“An ultimate hope test?” Brayden echoed suspiciously.
“Yup,” Bill confirmed. “Hopefully you all have more hope than Mr. Mark over here, who was so dumb I was able to convince him to dress up like me as I disguise as him.”
Mark gave Bill a death glare but said nothing.
“Mark, why did you agree to disguise as Bill, anyway?” Nate asked.
Mark sighed. “He told me that, being one of the most hopeful people in the world, everyone would be targeting me. You see, in the real world, I was working beside the President himself to bring hope to America, so I was well-known for that. I thought that Bill was trying to hide me because he was a true friend. It was really just to shock you all when the truth came out. By the way, you know when he shocks and confuses you, it makes it kinda easier for you all to fall to despair? Stop being shocked by things.”
“Yeah, I was really persuasive, wasn’t I?” Bill sighed happily and giggled. “Anyway,” he suddenly said, snapping back into serious mode. “Ultimate Hope Test. Proves your hope to the world. Mark’s not allowed to interfere.”
Mark rolled his eyes. “I’m not exactly allowed to anyway-”
“AS I WAS SAYING,” Bill interrupted in an obnoxiously loud voice, “the test is very difficult and despairingly despairing - you have to listen to me read a haiku I wrote without falling into deep, deep despair.”
“Wait...seriously?” Leroy had asked flatly with a raised eyebrow, but Bill had already pulled out a crumpled piece of paper from who-knows-where and read:
Despair despair despair despair despair
Despair despair despair despair despair despair despair
Despair despair despair despair despair
Bill finished and looked around proudly. “Well? Despairing yet?”
“...You know that haikus have five, seven, and five syllables, right? Not words,” Bruce said after a couple moments of awkward silence.
“Really?” Bill asked sadly. “And I worked so hard on that haiku, too...” he moaned sadly, twirling his tie. “Oh, well!” Suddenly he was normal again. “That was just a bluff. That’s not the real test.”
“You’re a real idiot,” Randy told Bill bluntly. “Also, get to it with your hope test already or I’ll personally come over there and hang you by your candy cane tie.”
“I’ll gladly help,” Josh agreed with a glare at Bill, unusually aggressive.
Bill sighed. “Fine. So this is how the real test will work...to pass the Hope Test and escape this mansion with your lives, you have to all make a simple decision. Stay here in this mansion forever, or escape to the real world?”
“But that’s a given,” Brayden argued. “We all obviously want to escape, right?”
“Oh?” Bill grinned. raising an eyebrow. “I haven’t finished yet. I need to show you the full deal first, right? You’d need to know what you’re agreeing to.”
The wall behind Bill parted, where the giant slot machine usually slid out, but instead, there was a large television screen. Everyone watched as the screen flickered to life, and played back-to-back footage of what seemed to be various news reports, in many different languages.
The news reports showed many similar, terrifying scenes that showed the “outside world”. They showed destroyed corporate offices filled with people with blank gazes angrily running around and breaking things, setting things on fire, and even attacking other people. Some scenes also showed condominiums burnt down, people with regular faces fleeing from blank-faced people, statues and creations being destroyed and rebuilt as statues of Bill and Dimitris, dirty city streets littered with dead bodies and Dimitris-eyed people walking around bearing crude weapons or sitting and laying down on streets and sidewalks, and many other terrible scenes.
After watching this for a while, the television slid back into the wall and the wall closed.
“Well? Whaddaya think?” Bill asked. “The outside world. Filled with despair.”
“All those people...” Josh trailed, eyes wide.
“Haha, those blank-faced people were all victims of despair, like 95% of the world today,” Bill exclaimed.
“This is what I was trying to stop,” Mark explained. “The normal-faced people are the ones that still have hope. Sadly, most are either now Despaired, or those dead bodies on the streets you saw.”
“That’s the outside world?” Leroy asked in disbelief.
Bill nodded. “The world you all really wanted to get to? Hahaha! You, idiots, don’t understand. This mansion is your safe haven!”
“What do you mean?” Nate asked nervously.
“Let me explain,” Bill said, getting serious again. “The outside world is riddled with despair. Like what you saw. Havoc and chaos everywhere. This mansion cuts off all your access to the outside world, meaning that you’re cut off from worldwide despair-just internal despair that I can easily control. Escaping to the real world would take your safety and comfort away. You wouldn’t last a day out there! So would you really want to be there, or stay here in comfort and safety for the rest of your lives?”
Nate glanced nervously around at everyone. Bruce and Leroy were looking nervous. Brayden looked slightly troubled, trying to pull off his best poker face to hide it. Josh and Randy seemed too busy glaring at Bill with Mark to be worried.
“So those are your two choices! Inside, where you live safely in this mansion, or outside, where you face the terrible despair-ridden world. You all get to vote for one of the two! But there’s a twist. Every choice comes with execution. This is a trial, after all. You all have to make the same vote. If even one of you votes differently from the rest, I get to execute all of you!”
Bruce and Leroy looked more nervous. Brayden’s eyes widened. Josh and Randy kept glaring. Mark looked angry but unfazed.
“So you all have two choices, and you all have to vote the same or you all die,” Bill continued. “However, if you all vote for Outside, you get to face the despair-ridden world, and I am executed. And if you vote for Inside, you all get to safely stay here. And the execution will be one of you. And that would be...” He looked around at everyone with a grin, then pointed at Nate. “You!”
Everyone was silent. “Why me?!” Nate exclaimed. Bill grinned. “You were already gonna be executed. So why not?”
“You all can’t be actually listening to him, right?” Nate asked everyone. “Of course we have to choose Outside! We can’t stay here forever!”
“But...you saw those videos...” Bruce said, looking at the floor. “Bill’s right. We wouldn’t last a minute.”
“But if you chose Inside, then the execution-” Nate protested but looked around at everyone. They all wanted to choose Inside, and sacrifice him. And this was all part of Bill’s plan. They were all going to choose Inside, and if Nate voted for Outside then they would all die. The only way they could all make it out of there with their lives was through the Outside choice-but how could Nate get everyone to vote for it?
“You really-” Mark started angrily, but Bill cut him off.
“Ah! No interfering, remember? Cheater.”
Mark shut up but looked furious.
“So what’s it gonna be, everyone?” Bill asked. “Inside or Outside? And you’d all better vote together, or it’s game over for you all!”
“Even if I can’t interfere,” Mark said with a sneaky grin, “I know someone who can. Did you think you were the only one with secret agents working for you in this house?”
Bill frowned. “W...what?”
Mark laughed. “Your agents are all dead. But I’m smart. Mine are still alive, and as living houseguests, they can definitely show everyone true hope.”
“What?!” Bill asked, outraged.
“We’re secret agents, too,” Josh told Bill with a determined smile.
“And we’re gonna make sure you’re the only death today,” Randy added.
Nate watched in shock as Mark, along with his “secret agents” Josh and Randy, all grinned challengingly at a very baffled and confused Bill.
“Unfair!” Bill called. “Biased! I call hacks!”
Mark stared at Bill blankly. “You’re an idiot.”
Bill smiled. “Thank you for noticing! Now, what the heck?”
Mark shrugged, crossing his arms coldly. “I had allies too. That’s the heck.”
Bill frowned. “Did they even do anything?” He looked disapprovingly at Josh and Randy. “If they’re supposed to stop the murder and despair, I regret to inform you that you’ve failed.”
He’s treating them like pets of some sort, Nate thought uneasily.
“I knew that Ivan was lying,” Josh told Bill. “I knew about the rules, but I left my helmet there. Something was up, and I didn’t wanna seem suspicious for refusing to give up my helmet.”
Bill chuckled. “And that helps how?”
“The helmet was a big clue to the mystery. And it wasn’t even the murder weapon. The knife was,” Josh explained, frowning.
“So what else have you done?” Bill giggled. “Helped Ivan stun poor Trevor in his final moments? Lost your helmet? Have you really been doing anything this whole time, or have you been sitting around this whole time with the satisfaction of being a secret agent? All your friends are dying, but it’s okay because you’re working for a ghost! Right?”
“You don’t know what they’ve done the-” Mark began but was cut off by Bill yet again.
“Ah! No interfering, remember?”
Mark glared at Bill. Bill smiled at Mark.
“Mark’s right!” Randy added. “We’ve been reporting everything to Mark, who can actually leave this mansion like a ghost. And you know who he’s been telling?”
Bill frowned. “The President?”
“Then why hasn’t he been doing anything? Haha!”
“Mr. President has been-” Mark started, but was cut off by Bill again.
“Ah! Mark, I think it’s pretty clear I want you to shut up!”
Mark frowned. “I don’t think you’d want to know anyway...”
Nate was suddenly conscious of how Mark, Bill, and Randy seemed to be the only ones talking at this trial. Bruce, Leroy, and Brayden were silent, listening to the conversation while staring at the floor or their podiums with confused and frightened faces, and Josh had become quiet too after the harsh things that Bill said. Yet Nate didn’t feel right breaking in on the current conversation. Not like he knew anything about all this secret agent stuff, anyway.
“So what have you done, Batman?” Bill turned to Randy. “Thanks for the Batman suit, by the way. Really helped cover up the puncture holes in Mark’s dead body.”
Randy glared at Bill. “I saved Nate from the trash chute. And like I said, I’ve been sneaking info to him and the President.”
Bill laughed. “You’ve done more bad than good, my friend! If it hadn’t been for your suit, how would the wounds in Mark’s body have been discovered? He was stabbed by Peter with the stake, you know. The wounds didn’t just disappear! If you had seen the wounds, the trial would have been completely different, Nate probably wouldn’t have been executed. So really, you saving him was just damage control, right? Haha!”
Randy looked uneasy. “That...That’s not true...” he retorted, although he looked doubtful.
Bill chuckled as Mark glanced at both of his secret agents, who seemed to be despairing like the rest of the trial.
“C-Come on! You guys can’t possibly-” Mark exclaimed, looking fearfully at Josh and Randy.
“Ah! In-ter-fEEEEEEr-aaaaance,” Bill said in a singsong voice.
“He’s right, though,” Josh said, crestfallen eyes in a shroud. “Did we really do that much? What’s the point of it all, in the end? Everyone’s dead, anyway.”
Mark stared at Josh, horrified, but said nothing. He would just be cut off again, and Bill was actually right about Mark not being allowed to “interfere.”
Nate just watched everything, bewildered. Bill was grinning smugly. Josh and Randy were starting to despair. Leroy, Brayden, and Bruce were still silent, obviously running Bill’s “choices” through their minds, over and over again.
And Nate...what was he doing? Everyone around him was in despair for sure. Was he, too? He didn’t know what it was like to despair. He felt fine...but should he be worrying about it? He should be worrying about the choices...although each choice would guarantee or almost certainly end with him dying. What could he do?
Nate gazed around at everyone again, and accidentally caught Mark’s eye. Mark’s attention suddenly focused on him and searched Nate’s face with an intense expression. Nate was surprised at this but kept his gaze.
Mark finally looked Nate straight in the eye and nodded. Then he looked away.
Nate blinked in surprise. What was that? Did Mark—
“So, you guys must have had long enough to vote, right?” Bill asked everyone. “You all seem to be in deep thought about your choices.”
Bill stood up and clapped once excitedly. “Okay, just to review your choices again! Outside, where you face the death and despair-ridden outside world, and I am executed. Inside, where you can continue to stay in this mansion in safety away from the outside world, with the one sacrifice of Nate. And if the votes aren’t unanimous, everyone dies! Got it?”
Everyone looked up in surprise as Nate spoke out. Even he was caught off guard by his sudden intensity, but part of him was completely calm and collected.
“You all can’t listen to him,” Nate said. “He’s manipulating all of you, see? He’s just showing you all the cons of your decisions, knowing that Mark can’t chip in to show you the pros.”
“Hm? What’s this?” Bill asked, leaning forward in his seat as if mildly interested.
Nate was confident. He knew what he had to do. If each of the five other houseguests were falling into despair...
Nate went on. “Bruce!” he called, turning to face Bruce’s stand, not too far from his.
Bruce looked up warily at the mention of his name.
“You remember the videos Dimitris showed us. The stuff that you made. You made them. Don’t you want to see what else you’ve created? Aren’t you curious what truly defines you as the Superhuman Artist? In the outside world, we can find out, together!”
Bruce blinked in surprise, his blue eyes wide. “I...” he stuttered. Something flashed in his eyes. A smile formed on his face, now bright and determined, like a light bulb turned back on. “I do want to know more about my past, actually. I want to be able to draw, and have fun...I’m curious about the outside world!”
Nate grinned and turned to the next houseguest. “Leroy!”
Leroy didn’t even look up.
“Leroy...you of all of us just want to get to the outside world the most, right?” Nate asked persistently. “We all do, but none of us had as close a friendship as you had with Thomas. Thomas died here, and he wouldn’t want you to forget him...but I doubt he’d want you to live in this place forever! You need to escape this place...for Thomas!”
Leroy’s eyes widened at the mention of Thomas’s name. “Thomas...?” He slowly looked up, and again that something flashed in his dark eyes. “Yeah, that’s right...I can’t just mope around in this mansion forever, right? Thomas wants me to live on, want us to live on. And all the dead houseguests. They wouldn’t want us to stay here! They’d want us to really live!”
Nate nodded. He turned to Brayden.
“Brayden...in all these murder cases, you’ve been great at solving the mysteries. You can’t just let that go to waste! With your smarts, we can help restore hope to the world. We don’t have to stay in this mansion...if we did, we’d be like fish in a tank!”
Brayden blinked in surprise. “Well, I’m not a fish...and you’re right; we can’t just stay here. If we’ve survived this mansion, who says we can’t survive the outside world?”
Nate felt a spark of hope, seeing that his friends were starting to listen to him. He looked over at the last two people.
“Josh, Randy...” he addressed the two despairing “secret agents”. “Even if you two haven’t done much in this mansion, you’ve done something. Josh, you helped solve our first murder, and avenge Trevor’s death. Randy, you saved my life. And according to Mark, you’ve been sending information to him for Mr. President. Maybe Bill’s partly right, but you two want to do better, right? Well, you’re not going to get anything done in here!”
Nate finished his mini-speech, and everyone watched as Josh and Randy looked up with determined grins like everyone else.
“We do want to do better!” Josh exclaimed.
“And we can’t do that inside this mansion,” Randy added.
Everyone was different now...was this hope? Yes, it must be hope. Nate had convinced everyone to have hope, and not to despair...and to choose Outside over Inside. Not just to save his life...but because Nate truly believed that the six of them had a chance in the world awaiting them. Nate caught Mark’s eye and saw that, for once, he was smiling.
“What are you all happy about?” Bill asked with a frown. “Happy that Nate’s about to die for your safety? Hahaha! Well, time to vote, then!”
“I choose Outside,” Randy said determinedly.
“Huh?!” Bill asked, caught off guard for a moment. “Hehe, alright, then. But if anyone votes Inside, it’s game over for everyone!”
“I choose Outside,” Josh told Bill.
“What?!” Bill exclaimed.
“I choose Outside,” Brayden said coolly.
“But what about Despair?!” Bill called.
“I choose Outside,” Leroy declared.
“No!” Bill yelled angrily.
“I choose Outside,” Bruce said with a smile.
“Uncool!” Bill cried.
“And I choose Outside,” Nate finished.
“Idiots! Imbeciles! Stupid!” Bill wailed multiple curses angrily at everyone, standing up in the throne again.
“Bill!” Mark said sternly. “You’ve lost.”
The room went silent.
“I...lost?” Bill echoed in a monotone voice. He stood still on the throne with his eyes in a shroud. Then, the corners of his mouth twitched up into a smile, and he burst out laughing hysterically.
“HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! HAHAHAHAHAHAHA! HAHAHAHAAAA!” He practically screamed.
“What are you laughing about?!” Leroy asked, confused.
“I lost!” Bill exclaimed “Don’t you see? I’ve never lost before! And now I get to feel the despair of losing!”
“Then do you know what happens now?” Mark asked Bill.
“Hehe...what?” Bill chuckled.
Mark fixed Bill with his ghostly stare. “Punishment.”
The wall behind Bill slid out to reveal a giant slot machine, and everyone watched as all three slots came to a stop on Bill’s face.