's 2019 Horror Write-off:

The scapegoat

Submitted by The Distant Suburbs

„We are one of the most vibrant and diverse nations in the known multiverse. We have as many different intelligent lifeforms among our ranks as there are animal species in your average tropical rainforest.


Needless to say, reproduction happens entirely by randomly generating embryos in our centralized laboratories. No one – be they a citizen or a foreign resident - shall conceive nor raise children outside the established system, for as long as they reside among us.


For the first part of their life, every citizen born in this nation is raised in one of the vast nursery pods alongside their peers, cared for by an elite force of affectionate educators and psychologists. The younglings are free to socialize with one another and roam an expansive garden environment monitored by benevolent but unobtrusive AI.


From the earliest age, our children learn that their passage into the world of adults will depend on a final exam, but the nature of the exam shall not be revealed to them before it begins.


The exam itself takes place once the youngling reaches an age that is considered adequate for their respective species – in humanoids, for example, this is at an age of about [19 standard Earth years].


The candidate, which we refer to as the „real player“ during the exam, is led into a tunnel that is supposed to take them to the trial area. Unbeknownst to them, they will actually be administered a sedative and released into an entirely simulated environment.


From the perspective of the „real player“, they will step out of the tunnel and reach a valley where they will meet up with other younglings they have never met before, supposedly because they are from different pods. In reality, all individuals except for the „real player“ are simulated characters, controlled by AI and, if need be, pod center employees. The simulation runs on a sort of dream logic that keeps the „real player“ from questioning inconsistencies by encouraging them to „fill in the gaps“ with their own imagination and sense of logic. All non-player characters – „NPCs“ – will claim to be as confused about the situation as the „real player“.


At this point, an educator avatar will step in and explain the nature of the trial to the group:    

The players will have to travel to a distant location in the game world and solve a series of challenging puzzles along the way. Crucially, passing the exam is presented as a group effort – the players are not competitors, everyone will be awarded the same final score, and everyone is explicitly allowed to contribute as much or as little to the quest as they want, provided that the puzzles ultimately get solved. (The longest quest on record lasted for over [70 standard Earth years] because the „real player“ stubbornly sabotaged the team’s attempts to complete a specific puzzle in a way that displeased the candidate.) The team could collectively brainstorm every solution, or just let the most skilled player do all of the work, to name just two examples.


Soon, a group dynamic sets in depending on how the „real player“ chooses to behave. If the „real player“ shies away from interaction, the rest of the team will declare them to be a „lone wolf“ and treat them with polite respect. If they turn out to be fearful and incompetent, the „others“ will be nurturing and protective. If the „real player“ is behaving in anti-social and even violent and dangerous ways, the “NPCs” will keep their distance, but still make sure the „real player“ stays safe, and will keep inviting them to all team activities. If, on the other hand, the „real player“ decides to show initiative and engage with the „group“, the „NPCs“ will soon declare the „real player“ to  be their „champion“ or „leader“  – praising every genuine effort and reacting to any mistake with helpful advice or good-natured humor. In short, the „real player“ is set up by the „NPCs“ as someone who „can do no wrong“.


However, one of the „NPCs“ is very different from the others. Digging deep into the „real player‘s“ personal preconceptions, this character is generated based on various traits the „real player“ associates with weakness, incompetence and unattractiveness. This part of the simulation is especially easy to do, since the mind of the candidate will readily fill in the gaps when presented with the vague concept of a „disgusting person“ or "loser". More often than not, that character will be an exaggerated version of everything the „real player“ dislikes about themselves or tries to avoid, allowing the candidate to feel „superior“, no matter their own deficiencies. However, NONE of the supposedly undesirable traits of that character are of a moral nature – the character is entirely benevolent and eager to contribute, even though their skills are catastrophically limited. We refer to that character as the „scapegoat“.


The rest of the „NPCs“ will treat the „scapegoat“ very poorly, mocking it every step of the way, dismissing all of its attempts to help (even if successful, against all odds) while being entirely unforgiving of every mistake it makes or any instance in which it impedes the „group’s“ progress. Frequently, they will compare the „scapegoat“ to the „real player“, and always conclude that the „real player“ was vastly superior and a much more valuable team mate – even if the „real player“ is entirely unproductive and anti-social for the duration of the quest. The „group" will gleefully encourage the „real player“ to participate in the abuse of the „scapegoat“.


As you might have guessed, that is the REAL exam. The quest and the puzzles are merely a narrative framing device.


The „real player“ is entirely free to react to the behavior of the „scapegoat“ and the other „NPCs“  in any way they see fit. Disturbingly, we have even seen cases of  “NPCs” and “real players” whipping one another up into a violent frenzy, culminating in the murder and ritualistic cannibalism of the “scapegoat”. It is only whenever the „real player“ actively takes the defense of the „scapegoat“ that the rest of the group will become hostile to the „real player“ as well – though never to the same degree that they are mistreating the „scapegoat“.


The final score of the exam depends on how the „real player“ treated the „scapegoat“:


If the „real player“ decided to stand up for the „scapegoat“, being protective, helpful and kind while actively fighting against the abusive behavior of the rest of the team, even at the risk of becoming an outcast themselves, they will be classified as „Alpha“.


If the „real player“ sought a diplomatic solution, trying to defuse the situation through distractions or mediation without explicitly siding with the „scapegoat“, or if they helped and comforted the „scapegoat“ in secret while also trying to remain on good terms  with the rest of the team, they will be classified as „Beta“. The same happens if they only decided to condemn and defy the group’s abuse of the “scapegoat” towards the very end of the quest.


If the „real player“ participated in the abuse in any way, or just allowed the abuse to happen while watching from the sidelines - with any support for the „scapegoat“ being little more than feeble, symbolic gestures, and no outstanding efforts to make amends - they will be classified as „Chaff“. Factors such as the most severe forms of social anxiety will be taken into account and may bump a Chaff’s score up to „Beta“ if it is judged that they really did the very best they could do, based on a comparison with people who have similar conditions.


The classification obtained in the exam is final and determines the candidate’s citizen status for the rest of their lives.


Only Alphas can be elected as political leaders, and they will be given strict priority when applying for key positions, say if they want to become judges, start businesses or research projects, administrate property, lead the defense forces - though assisted by any advisors they may choose.


Betas enjoy full voting rights, get to travel to any domestic or foreign location they desire and take on any role in society that fits their interests and level of skill, with the exception of the very highest offices reserved to the Alphas. They are free to interact with whoever they please. If Betas break the law, they will be judged by the same standards as Alphas – innocent until proven guilty, with the focus being on atonement and resocialization.


Chaff, on the other hand, have no voting rights and can only take part in political discussions to a very limited degree. Their sustenance consists of standardized rations. Any media content they are allowed to consume will be personalized and spliced up with overt or subtle callbacks to the events of the exam (the material being taken from the simulation archives, where footage of every citizen's simulation is preserved in perfect detail). Audio extracts from the simulation (or an equivalent, for non-hearing lifeforms) will be played in their personal sleeping pods in an endless loop. Their movement is restricted to their assigned district and to certain hours of the day cycle. They cannot choose their work freely, as every application by a Chaff can be hit with a veto by any Beta or Alpha, and if Chaff compete with Betas or Alphas for a given position, the Chaff will be discarded by default. Medical and psychological assistance is restricted to the bare minimum required to keep them alive and functioning for the duration of a standard species lifespan. Every person they interact with will be informed of their status and issued a warning that fraternization is considered risky and undesirable. If the “scapegoat” died in the Chaff’s simulation, a warning will be sent to anyone entering a certain radius, regardless of whether or not there is any interaction.  Even the slightest infractions may lead to termination, which can range from instant incineration to being donated to dangerous scientific or artistic experimentation. Obviously, Chaff are barred from contributing their genetic code to the common gene pool used to generate new younglings.


Anyway, that is the gist of it, dear visitor. My, that was quite a tangent. I hope you will enjoy your stay. I for one have enjoyed talking to you. I am sure YOU would have passed our exam with flying colors, and made a fine citizen of our nation.“


As you walk over the bridge and gaze upon the vast city in the valley below, you feel as if you can hear a faint wailing rise up into the sky.





Carlisle – ‘Heaven Is A Place On Earth’