Prologue and Chapter I: Once Upon a Time...




Prologue


“I don’t need to be here. I already told you, I’m fine.”

“Yes, I agree, you are making a lot of progress. But you are still in a very delicate position, and-”

“Look,” she cut in, “what happened… is in the past now.” Her eyes met his, radiating intensity. “I’ve moved on.”

A brief silence followed. “Maria, do you remember what the first stage of recovery is?”

She shook her head and turned away.

Outside of the 33rd story office window, the day’s last light was receding from the landscape; distant mountains glowed with a rosy aura beneath billowing masses of crimson cloud and steel buildings turned to shadow against the fading skyline. It had been the same, on that night...

He cleared his throat. “Maria? We talked about this last time, remember? ”

She knew the answer. It was a stupid question.

“Acknowledgement,” she said, without turning away from the window.

“Yes, that’s correct. Right now, you are in denial, but as soon as you acknowledge your true feelings…” he waited, hoping she would finish the thought.

“You’ll let me leave?” she suggested, a sarcastic drawl drawing out her words.

“Maria, I am trying to help you, but you have to work with me.”

She shrugged her shoulders, saying nothing.

“Acknowledgement is just the first step,” he went on, “The others who saw what you did came out of the experience… changed. Your friend is—and I’m not supposed to tell you this, but I think it’s important for you to hear—she is on twenty-four hour suicide watch. Because of what she saw… what you both saw.”

Memories of that disturbing evening lingered on the edge of her awareness. She let them be, shifting her body to face him as she returned her attention to the present moment.

“That’s sad, and I hold only love in my heart for those people, especially Rose, but I’m not them.”

“That’s true. You are not. Deep down though, you feel the same emotional unrest that they do.”

“No, it’s not the same. We are not the same.” There was an almost desperate insistence in her voice.

“You aren’t? Are you sure that you’re so different?”

“Yes, because…” she paused, mulling over her choice of words, “I didn’t see the same darkness that they did.”

It had sounded less dramatic in her head.

“What did you see instead?”

“Whatever I wanted to.”

“Whatever you wanted to?”

“Yes.”

He paused to write in his notebook. She watched him, searching for a twitch or glare, something to show how sick he thought she was. But his face remained blank, emotionless.

A thought came to her.

“Sculptor...” her voice was playful now; seductive, even.

“Yes?

“Those orchids on your desk are exquisite…” She leaned forward to admire the flowers’ graceful milky petals, stained with yellow strands.

“Oh, thank you,” he said distractedly, still writing in his notebook.

"Who did you buy them for?”

“What?” He looked up, perplexed.

“Well, you don’t seem like the kind of man who buys flowers because he admires them for their beauty.”

He sighed and cocked his head disapprovingly. “Maria, I’m not going to play this game with you. I am here to help, but you have to want my help. Don’t forget that your research license is on the line, pending my evaluation.”

She reclined against the leather sofa, taken aback. That was a low blow.

“Fair enough,” she said. “In that case, I’ve come up with an analogy that will help you to better understand me, inspired by these delicate flowers of yours.”

“Go on.”

“An orchid,” she began, motioning towards the snowy blossoms, “is beautiful only because we say it is. We have identified it as a symbol of purity. We could just as easily identify it as a symbol of decay. The orchid itself doesn’t need to change to become ugly.”

“I’m not sure I’m following you…”

“Perspective determines reality, sculptor, not the other way around. The ‘reality’ that most of us believe in merely colors our perception… certain parts of it more strongly than others.”

“External influences do more than merely ‘color our perceptions,'" he replied dismissively. "You need to come down from the clouds and realize that the most you can do is accept the world around you. You cannot magically change it by wishing it away.”

She laughed lightly and smiled to herself.

“Okay, well, imagine this. If a mental patient lives his life in a padded cell wrapped in a straight jacket, but believes completely that his life is full of beauty and that he is doing work that fulfills his deepest purpose in life, how is that different from the real thing?”

“Your mental patient is delusional. He doesn’t have any concept of the real world.”

“I don’t think we do, either.”

“And that is why you are here in my office. Look,” he said, his voice taking on an admonitory tone, “you are not as unique as you think. You come in here thinking you are clever or something, or above my help. But you are just hiding from reality. Eventually, you will have to accept it.”

“I’m not hiding,” she said.

“It is precisely that attitude-”

Stop
,” she demanded “I need you to stop... and listen. I need you to understand.”

She didn’t know why, but it was true. She did need him to understand.

“Understand
what?” he asked, brusquely.

“When I saw what happened… when I saw those people die…”

“You shut it out.”

“No… I didn't. I let it become a part of me. How else could I have survived?”






Fallout 101



“You have been in biological stasis; decreased mobility is expected. In accordance with Genesys company policy, we ask that you please wait for authorized medical personnel to assist you in exiting the bio-stasis chamber.

“Scanning…

“Low levels of activity detected in the occipital, temporal, and prefrontal areas of the brain. This is often an indication that a person is suffering from short-term amnesia. This is normal. If you find that you can’t remember your name or personal details, please remain calm. One of your close Genesys friends will be along soon to help.”

A feeling of claustrophobia gripped at his chest. There is so little space here.

“Our life support systems indicate that you are experiencing symptoms of panic. Is it because you can’t remember who you are? In addition to talking with one of your Genesys friends, you may also consult your personal file for information about yourself. Please relax and take some time to review your file while you wait.

“{file not found}”

A light, mechanical whirring noise interspersed with timed clicks filled a pause in the computerized litany. The sound of water sloshing through tubes resounded faintly nearby; in the otherwise dead silence hanging on the moist air, it held an almost therapeutic quality.

“Now that you have had some time to review your file, do you remember who you are?" the feminine voice asked. "If you do not remember, or do not trust the contents of your file, please recognize that you may be experiencing neurological disorders resulting from your time in stasis."

"As always, Genesys claims no responsibility for any memory loss, degenerative muscle diseases, or other neuromuscular disorders you may have developed through the use of our facilities.”

The feeling of spaciousness returned. Gold… Golden light, everywhere, filling everything… The world seemed to be suspended in a solution of boundless energy.

“To ensure the safety of yourself and of all other members of the Genesys family, please remain in the bio-stasis chamber until authorized personnel have arrived to assist you. Be aware that exiting the bio-stasis chamber in a manner not accordant with stated protocol is a violation of company policy, and we will be forced to take appropriate action to keep you from harming yourself, others, and valuable company assets.”

Did I… Die? His mind felt wide open; as infinite as space and time. Coherent memories began to take shape in the endless depth of his consciousness.

“Remember who you are… Boundless energy; infinite capacity; You are a human being—there is no limit to what you can do, no end to what you can create.” Kerry pulled up a chair and sat next to him. “You are part of the great consciousness that connects us all.”

“It seems as if authorized staff members are not responding. Please remain calm.”

“You know I appreciate the pep talk, but what I want to know is if you think it’s even possible.”

“Trust your intuition. What does the unburdened, all knowing mind say?”

“I don’t know,” he replied, somewhat irritated. Kerry had done some groundbreaking work in the field of theoretical physics, but she had been slipping in recent years and it showed. “Why don’t you tell me?”

“Because I was hoping you would open your mind to something outside of what your eyes can see. That’s what good science is all about… exploration.”

“Yeah, but to think you can ask this complex of a question and actually get a usable answer from some kind of ‘space mind’ is crazy.”

“You’re not asking ‘Where do all the pieces of the puzzle go’; you just want to know which puzzle you should build. Besides…” she said, placing a gentle hand on his knee, “do you really want to spend your time making a list of reasons why something can’t be done? And so what if you open your mind up and all that comes out is a bunch of bullshit?” She tossed her hand in the air flippantly.

He would have hated to admit it, but she had a point. Some of his best work had come to him seemingly from out of nowhere.


“Due to the possibility of extreme circumstances, emergency protocol has been engaged. The containment cell lock system will release in five minutes. For your safety, please remain in the Eden general area until help has arrived.”

“Alright, I’ll do it,” he said, nodding in concession, “Aside from my sterling reputation, what have I got to lose?” A friendly smile tugged at his lips. “I still think you’re completely insane though, you know that, right?”

She laughed brightly. “That’s the spirit! Well, it’s as I always say—when every other approach has been exhausted, only the radical remains.”

“I’ve never heard you say that before.”

“Well, I should have. It makes sense, doesn’t it?”

“Other than that it does nothing to address the issue of when it’s a good time to quit, I’d have to agree,” he replied.

Smiling, she nodded at him to begin. With a deep breath, he cleared his mind and closed his eyes to the world.

At first, chattering layers of overlapping thoughts made it impossible for him to concentrate—dinner with a mysterious admirer of his, tomorrow; failed experiments; bodyguards… was the protection really necessary? He had to focus. Every thought was a pebble, cast into the lake of his mind; rippling waves distorted the reflection of his consciousness, but as he went deeper into his concept of self, the surface began to calm. From the darkness, a single thought seemed to emerge in total clarity…

“It says that each human’s body is linked to a specific energy, a soul, and that by severing this connection we can transcend the physical boundaries we believe exist.” As soon as the words were out of his mouth, he began to see everything that was wrong with the statement. But Kerry was almost giddy with excitement.

“Extraordinary, isn’t it!” she exclaimed, “At this moment you can feel your humanity, can’t you? I mean, really feel it!”

‘My humanity…’


It was such a strange question for her to have asked… 

The steady thumping of his heart brought him back out of the past; his eyes shuddered open and he found himself awash in a sea of white, breaking above the surface of his memories. 

“In one minute, emergency release procedures will begin. Please be aware that no staff have indicated that they are available to assist you and the Artificial Intelligence unit governing this facility’s functions is currently offline. Genesys claims no responsibility for your safety if you decide to exit the chamber unattended.”

Bright, warm light slowly gave way to form and feature. A pair of curved, metal slats wrapped in vine arced over a broken shield of glass—cracks spider-webbed across the transparent pane where shattered pieces hadn’t fallen away completely, and a tree bark enclosure stretched upwards to meet it, forming the rest of the small tube. Overrun with mossy growth and fragrant plant life, the bio-stasis chamber felt at odds with the dry, artificial voice echoing throughout the room.

"Ten seconds… Nine… Eight… Seven… Six… Five… Four… Three… Two… One…”

With a pneumatic hiss, the cover unlatched and cracked open.

“It seems that help still has not arrived; however, if you wish to exit the safety of your containment cell, you may do so at this time, though I strongly suggest that you stay where you are and wait for assistance.

“If you have any requests, I respond to the name of Calix and operate under the A.I.S. v2.4 user commands system with limited user-control authorization. Thank you for choosing Genesys as your center for personal recovery.”

Light flooded the area, emanating brightly from an unidentifiable material covering the collapsing walls and ceiling of the room. Through the dirt stained glass, it was impossible to tell what lay beyond the chamber, but a vague recognition of his surroundings prodded him to find out.

Gently stretching and craning his neck downward, he took care to notice the feelings in his body. Pumping heart and pulsing blood vessels brought life to his muscles as a slight stinging sensation flushed through him. Breathing fully, he began to feel more at home in his body.

He raised a hand to waist level and allowed it to hover in front of him, phantomlike. His fingers trembled; gently extending them, he felt the smooth texture of curved metal. This is touch, he thought, trying to come to grips with the idea. His lungs inhaled deeply and he put pressure on the door. It moved slightly upward, emitting a high-pitched whirring noise, and slid aside to reveal the world beyond.

The light seemed more intense than it had before. His eyes adjusted, urging a twisted panorama of mutated plant growth into focus. Thick tangles of vine adorned with dark green leaves slithered across the muddy floor, their roots plunging into missing sections of wall and ceiling. Amongst scattered concrete wreckage, massive tree trunks had risen violently from the earth leaving a mess of destroyed tile and rubble, dismal beneath grime-plastered walls that still glowed with unnatural light.

It was not a world that he recognized. It was too chaotic, too uncontrolled. He stepped gingerly out of the chamber, scanning warily for dangerous objects that might be hidden in the ground. Soft, mossy growth worked its way into his toes invitingly as gravity eased him downward; the previously intimidating room seemed to emanate a subtle, lively warmth.

He crouched to rest his shaking legs and looked over his shoulder. Four glass covered cylinders, overgrown, lay against a slanted platform. The word “EDEN” was printed above the large tubes, barely distinguishable from the grime and plant life creeping up the wall.

“Mar dash oh-one…” he muttered, reading the nomenclature adorning the capsule he had emerged from. They appeared as if they had once been trees, now dark and empty, hollowed of life and reinforced with metal.

Abandoned… or maybe they had never been used. An oddly slumping pile of ceiling and debris lay in the corner of the room. A fifth chamber... flattened by concrete and earthy stone, it was almost unrecognizable. His fingers wrapped around a hefty tree root to steady his legs and he leaned forward for a better look. A muddy ooze was smeared around the edges; it seemed to have overflowed from the chamber itself. Blood…



The room became twisted and dark; suffocating. Muscles in his chest tightened, constricting the flow of air as his eyes scrambled in a panicked search for a way out.

Breathe… He spun around, trying to stay in control of himself, breathe... The only exit, a sliding metal door, was jammed shut, held in place by gnarled tree roots and growth. Next to it sat framed a large observation window; a circular web of cracks radiated out from the center promisingly.

He dragged himself out of the tangled strands of plant life and headed for the damaged window, struggling to make any progress over the rough terrain. A cold draft sifted down from above to mingle with the moist, warm air of the large room; glancing upwards, he found he could see the floor above through a large hole in the ceiling, barely lit by the glowing white wall panels scattered at his feet.

An amber coloration permeated the cracked glass. It looks fragile... he thought, approaching it. Slowly, he knelt and retrieved a heavy stone from the ground. Cupping it in his hands, he swung the stone back and forth, letting loose with a stiff grunt. His eardrums rang with the sound of shattering glass, tinkling as it scattered in all directions.

Oh... shit.

Sharp fragments glistened in the soil ahead. He sat down and pulled his pants off in an awkward motion; he was otherwise bare, but natural instinct favored nudity over bleeding to death. Lucky me, they're already ripped. He tore the light green trousers down the center and wrapped his feet.

Raising himself, he stepped gingerly towards the window frame, now a deathly maw lined with glassy teeth. Taking a deep breath, he laid his hands on either side of the knifelike shards and pressed his full weight downward, testing his strength. His arms shook violently and he had to take a step back, heart racing with adrenaline. Damn it.

Lifting up his head he peered around the room, trying to process his situation. Breathe deeply…A sickly unease pawed at his throat, fully... He held his breath for a moment, waiting for the fog in his head to clear. His internal rhythm slowed and his muscles relaxed, calming his jittery mind. I need to try again.

Carefully, he pressed the heels of his hands onto the window frame and raised a quivering leg over the low barrier. As he straddled the wall with difficulty, a grim awareness of what would happen if he fell sat at the back of his mind, taunting him.

He quickly swept at the floor beyond with his toes, pushing aside the glassy remnants until he had a place to stand. Clear. Pressing the ball of his foot into the grimy tile, he pulled himself upright, muscles still shaking with nervous tension.

Computer monitors in various states of disrepair lined the walls of the cramped space. Only real scientists would use such dated equipment, he thought, in an effort to keep his mind occupied with things mundane. His eyes continued around the corridor-like area; metal rungs, stained in some unidentifiable liquid, lead up to an open ventilation grate. Had someone used it to get out?

A clacking noise ticked and tacked about in the vents overhead. Heart racing, muscles twitching with adrenaline, he ducked below an overhanging statue; but he knew better than to assume it was anything more than a rat scavenging for food. The oppressiveness of the room bore down upon him.

Office chairs and overturned decorations, toppled by growth, littered his path to the door. A hefty statue had slammed into the doorway opposite, almost barricading him from the exit. He knelt down. Glass shards peppered the small tunnel. This is the only way... he confirmed with a quick look around. Lowering himself, he crawled under the metallic effigy, arm over arm, muscles tensed to keep his torso off the ground. He moved slowly, displacing bits of glass with cautious swipes as he went. A blue halo of light beckoned to him from the other side.

His hands jammed into the uneven tile, raising him up to the luminous console. A priority message blinked steadily, waiting for the next available staff member. He laid a hand on it gently.

Message from Genesys systems admin Evelyn, class 003 artificial intelligence :
Reaction sequence. Systems lock down. Full element inoperability. External malfunction code a703.

a703… he thought, running a finger over the word. a703… external threat to A.I. core operating system and memory banks; last resort operations shutdown necessary in order to protect sensitive data.

A green glowing square sat by his hand. He placed his palm on it and looked forward into a small lens.

“Welcome, [user].”

“Reactivate Evelyn,” his voice cracked.

“I’m sorry. Evelyn went completely offline, ceasing all forms of communication.”

He cleared his throat. “How can I reach her?”

“Currently, there is no way to do that,” the diminutive, genderless voice replied, “She has deemed it necessary to completely isolate herself and her processes from the rest of the facility.”

“What about the backup admin? I need her help to get out of here.”

“And why would you want to ‘get out of here’?” A third voice boomed loudly from the surrounding walls. He dropped to the ground, throwing his hands over his head to shield himself from the noise.

It was Calix. A saccharine sweetness dripped from her deafening words. “I thought you liked it here?”

His eyes watered. The sound was so loud.

“Yes, I think you do like it here. I think you like it here because I put so much of my time… no, my self… into keeping you alive in that chamber.” Her tremoring voice threatened to shake apart the very fibers that held him together. “I think you like it here because you know you owe me for saving your life. I think you’ll stay.”

Darkness washed over the room.



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