It’s been less than an hour since the group was last stunned into silence, and now, here they are again. As if it wasn’t enough to have to contend with missing memories, a malevolent AI, and fourteen strangers with a motive to murder, now Gabby has introduced the not-unrealistic possibility that one of them is the mastermind behind this entire game.
Unsurprisingly, it’s Alison who finally breaks the silence.
“Well, if one of us really is behind this, I think we all know who it is.”
Tony groans loudly.
“Oh, for f-”
“Rachel!” Alison shouts dramatically.
All heads turn to the woman in question. The corner of her mouth quirks up in amusement.
“This should be interesting,” she says. “What’s your evidence?”
“She clearly has money,” Alison says, a slight quiver in her voice. Unlike with Tony, she seems unable to speak to or even look at Rachel directly. “If anyone could pull this off, it’s her. And I know you’ve all seen how she’s been watching us.”
“Baseless conjecture,” Rachel sighs. She sounds almost disappointed. “Not that I’m surprised. Frankly, I’m insulted you think I’d have anything to do with that dreadful sheep.”
“It’s not the kidnappin’ bit that bothers you?” Sarah asks.
“Attention, please!” Katja interjects, clapping her hands. “I first wish to say that if you had looked at me with your eyes, you would see that I too have money. Does this make me evil? Does this make me an evil shepherd of evil computer sheep? Nein. You are too quick to throw the finger of accusation.”
“Well,” Alison says, taken aback. “I just—”
“Second!” Katja shouts. She extends her index finger toward MK. “This woman here is the evil shepherd.”
“M-me?” MK stammers.
“You have been having secret sheep meetings. I heard you in your room. Plotting.”
“I was testing Gabby’s functionality.”
“Performing sheep tests instead of looking for a way out? I laugh! Ha!”
“Or bitchin’ about bathrooms?” Sarah snipes.
“What is this?” Katja asks, wagging a finger at her. “What is this you are saying?”
“Okay,” Krystal interjects. “So, I’m totally against stereotyping, obvs, but whoever built this artificial whatever is crazy smart, right? Probably wears glasses? See what I’m saying?”
Everyone goes quiet, turning their heads to the woman in the suit.
“We all have a decision to make,” she bellows. “Right here, right now. We can choose to trust each other, work together to maybe find a way out of this. Or we can turn against each other, keep pointing fingers until someone winds up dead. Because that’s how this ends. That’s exactly what Gabby’s counting on, and you’re all playing right into her hands.”
Her words hang in the air. Katja looks as though she’s itching to say something but can’t find the words. Cosima steps forward.
“Beth’s right,” she says. “Gabby wants us to kill, so she’s giving us a motive. We can’t afford to let it get to us.”
“Yes, well,” Katja finally says. “If you had let me finish, you would see I was going to make this point exactly.”
Beth crosses her arms sternly.
“Glad we’re on the same page.”
Charlotte blinks up at the ceiling of her room. The weight of the morning’s events had come crashing down on her all at once in the form of a dizzy spell, and she’d stumbled her way here, to her Gabby-appointed bed.
She doesn’t know how long she’s been lying here. Hours, maybe. For a while, she tried closing her eyes and imagining herself someplace else, until eventually, the crushing reality hit her. This is the only place she knows.
Mercifully, a knock at the door interrupts her thoughts. She stands up and pulls it open.
“Hello, Charlotte,” Alison says.
Charlotte’s first thought is that she’s the next on Alison’s suspect list. She pushes it out of her mind.
“First, I’d like to apologize for my behavior earlier.” Alison says, shuffling awkwardly. “The last thing I want to do is start a panic.”
“I understand,” Charlotte says. “We all want answers.”
Alison nods, grateful.
“Also, I’m calling a meeting in the cafeteria,” she says. “There’s something I’d like to discuss with everyone. Come as soon as you can. If that’s alright.”
“Sure,” Charlotte says. Her eyes fall to the two bulging plastic bags in Alison’s hand, tied shut with ribbon.
“Oh,” Alison says, following Charlotte’s eyes. “I guess you could call it a peace offering.”
She raises the bags to the light. They’re packed tightly with homemade cookies.
“Or two, actually,” she adds. “Tony and Rachel.”
“Oh, okay.” Charlotte says and decides not to press the topic. “So, um, should I head to the caf-”
“It won’t be easy,” Alison says. “My words don’t always come out the way I want them to. Most of the time, I just end up making things worse.”
Charlotte sees the uncertainty in Alison’s expression. She does honestly seem to feel bad.
“I’m sure you’ll do fine,” Charlotte says. “Cookies make everything okay.”
“Right,” Alison titters. “That’s always been my philosophy.”
Charlotte expects this to be the point where Alison excuses herself and moves on to another door. She doesn’t.
“Normally, I’d bring a friend along,” Alison says. “But seeing as I’ve been kidnapped without so much as a memory of my loved ones...”
“Do you want me to go with you?”
The words are barely out of her mouth when Alison grabs hold of her wrist.
“Oh my goodness, would you?” she asks, though the question feels rhetorical at this point. “That’s very kind of you. Here we go.”
Before Charlotte has a chance to protest, she’s already been dragged across the hall to Tony’s door. Alison clears her throat and then knocks. A few seconds later, the door inches open. Tony eyes the two women with suspicion.
“Yeah?” he says.
“I’m holding a meeting in the cafeteria to discuss our next steps,” Alison says flatly. “I’d like you to be there.”
Tony blinks back at her a few times before speaking.
Alison nods, fidgeting with the bags in her hand. Charlotte gives her an encouraging nudge.
“Here,” Alison finally says, thrusting one of the bags in Tony’s face. Tony raises an eyebrow, then takes it. “They’re not poisoned.”
“Uhhh,” is all he can manage. He shoots a concerned look at Charlotte who can only shrug in response.
“Earlier, I accused you of being our kidnapper,” Alison says.
“I remember that, yeah.”
“I want to apologize,” Alison says. “It’s obvious to me now that you have nothing to do with Gabby.”
“Why’s that obvious?”
Alison tilts her head, caught off guard. She raises a finger to her chin in thought.
“I just mean… Gabby’s a very complicated program… Whoever built her would have to be someone very, um…”
“Evil?” Charlotte offers.
“Evil!” Alison agrees, beaming with relief. “Exactly.”
Tony rolls his eyes. They fall onto Charlotte.
“She dragged you into this?” he asks.
“It was her idea!” Alison says.
The statement isn’t technically untrue, so Charlotte decides to let it slide.
“Yup,” she sighs.
“Right,” Tony says, unconvinced, then turns back to Alison. “You kinda suck at this, huh?”
“Well,” she huffs. “Just wait until you taste my snickerdoodles.”
“Snickerdoodles,” Alison says. She points awkwardly at the bag in his hand. “They’re, um… they’re the cookies. Snickerdoodles.”
“Yeah, okay,” he sighs. “We’re good, alright?”
“Oh, wonderful!” Alison exclaims.
“Later, snickerdoodle,” Tony says with a wink, coloring Alison’s cheeks red.
“We’ll see you in the—” The door closes in Alison’s face. “--cafeteria.”
She turns back to Charlotte with a look of relief.
“I think that went well.”
Charlotte can only manage a reluctant nod.
“Should I not have mentioned poison?” Alison asks.
“I wouldn’t have.”
“Well, it was the truth!” Alison says. “But alright. Live and learn. Anyhoo, on to Rachel’s room.”
Alison begins to walk, but Charlotte hesitates, causing her to turn back.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “I will be the dictionary definition of tactful.”
Whether Charlotte believes her or not, it hardly matters. They’re talking about having a conversation with Rachel.
“I was going to say maybe you should just leave a note,” she says.
Alison swallows, crooking her neck toward Rachel’s door.
“I’ll see if the shop has stationery.”
“A buddy system?”
With Charlotte’s help, Alison managed to gather the rest of the group, including Rachel who had apparently received her apology cookies and carefully considered note. Whether they were interested in hearing her out or that there really isn’t much else to do in this place, Charlotte isn’t sure. Judging by the group’s chilly reaction to Alison’s proposal, she’s leaning toward the latter.
“Yes, Sarah,” Alison says. “I’m sure none of us are actually considering… doing what Gabby wants us to do, but it doesn’t hurt to take precautions.”
Niki cautiously raises her hand, and Alison gives her a nod.
“Don’t you think that, um, not that anyone would, but if someone were thinking about killing someone, that this is just handing them a victim on a silver platter?”
“Ah!” Alison exclaims, like she was expecting the question. “That’s the thing. We all heard the rules, right? It’s not enough to… kill someone. The killer also has to get away with the crime. God forbid if anyone got hurt, who do you think would be the prime suspect?”
“Mutually assured destruction,” Cosima says.
The room goes quiet. Somehow, the idea isn’t especially comforting.
“Don’t think of it as a precaution against murder,” Alison says. “Think of it as a way to get to know each other!”
“It’s not a bad idea,” Beth says. Alison flashes her a relieved smile. “If it helps give everyone some peace of mind, I’m all for it.”
“I appreciate that, Beth.”
“Yes,” Helena says. “I am stronger with my sestra.”
Sarah chuckles, giving her sister a playful punch in the arm.
“Like you weren’t gonna follow me around anyway.”
“Oh, um,” Alison says, raising a finger in the air. “Actually, I’ve taken the liberty of assigning everyone a buddy.”
“Say again?” Sarah says.
“Well, after careful consideration, I think that this arrangement will be safest for everyone. After calculating everyone’s SI, I—”
“Everyone’s what?” Cosima interjects.
“Oh, excuse me. Survivability Index,” Alison says, sounding somewhat proud. “It’s just a little something I came up with. Put simply, it’s a measure of how likely you are to, well…”
“Be killed?” Sarah asks.
“Or not be killed!” Alison adds. “The point is that I’ve matched everyone so that every pair should have the same average SI. Roughly. Although, since we’re an odd number, there is one group of three.”
“That won’t be necessary,” Rachel says. Charlotte realizes that she’s chosen a spot by the doorway where she can watch everyone else. “I’ll take my chances alone.”
Without waiting for a response, she turns and walks out of the cafeteria.
“Well,” Alison huffs. “It’s her funeral.”
Everyone’s eyes widen.
“It’s a figure of a speech!”
“Okay,” Cosima says. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m loving the scientific approach, but what exactly are you basing these numbers on?”
“Intuition,” Alison says without a hint of irony. Charlotte can hear a few snickers and groans among the crowd. “Look, I know how it sounds, but I have a good sense of people. My first impressions are always accurate.”
“That right?” Tony asks, arms crossed.
“Or second impressions, in some cases,” Alison says. As her eyes scan the skeptical expressions surrounding her, her face falls. “Obviously, everyone is free to do as they please. I’m not Gabby, for goodness sake. I just want to keep everyone safe.”
Charlotte feels a pang of guilt in her chest. Though Alison may have made a few mistakes and may lack a certain amount of social grace, it’s clear that she’s trying.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Charlotte says.
“You do?” Alison asks, surprised.
“You do?” Sarah asks, doubly so.
“We’ve all been so preoccupied with trying to figure out what happened to our memories or who created Gabby or how to get out of this place. I know no one wants to accept it, but the reality is that we might be stuck here for a while. Alison’s obviously given this a lot of thought. Can any of you say the same?”
No one does.
And so, Alison’s plan goes forward. The group is split into the following pairs: Alison with Miriam, Sarah with Cosima, Helena with MK, Tony with Katja, Krystal with Niki, Camilla with Jennifer, and finally, Charlotte is with Beth.
Beth offers Charlotte a handshake, which seems strange under the circumstances, but she accepts nonetheless. Up close, she carries an intimidating quality, and Charlotte finds herself tightening her grip to match. When Beth smiles though, she feels instantly at ease.
Alison didn’t reveal her entire process, but the fact that they were paired together feels like the elephant standing between them.
“So,” Charlotte says with an awkward laugh. “Which of us do you think has the lower Survivability Index?”
Beth laughs, not unkindly.
“I don’t know what Alison sees, but I think it’d be a mistake to underestimate you.”
Charlotte smiles, appreciative.
“So, hey,” Beth says. Her tone and body language shift to something more serious. “Mind if I ask you a couple questions?”
“Oh, sure. What about?”
“Have you ever met any of these people before?” Beth asks, scanning the room. “Outside of this place, I mean.”
“I don’t think so. But I don’t remember much of anything.”
“Mm,” Beth mumbles. She rubs at her chin for a moment, thinking. “How much do you remember exactly? Any memories spring to mind? Names? Faces?”
“Not really,” Charlotte says, almost apologetic. “I think I can remember being a child. But it’s like trying to remember a dream I had.”
Beth’s eyes narrow as she watches Charlotte’s face, but her mind appears to be somewhere else.
“What is it?” Charlotte asks.
Beth shakes her head, pulling herself out of her trance before speaking.
“It seems like everyone’s lost some of their memories, but there are inconsistencies. Some are missing a lot more than others.”
“Well,” Charlotte says. “Maybe that was unintentional. It’s probably not easy to erase someone’s memories.”
“Yeah, maybe not,” Beth agrees. “So then, why go through the trouble?”
Charlotte realizes Beth is looking to her for an answer. Is she testing her?
“They’re trying to hide something,” Charlotte says.
Beth nods, impressed.
“There’s something the mastermind doesn’t want us to remember. Something that connects all of us. I’m sure of it.”
The idea makes sense, more so the longer it sits in Charlotte’s mind. Why did the mastermind specifically target these fifteen people? Aside from the twins, they’re all complete strangers to one another. But is that really true? With their memories being what they are, can any of them really be sure?
“So,” Charlotte says. “How do we find out what it is?”
Beth gives her an approving smirk.
“That’s what I like to hear. Feel like doing some detective work?”
“I remember growing up in convent in Ukraine,” Helena says. She and Sarah are seated at one of the cafeteria tables along with their assigned buddies, MK and Cosima. “Then there is only darkness. But I think... sometimes it is better to not remember.”
Sarah lays a hand on her sister’s shoulder, soft.
Charlotte and Beth’s investigation has turned up more questions than answers. Beth was right; the group’s memory loss is wildly inconsistent. Some have had years erased, others remember everything but their kidnapping. One thing is clear: no one has forgotten more than Charlotte.
Beth rubs at her temple, deep in thought.
“Nothing’s adding up,” she says. “We’ve got people from England, Finland, Colombia, Ukraine… Whatever the hell this is, it’s big.”
She turns to MK, clearing her throat.
“Is it okay if I ask a personal question?” she says. MK brings her arms up around herself. She pulls hair over the scarred side of her face. “You can say no.”
“I don’t remember what happened to my face,” MK blurts out. “All I know is that I’ve had these scars for a long time.”
“These are burns,” Helena says flatly.
She leans closer, running her eyes along MK’s face, almost reverent. Surprisingly, MK doesn’t recoil, letting the hair fall away from her cheek.
“Okay. Sorry. Just desperate to find a lead.” Beth tells MK, who nods in response. “So, you said you were testing Gabby’s functionality before? You know a lot about computers?”
MK shrugs, looking down at her hands.
“She’s being modest,” Charlotte says. “I think Gabby’s met her match with MK.”
MK’s mouth curls into a hint of a smile.
“Yeah?” Beth laughs. “Any insight into what kind of person might have created her?”
“People,” MK corrects her. “One person could never build something like her. Not in a thousand years.”
Beth leans back in her chair, bringing a hand to her chin.
“So you think there’s more than one person behind this game?” she asks.
MK shakes her head.
“Gabby was built by a team, but that doesn’t mean she was built for this. It doesn’t matter what she was designed for. It matters what she’s capable of. If someone got their hands on her source code, they could command her to do anything.”
“Right,” Sarah says. “Doesn’t explain why she has to be such a cheeky little shit about everythin’.”
“Hey,” Cosima says, her head turned away from the group. Charlotte realizes then that she’s been silently staring at the digital wall clock throughout the entire conversation. “How long would you guys say we’ve been talking?
“You haven’t been talking at all,” Beth points out. “But I dunno. Five minutes?”
“Hmm,” Cosima mutters.
“What’s on your mind?” Beth asks.
“If I were running a killing game,” she starts. “And I’m not, just to be clear. But if I were, one thing I would do is mess with the subjects’ minds. Agitate them. Don’t you think it’s weird that this is the only clock in this place? It’s not like we can see the sun. This is our only measure of the passage of time.”
“Not my number one concern right now, to be honest,” Sarah says. “If we’re still here in a week, maybe I’ll start worryin’ about clocks.”
Even still, with the idea implanted in their heads, an uneasy quiet falls over them as they watch and wait for the time to change.
There was something else Cosima said that stuck with Charlotte.
“Humans can adapt to pretty much anything.”
Charlotte has spent less than a day in the place, at least judging from the time displayed in the cafeteria and her own internal clock, and already, she feels the group beginning to adapt. In the evening, Alison and Niki cook a large pot of pasta for the group. Alison is quick to point out that it’s nothing special, but it turns out to be just the thing everyone needs. For now, things are calm.
Gabby, for whatever she is, has yet to harm anyone. All things considered, their living conditions could be far worse. Would anyone really commit murder to escape this place? Charlotte can’t imagine it. Someone will find them long before it comes to that. They have to.
All of the adrenaline has left her body. She stifles a yawn. Beth chuckles.
“You should get some sleep.” she says.
Instinctively, Charlotte wants to protest. They need to keep going.
“It’s alright,” Beth says, laying a hand on her arm.
Charlotte knows she’s right. They’re still no closer to finding a way out of this, and if there’s any hope of doing so, they’ll need their energy.
“Okay,” Charlotte says. “You too.”
“Yeah,” Beth sighs. “Guess I’ll see you in the morning, partner.”
Charlotte offers her a smile before heading for her room.
Charlotte flips off the light switch, blanketing her room in darkness. All except the dim bulb sitting just above the camera’s lens. She watches it move with her as she walks to the bed and climbs under the blankets.
It’s immediately comfortable. Too comfortable, she thinks, as she worries this is the first step to accepting her fate here. The guilt quickly fades as she sinks into her pillow, the day’s memories drifting farther and farther away.
The camera watches.