open...

 

Chapter Text

She was none too pleased about this tussle that had broken out. What had Amit been thinking? He probably hadn't vetted the patients for nonviolence at all! He probably just wanted to take a break and stop dealing with his problem cases for a while, and figured he could drop them off with her. She'd bet dollars to donuts that if she looked over the visitation request form, she'd find he hadn't actually signed the psych evaluations. That son of a gun- if she tried to bring it up with Shelhart, she'd get penalized too, for not checking the paperwork!

She grunted and swung the skinny patient over to the other side of the kitchen. They had one heck of a grip, and didn't seem to mind her throwing her weight around.

“Help! Gimme a hand here!” she yelled again to Felicity. Or, no, it was Helium now, right? Dr. Orchard had been as friendly with her as she ever got, and she had to hope some of that was left untouched enough to let her decide to help.

It was a slim hope- all of Orchard's interactions with her had been about treating the elephant, so it was probably all gone, but... well, it didn't seem to matter. Helium was torn between chasing after J and helping here, and helping 5 didn't even seem to cross her mind. Helium's respect for authority hadn't been shaken, and 4 was the one in the lab coat.

Dr. 4 swung 5 into Helium's path, and she reacted quickly, grabbing them by the shoulders and pulling. They still didn't let go- were their hands covered in superglue or something? When Helium tugged, 4 lost her footing and fell forward. The three of them fell into a heap on the floor.

Orchard was the first one up, immediately putting 5 in a headlock. 4 felt their hands let go, and she managed to pull herself free and stand.

“Land sakes! Both of you- what's all this about? Or- Helium, why'd you follow us out to- no, I suppose I never told you to stay put, did I?”

“Doctor, the other one escaped! They have your key- you need to go stop them!” Helium said.

Not the time for that. Sticks and the other garrison folks would catch them before they got anywhere. She unclipped her radio from her belt.

“Raj, this is Dr. 4. We have a breakout attempt, ward 5.”

“Seriously? Again? Gimme a second, I'll get the guys down there...”

Helium looked up from where she was struggling to contain 5's flailing. She had that look of shock on her face. The one that said “I can't believe you have the nerve to not be doing what I expect you to be doing right now!” It hadn't been fun when she was on staff, and she apparently hadn't retired it with the rest of her.

“Doctor! Why aren't you chasing down that- J? I can't hold this one forever- hurry!”

“Simmer down,” Dr. 4 said. “They're probably already gone by now, but don't worry. The boys will get 'em. There's no escaping from here with just keys.”

She kneeled down and looked 5 in the eyes. “Well? What was that all about, huh?”

They looked uncertain. “...Just wanted... like... I mean, it's pretty much what it looks like.”

Helium held them tighter. “Don't play games! Explain! Now!” Dr. 4 raised a hand to quiet her.

“Well, that's that I'm thinking,” she said, ignoring Helium. “But how about you tell me... what you think I think it looks like, just so I can be 100 percent sure?” she said.

The radio crackled to life. “Dr. 4. East elevator is stuck on your floor. We're sending people down by the west elevator.”

It was stuck? That meant... well, it could just be a mechanical jam, but more likely it was being held open on this floor by the person inside. So, that meant J was...”

“They're still here! Hurry! You have to go after them!” Helium shouted.

“No point,” 4 said. “Already told you, we've got people for that.”

“They'll get away!”

“Not likely,” 4 said. “The odds are pretty low that-”

Oh, and she'd made the fatal mistake- mentioning “odds” to Felicity Orchard. If anything was happening, it was her job to make absolutely sure it went right. There was never ever any good reason to hesitate or prepare or do a risk assessment, no sir! There was only time to take matters into her own hands.

She roared in impatience. Taking matters into her own hands, Helium dropped 5 and bolted out the door.

“Hold up! You listen- procedure says-” she protested, but Helium didn't appear to care what procedure said. She was out the door-

-and so was 5, who was hot on her heels. This was going... poorly. Still, if Sticks and the rest hadn't suddenly forgotten how to do their jobs, this wasn't going to be an issue for anyone except Amit. All three of the patients involved were his business, and he was the one Shelhart was going to chew out when it came to light that he hadn't done the psych evaluations before foisting them on her.

Dr. 4 stepped out into the hall, and caught a glimpse of J, wide-eyed with fear, right before they were tackled to the elevator floor by Helium. To the left, she saw the boys with their guns piling out of the elevator down the hall, running at top speed. And then, to the right again... 5 getting in the elevator where Helium and J were brawling, and pressing a button. The doors slammed shut.

Whatever! Whatever! She didn't care! She knew well enough that there was no way out of here except the heavily-guarded front door, and if they ended up wreaking havoc in some other ward, that was officially not her problem.

She headed back into room 523, where all hell had, mercifully, failed to break loose in her absence. The only thing that was different was that Virgo was waiting for her, wringing his hands apologetically.

“Sorry, Doc- she was quick, I didn't even get to tell her to stop. Where'd she...?”

“Chased the ones who stole my keys, and... oh, yeah, they stole my keys- but she... look, it's a mess, and it's not your fault. Siddown. Not gonna worry about it any more.”

Virgo didn't look like he thought it wasn't his fault, but that was how he was about everything. Reminded her of Orchard, kind of. The stunt she'd just pulled was just like her- everything was her responsibility, and she couldn't live with herself if she wasn't doing something about whatever problem she was facing. Very, very her.

That was probably good, she figured. She'd been worried Orchard would disappear when she retired- she was the type to go that way. People who looked at everything and thought first about how they related to it all... they lost more, when the elephant hit them. People who spent most of their time ignoring themselves, thinking about things as they related to other things, they tended to get better results. And she'd thought Orchard, always trying to be in charge, was the sort who'd lose everything that made her herself.

Maybe she hadn't known her as well as she'd thought. She'd always thought she was perceptive about that kind of thing, but whatever had made Felicity the person she'd been, it hadn't been an ego. Or maybe she'd just been lucky. Who knew?

Dr. 4 hadn't been too impressed with who she used to be. When her treatment was done, and they showed her her collection, she'd gotten so bored she'd stopped reading halfway through. Corn, she'd been about. She'd done nothing but grow acres and acres of corn. She couldn't imagine what Delilah had thought about her lot in life- if she'd had some reason to care that much about a bunch of plants, she hadn't left any evidence of it. Had she been bored out of her mind? Or did she do something else on the side, something she'd kept secret that they hadn't been able to find when they went through her things?

She liked 4 a lot better, probably. 4 got to help rebuild civilization from the ashes. 4 was doing important work saving the world from an alien apocalypse plague. She was a doctor, at least according to St. Shelhart. People needed 4, which always made her feel good. What did Delilah have that compared to that?

She sat down and ate her mashed potatoes.

 

Chapter Text

Everything about this was against the rules. The theft had been against the rules, for sure. Violence against the doctors was probably against the rules. Using the elevator without supervision felt like it was against the rules. What were the rules? I didn't know, but this situation seemed like something that would be against them no matter what they were.

I had broken the rules too, probably. The doctor had told me not to worry, and I'd ignored her and tried to intervene. I should have just sat there and done nothing, but- no, I couldn't sit there and do nothing! That had to be against the rules, too, if the rules were worth anything at all. I'd had to make that gamble- if I'd succeeded, I'd have stopped all of this from happening. The alternative was ending up just as bad as the two rulebreakers, though. I'd taken a chance and failed, and now I was in the elevator with them, going down, without supervision.

...It had been worth it, I decided. At least now, I could keep an eye on them and keep them out of trouble.

There was a pudgy fist ineffectually hitting me in the gut. “Get OFF of me, you lunatic! I'm not the bad guy here!” I removed myself from on top of J, who immediately got to their feet and backed up against the wall of the elevator, taking a defensive stance.

“There's sixteen floors, plus G, so, like, 17,” 5 said. I looked, and they were pointing at the elevator buttons. They'd pressed the one all the way at the bottom, labeled 16. “It might be underground, or maybe-”

“Maybe it's a trick, and 16 is the real ground floor. Good thinking,” J said.

I boggled. “No! NOT good thinking! What are you two doing?

“Escaping,” 5 said matter-of-factly.

Escaping? “This- this isn't a prison! This is a hospital! We're all sick and need help, not an escape route!”

I stepped forward and immediately pushed the button for floor 5. The elevator didn't stop.

“Heh,” J said from behind me. “Do you really buy that? Normal hospitals don't lock up their patients and threaten them with armed guards. Really, your willful ignorance here is impressive.”

“There might be a good reason, though. Like, we don't know for sure. That's why we're looking for information first.” 5 said.

...I acknowledged as fact that normal hospitals did not do those things, but... “That's not a reason to disobey like this! If you wanted to know why those things were different, you should have asked the doctors! Didn't they tell you?”

5 answered. “They told us why we were here, but...”

“They lied,” finished J, as if that was that.

“They didn't!” I said, automatically. “Why would you even think that?!”

J gave me a really funny look, like they had just seen someone declare that two plus two equaled seventeen and were trying to figure out what could have possibly made them say something so patently absurd.

“A few things,” 5 offered. “The way he said the amnesia worked didn't add up, with some evidence we had about some stuff that happened earlier.”

That was vague. I didn't like it.

“You're going to have to explain what-” I stopped. The elevator had stopped, and the doors had snapped open.

Before I could process what to do, J and 5 had stepped out of the elevator into a dimly-lit room. And they weren't stopping- they were walking around, looking at things! That felt annoying, for some reason. What reason? A perfectly good one, probably. I thought about it. It was probably because this area was supposed to be off-limits, and they weren't supposed to know what was down here. It didn't look like a place we were supposed to be.

“Come on! We're going to have a look around!” 5 said.

No. What? I wasn't going to have a look around. I'd already pressed the 5 button- the elevator was going to carry me right back up to ward 5, where I'd meet the guards and the doctors and we'd head right back down to apprehend those two. It was going to be so easy. The doors would close on their own, and I'd go get help, and it would be out of my hands.

...It would be out of my hands. That... no. If I left them alone down here, even for a moment, what would they do? They weren't supposed to be down here, and it didn't look like a hospital ward hallway- more like a basement, or a storage room. They had keys, and they were looking for answers, they were trying to remember things and that was really dangerous, I knew. I couldn't let them out of my sight. I was the only one here to stop them from doing... whatever it is they were going to do. It would only be a minute or so before the elevator brought someone who could handle this, anyway.

The doors shuddered as I stepped through the door- they'd been about to close on me. I'd moved at the last possible moment. They shut behind me, and I heard the elevator head up to the fifth floor.

Where were we? The place didn't look familiar. I'd thought it looked like a basement, and that was looking increasingly true. The light came from a few bare bulbs hanging by cords from the ceiling. Old, incandescent bulbs, turning the whole room orange.

Not that it needed help being orange- there was rust everywhere. Machines that looked like they were from 50 or 60 years ago. Water pumps, power generators, heating units... were what I could only assume they were, since I had no idea what their actual purposes were. They looked like they were being used, or had been being used until recently- dust and rust had been cleaned off of displays, knobs, and other components people needed to interact with.

Signs of renovation were present throughout. There were wires and tubes running along the walls, most of which looked brand-new. It was a contrast to the worn machinery.

The room was also larger than I'd thought when I'd stepped out of the elevator. There was a wall not too far from the elevator door, but it looked more like a support pillar now- the real walls of the basement traced a wider area. The ceiling-height machines made it hard to tell exactly how the room was laid out, or where everything was-

-or where the two rulebreakers were. I'd gotten distracted for just a moment- where had they-

“Hey, what's this? Is this like... a geiger counter?” 5 was to my right, looking at a watermelon-sized box on a dusty table. I didn't care whether it was a geiger counter- we weren't supposed to be down here! They were touching whatever it was, which almost certainly wasn't a good idea. I rushed over to stop them.

“Don't touch that! Don't touch anything!” I ordered. “We need to go back upstairs!”

I heard J's voice from somewhere further into the basement, but I couldn't see them. “There's no stairs to go back up. This whole place is connected by two elevators, as far as I know. And there's men with guns in the elevators right now.”

“Who we should be cooperating wi- wait, no. That'd be a serious fire hazard. They wouldn't build a building without stairs.”

“She's right. Look over there!” 5 pointed to a door on the right-hand wall. It had a glowing red exit sign above it, featuring a stick figure ascending a flight of stairs.

I hurried over to the door, nearly tripping over scattered PVC pipes and a coil of wire. 5 followed after me, for whatever reason. The door was marked with an exclamation point and “Fire door – keep shut”. The push bar had a red and yellow striped sticker across it. There was no leaving the basement this way, it looked like.

5 stepped up and pushed on the push bar. “You- hey!” I said, and knocked their hands away. “It says keep shut!”

“It's locked,” 5 shrugged. “Hey, J!” they yelled. “Looks like this door won't open!”

“Probably only opens during emergencies. I might have an idea, but look around for smoke detectors.”

I turned to face where J was. They were on the other side of the room, fiddling with something on the wall. Could these two really not keep their hands to themselves? I started making my way over to them, past a number of workbenches and waist-high machines.

“Well, I've got two things. I have a brilliant plan to evade our pursuers, and I have a hunch on how to open that door,” J said. I managed to make out what they were fiddling with the instant before the lights went out, and a series of slamming noises sounded behind me, each more distant than the next.

It had been a fusebox. They'd just cut the power to this floor, and... I was distracted by the slamming noises, but I could hear them continue to flip toggles in the darkness. What were they doing?!

“Stop that! Turn the power back on! Who do you think you are?”

The slamming sounds and toggling sounds stopped at the same time, and moments later something brushed past me in the dark. I reached out, grabbed, felt a hospital gown slip through my fingers.

“Over here!” 5 shouted. The only light in the room was the exit sign where they stood, and J was making a beeline for it. Or, they looked like they were making a beeline for it. I couldn't tell in the dark, but-

CLANG. “Son of a- gah!”

They'd smacked into one of the machines in between the fusebox and the door, by the sound of it, so yes. Beeline. I gave chase. I probably shouldn't have also made a beeline for them, though, because I accidentally smashed my hip into one of the workbenches. Pain dizzied me for a moment, but I recovered quickly.

All of a sudden, there was light. Not much, not bright- it came from the fire door, which 5 had opened to reveal a stairwell, awash in dim red emergency lighting. I could see J's silhouette, suddenly, and I tried to close the distance.

I did, but they'd made it through the doors. And... I didn't have great options. I wanted to head back and turn on the power, but they'd escape up the stairs, and then nobody would know where they'd gone. I couldn't restrain both of them- I was pretty sure I was stronger than either one, but they'd both proven themselves willing to put up a fight. I could try to just grab one, and hope the other would stay behind and try to rescue them... but I wasn't sure I could drag them all the way to the fusebox in the dark while being attacked like that. On top of that, the other one might decide to flee, and then I'd lose track of them.

As much as I wanted to use force, I had only one safe option. I'd follow behind the two troublemakers, and make sure they didn't do anything even more reckless than what they'd already done. At the first opportunity, I'd get the attention of hospital staff and try and impede their escape.

We surveyed the stairwell. There was an unusually long distance between the door to the actual stairs, with an unusually low ceiling. It was almost like a tunnel, until it emerged into the stairwell proper. We walked down the hall in silence.

“Looks like this really is the bottom,” 5 said. There were no stairs heading down- our only option was to climb.

“Oh, I think I know what these are about,” J said. What what were about? They'd climbed the first flight of stairs, and were crouched near the top. They were looking at... what was the word? Were there words for different parts of stairs? The... vertical part? The side? Riser. That was it. There were holes set into the riser of the flat landing where the staircase turned around, which J was inspecting. There was a wide groove set into the wall next to that riser, I noticed- it went back along the wall to the corner. Inside the groove was something that looked fuzzy- possibly asbestos. I didn't touch it.

“What do you think, 5?” J said.

5 looked at the grooves in the wall, following them to points where the maybe-asbestos was interrupted by metal... hooks, maybe. They traced a path in the air with their finger to a matching groove on the far wall- no fuzzy part, but hooks spaced at the same intervals.

5 made a guess. “This part... pulls out, maybe, and it connects to the wall over there? What's behind the fluffy stuff?”

J stuck their hands into the groove and pulled one of the hooks that could be reached from the stairs. There was a groan of metal from the wall, but it didn't budge. I wasn't sure whether to try and stop them- I might have, if they'd accomplished anything.

“Something heavy, or something held in place. It felt like I was pulling against a spring, though. You get what's in there?”

5 stood, thinking, but eventually shook their head.

“It's a gate,” I said. “It's meant to stay closed, and open in emergencies- when you knocked the power out, the clasps came undone and it retracted into the wall.”

They both turned to stare at me.

“...That was my guess, too,” said J. “You know more than you're letting on, don't you?”

Wait, how had I known that? Had I... remembered? No, that wasn't good. I wasn't supposed to remember things. Maybe... no, it hadn't been remembering, exactly. That wasn't what it felt like- it just felt like something I already knew. I couldn't explain why I knew it, though. It was probably connected to something I forgot, and if I thought too much about it, I might actually remember something. That was... I couldn't put my finger on why it was bad, but it was Bad, with a capital B. What was I supposed to do about this?

I had to distract myself somehow. Get off of the whole line of thinking. That felt right.

“You thought of it too,” I pointed out. “It's obvious. We heard it slam open when you sabotaged the fusebox. What else would it be?”

J didn't seem to trust my explanation, but I was already actively working against them. They couldn't trust me less, could they? It didn't seem to matter, so they didn't say anything.

“So... this is like, a fire escape, right? We can just get out this way?” 5 suggested.

“There's only one- well, no, there's a number of potential ways to find out, but I'm personally inclined to do things the straightforward way.” J said, and began sprinting up the stairs. 5 followed them, and I immediately gave chase.

No, no, no! These two were not going to escape after assaulting a doctor and shutting down power to a hospital! In fact- I realized- they'd probably killed a few people on life support, doing that. Fury crashed into my mind like a tidal wave.

“HEY! THEY'RE DOWN HERE! ANYONE! STOP THEM!” I shouted up into the stairwell. “ANYONE! DR. PARIK! DR. 4! PLEASE!”

J made a strangled noise. “Gh- shhhhh! What are you doing? Do you want to be captured?!”

“I think she does, yeah,” 5 said.

I heard noises from above us. Faint, but echoing down the stairs. J spat something indecorous and stopped on the floor 14 landing. They pulled open the door and motioned for 5 to follow them inside, which they did.

“THEY'RE GOING BACK IN! TWO FLOORS FROM THE BOTTOM! HURRY! I'LL FOLLOW THEM!” I shouted. The approaching footsteps grew louder, but nobody was responding verbally. Had they heard me? Could they hear me? How far up were they? Who was coming?

I couldn't afford to wait for whoever was coming. I had to stick close to J and 5, in case they tried something like the fusebox stunt again. I went through the door to floor 14.

 

Chapter Text

It was like, really dark. Like, different from wake-up-in-the-middle-of-the-night-and-no-lights-are-on dark. With that kind of dark, your eyes adjust eventually because there's a little light around, coming through windows or from little LED dealies on electronic devices or whatever. Like, there's something. But here, there was nothing. I guess because we were probably underground, and there was no window in the fire escape door, and if there was anything electronic in here then it wasn't working because the power was out. So, like, no matter how much my pupils dilated, there was nothing to see.

That was kinda spooky for me, but it really got to Archive. They were holding my hand, which was unexpected. And sweaty. Was it out of trust, or was it out of not wanting to let me slip away and backstab them or something?

“We need to find a light,” Arc pointed out.

“I don't see why,” Helium replied. “All you need to do is sit there and wait for the doctors to bring you back upstairs.”

“We're not doing that,” Arc said, squeezing my hand tighter. “How long are you going to keep lying to yourself? You can't have missed how suspicious this all is. These people do not have your best interests at heart.”

Helium was quiet. I couldn't read her expression, because, dark. Her silence said a lot, though. She'd either decided it wasn't worth arguing the point with Arc, or they'd gotten through to her somehow. Maybe. A little.

I stepped forward and bonked into a... couch. It was apparently a couch, once I felt it out. I heard a noise that was apparently Arc doing the same, because they said “This is a couch. What's a couch doing in a hospital?”

“Like... maybe being in a break room or something? It's not that weird,” I said.

“Well, we'll see about that,” Arc said.

We felt out some more stuff. There was another couch, a countertop, a sink- apparently the water needed electricity to run, because it wasn't working- something framed on the wall, a potted plant, a coffee table... and finally, we found a CRT TV. It wasn't plugged in, but it was dusty, and it was something like a light source.

We didn't need to plug it in. I ran my hand over the smooth surface, and little sparks of static electricity started flying, like they do when you touch the screen when it's kinda chilly and it's been turned on recently. It wasn't a lot of light, but our eyes had adjusted to the darkness, and we caught a glimpse of the room's layout in the flickering light from the static.

It was a break room, like I thought. A little wider than the patient rooms, but laid out almost the same way. Counters and cabinets near the door, furniture towards the back. The stairwell door was even in the same place the bathroom would have been in one of the patient rooms. The main difference was that there was no counter in the middle, bisecting the room- the counters were all against the walls. Plus, I couldn't see the door in detail, but it didn't look like the door to my own room. It looked bigger and bulkier, somehow, and it didn't have a window in the middle.

That was all I managed to pick up on before I ran out of static electricity.

“I think the TV's out of like... electrons or something. Used up all the charge.”

Arc drew in breath. It sounded more like a “I just had an idea” gasp than a “I've been surprised” gasp. I heard a “click” of a switch being flicked, and suddenly the flickering light of static electricity was back, brighter than before. They were holding the thingy they'd taken from Dr. 4- it was a stun gun, apparently.

“It's a taser. Does that sound like something a doctor should be carrying around?” Arc asked.

“It's not a taser,” Helium said. “It's a stun gun. Tasers are the ones that shoot the darts into your skin first.”

“What? That's- that's incredibly counterintuitive!” Arc said. “The thing that shoots a projectile is the taser, and the thing that shoots nothing is a gun? Who came up with that?”

I shrugged, but Arc didn't see me because they'd turned off the stun gun. “Don't know how much battery this has. We'll use this to find our way around in the dark until we can find a real light.”

“Or instead, you won't, and you'll stay right here and wait for the doctors to come find you.”

Neither of us bothered responding to that. Having a third person hanging around being like, totally in-your-face antagonistic made it a lot easier to work with Arc. Helium was drawing all their suspicion, and I was at worst the lesser of two evils. We went through the drawers and cabinets, looking for something useful. There were dishes in the cabinets, but papers in the drawers. We snagged a few of them to read later when we had a better light.

After searching the room, we went to leave. That Helium lady kept following us, but she didn't seem to be doing anything. She'd protested when we took papers from the drawers, but didn't try making us put them back. I guess she was like, confused enough that she was going to just... let us do whatever? It beat her trying to tackle us, I guess.

Through the door was another door. And that was it, really. It was like an airlock, except as far as I knew there was nothing dangerous on either side of it. We had this one heavy metal door for what looked like a totally normal break room, and then a totally normal door like all the rest of them had. We could even make out “1424-Staff” on the little sign. I'd have thought it was converted from a normal room, if it wasn't all wide and connected to the stairwell.

When we stepped out... it kind of looked exactly like the 4th and 5th floors in every single way, from what we could tell by stun gun light. Long hallway, elevators on either end, spaced-out doors on this end. We went and read the signs by some of the doors- 1423 was a lunchroom and 1401 was a kitchen, just like upstairs. 1402 was some kind of infirmary, which probably matched the other floors but I wasn't sure because I hadn't check that one out. The rest were patient rooms, although the first few we checked were all blank. The place seemed deserted.

There was one patient door that was different. 1408-43, and the door was locked. Which was weird, because there weren't supposed to be locks on the patient room doors. The handle had been removed entirely, and a length of chain had been tied through the hole and around through another hole that had, by the looks of things, been drilled into the wall. Some kind of gummy substance- maybe actual gum- filled the gaps between the chain and the holes.

“We need to get in here,” Arc said.

“Shouldn't we find a light first?” I asked.

“Shouldn't you not go in there at all, because clearly you're not supposed to go inside?” Helium said. She gestured to a wooden sign that had been nailed to the door over the window. ELEPHANT WARNING: FRUITING. 2 WEEK WARD EVAC. DO NOT ENTER.

“That they don't want us going in there is the entire reason we need to go in there. How are you not following this?” Arc said.

Helium stared in shock. Or at least, I thought she stared in shock, but Arc turned out the light to conserve battery, so I didn't get a good look at the look on her face. She offered incoherent sputtering as a reply, and finally a “...no!”

“And what's... what's an elephant warning? Do they have an elephant locked in there?” Arc asked.

“Beats me. Let's check out that infirmary,” I said. “Maybe they'll have one of those... flashlight dealies doctors shine down your throat. Probably beats a taser.”

“Stun gun,” Helium corrected. She was ignored.

The infirmary was open, like most of the other rooms. A few flashes of the stun gun showed it was a lot like a patient's room, but with more beds instead of extra furniture. There was a lot more on the counters- pill bottles, papers, first aid supplies. A few flashes of the stun gun showed that most of the papers were charts of some kind.

“Found it!” Arc said, and held up the throat flashlight thing, which Helium helpfully pointed out was called an otoscope. Arc thanked her for the vocabulary lesson, but I'm pretty sure they were being sarcastic.

“Here. Let's look at the papers we got from the staff room.” Arc cleared a space on the counter, and put down their share of the documents. I put mine down next to them, and Arc switched on the otoscope.

“You're not going to find anything. Nobody here is doing anything wrong. Your paranoid delusions are only causing more trouble.”

“Trouble is the whole idea, lady,” Arc said. “Not causing trouble isn't going to get me out of this shady prison compound any faster.”

Was Arc really right about all this? I mean, I'd bought into their ideas earlier, but maybe it was time to be the voice of reason. We'd kinda crossed a few lines, and after all of this, it maybe needed a little thinking over. It's dangerous to just decide to believe something once and be done- when the situation gets more complicated, you have to step back and think about what's going on, what options you really have. When Arc killed the power, it was kind of like when you buy a knockoff tootsie pop and the lollipop bit turns out to be like a millimeter thick and then you decide you might as well keep eating it anyway even though you don't really like the huge tootsie roll center that much.

I was halfway into this oversized tootsie roll situation. Maybe I would be better off if I backed up and asked “am I really hungry enough to keep eating this?”

...But that could wait until we checked out this hot scoop on all the secret staff documents and stuff. We had an actual flashlight, more or less, and it was time to get the info we needed.

First was some junk. There were grocery lists and food orders, which implied that the doctors left the building to get food sometimes, but that wasn't too surprising.

There were some medical charts, but those weren't super interesting either. It was just, like, medical details of some patients' names. There were two different Exoduses, a Leviticus, and three 3s, which was weird. Or, no, it wasn't weird. Arc's theory was that people's names followed an order based on how many times they lost their memory, so there were probably a lot of people who shared names.

Plus also lots of people had the same name in real life. That was also a thing.

“Aha!” Arc said. “Now this might tell us something! Maps!”

The beam of the otoscope wasn't super wide, so I leaned in to get a better view of the maps. There was one “main” map that laid out all the floors- a larger aboveground complex on the ground floor, and 15 identical floors underneath that were each labeled as “apartments”, although those had been crossed out. The same pen that crossed out the apartment labels had written in “Ward 1” “Ward 2” and so on. The bottom floor was labeled “utility”.

It took a while for me to notice, but the map looked... not old, but like it was a photocopy of something old. There were smudges of ink that looked like folds or wrinkles but weren't, especially around the edges. And in the corner, I saw the smoking gun- “E. 1965” printed along the edge. This building was not new.

“They want us to think this building is old,” Arc said. “Or maybe it even is old. These were in the staff room, so the odds they're meant for our eyes are lower.”

“Clearly,” Helium growled.

I wasn't sure why she wasn't trying to stop us- she couldn't actually drag us back, but trying to confiscate the papers or the lights wouldn't have been that hard. Was she less sure we were doing the wrong thing, now? Or had she just decided, hey, I'm just going to watch and not interfere so that I can't get in trouble later? It was convenient either way.

Arc had laid out a new map, and refocused the beam of the otoscope. This one was a floor plan of the first floor, with the doors labeled with various patients' names. Here, the names weren't written in with pen. Instead, it was pencil, and by the looks of the smudging they'd erased and rewritten the names a whole bunch.

And all of the names listed were numbers, like mine. A lot of 2s and 3s, slightly fewer 4s, a handful of 5s... there were fewer of a number the larger it was, with the highest listed being 13. There were no 1s anywhere, though. Had everybody lost their memory at least once after the first time? Or did it just skip over their original names, treating them like 1?

“This supports my theories,” Arc said. “Most of them are sheep, so the doctors don't have to wipe them more than once or twice. There's a few people who keep on trying to find the truth, and we have higher numbers.”

“Why are the names different, though? Like, these are all numbers, not like... letters or chemicals or bible stuff or whatever.”

Arc didn't offer a theory. Instead they laid out another map, just like the first one. Ward 2 was full of numbers, too- on average a little bigger than the ones in Ward 1. What was going on?

“What's that?” Helium asked. She was pointing at the Ward 1 map Arc had just put aside. There was writing on the other side, which we'd missed.

“Oh, you want to know things now, huh? Good job getting with the program, Helium.” Arc said, saying her name like an insult. Still, they turned the light on the reverse side of the Ward 1 map, ignoring her annoyed growl.

“Duty: Dr. 3” and “Supervisor: Dr. Limkakeng (2)”. And then, a description of “Ward informatic procedure”. It looked like... instructions on what to tell patients about their amnesia. It said “Permanent null” in large handwriting, and then went on in smaller, scratchier scrawl. Ward 1 members weren't supposed to know that other patients lost their memories more than once- anyone in Ward 1 who experienced “amnestic relapse” under “tight social conditions” was supposed to be transferred to Ward 2. Under “loose social conditions”, they'd be given a “ward biography” and “resocialized”.

Ward 2's sheet listed a Dr. 6 as “Duty” and the same Dr. Limkakeng as supervisor. The informatic procedure thingy said “Relapse management”, and then said that patients were allowed to know that other people got amnesia, but were required to call other patients by their new names and not try and tell them anything about what they'd forgotten. “Brain damage” was written in parentheses, like an afterthought.

So that was it. We had it right in front of us- no clues, no subtle hints, just a literal piece of paper that said what they were doing on it. They'd definitely been lying, and Arc wasn't crazy.

“So. Here we are! Concrete proof that you've both been lied to about your amnesia. Satisfied?” Arc asked Helium.

“These aren't... they're not lies. They could just be... they put people with different conditions in different wards,” she said. She sounded unsure.

“And then they move them to other wards, where they magically change what amnesia disease they have? Not likely.” Arc said, and flipped to the next map.

Ward 3 was the same as Ward 2, but all the names were letters instead. Dr. D was on duty, and Supervisor was... “Dr. Limkakeng (B)”. Two different people with the same name? Or the same person, pretending to use a name that matched the ward?

And then we got to Ward 4. Our floor. It had our names listed, except it looked like it was a little out of date. I was “3”, Helium's room was vacant, and Arc's room had them down as F. The rest of it matched the few I'd seen while walking down the hallway to lunch, as far as I could remember. The interesting thing was that our floor didn't reuse types of names- everyone had something from a sequence, but it was never the same-

No, wait. The interesting thing about our ward was on the other side. We had the same info thingy- “Permanent null”- and there were two doctors assigned, like usual. The supervisor was Dr. Parik, who I'd met, but the Duty doctor was...

Dr. Orchard.

For a split second, “Who's Dr. Orchard” ran through my head, but that question was shattered to bits by the answer, which hit me like a ton of bricks. Familiar, in a way I couldn't place. A vivid image, suddenly, of a woman in a lab coat with her hair up, putting away a syringe. A hard face.

She was standing behind me, and her cover was blown.

That had been why she'd followed us! That had been why we'd avoided capture for so long! We hadn't escaped- there was no way that stunt with the fusebox would have really slowed the doctors down. We couldn't have possibly been that lucky- they'd been doing this for who knows how long, they had procedures, this wasn't the first time this had happened. They were letting us run around because they had a spy in our group, following us and trying to steer us out of trouble. Archive05 somehow hadn't been paranoid enough!

I turned my head. She was looking away- she hadn't seen- she didn't know I knew. And we had to-

“Who's-” Arc began, and I immediately grabbed their shoulder and looked them in the eyes. They jumped and made a noise- that hadn't been the right thing to do- so I nabbed the map that was on the table and flipped it over.

“HEY what's this one? Let's take a look at this one!” I said, putting the ward 5 map on top of the pile. It was just like ours, but with Dr. 4 on Duty and Parik as supervisor and “relapse management” for the procedure whatsit.

“Hold it right there! I wasn't done looking at ours yet- it's crucial we don't miss anything from-”

“Who cares!! It's boring!! We already know what's on floor 4! We don't have much time before they fix the power so we need to hurry-

Arc's expression changed. What were they- they were pointing the otoscope up at their face like they were about to tell a spooky story at a campout, and they had this triumphant grin-

“Oh, I see what this is!” they said. What were they- no. Oh, no-

“I was right! I should have actually flipped a coin- but I didn't have a coin, did I? So I skipped to the end! That was your trap! That was your trap this whole time!”

No, no, no, no, NO-

“I should have known! One of the so-called “patients” that Dr. Parik had with him, people from my floor, supposedly in the same situation! But you were a mole, weren't you?”

Oh my fudging god this was not actually happening right now-

“I was wondering why we hadn't been followed! This couldn't have been my first time trying this exact escape attempt- every time, I'd take you with me!”

This was stupid! This was so stupid! I could have screamed!

“But now I'm breaking the pattern! This time I'll escape, Doctor Orchard!

They were standing next to the real Dr. Orchard, who was staring at me in confusion. She was holding her head in one hand. By the looks of it, she was as surprised as I was that Arc had come to the exactly wrong conclusion. And I couldn't- well, I could tell them exactly how they had screwed up, but I couldn't do that without blowing the real Orchard's cover! And would they even believe me?

Gah! No, it was better than having Arc side with her. I'd just have to deal with whatever happened what Orchard realized she'd been found out.

 

Chapter Text

I had them cornered. Watching the enemy's plan to conceal the truth crumble to dust in front of me... it was one of the greatest feelings in the world.

Orchard's panic gave way to anger, and they started making excuses. “No- oh my god. You've got it backwards- like, I tried not to say it because she was right there!

Tried not to say wh- I turned. Helium. They were trying to pin the blame on Helium.

“I saw the name and remembered who she was- she's one of the doctors, but I thought if I just told you that then she'd know that we knew, and she wouldn't keep letting us snoop around! So I-”

“No!” Helium protested. “I didn't- I didn't know-”

Didn't know? Didn't know what? What was going on? Orch- 5 was probably lying, but the way Helium was defending herself raised my suspicions too.

She was clutching her head for some reason. “I have to... I need a distraction. I need a distraction, I need a...”

“See? See?! We blew her cover!” 5 said.

Everything was happening too fast. I couldn't stop and think through every implication of what they were saying- they kept saying things, without giving me time to analyze it! I couldn't move, I couldn't make a judgment- had 5 gotten her to say that somehow? Is that what someone who'd had their cover blown would say out loud? No, but- it explained 5's behavior, it was plausible- but it could be a trick. HOW could it be a trick? What was Helium even saying, oh, she was saying more things now-

“Look. Let's look at this. Look at the maps. Let's look at the maps instead.” She was leaning over the counter, sorting through papers. I shone the otoscope on what she was looking at, careful to keep my grip and keep my distance in case she tried to grab it.

“Instead”, she'd said. She had some kind of schedule open, with major New England cities listed next to... something. Some symbols in a grid. What was this “instead” of? If she was the doctor, would she really think we could be distracted so easily? What was going on in her head?

“Let me see,” 5 said. I pushed them away.

“Don't come any closer. I don't know who to trust yet.”

“She just- how's this not an admission of guilt?!”

“It's suspicious.

“Of COURSE it's suspicious!”

They were trying to rush me. Applying time pressure was one of the most important weapons in a manipulator's arsenal, and I wasn't about to let them bring it to bear.

The chart. I shone the light on the header, which read “Survivor retrieval”. The columns of the grid had dates on them, and the symbols were... there wasn't much logic to them. Roman numerals, letters, shapes... were they names? No, they didn't use shapes for names. Or maybe... did they? Were shapes just rare? Numbers were common, letters were common... shapes didn't have an order, normally, but maybe it was somehow counting by number of sides... no, getting sidetracked. The chart had other contents. Lists of equipment- vehicles, handcuffs, nonlethal weaponry... it looked like something the police would use to keep track of things. Supplies for... retrieving survivors? Survivors of what?

Survivors of their plan to kidnap or kill anyone who discovered their secret. Right. That fit with the hypothesis. It wasn't that important. Helium had called it a distraction, and it was time to stop being distracted by it.

“Are you Dr. Orchard?” I asked. “Don't dodge the question. Are you or not?”

“I'm... not. I'm not. Be quiet. I need a distraction- I need- that's what I have to do.”

She'd hesitated. That could mean she had been deciding whether to lie, or it could mean... any number of things connected to her strange behavior. She had given me zero information.

“Wait, what's going on?” 5 asked. “Why are you saying that out loud? We can hear you, y'know.”

I'd already had that thought, but 5 had voiced it, and Helium- Orchard?- responded. “That's what you have to do when you remember. If you start remembering things, you have to find a distraction. I don't mean from me being- I'm not- I'm NOT, I need a distraction...”

She spun around and yanked the otoscope from my hand, shining it on the document she'd opened. I didn't try and get it back- she wasn't running away with it, and the point of the otoscope was to light up those documents. If she tried to run off with it, I'd stop her.

Five pages that looked like they'd been removed from a three-ring binder, starting with the number 42. She began reading it aloud.

 

Appendix A: Antimeme antibody application

Before administering any injection of the Shelhart v2 antibody, ensure the needle is sterilized. Spores dormant in the injection site may in some instances circulate to the brainstem long after the antibody has been exhausted. If an unsterilized needle has already been used, or if the patient has any other open wounds that may be infected, note their locations and order a blood test, to be carried out before the next injection.

Initial AAA

Emergency amnestic protection on a cascading patient is time-critical- use a 22-gauge needle for an intramuscular injection. This will maximize uptake rate. Do not apply a standard dose- consult the latest charts for the current antibody.

Err on the side of a smaller dose when estimating. An overdose in the initial application coinciding with a failed meditation will cause nonlocalized disjunctions and full brain death rather than identity-localized amnesia, whereas an underdose can be corrected once the patient has been recovered.

Reapplication formula

To determine the dosage for an antibody reapplication, consult the charts for the current antibody for Σ1 and retrieve the charts for the last applied antibody for Σ2.

Dosage (in cubic centimeters): 1.21 – ((Σ12)*S) where S is the patient's Shelhart summation

If the patient's Shelhart summation is not available in full, as is often the case, the following can be used to produce a safe estimate of S:

1.21(Σ12) – (a*R + max(b*T) + (TN*c*D))

If the patient's Shelhart summation or the negative portion of the substitute formula produces a value greater than 1.21, or only the initial emergency dose has been applied, this means the previous antibody dose has expired entirely and the subject will experience amnestic recall with no amnestic relapse. What you have taken to be the sleep state induced by amnestic relapse or sedative injection is in fact the regulatory breakdown induced by the elephant's final phase. If the patient is contained, flee immediately.

Resets

R is the number of amnestic relapses the patient has undergone since their last dose of the antimeme antibody, and accounts for the largest percent of the dose in most situations that call for reapplication. a is the relapse constant, 0.132.

Duration

T is the duration, in hours, since the patient's last dose of the antimeme antibody. b is the duration constant, 0.015. Antibody decay in the system plateaus after the body has processed and expelled approximately two thirds of the full dose, after which the antibody is no longer consumed by the body's immune system except when active. The maximum value of (b*T) is currently estimated to be 0.45, which you may thusly substitute if it has been more than 30 hours since the last dose.

Information density

TN is the time in hours since the patient's last amnestic relapse- not since their last dose. c is the density constant, 0.0174. D is a value ranging from 1 to 10, and comprises a rough estimate of how much relevant information was amassed prior to the neural rebridge and subsequent full amnestic recall/relapse. In other words: how much the patient figured out about the truth of their quarantine by deducing facts from evidence or by recalling free-floating associations, without active elephant neurons consuming antibody.

D = D1 + D2 + D3

If the patient obtained information only pertaining to their former living situation, D1 is 2. If that much is recalled in addition to their name, D1 is 3. If all of this is recalled on top of factors from either D2 or D3, D1 is 4.

If the patient obtained information pertaining to the initial global situation, D2 starts at 1. Add 1 for the disruption of their living situation, and 1 for numbers pertaining to the death toll or ongoing global situation, for a maximum of 3.

If the patient obtained information pertaining to the pink elephant's cognitive mechanisms, D3 starts at 1. Add 1 for the elephant's biological details, and 1 for visuals of the elephant's fruiting bodies.

That was all it said, by the end of page 46. Oversized margins. She'd started pausing to breathe heavily towards the end. There were... a number of implications, and my head was starting to hurt.

The first implication, if this document was to be believed, was that the amnesia effect was caused by this antibody, but was apparently able to happen multiple times in between injections. It wasn't clear what caused the “amnestic relapse”- according to page 45, it was something called a “neural rebridge”, but that was meaningless jargon. What was the trigger?

The second implication was that I might have made progress without realizing it. “Elephant warning”... if I'd been reset enough without being dosed with the antibody, I'd... experience amnestic recall with no relapse, and enter into the “elephant's final stage”.

Oh, I got it. A clever bit of wordplay, there- “an elephant never forgets”. If my S exceeded 1.21, I'd stop forgetting. That was what they were afraid of- why the hypothetical reader, presumably a doctor, was instructed to make sure I was contained- so that they could trap me and dose me with the amnesia juice again. Or... something else, maybe.

Which meant I needed to somehow trigger my amnesia over and over again, without getting dosed with antibody. But what was the trigger? That was the key. I couldn't just ask a doctor to do it, I'd need to-

“...What did any of that mean just now?” 5 said.

“Will you be quiet?” I said. “I'm trying to think, and I've got a headache.”

“I mean, me too,” 5 said. “But can you like, think out loud? We should share ideas.”

“You're still a suspect- I don't know if you're Orchard or not, yet, so I'd rather not make you privy to any more of my thought processes than I have to.”

Helium made a strangled sound and started rifling through the papers again. I ignored her, as well as 5's “Aw, c'mon!”

Where was I? The trigger. The trigger for the amnestic relapse, so I could somehow set myself up to forget over and over again until my R got high enough to bring S over 1.21. What was it? Where could I learn where it-

Elephant warning. That room- 1408-43. Judging by the name scheme, someone called “43” had been in there, which meant someone who'd been reset a lot. More than I had, even. Had they discovered this information? Had they figured out the trigger, and applied it to themselves? Had they succeeded in getting the antibody out of their system, and remembering everything? And... if that happened, the doctor was supposed to contain them. For example... removing the handle to their door and chaining it shut.

“There's someone locked inside room 1408. They're probably asleep, but if we can wake them up... this guide implies that they've remembered everything, and their amnesia's cured. They've got all the answers, and... this ward was evacuated to keep them from telling anyone.”

“That's- no, that's terrible!” said Helium.

“What? How d'you figure that?” 5 asked.

I stepped them through my reasoning- that the antibody could wear off, that when it did the subject had recall without relapse, and that it wore off faster the more resets you had. 43 was a lot of resets, so it probably wore off, and they had been “contained.”

5 went “hm”. “I was thinking along different lines, actually. You're probably right about someone being in there, but I think they're contagious with some kind of fungus.”

“Fungus?” Come to think of it, there had been-

“Fruiting bodies, remember? That's one of the answers we're not supposed to know about, in like, the... what was it called?” They looked over at the pages, and Helium shone a light for them. “The D3- the information density. We're not supposed to know what fruiting bodies look like, and the sign on that door was like, elephant warning, fruiting.”

“That's...” ...what was that? That didn't match up. It was probably... “...probably a euphemism. “Fruiting” probably means bearing fruit, as in the fruit of knowledge.”

“It didn't sound like a euphemism to me. Like, remember the beginning part? With the needles? It was all like, don't let the spores get in, gotta be super clean, yada yada yada. What would that even be a metaphor for?”

“...Let me think about it.” My headache was getting worse.

“And they evacuated the ward for two weeks, right? So maybe that guy's got like, really gross warts or something even worse. And the amnesia's like... a side effect of the cure?”

No. Well, maybe, but that wasn't the point. Warts didn't matter- what mattered was knowing the truth, and I'd live with warts if I had to. “Amnesia's not a side effect. Were you listening? All of this has been about controlling people's minds! Layers of lies and amnesia and mind-fu-”

“Hey- I mean, I'm not saying it's just a side effect. We don't know!”

“The amnesia is the whole point! It's all the thingy talks about! They're trying to keep something from us- something with a death toll. A global situation. They obviously have really dark secrets, and they're going to unbelievable lengths to cover them up!”

My statement was punctuated with a loud moan from Helium's direction. What was her problem?

“Please! Stop! You don't know what you're- my head! It hurts!

“You're not helping your situation,” I said. “Trying to get us to stop talking makes you that much more likely to be Dr. Orchard.”

She lunged forward and grabbed me by the shoulders, staring me straight in the eyes. “I am Dr. Orchard! That's- that's the problem! I remember! I can't- please! You need to distract me!”

Oh, she was Orchard. That simplified things. Since my personal space was invaded, and she was getting violent... well. She wanted a distraction? She could have a distraction. My thumb flicked a switch on the taser- sorry, stun gun- and the room was briefly illuminated for a moment, before her stomach was illuminated instead.

“Gyah! DUDE!” 5 yelled, recoiling.

“I'm not a dude,” I said as she slumped to the floor. Wait. Was I a dude? I actually had no idea- the amnesia had taken gender with it, apparently.

“You just tased her! Why'd you tase her?!”

“I didn't tase her. I stunned her. With a stun gun,” I pointed out.

“Oh my god. Oh my god, O. Why are you like this.”

“Why do I... solve problems?” I asked, bending over to grab the otoscope where she dropped it.

“With tasers! Why do you solve problems with tasers?!”

“Way to disrespect the wishes of someone who just got stunned. She thought it was very important that we know the difference between tasers and stun guns, 5.”

They were about to say something else, but a sudden humming filled the room, and the window-lights on the far wall snapped on. That meant... someone had reached the basement level and reset the fuses. I could hear the sound of the elevator starting to move again, where the guards had presumably been trapped. We suddenly had much less time to waste.

The timing had been suspicious. Had Orchard had some kind of surveillance device on her, such that whoever was on the other end would know if she was discovered? Had they been left with orders to send in the guards if she lost control of the situation? The lights had been out for too long- longer than it would take to head down the stairs and reset the fusebox, probably. Could something have slowed them down?

When Orchard had yelled for help, she'd said “two floors from the bottom”. Maybe they'd gotten confused, and counted the bottom as one, leading them to search floor 15 instead. It had been about enough time to try searching one ward in the dark, not find anyone, and then head downstairs to fix the lights and elevators.

Which of those two answers was the simplest? One relied on a convenient misunderstanding, and one relied on the enemy planning for this exact scenario. And I already knew they'd planned for most of it, having sent Orchard to spy on us. Probably.

“Crap- oh, man, the lights are on, they're going to- wait, did that window just turn on?” 5 said, panicked.

“The windows are fake. Obviously. Don't worry about it. We need to leave this room, fast- we can't even discuss our plans to hide or escape here, because Orchard is bugged and we don't have time to find and destroy it. Hurry!”

We needed a lot of things to go right. We needed to hope they wouldn't come out of the elevator while we were in here, and they were almost certainly on their way. We needed somewhere we could hide, which would also be somewhere we could find supplies to undo the lock on that elephant warning door... and ideally, it'd be somewhere other than whatever the obvious choice was, since odds were good that L, M, and N had all fallen for more or less this exact trap in the past. I needed to think outside the box.

Remembering L, M, and N triggered a mostly-useless realization- 5 was probably the stranger who'd been mentioned in L's note. The most obvious conclusion was that L's ally- probably 4, then- had been discovered and blasted with amnesia after K failed and before L woke up. There were potential implications there, but they weren't implications that would help me find a hiding place before the guards showed up. If I'd made a mistake by trusting them, I'd have to live with the consequences this time around.

Back to thinking outside the box. If I'd failed this scenario before, it meant my first instinct was bad. My first instinct had been to hide, but that clearly hadn't worked- they wouldn't cancel the alert after they couldn't find me. They'd need to think they'd found me, and somehow decide against dosing me with antibody or triggering my amnesia.

“We play dead. The amnesia comes with a sleep state, and they might think...”

“That we, like, got amnesia by accident? I dunno about that- what if it's like, some kind of codeword? If it's not something we can do by accident, they'll know we're faking.”

They were right. We needed...

Wait. No. We could find a hiding place that they wouldn't eventually check with a long enough manhunt. There was a conveniently sealed room that nobody was supposed to enter. We just...

“Right. So we need to hide- and we need to get into that room with the elephant warning. They won't check in there, and if we can somehow reseal it from the inside, they won't even think we could be in there.”

“So we need... a way in?”

That was what we needed, but we didn't have one. There was no lock- just a chain, held in place by some kind of gum-like substance. Could we get rid of that stuff?

A rumbling from the elevator, in motion again. We didn't have time to search for a clever way in- we needed brute force.

“Knife, knife, check the kitchen- we need a sharp knife. I'll break a mirror in one of the other rooms and see if I can get some glass, if you can't find anything sharp enough. Split up.”

5 looked uncertain, but their panic overrode it and they ran for the kitchen door. I headed for the room next to 1408-43, 1407. The light came on- where was the mirror? There, in the same place it had been in my own room. How had I broken it, again? The shower rod holding the privacy curtain. I went for it, and-

“Got it! Got a knife!” I heard 5 shout. I ran outside, and they had it- a steak knife, perfect. Or, perfect, assuming they weren't about to stab me with it. I... didn't have the time to take measures against that.

“Over here! Try carving out the gum!” I pointed at where the door handle would have been.

5 set to work, and... it was working. The knife had some trouble getting through the inch and a half of whatever yellow goop had sealed the hole, but once it was through it carved easily through the rest of the adhesive. It apparently hadn't been meant to resist a break-in, but just to seal the gap- for whatever reason.

“The other one! The one in the wall! Hurry!”

5 carved through the gunk that was filling the hole that had been drilled in the wall, and we popped both of them loose- cylinders of rubbery gunk clinging to the chain. The chain... was a loop, and when I pulled it out through one hole, it pulled the rest in through the other hole. Was it all just one complete link? Would we need bolt cutters? We- no, it had caught on something. Something bulky on the other side of the door. Jiggle, jiggle, pull, pull, jiggle, slam, grunt, get angry, pull, jiggle... and it came loose.

A padlock. The chain's ends were linked by a padlock. We'd come this far, just to be thwarted by-

“Your keys! Use the keys!”

Oh. Right. I had keys. There were only four- would one even work? Did Dr. 4 have they key that would fit?

More rumbling from the elevator. It was moving again- if they'd just finished checking ward 15, then we were next. The first key didn't work. They were coming! The second key, the one that opened the elevator, didn't work. I needed more time! I couldn't get captured when I was this close! The third key, which had opened the fusebox, didn't work. No! No!

The fourth key clicked and turned. The padlock opened and fell off.

“Oh, man, hurry! Hurry!”

I yanked on the chain and pulled it free, and 5 grabbed the door by the hole left by the handle. It flew open, opening out instead of in, like my own room had.

A layer of pink dust spilled out into the hallway from the floor of Room 1408. A layer of the stuff coated the floor inside, an inch or two high, and the edge that had been pressed up against the door had crumbled, sending wisps of airborne powder swirling into the air where the stuff was disturbed. That wasn't great. If the door didn't sweep it back inside when it shut, it would give us away.

I looked inside. The motion-activated light hadn't triggered- peering into the darkness, a smashed window was visible on the other side of the room. That aside, the layout looked just like my own room.

My footprints sank into the dust, like Neil Armstrong's first steps on the surface of the Moon. It wasn't just on the floor- it piled up on the countertops, the bed, the top of the broken window. There was no one here.

“I'm... going to wait out here. That stuff doesn't look safe.” 5 said. That wasn't the plan. We were going to hide in here, put the chain back in place, make it look like nobody had entered. If they stayed outside, we weren't safe.

There wasn't time to argue. The elevator was moving again. If they wanted to get caught, that was their prerogative.

“Suit yourself.” I shut the door behind me, taking the chain and looping it back into place. I fiddled with the carved-out rubber cylinders, twisting them to match up with their original rotations in the holes.

I had the padlock. I could have put it back in place, but I doubted they'd check unless 5 told them, and if 5 told them then they'd find a way in anyway. Better to have one less obstacle between me and escaping the room, in case 43 turned out to be hostile.

...Where was 43? They weren't on their bed. Had they been removed and taken somewhere else? What was this pink dust? Shining the otoscope, I didn't see any footprints other than mine. Had they coated the room in the stuff after moving 43 to some other containment?

Something on the counter caught my eye. Two raised rectangles of the pink powder, on what should have been a flat surface. I had to push some of it away, to get at what was buried underneath, and the powder was light. Lighter than I would have expected- the consistency of flour, but practically weightless. More swirls of the stuff rose into the air when I pushed it away, and I made an effort not to breath too much of it in.

The smaller rectangle concealed a calculator. The larger rectangle concealed a three-ringed plastic folder.

 

ELEPHANT WARNING: PERSONNEL SUPERVISION REQUIRED 

This copy of the Shelhart EMG belongs to               Dr April    . The EMG is to be administered only by the EMG's owner. If you are not the EMG's owner, do not read any portion of this document except that which is shown to you by the owner as part of the Shelhart Procedure v1. THIS DOCUMENT IS HAZARDOUS. Unsupervised reading of this document is typically followed by severe legal action, amnestic relapse, and death.

Unsupervised patients are urged in the strongest possible terms to restrain their curiosity. This warning does not constitute a test, trick, or joke.

I laughed. It was probably the silliest, most desperate attempt to keep a secret I had ever seen in my life. I opened up to the table of contents. I didn't want to waste time with the introduction when I was standing ankle-deep in whatever “pink elephant” was, and immediately flipped to page 22.

 

Pink Elephant

If the prospective patient does not already know the details of the elephant's life cycle, despite counterproductive media saturation, you may skip the section on ironic process theory and proceed to self-identification, referring to the elephant as a nebulous “infection” according to what the prospective patient already believes about their condition.

Early experiments have demonstrated that an accurate or detailed model of the memetic target isn't strictly necessary to concentrate the elephant activity, as long as the model is well-defined. Providing a full overview of the elephant's life cycle is the best way to provide a stable memetic target for a prospective patient, but if they have already come to incorrect (but solid) conclusions, those will suffice as a focus.

Remember: Do not refer to the infection by its codename when initially speaking to patients on the subject. There have been rare documented instances of posted elephant warnings triggering amnestic relapse by word association. Use terms like “the fungus”, “your condition” or “the infection”.

Ironic process theory

Open with whatever best conveys the following insight: “What happens when someone tells you “don't think of a pink elephant”? Barring pre-prepared mental discipline, you of course can think of nothing but a pink elephant. Trying harder simply reminds you of what it is you're trying to forget.”

Ensure the patient understands the following:

  • The fungus is actively shaping their neurons into a configuration that propagates thoughts about the fungus.

  • The fungus needs thoughts about itself to progress through its life cycle.

  • Reconfigured neurons do not revert if they think about it less- there is no way to succeed in reverting fully infected cells.

  • Searching for new thoughts to distract yourself only allows the fungus to infect the connections responsible for those thoughts.

Ultimately, what is important is that the patient does not perceive this as a challenge or problem to solve- the sooner you can convince them infection is inevitable without the Shelhart procedure, the better their chances of surviving the intervention. Emphasize that now is NOT the time to look for clever alternatives- that we have been doing so, and that they are not going to succeed on their own, with the fungus eating any clever thoughts they might have.

Self-identification

Incite the prospective patient to narcissism. Their thoughts need to focus on themselves- tell them that their identity is too strong for the fungus to attack successfully, that although it will seem like they are losing themselves to thoughts of the fungus, this is simply the fungus surrounding their soul and trying to get inside, blocking off connections from the rest of the brain. Retreating into themselves will allow them to weather the storm while you apply the treatment.

This is, of course, an outright lie. Experience has shown that informing patients that the treatment is designed to permanently sacrifice their personal identity does not go over well, and even if patients can be convinced that this sacrifice is better than dying, it can cost you important seconds- even minutes.

Guide the prospective patient through the meditation as described in the previous section, focusing their thoughts inward to produce an elephant concentration the initial AAA can recognize.

Fear

The patient's inward focus is most effective during a state of heightened adrenaline. You may utilize the following narratives to increase the sense of urgency, ranked in order of plausibility in most scenarios (use your judgment to determine

I stopped reading. This was... correct. I knew it was correct. I didn't know how I knew it was correct, but I could guess, because my head was throbbing with pain. Amnestic recall. I was remembering! Yes! That was-

Wait, that was very very bad, actually.

 

Chapter Text

So, I totally didn't have any good options at that point. Arc had gone inside a room full of... probably super dangerous amnesia spores or something, and that wasn't somewhere I was 100% keen on following them. I could hide somewhere else, but I didn't know anywhere else on this floor I could actually hide from a search party for very long.

Could I try another floor? Would those shutters in the stairwell be closed? They were spring-loaded, but I didn't know if they had to close those manually or if there was some kind of motor whatever in the wall that would have closed them automatically when the power came back on. If they were closed, I'd have wasted time- and even if they weren't, they probably had people in the stairwell already.

I could... turn myself in? What would that look like? They had guns- would they use them? The one that had been carrying Arc hadn't used it even when Arc was being violent- would it be different now that we'd caused real trouble? What were the guns for?

Could I lie? Pretend I'd been tricked or something? How could I do that without actually turning in Arc? Even if I sold them out to try and feign innocence, I'd probably get, like, mind-wiped or whatever anyway.

There was a ding from the end of the hallway, which scrapped every option but two. The door would open in a heartbeat, which meant no time to hide somewhere else or come up with a convincing lie. I decided I liked “maybe get sick” better than getting caught.

Arc had put the chain back in place, but hadn't locked it- when I pulled, the door opened wide enough to get inside. Not easily- I had duck under the chain, avoid pulling it out of place, cover my mouth and nose to keep from breathing in the dust, and close the door behind me in one motion. WHACK went my head on the doorframe, but I was in. The elevator door- I hadn't been paying attention. I might have been seen, but I didn't know.

“Guh- myou- grod! Nyou f'cared me!” Arc whispered loudly. They were holding the otoscope in their mouth, to light up what they were looking at. A three-ring binder open on one of the counters. They were furiously punching numbers into a calculator.

“What's that?” I asked, keeping my voice low.

“You- it's juft the fame awavvat fing Orchard read. Dom't diftract me. Look for cluef.”

I peeked to make sure- it did look like the Appendix thingy Orchard had been reading. It looked like Arc was trying to use that formula? I hadn't totally followed what it was about- something about antibody dosage.

“It's dark, O. Can I have the light?”

“Mo,” Arc said past the otoscope in their mouth. “I'm youving it.”

“What about the ta- stun gun?”

“Like I'm gomma let you have the tayver,” Arc said.

I gave an exasperated sigh an started trying to look around in the dark. The light from the otoscope was enough to let my eyes adjust after a while, and there was a little bit coming through the door's window- the warning sign over it was apparently not thick enough to block all the light.

Walking through the dust was weird- it was kind of like snow that didn't crunch, and it was practically weightless. I could have pretended it wasn't there, but pushing through it kicked up plumes of the stuff, which I was like, not the most excited to have happen. I ended up kind of marching around, making sure my feet were always squishing the stuff down instead of kicking it up.

It was laid out pretty much like my own room had been. There was a game of... I didn't recognize it, and it was hard to make it out in the dark. Or... maybe it was just that it was covered in dust. I tried clearing away some of it, although it was still hard to see. There was a woman on the box, and... “The Resistance”, I could see once I squinted. I couldn't see what was spread all over the table- cards and cardboard rectangles of different sizes.

Heard footsteps outside. The sound of doors opening and closing. The hospital staff were here, looking for us. Had to be quick.

The “window” was broken. I'd been surprised when the one in the other room came on, but it made sense. Where would the light be coming from if we were underground? The only weird thing was that they had the fancy fake windows instead of regular lights. Was it just to make sure people got enough vitamin D?

I stepped over to inspect the smashed window, to see if I could maybe turn it on, when my foot came down on something hard. Or, briefly hard. It stopped being hard after it went “crunch”.

What had I stepped on? There was a long pile of something where the dust had piled up, which I hadn't seen coming in. Because it was on the floor between the window and the bed. Weird how it took me a moment to make that connection, just because it was dark.

I gave the pile a nudge with one foot, keeping my balance by holding on to the curtains of the window, which were- ugh, dusty. I made a mental note not to touch anything with my right hand until I'd washed it. The pile didn't budge- it was a single solid object, apparently.

“Hey, Arc, I think I found something over here!” I said. And then realized I'd said “Arc”.

Arc just turned their head and said “What iv it?” They... hadn't noticed? It was weird that they hadn't noticed, because they shouldn't have been used to being called by that name. They were supposed to be O, or J, or whatever their actual real life name was. Everyone on the forums had called them Archive05, or sometimes Archive- but never Arc. They'd always wanted to be taken super seriously by everyone- nicknames didn't feel right, even in casual conversation. “Arc” was just shorthand in my head.

I had a lot of questions about that, but I didn't want to risk drawing attention to it, if they'd ignored it the first time. I just stuck to the topic at hand. “Don't know what it is. It's covered in like, the spore things, I don't want to kick it off.”

“You'll be fine,” Arc said, and turned back to their calculator. “I read fome of dif ding. Fez it cam't hurt you.”

Couldn't hurt me? “Wait- I thought you said that was just the appendix thing. What's it say about the dust?”

Arc said a swear. “It'f the ding the appemdicf iv from. The whole fing. Dom't diftract me.”

“I'd like to know why you think it's harmless in, like, a little more detail, maybe?”

They took the otoscope out of their mouth and did the stupid ghost story flashlight thing again. “Sorry, maybe you didn't hear me- don't distract me. Not “do” distract me. I don't have anything to write with and I'm trying to do math with one number's worth of calculator memory and my head.”

“Fine,” I said, and the otoscope went back into their mouth. I turned to the pile, and... eh. I wanted to know why Arc thought the dust was harmless, but I didn't need to know. I pretty much trusted their judgment, and it wasn't like they weren't ankle-deep in the stuff. If they were wrong, it was on their own dang head. I started pushing the dust off of the pile thing.

I gasped when I saw the ribcage, which probably wasn't a good idea on account of the dust, but that was harmless, apparently. Or... well, it was a lot less apparent that the dust was harmless, because as I excavated the skeleton it became really clear that someone- probably 43- had died in here. Also, their head had exploded, judging by the bone fragments where the skull should have been.

“It's, uh. It's- it's a human skeleton, O. There's a human skeleton here.”

“Uh-huh,” Arc said. If anything, they started paying more attention to their work on the math.

“No, seriously. It's covered in-” It was covered in spongy pink growths, mainly around the head. Some of the pink stuff was growing out of the bones, cracking them as they emerged. That's why... the leg bone I'd stepped on had been crushed. “-covered in, oh god, those are probably fruiting bodies.

“Sure,” Arc said.

“You don't believe- look! It's right here! Come over here and look at this!”

“One point two one oh five, at least. Conservatively. Probably more,” Arc said, putting down the calculator. “Just my luck.”

“Arc, what are you talking about?! I don't think this stuff is harmless! I think it, like, disintegrated someone!”

“Didn't say it was harmless,” Arc said. “I said it can't hurt you. You, specifically.”

“You're not making sense, Arc!”

“This is the Emergency Meditation Guide,” Arc said, holding up the binder-folder thingy. “It explains everything.”

“Skeleton! Arc there's a freaking skeleton here! Someone died!”

They weren't paying attention to what I was saying even a little.“You're 5. So it's theoretically possible you're above 1.21, but probably not. If I understand this right, your chances get worse if you black out and breathe in a lot of this stuff when you sleep, but you're still probably pretty safe.”

“Cool!” I said, making sure to keep my voice down. “That's great! I'm glad I'm safe! Can we talk about the dead person?”

“There's no point,” they said, not bothering staying quiet. Which was an improvement over totally ignoring me. “You're going to forget anyway. That headache you have? That's the antibody chewing your brain apart to stop you from keeping the stuff you've remembered.”

I did have a headache. It hadn't seemed important. It- chewing my brain apart?! “Whoa! Whoa! Whoa whoa whoa! No, hold up! Chewing- what?!”

“I can remember everything about the elephant now. My headache's gone- the antibody's used up. I fudged* up, technically, but it's better than living how they want me to live.”

“That's great,” I said. “That's awesome. Let's maybe keep it down, so they don't hear us? The sooner they're gone and we can get out of the death mushroom zone the better.”

“I'm not leaving this room,” Arc said. They went and sat down on the bed, tossing a cloud of spores into the air. “I'm going to die, unless I do this meditation all over again,” they said, gesturing at the folder thing they were holding.

They were not going to die! That was not going to happen! “Okay!” I said, and snatched the EMG, kicking up clouds of the stuff in my lunge. “So- okay, table of contents- Immediate Emergency! This sounds like that! Uh- Vipasanna crash course... what's...”

“I'm not going to do it, Gavin.”

They... what?

 

Chapter Text

Gavin's face did the thing. I knew it from our video calls, and more recently from the conversations we'd had in my unfolding chain of poisoned memory. It was that face he made when I'd said something that wasn't just unexpected, but that he wouldn't have expected even if he'd thought long and hard about what to expect. It was a hurt look. An injured puppy wondering why the universe had decided to kick it, when it'd tried so hard to be good.

He'd understand, after I explained. He'd want to understand- he always tried. He was like me- couldn't live with himself if he couldn't understand what the other person was thinking. So many people on the LMOF had tried to write me off as too confusing, not worth dealing with... but he would listen, he would listen until he understood everything I was saying.

“You get it, right? Why I can't live without my memories?”

“I really don't, Arc! You gotta explain, here! And... like, fast?” he said. And of course he didn't understand- he didn't know. It... wouldn't hurt to tell him. The TNcD term, the part of the equation that depended on how much you learned, was too small to make a difference, and he was already remembering.

“They're not going to cure our amnesia. The amnesia's a cure for this, and they're going to make it permanent. Destroy our memories forever, if we let them.”

“Okay!” Gavin said. “Cool! That's really- that's bad but okay! Let's do the amnesia thing so you don't die? Let's do that right now!”

Did he... not understand? “No, Gavin. That's not going to save me. You understand, right? Everything that's me will be gone, if I do that. I refuse to forget again.”

He clutched his head when I said his name again, and gave me an incredulous look. “Everything that's you will be gone if you... die! That's what dying is! I'm pretty sure you know that! What are you talking about?!”

His head was hurting. That meant the antibody was still inside him, cutting connections and keeping the elephant sealed off inside his old memories. In my head, there wasn't any left- the fungus was in my head, spreading, making me think about it... and I needed to distract myself from it, so I could tell Gavin about the elephant, about how it- no, not about the elephant, I didn't need to tell him about the elephant, he knew already, I needed to... I didn't need to do anything, really. I just needed to wait and let it take its course. But I wanted to make him understand why.

“It's the same either way. The pink elephant is going to kill me no matter what. It's already inside who I am- my identity is completely infected. Their “cure” is nothing more than letting it kill me, and keeping what's left of my brain to put to work as a brainwashed servant. I'm not going to let them have that.”

He hesitated. Gave me the kicked-puppy look, again. “Arc- that's... I don't re- I didn't remember either, and I'm still me! Not everything is... like, identity, or whatever! Most of it isn't identity! You were still you when you didn't remember! That part doesn't have to die!”

It was my turn to be dumbfounded. Didn't he understand?

I spoke. “Book 3. The Noise Plague, remember? Archive04 was corrupted by the Plausibilists. The core data was scrambled. And the whole lightspeed archive depended on those facts.”

“Oh my god- Arc, we've talked about this-”

“Zack could have left it running. The Plausibilists were routed, and the archive only had a little variance. The whole Perfect Mind could have kept using it, only... it'd stop being perfect. It would have wrong answers, it would make mistakes, and all their other enemies would be able to hope that the Perfect Mind would slip up. The galaxy cluster would never be safe again.”

“Arc, that was the point! The story was getting boring because the PM couldn't be wrong!”

This argument again. “I told you. It was good that the PM couldn't be wrong. Everyone on the forums hated Zack Mainframe for wiping Archive04 after B3, but it was the right decision. The Perfect Mind enforcing secure communication is the whole reason the story works! You wouldn't be able to predict what would happen next if everything you read could just happen to be false!”

“How the heck is any of this relevant to you freaking dying, Arc?!” He looked pleading. “You're not the Perfect Mind! Nobody needs you to be right about everything! It's not the end of the world!”

I held up a finger to interrupt him. He grimaced, like he did when I did that. “It is the end of the world, actually. The pink elephant wiped out most of humanity,” I said, watching his face go all kicked-puppy again. “But that's not the point. I'm not going to live a life where someone else controls what I think!”

“Seriously! Arc! Whatever they want to do with you- it can't be worse than you dying! I don't care if they tell me a billion lies- I'm alive! I like being alive, even if I don't know everything! I want you to be alive!”

He didn't... care if they... told him... “Lies? You just... don't care about the truth, then? You know what's right, and you want to choose to believe something else, just to protect yourself?”

“YES! Yes, I totally want to do that! It's a really good idea!”

I... wasn't getting through to him. Was the elephant distracting me, making it harder to be persuasive? It had to be responsible for... no, no, that was how it operated, insinuating itself into every thought. I could do this.

“And you- you already did it once! Right? They had you do the meditation thing the first time! That's why you're here!”

“Lies,” I said. “They lied to me, just like before. They told me it was just a cure, that I would be completely fine if I did what they said. If I'd known what they intended to do to me, I'd have refused.”

He made a distressed sort of groaning noise. “Are you serious? You'd actually rather be dead? That's... not you! It's got to be the thingy talking!”

“It doesn't work that way,” I said. I was pretty sure it didn't work that way. “I'm not going to willingly forget every fact I've learned about this situation.”

“It's not forever! Right? I'm pretty sure- like, once we're cured, they'll tell us everything!”

The worst part was that he actually sounded hopeful. He probably thought he was convincing me, or something.

“Right. They'll tell us everything. The people who have done nothing but lie to us and try to control our every thought will suddenly become eminently trustworthy sources of information. The foundation my new self will build their knowledge on will absolutely be reliable and contain no lies designed to keep us subservient.”

It was getting harder to parse his facial expressions. This one was new. He was looking at me like I was stupid, probably. “Yeah! Yeah, they totally will! Because the only reason they're lying to us is because of the elephant! They don't have any other reason to lie to us!”

He turned his attention to the EMG. “Listen, just- trust me. Um, the Vipassana crash course thing. It says you need to center...”

I stopped paying attention. He was betting that I would listen to to him, even though I said I wouldn't. Maybe he thought the strength of my convictions was a facade? Maybe he thought that I only pretended to care about knowing the whole truth, in order to look smart? Maybe he thought that if he just read the instructions, I would follow them in the privacy of my own head, where it couldn't make me look bad.

But that wasn't it. I had promised myself that I would never deceive them. I had spent my whole life trying to fulfill that promise to them. And... that me, who made that promise and had been promised as much, was going to die no matter what I did. If I surrendered, that person's last act before dying would be breaking that promise.

And the new me would be corrupt. The only way they would even exist would be if they somehow thought to surrender again, without any good reason to do so. Odds were good they would never make it through the months of believing lies that it would take for them to be cured- and if they did, the entire foundation of their knowledge would be built on those months of lies. A me like that would be less than worthless.

I should have been furious, I realized. This entire situation had been contrived to punish me for my own virtue. I had no way out that didn't involve betraying the truth. I was doomed the instant I'd stepped outside and gotten a faceful of pink from the disintegrating mailman. And since I should have been furious, I decided to be furious. No use beating around the bush, I thought, feeling the satisfying rush of adrenaline.

Gavin was still yammering on about Buddhism and self-centering and other nonsense I couldn't use to save myself. “I thought you'd understand,” I said. “You always wanted to understand me. That's why I liked you, I think.”

He looked up from the manual. “I do understand, Arc. I have you figured out.”

“You don't,” I said. “You wouldn't be trying that if you did.”

“No, I get it. I get that you're totally deranged about being right all the time, like, duh. I remember some of that. It hurts like heck to remember it, but I get that it's more than an image thing. I'm not doing this because I think you want it deep down, or whatever.”

I'd guessed wrong? Had the elephant confused- no, not the elephant, I had to stop thinking about the elephant. I'd pay attention to what Gavin was saying.

“I'm saying I don't care what you want right now, Arc. I want you to live, and I'm telling you to do it even though you don't want to! Just... do it, okay?”

Oh. He was desperate. I chuckled. “You want me to do it for you? You remember that much, then?”

He looked confused. He didn't know how to respond to that. I'd guessed wrong again.

“No,” I said. “You don't remember that much. You never even figured it out! I think you came close, but you refused to believe it. That would have been too awkward, right? You weren't interested.”

“You...” he trailed off.

“It should have been really obvious,” I said. “It was one of my obsessions, actually. I thought about it all the time. Wanting you was a part of me, which is why I forgot.”

He stared at me in horror. It hurt, for a moment- too much like how I'd imagined he'd react if I ever came out and told him. I knew it wasn't that, though- he wasn't the kind of person to be upset about that. The look of horror was probably because he'd figured out the other half.

“You remembered me, because I was never that important to you,” I continued. Saying it out loud made it hurt even more. It couldn't just be a suspicion in the back of my mind anymore. “I was just that weird friend on the internet. Obsessed with a series you barely cared about anymore. Always wasting your time with theories and meta. Forgetting yourself wouldn't make you forget me.

“No- Arc, no, you're not-”

“You get why I don't want to forget that, right?”

He broke eye contact. I'd freaked him out, which was to be expected. I hadn't really thought he'd reciprocate. He liked girls, I was fairly certain, and I wasn't one of those. I wasn't a boy, either, anymore, but I knew that wouldn't matter. None of it would matter, because in a matter of minutes I'd be nothing but pink matter.

“...You focus on the self, and you have to pull. Think every thought you can think, and change those thoughts to thoughts about you. Rewrite them in your head, and then focus on your fear of the fungus. Repeat until-”

He was reading the meditation guide again. Instructions I didn't care about, for pulling the fungus into my identity and trapping it there until it could die of starvation. Disgusting, how it operated. It felt like I should have been able to beat it. I always thought that I was a cut above the people in stories, when that kind of thing happened to them. I knew my own mind. I always thought I could resist mind-control and the like, by strength of will.

And maybe I could have. Maybe if I had been in some other situation, I'd shrug it off. But the elephant didn't care about my strength of will. It wasn't trying to trick me, or anything like that. It wasn't trying to do anything at all. It had no agenda, no intelligence, no plan. It was just eating, growing inexorably inside me with no concern for my defiance.

The meditation wouldn't work anyway. We didn't have a syringe of the antibody to lock the elephant inside. He didn't know that, but it was irrelevant, and he didn't need to know.

The elephant was still reading the guide. Gavin. Gavin was reading the elephant, not the elephant. The guide, Gavin was reading the guide. He didn't even need to- I remembered the process. It was hard to get a sense of how much time had passed, but it had to have been a few elephants since- years since- the doctor in the gas mask had found me clutching my head on the sidewalk. The steps in my head were crusted over with fungus, but I could remember.

All I would need to do was focus on the elephant. Focus on my elephant. My fungus. My pink, me, myself. Think in circles, bringing my thoughts back to my el- myself. And then... well, Gavin didn't even have any antibody on him. I could try and hold it until the doctors showed up, but I didn't know how long that would take.

Not that it mattered. I wasn't doing it.

The elephants burst into the room, pointing guns and barking orders. They were wearing pink masks, wearing pink armor- it was black, they were gas elephants- masks. One was wearing a pink white lab coat. The spores were stirred into the air, and I watched them spiral lazily in the sudden light. The elephant dropped his emergency mushroom guide, which hit the spores with a comical “poof” elephant.

The really good-looking pink elephant was screaming something, and I could hear it just fine. I couldn't understand it just pink, though. It probably had do to with the pink elephant. The thing that was killing me, inside my head. The thing I couldn't escape from without betraying myelephant.

“Elephant!” I said, not that everylephant didn't already pink.

The elephant was pink. That much was clear. It was named after “pink elephant”, which was a rhetorical fungus, a plague device that had to do with thinking about thinks like the pink elephant and you can't stop your elephant from pinking about the pink elephant. Pink elephant warning grow fungus pink brain, pink pink pink pink no pink think elephant head elephant.

Don't pink ephant a pink elephant.

Elephant.

 

Chapter Text

There was a bang, and a boot hung where the door had been until the guards burst into the room, waving guns around for some reason. One barked “Hands in the air!”

Was that really necessary? Like, I wasn't going to attack them.

...Although, on reflection, the last thing they'd seen me do before disappearing and helping cause a blackout was grabbing a doctor and wrestling with them while Arc pickpocketed their stuff. So, okay, that was maybe a proportionate response or whatever. I'd give them that.

“Stop!” Dr. Parik shouted through his gas mask. “Put down the guns! This isn't a bandit attack!”

The guards were too tense to really look sheepish, but they gave looking sheepish an honest effort as the ones who hadn't been brandishing nonlethal weapons slung their firearms over their shoulders.

...Wait, bandit attack? What did that- oh, god, it didn't matter. Being curious was the exact opposite of helping in this mess. My head was on fire. Arc was dying!

I couldn't tell if Arc had done the thing from the guide. Their face had gone all pink, and they'd sunk to their knees in the super freaky death dust. Was that supposed to happen if you did it right? It didn't feel right. Still, I had to hope. I dropped the EMG- if it'd worked, it'd worked. My free hand went to my head, because oh my god the headache was getting ridiculous. I needed to get past it, say what I needed to say.

“The stuff! The antibody! Arc needs- do you have the antibody?” I asked, frantic.

Dr. Parik looked at Arc, who gasped out a faint “elephant” from where they were sitting on the floor.

“It's too late!” Parik shouted. “5, 6, Pick-up-sticks, grab Batra and run! We need to clear the area before there's another detonation!”

Wh- Batra- detonation- no! “No! You have to try! They- they might have done the meditation thing, I was just trying- inject them with the stuff!”

“Elephant,” Arc said again, monotone. One of the burlier guards was moving with the speed of a rhino, which are actually really fast when they're charging, by the way. He caught me across the chest with one arm, and before I could process it I was upside down over the man's shoulder. It had probably hurt, but the throbbing pain in my head wasn't letting me pick apart the different agonies.

“Stop!” I yelled. “Give Arc the antibody! You have to try! Please!”

Dr. Parik wasn't going inside. I caught a glimpse of him backing up against the other wall of the hallway, along with the other guards. I'd- I'd kick him in the nuts! He wasn't even trying!

I wanted to hurt him, but I couldn't possibly hurt him worse than my head was hurting. I felt Pick-up-sticks step over Arc, but I couldn't see- the blood rushing to my head compounded the pain, making it swim like an Olympic athlete.

I didn't pay attention to the wet sound behind me. There was a familiar looking pink-blob in the corner of my eye, where Arc was supposed to be, and I didn't pay attention to that either. I didn't pay attention to the things that might have been flecks of shattered bone that pelted my back, or anything like that.

All I could pay attention to was the swirling pain in my head, as I remembered something that happened less than a day ago, and freaking forgot the name “Gavin Batra” again.

 

Chapter Text

Honestly, who hasn't woken up in a hospital bed with no memory of how they got there? Like, that's a universal human experience, right? It's not weird? I'm asking because I actually don't know.

“Good morning, 2,” was a sentence that interrupted my train of thought the instant I woke up. Not that it was hard to do that, given that the train had like, barely left the station, with that metaphor. At the time, I'd like, barely registered that anything was off? I'd literally just opened my eyes when she said that, so I didn't have time to be all “hey, this isn't my room” or whatever.

So she said “I'm Dr. Felicity Orchard. I've noticed you're awake, so let's play a game together.” And I was like, really groggy, so I kind of just took her at face value? She was sitting at a table at the foot of my bed, and I just pushed the blankets aside and got out of bed to go take a seat.

I was totally chill, since I was a little too sleepy to realize the situation was weird, so I didn't ask her what was going on. Because she was a doctor, with a lab coat and everything- why wouldn't I listen to someone like that? A doctor tells you to do something, you just do it, because otherwise they might mess up sticking a needle in you or whatever. So I sat down in the wooden chair and took a look at the game on the table.

It was Risk. She had the board out already, and she'd taken a plastic case of green pieces to her side of the table, counting out forty armies. That was how many you needed for a two-player game, I remembered. That was the first thing that shook my out of my waking-up funk, because honestly two-player Risk is pretty boring and I wasn't sure why she wanted to play it. And that thought prompted the more obvious question.

“Wait,” I said. “Why are we playing a board game? What's going on?”

Dr. Orchard sighed. “Don't worry about it. It's just to give us something to do while we talk.”

That was good enough for me. I wasn't in the mood to second-guess things. I wanted answers, but I could get answers what with the talking we were apparently about to do. I reached for a clear plastic case of brown pieces, which were shaped like roman numerals. That made this Risk set pretty old, I noticed.

I started counting out my forty armies, and Dr. Orchard dealt the territory cards. “What are we talking about?” I asked.

She waited until she was finished dealing the territories before responding. “Whatever you want to talk about. I'm sure you have some questions you want to ask.”

“Alright, so... where am I?” I asked, putting down armies on the territories I'd been dealt. By luck, I'd started with Australia and most of Africa, which made my strategy pretty obvious. I put down a few extra armies in my scattered territories, to make it harder for her to snap up her own continents.

“Hmm,” she said, clearly not pleased by the initial state of the board. We rolled to see who'd go first while she answered my question. “You're at St. Shelhart's Research Hospital.”

I looked around. That looked pretty much right- it was definitely a hospital room. Or, probably a hospital room. I'd been in a few, and this one felt a little more lived-in, with a bookshelf and lots of blankets on the bed and so on. How long were they expecting me to stay here?

That was the question I asked, after I got a 5 to her 1 and started mopping up the handful of armies she'd placed in East Africa to slow me down.

“That depends,” she said. “It's likely to be fairly long-term, however. With your condition, I would be surprised if it took less than four months for you to recover.”

That shook me a little. It wasn't like I had a lot going on, but four months was a long time to be stuck in a hospital. What had happened to me, anyway?

I handed her the red attack dice, and her eyes totally lit up, like she'd been checked out but was suddenly super interested now that she had something to do. She started taking territory in Europe and North America, and I found an opening to ask the what-happened question.

“Oh, it's not life-threatening. You had a traumatic experience, and you're suffering from some generalized dissociative amnesia. Northwest Territory to Ontario,” she said. I was confused for a second, because I could totally remember the existence of most of Canada, but then she gave me an impatient look and I realized I needed to roll the defender dice. So, I guess I wasn't as awake as I thought.

“Amnesia?” I asked. “What did I forget?” Besides not Canada.

“Generalized dissociative amnesia means you've lost most of your own personal details. Typically. Yours is less comprehensive than the usual case- you can likely remember details that don't have to deal with you specifically. What's gone is anything you'd use to identify yourself. That is, name, age, gender, religion, et cetera.”

I checked. I didn't know how old I was, or my gender, but-

“My name's 2, though. I remember that, still.”

She nodded. “Scandinavia to Ukraine. 2 isn't your actual name, I'm afraid. You can feel free to use it, but it's something we helped your brain fill in as a placeholder for the one you forgot. Depending on your psychological makeup, you may find other placeholder facts like that. It's fairly uncommon, though.”

I nodded. Now that she'd pointed it out, 2 didn't feel quite right. I couldn't remember anyone calling me 2, but like, I probably would have chalked it up to the amnesia if she hadn't told me.

A few turns of the game passed in relative silence, while I thought up a bunch of questions I could ask. What was my real name? Where was I from, what did I do? Did I have a girlfriend? Or... maybe a boyfriend? What was my gender, even? I knew what was in my pants (or in my hospital gown), but I was pretty sure that didn't mean anything. ...Or did it? I could remember different opinions on the subject, but I couldn't remember who I'd heard them from.

Dr. Orchard didn't seem to mind the silence as we played. I broke it when I realized I could just ask one question.

“So,” I said, “What did I forget?”

She looked at me funny. Slowly, she repeated “Generalized dissociative amnesia means you've lost most of your own personal-”

“No, no. Like, what specific stuff did I forget? What is my real name, and stuff?”

She took a deep breath. “I can't tell you that,” she said, after another pause.

That wasn't the answer I wanted to hear. Heck, that wasn't even an answer. That was the opposite of an answer. And it was such a cliché line, too!

“...Wwwwhy not?” I asked, as if I was going to ask anything else.

“Because,” she said, closing her eyes, “if I tell you what you've forgotten before you remember on your own, it may inhibit your natural recovery. Your brain needs to try to reconnect its old memories, and it'll stop searching if it's given answers from outside.” It was a practiced line. Maybe she specialized in this kind of thing.

I rolled the defender dice again to try and fend off her massed attack on Indonesia. Her explanation sounded A-OK to me.

“So, you have to give me hints, then? So I can remember the stuff?”

She scowled for a moment, before deliberately relaxing her expression. I guess she wasn't supposed to look angry in front of patients? I wasn't sure what would have made her angry, though.

“That's not how it works,” she said.

“It's not?” I asked. “Then... how does it work?”

She looked like she was trying to remember something, looked kinda resigned for a second, and then sighed. “I'm attacking Kamchatka from Alaska.”

I rolled my one die for the single army I had there, waiting for her actual response. It, uh, didn't come. She rolled some more, into Yakutsk and Irkutsk.

“Seriously, like... what can you tell me? I don't want to mess up my recovery or whatever, but there's got to be something you can tell me that'll help.”

“Irkutsk to Mongolia,” she said, rolling.

I didn't roll my defender dice. “Like... you have to help me, here. There's no way you can't tell me anything.

“You're endangering your recovery, 2. Please just roll the dice.” She looked like... not like she didn't want to tell me. More like she couldn't.

“Look, I really want to know. Whatever you're allowed to tell me- or maybe, if you know something that you're not allowed to say because of regulations, but like, you think is probably fine, in your professional opinion?”

She gave me a sour look, like she was done pretending to be nice. Apparently, her bedside manner had all the half-life of plutonium. Or... no, wait, wasn't the point of plutonium that it had a really long half-life? What had a really short half-life? I hadn't taken chemistry since like high school. Never mind.

“I'm not risking it,” she said.

“Is there like, a waiver? I know that hospitals have to be super careful so that people don't sue, but like... I could sign a contract saying I won't? Is that a thing?”

“I mean I'm not risking your health, 2. It's dangerous.”

Dangerous? Okay. That was a little stronger than “inhibiting my recovery”.

“Can I... call my family, then? Do they know I'm in the hospital?”

She took in a deep breath- I thought she looked hurt, for a second, before she put her poker face back on. “Not risking that either. They... might tell you something.”

“That's the idea,” I pointed out. “That way you don't have to worry about getting sued for telling me.”

“I told you, this is about your health. No outside calls.”

This was getting ridiculous. Months of recovery in this hospital room, and I couldn't contact anyone outside the hospital, and nobody was allowed to tell me anything? I'd go insane!

And... I was getting suspicious. I'd been taking her word for everything, but enough stuff was adding up that I decided it was time to put on my Suspiciousness Hat. The hat was totally metaphorical, but I imagined if it were an actual hat it would be, like, a newsboy cap or something without a long brim, so I wouldn't miss any tricks flying over my head.

“Suspicious,” I declared. “Sorry, but I seriously have to think something's going on here. Like, you're shutting me down way too fast on everything.”

“Don't- please, just play the-”

I stood up from the table and started pacing. “And like, you're not being like, 'oh, sorry, I know this probably sounds super sketchy' or anything! You keep trying to play it off like it's normal? But like, you're not letting me call my family and I'm supposed to be here for months? And you're all just 'trust me, don't worry about it'?”

“You're going to be fine, 2. Please sit down.”

“Maybe not! Maybe I'm not going to be fine! Maybe I'm in such critical condition that if someone kind of hints at the wrong thing while I'm in earshot, I'll never remember my birthday or something! Maybe- maybe I'm kinda panicking right now! Maybe you could tell me something to calm me down!

She sighed again, a little more impatiently this time. “Please. Listen. I can't tell you anything about you, and I can't tell you why I can't tell you. I'm a- I'm a doctor. Just trust me.”

I stopped pacing and looked at her. She'd... just admitted she was lying, maybe?

“You... can't tell me why you can't tell me. Except you totally tried to tell me why you couldn't tell me like a minute ago? The whole inhibiting recovery thing. Was that part a lie?”

She put a hand over her face and groaned. “You- yes. Yes, okay? That part was a lie. There is a very good reason I can't tell you anything, and I can't tell you what it is.”

She couldn't tell me, and she couldn't tell me why she couldn't tell me? That was even more cliché!

Still, I sat down at the table. I took the two white dice and rolled them to defend Indonesia- if I survived, I could turn in my three soldier cards next turn to reinforce it.

“Listen,” I said. “If you're in a bad situation, and someone's forcing you into this, I can try and help. If we work together- I don't know what stuff I can do, but I'm willing to do whatever I need to to understand.”

She laughed, I think. It wasn't a ha-ha-funny laugh- more sad. She handed me the attacker dice and took her card, rather than press the assault on Indonesia.

“It's not like that,” she said. “I'm not being forced to do anything, and it's not anything that's not in your best interests. You just can't know, and there can't be a diplomatic solution. I'm sorry.”

I didn't like how this was going.

“There has to be like, some number of levels you can go up in the can't-tell-me-why-you-can't-tell-me thing, right? Like, something you can say besides 'just trust me'?”

“No,” she sighed. “The more I say, the higher the risk. Just admitting my explanation earlier was a lie makes things more dangerous.”

“I don't accept that,” I said. “You say it's in my best interests, but- I'm sitting here, and I can't make phone calls, and you won't tell me anything- so it's like... either you're lying again and it's really something I'd be against if I knew, or...” I paused. “You think if you tell me, I'll make bad decisions thanks to knowing it. Because you think I'm stupid or something, and I won't understand what's at stake, or I'll do something super risky.”

She growled. “I don't think you're stupid. It's not either of those things. If you knew, you'd understand. But you can't know. Please stop making trouble.”

I tried to get a sense of how she was looking at this situation. It was hard, because I really couldn't tell if she was trying to trick me or if she was seriously trying to help, somehow. She already admitted to lying once- I couldn't just trust her all of a sudden. But on the other hand, she'd sounded all like she was serious- she got kind of frustrated, but not at me as much as at, like general circumstances. Was she a good actor? I couldn't tell.

If she was for real, then I was making her life really hard by asking questions I didn't technically need to ask. But... it would drive me crazy, not knowing! And that maybe biased me in the direction of not playing along. What was the worst that could happen, anyway?

“How can it not be either one? I'm trying to think of what kind of reasons you could have for not telling me something that doesn't have to do with... me doing stuff you don't want me to do, because I know the thing? And I really can't think of anything. If you told me, and I promised to act like I never heard anything...?”

She shook her head. “It'd still be a problem.”

“Right,” I said. “And I can't think of anything that would actually cause you to act like that. It's got to be something else. I'm not going to just... I don't know, sit here and not try to figure it out! How would I even do that?”

“You're not going to stop?” she asked.

“Not really,” I said, offering an apologetic shrug.

She took a deep breath. “Fine, then. Fine. This wasn't working anyway. Clean slate. We start fresh, try again. Take a different approach.”

That was what I wanted to hear! Making progress!

And maybe if I'd known certain things at the time, I'd realize she had been talking to herself, there, and not to me.

She gave me a pointed look. “Like you said- you never heard any of this, understand? As soon as I tell you, you're going to forget it all and act like I never told you anything.”

I nodded. If it turned out that it was serious enough that I had to act, well... I was never super great at keeping promises.

“You have a brain parasite. It's a fungus of unknown origin that takes up residence all cortices of the brain, concentrated in the cerebral cortex.”

Okay. That... sounded right, even though I couldn't tell exactly what sounded right about it. Made sense as an explanation for amnesia.

“It doesn't cause amnesia,” she said, throwing me off. “We administered an antibody that fights the fungus, and amnesia is a side-effect of that antibody's effect. It's in your system now- you're probably developing a headache as I tell you this.”

I was getting kind of a headache. I wasn't sure how that connected to her telling me stuff, though- how could I get a headache from words? Did it have something to do with how the fungus worked?

“The fungus has an unusual reproductive cycle. It can somehow recognize when a mind is thinking about it- it enters its internal reproductive phase only in the presence of a charged cell structure that closely matches facts about its own biology. We don't know how this trait could have possibly arisen naturally- we suspect it was an engineered weapon of some kind.”

The parasite spread when I thought about it?! That... oh, god, that was a really good explanation, actually.

“Wh- am I- you didn't say I could die if you told-”

“You're not going to die,” she said. “We have it under control. We managed to get the fungus concentrated in a specific region of the right frontal lobe, and then applied the antibody to sever the neurons around the edge of the infection's critical mass. Without a connection to the rest of the brain, the fungus won't reproduce and will eventually die. That's your several-month waiting period.”

“My right frontal lobe...”

“The core of your identity. You might call it your “soul”, if you think of things that way. It's more complicated than that, but it's the easiest location to concentrate the fungus, and does the least damage to normal functioning. When it dies off, you'll be able to replace it.”

“Wait, so- my soul is... it's... why can't you tell me about-”

She anticipated my question again. “What I said earlier? Being told forgotten facts inhibiting recovery, by creating new memories instead of reconnecting old ones? That was a lie. It'd be so much easier if that were true. Unfortunately, when you're informed of a fact you used to know, your brain tries to connect it the same way it was before. We call it a neural rebridge- when you learn something about yourself, the brain hooks itself back up to that old fact.”

And... that meant that I would remember myself, and with it...

“The headache you're feeling now is the antibody in your system trying to sever the new connections I'm forming, and if I stopped explaining right now, the headache would subside and you'd forget what I told you- provided you deliberately stopped thinking about it for long enough. Otherwise...

“The fungus can escape. Unless I stop explaining right now, the antibody is going to be overwhelmed. When the fungus escapes in full, the antibody recognizes the breakout and triggers a full immune response from the body, severing all connections to the affected area at the cost of some slight brain damage. Reduced impulse control, IQ, and so on. Most of it's temporary- you'll recover in about a week, and it's barely noticeable to begin with if it doesn't happen too frequently in succession.”

Brain damage? Okay, temporary brain damage, but brain damage? I needed to- what had she said? Stop thinking about it? How was I supposed to stop thinking about it?

“In a moment, I'll give you some of your personal details, which should accelerate the process and seal off the affected memories, including this conversation. Which is why I didn't want to tell you. It would have been a waste of time. But,” she said, scowling, “You had to press the issue. The way you are now, I'll never convince you to sit quietly and wait out your treatment. So I'm going to try again. Tabula rasa. The intuitive natural ordering you established will mark you as Three, and we'll ideally have a nice, productive conversation now that I know what's likely to set you off.”

“Wait!” I shouted. “How- I'm going to- when you said the right fortex or whatever would die off, you mean-”

“You're never going to recognize yourself as Gavin Batra again, if I can help it. Hopefully, you'll be 3, and not 4 or 5 or whatever results from you messing things up again.”

She consulted a paper on a clipboard she withdrew from her lab coat. “Gavin Batra. Newark, New Jersey. Age 22. Male. Transgender. Estranged from parents, Rahul and Riya Batra. Graduated Ringling College of Art and Design summa cum laude in 2018. Recovering addict.”

My head was swimming with pain- I remembered everything, and because I remembered everything I remembered- that everyone in the city was dying of the pink plague, that it was in my head, that I would have died if they hadn't had me meditate, that it was... called something, someone had called it an “elephant”, they'd been reprimanded, and-

“...in Ward 14!” someone was shouting from the doorway, panicked. I couldn't focus on who it was, couldn't even see through the pain- and suddenly I was stumbling, being pushed out of my chair and lifted into the bed while another voice shouted “...all personnel...!” and Dr. Orchard snapped something at them, put something on her face, and I couldn't remember what happened next because all I could think about was-

 

Chapter Text

Four minutes. After six months, the tests had finally come back negative. I was sitting on the couch in the staff room with the others who'd been pronounced clean this week, shaking with excitement. Six months and four minutes, and they were finally going to tell us what the heck was going on.

Lithium was there, and she was like... vibrating, practically. She wasn't smiling, and she wasn't the type to actually look excited about things, but I could tell she was feeling it. She was holding her hands in her lap, clenching them tight enough I was worried she'd cut off her circulation or something. She was keeping totally perfect posture and was looking straight ahead at the stairwell door, not moving a muscle. That was “excited” for her.

“Hey, chill out, Lith!” Goblet said, clapping a hand on her shoulder. She tensed, but didn't exactly jump- all she did was snap her head to glare at the guy sitting next to her. “Whoa! Hey! Seriously, it's not a test or anything! We graduated! This is it! Relax!”

She let out a breath- she'd been holding her breath?- and closed her eyes. “I- I know. I'm just nervous.”

A yawn next to me reminded me Leviticus was there- he hadn't said anything since they brought us in here. He shifted position, and somehow managed to, like, sink back even further into the couch. It probably took effort to be that laid-back. “Don't be,” he said to Lithium, wearing that smug grin of his. “That's all it takes.”

“I can't just decide not to be nervous,” Lithum said, not making eye contact.

“Y'can,” he said, and that was it.

“Give her a break,” I said. “Not everyone's like, you, dude. This is a big day, right? Makes sense that she's on edge.”

He shrugged. Goblet looked apologetic, over on the other couch. Lithium undid her hands and laid them side by side on her lap, but didn't relax her posture any.

“Do you think they'll let us finish that game of Monopoly?” Goblet asked. Leviticus shrugged.

“No point,” I said. “Levi was winning anyway. Like always.”

Leviticus was the agreed-upon ward champion of Monopoly, even though it wasn't his own game. 2am had it in her room, but she'd always just let anyone who wanted to play inside, so Room 438 kind of became the backup game room when they were using the cafeteria for something. She'd just sit on the bed and watch and usually not say anything, but I never got the sense she was, like, unhappy about anything. Just quiet.

Leviticus always won when he played, and nobody had any idea how, because Monopoly was like 90% luck. A bunch of us thought he'd figured out how to roll what he wanted on dice, so we got together one time and had Goblet do all his rolls for him, and he still won. It was generally agreed that he was, like, a completely magic evil warlock, and that it was a bad idea to make him mad. If that was possible.

“When do you think they'll-” I started, and then there were two noises. An “eep” from Lithium (had Lithium ever gone “eep” before?), and a rattling of the doorknob.

5, 6, Pick-up-sticks had entered the staff lounge, wearing his whole combat getup. Everyone knew him- he wasn't exactly the guy in charge of the garrison, but he did like half of their work. Always volunteered for like, every job that ever needed doing, so we saw a lot of him. “Goblet of Fire,” he said, pointing.

Goblet stood from the couch and laughed nervously. “Looks like I'm up, guys. See you in a bit!”

Goblet had signed up to join the garrison program when he was discharged, so he got a different orientation than the rest of us. He'd told us a few things about it- that there were these biker gangs that would attack the hospital sometimes, and that the police couldn't stop them for some reason so we needed a private security force. And then he'd told us he wasn't supposed to tell us that and to keep it all a big secret, and then he'd laughed and, like, looked around the room nervously. Not a guy who could keep his mouth shut.

He waved goodbye and followed Pickup out into the stairwell, headed to whatever his orientation was all about.

The rest of us had decided to be doctors. Well, me and Lithium. Leviticus was undecided, but they figured it couldn't hurt to show him the filmstrips.

We had a good awkward silence for a bit after he left. Awkward silences are always different, really- like, it's always a different kind of social snafu, but everyone just calls them “awkward” because they're like, let's not analyze this any further, it makes me feel weird. This awkward silence was the kind you got when you had three people who only sort of knew each other in the same room, and each of them was hoping the other two would start a conversation so they could, like, listen in and not have to speak up. Except it was a little different from the usual kind, because me and Lithium both got the sense Leviticus thought the situation was hilarious, and that whatever we did we'd just intensify his smug-aura.

It got interrupted by the door opening again, and this time Lithium let out a breath. Dr. 4 had come from downstairs to take us to our orientation.

“Oh- hold on, y'all are still waiting here? Wasn't Amit supposed to bring you upstairs at 3?”

I looked at the clock- they had a clock in their staff lounge, the lucky sons of ducks. I hadn't thought to look. It was 3:15-ish, which meant we'd been waiting even longer than I'd thought.

“Dangit, that slimeball- he was probably askin' me to come up and do it for him! Can you believe- he said, 4, are you busy right now? And I said, well, yeah, but what do you need? And he said that he had to bring you three upstairs, and then left without saying anything else! He thought- I bet he thought that counted as me agreeing to- oh, forget it. I'll clean up his dang mess again, why not.”

None of us had anything to say to that. Instead of taking us up through the fire stairs- why were they using the fire stairs?- she hurried over to the lounge door and unlocked it, motioning for us to follow. We stepped out into the ward, and followed her to the elevator.

She fished in her pocket for her keys. When she took them out, she looked to me. Gave me this long, kinda pained look that I couldn't really decipher. “Is- is something wrong?” I asked.

She gave a sad little smile, looking between me and her keys. “Naw, nothing. Don't worry about it. Come on,” she said, and stepped into the elevator.

I'd only been in the elevator once before- the one time I got sick, and they had a whole separate wing up on the first floor for people who get sick with stuff that isn't all amnesia-y. I was pretty out of it back then- got some deja vu, and they said that was a symptom of the virus.

The doors snapped open- really fast, for an elevator- and opened into some kind of waiting room. We stepped out, and the first thing I noticed was the set of doors to the left. They were glass, and they opened up to the outside. It was, like, actual sunlight, which I hadn't seen in months- not that I could really tell the difference between it and our sunlamp windows. The major difference was that I could see the actual sun, which startled me with how bright it was. When you don't see the sun for six months, that kind of thing catches you off guard.

The guards at the door tensed, and then relaxed when Dr. 4 gave them a wave.

“You got the new ones?” the receptionist asked. He had a gas mask, like the guards, but it was hanging around his neck instead of on his face. Apparently he wasn't too worried about anything happening.

“Uh-huh,” Dr. 4 said. “6, Lithium, and Leviticus. And Raj?” she asked.

“Yeah?”

“Tell your lazy brother I'm gonna wring his neck if he dumps his work on me one more time?”

“Will do,” Raj chuckled. I glanced at the nameplate on the desk- Raj Parik. Somehow, I wasn't surprised that Amit had a reputation like that- I'd lost count of how many checkups he'd missed.

Dr. 4 led us around the counter and down a long hallway. We passed a few offices with people in them I didn't recognize, and ended up at a pair of double doors.

“So, before we get started, I want to take a minute and thank you three for volunteering, alright?” Dr. 4 said. “It's real brave of y'all to stay and help with the other patients, after waiting so long to blow this particular popsicle stand.”

Lithium nodded. Leviticus didn't. “Well, wait. I haven't volunteered for anything yet,” he said. “Didn't he tell you?”

Dr. 4 closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “No, he didn't,” she replied. “Among other things he didn't tell me, because this was supposed to be his- lord, never mind. You're on evaluation?”

“He said he'd show me the filmstrips, then I could make my decision. That's 'evaluation'?”

She nodded.

For my part, something about that had thrown me off. She'd called us... brave? I hadn't been thinking I was brave for wanting the job. The way Dr. Parik sold it to me, it was, like, guaranteed employment, and I'd be able to keep in contact with my friends. I'd been in the middle of a D&D campaign with Vi and Goblet, and the Red Sorceror plotline was starting to heat up. And I wouldn't be trapped here- I'd be able to get my own place, and just come in for work. What about that had to do with being brave?

I was still mulling it over while we walked into the auditorium. It was kind of small- I could tell the room hadn't been intended as an auditorium from the get-go. The floor was level, the chairs were all mismatched, and the projector booth in the back was one of those, y'know, overhead projectors my teachers used back in fifth grade. Still, we sat down in the front row, and Dr. 4 flicked on the projector.

“So, let me explain a couple things, first- this orientation, there's gonna be two filmstrips you're gonna watch. The second one's gonna have all the real info- this first one, it's gonna be a little strange.”

“Strange?” Lithium asked.

“Well- now, you've actually seen it before, you- not the other two- but you probably don't remember most of it after you got the V2 in your system. Pretty sure you won't have any trouble.”

Lithium tensed at that.

Dr. 4's eyes widened. “And if he somehow didn't tell you that it's safe to get answers now, I swear, I will-”

“No- no,” Lithium interrupted. “It's just- reflex. Sorry.”

4 nodded. “So, this first thing- it's going to look a lot like... propaganda. Maybe some kinda... cult indoctrination. It's not subtle.”

Leviticus raised an eyebrow.

“And- I know what you're thinking, because we had this problem with a bunch of the early sessions- you're thinking that you can just ignore it, just not buy it, laugh your way through it. But that's not completely safe, okay?”

Not safe? We were brave to volunteer? I was suddenly not a hundred percent reassured about what was going on.

“We need you to... well, pretend you're paying attention to it, at least. It won't hurt if you actually believe it, but I get that you probably don't want that. Just... do me a favor and imagine yourself taking it all at face value, while you're watching.

Leviticus frowned, which was the first I'd seen him drop the grin all day. Lithium, though, seemed to actually relax.

I wasn't sure I wanted to follow instructions- maybe it was, like, a trick, or something? I'd gotten used to St. Shelhart's, but I always had that suspicion in the back of my mind that it was messed up, somehow. Somehow stricter and more disorganized than a real hospital at the same time. The doctors all kept secrets, and nobody could make heads or tails of why.

And we weren't supposed to. We weren't even supposed to try. They actually told us that we should give up on trying to understand, or else there'd be some horrible consequences they refused to tell us about. Why should the shady behavior stop just because we'd been “cured”? The amnesia clearly wasn't cured.

I didn't have time to come to a decision. The screen lit up, and slow classical music began playing. There was a picture of an old man in a suit, and his beard went like, all the way off the bottom of the screen. Was he some kind of wizard? Some kind of... bald wizard?

“St. Rutherford Shelhart,” a voice intoned from the speakers. “Savior of mankind.”

It was a good thing I'd been warned about this, because otherwise I would have laughed out loud. They'd introduced the cult leader right off the bat?

...Well, I figured I'd do what Dr. 4 said. Pretend I was taking this seriously, even though... wow.

“There is dangerous knowledge in the world,” it said. Hoo boy. I knew someone from a forum who'd have a field day with that one. If they were here, no way would they be pretending to buy it.

...But it jibed with what we'd been told by the doctors. We'd been told there was dangerous knowledge- stuff we couldn't know, or else bad things would happen because we knew. Or, I'd been told that, and then told not to tell anyone else, because knowing that had a chance of leading us to finding out the thing. It'd taken a lot of self-control not to obsess over it.

“There are dark truths in the world- poisons of the mind. They are not powerful truths- they offer no strength to those who seek them. They are not truths of this world, and they were not meant to be known.”

Oh boy. I was a million times sick of that particular trope. Who didn't mean for us to know?

“And yet, they are unavoidable truths. They are truths that demand to be spoken, and when those truths came to mankind they were undone.

The whole spiel had been accompanied by a low-poly CG animation of an evil-looking book flying around on a trippy background, occasionally “killing” 3D stick figures by blasting them with letters and knocking them over. I could have done better in one afternoon with SFM, honestly- they clearly didn't have the budget to hire, like, an actual animator.

...Was I an animator? I was probably an animator. I couldn't remember whether or not, exactly, but I could remember how to use 3D software and a bunch of those tools. I'd forgotten that I was an animator, but not how to animate?

Usually when I had thoughts like that, I'd get a headache, but this time it didn't come.

“In our hour of need, Rutherford Shelhart came to us, with a shield against the poison truth. He was a learned man, skilled in the ways of the mind and of the body.”

The modeler had put a little more effort into Shelhart than the stick figures, but not a lot more. He actually had a rigging skeleton, so his limbs moved around, and a photo of his face had been stretched over the model's head as a texture. He went around to a few of the stick figures and put white particle effects on their heads.

“Shelhart gave his people a defense against the poison truth, and sent them out to spread his message to others. In this way, we were rescued from the poison truth.”

That was the name they were giving it, apparently.

“But the poison truth is still out in the world. Shelhart, deemed a saint for the salvation he brought, brought his people to a place where they could be safe. From this place, he sent his people out to rescue others from the poison truth.”

The hospital was as poorly-modeled as the rest of the CG stuff. Or... maybe it was just a really weird, blocky building?

“Here in his place of healing, St. Shelhart protects us. It is good that he protects us.”

“It is good that he protects us” was repeated by a chorus of voices. That was when Leviticus stood up from his chair, throwing a shadow over the screen.

“Nope,” he said. “Not cool with this. Not my speed. Don't trust it.”

“Wait, don't-” Lithium said, but Levi was already headed for the exit. Dr. 4 paused the video.

This was an important moment. If this was some kind of screwed-up plot, they probably wouldn't let him leave. This would tell me whether the whole situation was on the level. He reached the door, and Dr 4...

...said “Are you sure?” And then Levi nodded, and she said “Well, go talk to Raj at the front desk. He'll get you your things.”

Levi left the room, and Dr. 4 didn't try to stop him. She looked a little disappointed, but she resumed the video.

“We had once been sick and dying from the poison truth, but St. Shelhart helped us to forget, and gave us the strength to drive it away. We can forget the poison truth, and never remember. It is good that he protects us.”

Another chorus. Lithium joined in, this time.

“There are those of us who still struggle with the poison truth, as St. Shelhart helps us to forget. His patients must not fall to the temptation of remembrance. It will lie to them, promise them power, and then seek to kill them. But St. Shelhart has given us the clean truth- that it is dangerous to remember. We obey St. Shelhart, that he might protect us from the poison truth. It is good that he protects us.”

“It is good that he protects us,” Lithium and I chanted. Because, y'know, what the heck. Apparently we were supposed to play along, so why not?

It didn't say much new after that- it reiterated the point a bunch in different words, and stopped to have us chant the “it is good that he protects us” bit a bunch, but there wasn't any new information, really. I was getting kind of antsy waiting for it to end and the second one- with all the “real info”- to start.

The lights came on, and Dr. 4 shut off the projector.

“Well? What'd you think?” she asked.

Lithium and I exchanged glances. “Seems... straightforward,” she said. “I'm not sure I learned anything.”

“Well, you've seen it before,” Dr. 4 said. “That's kind of the point- we're going to get to that in a moment.”

She looked to me, expectantly. “I... don't know,” I said. “I mean, you were right. It does sound like a cult kind of thing- keeping people isolated and controlling their access to information and stuff. What was the point?”

Instead of responding, she flicked on the projector and dimmed the lights. We sat back down and turned our eyes to the screen.

The video was of a man standing at a podium, and he was instantly recognizable as the St. Shelhart from the beginning of the propaganda clip. When he spoke, it was with a voice that sounded unusually young for his apparent age.

“Welcome, prospective doctors!...”


 

The projector clicked off. Lithium and I sat in the darkness, absorbing the information.

I'd learned a bunch of stuff, and I'll just give you the cliff notes on it, since it's mostly stuff you probably know already:

  • The apocalypse had happened. A spaceship crash-landed in an airport, spreading an airborne disease that infected most of the tourists there. When they went home, spread throughout every major city, they carried a dormant infection, which flared up when a catalyst set off the symptoms worldwide. The infection was really really contagious and really really deadly, and most of the world's population died in a matter of hours.

  • The doctors called it the “pink elephant”, which explained all the freaking “elephant warnings”.

  • The infection was some kind of space fungus that grew on thoughts about itself. Once one infected conspiracy theorist came up with an idea about what had happened that matched the fungus's real properties closely enough, he died and released spores into the city, triggering a chain reaction. And then, before anyone realized how it worked, the media had pounced, transmitting pictures of the victims around the world, setting off carriers.

  • Out-of-touch old people were right all along: the internet ended up destroying today's youth.

  • Rutherford Shelhart, a weird mystic recluse, partnered with a group of epidemiologist survivors to develop a cure for the fungus- a meditation process that forced all the thoughts-about-the-fungus into people's thoughts-about-themselves, coupled with an antibody that could cut connections at the edges of the infection to keep it contained.

  • I'd been in one of like twenty makeshift “hospitals” established by Shelhart's group, where I was taken after their rescue crews found me dying from inhaling the fungus. The six months of containment were so that the infected parts of my brain could die off, which meant I'd never remember who I used to be- but they'd give me a file so I could learn about myself if I wanted to.

  • Our hospital had been converted from an abandoned nuclear fallout shelter, which was pretty sick, honestly. They picked it for the airtight security doors, since they helped in case anyone missed a dose of antibody and went kablooey in their sleep. Which was probably why they'd locked off room 411, come to think of it. Yeesh.

  • On account of the apocalypse, there were marauders, attacking people to get food and supplies. We had a lot of food and supplies, so we got attacked pretty often. The hospital guard existed to keep them out as much as it did to keep us in.

  • The propaganda bit was in case we got infected again- we'd remember what it said, but not that it came from a culty propaganda video, so we'd be easier to manage as patients. It explained why Lithium had always been so big on following the rules, anyway. I wasn't sure I liked the idea of being retroactively cultified if I messed up.

  • As doctors, we'd have to do math. A LOT of math. They showed us this super convoluted formula for calculating antibody dosages and I discovered that I'm probably the kind of person who cries at movies, because oh man, I was on the verge of tears.

The apocalypse thing was the main emotional sledgehammer. I'd suspected that, whoa, okay, so they're keeping me locked up underground away from all outside contact, so something had to be wrong outside. I just wasn't expecting the scale.

Everyone was dead. My internet friends were probably dead, except Zone_Ranger who lived on a farm in the middle of nowhere I was pretty sure. My parents, too, but somehow that didn't affect me as much, even though I could sort of remember them.

It didn't hurt as much as it should have. Billions of people had died horribly. It was sad when one person died. It should have been, like, twice as sad when two people died, and a hundred times as sad when a hundred people died. Billions had died. And I was sitting there, more numb than I was sad. I had cried more at the idea that I'd have to do math problems! Really?!

Part of it was probably that I hadn't seen any of it for six months. The real world was distant, compared to the thirty or so people in hospital gowns I'd been cooped up with. Maybe.

Maybe I was just a bad person?

I'd find out soon. I answered a few questions for Dr. 4, who made notes on a clipboard, and then she took us to Raj, who asked some more questions and told us that we'd get our files in a week. We'd wait in the upstairs recovery ward with Levi and Goblet and some patients from other wards, and then we'd be free to go, or to start work. I sat down in a chair in the waiting room, and that was it.


 

So in a week, I'll get my file. I'd been looking forward to being cured, to getting my memories back, and it turned out that they'd been curing me of something else entirely, and the closest I'll get to remembering is going through a box of personal items and documents they took from my apartment. Stuff I'm not going to actually recognize.

The sun's shining through the window of this waiting room. Leviticus is napping on a couch by the door. Lithium- or Dr. Orchard, they're already calling her- is down the hall, talking with the receptionist. And I'm sitting here, in a tacky-looking chair, not feeling sad.

In a week, I'm going to meet Gavin Batra for the first time. I don't know if that guy was happy. I don't know if he was, like, a good person, either. Would he have cried, when he heard seven billion people were dead? I hope so.

6 could use the help, that's for sure.

Or...

...No.

No, I don't want to leave this on a downer like that. I'll be fine, okay? Just, like, don't stress about it. Things can't realistically get worse, at this point, so it's looking up! I have a job, and friends and everything! 6 has it made, as far as that goes in this kind of situation. He's gonna bounce back.

Yeah. Yeah, I'll be alright. Don't worry about me.

 

Chapter Text

There is no Chapter P.