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The Cost of Escape

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Screaming. There was so much screaming, and everything hurt. He could feel his body being washed away, burnt from his very bones as the acid hit him. His throat was raw from the screams and the fumes, but he couldn’t stop screaming- he could hear the others screaming too, but soon there’d be nothing left of any of them.

Why didn’t he push the button…’

That thought was the only thing in Junpei’s mind as he shot upright, awakening in a cold sweat. Button- what did it mean? There were vague memories of an intense pain, but he had no idea why or what it had come from, or even where they were.

“Ugh… where are we?”

Well, that was a well timed question from Carlos.

“I think this is one of those decontamination rooms. Looks like we’re locked in here.”

Aoi was answering him, but it had helped Junpei out as well. Once the last fog of sleep had cleared from his mind he’d realized that yes, they were in one of the shower rooms- why did that feel familiar to him?

He got up to test the doors, but much to his disappointment there was nothing to be found.

“So, why do you think it’s called a decontamination room, anyways?”

Aoi looked at Carlos like it was the most obvious thing in the world, but Carlos seemed to ignore it. That, or he actually didn’t notice the look, which would be fairly impressive.

“You’re supposed to come here to clean off after going outside. It’s for if there was a nuclear war- this is a bomb shelter, after all.”

“Oh yeah, that makes sense…”

They were all silent for a moment, before Carlos decided to check the time on his watch. There was the telltale beep of the watch activating, and then Carlos read out what it said on the screen.

“18:10…”

“The vote was at 13:30, so… looks like we were out for about four and a half hours.”

Junpei folded his arms, not too happy with that thought.

“Damn… who knows what could’ve happened during that time?”

None of them really knew what to say to that, so the room returned to silence. They continued to search the room, but there were no clues or puzzles- in the end, all they could do was sit in a half circle by one of the walls in the room, staring at the ceiling and each other.

“Look, Junpei… I know now’s maybe not the best time, but I need to ask you something.”

He was actually surprised that it was Aoi who’d started talking to him. What, did he finally want to talk about last year? A little late for that, Junpei thought.

“About the vote at 13:30… you told Carlos to vote for Q team.”

“Yeah? What about it?”

“What about- what the fuck, man? How could you be so awful? You never would’ve suggested anything like that a year ago.”

Junpei gave a short barking laugh, looking at Aoi with his driest stare.

“Oh, like you’re one to talk. Do you really think you can pull moral superiority on me, Aoi?”

“Junpei… the hell happened to you?”

He’d expected anger, more arguing- those were reactions Junpei could deal with. It was easy to shrug off anger, but disappointment? That was much, much harder to deal with. He couldn’t look Aoi in the eye, not when he was looking at Junpei like that.

“You know, I’d like to know more about you too, Junpei.”

Carlos had interjected, in his best effort to calm the mood. Junpei was grateful for the distraction, as it let him look away from those eyes- why did they hurt him so much?

“What’s that, Carlos? Does that mean you’re interested in me…?”

He was being a dick and he knew it, but Carlos just shrugged off the teasing. Whether he was used to it or it just didn’t bother him, Junpei didn’t know for sure.

“Nah, my focus is on my little sister. I’ve got no time for a love life.”

“Oh, so our Hero of Justice has a sister complex…”

Junpei! Carlos is actually worried about you, stop being an asshole!”

Shit, maybe he’d touched a nerve there… he should have known better than to joke about something like that with Aoi here. Sisters were a bit of a touchy subject, considering what had happened to Akane… nine years of effort, and it had ended in one gigantic failure.

“Well, it’s more I want to know about you both, really. Junpei, weren’t you and Aoi’s sister friends as kids, and then you escaped from a situation just like this last year? So, why…”

“Why the animosity, right?” Junpei should have expected the question sooner or later, really. It was a logical thing to ask about, anyone in Carlos’s situation would have been dying to know. He sighed and rested his arms on his knees- this was going to be a long one.

“That’s exactly the reason. Because of that game, I’ve seen so many people die. Horrible, cruel deaths I never wanted to see. I’ve seen them too many times to count, by now… Honestly, I’ve probably just gone numb.” Even when he closed his eyes, the memories were still there. Sometimes he could feel himself slipping, and he felt like he was trapped in building Q again; standing over all of the bodies as the scent of blood threatened to choke him “After the game, I ended up moving in with Lotus. A couple days later I quit school and joined a detective firm.”

“Oh… what made you want to do that?”

Carlos’s voice was soft, as if he didn’t really know if he wanted to know the answer. Well, he’d asked the question, so whether or not he liked the answer he was getting it.

“That boy right there.” He pointed at Aoi but didn’t dare risk looking at him- he didn’t want to see those disappointed eyes anymore. “He straight up disappeared, so I joined a firm to look for him. It’s small, but known to work among the underground- I got working right away.”

His hand fell limp, and he put it in his pocket. He could feel the small box he’d tucked away, and he ran his fingers over the edges- he needed something to ground himself if he was going to keep talking, and that was the best he had.

“I’ve gone undercover in places trafficking organs like they were trading cookies. I’ve snuck into facilities where even just breathing wrong could get me found out and shot dead on the spot.” And he had been shot. So many times. “I’ve seen coworkers get pushed from buildings, die of poisoning, and god knows what else. Every job I’ve taken has been dangerous, and dirty. I don’t think there’s been a single one where I didn’t see someone die.”

Or a single one where he hadn’t had to take someone’s life- even if it was self-defense, it didn’t change the way it crushed him from the inside.

“I guess along the way, it just hit me. Humans… really aren’t as beautiful as I thought. I’d only been skimming the surface all this time.” He dug his finger into a corner of the box, careful not to wince from pain. He was still here, he was still grounded. Things were okay, he could keep talking. “Every day when I got back from work, I’d lock myself in the shower with a bottle of scotch before anyone could find me, and I’d drink myself to sleep. It was the only way I could get the scent of blood off me, but even that doesn’t stop it- it’s always going to be there. It’s there right now.”

He’d never be free from it, he knew. He’d known since the end of the Nonary game that he’d never be clean again, as long as he lived.

“But last month… I finally got something. I got intel that Aoi was joining the experiment, so I threatened the people running it and forced my way in.”

“So that’s why you joined the experiment…”

There was a sad, distant look on Carlos’s face- he seemed worried. Junpei could appreciate the sentiment, but he didn’t really feel anything either way about it. He knew his life was a joke, so one person feeling sorry for him wouldn’t change much.

They’d all gone quiet- Junpei had nothing more to share, and it was clear neither Aoi nor Carlos wanted to say anything. They sat like that for a while, until Junpei eventually decided it was his job to break the silence again.

“So, how’re things over at your organization, Aoi?”

“Huh?”

“Well, you’ve gotta be pretty busy, right?”

Junpei could hear Aoi’s sigh, and he was clearly reluctant to answer as he shifted the topic over to Junpei instead.

“It’s fine. You said you’d moved in with Lotus, right? Is it just the two of you?”

“No, Nona and Ennea are there too. And Seven comes around from time to time- I’ve worked with him a couple of times, we even took down one of Free the Soul’s bases.”

What?”

“Uh, who’s that?”

“Oh, they’re some freaky religious cult. They’re a terrorist group who never stop trying to create their ‘new world’- Seven’s been on their trail for ages, and it just happened that one of my jobs overlapped.”

“They were behind that huge kidnapping case ten years ago…”

Aoi’s voice trailed off- it seemed he really didn’t want to talk much about the details (not that Junpei could blame him).

“Yeah, and the game last year was related to it.”

“I’ve been tracking Free the Soul myself, but I had no idea you guys were after them too…”

“I told you, it was really mostly Seven. However… I do think we went too far. I’m pretty sure we seriously pissed off their boss- a guy they call ‘Brother’. Hell, they’re the ones who gave me this.”

He gestured to the bandage on his arm, proof of his most recent encounter with the group.

“Wait- so you’re saying that this ‘Zero’ and this ‘Brother’ might have something in common?”

“Eh, it’s just a possibility. What do you think, Aoi?”

He didn’t need to look at the boy to feel the glare directed at him, full of anger.

“I already told you, I’m not connected to this! I know as much as you do, Junpei.”

That was what caused Junpei to finally look at Aoi again, careful to stare at a spot on his forehead and avoid looking in his eyes.

“Really, Aoi? Then why’d you sign up for Dcom. You can’t tell me it was really just coincidence, we both know you had a damn good reason-“

“Stop it, Junpei. From what I can tell, Aoi’s a victim here.”

“I’m trying to change the future.”

Carlos and Junpei both looked at Aoi, who’d stood up and shoved his hands in his pockets. He wasn’t looking at them- Junpei wasn’t sure if he was actually looking at anything, or was just staring off into something distant that neither of them could see, just like he’d done during the Nonary game.

“Free the Soul is trying to implement a terrifying plan- if nothing changes, then six billion people will die. I came here to try to stop it- to prevent the future she saw.”

“She- you mean…”

“Akane told me that no matter what, we had to ensure that the AB project cannot fail. The entire human race hangs in the balance, I didn’t have a choice.”

“Then… why didn’t she come here, Aoi?”

Junpei winced as Carlos spoke, but Aoi’s response was steady.

“She’s dead. She died…. Last year.”

Carlos’s face was immediately filled with regret for having asked, but Aoi didn’t seem to mind much. It was something that was going to be brought up sooner or later, whether any of them liked it or not. Unpleasantness was just a part of their fate, it seemed.

“A little late perhaps, but I will now announce the voting results.”

All three of them looked up to the ceiling, awkward thoughts abandoned as they listened to Zero with great anxiety.

“All three groups have voted for different teams. Therefore, none have been executed. The current death count: zero.”

Carlos breathed a sigh of relief, and Junpei could see his shoulders relax. It seemed like he’d been quite worried about this, not that Junpei could blame him. However, Zero continued on, as if to mock them for daring to relax for even a second.

“I can’t say this is an ideal situation for any of us involved. It appears that none of you fully grasp the essence of this game. Think back on the rules you were told… you will remain in this shelter for eternity until six people are killed. I will give you one last chance, a single action from you may result in your escape from the depths. What must you do? It’s simple, I shall show you.”

Zero’s voice made Junpei’s skin crawl- if felt patronizing, as if Zero was laughing at them. Even thought he knew this was a recording, he figured Zero probably was laughing at them, whoever he was.

“The other two teams are listening to a message just like this one in their ward’s decontamination room. The construction of all of them are the same- A yellow button exists on the wall in each. Pressing it activates the showers in the other wards, and they will rain down a solution of hydrogen fluoride.”

“H-Hydrogen fluoride?”

Aoi’s face was paler than usual, and he stared at the showerheads in fear. Seeing him look like that… Junpei felt his heart twist in his chest. He couldn’t let Aoi die, not in a way as horrible as that. Vague memories threatened to force their way to the surface and he could feel his skin twinge with pain- no, he absolutely couldn’t let Aoi die like that.

“It’s not only acidic enough to melt a body, but it even dissolves glass and iron. Explaining what would happen if you were under it seems… unnecessary. That button on the wall is your way to freedom- using it will kill the other teams, and you will gain the needed X-passes to escape.”

Carlos had gone pale, as though the mere thought of having to take someone’s life was enough to send him into a panic attack. Perhaps Junpei could have sympathized if they’d met last year, but it was far too late for him now.

“I have one final thing to tell you- the early bird gets the worm. After the first team pushes it, the button will become inactive for both of the other teams. Your time limit is three minutes. What will you do? Will you press it? Or refuse? It is ultimately all up to you to decide.”

And then the speakers cut out, leaving the three of them in a moment of stunned silence. Realizing none of the others had moved yet, Junpei took the opportunity and jumped forwards- he had to reach that button. If he didn’t press it, they would die. There was no doubt in his mind, he’d already seen it happen once.

“Junpei, what the hell are you doing?!”

Aoi had reacted, and Junpei had forgotten how fast the other boy was. He’d managed to get in front of Junpei and had thrown his arms out, trying to block him. His glare looked as if it could melt right through Junpei faster than any acid, but Junpei ignored it- he was doing this for Aoi. He didn’t have to understand or forgive him, but he had to let Junpei do this.

“I’m trying to save our asses- this is kill or be killed, Aoi. If we don’t hit that button, we’re fucking dead.”

Aoi had tried to grab onto Junpei, stopping his advance, but Junpei wasn’t going to be stopped. Using all his strength he threw Aoi to the side, trying to ignore the grunts of pain from him as he hit the floor. He knew Aoi would never forgive him- hell, he wouldn’t forgive himself. But he needed to save him.

He was getting closer, closer- but now Carlos had snaked his arms around Junpei’s chest, restraining him.

“Junpei, stop! Think about this! If nobody pushes it, then it’s gotta be like back at the vote-“

“Think about it? Clearly, I’m the only one thinking about this properly! While we’re arguing, the other teams have already pushed the button- the longer we wait, the closer we are to getting the flesh melted off our fucking bones. If we don’t push it then we’re going to die.”

With a grunt of effort, he felt himself being thrown across the room, much like he’d thrown Aoi. He landed hard on his hip- even if he thought he could overtake Carlos in speed normally, there was no way he’d be able to move fast enough with it hurting like this. Dammit, he’d just need to convince Carlos- play to his emotions. He knew it was horrible, that he was manipulating Carlos in a way that could never be forgiven, but he didn’t have a choice.

“Carlos, think about it! Are you really okay with dying here? With getting melted into a puddle of goo, and just leaving your sister behind? She’ll never even know how you died! Nobody will! Are you really alright with that? Do you really just want to disappear forever, and leave her with nothing?”

“Junpei, shut the fuck up! Don’t press that fucking button, Carlos!”

“Press it, Carlos! It’s us or them, and I can promise you that they won’t hesitate to kill us!”

Carlos’s hand was in front of the button, and he was visibly shaking. It was clear to tell that the pressure was getting to him- who wouldn’t be affected, in a situation like this? The only possible way it wouldn’t mess with someone would be if you were emotionally numb, like Junpei was.

“Carlos… no…”

That was all Aoi could say when Carlos pushed the button. Carlos himself looked like he was utterly speechless- his face was drawn and pale, and he was visibly shaking.

“Wh-what…? Why did I...”

He was staring at his hand in disbelief, unable to comprehend what was going on. Junpei figured that must be natural; making a decision like that couldn’t have been easy. Carlos was a firefighter, it was his job to save lives. But because of Junpei… one motion, and Carlos had killed six people. He forced himself to his feet, trying to ignore the pain in his hip as he walked over to the other.

“Carlos… you made the right choice. I know it had to be unbelievably hard for you, but you did the right thing. You shouldn’t beat yourself up for this, you did it to save us.”

The only one who deserved the blame for this was Junpei. Him, and no one else.

“N-no, that’s not… that’s not it. I didn’t want to press the button, but my hand- it just moved on its own…”

Carlos was watching his own hand in fear, as though he was scared it was going to attack himself. Junpei didn’t really believe him- it was probably just a defense mechanism. His brain couldn’t comprehend what he’d done, so he’d convinced himself it was something else, like‘the devil made me do it’. Junpei wouldn’t take that away from him- whatever Carlos needed to avoid the guilt, Junpei would allow him. After all, it was thanks to Carlos that they weren’t currently in the same situation as his dream. It looked like Aoi didn’t share the same sentiment, though. He looked positively livid, standing in front of the taller man.

“Don’t think you can just ignore that happened, Carlos. You pushed that button. It doesn’t matter if it was stress, or you’d just always had that urge- it was you, Carlos. Only you.”

“Aoi, stop it.”

“Shut up, Junpei. This is your fault too; I’m just making sure Carlos knows he can’t deflect the blame. You can’t just push your bad judgement calls onto the excuse of someone ‘controlling’ you- it was your fault.”

“S-stop… please…”

Carlos had hugged his chest, and his fingernails were digging into his arms hard enough to draw blood. Dammit Aoi, why were you blaming Carlos when this was all Junpei’s fault… why was he doing this? He’d let so many people die before, but now he had a conscience about everything…

“You made a wise decision. You sacrificed the lives of others in order to continue your own survival.”

Zero…

Junpei had never heard so much hate in Carlos’s voice before, but he could hardly blame him. The only other person that could be held responsible for this was Zero- after all, he’d trapped them all in the game in the first place.

“It truly is a natural human reaction. You simply made an emergency evacuation- the action is legally justifiable. There is no blame to be placed on you for your decision. Now, I’m sure you would like to get out of here immediately, but before that… I apologize, but you must all sleep again.”

Junpei checked his watch while Carlos and Aoi looked up in confusion, sighing when he read out the numbers on the face.

“It’s 19:29- time for all good kids to be in bed, or some crap like that.”

“You have done exactly as I commanded. The memory loss drug will not be injected into the three of you. It would be… inconvenient if you forgot you caused the deaths of others… pleasant dreams.”

“I-I… I killed all of them…”

Junpei wanted to tell Carlos that no, it was his fault, he was the one to blame, but there was no time. He had already felt the needles poke into his wrist, and his mouth felt heavy. He collapsed to the ground without any resistance, only guilt remaining inside his chest.