Episode 3 - Curiouser And Curiouser

The elevator doors slid open on the third floor of the KirriCorp building, at almost exactly the same time as they had the prior week. The same person stepped out, though this week her hair was ponytailed and the hairband she wore, as well as the top, were both a bright, somewhat 'soft' red. Karaia noted that there was something different about the corridor immediately, but she did not pinpoint what it was until she had taken more than twenty steps and had a fuller perspective view of the door to the dueling room.

The simple door had been replaced by a high security interlock of shimmering steel, with a rotary seal in the middle of it. Karaia blinked, reaching out to touch it gently, watching her own reflection in the polished metallic surface of the door.

“Well that certainly was not there before.” Turquoise Temper noted emphatically from her confused subconscious. In that moment, there was a hissing sound, then a rapid series of metallic clanks as the rotary seal in the door spun and unhinged.

The sound startled Karaia to the point where she stumbled backward and ended up falling into the familiar leather sofas. The door slid open, and she could feel the cold air swirl out of the room around her feet. She shivered at the shift in temperature. It was enough to make her wish she had worn socks and sneakers rather than the open toed shoes she had chosen. One of the staff she knew, though not by name, appeared in the doorway.

“Good morning, Miss Karaia,” he greeted cheerfully, holding out a large brown overcoat to her. It was a little too big, a fact that was notable even before she reached out to accept it from him, but she noted now that it was also lined with soft insulating fuzzy fabric. He wore a similar overcoat, KirriCorp logo and all.

“Come in quickly please,” he smiled, ushering her into the dueling room and closing the door again, “Can't waste the air conditioning, after all, haha.”

Karaia's mind went into a spin of calculations, with Turquoise Temper 'leading' the way. She quickly deduced that there were security cameras in the corridor she had not noticed before, or perhaps that had not even been there before. There would have been no way for him to know when exactly to open the door otherwise, and if he were that concerned about preserving the frigid air in the room, he would not have done so repeatedly to check.

The dueling room itself triggered another swirl of thoughts. Its interior was almost unrecognizable. Now, there were racks of sleek computer systems and servers lining the walls, high precision interface terminals, and pieces of what appeared to be monitoring equipment that she did not otherwise recognize at all. The entire place now moreso resembled some high grade science fiction laboratory than its prior look of 'a room for some staff to watch dueling'.

She shivered again and slipped on the coat before her bare arms and legs could make the feeling any worse. The coat brought some relief, but not much, at first, causing the Salamander presence in her mind to assist by 'turning up the heat', shifting her perception of the temperature. Karaia relaxed in the apparent warmth, then fumbled with her bag a bit to get her deck out of it. The coats had made it difficult for a cursory look around the room to even figure out who her opponent for the week was, or if they were even there yet.

She 'pushed' her consciousness outward, with Temper's 'help', and was shocked when all four of the staff that had been watching their screens instantly turned their heads in her direction. Almost simultaneously, a moment after that, they went into a flurry of activity. She had no time to figure out if it was coincidence. The seventh person in the room, who had been sitting away from the main terminals near one of the bigger screens, now stood up.

“Guess you're my opponent,” he chuckled, giving a short salute.

Karaia smiled back, and moved to one side of the new dueling table, noting the clearly delineated grid for where her cards should be played. Her opponent moved to his side, and it was then that she realized who it was.

“You're still in town...?” she muttered, only catching herself a moment later to realize she did not mean to say that aloud, and looking around furtively as she shuffled her deck, hoping that he would take the question as the rhetorical query that it would have to be.

“Heh, yep. What's the matter, you alright? You look a little nervous today.”

Karaia's response, a laugh intended to dispel any notion of her nervousness, carried exactly that feeling, and therefore had the opposite effect. She quickly made a somewhat true excuse.

“Oh, no... haha... I'm just shivery... my toes are cold.”

The young man laughed, “Yeah this place is way different than it was last week. Who goes first?”

The question was not actually aimed at Karaia, but to the research staff who made such decisions. The one that had let Karaia in, now moved to the side of the dueling table where he normally stood, as arbiter.

“For our data collection, Edward will be going first. Also, Karaia, there's no need to shuffle your deck yourself. Just put it into the slot there.”

He pointed to a small opening on the table. Karaia hesitated, but put the deck in after the other player did, and watched as the cards were slowly sucked into the slot. A moment later, the same slot dispensed five cards to her, and one icon on her opponent's side lit up, which she presumed was meant to represent his tempo count.

“Wait...” Karaia began, turning to the man, “What about the... those things you wire us up with and stick to our heads... the electrodes--”

“Those aren't necessary today. As you have obviously noticed, we have considerably upgraded the equipment at this location, so you can just relax and duel more or less normally once you get used to the new dueling surface.”

The two duelists now both examined the table more closely, checking for any other notable features or special requirements, but aside from the grid, the mild backlit nature of the dueling area, and the strange way it handled their decks, there did not seem to be anything too special about it. There was no further forthcoming explanation from the man standing next to it either.

“So does this new fancy table have an 'end turn' button?” Edward finally asked with a laugh.

“Actually, yes,” the staff member noted, pointing out the touchscreen that apparently took that input, “Although if you forget to press it and just declare normally, I can do it for you from my console, so you don't have to pay attention to it if you think it will distract you.

“Good,” the young man laughed, pressing the screen, “Your turn, Miss Silvis.”

Karaia nodded, picking up the card that the table had just dispensed to her, making her hand six. Even on this first turn, she was already calculating. This was the same opponent that Arielle had managed to luckily defeat the previous week, but there was no guarantee that his deck was exactly the same.

“It's probably at least still Fire and Gravity, though,” Temper reassured her, triggering an affimative response within her mind, and a narrowing of her current possibilities down to two main plans. She too, pressed the small screen on her side of the table, and exhaled into the cold air.

“Your turn, Mr. Denn.”

He drew his card out of the deck slot and called an Ink Balloon, passing the turn back to Karaia. She weighed the odds, and played the card she drew, feeling her perception shift. A hazy view of standing on a shoreline facing him, their creatures both floating in the shallows nearby. Ink Balloon and Darts Anemone, one of her blocker creatures. She pressed the touchscreen.

The Ink Balloon jellyfish in her mind pulsed with a mild dark energy before Edward 'Cap' Denn made his next play. That pulse lasted briefly, before both it, and her Anemone, were swallowed up by the howling darkness of his Sentient Gorge. The Deep Thought's power became manifest by destroying both of their creatures, and the explosion of inky mist distorted her focus. Consciously, she was aware that the Ink Balloon's effect, when destroyed, meant that she needed to discard a card, but normally her body handled such actions somewhat automatically while 'in the zone' as she was now, and it took a bit of effort to detach herself from the shared psionic experience long enough to turn to the KirriCorp employee to ask him where her graveyard pile was supposed to go, on the new table.

He smiled back at her and waved a hand, “Just drop them where you normally do, don't need to distract yourself with details like that.”

Karaia ignored the twinge of suspicion that was now proverbially tossed onto the pile, discarding her Snipe Rammar, and drew the card that the table dispensed to her when the other player passed the turn. A Vibra. The Serpent would not be much use in this situation. It was for gaining advantage quickly against opponents with weak early game, or combination tactics with her Ardor Matrix rune card. She had no runes in her hand now. Best to stick to simple things.

“Call Ghost Jellyfish,” she declared. The new jellyfish popped up offshore as the other creatures had, then sent a disorienting wave of energy directly at Edward Denn's form, in their minds. He discarded a Wormhole, causing Karaia to pout and recalculate. It was normally a good thing, but her own deck was slow and did not often really get 'hurt' when people used Wormhole. She pressed the touchscreen once more, noting for a moment that her automatic responses had already shifted. Cap Denn drew his card and seemed to think for a moment.

“Call Sienna Startle, and attack you with Sentient Gorge.”

The Salamander scurried into view, around him and in front of him, but Karaia was a bit distracted by the strong feeling of a huge gravity field descending on her from above. She mentally braced herself against the surge of energy, and watched as it was absorbed into her Grid. When her perceptions returned to normal, she noted that the table's lights indeed showed her one new tempo from the attack, though she had no awareness of exactly when that had happened. Her card came out of the slot now, as well.

One look at it caused Karaia to smile and shift into the water a bit, calling the Vibra onto the shore before another glow offshore made it clear what card she had drawn. Polyphonic Flo. Placing it into the conflict now caused the deck slot to spit out five cards for her to look at and rearrange, while filling the waves with a gentle melodic sound.

“Put them back one at a time as you decide. Whatever you put in first will be what you draw in five turns,” came the staff member's voice through her haze. She was already deciding, and groaning at her luck. Still no rune, and her best chance would have been to get one as soon as possible to give the Vibra enough power to deal with the Salamander before things got worse.

“Ah well. End turn.”

The arbiter moved to press his console in response to her declaration, but found that she had already touched the screen anyway, making it unnecessary.

“No luck? Me neither, no rune yet. Guess we'll see who gets first. Then again, you probably already know when yours is coming. So the question is really if you're bluffing me,” he grinned. He now put a second Sienna Startle into play, the Salamander skittering in on his other side, taking up its position and eyeing Karaia.

“Friends of yours?” Karaia 'joked' to her counterpart as the Turquoise Temper's resonance reacted to the appearance of the second Salamander.

“I'm moreso thinking that those two are going to be trouble. We already lost one Darts and don't have any Wormhole. None coming either. In fact, we're already defeated, aren't we?”

Temper referred to the fact that she already knew exactly what five cards she was going to get, and their order. Two copies of the Turquoise Temper card itself, another Vibra, a Ghost Jellyfish, and an Indigo. None capable of actually granting any meaningful advantage in time.

A shift in energy indicated that the other duelist had consumed some of his tempo to empower the first Salamander. It ignited, and surged into the waves, skittering over the ocean surface at incredible speed before leaping upward, and diving into the water to attack the coral. Karaia winced slightly as her Polyphonic Flo was defeated, then again as she endured a second attack from the Sentient Gorge's gravity flux.

“I tipped my hand,” she sighed to herself, wondering if he would have pushed her tempo so high if he had started to think she actually had access to the Ardor Matrix. Now, she was in danger of being steamrolled, with nothing of use to defend herself at all even coming soon.

“Sorry I'm no use today...” Temper growled. All of Cap's creatures were more powerful than the Turquiose Temper, and even so, without the rune, her own would not be able to withstand the flame stream. She drew the Ghost Jellyfish that she had planned, and put it into play, discarding another Wormhole from Cap's hand.

Her resonance wavered. At the edge of her current consciousness she could tell that the staff had somehow reacted again. Now, she was sure that this was no coincidence. Temper nudged her to keep her attention on the game. She did so, reluctantly playing the other Polyphonic Flo that had been in her opening hand, and hoping that whatever fifth card was now within range of the Coral's manipulation capability was going to help.

The cards that the table gave her gave some hope. A Wormhole that might be barely enough if she could somehow distract him into attacking creatures other than the Coral. The problem was, that the only way to do that was to attack, and give him enough tempo to potentially obliterate everything...

“Don't you just hate being cornered?” Temper complained, before Karaia cast Slipstream, and declared her attack. The Jellyfish and Vibra moved in quickly, weaving past the gravity form and Salamanders to strike at Cap, bringing his defenses down twice. Karaia exhaled, and attempted to turn her attention back to the staff who seemed extremely busy all of a sudden. Her Jellyfish and Vibra quickly retreated, ready for whatever was coming.

“Mm... call Interpret Coda--” Cap's words caused Karaia's hopes to rise, but only for a moment, “--and another Sentient Gorge.”

This time, the Deep Thought did not consume any of Cap's other creatures, simply imploding its own manifestation. Karaia's Vibra was the one to fling itself into the crushing energy to save the others, but overall, her plan was no longer any use. Cap's dual power surge distracted her yet again from the movements of the staff members, and despite her attempts to pull herself away from the imagery of the two Sienna Startle moving into action, the last attack replayed itself in her mind. Both Salamanders ignited and went straight for their aquatic targets, and the Sentient Gorge once again threatened to crush her with its gravitational manipulation.

The table gave her the planned Wormhole, but without Polyphonic Flo to make the next play easier, there was nothing she could do. The Siren creature Shiria appeared in the waves, but with only three tempo of her original nine remaining now, she could not use its powerful ability to cast the Wormhole twice. Rather than casting it even once, she simply relaxed and ended her turn, focusing her attention on the three men and the woman at the consoles instead, hoping to finally get a clearer idea of what exactly was going on.

Cap Denn seemed to notice this as well, and did nothing with the card that he drew from the deck slot, instead attacking with the Interpret Coda. The constrictor moved into the water quickly, disappearing into the waves, thrashing for a moment around the unsuspecting Ghost Jellyfish and defeating it before proceeding straight for Karaia's form and coiling around the energy that represented her Grid defense. One powerful tightening of those coils reduced her grid to the point where just one more attack would be enough to leave her defenseless.

The young man paused, as was customary, just in case the opponent wanted to play a responcer spell that required the tempo from the prior attack. The slight lull gave Karaia what she needed. A clear impression of the fact that even without the electrodes, the research team was reacting in almost exactly the same way, and clearly reacting not simply to each play, but to plays that caused her or her opponent to increase the intensity of their shared imagery.

That moment did not last very long. One of the Salamanders moved forward, in a flaming body check against her last flickers of Grid energy. Cap did not need to pause again. If she was going to respond, it was almost assured that she would have done so immediately.

“Sentient Gorge, finale.”

Karaia braced herself powerfully. The power he had been putting behind that creature's attacks made it clear that if she did not, she was at risk of being disoriented or even losing consciousness altogether. It was, therefore, a huge surprise to feel the mildest of gravity waves simply wash over her form, to bring the duel to an end. She opened her eyes, and found that Cap was looking directly at her.

“What was that!? You going easy on me?!” Temper raged. The response from the Deep Thought was one that translated best as 'shhhh'.

“They are up to something,” it continued, the thoughtstream so faint that it could be called a whisper, “And I don't plan on letting them know more secrets than I do, just yet.”

Temper's flaring resonance receded, prompting another 'suspicious' reaction from the KirriCorp staff, and causing Karaia to once again feel somewhat at the 'mercy' of the cold atmosphere of the room. She shivered again, and only then noticed that the table had pushed her deck back out of the slot she had put it into. She retrieved it, and began to thumb through the cards.

“No need to worry,” the arbiter reassured, “They're all there. If there was any mechanical failure the equipment would have reported it.”

Karaia ignored him and continued to count her cards, before picking up the ones from her graveyard and her lone Shiria from the grid spot on the table.

“Second round?” Cap asked the man, but the arbiter shook his head.

“No, you two can take a break while we sort the data and recalibrate the equipment. It may take a while so feel free to use the break room on the second floor. There should be refreshments in the fridge if you want any. You can leave your coats in the chair until you get back.”

He pressed his button only when the two moved to the door, and it slid shut again the moment they stepped outside into the corridor. Karaia wiggled her toes, and slid the lined coat off, suddenly feeling heated. Cap did the same, but rather than heading for the elevator, he flopped into the chair and began to shuffle his deck.

Karaia stopped for a few seconds, then sat next to him. She was about to speak, but was cut off by another silencing 'nudge'. Gently, the other presence directed her attention to the almost imperceptible cameras on opposite sides of the new metal door, before reiterating to her not to make any obvious signs of collaboration or communication. Karaia took out her phone and pretended to be texting someone.

“So you got any idea what is going on? How do you know they can't monitor even this?” Temper prodded, only half expecting any answer.

“I don't.” This was the only response that came, carrying a finality that implied that further discussion was not going to be happening.

Karaia sighed, then stood up, stretched, and said clearly, “Whew, even with the coat it still chilled me. I think I'll go outside to warm up. It's a nice day after all and I'm sure it won't take long.”

“Hmm yeah, I should too, I was freezing in there before you even got here,” Cap nodded, standing up and following her down the corridor to the elevator. They rode down in silence, and passed the receptionist with a simple 'just going out for some air, be right back' from Karaia.

Once outside, Karaia looked around for a few seconds before hissing, “Alright so tell me what exactly is going on around here. When did they bring in all that stuff?”

“I was serious when I said I didn't know,” Cap replied, leaning on the outer wall of the building, “I haven't been back here since last week, when I got here I saw what you saw. Five times the equipment and ten times the confusing.”

“They didn't need any electrodes either... makes you wonder just what exactly they were testing. I thought they were getting data on brain patterns or something but I don't think you can do that without at least something connected to someone's head. We should probably have checked if those coats had anything weird in them.”

Cap laughed, “Believe it or not that was my first thought. I had plenty of time to fidget and check for that. If the coats are doing anything, that's some seriously insane technology cause there's nothing in them I could feel.”

Karaia frowned, and paced a bit on the sidewalk to Cap's right.

“But they acted almost the same as when we do have them on. Can people do that somehow? Monitor your brain without attaching anything to it?”

Cap thought for a moment, watching her pace, then shrugged, “I know hospitals have machines they can just put you inside of, but those use big magnetic fields and that'd probably mess with the other equipment in there. Like I said, either someone has some insanely high grade tech for monitoring some people playing a card game... or...”

“Or they can pick up on the waves or whatever it is that we actually put out...” Karaia trembled, suddenly feeling extremely vulnerable.

“Pretty much, yeah.”

Karaia pondered, opening her mouth to speak at least twice, then hesitating and returning to silence. The third time, Cap sighed and put his hand on her shoulder to stop her from pacing.

“Come on, out with it, you want to tell me something, that's clear enough.”

Karaia exhaled to calm herself, then began.

“I had a meeting with Mr. Kirricort last week. He knows about this. It's not... actually that surprising that they would be doing that, cause they definitely know that we can do something outside our own heads. He can do it too.”

Cap stared at her blankly for a bit, absorbing this information, his mouth slightly open, before closing it and muttering only “I see.”

“What should we do?” she asked the elder duelist.

Cap pushed himself up off the wall and started to walk back into the building.

“I don't know...”