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3 Debriefing

    "You've been inside it all along."

    Hearing those words, Yong Fan Shu's mind came close to crumbling, but the voice had so much more left to say.

    [You have successfully cleared all the requirements in the Preliminary Setting; there was nothing left in that world for you to do. But consciousness can't be transferred to the next Setting out of hand. Your body also needed to die.]

    The voice paused to let all that sink in. Then, in a lighter tone that somehow made the content sound even worse, he said, [You actually saved me the trouble when you accidentally got yourself killed. I would have had to do something to make you die if you hadn't. At the very least, though, your death by my hand wouldn't have been so... messy.]

    The voice had rattled off this string of reality-eroding information in an offhand manner. It gave the impression that he was stating things as they were and that no part of his statement was important enough to lie about.

    More to the point, she was inside a doorless, windowless room, staring at nothing but white walls, with no real idea of how she got there from one blink to the next. It was no use accusing him of lying when the evidence of her own senses was telling her she had no case.

    Just when Yong Fan Shu thought he was done destroying her, the prick let the other nuke drop.

    [One more thing,] he said. [That wasn't your original life you just departed from.]

    Even the mightiest structures collapse when their foundations have been compromised. Sometimes, that is also true of people.

    This woman was a prime example. Earlier, she had been resigned to accept her new "role" as either a reincarnator or a transmigrator. She had believed that one or the other scenario was what was happening to her based on the "evidence" of the stories she knew - stories that other people made up. Even if she seemed to have been destined to inhabit someone else's body, she had still known who she really was, and that made the thought a little bearable.

    But create the ideal environment, then have someone tell her she wasn't who she thought she was and, just like that, she started doubting her very existence.

    Her previous life, her ONLY life, as far as she was concerned, was not her "original life." She'd been in this System all along...

    This puzzle had fewer pieces, how come it was a thousand times more difficult to solve?

    The silence stretched. Yong Fan Shu would have liked nothing better than to ignore the voice again, especially when he's obviously waiting for a response, but she couldn't. It needed to be asked.

    "Who was I?"

    Without missing a beat, the voice answered: [You were 'Yong Fan Shu.']

    She closed her eyes. Reining in her temper with difficulty because her despair was threatening to overwhelm her, 'Yong Fan Shu' said, "Yeah, I got that part. I meant, who am I?"

    [You are presently the fifteen-year-old Hilde, a first rank princess of the queendom of Arnica. You have a reputation for being an oddball who only cares about arms training - understandable since no one took you firmly in hand growing up. Your mother died giving birth to you, and after your father the King also died five years later, everyone else just let you do as you please. You-]

    "Stop!"

    'Yong Fan Shu' was now curled on the floor, her eyes tightly shut, and it wasn't only due to despair.  Hearing the name "Hilde" earlier had triggered something in her mind. In an effort to stem the rush of images and sensations that the voice's words had unleashed, she had pressed the heels of her palms hard against her temples. But the more she had been forced to listen, the more they'd kept coming.

    In a dizzying blur, she had "lived" this princess's life - or at least the aspects that the voice's words touched upon. Those few sentences let her experience whole blocks and patches of memories, events that took place in a country that resembled European kingdoms in the Middle Ages. These memories amounted to years, including ones when the princess was a baby and shouldn't have been able to remember anything yet.

    When the voice stopped speaking, the flood of memories as seen from the princess's vantage point also stopped. Shaken, 'Yong Fan Shu' righted herself into a sitting position and thought, 'That person is real... she lived that life. What does he mean I'm her now? Where did "she" go?'

    But that question wasn't what's important at the moment.

    Fueled by rising panic and frustration, she got to her feet unsteadily and snapped, "You know that wasn't what I'm asking! Who am I? Who was I? Who is the real me?!"

    [Sorry,] the voice replied, not at all sounding apologetic. [You do not have the clearance to access that information.]

    A beat passed, and then-

    'This motherf--!'

    "Then why bait me into asking?! Why tell me my whole life was a lie?!"

    Outside of roles, 'Yong Fan Shu' had never raised her voice to such an undignified level. But she wasn't "Yong Fan Shu" anymore - wasn't that so? Hey, was she ever? What the hell, then! Screw dignity! Screw staying in character! She always wanted to try punching someone but had to restrain herself before! Wouldn't it be great if this voice materialized a face she could introduce to her fist?

    The voice didn't answer immediately. It seemed he was waiting until the raging woman had caught her breath, as well as exhausted her stream of nasty thoughts. Sure enough, when her mind and body had quieted sufficiently, he spoke again.

    [Protocol,] he answered without any trace of remorse. [By design, you knew nothing as you went through the Preliminary Setting. Its purpose had been to mentally train and condition you. Only after you've completed its course could your mind handle its true nature in relation to the System. You now have clearance to learn about that - and about a few other things. So I told you.]

    'Yong Fan Shu' listened carefully despite herself and thought, 'If my current state counted as "handling it," how low was that threshold?'

    But having calmed down, she knew she had to do a better job at keeping it together. Because it occurred to her, not once did the voice give the impression that she had any say - in anything. According to him, she'd been in this System all along without her even knowing it. She had nothing else to go on other than what he chooses to tell her.

    Locked inside a mysterious System, seemingly with no way out... doesn't that make her a prisoner?

    [If you want to learn about the System,] the voice continued, [you must succeed in meeting its requirements - no matter how little you know at any given point. Or how much.]

    For some reason, those last words and the way the voice said them sent a chill down her spine. Oh, and alternatives? Option to refuse? Do those taste good?

    [Of course, you'll also find out who you really are, if you play along,] he continued, tone morphing once again into a lighter one. [And whoever said your 'whole life' was a lie? I only said that that last one wasn't the original.]

    "But..." 'Yong Fan Shu' began hesitatingly, recalling what she'd just experienced about the life of "Hilde." "I mean - you said it took place INSIDE this System."

    [It did.] There was a pause. [And? Did any part of your last life feel fake to you?]

    ...And there lay her difficulty. If reality was in the details, Hilde's lacked none.

    'Yong Fan Shu' knew in her core that she too had "lived" every second of her previous life. No matter what else was true, it had all been real to her.

    The person called Yong Fan Shu was now gone from that other world, but she did exist there... and that world existed whether Yong Fan Shu was in it or not.

    She felt sure of that last part. If it were otherwise, there would have been no need for her previous body to die. Didn't the voice whisk away her consciousness just fine before the knife nicked a carotid? She could be wrong, of course, but it didn't appear like her body dying was necessarily a requirement for her consciousness to be transferred elsewhere.

    Finally, she reasoned: what did it matter that the actress Yong Fan Shu wasn't her original self? A rose by any other name and all that.

    Even if "Yong Fan Shu" was more than just a name.

    Even if it was really a distinct identity.

    She had been that person in her previous world, but that life was over now, and she apparently had another one waiting. What else was there for her to do? For the time being, 'Yong Fan Shu' could only... play along.

    As soon as she made up her mind, the voice spoke using his "operator" tone.

    [Debriefing complete.]

    [Identity: 'Yong Fan Shu' RETIRED.]

    [Skills: 'Role Playing' RETAINED; 'Mental Resilience' RETAINED; 'Situational Analysis' RETAINED; 'Adaptability' RETAINED; 'Grace Under Pressure' FAILED TO CONSOLIDATE.]

    [Personality: 'Obsessiveness' RETAINED; 'Ruthlessness' RESTRICTED; 'Sadistic Tendencies' REJECTED.]

    There was a pause. Then-

    [Identity: 'Princess Hilde of Arnica' ASSUMED.]
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