Chapter 53:

The Value Of Teamwork

Red-Black Course

If the first room’s design was too elaborate while the second room was too simple, then the third room was more of a mix between the two.

There was no wall or labyrinth awaiting Zain on his path. Instead, two pillars around his waist’s height stood in the middle of the room. On each pillar was a glass box, and within the box were two buttons – one red and the other blue. Straight to the end of the room was a shut door, which the young man assumed was the exit and the end of the test.

What he didn’t expect, however, was the presence of another person in the room.

Fiddling around in a corner was a rather tall young man, though his back-long red hair tied into a ponytail would make it rather difficult to spot his correct gender. And as soon as Zain appeared within his sight, the young man let out a beaming smile as he waved hello:

“Hi! Are you a fellow applicant? Fancy meeting here!”

“Uh… hello,” in front of the overly enthusiastic attitude, Zain could only reply with a stiff smile. “You’re a late applicant as well?”

“You bet! The name’s Yusei. Yusei Kotaro,” the young man, now Yusei, quickly offered a friendly handshake.

So as not to be disrespectful, Zain accepted the shake and introduced himself as well. “Zain. Kuroshi Zain.”

“Kuroshi?” The surname caused Yusei to pause for a moment before immediately grinning once more. “What a strange last name! And not every day you see someone just straight up using their first name either!”

“Well, I’m not from here,” Zain answered. “Is it that weird?”

“At least in the past it is,” replied Yusei, “but granted, Aoba Academy nowadays is a heaven for international students too, so that barrier has gone down by a lot.”

“Well, anyway, nice to meet you… Yusei.”

“Same here!” Another smile from the recipient. But Yusei’s face soon turned to that of worry as he scratched his head in frustration:

“Now if only they can announce the next phase of the test already…”

“Just on cue, Mr. Yusei,” from Zain’s back, AISLE sounded. “Welcome, gentlemen, to the third phase of Aoba Academy’s admission exam. This one is a special test since it requires the presence of at least two people, but the rules are simple: both of the two buttons on the pillars over there have to be pressed at the same time. After which, the door would be opened, and whoever gets through it passes the phase.”

“That’s it?” Yusei was almost at the point of bursting out in laughter. “That’s everything?”

Zain, however, showed clear worry on his face. He knew what those words from the AI meant.

In front of Zain were two choices: either do nothing and fail the test, or give the young man beside him a fighting chance. Of course, the former could never be easier, but it would be insane to do it. And so, naturally, Zain went for the second choice.

“What exactly do you mean by ‘whoever’? Because that sounds awfully like...”

“Keep going, Mr. Zain,” AISLE shone its red eye at the young man.

Zain took a deep breath. There was no going out of it, but he had already decided. He would say it nonetheless, and then pass the test fair and square.

“Like only one of us would be able to pass this phase.”

Yusei’s smile soon froze as if thrown into an ice bath. Meanwhile, the ruthless robot continued to nod its body:

“Correct. Out of groups of two or more, only one person could pass this test. And even if the two buttons were pressed, the door would only open for a limited time, so choose wisely.”

“But… But that doesn’t make sense!” Yusei shouted in anger, bitter tears already welling in his eyes. “Why do all of this? How could the school just eliminate an applicant like that? What’s the criteria here?”

“I’m glad you asked that question, Mr. Yusei,” AISLE, contrary to the former’s expression, remained the same as before. “Very well, since the final phase is special, I will give you two a hint: the keyword for you to pass is ‘teamwork’.”

“You’re… kidding me, right?” The hint that the AI gave only served to put more fuel into the flame, as Yusei’s face turned worse by the second, almost as if the young man was losing his mind in front of the absurdity he was being put into. “Teamwork? Teamwork? In a test that put us against each other for our own survival, the thing that we have to do to pass is by working together? Don’t give me that bullshit!”

Hearing these words, Zain couldn’t help but let out a light smile. In his mind, flashes of his time in the Infinite Prison returned, of how he went through years of the Red-Black Course to no avail. And in the end, what he thought was the stupidest thing one could do in a game like that really did end up being his ticket to freedom – teamwork.

Zain was sure he had seen through the nature of the test. That the third phase’s real purpose was to see if one was willing to sacrifice their own gain for the sake of others. In other words, testing the kind heart of the examinee and putting their team before themselves. That would be what “teamwork” was about.

Zain attempted to raise his hands. He did it. He had passed the final phase.

But at the last moment, he stopped. He didn’t say anything, for a strange feeling arose within him.

As if judging eyes were aiming at him. As if someone near was ready to laugh at him at any time should he utter those words.

By logical thinking, Zain deduced that the third phase aimed to test the kindness of his heart, but his gut screamed anything other than that. And knowing his intuition, he would usually be correct.

Zain took a deep breath to calm himself. Then, to the surprise of both Yusei and AISLE, he turned to the young man and said the unthinkable:

“Hey, Yusei. What do you want in exchange for your chance at getting in?”

This was the conclusion that Zain came up with. Teamwork doesn’t mean sacrificing yourself for the sake of others. Equivalent trading – having both parties happy through negotiation – is also considered “teamwork”.

However, the man before him went above and beyond his expectations. Just not in the way he wanted.

“I’m not doing it,” Yusei firmly shook his head, crossing his arms to show his determination. “And you can’t convince me! If I’m supposed to be kicking someone else out, then I’d rather both of us fail right here, right now!”

“… Are you serious?” The foolish answer struck a nerve in Zain. “Be rational about it! If both of us fail here, then none of this matters anymore! Your hard work and mine, down the drain! It’s best for us to compete or discuss who gets the spot!”

“No!” No matter what Zain said, Yusei wouldn’t budge. “I refuse to partake in this situation!”

Zain clenched his fist and gritted his teeth. Had it not been for the test, he wouldn’t mind resorting to violence right now.

But it was at that moment that an idea came to him.

It was a big gamble. There would only be one chance. Even if he pulled it off, if it wasn’t the correct answer, he would be out. Which was the reason why he wouldn’t do it right away, and instead used what he learned from the previous tests: gathering more information.

“AISLE,” Zain called out.

“4. AISLE 4.” A light tick of annoyance from the robot, but Zain didn’t care about such triviality.

“Can you repeat the rules?”

“Both of the two buttons on the pillars must be pressed at the same time. After which, the door would be opened, and whoever gets through it passes the phase.”

“Both of the two buttons must be pressed at the same time…” Zain mumbles the rules again, rubbing his chin in deep thought. “Both of the two buttons must be pressed at the same time…”

His other hand reached for his pocket. A smile formed on his face.

Now, he was sure that this was the answer he was looking for.

Turning to Yusei, he asked once more:

“Let me get this straight. You wouldn’t budge, right?”

“Never!” The young man shouted with utmost conviction.

“Is that so?” Zain’s smile quickly turned into a grin. “I’m not too sure about that.”

Zain forcefully grabbed onto Yusei’s wrist with his hand. Only then did the latter realize what kind of situation he was in – he thought that he was standing next to a fellow friendly applicant, but the truth was that he was next to a bonafide tyrant without ever knowing it.

Yusei tried to shake off Zain’s grip, but he soon realized it was pointless. The hand holding onto his wrist was as tight as an iron cuff. Even if he would put all of his strength into it, Yusei could never hope to escape, and the sight of the pillars growing closer by the second only sent his mind into even more disarray.

“H-Hey!” The young man desperately shouted. “Even if you made me press the button, it wouldn’t work if you’re not pressing it at the same time! And the pillars are far away enough for it to not happen with force!”

“I know.” A simple answer, but Zain did not slow down.

“Then why…”

“Don’t take information at face value,” replied Zain with a devious grin. “Remember the rules again.”

“You mean the ‘both buttons have to…’ part? But…”

Yusei went quiet, for soon enough, he had also realized the other meaning behind those words.

Both buttons must be pressed at the same time. In other words, as long as they could keep the buttons pressed at the same time, the examinees themselves didn’t have to do so.

“But that still doesn’t make sense! How can you…”

“Courtesy of the last phase,” as if waiting for that question, Zain took out the trump card that he had been luckily holding onto – the tape from the arcade machine of the second phase.

Forcing Yusei’s hand onto the button, Zain quickly taped it tightly to the pillar, so tight that it hurt the former even with a touch. And just like that, Zain casually went to the other pillar and pressed the remaining button with ease.

True to his predictions, the door opened. But AISLE soon flew in front of him to block his path.

“What’s this?”

“You have passed the third phase,” answered the AI. “But have you forgotten the original test?”

“Oh, that,” Zain wasn’t surprised at the question. He was going to answer it as soon as he was asked anyway. “Yeah, I have a gist of it.”

“Good. Now, prospective student. What is Aoba’s true test about?”

The labyrinth’s puzzle. The wall’s breaking. The final test with the two buttons. All pointed to one thing.

“The first phase was to test our fundamental strength. The second was to test our smarts. The third… was to test ‘teamwork’ as you said. But not in the sense of working together; ‘teamwork’ here means the necessary skills to use the human resources around you to achieve your goal. It could be amiable like self-sacrifice. It could be through cunning strategy and negotiation. It could also be through absolute strength.”

“And? What do all of those have in common?”

“Everything… is to test our ‘creativity’. The way we handle situations with unorthodox thinking and out-of-the-box ideas. ‘Creativity’ is Aoba’s true test.”

“You are… correct! Not enough for a perfect score, but still the highest mark we’ve had for the entire freshman year!”

A voice congratulated him on the answer, but it wasn’t from the AI in front of him.

Even if he thought he had guessed everything about the test, Zain was still completely astounded as Yusei now stood in front of him completely free.

“How did you…”

“Always carry the right tools,” the young man, with the same kind of grin Zain showed him before, twirled around a small letter opener in his hand. “But don’t worry. You passed already. And… you failed to notice that I lack an AISLE, didn’t you?”

Only at this point did Zain realize that Yusei’s words were true. If he was an applicant, there would have to be another one of these small robots with him.

Letting out a sigh, Yusei continued. “There was no other examinee. I was part of the school’s third test. If you’re able to get me to work with you, then you’d pass. At first, I thought that you’d be the same as the others and offered me a trade or something, but who would have thought that you’d just force me onto the machine…”

“Uh… sorry about that,” Zain scratched his head in embarrassment.

“No, no, don’t worry. To be honest, I was surprised. I didn’t think that I’d lose to someone like that.”

“You don’t think you’d lose?”

“AISLE 4, my usual wardrobe, please.”

Yusei instead turned to the AI next to Zain. And to the latter’s surprise, it was compliant as if used to such directives.

“As you wish.”

A quick scan of the young man, and his usual outfit disappeared. Instead, on him was now a school uniform, complete with a white undershirt, black jacket, and matching tie. On the back of the jacket were the letters “elite among elites”, and on his right arm was a bright red band with golden letters engraved onto it.

“Allow me to formally introduce myself,” Yusei finally dropped his friendly façade and courted with utmost elegance. “Aoba Academy’s 246th Student Council President, 2nd year, Yusei Kotaro. Kuroshi Zain, let me be the first to say: welcome to Aoba.” 

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