As the scream echoed around the office everyone looked up from their computer screens with looks of concern. “Goddamit!” Screamed the voice a second time as Payton stood up and started to walk towards the source of the noise.
As she got close she saw Lin waving her hands wildly, pure rage painted on her face. “This stupid loader, you used to work! Why won’t you work now?!” Screeched Lin as she flung her arms out, sending a mug tumbling off her desk.
Payton moved without thinking, quickly diving forward and catching the mug before it shattered on the floor. A few seconds after the mug hit her palms, Payton mentally kicked herself, realizing that the mug could have been burning hot.
As she put the mug back onto the desk, Payton looked at Lin. “You doing okay?”
“Of course I’m not,” sighed Lin before shaking her head. “I’m sorry, it isn’t your fault.”
“It’s fine, I get it.”
“This loader just refuses to load properly, I’ve tried everything, it just bugs out when players get there.”
“Right, right.” Nodded Payton as she crouched down and looked at Lin’s screen. “Nothing is jumping out to me, this whole thing makes no sense.”
“Right?” Gasped Lin. “I thought I was going nuts!”
“I.” Started Payton as she took a deep breath. “I hate to suggest this after all your work, but can we just cut the whole area?”
“That would take a major rewrite of the plot, we would need to make another way to get a load of key items.”
“Right, but will people get that far in the time they have to play it? On the show floor, they’ll play a maximum of thirty minutes right?”
“Most likely,” nodded Lin.
“So can we adjust stuff so that they won’t get to the issue within that timeframe? Leave it as a cliffhanger? Buy the full version and see what’s inside the magical non-loading castle?”
“I’ll help you out as I can quickly change the assets to put them in other places.” Smiled Payton. “But you should take a break, cool your jets a little.”
“Yeah, guess you’re right,” replied Lin, letting out a long sigh as she did. “Coffee?”
“Sure!” Nodded Payton as she stood up and started to head towards the kitchen. However, as she walked into the room she quickly realized it was full of random tables, backdrops, and technology.
“Really? Our kitchen?” Said, Lin, as she looked around the room.
“I know Bethany said people would be storing stuff in our building before they moved them to the convention hall, but I didn’t think they would use all our personal space!”
“Right?” Groaned Lin as she tried to step between the debris. “I bet the staff room is worse.”
“Well, I’m not drinking hot chocolate at my desk.” Huffed Payton, “so it better not!”
The girls did their best to make their drinks without damaging any of the stuff scattered around the room, but the lack of organization made it very hard. Something seemed to always be where Payton wanted to step.
As they made their way into the staff room they breathed a sigh of relief. While there was stuff in there it was much better laid out, allowing them to find two chairs to sit in.
“I still don’t get why we let them do this,” mumbled Lin.
“Well the convention doesn’t let you set up your booth until the morning and the boss thought that offering storage space would be a good way to generate some goodwill with a load of indie studios.”
“So when they’re done.”
“We can publish,” nodded Payton.
“Maybe they should think more about us than devs they don’t have yet,” replied Lin as she rolled her eyes and sipped her drink.
As they enjoyed the time away from their desks both girls looked at the stuff that was scattered around the room. Suddenly a light caught Payton’s eye.
“Which idiot left their stuff plugged in?” She mumbled as she walked towards the light, trying to work out just what thing it was attached to. She quickly realized the light was from a very banged up computer tower.
However, rather than having a screen or keyboard, this tower only had a headset attached to it. But it wasn’t like any headset Payton had seen before, the terrible plastic and the loose wires made it clear that this was homemade.
“What in the world?” Blinked Payton as she looked over the headset.
“What?” Shouted Lin from the other side of the room. “Oh, you found that!” She giggled as she got up and walked over.
“What even is this? A prototype? A prop? It’s a prop right?”
“Nope,” chucked Lin. “It is someone’s actual attempt at a new system, exclusive for their game.”
“A system for one game?”
“Yeah, some of the designers played it earlier, apparently it is terrible.”
“Terrible how?” Asked Payton as she raised an eyebrow.
“Well, first it is a visual novel.”
“That isn’t bad? Visual novels are a good way for first-time devs to dabble.”
“But a VR visual novel?” Laughed Lin.
“Okay, that is weird, I’ll give you that,” nodded Payton.
“And not just any visual novel, a dating sim. Think the worst dating sim you’ve ever seen, it is just fan service!”
“That sounds hard to sit through,” grimaced Payton, doing her best to be polite to this unknown dev.
“You should try it!” Smiled Lin as she grabbed the helmet. “This will make you think our game is the Mona Lisa in digital form!”
“I’m not sure if we should use it without permission,” mumbled Payton. “Especially to mock it.”
“They left it plugged in when they got here just so the designers could play it, they wouldn’t shut up about it until the designers gave it a try.”
“Well, I guess,” nodded Payton. “It couldn’t hurt for a bit and maybe I can give them some constructive criticism!” She added, doing her best to convince herself that this was okay.
“Awesome! Prepare for pain!” Grinned Lin as she passed Payton the flimsy helmet. Payton gently guided it onto her face, slightly worried that the plastic would snap at any moment.
As the world around her went dark Payton took a deep breath, doing her best to ignore how badly the helmet was pinching the bridge of her nose. “Never taken an ergonomics class I bet,” she mumbled.
“Oh not at all,” chuckled Lin as she tapped on the machine. “Okay, I’m going to turn it on, so the screen should come on.” She started only for a loud crackling noise to echo around the room.
Before Payton could do anything she felt a sharp stinging pain on her scalp, all of her muscles started to twitch and spasm as hot liquid pain ran over her. She felt herself crumple to the floor as her body continued to convulse and squirm.
Payton screamed out, however, her voice was quiet and weak, her whole world was being consumed by pain as the ringing in her ears grew louder and louder. Payton wanted to pull the helmet off of her head, however, she couldn’t get her arms to listen to her.
Her whole body felt weak and exhausted, the ringing made it hard to even hear her thoughts. She could feel herself slipping, almost like a foggy haze was washing over her. Payton felt her arm hit the floor as she fell into a dark void.
“Purin! Purin!” Echoed a high-pitched voice in Payton’s ear. “Purin! Wake up!” Shouted the voice again as Payton’s mind slowly started to think once again.
Her whole body stung, it felt like she had just finished a strenuous workout. But something felt off about her body, it felt lighter somehow.
“Purin!” Shouted another voice.
Payton lifted her head and blinked her eyes, letting the world come into focus around her. She saw a face a few inches from her own and quickly jumped back in shock, trying to work out what was going on.
This face looked like no one Payton knew, in fact, she almost looked like a cartoon character come to life with big brown eyes and short black hair. She was dressed in a terrible parody of a school girl’s uniform that was covered in bright pink buttons.
“Who,” started Payton, only to realize that she had no idea where she was. She quickly looked around and realized she was in a classroom with gothic details, however, it had a strangely unreal quality to it.
“You don’t look so good!” Giggled the girl, causing Payton to let out a little groan. “Did you stay up all night playing video games again?”
Payton’s brain was slightly overwhelmed by all of the questions running through it and that only served to make her headache worse. She reached up to try and rub her head. However, as she raised her arm she realized her skin looked different.
She quickly turned and looked at her reflection in a window, only to let out a scream. She wasn’t herself anymore, she looked as unnatural as the girl that stood in front of her.
Payton’s old red undercut was now a blonde pixie cut and her eyes had gone from brown to green. But the worst was that she now looked as weird and as fake as the other girl, she looked like something that had been drawn as opposed to born.
She tried to work out what was going on, however, the constant music made it hard to focus, part of her wanted to find the source and shut it off however she was too confused about her scenarios to even want to try.
“Nana! Sit down!” Hissed another girl, shaking Payton from her thoughts. She turned and realized there were other girls in the classroom. All of them had the same strange unreal quality that made Payton feel weird.
Suddenly, a person walked in through the door. At first, Payton presumed it was another generic girl, however, she quickly realized this wasn’t the case. While this person was wearing a uniform like the girls, they had a camera where their head should be.
Payton blinked her eyes before looking towards the other girls, hoping one of them could explain what this thing was, however, none of them seemed phased by it.
“Welcome!” Shouted the girl in pink as she threw her arms up into the air and jumped out of her seat. The other girls turned and glared at her, making her quickly sit back down.
The girl at the desk closest to the door stood up and coughed softly. Her uniform was partially hidden by a trenchcoat and she had a small grey trilby balanced on her head.
Payton looked between the girl and the new person, only to find that the new person now had a head. However, it was oddly blurry, almost as if Payton was looking through fogged up glasses.
“Hello, welcome to Sagi Academy of the arts!” Said the girl, her voice surprisingly formal. “We hope you’re going to have a great year with us, as class president allow me to introduce you to your fellow classmates!”
The blurry faced person nodded gently as the girl spoke. Once she had finished Payton saw a strange semi-transparent box appear in front of the person for a few seconds before vanishing.
“I’m sure as well!” Nodded the girl happily, sounding as if she was responding to something the person had said. “We should start with introductions, why don’t you tell us about yourself!” She added before falling silent again.
Payton saw the same thing play out, a hazy little box appeared in front of this strange person for a few seconds. It almost looked like it had writing inside it but Payton couldn’t make any of it out, trying to focus her eyes on it made her head hurt.
“Welcome name!” Smiled the girl. “Allow me to introduce myself first. I’m Sakamitsu Michiyo, but you may call me Micchi. I’m the school’s lead journalist and editor of our school newspaper. If you ever need any help or information, please come and speak to me.”
Payton’s head continued to throb as she looked between the blurred face and Micchi. She was totally confused and lost, she felt like she should be scared, but she didn’t understand the situation enough to be scared by it.
“Now allow me to introduce the rest of the class,” smiled Michiyo as she pointed to the next desk. At this desk sat a very pale girl who had a blood red dress barely hidden under her school jacket. “This is Tan.”
“Himemiya Elizabeth Camelia,” interrupted the girl, her voice quiet and sullen. “It is a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”
“Tanaka Akiko is the head of the poetry club,” explained Micchi. “She also has a space for poetry in the newspaper. Or at least, she does when she submits a poem that is within the rules.”
“The bars on my creative spirit will not hold,” mumbled Akiko as Micchi rolled her eyes and pointed to the next desk.
“This is Ashley Johnson, she is our foreign exchange student from America, I’m sure you will get on well as you both know what it is like to transfer to a new school.”
“What’s up!” Grinned Ashley as she made finger guns towards the weird figure. Her appearance was ludicrous, her flowing blonde hair was partially covered by a baseball cap that seemed to be made from an American flag and she had a football jersey hidden underneath her jacket.
Micchi smiled, a hint of redness coming to her cheeks as she turned towards the next desk and pointed towards the girl who had woken Payton earlier. “This is.”
“I’m Nanapon♥!” Shouted the girl as she jumped out of her chair before Micchi could introduce her. Payton winced, something about that name hurt her brain, it felt like it contained a sound that shouldn’t exist. “I’m the best singer in the school and by far the cutest!”
“This is Ozaki Nana,” continued Micchi, acting as if the other girl hadn’t interrupted her.
“Or Uzaki as we call her,” added the next girl in line, only for Nana to huff and put her hands on her hips.
“Don’t call me that! I’m Nanapon♥!” She shouted as another wave of pain caused Payton to wince. She wailed softly as she gripped her head, but none of the girls seemed to notice or care about her very obvious discomfort.
“This is Ichiura Kirika” sighed Micchi as she pointed towards the girl who had annoyed Nana. This girl seemed slightly unkempt, her brown hair was frizzy and her uniform was slightly crumpled.
“Hi,” said the girl nonchalantly.
“Don’t mind her, she is very kind once you get to know her,” smiled Micchi before quickly moving on. “Next up, Akazuki Yui.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said the girl next to Peyton as she stood up and bowed. Unlike Kirika this girl was perfectly kept and she was the only person who had not customized her uniform, in fact, with her perfectly formed pigtails she looked like a model student. “I hope we will have a wonderful and productive year together.”
“Hase Purin,” smiled Micchi as she pointed directly at Payton.
“My name isn’t that, I’m Payton!” Shouted Payton, but none of the girls reacted.
“She is the school’s best cook! If you’re ever at a party make sure you try her cakes!” Explained Micchi.
“I can’t cook,” insisted Payton, “I can’t bake either!” She added, growing more and more frustrated at being ignored.
“She’s also a super gamer!” Interrupted Nana, “Don’t bet against her on games unless you want her to take all your money!”
“Well that about covers it, let me get a photo for the paper!” Laughed Micchi as she picked up a camera from her desk and pointed it towards the figure.
As the camera flashed Payton saw the blurred face become a camera once more. Her head was throbbing, she couldn’t work out what was going on around her, she just didn’t feel real.
An older woman in a suit walked into the room and stepped in front of the board. “Alright, welcome back, this first class will be about selecting your electives for the year,” explained the woman as the ukulele music grew louder and more annoying.
Suddenly the world went black for a brief second. At first, Payton thought she had fallen asleep, but when the darkness receded she realized she was still in that weird classroom.
It was only her, the girls Micchi had introduced and the blurry headed person. Payton felt disoriented, it was almost as if the whole world had changed without her even moving a step.
“I can’t believe I have to take classical dance,” huffed Kirika. “I don’t like old dances, they’re slow and humiliating.”
“It isn’t that bad,” smiled Yui, “culture is a wonderful thing to know, and it gets you dates!”
“I don’t want to date,” replied Kirika firmly.
“But you need to get a date for the for the school festival!” Bounced Nana excitedly. “You can’t go alone! No one ever does!”
“That isn’t for nearly three months!” Shouted Kirika.
“She is right,” added Yui. “You can’t wait until the day before!”
“Don’t sweat it dudette,” interjected Ashley as she leaned against the teacher’s desk. “I’m sure you’ll score a home run by then!”
“That makes no sense,” mumbled Payton as she stood up and moved towards the group of girls, still trying to work out what was going on. However, none of the girl’s seemed to respond to her criticizing Ashely’s metaphor.
“Thank you Purin!” Smiled Nana. “I’m glad someone understands how important planning in advance is, but with your cakes, you’ll have everyone begging to date you!” Payton blinked, despite apparently talking to her, Nana was currently facing away from Payton.
“Then why don’t you go and plan Uzaki? I’m sure people are falling over themselves to date you.” Huffed Kirika, only for a look of anger to cross Nana’s face for a brief second.
“I’m the fantastic adorable Nanapon♥!” Replied Nana as a wave of pain washed over Payton’s brain. “Boys always queue up for me, like they’ll queue up for my single!”
“You’ve told us.” Laughed Kirika sarcastically. “I’m Like Carrots” by Uzaki, that is a title that just screams hit!”
“I’m Nanapon♥!” Shouted Nana, obviously growing very angry at the insults. “My single is going to be number one! It is going to be a best seller! Everyone will be chanting L-O-V-E Lovely Nanapon♥! L-O-V-E Lovely Nanapon♥! While you sit around working in an office!”
Payton winced, something about that name made it feel like someone was pushing a hot needle into her brain, she couldn’t place what it was, but it hurt so much. Too much. “Shut up!” shouted Payton as she dug her nails into her cheek.
“Nana, calm down!” Interjected Micchi before glaring at Kirika, obviously signaling for the girl to drop the topic.
“I’m apparently taking popular music,” interrupted Ashley, seemingly oblivious to the tension in the room. “Any of you girls got that? Is it closer to country or western?”
“I’m doing it!” Bounced Nana, her smile instantly returning as if someone had flipped a switch. “I’m going to perform my title song as the final I think!”
“Title song?” Asked Ashley as she adjusted her cap.
“The Nanapon♥ song!” Giggled Nana as Payton let out a muffled scream. “I need to work on the verses but I’ve got the chorus! Because it is all about me!” Grinned Nana as she opened her mouth to sing.
Payton’s head was swimming, the intense burning pain was becoming too much to handle, if she heard that name once more she was going to pass out from the agony.
As the first syllable of her name formed on Nana’s lips, Payton’s body went into autopilot. She ran forward and grabbed Nana, quickly throwing the girl out of the room and into the corridor before slamming the door with a loud bang.
As she held the door shut Payton gritted her teeth, hoping to every deity she knew that these doors were soundproof. After a few seconds of silence, Payton let her jaw relax as she looked through the window.
Nana was laid on the floor, however, her legs were stiff as if she was standing and her mouth was moving as if she was singing. It was almost like Nana hadn’t even noticed she had been knocked down.
Payton turned around, hoping to ask one of the other girls about the whole situation. However, they were all looking at the empty space where Nana had previously been standing.
At first, Payton presumed they were shocked at her actions, she had just football tackled their friend after all. But Payton quickly noticed that Micchi, Ashely, and Yui were bobbing their heads and smiling, almost as if they were listening to music.
After a few seconds, Micchi and Yui started to clap. “That was amazing!” Grinned Yui.
“What do you think Name?” Asked Micchi as she turned to face the blurry headed figure. Apparently, the figure had been stood in the corner of the room the whole time, but Payton could have sworn they were not there when she got out of her chair.
The strange box appeared again as Payton’s head throbbed. After a few seconds, the box vanished and Micchi giggled, acting as if this was the most normal thing in the world.
“Well Name, I’m sure Nana will sing a lot more this year. But I realize that due to us talking about classes I didn’t give you a tour of the rest of the school! But I have to go get the school paper edited.”
“I’ll do it!” Interrupted Yui with a grin. “I have to go and run an errand anyway.”
“I could as well, not like I want to, but to be polite.” Interjected Kirika.
“I’m always down to do a dude a solid!” Beamed Ashley.
A silence hung in the air for a few seconds before Micchi burst out laughing. “Well, you have made quite the impact Name! Who would you like to show you around? “Yui, Kirika, Ashely or.” Said Micchi as she suddenly twitched.
Suddenly a loud screech filled the air as Micchi’s body seemed to become engulfed in static, her form stretching and twitching seemingly at random. As the screech echoed a second time Payton grabbed her head, the pain welling up once more.
The whole room was starting to flash as the walls dissolved into colored pixilated static. “Na,” stuttered Micchi, her voice sounding oddly robotic and corrupted. As she spoke the flashes grew more intense as several other discordant noises joined the screech in a horrific choir.
Payton pulled on her hair, trying to block out the horrible noise as the world grew more corrupted and pixilated, everything was changing color and flashing almost like Payton was stuck in a short-circuiting disco ball.
Suddenly, an electric shock ran through Payton’s body making all of her muscles stiffen. As every fiber of her being sparked and throbbed the world dissolved in a bright flash, leaving only a strange void.
Payton tried to work out what was going on. The whole world was now nothing but gently shimmering and spiraling colors. Despite seemingly being stood on solid ground, Payton felt like she was floating in liquid.
But the worst thing was the throbbing in her head, it felt like her brain was pulsating, almost like it wanted to crawl right out of her ear. This whole environment felt like an assault on her senses. Like it was somewhere Payton was not meant to be.
Her whole body started to tremble as she continued to wince, trying to work out what was going on. Suddenly, a girl popped into existence a few feet in front of Payton.
“Help me,” mumbled Payton as she reached towards the girl. However, something about the girl made Payton feel anxious, almost as if some primal part of her brain was screaming at her to run.
As she reached Payton had time to look over the girl, her eyes trying to place where this fear was coming from. She was clad in blue leather pants and a leather motorcycle jacket, almost like she was about to go racing. In her hand, she held a large sign.
“Please wait! Now loading!” Read the sign above a drawing of a smiley face. The girl looked through Payton and smiled a wide and overly artificial smile. Suddenly, the room pulsed with a green glow that was so bright it made Payton’s eyes roll up into her head.
“Purin.” Whispered a voice in Payton’s head. But it wasn’t the voice of her internal monologue, it was different, it sounded almost cartoon-like. “Hase Purin,” whispered the voice again, sounding slightly firmer than before.
Terror ran across Payton’s body, she had no idea what to do, it was like someone was whispering into her ear, but there was no one anywhere near her and the strange girl wasn’t moving her lips.
“Hase Purin likes baking,” echoed the voice. “Hase Purin is the school’s cook. Hase Purin the girly girl.”
“I’m not, I’m Payton,” mumbled Payton as the world started to spin, the throbbing in her brain growing more and more intense.
“You are Hase Purin,” repeated the voice, its artificial calmness making it seem more threatening than any shout or yell. “You are Hase Purin.”
Payton felt a wave of pain run over her mind as she tried to argue back. Something was very wrong, it felt like her mind was being probed almost as if something was reaching in and trying to forcefully rearrange her thoughts.
“No,” grunted Payton as she felt her legs start to give way. Suddenly space seemed to close in, the walls of color rushed towards Payton, their color changing from smooth to jagged and pixelated, it was almost like a corrupted spiral pattern.
Just as the wall came within an inch of Payton’s face it started to flash. Each flash was so bright it made Payton’s eyes burn, it was like a firework going off right in front of her, the colors overloading her retinas every time they burst forth.
“Hase Purin,” repeated the voice in Payton’s brain. However, before Payton could argue with it the colors started to flash faster. The pattern cycled between jagged pixelated spirals of red blue and green. Each flash made Payton’s eyes water and burn, it felt like the colors were trying to drill into her brain.
Payton closed her eyes, keen to block out the assault. However, to her dismay closing her eyes did nothing, the pattern was in her mind’s eye and Payton couldn’t seem to envision anything else, no matter how hard she tired the flashing colors would not vanish, they continued to bore into her mind.
“Hase Purin.” Said the voice as it echoed in Payton’s head. “Hase Purin is a girly girl who loves to bake, you are Hase Purin.” It said as every synapse in Payton’s brain tingled and stung.
The flashing wouldn’t stop, each one felt like getting hit in the face, but despite the pain, Payton couldn’t look away. Something about the jagged spiraling pattern forced Payton to stare at it, no matter how much her body and brain screamed out, Payton could not convince herself to turn her head.
Something about it was mesmerizing, almost like it was almost offering her a way out, a tunnel to escape through. Maybe if she just looked deeper into it she would pass through the spiral and the flashing colors would stop scorching her retina.
As she stared she felt herself falling into the pattern, the pain becoming less noticeable as she let herself merge into the colors. The flashes were still there, but she couldn’t feel them stinging her body.
“Purin,” said the voice, sounding much louder than it had before. Payton didn’t really care though, she was distracted by the swirling patterns. The more she gazed, the less jagged they became, looking less like pixels and more like brushstrokes. Even the shades changed, becoming more like pleasing pastels.
It was oddly calming, Payton’s body felt so far away, almost like she had left it and was just floating in the pretty colors that surrounded her. She couldn’t really hear her own thoughts anymore, all she could hear was that strange voice as it whispered into her.
“Hase Purin loves to bake sweets and cakes,” continued the voice as Payton’s mind filled with half-remembered cake recipes. “Purin is a girly girl who loves to look pretty and cook,” it added as Payton continued to let the colors massage away all of her fears.
Payton’s mind was foggy, it was almost like someone else was thinking in her brain, covering up her own thoughts with the thoughts the voice suggested.
“Purin is so girly. She loves dresses and cakes. Purin is Nanapon’s biggest fan,” explained the voice as Payton continued to swim in the colors.
“I’m so girly, I like cake, I’m,” repeated Payton. However, the mention of being Nanapon’s biggest fan make her brain skip a beat. It was wrong, that wasn’t her, she wasn’t Purin! She couldn’t stand Nana! Let alone her saccharine singing.
Payton’s brain kicked into high gear, she focused and tried to pull herself out of the colors. Looking away felt like a herculean task, almost as if Payton was trying to deadlift a car, but, by focusing all of her willpower, she was able to pull her gaze away.
As her eyes left the center of the pattern it returned to its aggressive flashes and horrific jagged edges. Payton’s eyes started to burn as the colors restarted their assault. “Not Purin,” groaned Payton as she ground her teeth together, trying to use the sensation to keep herself awake.
The jagged shapes and the static grew more and more intense, it felt like her head was about to explode. “Payton Payton Payton,” grunted Payton as she continued to bite down on herself, doing all she could to block out the voice that still whispered into her mind.
Payton’s body seized again, she wanted to scream but she couldn’t get her lips to move. The pain washed over her as the colors faded and everything went black. She could feel herself passing out, she wanted to stay conscious, but it was all too much for her, and she very quickly fell into a deep and dreamless void.
“Purin! Purin!” Echoed a high-pitched voice in Payton’s ear. “Purin! Wake up!” Shouted the voice again as Payton’s mind slowly started to think once more.
Her whole body stung, it felt like she had been hit by a car and walked into a door at the same time.
“Purin!” Shouted another voice.
Payton lifted her head and blinked her eyes, letting the world come into focus around her. She saw a face a few inches from her own and quickly jumped back in shock, trying to work out what was going on and where she was.
“Oh no,” whined Payton, as she realized it was Nana.
“You don’t look so good!” Giggled Nana. “Did you stay up all night playing video games again?”
“Again?” Blinked Payton as she massaged her head. As she rubbed she heard the ukulele music start its overly cheery loop once again. Payton let out a sigh and shook her head, hoping to clear the pain before the music gave her a headache.
As she shook her head, she caught sight of her reflection in the window. Her stomach dropped as she saw that she still looked nothing like herself, she really did look like someone who would find Nana’s singing entertaining.
“Nana! Sit down!” Hissed Micchi as Nana quickly sat down. As the strange blurred faced figure entered the room Payton resigned herself to the fact she was going to have to go through this whole thing again.
The worst part was Nana, her stage name still felt like a slap to the face. However, Payton was able to fight through it by pinching her arm as hard as she could and doing her best to not pay attention to anything that was said, it was not as if mattered, she already knew what was going on.
Once Nana finished singing her song, Payton watched as the little box appeared in front of the blurry faced person. Her head throbbed a little bit as she stared at it, but it wasn’t even a fraction as painful as her time in the strange room.
Suddenly the room went black and Payton felt the world shift around her. It was almost like she passed out or fell asleep for a few moments. But as she opened her eyes, she realized she was in a totally different place.
This new room was very large and very plain. It had white walls that were covered in various faded posters. The room was also full of chairs and tables, but they were scattered around almost at random. It reminded her a lot of the staff room at her office, just a random hang out spot that had many uses but wasn’t really effective at any of them.
The thought of the staff room stopped Payton in her tracks. She had been so confused by the strange girls and the strange room that she had totally forgotten that she had been in her office a couple of hours before.
She had been there, drinking her hot chocolate and then she tried that strange game and then she appeared wherever here was. Payton’s thoughts clicked into place like a jigsaw puzzle, it seemed so obvious but also totally insane.
Payton tried to think of a counter-argument that made more sense, but she couldn’t come up with anything. She had been told that the game was a terrible visual novel and this place felt like it was one, a load of fantasy fulfillment characters all tripping over themselves to date the protagonist.
This place reeked of it, it was a school with a uniform, but all of the girls were college age and all of them were obsessed with their one specific interest.
“Coma,” muttered Payton to no one in particular. It was the only other option that made sense. Something had happened with the headset and she had ended up in a coma, and in reality, she was currently lying in a hospital bed as her boss yelled at her for not getting the code fixed.
Out of the corner of her eye, Payton spotted some of the girls moving around and doing stuff. Ashley was doing chin-ups on a bar that had been badly attached to an old bookcase, Nana had headphones on and was practicing a very over the top dance routine and Yui was sat at a desk studying.
Payton scanned the room, wondering if she could spot any of the other girls. However, the only other girl present was Micchi and she was stood in the dead center, doing absolutely nothing.
After a few minutes, the strange blurred headed figure appeared in the room and walked over to Micchi. Payton quickly followed this strange body, hoping she could see just what was in those boxes.
As she moved close to the strange figure Payton was overcome with a strange feeling of dread. She looked over the figure’s shoulder, however, the box was still blurry, almost as if it had been mirrored or drawn on wet paper.
Payton started to slowly move around the figure, twisting her head left and right to see if she could bring the text into focus, however no matter the angle the text was always illegible squiggles.
She moved behind Micchi as she continued to squint and wiggle her head. However, she was so focused on trying to read the box, she stumbled and smacked into Micchi’s back before tumbling to the ground.
“Crap,” mumbled Payton as she looked up at Micchi. Thankfully, Micchi seemed to not notice the girl slamming into her and continued to just stare at the strange figure.
As Payton pushed herself up off the floor she saw a hazy box sitting just behind Micchi. At first, she presumed it was just the one that the blurry headed figure seemed to use. However, as she looked closer she realized that the figure still had their box open.
Payton squinted and stared at the new box and realized that while it was very distorted and blurry, she could just about make out the letters in this new box.
“Sakamitsu Debug Menu,” read the box title. Beneath it was a load of equally blurry options.
“Path state. Girl location. Loaded areas. Other. Event Strings.” Mumbled Payton as she read through the list. They did all sound like options that you would find in a debug menu and the fact it existed did add more fuel to the theory that she was in a game.
Payton reached forward and poked the Girl location option, keen to see if she could interact with these weird menus. As her hand went through it, the button illuminated and the box quickly changed.
This new box contained a list of all the girls Payton had met so far. Micchi, Nana, Ashely, and Yui were all listed as being in the common room while the others were listed as unloaded.
However, Purin stood out. The location next to her name was flashing, alternating between Common Room and Error State, the latter of which was written in bright red letters.
“Huh,” mumbled Payton. She reached to try and hit the back button, hoping to explore some other menus. However, as the blurry faced figure started to walk away, the box began to fade.
Payton scrambled, hoping to get a glimpse at something while she still had the chance. She waved her hands wildly and was able to hit one of the options at random, however she couldn’t read what it was before the box vanished into thin air.
She could only watch as the blurred faced figure walked up to Nana and started to talk to her. Part of Payton wanted to listen into the conversation, but she decided against it, not wanting to risk getting another headache.
As she watched she debated her options. Sure, it did look like she was in a game, but this wouldn’t be the first time she had dreamt of work. Maybe this was a strange coma dream her brain had pieced together from her recent stressors.
However, as much Payton didn’t want to admit it, game or coma she had no choice but to try and find a way out. She couldn’t just sit around and wait and hope everything fixed itself, that was the quick route to insanity.
Suddenly the world went dark again and the heavy darkness washed over Payton’s mind. She instinctively started to fight as hard as she could, doing everything she could to resist the heavy void encroaching on her. She dug her nails into her palms and screamed out, determined to struggle through this, determined to break through whatever this was.
The darkness started to flicker, almost as if it was a curtain blowing in the breeze. Behind the flickering void, Payton could make out words and fragments of code. However, it was hard to focus on the text and keep fighting off the void at the same time.
Her eyes dashed left and right as her eyelids wobbled and strained against the force pushing against her. “Brain,” mumbled Payton as she squinted at a line of code, doing her best to keep moving even though it felt like she was floating in molasses. “Brainwave implementation, personality imprint,” groaned Payton as her eyelids spasmed.
She continued to try and read as much as she could, despite feeling herself slipping. No matter how hard she fought, the void seemed to push back exponentially stronger, despite her urge to fight, Payton knew it was only a matter of time and that she had to absorb as much of the code as possible.
She continued to skim the code, hoping she could find something that would give her a hint at what was going on. She searched as quickly as possible, but she was only able to take in a few small fragments of text. Out of the corner of her eye, Payton spotted a familiar bike jacket before the void crashed over her, throwing her into total darkness.
Payton lifted her heavy eyelids and looked around, trying to work out just where she was. She seemed to be in the lobby of a dorm room or something similar.
The blurry faced person was sitting in a chair and staring right at Payton. She debated trying to talk with the strange figure, however before she could open her mouth, Akiko spoke up from behind her.
“The moon has risen. I’m afraid I must retire,” she said as she walked between Payton and the figure.
“Good night!” Shouted Yui, causing Akiko to stop mid-step.
“Thank you Yui and Purin. Please enjoy the momentary peace in the arms of Morpheus.”
Payton just shrugged and ran with it, if people were going to presume her words she saw no point speaking. Once Akiko had turned the corner Yui and the figure started to talk, giving Payton plenty of time to think about what she had seen.
The bits of the code she could recall was odd, it was like nothing she had ever seen before, though, at the same time, it wasn’t that advanced, it was just calling functions she didn’t know. The “Personality Imprint” segment stuck out in her memory, it was such a weird turn of phrase and while she had seen oddly named scripts in the past, the section looked like it was a major part of the game’s backend.
“Bedtime for us!” Shouted Nana as she wrapped her hands around Payton, pulling her from her thoughts. “Night night Name!” Smiled Nana as she waved at the strange figure.
Payton’s eyes went wide as she realized what this meant. She was roommates with Nana. She had to sleep in the same room with constantly hyperactive, overly cutesy Nana.
As Nana let go and skipped towards her room, Payton sighed and stood up. She didn’t want to risk going back to that strange place again, especially if that code was real and this whole thing was attempting to brainwash her into being Purin.
As Payton walked Nana opened one of the doors, revealing a very nice looking dorm room. It was all the proof that Payton needed that this wasn’t real, while there was a small chance that girls as one dimensional as this could exist, there was no such thing as a nice dorm room.
Payton followed Nana inside and steeled herself for a fight, fully expecting the void to wash over her again. However, the second the door closed Nana froze in place, her arms sticking out at her sides as she stared blankly forward.
“Umm, Nana?” Blinked Payton. She walked around the girl and shook her a little, seeing if she could get a reaction, however, the girl was totally non-responsive.
“What do you think of Name?” Asked Nana as she stared at the door.
“Oh great,” sighed Payton as she shook her head. “Let me guess, blur face is eavesdropping on us.”
“They are cute!” Said Nana happily. “I think they are awesome!”
“Cute?” Replied Payton sarcastically. “They have no face, all the pink is rotting your mind.”
“A bet? To see who takes them to the festival? I’m in!” GIggled Nana. “If I win! You have to do my history of performance homework all year! If you win you can have my panties! They’ll be worth money!”
“Ewww,” grimaced Payton. At this moment she really couldn’t think of anything she wanted less than Nana’s underwear.
“Deal!” Shouted Nana as she remained totally still. “I don’t know why would you want those anyway!”
“I’m done!” Shouted Payton as she grabbed the door and pushed it open, she couldn’t deal with this, she was so disgusted by the idea that she would gamble to win used panties that she totally forgot where she was.
After one hard yank, the door swung open and Payton tumbled out to the floor. However, she wasn’t in the dorm lobby, she was back in the room of flashing colors.
Payton tried to cover her eyes and duck back inside the room with Nana, but as she turned she saw the room vanish into a haze of bright and strobing colors.
“No, I won’t let you do this!” Shouted Payton as she squeezed her arm, doing her best to not make direct eye contact with the swirling and jagged patterns as they strobed around her.
Payton spun around only to spot the motorcycle jacket lady stood a few feet away. “Now Loading! Please Wait!” Declared her sign, this time omitting the smiling face.
“Who are you?!” Shouted Payton. “What are you?!”
“You are Hase Purin,” whispered the artificial voice in Payton’s brain.
“No, I’m not!” Screamed Payton as her primal instincts took over. She sprinted forward and tried to swing for the girl, however, this turned out to be her undoing, as when she lifted her head to aim her punch, she made direct eye contact with the jagged flashing pixels.
Payton’s brain instantly locked up, something about the pattern was both mesmeric and painful, it felt like it was trying to force its way into her brain. Her muscles were so tense she could hardly move, let alone move at speed.
“You are Hase Purin,” whispered the voice again. “Hase Purin is a girly girl. Hase Purin loves baking.”
“No,” grunted Payton, trying to shout despite her locked jaw. “I’m not, I’m.”
“Hase Purin,” interrupted the voice, talking directly over Payton’s thoughts, stopping her mid-word. As the flashing grew brighter, her eyes started to water and flutter.
Payton couldn’t move, she didn’t feel in control of her own body, all she could do is sit helplessly as the flashing burned into her stinging brain. She tried to focus herself on something, on anything, but there was nothing but the colors.
“Hase Purin.” Repeated the voice as Payton’s internal monologue echoed the name back, despite Payton’s protests. “Hase Purin loves cakes and pretty dresses, you are Hase Purin.”
Payton wanted to scream. She couldn’t stop her brain repeating the phrases, whenever she tried to think of anything, a bright flash of color obliterated the thought and made her brain throb and ache.
“Hase Purin would love to be a princess,” said the artificial voice. “Hase Purin would like everyone to love her cakes.” Payton found herself resisting the voices, it was almost like her brain was scared of thinking, scared of having to endure another of the bright flashes. The jagged spiral offered a reprieve from the pain if she just fell into it instead of fighting.
The temptation grew by the second. The reprieve from the burning flashes just sounded so perfect and worth the cost. Even as Payton considered it, the spiral’s jagged edges started to fade, becoming smoother and prettier, the colors becoming less offensive to her eyes.
“Purin is Nana’s biggest fan, Purin has a crush on Nana.” Explained the voice frankly. Payton felt her heart surge as primal hate pushed through her veins.
“No, no, no, no, no!” She shouted in her mind as her synapses seethed with rage. “I don’t like her! I don’t like her!” She continued, drowning out the digital voice.
Payton’s body moved through the power of sheer spite, she grabbed onto her hair and yanked it as she slammed her eyes closed to block out the colors. She ducked her head down and charged forward, hoping to either hit something or escape this horrific place.
Her feet slammed against whatever was passing for a floor as she awaited an impact that never came. She had no idea how long she ran for, but she could feel her legs tiring, her muscles starting to sting as they filled with lactic acid.
Payton stumbled and then collapsed, her head hitting the floor with a hard thud. She slowly opened her eyes and looked around, praying that she had somehow found an escape from that room.
As the world came into focus Payton saw a similar face a few inches from hers. “Purin! Purin! Purin! Wake up!” Echoed Nana’s annoyingly cheery voice. Payton was unsure how to feel, part of her was overjoyed that she had gotten out of that strange void intact, but she was also devastated by the fact that she was going to have to endure the introductions again.
She shook her head and sighed, only to spot something in the window. The sky outside the classroom was different. The clouds were transparent, Payton could see code flickering in and out of existence.
Payton ran to the window and pressed her nose against the glass doing her best to make out as much as possible before the code vanished for good.
“Purin: Error State,” flashed one cloud in bright red letters. “Personality Imprint: Failed” declared another cloud, alongside a fragment that declared the Newspaper clubroom wasn’t loading correctly.
“Maybe I can see more there,” grinned Payton. “I just need to get there,” she mumbled to herself as a plan started to form in her mind.
“Nana! Sit down!” Hissed Micchi, shaking Payton from her thoughts. She spun on her heel and went to sit at her desk. However, for the briefest second she could have sworn she saw the motorcycle jacket girl stood just outside the classroom window.
A shiver ran down Payton’s spine as she sat at the desk and prepared herself to endure the stupid speeches again. However, as the events played out, Payton found herself slightly distracted by Nana.
Sure, she was annoying, but she was sweet and her enthusiasm was contagious. Payton wondered if she had been too harsh towards her. Maybe she had projected her own anxiety onto this poor wannabe popstar, her singing wasn’t that bad, it just wasn’t the type of music Payton usually listened to.
Suddenly Payton blinked and shook her head. “What am I thinking?” She mumbled to herself before her eyes went wide. “Purin has a crush on Nana.”
Her stomach dropped like a brick. She needed to find a way out of this place, and she needed to do it as quickly as possible.