NXT: CHAPTER 4 — A SYMPHONY BEST UNSUNG (X-EMPT)

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There’s a dream-like feel to the place, a symphony best unsung. A trace of bountiful surplus of vegetables and fruits sat across the ground in a small patch of dirt, enough to feed the three of them.

This is home, she’s sure of it. However, a glooming presentiment resided above her and the stuttering inability within the evocation of humbled strength stumbled the tips of her fingers, draining the will to hurry and unlatch the daunting task before her.

Open

Just open the door.

A deep breath in provided a temporary relief and sufficed warmth. With a precarious huff the door forced open, but her knees became jell at the sound of screeching hinges. 

Passing through the doorway, weights rested upon her shoulders and forced away a once pleasant reverie. Her heart wobbled, burrowing itself deep inside an otherwise unfulfillable crevice unfounded beyond the figurative slap Kyah placed across her face. A mass of mood diminishing effects drained the life-force straight from her shaken gaze. In the kitchen, near the only bay window facing other homes, her dad’s chair rocked on its own, empty. The house appeared barren.

“Mom?”

The door slammed behind leaving nothing more than the faint echo of her own voice.

“Are you home?” The not-so-subtle crack in voice lead a disturbance down the hall, in a bedroom off to the right.

“Dad, where’s Mom?” An unwavering dark shadow lingered on the floor beneath his door frame from where he stood. With her steps, steady as the beat of her heart, the door inched closer. She knocked three times.

Nothing.

Dad?” she whispered; ear pressed against its solid build. Nothing except the slow, muffled breathing on the other side made a single sound.

Faster, she knocked again. “Dad.” She couldn’t take it anymore. The silence fueled the roiling fire under her skin. “Hello?” The combustion builds up inside as she waited.

Giving up seemed like the right thing to do. She puffed out, her back against the door, and her face reddened in pain. “I just want to know where she is,” she said.

The door banged open, jolting her chest forwards.

“Dead,” he said, grim as ever. His jaw, rounded, and his nose, broad in daylight, jutted towards whatever slight glimmer rayed through.

She swung around, peered into the room. “Where is she?” she asked, sliding into the room.

“She’s not here, E. She hasn’t been for a while. You know this.”

Full flared rage smacked in her core. “Yes, she is. She was here just this morning. You saw her. You told her ‘good-morning’. Where is she?”

“E, this fantasy world of yours has gotten out of hand. You—I—can’t keep living like this unless you stop.” A sigh pushed through his lips; his eyes disconcerting. “Have you been hearing those voices, again? E, there’s a doctor, he-he can help—”

“I need to talk to Mom. Tell me where she went.”

“I’ve told you already. Not here!” he roared, terse as tears swelled in the corner of his eyes.

“You call me crazy, yet you’re the one convinced my living—and not to mention—breathing mother is dead.”

He curled his fingers into fists, flexing every muscle in his upper arm. “I’m not lying to you,” he said through gritted teeth. “She is, okay, E?”

The wild look in his eye suggested something fierce within her.

She refused the wool cap to be pulled over her eyes. “What did you do? Did you kill her?”

He remained stoic.

“You did, didn’t you? Didn’t you?!” she pressed.

The escalated tone in her voice barred a smack across her agile face. Stunned beyond the strength of a stinging burn which lingered across her supple cheek, she shook in place.

“No. You did that all on your own,” he said, before he walked away, rubbing his palm.

She tore through the living room, shredding any and every good thought or memory ever formed about that man—pictures became smashed, walls were scratched, and the surrounding bits of modern art came crashing down around her—as she bolted out the door. The air caught her breath. It’s calming effects no longer eased her pain.

Movement in the corner of her eye turned her attention towards the dangling flowerpot. She gripped its fat body and ripped it free from its hook. With one, quick motion its pieces shattered across the cemented square in front of the door. Tears blurred her vision but as she dried her eyes, her focus cleared. In the center of what could have been an unmarked road, Clyde sat cross-legged in a meditative-like state.

 “Clyde,” she whispered. Despite what she believed, she closed in on him. “Clyde? Can we talk for a sec? I need to find my mom, have you seen her?”

The road was beige and worn, more so than the slight paths leading towards each housing structure. It dusted his black pants. She circled him, the crunch beneath her feet made her wish the sound came from her own toes, giving her a reason to stay, wait for him to reply. But with a tightened knot formed in her heart, a pulley system wrapped inside and sunk it to the piths of her stomach.

His eyes glazed onwards, as if disconnected from current realities.

“Are you mad at me or something?” But the empty vessel in which her words spilled out jerked along her plea. “Look, I’m sorry about before. But I could really use a friend right about now.”

Nothing.

“Clyde. Seriously? You’re ignoring me now?”

But as she was about to turn away, near the tip, her mom appeared resting upon one of the transducers. She rushed towards her side, her feet pounding away a mile like never before. The air tussled her hair in tight locks behind. Her skin brightened, glowing with euphoria, relieved. “Mom!” A saddened glee bounced off the walls.

Lying there without a care in the world, her mom’s peace radiated towards Echo. On her side, Kyah rested alongside in another with half of the rest of the population as well. However, it’s known her mother despised being woken up from her ‘stress-relief session’, as she called it. But something’s off and the ground attracts her knees. She resisted.

Bluish toned, and dark lines crossing her face prevailed themselves as if proud of what they mean.

She’s not breathing.

A piercing drill-like pressure rang in her ears. Flashes of images appeared right before her eyes. A moment of fleeting déjà vu played behind her eyelids as they frolicked without mercy. She shoved them away, however, they remained in the back of her mind.

She shook her mom’s shoulders, tapped her face with the palm of her hand. “No, please, don’t, no.” Her voice shook, despaired.

She placed two fingers upon her wrist, and not even a faint pulse melodic beneath her mom’s skin. She pressed on her chest in an attempt at CPR. “One, two, three, four, she reminded herself. Her mouth hovered over her mom’s.

Kyah awoke, yanked Echo back, and with a bellow she screamed, “Don’t!”

—XXX—

Edgar piled into his office; his briefcase dropped on the table next to the panels lined across the glass wall. In the bin below, snack cake wrappers lined the bottom. Rachel, ticking away at the touch screen before her, shoves one last bite of a chocolate roll in her mouth. Despite her hearty appetite, her figure was lean, yet, ample above.

“Any change?” An eagerness shined through as his tone remained hopeless. “Did you check his previous Oculi Reports? There might be certain brain wave inconsistencies we were not previously aware of.”

She points at the screen. “Normal, but he’s at a level nine now. We have to transfer him up one. This is the second time he’s gone up a level. It has to be caused by the slight tremors mapped around Solaris.”

“No, no. You see, here, his first readings upon entrance shows his disturbance is greatly enhanced now than before due to these heightened gamma and beta waves here, but his induced theta waves are the same since engaged. Something in the simulation is triggering his alpha and delta waves, causing him to want to wake up, yet he can’t at the same time.”

He turned his attention to the screen, as if speaking to it. “What are you doing in there?”

He then turned back to Rachel. “Initiate Transfer Sequence. Pull up camera eight and his vitals reports.”

She ticked away at the screen. After a few engagements, the last buzzed red. She tried again, then again. But to her bewilderment, it continued to buzz then proceed red. “I can’t. The last sequence is locked.”

“What? Let me try.” Her chair, though warm, was quaint and not shaped for a man of his stature. He tapped away, receiving the same results as her. He glanced over at camera eight. He’s there connected to the transducer. “Something isn’t right.”

“I can access to see where he is at in the simulation.”

“Do it.” The chair squeaked as he rose. He wiped his forehead, his hands shaking.

“Yep,” she sighed. “Just as I thought. He’s lost in the simulation. Per his location, his starting point is too far to be seen. Says he’s activated in the tenth level. What do you want to do?”

“Shut him down, reboot his systems.”

“That’s too risky. He’ll become catatonic, or worse, dead. Either way we will lose yet another patient. If we lose anymore, this place will be—”

“He’s a convict. Do you think he ever weighed the risks when killing the people, he had? Besides, it’s better than my grants getting pulled because the treatment failed, again. We can always add more side effects, or risks, such as levels seven to nine might only have a fifty-five percent chance at working, but we can never admit it’s failure.”

“We’ll be lying to everyone who are, and will, seek help. Isn’t that our goal? Wasn’t it your goal to help those in need, and not to kill them over convenience or any other reason, no matter who they are?”

“Or what they have done. But these people…”

“Deserve better care. It’s too late to question beliefs when lives are at stake. We cannot decide who lives or dies. It is not your choice. Or mine. It’s no ones.”

“But some people are so far too gone that help is the least of our hope.”

She reclined in her chair, sighing. She looked up at him with a look that seemed preemptive to what she was about to say. “Intervene. Be the voice of reason. Their voice. Tell them what to do and talk with them like people. Go old school, if you have to, with an office and everything.”

“Intervention is not the key to true healing. If anything, time has proven that to be one of the worst moves to make the greater a person’s disturbance. Slight stuff such as self-esteem, and divorcées, that works. But these ones, they are… different.”

The panel on the screen, under the patient’s identification number, blinked several times red before illuminating bright green.

“What did you do?” Edgar pressed.

Her eyes widened, baffled. “Nothing. Vitals, check. Brain activity, within range. He somehow stabilized himself and returned near his starting point. Guess we don’t have to decide if he lives or dies. Good.”

“Cancel the transfer. If it happens again, we’ll have to yank him out. The fluctuations will damage his brain. I put up a restricted area for a reason, yet they still fail to follow that one rule. Do not enter.”

In another screen, a blue blanket of warming light cascaded down, encasing his entire body as one. He lies there, unmoved, and untampered. Unaware of his own surroundings. The scars on his face, and hands perfect for strangulation remind his need for the constraints wrapped around his chest and limbs. But on the screen, seeing through his eyes, within a small box of moving imagery, towering trees waved above. Across the way, trunks lined what resembled the middle of the woods.

“Looks like he’s making his way back in now.”

Though her celebratory voice intoxicated the air, his stern look never peeled away. The heart monitor beeped, everything was fine until it raced. “Pull him back in now,” he commanded.

Her fingertips danced, frantic, across the panel. “I’m trying.”

Drops, rain perhaps, freckled within the screen’s imagery. Steam rolled off, surrounding the scope of his lens. His body, beneath the blue light, became violent. He flopped in his chair and flipped as far as his constraints would allow. The monitor beeped ever so faster than before and continued to incline in noise.

Edgar, angered, slammed his fist down hard enough to jolt the other wrappers off from their place, unto the bare floor. “Get him in now!”

Rachel ticked away, faster. His screen fuzzed, and echoes from both cameras of his screams tossed in the air like rocks falling down a cliff. His body convulses, it twists, and half-turns before his tremors started and ceased all violence. His body glistens in the light and breathing became rigid. Then, his heart rate declined at an alarming velocity until his body limped over without as much of a fight left to give.

A constant ring suggested his heart had stopped. In milliseconds, flashes of his entire life jetted across a screen enormous enough for a hundred smaller screens, then it all just faded away. Not even a whisper could detail the pain and torture of a soul that lived for nothing more than the lives he took. A daunting life lead became a blackened soul dead.

Everything he had lived through and every beating he endured, turned him against humanity and into an already predestined doomed life to live. It wasn’t his choice to lead the suffering he had, Rachel presumed.

Surrounded by flat lines, Rachel dragged her tear-eyed gaze up towards Edgar. “I-I…”

Spewing out her meal seemed easier than spitting out a few words. Nothing but a knotted sensation cut inside her gut. Her wrist trembled, rubbing against her temple. She appeared as if she were fighting off imaginary demons with each tap she slapped against herself. She reached in her pocket, expelled a bottle with a small number of pills left in it, then popped the lid off its orange body. She downed them, quick to not miss a single beat. Soon after, the shaking subsided.

Edgar acknowledged, yet seemed to not care. He called in a team.

“Claim the body,” he said, and not even two minutes passed before a few men in white surrounded the body and carried him away. As they swept out towards the other side of the wall, Edgar and Rachel met with a stare that could sting any guilty heart. “How could you allow this to happen?”

“I didn’t! I couldn’t have! There are no exits available. There was no way possible he could have wound up outside.”

“Well maybe if you were paying closer attention to their monitors than anything else.” He grimaced at the stockpile of candy wrappers and a paused movie player. “This wouldn’t have happened yet again.”

She followed his gaze, slammed shut the movie player. “There is…one way. Cognitive dissonance. Something triggered their realities.”

Edgar sat in the rounded, gray chair next to hers and spun towards the second set of panels as if an idea illuminated his doubt. After a few minutes of logging in and tapping away on his screen, he huffed. A half chuckle escaped his sigh. “Nothing.”

She gritted her teeth. “What?” Her perfect explanation became the center of some internal joke he must’ve been holding in.

“There is nothing here to suggest his lapse was caused by anything external.”

A somber gaze painted across Rachel’s face as her eyes caressed the picture of his entrance profile photo. “Well, with everything life had refused him, and with what life had thrown at him, it was only a matter of time before those memories leaked back in. Why all of them failed. Level eight is failing. We cannot sustain it for much longer.”

“It’s best to preempt these memory lapses from happening again, before anyone catches wind of this. Erase his file, bury his existence from ever being here.”

She glided over her screen with one swift movement. The patients’ file, filled and prevalent, made her pause. The delete button rested beneath her wrist. As she hovered over it, Edgar stopped her. “Wait. Keep him in. override his username and switch to autopilot.”

She followed his commands and took several deep breaths. “Are you sure? That would leave his access point open, obtainable to anyone with a firewall decoder. Basically, anyone with at least a seventh-grade education level could control his avatar.”

“Keep it open. Leave his virtual-self in the simulation.”

“This could potentially override it. The balance in the ratios set in could corrupt the progress of whoever he last had contact within the simulation. This ten-step program could become a twenty, or even thirty-step program, and—”

“Do it.”

“But it’s only meant for those who are going to return—”

“Now.” Chiseled ice seemed softer than the stare he set upon her.

She clicked the final keys, her fingers tensed. A redness pushed through her cheeks. “This isn’t right,” she sighed.

The argument followed them as they retreated into the hall. “This isn’t right,” she huffed, again, louder as to gain the attention of a couple workers passing by her door. “Even I know this isn’t right.”

He turned on his heels. “What do you know?”

“That I’ve been there before. Firsthand.”

“Are you still taking that medication I gave you?”

“Yes. And everything makes sense to me now. Like what you’re doing is wrong.”

He inched near her, haste in his mission. He ripped down her lab coat pocket, freeing the bottle from its space. She fought without prevail as he tossed its contents down one of the hallway sinks. He shook, battling unseen demons within. He straightened his back, sighing. His eyes became gentle as they locked with hers. “Maybe now you can see I’m only doing what I need to for my little girl,” he said with a small smile.


Chapter 4: X-Empt "symphony best unsung"
Chapter 4: X-Empt

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