NXT: PREFACE — WARNING! THIS IS NOT A DRILL (X-ORDIUM)

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WARNING! WARNING!

THIS IS NOT A DRILL. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. THIS IS YOUR PUBLIC ALERT UTILITARIANISM SYSTEM EXTROPIST WITH AN ANNOUNCEMENT. STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING, AND LISTEN CAREFULLY. ATMOSPHERIC TOXICITY LEVELS ARE ON A DRASTIC RISE. FIND YOUR POD NOW. IF YOU ARE LOST, OR ON YOUR WAY, PLEASE BE SURE TO WEAR YOUR SUITS AND UTILIZE THE OXO POSTS IMMEDIATELY. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

The booming alert system—voiced by an autonomous female-based program—blared throughout the air on repeat but with the wolves on her heels, she blazed deeper into the wooded area, zig-zagging the trees.

In the distance the fastened pace of her chasers fell with each passing second as her heart pounded inside her ears. The dizzying sound silenced her own breath in comparison. Lost in the focus of her debilitated senses, the two people chasing her stopped about half a mile back. But she focused upon other important matters.

Breaking the pattern, she made a sharp left turn back onto the path. It led straight towards the tenth pod. In the path, nothing stood between her and what she needed. The ninth pod zoomed behind her as her speed quickened. She stopped dead in her step as the tenth pod’s blood-red gleam caught her eyes. Waiting by the door Clyde waved her on in.

“Don’t stop now, come on,” he demanded.

Slowed, she approached the open the door, looking up to him for any kind of support or encouragement.

“Trust me,” he said, nodding. He held out his hand and led her inside. Hundreds of occupied transducers lined the inside of the pod, almost on top of one another. There was a centered path big enough for the both of them to fit in, and on either side sat three rows of transducers bumper to bumper.

“Finding an empty one is going to take forever in this,” she chided. She scanned the area and spotted one near the backside. Then noticed more empty ones amongst the various bodies. “Never mind.”

He shut the door, locking it in place. “You don’t have much time; you have to get this done.”

Her hands balled up into fists. The crinkle of her gloves sent a shiver up her spine. Without turning around, she spoke over her shoulder. “But I’ll forget you.”

The warning kept repeating outside, but it was just a whisper at this point.

“The important thing is that you don’t forget who you are. Innocent. You can prove it. We can help you. And you won’t have to remember anything about it. I have it all recorded.”

Her innocence meant everything to her. It defined her freedom. But a freedom without a life is no life she wanted to live.

“But what if it doesn’t work? I’ll forget everyone, everything. Again, for no reason,” she said, her eyes heavy. “Then what would be the point of any of this?”

“E, we do not have time for this. You heard what my parents’ AI’s said. You have to do this. It’s the only way for you to live a normal life. And if you forget me, that’s okay. At least I know my job will be done.”

“Is that all I am to you? A job? I care about you. My dad. Kyah. Forgetting all of you would be forgetting all of who I am.”

“You’re more than all of us. You’re greater than all of this. There isn’t anyone else like you that we know of, and from what we know, this is the most feasible option for you. You can start fresh and with a new life. Your life.

“But my life is with my dad. He didn’t mean for this to happen to me. He didn’t want this life for me.”

He pursed his lips together and flared his nostrils as his brows scrunched together. “He didn’t want you to have a life at all. This was all his fault. Now find a transducer and get on it so I can fix his mistake.”

“Then what was the point? What was the point in making me remember them? If you were just going to make me forget them…” she shook her, trembling in place. “You can’t even tell me what to expect.”

“We have to. It’s the only way this system works. If you would wake up without them, then you’d get them back. But then you’d be held accountable for everything that happened. But now you know why you have to get rid of them. Innocence by default. They can’t convict someone who no longer exists.”

“I can’t do that. I know it should be an easy choice, but it’s not that simple. Even though I hate what happened, and the left-over pain from that loss is too unbearable, I’d still rather live with what was rather than forgetting it all at once.”

“But if you don’t know it had ever happened, or anything else, then you wouldn’t know to care or feel anything towards what happened. It would be like as if you heard something on the news about a complete stranger. It is that simple.”

“Exactly, except I’d know that stranger would be me, and then I would probably start digging around for the answers and be hit with all that guilt all over again. Because other people will remember my name and my face, and they would all know. And I wouldn’t know why everyone hates me.”

He grabbed her shoulders, getting close into her face. “This isn’t what you want. It’s what she wants you to believe.”

“You don’t know what I want! I’m telling you what and you’re not listening to me.” She broke free from his grasp. “I’m not doing this. I want to keep them. They’re mine regardless of what you think.”

“So you would rather live a life of pure pain and hate towards you, and know why, than living in complete ignorance towards the situation?”

“Yes. I don’t want to lose them.”

“You’re going to lose them either way, what part are you not understanding? If you stay here, you will never be allowed that access level. Each time, you will be reset. And each time, you will still be here. Forever. Constantly starting over.”

She pondered his words for a moment. “So no matter what I lose. That’s it? Game over?”

“This isn’t a game. This is your life, that is, if you want to have a life.”

Unable to spit out anymore words, she spun in place. Everyone seemed at peace. Free from this place, free from their pasts…

“How many?”

“What?”

“How many people got to keep their memories?”

“Most of them.”

“How many?” She asked again, louder.

“Most,” he said at the same volume.

“I want an exact number, Clyde.”

She never had said his name in such a tone before. This taken him aback. “Hundred and thirty-five. The rest didn’t have a choice.”

“Like me? I don’t have a choice.”

“No, theirs bounced back too fast to stop.”

Echo circled one of the people. The woman’s lifeless body sat in a slumbered state unable to comprehend anything happening.

“I want mine, too.”

“E, if you do that, they will put you right back in here. You know that is exactly how they operate.”

She sighed. But he made a point. A point she couldn’t dispute. She made her way through the bodies and approached an empty transducer. The cold metal seeped through her gloves. Her eyes squinted shut at the thought of connecting. If it was anything like the one in her home pod, the pain she feared most. But of course, that wasn’t forgettable.

He continued his watch out the door for any possible intruders. “Hurry up. I’ll be there for you when you get out. I promise.”

“You promise? That’s almost laughable. Not like I’d recall you, nor probably care. Besides, you’re trying to erase me.”

Confused, he spun around. Echo’s face changed, it hardened. Her cynical stare penetrated his core. The softened expression he came to know and adore was now nothing more than a bitter version of itself.

“You’re not welcome here,” he said.

“Apparently, I’m not welcomed anywhere. Even in a place that protects you people. But who is to say I wouldn’t return someday?”

“Once Echo comes back through, you will never return. Not here or anywhere.”

“But how would you know which one of us came through after she wakes up? We share everything. Even thoughts.”

“It’ll work. I know it will and she’ll finally be free from anything that’s holding her back. Now, leave so she can get on with it.”

“I think I’d rather honor her wishes.”

“Those weren’t her thoughts. Those were yours. Let her be free.”

“I was here before she was, don’t you think seniority should preside over desire?”

“You died. Your time on this planet is over.”

“Not according to dad. He clearly loved me more. Even after I ended that sufferable woman’s’ life. And I’ll do it again to the next person that stands in my way.” She raised a fist and charged at Clyde.

He dodged her first swing and jumped away. “Stop it!”

“What’s wrong? Afraid to hurt this body?” She rushed him, kicking her leg up, but he moved his head catching her ankle with his hand.

With her other foot, she burrowed the tip of her sole into his chest. He knocked back, breathing hard. She grinned as she looked up from the ground and pounced like a cat onto him. He groaned, pained.

“S-stop it,” he said grabbing her wrists and flipping her onto her back. “E, come through. Come on. Come back to me.”

“She’s not home at the moment, can I take a message?” She said. She kicked him up, flipping him over his head onto his back. She stood back up and placed her heel on his throat. His face distorted. The lump of his failed swallowing attempts bounced against her foot.

“Awe. What’s wrong? Can’t speak?” She pressed down heavier. “Good. I’m tired of your voice anyhow. It’s so whiny. Have you even hit puberty, yet?”

His trembling fingers reached for her other foot. He snatched her ankle and pulled it in. She dropped to the ground and he rolled away, rubbing his throat. He spat on the ground and then sat up on his knees keeping a close eye on her.

She cackled. “People are easier to end when they don’t know what’s coming for them.” Then she kicked over one of the transducers. It created a domino effect amongst one of the rows knocking the bodies of innocent people over and off the platforms.

“You can’t hurt them. They’re already gone.”

She shrugged, admiring her work. “I know, but the sensation of watching their lifeless bodies clang to the ground is something not even she will ever understand.” She chuckled more, losing herself in the sound of her own laughter.

“And that’s how I would know if she came through. Unlike you, she has compassion,” he said, jaw clenched.

Her laughing ceased halfway. She propped her hands on her hips and smirked. “Too much if you ask me.”

“Well good thing I’m not. You’re insane. They should have never allowed your dad to replicate your conscious. Because you don’t have one.”

“That’s debatable. Technically, I have two now. I can put on any facade I want. Makes one wonder, how many more can this brain handle?” She tapped her finger up to her temple. “I think I should find out once I’m out of here.” She grabbed him by his throat and lifted him up above her head. His feet dangled in defiance. She barred her teeth, head tilted to the side.

“You…don’t…have to…do this,” he said, running out of breath.

“But, don’t I? If I don’t, you’ll stop me and bring back that brat you like so much. The world would be better with more people like me.” She loosened her grip enough for him to speak.

“It was people like you why this place exists. It’s safe.”

Her brow raised. “People like me will always exist. There’s no escaping that fact. No matter how many programs the doctor runs.”

“You don’t know anything,” he said, with a grin.

Her grip tightened. “I know more than you think. I never forget anything. Only she does.”

The warning blared through the silence. Despite the walls keeping the sound out, it became louder until it turned into an unbearable ring in her ear. She winced, rubbing her ear with her finger. The ringing got louder, and her jaw dropped, and eyes shut closed.

As the ringing persisted, she dropped Clyde and cupped her ears. A squeal escaped her lips and drew her knees up to her chest. Her body arched flat as she continued to holler and rocked around in place.

The sound evaded him. He stood over her body. She tried to swipe at his feet, but he was able to bounce back with each attempt she had made. He rubbed the back of his neck. He knew he should help, but a bitter unawareness robbed him of movement.

“Ouch! Make it stop! What is that? Make it stop. Make it stop.” She looked up at him, forehead creased. “What are you doing to me? Stop!”

The ringing went up another octave. The sound of the alarm system got louder, overlapping every sound she’s ever came to know.

Clyde looked away; hands balled up into fists. He couldn’t bare to watch Echo in pain. But it wasn’t Echo, yet she was still in there.

The screams stopped. Echo lied on the ground holding her knees close to her body, sobbing into them. He approached her with caution.

He held out his hand as he inched closer. She continued to sob and he patted her shoulder. She didn’t flinch or respond in the way he expected. Realization kicked in. “E…”

He picked her up and she nuzzled his chest. He placed her onto an empty transducer. “You’re back now. Don’t leave again.”

“I’m sorry,” she said, sniffling. “I can’t control it.”

“I know.” He brushed her hair from her eyes. “That’s why I’m having you do this.”

She nodded. “Thank you.” Her eyes fell heavy as she folded her hands-on top of her stomach. Her fingers tapped.

“For what?”

She froze, meeting his almond eyes. “For not hitting back.”

“I’d never touch you that way. Or in any way you wouldn’t consent to.”

She took a deep breath. “Clyde, I still can’t do it.”

“You have to.”

“I know, but her will over me is stronger than I can fight back. I’m not like her. I can’t…”

“That is exactly why you can. You’re not like her, that’s true. You’re stronger than her and you don’t even realize it. But I do. Because I know you.”

“How do you know?”

“You came back through.”

She chuckled. “That’s true. I always do.”

“It’s your mind. Your body. You have more control then you give yourself credit for. We don’t have much time, and I hate to do this to you but it’s what is best. Please understand.”

She rested back onto the transducer and closed her eyes. “Okay. I can do this. I’m ready.”

“Are you sure?”

“Mm-hmm.”

He raced back to the door down the division. No one appeared through the glass door. “You’re safe still, go ahead. When you exit, I will too.”

“Okay.”

“I’ll count us down. Ten, nine, eight, seven, six,” he rested his finger on his wrist upon his orbit as he continued, “five, four, three, two, one.” He tapped his wrist as the two who had chased them came up over the knoll. He materialized out of existence, and seconds later the woman swung the door open. The man came in behind her.

She pointed at Echo and he rushed over to the whirring machine and knelt down. After pushing the off button, Echo came to. She sat up and rubbed her head. “W-what? Did it work?” She looked around; horror struck her face as her eyes landed upon the two.

“Not today,” he said, grinning. He grabbed her by the nape of her neck and shoved her down the empty path.

“No. You said if I get away, I’ll get my freedom. You can’t do this. This isn’t fair.”

The woman folded her arms, head tilted. “Tired of trying to escape, yet? How you know anything about this I’ll never piece together. Either way, times up. Time to go back to your pod. Playtime is over.”

Echo grabbed the man’s wrists and dug her fingers into his but her attempts at prying free slipped away. “What are you doing? Let me go. This is my choice. Someone help me! Help!”

“No one can hear you, nor help you. You’re all alone here. For the most part.” The woman drew her sights up to the man. “But don’t worry, we will always be here,” she said.

Echo felt a click and a cold metal compress against the back of her neck, like an ice pick on the skin. She winced, straining to pull away. “No, you won’t get away with this.”

The two watched as Echo faded in and out of consciousness.

“W-wait. Please,” Echo pleaded before slipping into darkness. Her body slumped over. He caught her as she was about to hit her head.

The man slung Echo over his broad shoulder and carried her out of the door as the system alert played back once more.

WARNING! WARNING!

THIS IS NOT A DRILL. THIS IS NOT A DRILL. THIS IS YOUR PUBLIC ALERT UTILITARIANISM SYSTEM EXTROPIST WITH AN ANNOUNCEMENT. STOP WHAT YOU’RE DOING, AND LISTEN CAREFULLY. ATMOSPHERIC TOXICITY LEVELS ARE ON A DRASTIC RISE. FIND YOUR POD NOW. IF YOU ARE LOST, OR ON YOUR WAY, PLEASE BE SURE TO WEAR YOUR SUITS AND UTILIZE THE OXO POSTS IMMEDIATELY. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.

“Turn that annoying thing off,” the woman demanded, waving her hand towards him.

“Sure thing.” He raised a small remote into the air and clicked a single button on its keypad.

END OF TRANSMISSION.


PREFACE: X-ORDIUM
Preface: X-Ordium

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