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Echo

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[ Welcome, Dr. Park. ]

 


 E C H O


 

 

He taps on the glass. Once. Twice. By the third tap, there are hands coming up from the other side.

 

They’re delicate, beautiful, and made even more so by the curious patterns reminiscent of waves. There’s the image of a garden blossoming from elbows and looping around slender wrists, like gloves of the finest lace. It’s silver hinting gray and gray turning black until it reaches fingertips that curl as they press closer against the cold, clear barrier separating the world sustained by sterile air from that of artificially coloured water.

 

Chanyeol sighs wistfully at the sight of those beautiful hands, remembering how soft they felt against his firm own, and he smiles, just a little, when they move up the glass to trace his bigger palms. They’re small and easily dwarfed by his human hands.

 

“How are you today?” He mouths to the boy in the glass cage, whose blue eyes shine brightly with recognition. He smiles even wider because the creature remembers him, floating closer to him, inching ever closer to look at his face.

 

“You look beautiful, as always,” He adds and watches it tilt its head at his lips’ movement.

 

It doesn’t understand him, and they have yet to conclude anything about its mode of communication, but it seems capable of differentiating facial expressions now. Whether it’s because of him or not, the creature knows what a smile is and has learned to reciprocate it. It’s a big improvement from last week wherein it was said to have remained unresponsive and merely regarded his colleagues with distant eyes until he had volunteered to break it into the lab.

 

As expected, strangely enough, it’s been relatively quick to warm up to him, if the green light overhead of the vast, glorified aquarium is any indication. Green for slightly raised levels of arousal, commonly observed in mammalian subjects capable of attachment. Red for spikes, strongly indicative of aggression.

 

He glances at the sensor and hums at neon green. It flickers into a lighter and more vivid mint, sometimes, on days that it just stares at him and blinks rather... cutely. He supposes he should just be grateful that it isn’t hostile. Well, not yet, perhaps.

 

Today marks the third week of its constant exposure to humans. So far they have barred physical contact, preferring to let it become familiar with the team enough to ease the chances of shock once the invasive experiments begin. Yes, his first task is to get the subject to relax before they work towards cutting it open. Why? Something about his face, maybe, and Dr. Do grumbling about subjects being drawn to him. He supposes there’s truth to it, if he hasn’t been returned to his own sector yet. Not that it’s any reason to complain.

 

Chanyeol licks his bottom lip in anticipation and eyes the milky skin of the Nereid smiling at him from the other side. It’s all smooth and utterly flawless everywhere he looks, the very definition of perfection. For a moment, he wonders if being loved by the elements truly grants eternal youth, just as the lore says. Not that he knows much about lore anyway.

 

Superficially, they have found no claws, no fangs, nothing that may be employed for self-defense. It leads them all to admire how its species lives without any means of protection. One can only wonder how apt its ethereal appearance truly is to its self-preservation, but subject ECHO is the first and only of its kind thus far. Having only one test subject, unfortunately, places a rather obvious limit to what they can observe and do. Until they manage to obtain another like it, another nymph, his superiors will most likely have them avoid procedures that a session in a recuperation pod won’t be able to fix.

 

Thump. Thump.

 

He taps on the glass again, shifting the creature’s attention from his lips back to his hands. There’s very little else to look at anyway when there’s only pitch black to welcome from all sides, save for the illumination of where his feet meet ‘ground’, enveloping him, and the undying light to present ECHO to whoever is allowed to see. He thinks about his mother’s precious diamonds when ECHO’s eyes attentively follow his finger. They’re blue, oh so blue, and while they glimmer like jewels, they also remind him so much of the sea—lined with the burgundy of a rich shore and deep and brimming with mysteries, just waiting to be explored.

 

Gods, how can eyes glow like that? And what makes for the delicate markings wrapped around those hands? What for? What lies underneath them? Under the tissue? The bone? How different is its anatomy from the average human—from his? So many questions, so many that he doesn’t know where he’d possibly start.

 

“Such beauty actually exists,” He sighs again, drinking the surreal sight of blue eyes and silver hair and pink lips.

 

The nymph looks both so human and not that it sends him scouring his mind for words to describe it. He doesn’t find anything that fits. How does one even wrap their head around the discovery of the century? Here, right in front of him, is a living myth. He’s looking at a nymph with his very own eyes.

 

“Men would kill for you, but you don’t even know that, do you?” He asks rhetorically. He has been so busy with his routine of admiration that he hasn’t really gotten wind of the entire story of its capture, only that there had been a sudden influx of missing person reports from some impoverished village along another dead coast.

 

“Or maybe you do. Maybe you know the ruin you’d cause,” He murmurs again in thought. “Why else would they put you down here, in such a high-security chamber hundreds of feet below the surface, if you really were as harmless as you look?”

 

Chanyeol drags the pad of his thumb over the glass, over the expanse of cold barrier that is the only thing separating him from touching the softness of a fair cheek dusted with the most delicate of rose. It simply stares at him, with the slightest droop in stunning bright eyes and pink lips parted ever so slightly as it returns his gaze. How cute, he thinks, because it watches him with all the obvious fascination of a newborn baby towards the world.

 

He is its world now. Has been for three weeks, and will continue to be until the department relieves him as the head of this project. He highly doubts they will, of course.

 

He smiles reassuringly at this magnificent creature as he steps back, watching ECHO’s eyes instantly dim in response. The sensor dims with it too, mint plunging into an ugly green. It almost tugs at his chest, the way the nymph keeps on pressing and pawing against glass, even tapping on it the way he has over the past two weeks, as if to tell him not to go.

 

Thump.

 

Thump.

 

Thump thump thump—

 

He almost regrets the fact that they have discovered it, knowing the fate of test subjects that are brought into the facility and considering Sector 4’s specialty. It’d be such a waste to reduce this beautiful creature into another model—all doped up and stripped of self-control, but not of self-awareness, just to be preserved and displayed.

 

Oh, but after they’re done, will there even be anything left of it to be displayed…?

 

“Don’t worry, we’ll see each other real soon,” Chanyeol says, reining in his thoughts back on track without denying that the twinge of emotion is the closest to fondness that he’s ever felt in years while he gives the nymph another habitual smile. “Maybe I can teach you to say my name, next time.”

 

Thump.

 

“Would you like that?” He chuckles, and it flashes a smile at him without understanding, so earnestly that he almost thinks twice about swiping his hand over the panel controlling the portal that takes him back up to the labs.

 

A smile is the only thing it knows and does that he understands to be something close to Come here, stay with me. It can’t understand what he’s saying. He wants to be the first to understand it, but for now, he shakes his head even though he returns its smile, and it tilts its head again in a puzzled manner because he doesn’t approach it like it expects him to do. Instead, he only turns away again and never looks back as he lightly slaps a palm over the panel of the only entrance.

 

He’ll have to finalize the preliminary reports later and hope that the higher-ups finally give them the signal for the start of the experiments. Contrary to what everyone else believes, he’s a rather impatient man, but if it means being the first to lay hands on ECHO, then he’d be more than willing to stretch himself thin.

 

After a quick flash of purple is the blinding of white. He winces slightly at the sudden illusion of nowhere, being the lone figure of a man standing in the middle of never-ending white space. Filled, but fundamentally empty. It’s the opposite of the room housing ECHO’s cage.

 

Chanyeol doesn’t blink, already accustomed to what he knows is merely a sample of the numerous, perpetually pristine ‘walls’ of his new research sector, and tucks both of his hands in the deep pockets of his flowing laboratory coat. He steps off the hexagonal platform and situates himself onto a hollow circle, the outline of which is set ablaze by a raging, orange glow with his presence.

 

[ Good day, Dr. Park. ]

 

A sentinel, all thin but lethally reinforced steel beneath fur rounding up a deceiving panda-like appearance, materializes beside him to perform the expected full-body scan. He pets its head and lets it read the identification wrapped around his wrist, admiring the strange warmth of life beneath his fingers because he very well knows there is none. The scan is over before he can even think of humming to himself again, and the white surrounding him disintegrates into the familiar view of sleek metal walls and more sophisticated glass right after the sentinel waves an extinct species's replica of a paw as a goodbye.

 

[ See you again soon. ]

 

With that, he’s back in the hall again, looking at a deluding dead end with The walls have eyes eerily printed over it in huge, bright red blocks.

 

He blinks. It still feels as if the hours he spends every day in a nyctophobic’s nightmare are simply vivid figments of his imagination. He readjusts his glasses, circular black frame and a tad bit over-sized for his already prominent eyes, and makes his way to the pantry while he sings a vague ballad to himself inside his head.

 

Chanyeol can’t help but feel at home as he strides along the wide, winding corridor and occasionally steals glimpses from the panoramic window overlooking a live vivisection of what seems to be another hybrid down below. A cat, he assumes, since they’re wildly abundant and because, well, they’re also conveniently neglected. If one hasn’t killed their own heart yet before getting here, then slicing open these poor creatures’ definitely will.

 

He doesn’t know whether it’s a good or a bad thing, to not feel as strongly about the cruelty as he used to, although there is still a tiny part of him left to feel pity towards the hybrid laid over the operating table. It’s pleasing enough to his eyes—the hybrid—even hundreds of feet away as The System readily zooms in for him through the lens of his glasses. He already knows the hybrid is going to wish for its own death soon if it hasn’t yet.

 

He looks away for good before he reaches the end of the corridor connecting the survey tower and the main building.

 

He would adopt a hybrid himself, it used to be a dream for him to, but he’s deathly allergic and is almost never home. Besides, it would most likely just die of loneliness even if he manages to fill his apartment with top-grade feed and toys to entertain itself. He hasn’t really thought of hybrids for a while now anyway.

 

Nowadays, he only thinks of the nymph in the glass cage. Not that there’s ever been a day that it doesn’t push its way into his thoughts with its dainty hands and a lingering expression of naiveté charring itself into his mind, like a persistent afterimage or a tattoo.

 

He muses about how ECHO has most probably demolished something in him. He cannot seem to stir any interest in himself towards hybrids anymore despite his history of morbid fascination with them when he still used to be a veterinarian. Now it’s just the wonderful shades of the colour blue and impossibly fair skin and the steadily growing desire to hear a voice that must be unlike anything he’s heard before. He actually even looks forward to work and donning his boring coat now.

 

Honestly, how can he possibly find anything else remotely as close to the textbook definition of beautiful after he has seen ECHO?

 

“Well, well, Dr. Park Chanyeol finally decided to grace us with his presence,” Dr. Do mutters the very moment he bursts into the minimalist pantry, without looking up from the clipboard and manila folders in one hand and a mug of freshly brewed coffee in the other. His vertically-challenged colleague has crammed himself in a corner beside the coffee machine like it belongs to him again.

 

The System automatically recognizes his arrival, and it takes only a couple of seconds before the waft of pastry fills the air just as the counter behind Dr. Do blinks neon green. It shortly reveals the usual box of hot and fresh cream buns that the taller doctor excitedly takes.

 

“Missed me already?” Chanyeol teases as he reaches over the shorter researcher’s head to grab the sizable mug of hot chocolate waiting for him to set down with his box of bread, elbow ungracefully meeting the back of his colleague’s head.

 

Dr. Do shoves him away with his mouth trained into a grim line, uncaring whether or not a sweet drink is spilled in the process. “Who would miss someone like you?”

 

Wouldn’t you now? And countless others. I’m rather difficult to forget.”

 

“There is nothing to miss about you, and no one would miss you if they knew even a fraction of the things inside your sick head.”

 

“Ah, fortunately for the rest of the world, it’ll always be me doing the peeking,” Chanyeol only laughs at that while he sits beside the other man, with his mug of chocolate safely in his own hand. He notes those smaller shoulders stiffening and it sends a tug at the corners of his own lips, curling them upwards. “Though frankly, I’m honored that you deem the recesses of my mind a personally promising research venture, Dr. Do.”

 

He smiles at the glare he knows the other doctor throws at him and has continued to do so ever since they’ve been introduced to each other weeks before. Dr. Do ‘D.O.’ Kyungsoo is very precise with his work and absolutely loathes wasting time, which he strongly believes is what Chanyeol is doing by building rapport with something they’d take apart piece by bleeding piece anyhow, and much sooner rather than later at that, with the rate of how the nymph warms up to the man.

 

“You’re so tense lately,” He comments after taking a sip and deciding he should definitely remember to bring his own bag of mini marshmallows for the rest of next times. “You should swing by ECHO’s room, it’d keep you entertained more than backtracking does while waiting for Junmyeon’s ‘go’.”

 

He doesn’t jump when D.O. abruptly drops the clipboard on the hard surface of the table and turns to fully glower at him.

 

“Entertainment,” D.O. repeats, visibly unamused. “You think I do this to entertain myself,” the man continues, brows scrunched together in disapproval and eyes narrowing in disbelief when the taller scientist only busies himself with downing the rest of his diabetes-in-a-mug. “You think I look forward to this.”

 

“Hm…? I don’t. Did I say you do? Though I wouldn’t put it against you if you happen to, nor am I in any position to,” Chanyeol answers, standing again to get a second serving of his chocolate and feigns a quizzical look when the other pushes against the table and half-stomps towards the exit.

 

The doors automatically slide open, but D.O. doesn’t step through them just yet to speak again, with fingers clenched hard on his clipboard and folders as he continues to pointedly glare at him. “I don’t skin sentient beings alive just to please myself.”

 

Ah, someone who still has a heart.

 

Chanyeol smiles again, showcasing two rows of perfectly white teeth despite the constant exposure to heavily staining substances. “That’s good,” He replies, before shortly adding, “Makes two of us.”

 

He finds the ill-disguised expression of disgust on Dr. Do’s face rather… gratifying. There’s something about ticking off cute fun-sized people that just appeals to him, for some reason, and he winks at the departing scientist just to see the tips of those ears flame red in anger.

 

When D.O. finally leaves, his thoughts waste no time to travel back to his little nymph and suddenly, it’s as if he’s back in ECHO’s chamber and holding out his hands to it. His thoughts might as well please him with the mental image of a beautiful nymph, he thinks, so he leans back in his seat and makes himself comfortable. While he enjoys his third serving of his absurd beverage and takes a bite of his bun, he lets his mind lead him to wherever it wishes to take him.

 

“Ah…” He wants to touch ECHO.

 

He really, really wants to.

 

And he will, whether it be by his own warm hands or by the tip of a cold, sharp knife.

 

 


 

 

 

They call him the Happy Virus.

 

Happy because that’s what he always looks like, with his wide-set smile that always reaches his ears and a laugh that’s deep, and breathy, and always makes him sound like he’s one of those people who will tell you it’s going to be okay, no matter how bleak the world outside has already spiraled down into. He’s the refreshing, burst of sunshine in this stark facility with its standardized, metallic grey-clad personnel. Happy because that’s what he (once upon a time, tried so hard to convince himself) is.

 

Park Chanyeol is happy.

 

Happy, happy, happy.

 

Then, there’s virus.

 

Why virus? Simply because… they say he’s contagious. That’s it. When he laughs, it’s as if the room is a dry forest catching fire and people rapidly burn as they all laugh along with him.

 

Others mindlessly swallow this ‘painfully accurate analogy’ and carry on everyday as if such a lively person like him is more suited to the sociable circles of the upper sectors, away from the taint of antiseptic and caustic smell of preserving liquid and safe from the crushing weight of stone-cold hearts. He thinks they're all fools, in a way.

 

Because of this, he secretly applauds Dr. Do, his second-in charge for this project, for not jumping the bandwagon. As expected of someone who would have spearheaded project ECHO if he didn’t exist. He’d even go as far as saying that he admires Dr. Do for having the gall to openly despise him and somehow also managing to conceal it so it doesn’t burden anyone else.

 

D.O. adamantly believes he personally knows the menace that Chanyeol really is and looks at him in the same accord. To Do Kyungsoo, Park Chanyeol is a virus, the kind that slips under the radar pretending to be benign so it can latch onto people, reach deep into every fiber of their being, and devour them agonizingly slowly from the inside while they helplessly rupture on the outside.

 

“I’m not nearly as bad,” Chanyeol appeals, and he’s smiling again because firstly, he can’t really help it. Secondly, he’s well aware of just how much it grates his colleague’s nerves and he enjoys every second of it.

 

“You’re right,” D.O. grunts as he ignores the stupid curved line on that face, and the various security checkpoints open up to their authority and lets them bypass the skittering sentinels, all state-of-the-art paralyzing mechanisms cloaked as tiny woodland animals until they reach the fewer, prowling white tigers of the lower floors. “You’re worse.”

 

“How so?” He half-mindedly replies, speaking but not really listening as they walk towards the survey tower and lets the shorter scientist scuffle ahead of him.

 

“You even dare to ask why…”

 

They could’ve simply insta-transported to their destination since the authority alongside their profiles in The System’s database allows its use, but D.O. is one of those left who insists on holding onto their humanity (and the old ways) while Chanyeol’s one of those left to find humor in everything else. For example, he always finds it funny how so much emotion (rage, to be more specific) can be contained in such a small body. Of course, by small body, he's pertaining to poor, conscientious Do Kyungsoo.

 

“Mm, well, I’m curious now, so why don’t you tell me?” He presses. His longer legs can easily make up for the growing distance anyway, but he’d rather not. It’s fun to let the other think he’s in the lead.

 

As if sensing his thoughts, D.O. whips around, all but his voice seemingly almost seething, “Viruses don’t feel exhilaration over their host’s pain.”

 

You should start calling me a parasite then.

 

There’s nothing to say to someone who is dogged, so Chanyeol merely continues to smile and starts to hum another love song while he trails closely behind this time. Weirdly enough, he seems to prefer love songs nowadays as well. He feels great lately.

 

D.O. leads him lower down the survey tower, going straight past the plated gate leading to the winding corridor of yesterday. They say it rims around a structure shaped after a coliseum, providing a 360-degree view of the most high-profile operations as they happen. All Chanyeol sees, however, is a simplistic, colossal dish over-glorified as the best operating theater to date where lucky researchers can watch an even luckier team pick on the test subjects they wish were theirs.

 

Watching someone else hold the scalpel or conducting an experiment first-hand is easily the ‘dream’ for those who work in Sector 4. It’s what the survey tower was made for, after all.

 

Ha ha. That’s a lie, of course.

 

Although the VIP view of the common hybrid being cut open and the ambiance resulting from having such a gorgeous but also highly conducive work space are both very nice, it’s not the pinnacle of what the sector has to offer. The facility is littered with deliberate lies and clever secrets, and most, if not simply all, of them will remain hidden from everyone else for the entire duration of their stay. The survey tower exists to mislead, just like the dead end of that particular corridor and the bulk of this sector’s existence.

 

Dr. Do doesn’t like it, but Chanyeol does. It’s all in his personal favor, really. The fewer number of individuals who know about the gritty details of this sector and his dear ECHO, who actually don’t mind becoming monsters themselves, the better.

 

They both sigh at the same time, for different reasons. They’ve finally been given the green light, fucking finally, and it’s admittedly made him a tiny bit mercurial. Dr. Park absolutely loathes grabby hands on his subjects and Park Chanyeol simply doesn’t like to share.

 

The surroundings progressively dip into black with white instead of white with black when they reach ground zero. The air in the facility is already cold, consistently aseptic, and there’s an abrupt scathing wave of hot that lasts for less than a second and is gone before the body can detect and appropriately react to it. Then the cold is back again, colder without somehow being uncomfortable.

 

Peculiar thing, science.

 

Having been a prominent figure in Sector 4 longer than he has and is thus already used to it, Dr. Do only pats his shoulder to hand over a patch with AP3 printed neatly in pink over it when they step into the changing room.

 

“A patch?” Chanyeol clarifies as he takes it in between his fingers, already halfway into peeling off his lab coat with a free arm. Thankfully, he’s way past laughing at the fact that his coat is only a couple of inches short of the other practitioner’s full height to actually focus.

 

“It’s just DNA extraction. Wouldn’t take as long as a bone marrow or a brain stem.”

 

Unfortunately, he comes a little closer to scowling, but opts to just press again as he sheds his drab of a uniform in favor of an equally dull, gray operating suit, “But why an anti-pheromone patch?” From a level 3 batch, at that.

 

Level 3 is the strongest. Already seldom employed. Level 4 exists, but they have, obviously, yet to encounter a need for it to be utilized.

 

“ECHO is a nymph,” D.O. reminds him—as if he can really forget anything related to ECHO even if he somehow ends up wanting to try in the first place—while dragging two of his own fingers across his torso to ‘shrink’ the operating suit in place. It's light gray and skin-tight and disturbingly feels very light as it flatteringly melds into the wearer’s physique.

 

“You should know this. Haven’t you been spending much of your idle time in his chamber?” Comes the expected, low-key reproof as continuation. “If you’ve brushed up on your mythology, you’d know that even the gods find nymphs utterly desirable.”

 

I can see why, Chanyeol soundlessly nods in agreement, his mind suddenly bombarded with images of perfection. He pays no heed to the faint stirring in his gut. Unlike some others, he doesn’t consume fairy tales or other whimsical writings of long-deceased prophets during his spare time.

 

What for when he has the real thing? Besides, he hasn’t really felt anything out of the ordinary every time he dallied in ECHO’s chamber. It might be because of the barriers, or maybe he’s yet to determine what exactly it is that he has to look out for. Doesn’t really matter at the moment.

 

“A patch is going to burn out fast,” He comments.

 

“Then you’re going to have to work faster than its rate of consumption.”

 

“Hm,” He doesn’t like that. Working fast. He likes taking his time in the guise of being careful, but he supposes it’ll do for now. “Weren’t you trying to sermon me about spending quality time with ECHO the other week? Why the change of heart?”

 

“I was under the assumption that letting you do what you want would dampen your enthusiasm or satisfy you somewhat, just so you’d stop being… all over the place. Apparently, doing so has only sustained it,” D.O. mutters and crosses over the gap leading into the examination room without checking if he’s being followed.

 

Chanyeol shrugs before he adheres the A-P patch to his nape. He feels it take immediate effect, melting into the epidermis as his nerves calm and the downwards stirring disappears entirely. He then proceeds to secure the gloves around his hands, so thin as if it were film over skin but substantially better than what the civilian medical industry considers as top-grade.

 

They only ever use them for high-risk procedures often involving substances of questionable nature. Sterilants are always active, and their strength is manipulated in accordance with what is required. The unobtrusive barrier that The System already provides for their heads and hands are always there too, just in case.

 

All this level of precaution for a swab of cells, he lightly chuckles. He can’t help but find it all amusing.

 

They’ve carved out the throat of a siren before all for the sake of the entertainment industry filled with its broken singers, whose dreams have broken even further than their owners have, and all that took was heavy proofing to render the siren harmless and a significant number of petri dish, so why all this for a nymph? Isn’t it all rather excessive?

 

No, not really. Because the very moment he enters the examination room, he feels it. He still senses the tug over the level 3 engineered potency of the A-P patch. It’s feeble, a weak, sort of tingling feeling prickling his chest, but palpable and undeniably present.

 

Chanyeol inhales and observes the curious feeling whether it will thrive or die as well as he resumes walking towards the center of the illuminated platform.

 

The System slides into the appropriate mode for him and provides him his mask by materializing it over his mouth. It provides a substitute for the glasses he forgot at home, too, and forms a protective layer over his cornea that flashes yellow before fading into transparency for good. Everything is clear as crystal, afterward.

 

The gears in his mind start to turn when he hovers over ECHO, eyes glazing over the full glory of the sea’s child. Utterly perfect. From the very tip of its softly curled toes up to the last strand of locks that is evocative of a stunning white beach.

 

Ah… ECHO is perfect.

 

So, so perfect. Perfect, perfect, perfect.

 

“Dr. Park,” Dr. Do suddenly snaps from beside him, scrutinizing him with his own staid gaze.

 

Chanyeol ignores him. He doesn’t question why he’s the only one so easily distracted and holds out a hand to the container of apparatus that naturally glides down to his reach. Everyone else is suddenly a waste of time to him.

 

Everyone else except ECHO, of course.

 

The nymph is blinking furiously at him, blue eyes bouncing erratically from one masked figure to another because it’s understandably anxious, but lays motionless there anyhow. Not that it has a lot of options at the moment. Or any, for that matter.

 

Those eyes are going to be the only ones active in its body for the duration of this session since ECHO’s receptors have already been dulled with the standard amount of anesthetic. The amount may or may not be as effective or accurate on a nymph, but since it is D.O.’s handiwork, there’s already a good guarantee that ECHO will live to undergo another session.

 

They’ll just up or lower the dosage as deemed fit for next time, which gratefully isn’t going to take another agonizing month. The waiting periods wouldn't be as long after this trial since recuperation pods have already been invented. Even the ugliest, botched mess of flesh will be decent, if not all well again, after five session periods at most.

 

It’s just extraction for today anyway. Slicing samples here and there for simultaneous examinations. It’s not going to hurt that much. But then, he’s never really been the one under the tip of his knife.

 

Chanyeol hums the song Monster until he recognizes that ECHO’s eyes are moist and unsteady, so he plucks out a disposable cloth from the container to wipe the first bead of a fallen tear.

 

“You don’t have to be scared. I’m not going to let anyone hurt you,” He soothes the nymph with a deliberate half-lie and runs a hand through the soft, sandy hair, keeping the cloth in place over the apple of one supple cheek.

 

He isn’t going to let his precious nymph come into harm this early. He’s even going to play nice while ECHO’s body is still pure and beautiful; because its body is still pure and beautiful. Curiously, it suddenly stops looking at Dr. Do.

 

At the sound of his voice, it doesn’t glimpse at anyone else. It just goes to focus on him. Then, he feels the tugging coming back. It’s as if he had a string attached to the cavity of his chest and the person on the other end is pulling at it ever so gently, just to let him know they’re there. It’s... a foreign and rather strange sensation.

 

He glances quickly over to D.O. who remains apathetic before he invokes The System. It readily informs him of his test subject’s steady vitals. How interesting, because it also notifies him that his own are still affected by the A-P patch. Duration remaining is one hundred fifty-three minutes. It’s just he who feels the A-P already fading, then.

 

Chanyeol raises his free hand to tap on air. The gesture seems to put the nymph at ease, as if the lustre that fills blue is a way to make up for the smile it can’t make, now that it truly and completely recognizes him. Ignoring the feeble tugging, he smiles behind his mask, too.

 

He leans a little closer, taking and raising the cloth over a dazzling blue iris and assuming to begin, and he silently laughs slightly when the tense Dr. Do finally releases a held breath. He smiles, for real, this time, “Since it’s the first meeting, and I don’t want you getting hurt more than what you need, I’ll be really fast and gentle, okay?”

 

He can feel his heart racing as The System transforms the cloth into a scalpel.

 

 


 

 

 

“You’re just going to carry on. Just like that. As if nothing happened.”

 

Chanyeol doesn’t bother to look up from the preliminary reports he has in one hand, suggestions of further probing with regards to latent regenerative capability, exemplary phagocytic—you know what? He’s going to skip that. It’s all really just other findings from the samples they’ve extracted from ECHO that he finds personally intriguing.

 

So, he merely takes a sip from the tall mug of chocolate with an extra pump of caramel and mini marshmallows in his other hand. He has already got the expressions of his colleague memorized. If he wanted to waste time tracing out another expression wrangled in disbelief and disgust, he could really just draw from memory alone and with extra confidence to spare for when he discovers very minute differences between the end result and Dr. Do’s actual face.

 

“Why shouldn’t I…?” He replies anyway, just to be courteous enough with the social obligation to answer when he is conversed with.

 

“Aren’t you going to try and explain yourself?”

 

“Again, why? I see you’re angry. What’s new?” Chanyeol raises his head to check if D.O. is holding a knife at point-blank, sees the latter crushing another hamster-modeled stress ball instead, and simply proceeds to bow again to go over the reports for the second time.

 

“How do you live with yourself?”

 

“Mm, much like how you do yourself, with rather obvious differences in lifestyle and regard for others’ and self-preservation, if you prefer to put it that way,” He answers thoughtlessly. Ticking D.O. even more is almost like second nature to him now.

 

He hears D.O. take a very deep breath before speaking again, slowly, “I thought you liked ECHO.”

 

Chanyeol gives that statement a second-long thought and replies, “I do like ECHO.”

 

Present tense. Because he still likes ECHO. Only ECHO, unbelievably!

 

Then why is ECHO in a recuperation pod!?” D.O. shrieks—growls, screams—whatever, and slams two clenched fists down his desk, almost crumpling his reports by a hair’s breadth.

 

“Because ECHO would die, otherwise?” He answers with a sigh, and he feels the corners of his lips twitch from where they maintain a smile.

 

“You weren’t supposed to cut into him yet, much less carve out a fucking eye! That is not what we’re—not what we should’ve—” D.O. stammers and seethes, and Chanyeol is sure that if it were anyone else, they would have already tried to punch him at the very least, because even though unadulterated murder is always what the former’s intention looks like towards him, D.O. has yet to sabotage his chances of daily living and he personally commends that level of self-control.

 

“I don’t see why you’re making a mountain out of an anthill when the people up in EXO are clearly more than happy to be receiving this much result so fast,” He scathingly retorts in addition, feeling a little miffed at his teammate’s insistence of being a disturbance. He makes a point of shrugging with his broader shoulders while he sips from his mug again.

 

He sees the other’s point. Truly, he does, but all it truly accomplishes is to remind him of sharp, cold, surgical metal gliding across skin and leaving the thinnest of trails. He has seen red before, countless of times even, but the red on ECHO he found much more vibrant, for some strange reason. Whether it’s blood, skin, or the gleam of luminescent eyes, ECHO is so, so vibrant.

 

There was something enchanting about the way the nymph continued to observe him, trusting him simply because he was familiar. Admittedly, he found it adorable and laughable that complete faith was being placed unto him, no less by a creature he has drugged, despite his sole purpose of tearing into said creature without it making a fuss. ECHO had blinked its one dazzling blue eye at him when he had cut into flesh and bone to get the other, and he knew then that he could’ve cracked its skull open and it still would’ve merely smiled at him just because he smiled at it first.

 

How fucking cute.

 

In that moment, he only thought of giving all his attention to the nymph. Now, he has officially lost all interest in other subjects.

 

“I promptly had it placed into the pod with the purest healing concentrate, hadn’t I? I wasn’t going to let Echo bleed out,” Chanyeol finally responds, getting back to the matter at hand. “The dosage ended up minutely higher than what is commonly prescribed, but if I hadn’t upped it, the chances of the heart failing before we could even transfer him would’ve jumped by thirty percent, which, of course would have jeopardized the whole project, in result.”

 

He’s saying the truth, of course.

 

(Because why would he lie about ECHO?)

 

“That’s beside the point, Park,” The other continues to argue. Of course. “Doping him this much this early wouldn’t have been such a necessity in the first place if you only adhered to what was originally planned.”

 

His smile dims a little, but he wouldn’t call it frowning. He never frowns.

 

“And prolong ECHO’s anxiety by stretching extraction phase out into several, short operations which would have hurt it either way? Should I have waited until he developed a resistance to anesthesia, which would have led to upping the dosage anyway, by the way, and for its senses to get accustomed to being so numb that it would have affected daily function and thus, contaminate any hopes of extrinsic observation in the future?”

 

They can’t really hope for any extrinsic observation without any form of contamination anymore since they’ve already plucked the nymph out of its home—if a dead coast and a crumbled shrine can even be called a home in the first place—but preserving as much as the natural physiological state and functions would undoubtedly be invaluable because they still have to establish baselines to compare against once they begin to administer alterations.

 

“What is this then, are you saying you threatened ECHO’s life for him?”

 

“Think of it what you may, I frankly could care less. The important fact stands that ECHO still lives, healing at this very moment, while we have reports and findings to go over that can last us for at least another two weeks, not accounting for cross-references and further revisions.”

 

“Have you been seeing him in the Projection Room?” D.O. offhandedly asks, tone accusing while he looks at him as if he’d been proven to smuggle cat-hybrids across the border.

 

“I have not,” Chanyeol responds, smothering the urge to roll his eyes.

 

The Projection Room enables subjects’ awareness to manifest, bestowing the subject’s mind a physical form that may be perceived by the five senses. Naturally, it’s best employed for procedures concerning the mind. Safe to also assume that the police-military units utilize it as a means to manipulate and to break the psyche of the abundant number of insurgents of the modern government. How fun.

 

The government research sectors keep one for similar, albeit milder, intentions. However, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all if Sector 4 regularly breaches ethical research standards by subjecting poor creatures to debilitating mental duress.

 

For what purpose will he have for the Projection Room? If he wanted to have his way with the nymph, why would he only strive to dominate its mind when he can seize all that it can offer? ECHO likes him, and if he willed it, he can draw the nymph out of its little cage and just play until it breaks itself for him.

 

“You worry for the nymph, I understand that,” Chanyeol patronizes. He concludes, again, that it’s a waste of time to continue to engage in conversation, but he can multi-task so why not? He does still work with Do Kyungsoo. “However, I really do have an interest in it and I do not wish to have to say goodbye to it so soon, so you can rest assured ECHO will remain safe, for as long as my obligations and occupation allow it.”

 

“Although, to be completely honest, Dr. Do, why do you waste your breath on me when you distrust everything that comes out of my mouth anyway?” He ponders loudly, dragging a fingertip to guide The System into making highlights on the document in his grasp.

 

He thinks the other man has already dropped the subject and decided to pester him some other time when the latter doesn’t readily reply. Surprisingly, or perhaps unsurprisingly, he hears the sharp zing of materialization and finds D.O. sitting across him now, looking slightly calmer but with brows still knit together.

 

“You dislike it when I act fondly towards it, and even more when I don’t. If I may ask, will you enlighten me about what I’ve done to warrant your hatred?”

 

“You show little remorse for the things you do,” The shorter man explains, without hesitation and with eyes perpetually trained into a glower. “I know you, Park.”

 

“Oh? Well, my reputation seems to precede me.”

 

“Your reputation is an understatement of what you really are.”

 

An understatement? Chanyeol chortles. Oh, if people only knew that Happy Virus is awfully off the mark.

 

God, this is rich. Foregoing his mug of sugar, he wipes at the corner of his eyes. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but you still pity, don’t you? You still want to believe the world isn’t dying as we speak. You still want to believe there’s actual, inherent goodness in people’s hearts and that passing kindness forward is going to make things better.”

 

D.O. continues to frown. “You speak of it as if it’s a bad thing.”

 

“No, of course not. It’s just that, what is your pity going to do?” Chanyeol replies. He’s really, really getting tired of the shorter man’s tirades. He’s not going to give anyone the satisfaction of making him scowl, however. Never.

 

But then again, it’s also very pitiful and pointless. It’s such a waste of time that it’s irritatingly funny.

 

At the other’s silence, he continues, “Will it be enough to ask the forgiveness of all those hybrids you’ve helped be snatched from their litters? Will showing all of these creatures mercy save your family waiting for you up in the surface? Will keeping your heart and offering it to each test subject they lay out for you on your table going to help anyone or change anything, Dr. Do?”

 

Dr. Do is the one to sigh this time, “It won’t. I know that, but the least we could do is treat them with respect. Let us not live our lives as if we’re opening presents already preparing to toss them out. They’re all alive and breathing and aware of what we do to them. Let us not treat them as if they’re already corpses or models reduced to objects to look at and remind ourselves for a job well fucking done.”

 

Chanyeol takes a gulp of his sugary drink at this point, feeling the makings of a headache in his temples. He lays the reports flat on the table and links his hands together. He shrugs.

 

“Your division chief himself requested me to be transferred here for a rather obvious reason. If you’re unsatisfied with how I conduct my work, what do you propose then?” He asks as he slides a file towards D.O. “All subjects brought into this facility are capable of attachment. They’re more than capable of cohabitation and copulation with humans. We’d have significantly less bastard hybrids running around with their innards spilling out—if not only shamelessly serving as a reservoir of a high-ranking official’s genetic material—if the people you want to continue believing in would only recognize these creatures as their equal.”

 

Because the world having lost its light might also figuratively mean that the God of Light has also deemed the human race as beyond salvation. Humans are so sick and utterly twisted that He’d rather go to sleep than listen to the prayers of the children he abandoned, so now there’s only a dying world up on the surface. It’s cold and dark, thousands of feet from where he stands. Not that he remembers how things were before.

 

Outside of Sectors 1 to 12, past the rings of lands, meticulously allocated resources, and the hundred-meter steel gates dividing the able and the expendable members of the reformed society, there’s only a dying world and littered with people with the most extreme perversions to bend all other creatures to their will. There’s little else to see outside, really. Nowadays, the privileged members of society, those others like he and D.O., only worry that whichever channel and locality they decide to tap into is never rid of reports of abuse towards the fairer humanoid species.

 

The media always makes desensitizing and brainwashing that much easier to instill values that foster discrimination. Always has, always will. Teaching all the wrong things and calling them human values, what a joke. Up until now, mankind can't even decide if abusing a hybrid bears the same weight as an offense filed under animal cruelty or a grave crime towards another man.

 

“So, which will it be, Dr. Do? Would you rather we continue to kill them in cold blood? Or would you rather show them kindness and stare at eyes filled with the pain of betrayal as you cut them open for the last time?” He swerves back to topic while he takes another gulp and pouts. Unfortunately, he also finishes his mug of chocolate. “Because I believe it’s better for us to be distant and simply use them to further our studies as much as we can. If we can spare them the emotional ache, why not?”

 

Before D.O. can respond, The System makes a chime and flashes a digital yellow exclamation mark hovering in the space between them.

 

A notification.

 

“Ah, finally!” Chanyeol claps with a smile. “My dear ECHO is being released.”

 

Dr. Do’s face remains grim as he watches the taller scientist devour the contents of the hologram message and glances down at the document in his own hands, wincing at their options for the first experiment.

 

Nymph’s skin is suggested to be grafted and reproduced in hopes to manufacture fire-resistant coats and to more natural skin replacement for third-degree burn victims. Another more relevant option involves injecting laboratory samples of dormant diseases and letting the nymph’s discovered superior immunocompetence to produce vaccine. No matter which option they take and no matter how expertly or how much anesthesia he administers, the trials will still be excruciating and cruel.

 

Every trial will end with the nymph being dumped in a pod of the best healing serum, which has been theorized to strum nerves and turn them akin to live wire while it also places a heavy strain on the body’s ability to repair itself. Recuperation pods aren’t commonly utilized, considering the fact that the common hybrid subject is easily available and thus, highly disposable. A nymph is anything but what a hybrid is, however.

 

ECHO is the only nymph to have been discovered by humankind, the only nymph they have in the facility. ECHO is almost indispensable. Prolonging ECHO’s life and ECHO’s integrity is vital to them.

 

D.O. slightly crumples the document, already pitying the creature they put in a glass cage because they’ve just been waiting for another green light. “You like ECHO,” He sighs quietly and tiredly, to his chief of research. “And yet you champion letting him be hurt.”

 

Chanyeol tilts his head, whether truly pondering or otherwise, nobody else will ever really know.

 

“Listen, Do. Junmyeon placed me here for a reason, and you know what that is? Do you know why he put me in charge now instead of you?” The chief flashes another sardonic smile. “Because I know to put my head where it should be, where it belongs. And it belongs in here, in this facility, in that room, cutting open subjects you’re too human to do. I’m here to be the monster he knows you’re not, so you can go along and continue condemning every breath I take. It wouldn’t change anything.”

 

He stands at pats his colleague’s shoulder, leaving the latter with the marked documents and with a smile on his face. Not surprisingly, D.O. lets him walk away. They can care less to agree to disagree with someone they’re obligated to work closely with. They both know they’re just wasting each other’s time, now more than ever.

 

D.O., always wanting to have the last word, almost inaudibly says, “Don’t do anything you’re not supposed to, Park.”

 

Chanyeol only laughs.

 

 


 

 

 

It irks him that they put his nymph in such an ugly pod.

 

It’s filled with the most irritating shade, indecisively glowing rose to amaranthine because of the healing concentrate. The deeper the colour, the richer the serum, and the richer it is, the more aggressive the healing serum is on repairing the body. It even forces the occupant into a state of slumber while it boosts regeneration up to ten times—up to a hundred times.

 

Sleep spares a subject from the pain, if applicable, or simply from the overall discomfort of ‘fast forwarding’ healing. It’s an oddly satisfying process to observe overtime.

 

At least they relocated the nymph back to its own room. No more signing papers about release and compromising terms. That’s one thing to relatively be happy about, he supposes. Now there’s just an empty, glorified aquarium attached at the back of the illusionary abyss, and a cylindrical chamber smacked dab in the middle where the most beautiful creature in the world sleeps like that one princess in those mindless fairy tales.

 

“Hello, my Baekhyunnie,” Chanyeol murmurs in greeting to the floating figure that is deaf and blind to the world. He smiles anyhow despite knowing it won’t be seen.

 

He has gone ahead to pick a more suitable name for a creature as beautiful as this nymph—Baekhyun. He will call the nymph by the name he has always called it in his curious dreams. From now on, ECHO is his Baekhyun.

 

He lazily drags his gaze down to scan the body he’s mentally already claimed as his. His sweet, pretty Baekhyun. A little while longer and the nymph is going to be flawless again. Smooth, and perfect, and soft underneath the tips of his fingers again.

 

Now though… now he has to make do with another barrier to separate them. He has to be content with tracing the subtle curves of thighs and hips with his eyes and the coldness of glass against his hands. All he can do right now is to stare at the beauty in front of him, so, so close, but not close enough to be touched.

 

He releases a long sigh.

 

He wants to. He wants to touch it. He wants to touch and hold it until the skin itself denies everything else but him. He wants Baekhyun to be the only subject to be his.

 

“We haven’t seen each other in a while. Have you missed me?” He rests his head against the cage and closes his eyes. “Hyunnie, I missed you.”

 

I missed you.

 

Chanyeol breaks out into a little laugh at the words rolling off his tongue, because when has Park Chanyeol ever missed someone? When was the last time he went out of his way to deliberately leave his mark on someone—something’s life?

 

God knows nothing in him compels him to curl and weep at the memory of having found his family crushed under the debris of their old home, flesh dangling over metal rods that have shattered his father’s bones and pierced his sister’s heart. He found his mother—the mess that they identified and said was his mother anyway—away from them both, with jagged shards of broken glass windows lodged into and protruding out of her. They said she lived longer than noona and appa did, but nonetheless, she had bled to death as well.

 

He felt it a shame that she hadn’t died in his father’s arms, but… well, that was it.

 

As far as emotions went, only the cognitive dissonance that his awareness and inappropriate affect created led him an inch closer to devastation. He knew he should have mourned. He should have gone into shock at having lost his family overnight. He should have blamed himself that his mother thought of his younger self who had been away on a school trip and thus, had died alone in his room. Yet… he had not felt anything.

 

He didn’t feel an ounce of what the cheap portrayal of love and heartache and loss have led him to expect in his Immersive Reality Engine, which has been all the rage of those who have remained on the surface since its invention. He had only been confused and lost. He wondered why strangers suddenly pitied him and told him lies that were more consoling towards blind idiots than helpful for kids like him with no money and absolutely nothing left in his name.

 

Mr. and Mrs. Park were devout, but little Chanyeol cared little about the God of Light, and even less about His so-called love and plans for humankind. Little Park Chanyeol just worried about venturing out in a country trying to hold itself together. He worried about how he was going to survive because he was suddenly alone. Little Chanyeol only worried about himself.

 

After twenty plus years and having made a name for himself to snatch a seat in the government’s research council later, Chanyeol still really just thinks only of himself.

 

But now… now he also thinks of some creature in the shape of a boy, with eyes that rival the gleam of sapphires and whose youthful appearance would surely be the never-ending envy of those living miserably in the red light districts, whose sterile wombs make them unable to fulfill even their most basic purpose of bearing children. He thinks of the creature who was said to have caused husbands to spurn their wives from their bed and snatched their sons from their homes. He thinks of the nymph that used to live peacefully in one of the land’s remaining sparkling springs until the authorities caught wind of it and destroyed an old god’s shrine just to capture it.

 

Chanyeol thinks of Baekhyun, his nymph that looks at him like he’s the only human to ever matter, like he’s the only one there is. Baekhyun who lets him get close until he can tear into its skin and carve a bit of it off—or a lot. An eyeful is an awful lot, isn’t it?

 

“Baekhyun, my Baekhyun, my Baekhyunnie,” The scientist all but repeats the name like a chant, relishing how it feels on his tongue, until Baekhyun is finally stirring in its chamber and the human researcher feels his own heart begin to race in anticipation, waiting to be captivated by the color blue.

 

“I’ve come to visit you, my Baekhyunnie,” He smiles when Baekhyun’s eyes flutter open and stare right into his brown.

 

Baekhyun’s eye has regenerated, and it’s glowing as much as the other is, but he still feels like something is not quite right. It's not right. Disregarding the parts of the nymph’s body that have repaired themselves well, he feels like things in general, aren’t quite right.

The eyes blink once, twice, unharmed by the liquid surrounding their owner, before finally recognizing him and making the nymph smile brightly while pressing against glass again, wanting to touch him but realizing it cannot as it taps, taps, and slams against the cold glass with dainty hands.

 

“I can’t,” Chanyeol tells it as he continues to watch it furrow its delicate brows and crease its immaculate face with the desire to break through, just for him. “As much as I want to touch you again, I’m afraid we’ll have to wait for our next session.”

 

He even shakes his head for emphasis.

 

It puzzles the researcher, for just a little, when the mythical creature watches him again with all its attention, all of its unmasked fondness. It mouths his name to him from the other side of the glass with one of the loveliest smiles he has ever had the pleasure of seeing. Baekhyun looks at him, still, like he has never been the one to make the nymph bleed.

 

Baekhyun’s smile only dims when he shakes his head again and the nymph is left to stare at him, as if to tell him to come inside if it can’t go out to be with him.

 

Chanyeol steps closer, until the glass is the only nail’s worth of separation that keeps their foreheads, their hands, apart. The only thing cold about any of this—about being in a room with the only creature that has managed to bewitch him—is the fact that that the answer should always be No. It should be No when the nymph dots his eyes with a tip of a finger, No when it slides down and swipes slowly over the seam of his lips, all while the nymph stares at him and only at him.

 

Chanyeol, Chanyeol, Baekhyun mouths in delight, already ecstatic with just the letters of his name dripping off its lips, and Chanyeol knows that the moment he starts considering his options and weighing the pros and cons of overriding the System for Baekhyun, he should be turning around to leave.

 

He should be uttering his goodbye instead of using his identification to freeze the surveillance and drain the serum out of the chamber. He should be pulling away instead of pulling a nymph closer the very moment that the glass stops being a hindrance. He shouldn’t be entertaining his own What ifs or trying to address the fast beating in his chest by experimenting whether having Baekhyun so close to him will slow it down or drive it even faster.

 

Baekhyun feels cold against the average human body temperature, but more importantly, most importantly, Baekhyun is also soft and supple in his warm arms. It feels right, wiping traces of serum and brushing wet hair to keep them from getting in the way of Baekhyun’s face. This… being together, strangely feels right, even if Chanyeol immediately finds himself being and feeling trapped, with a nymph’s arm lacing around his neck and a hand cupping his face while he stares at pure ocean blue.

 

Baekhyun is beguiling, with delicately rosy cheeks and a wonderful, sinful, body that only knows to deny the space between them. Pressed against him, the nymph is small, truly smaller compared to him. He’s almost afraid to move, afraid to defile the sight of unadulterated beauty from the gods themselves.

 

Baekhyun smiles at him again with moons for eyes—Baekhyun always smiles at him—before he feels fingers playing and caressing his nape and he’s suddenly being tugged down. He thinks it’s an amused, tiny giggle he hears responding to his momentary surprise. It's a small pleasant sound that is quickly replaced by softer sighs after they both lean closer to each other and their lips meet halfway.

 

This… the gentle contact of soft lips between two, the reason the nymph’s mouth opens to let him in… it’s a kiss, is it not?

 

An expression of affection, whether passionate or friendly, is an intentional act borne out of one’s will. If he bases it off what’s left of the books the government has yet to burn and the repertoire of knowledge that being a part of the government makes available to him, then this... this means so much more than what he initially intended. Baekhyun might be more than a subject for him if he’s kissing back; if he’s holding the nymph close as if afraid of ever separating; if he’s suddenly disregarding the consequences of his actions because all he can think about is how he does not want this to ever end.

 

What if… what if he doesn’t want to look at Baekhyun from the other side of a glass cage anymore? What if he can’t be—what if he makes a bigger mistake, the next time he cuts Baekhyun open? What if this ends up being more than a personal experiment, more than milking his opportunity to satisfy his own curiosity?

 

Chanyeol?  Baekhyun’s blue eyes water when he recoils, when he digs nails into the nymph’s bare shoulders and shoves distance between them, trying to deny the tingling in his own lips and having been responsible for the red in Baekhyun’s. He’s not fond of Baekhyun. He’s not—he feels nothing towards the nymph. The tugging in his chest doesn’t exist. It’s not because of Baekhyun.

 

“You’re nothing to me,” Chanyeol hisses defensively, hand wrapped around the nymph’s throat. “You’re just a subject, you're my favorite test subject, but nothing more. You’re nothing more.”

 

Chanyeol, Baekhyun whimpers in his grasp but doesn’t struggle, doesn’t fight.

 

He can crush its neck if wants to; if it upsets him so much to acknowledge that he gravitates to Baekhyun like a moon orbits around the earth. The nymph still trusts him, even if it’s evidently frightened. It makes him want to spit the bitterness out of his mouth for the first time in his life.

 

What is this ugly feeling...? Conflict? Is he really doubting himself? Himself over a mute pathetic nymph? Instead of waiting until his experiments ends up killing Baekhyun, he can just end it now and later report that it was an honest mistake; that he had acted out of self-defence. He can leave.

 

But, he can also just kiss Baekhyun. He can just keep this as their secret. He can enjoy what time he can possibly have with the nymph so there will be no regrets afterwards.

 

Baekhyun cries at the red laser light suddenly locking onto its chest, because the System has finally caught on and has switched surveillance to run again. A panda sentinel materializes and comes rolling towards them, munching on a bamboo stick, before coming to an abrupt stop. He frowns at it, despising its deceitful appearance because he knows it’s going to make a sweep and dispose any anomaly it finds.

 

Chanyeol quickly realizes that right now it’s Baekhyun. The anomaly is Baekhyun who isn’t in the pod and isn’t tagged with any form of identification.

 

“Stop crying,” He says as he rips the band from his wrist and hastens to tie it around his nymph, who is now a sobbing mess on the floor because it has seen this scene before. “I said to stop.”

 

A hybrid came loose and tried to escape before, and the sentinels shot at it until the bullet holes transformed it into something that was beyond recognition. He’s—he’s not letting that happen to Baekhyun. Nobody else is going to hurt his Baekhyun.

 

He’s—

 

“Ch-Chan—”

 

Bang.

 

Park Chanyeol suddenly wakes. He’s back in his private quarters that have always been bleak and wonderfully depressing with all its white walls and white furniture. Immediately, he scans his surroundings for glass chambers and nymphs with blue eyes that both aren’t there.

 

Baekhyun isn’t there. His lips aren’t red. His hands aren’t shaking. He doesn’t have a bloody red flower blooming in the middle of his chest.

 

It was just a dream. A nightmare. It wasn’t real.

 

“Again,” He laughs, shakily, at the shortness of breath, the marching of his heart, and the cold sweat rolling down his temples.

 

“Not again,” He laughs at the feeling inside his chest, entirely foreign to him as a person—but not as a man or a man of science.

 

He laughs even more at the sensation of his sleeping garments rubbing against his body and the self-consciousness that occurs to him for the first time. He wants to be angry, for having Baekhyun take over every single dream he’s had ever since the first trial, but he can’t.

 

He can’t be angry at what he wants.

 

 


 

 

 

The report said that the water was silver where they found ECHO. Through a thin stream, the water flowed through a crevice of a cavern concealed by the wild forest that quickly grew after the assimilation of the North and the South. It led to the dead coast of a village a couple of miles away, which was formerly renowned for its moon fish before it was known for being the epitome of slow death.

 

The cavern, from which the silver water originated, had walls that were crystalline. Looking up was said to be akin to gazing upon the natural night sky when the air was still clear and the stars still used to be so numerous and bright. It was man-made. Primitive by today's standards, but above acceptably artistic nonetheless.

 

The cavern itself was a home to a humble shrine and was concluded to have been one of the earliest made for the purpose of worship of the God of Light. It was gorgeous, based solely on the pictures the task force had taken back. Surreal blossom carvings on precious stone pillars which glowed softly in the light of the god it was made for, and they reflected on water very much like the celestial body that was made His symbol. More than that, it was white, pristine, and pure. However, although it transformed the shrine’s appearance into a sight rather divine and lovely enough to warrant approach, it also turned it into a sight too pure for one to actually do so.

 

To Chanyeol, the shrine looked every bit of a mocking reminder of the filth of his kind; that a species as dirty and ugly as the human race would imminently be abandoned by the beautiful vain God they foolishly thought themselves as deserving to revere. Outside of the cavern was a forest where predators ate themselves after having run out of prey to hunt, and beyond it, was a village that baited beasts using their starving daughters. What could the human race, considering the deplorable acts it now embraces as the norm, possibly offer to a god who is said to weep at suffering?

 

He continues ridiculing mankind, mentally insisting that it is its fate to be abandoned by its Creator, until the picture of a distant and unsuspecting nymph as it bathes makes him pause. The water really is silver, evident even if it's only a hologram, and the sight robs him of speech. Then, he realizes something else—the task force actually took candid pictures of a nymph bathing. Huh...?

 

"Was the dispatched unit comprised entirely of males?" He asks, considering the fact that nowadays one would rarely see another individual in a state of undress. Technology has been made so advanced that even the physical and chemical rewards of having intercourse isn’t quite as… rewarding anymore, if not simply redundant with the more convenient ‘pleasure pills’.

 

“Yes,” Oh Sehun, his youngest colleague, a tall kid with sharp features contrasting inherent inexperience, quips.

 

No wonder, Chanyeol thinks. The human male is terribly easy to distract. He flips back to the string of cases that led to the investigation of Baekhyun’s village in the first place.

 

"I heard there was a lad in there, when they found ECHO."

 

“Oh…?”

 

"Turns out that there was another entrance at the other side of the mountain so it wasn't necessary to brave the forest," The younger explains, clapping to lock the image before stretching his arms out wide to zoom it in, expecting a picture of a shrine in shambles and having a picture of a smooth, creamy back of a naked nymph blow up in his face instead.

 

Chanyeol glances to the sputtering boy, pinching the image to shrink it back to original size then continuing to swipe his finger to scan through the files that The System prepared for him a month ago. "Why was the boy there?" He asks as he steers the other back to the topic with practiced interest while his team's youngest member looks at him with watery eyes.

 

"Well... since education is virtually unavailable outside the Walls, and considering that the village has been isolated for a few decades now, superstitions have become the villagers' cornerstone for living. I researched and found a peculiar folk tale, it was the only one to still thrive through oral tradition," The kid continues only after receiving an encouraging nod.

 

"According to an account, after it wept with the God of Light, the moon came down to rest. However, a man found its resting place and disturbed its sleep. The moon was tired, so it asked the man what it would take for him to leave. The man asked for wealth, so the moon raised the island from the depths of the sea and gave him the rich coast. The man was going to be rich and would never hunger again, yet he refused to leave. So, the moon asked him again, and this time, the man asked for warmth. He demanded to be given and to lay with someone who would move even the God of Light to jealousy."

 

Even in stories… Chanyeol mentally scoffs. "Alright, go on."

 

"The man wanted the moon to lay with him. The moon's earthly appearance was the most beautiful there was, according to the story," Sehun scratches his own nose, scrunching it just slightly. "The moon was bound by its oath to fulfill the man's wishes, but the moon was the God of Light's precious lover, you see... I’m not quite sure, but the System translated the word into lover."

 

Well now, I've never heard this story before, the research chief muses as he decides to take a quick break. He can afford a bit of storytelling. "A lover, you say?"

 

Where the ancient philosophers' pagan gods were violent, the state religion depicted God as ever-forgiving to the point of being sickening, if he could be honest. He is never going to speak this out loud, however, because some of them only have religion to hold onto nowadays. Although the method is always fascinating, he's not that patient to resort to psychological warfare when there are other quicker ways to destroy. Besides, listening to someone talk about having a special connection to an abstract notion is already fascinating, by itself.

 

"Was the God of Light angered?" He questioned, his iconic mug of hot cocoa now in his large hands as the files hover at his sides up until he's back in his seat. Only more reports and fewer image files await for him today. Why must being away from Baekhyun be this boring?

 

"In the story, He was. He waited until the man had lain with the moon before He made thorns grow around the man's heart. He cursed the man to fall in love, and when he awoke, fall in love he did. The man's heart swelled every time he would see the moon, regardless of whether it stepped on soil or shone in the sky. His heart continued to swell, until the thorns pricked and pierced it and finally led to his death."

 

"How... morbid," Chanyeol comments, as he takes a sip of his beverage in thought, genuinely and pleasantly surprised. He vaguely wonders how many zealots would leave Sehun to burn at the stake for merely enunciating the tale. "Hm. So, how is that connected to that boy they found in the cave?"

 

"Ah, right," Sehun scrunches his own brows together this time. "You see, with the whole God of Light went to sleep story, they assumed the nymph was the Moon that has come down again."

 

That makes Chanyeol pause, again, while the image of Baekhyun's smile suddenly flashes in his mind. "Did they take revenge? Did they hurt ECHO?"

 

"In a way...?" The young scientist's uneasily shrugs under his scrutinizing gaze. "The physical act of fornicating, when it includes the participation of two males, is presumed to hurt or bring more discomfort compared to when it includes a man and a woman, according to the hoary material I've gathered. The nymph was subjected to it, multiple times, if I may add, until the Commission sent a squad for him. Apparently the men of the village took turns with ECHO because the only surviving elder believed re-enacting the tale and getting a wish would save the village."

 

"They re-enacted the tale, meaning while ECHO is supposed to sleep," Chanyeol repeats, and the other nods in confirmation. "But then, the nymph can't consent if it’s asleep, can it?"

 

"Yes, the shock most likely rendered him mute. The men beat him too, since Dr. Do instructed to mix healing serum in ECHO’s tank before the preliminary examination results came in."

 

Disgusting. For some reason, he finds the fact repulsive—more than having ECHO lay on his table and more than grafting ECHO's skin off just for the hell of it. The fact that numerous other, utterly undeserving men have touched Baekhyun is disgusting.

 

"Extracting ECHO from there also saved him, I suppose. Didn’t it, sunbae?”

 

Now, saved is a very subjective word, and the irony of having taken Baekhyun out of a place like that, only to bring him into a place like this, isn't lost on him even after they finish up for today to begin humming songs to himself. Humming, and humming, and humming, and mentally picking apart the ghosts of the bodies he has picked apart before while deliberately burying alive every memory of D.O. having tried to scold and warn him about his attachment to Baekhyun, until he finds that his legs have already brought him to his object of affec—to the nymph’s chamber.

 

The room is dark and silent, as it always is in Baekhyun’s room. But of course, no matter how indistinguishable his footsteps are, it still manages to stir the creature in the corner of the tank. The nymph peeks cautiously to determine the newcomer, and the sensors fluctuate into green once again when it sees it is he and immediately swims closer.

 

The bruises have already faded, save for the area around the left eye and the recovering nail beds that are still darker in comparison to the skin surrounding them. Baekhyun is healing but is still in definite pain because it recoils when it tries to reach out to him, having shocked the nerves that have been left raw and open from the pain threshold experiments. It looks at him in puzzlement as it glances at its hands, then back up at him.

 

Chanyeol doesn't smile, although he also doesn't frown. "Hi," He greets, and he lowers himself into a squat just so the creature doesn't strain itself by trying to float higher to meet his gaze. "How's my Baekhyunnie?"

 

The nymph smiles in response to the name as it sits on its heels.

 

"Hurt?" He asks, gesturing to the previously skinned hands now a fresh, pale pink and laying limp between its thighs.

 

Baekhyun nods.

 

"Why are you smiling then?" This time, he asks with slight irritation.

 

If one is hurt, it's natural to wince, to scrunch your face, to cry, because that is the body's appropriate reaction to pain, yet smile is all this nymph does. He has subjected this creature to pain worse than it has experienced in that village, yet it smiles at him. It continues to smile at him, regardless if it's he who holds the handle of the knife or he who impassively jots down notes while someone else destroys its body.

 

It's his job to hurt it in every way imaginable, so why does. It. Keep. Fucking. Smiling. At. Him?

 

Happy, it mouths the only word (because his name and Baekhyun don’t count) it has learned from him, at him. Hyun happy.

 

"Why?" He snaps, and when the nymph only cocks its head to one side, he repeats himself. "Why are you happy?"

 

Happy. It repeats itself too and simply continues staring at him. Happy… Happy.

 

"You have nothing to be happy about. Or does it make you happy to get hurt?" Chanyeol hangs his head and sighs, very deeply. He looks happy, but he feels very unhappy. “I’ve… I’ve been hurting you for months now. I’ve skinned you, subjected you to harmful substances—you have nothing to be happy about, and you’re not… you’re not supposed to be happy to see me.”

 

What is there to be happy about when he expects to have a recuperation pod at the ready before a trial even begins? When the slices of tissue have worked quickly into becoming cauterized limbs? What is there to be happy about when he knows the healing concentrate's efficiency keeps diminishing with every use? Baekhyun should have already healed, entirely, but there's evident discoloration now on what used to be flawless skin. More likely than not, even a minimum healing percentage of eighty will be as useful as plain water—good for absolutely nothing than a refreshing bath and a means to quench thirst, and little else.

 

"Individuals here do not desire for you, but that doesn't mean you're safe here. It actually makes you more vulnerable and more likely to die because they regard you as no more than a research subject," Chanyeol frustratingly explains, even though he knows—even though he should and does know—that doing so is a lost cause because all that seems to matter to this nymph is whether it sees him during its waking hours or not. "Baekhyun, you are not safe here. If you were to die, there will be no one to mourn over you."

 

They saved you from those from the outside so they can kill you here instead.

 

Chanyeol watches it stare at him with its droopy, blue eyes. Even the blue in its pair of eyes are different now. To him, the right is much brighter than its left counterpart, brighter than the one he had scooped out once before. He can point out everything and everywhere he's touched and identify what has gone wrong with each of them.

 

Dr. Do has always believed he's loose, whether he likens him to a cannon or a screw, it doesn’t matter all that much now that he himself is starting to consider the possibility that he might be. It takes someone with questionable mental integrity to feel the way he does, and towards an inconsequential test subject, at that.

 

Chanyeol, Chanyeol, the nymph fucking smiles again, because no matter how unreasonable, it is happy. His presence guarantees it becomes happy, and he decides he has had enough of the illogical for one day. He abruptly stands, alarming the boy in the glass cage and making it struggle to float with its recovered albeit misaligned bones.

 

The nymph he calls his Baekhyun, the test subject everyone else calls ECHO, is going to die. It will die sooner than later. The nymph will die because the healing serum isn’t working in the way that it’s supposed to, and if the next trials continue to create such extensive damage, greater than what the serum is able to repair, then death is more than imminent and it is definitely he who is going to be the reason that the nymph will perish.

 

Thump! Thump!

 

There's the string in his chest again as he looks at Baekhyun for the last time for this week.

 

It's tugging, pulling—wrenching. He’d be hell-bent if he ever calls it remotely painful. He really must be crazy if he feels like it's getting stronger and stronger each day, if he ever thinks of this—whatever this it is forming twists in his chest and stomach—as more than a peculiar kind of pity towards something he has already admitted to being relatively fond of.

 

He lets the nymph see the only frown he lets slip and watches its own expression twist in sudden dejection. It’s tapping frantically on glass now, trying to catch his attention only to wince and draw back because of the pain, before it resorts to bodily throwing itself on the barrier. It doesn't work.

 

Of course it doesn't work, because Chanyeol refuses to look at it and because Chanyeol is sick of suddenly feeling something when he's used to feeling nothing at all.

 

Soon, Baek—ECHO—will be nothing at all, too. Not his dream or nightmare, not his test subject…

 

Nothing.

 

 


 

 

 

“I said to inject more morphine.”

 

Before the experiments started, they began every trial with the working hypothesis that the nymph secretes pheromones different from that observed from the surviving members of the animal kingdom. The tugging, the strange forcing pulling one to Baekhyun’s direction, is the easiest phenomenon to observe. Chanyeol doesn’t refute this after having been subjected to it, countless of times, himself.

 

It’s easy to be misled, but when three, four individuals constantly experience it under the same conditions, who’s to say it’s still mere coincidence?

 

“Chief, I don’t think—”

 

“Are you disobeying me?”

 

The difference between the tugging he experiences with that of his team, however, is that his ranges from a soft caress in the left side of his chest to an absolute compulsion to heed the invisible shoving.

 

He has to get closer to the nymph. It makes him want to be closer to the nymph. It just isn’t something he’s been able to dispel by popping minor A-P pills into his mouth or slapping stronger A-P patches on his skin, nor is it something he can disclose to anyone and especially not D.O., no matter how potentially helpful D.O. may be.

 

“No, but i-it’s not doing anything. I… can’t…”

 

Chanyeol knows what it could be, knows words he can use to call it, but not what it is, exactly. He also knows what it shouldn’t be, so he dismisses the pull as his body’s natural reaction to chemistry and does not dare to call it an attraction. Attraction connotes romantic attention, and there is nothing romantic about this fucked up setting, absolutely nothing romantic about possibly being attracted to a creature he’s obligated to surgically rip apart over and over again.

 

There is nothing romantic about Chanyeol staying on the side lines to observe and to direct while Baekhyun is crying and trying to search for him among the practitioners surrounding the operating table. The nymph is terrified, it’s stiff, and it has been making trials more taxing and utterly vexing by refusing to cooperate until it’s he who personally draws another red line on a creamy canvas of flesh. Chanyeol isn’t going to approach this time, he’s not going to let himself drown in blue this time, because the nymph is nothing to him.

 

Baekhyun is nothing to him.

 

He keeps his head down and monitors the live charts, forcing steady breaths inside and out of him as he ignores a nymph’s call. Maybe it’s too much to attribute his dizzy spells to being in the same room as Baekhyun. Maybe it isn’t.

 

The air gets sicker and sweeter the longer he stays in there, the more distressed Baekhyun gets, because it’s how the nymph has defended itself before. Pheromones. It trades pain for pleasure and averts threats to survival by… offering itself.

 

The red on his charts means Baekhyun is in great pain, but at the same time, Baekhyun is also charming everyone in the room. It makes him sick. He feels sick.

 

Maybe he should have realized it sooner, that what he feels isn’t the worst yet. D.O. sweating a lot and taking labored breaths, Sehun strangely keeping to himself right by the edge of the table—grinding hips and panting, he realizes. There’s just so much self-control that a team of humans can do against the allure of a creature even gods cannot deny.

 

For the first time, Dr. Park Chanyeol panics as he watches things quickly spiral down into chaos, the spreading of Baekhyun’s legs like unleashing all the evil from Pandora’s Box. He pries his subordinates—he tries to, anyway—from the operating table, from the nymph, only to be tackled and slammed on the floor in response. He grunts deeply at the impact as white noise flashes momentarily in his eyes.

 

With an irked snarl, he shoves the attacker and clenches a tight fist to deliver a solid right hook. There's a resounding crunch before the latter sputters and falls aside, now unconscious after receiving the full brunt of the blow. Disregarding the taste of copper in his mouth, he quickly scans for the fallen tray of equipment and ignores the mess of various scattered steel, the ache in his back, and the specks of dark red that now stain his uniform as he half-crawls and frantically searches for the syringe of A-P 4 sample that D.O. carries as spare.

 

Chanyeol becomes aware of it now too, of the air that has turned smothering. It's thick and heavy, and he quickly concludes it must be the pheromones that's making him sick and wanting to gag because being in closer proximity to the nymph seems to make it worse. He feels like his lower half has been set on fire while his upper half is being robbed of the oxygen around him. Both of the overwhelming need to get closer to Baekhyun and get away leaves him writhing on the floor.

 

Fuck—fuck it, it feels like dying. It feels like he he would die if he doesn’t get Baekhyun.

 

Baekhyun releases a broken cry, and the sound triggers an even bigger sense of urgency, shooting adrenaline in his veins as he snarls and forces himself to stand. He chokes on the blood in his mouth before he is able to roar at the System. Sleep mist, paralysis powder, anything—he doesn't fucking care which one it is, just fucking inject something in the damn air supply. Just flush the pheromones out, neutralize them, just

 

He grabs the syringe when he finally finds it and vaults himself towards D.O., wrenching the doctor away from his nymph and all but slams the drug deep into the latter's neck, with the slightest quivering in his own hand when he realizes he hasn't even checked the needle or properly prepped it. D.O. convulses—and shit, shit, shit, he realizes he also didn't even check the damn thing for damage. For all he knows he just administered an overdose of the daily upper instead of A-P.

 

He drops the syringe, and he clings onto the edge of his surgery table with whitened knuckles while D.O. unceremoniously slumps on the floor. The violent shaking ceases just as quickly but the shorter man’s breathing remains erratic and his pupils are heavily dilated as they try to focus on Chanyeol’s.

 

Chanyeol’s own eyes dart from the sight of his inebriated colleagues to the red draped over their subject, spilling over the surface of the operating table until it’s dripping from the edge and staining the tips of Chanyeol's fingers and even his palms. He continues to grit through the invisible weight. The nymph continues staring at him from the center of the reclined platform, blue eyes damp and the last of the beads of silver sliding down flushed cheeks but not seemingly because of the huge gash on the expanse of its arm.

 

The wound has been re-opened, the temporary sutures that have been made to guide healing have been torn apart, and yet the sensors are—

 

Blue. The sensors are basking in a deep blue contrasting fully with the anger of red. Blue is painless. It’s calm, it’s peaceful, and it… that doesn't make—that makes absolutely no sense.

 

This nymph had been in so much pain that it easily demolished the baselines and ceiling points they have established based on previous trials. The anesthesia, the morphine, they were all useless, and yet—now, seeing him, the sensors are—

 

They're green again. Baekhyun breathes more comfortably and the sensors emerge into a brighter, undeniable green. It's... Baekhyun is happy? Relieved...? Baekhyun isn’t… Baekhyun isn’t in pain anymore.

 

"Don't smile," Chanyeol rasps when the nymph blinks at him. He wipes the blood off his hands, as best as he can, before he attempts to ease the nymph's bleeding until it ceases.

 

Baekhyun watches him closely as he hovers over it, eyes seemingly tracing and memorizing all the lines that make up his face and desperately fighting against fatigue while he's trying to close the wound again. The human researcher overlooks the fact that the paralyzing weight is suddenly gone and that he can breathe again.

 

The System sends a shower pouring over the lab. It's cool to touch, much cooler than blood. The strange but pleasant floral scent of healing serum fills his lungs as he regains complete control over his senses again and the throbbing at the back of his head disappears. The serum shower washes over everything and everyone. He thinks he feels the lids of his eyes slowly become heavy at being subjected to it for the first time.

 

At this point, Baekhyun's bleeding has stopped. Chanyeol's adrenaline, too, and with it the doctor feels his heart return to its steady rhythm. The platform lowers itself, making it easier to lean on for he who now has no choice but to kneel and hope for even the slightest comfort for his head to rest upon because sleep is calling out to him.

 

The rush, the pheromones, and the immediate threat are now gone. There's just a sweet-smelling shower clinging onto them like a second layer of skin and the nymph on his table, trying to reach him. Although it's just a few inches between their hands, he shakes his head and tells it not to.

 

Stop. Do not reach for him. No need to further ruin its own body for him. Don't touch him.

 

Baekhyun pouts. The nymph dares to pout amidst the chaos that it has ensued.

 

Chanyeol shouldn’t find that amusing or comical, to witness the results of him teaching a nymph various facial expressions. He shouldn’t be relieved that Baekhyun isn’t crying anymore, yet he chuckles at the colour red. He chuckles at the way it fits his hands like black fits Baekhyun’s like a delicate glove, and at the fact that he hadn’t thought of things very clearly, or at all.

 

If he could be completely honest, he hadn’t been thinking as much as he should. Baekhyun makes it difficult to think of anything else. Looking at the violent streaks of blood, he finds comfort in ocean blue and smothers a laugh. For a damn test subject's life—for Baekhyun—he had just put his own team out of commission.

 

Next time, if this happens again... it might not even be his team or just his team anymore.

 

“Are you happy?” He asks the nymph that cannot really respond, although the tugging in his chest gets a tad stronger. It’s pleasant, somehow. This time, it feels more pleasant.

 

Before he closes his eyes, Chanyeol links his fingers with Baekhyun's for the first time. The smaller palm is cold in his. For some strange reason, he likes it. He also thinks, right before he truly succumbs to sleep, that it most likely will be the last time he touches the nymph and he lets the nymph touch him, too, because he knows they have a few next times left.

 

Ah.

 

For the first time to be the last...

 

How tragic.

 

 


 

 

 

[ Good morning, Dr. Park. ]

 

 

Chanyeol finds himself waking up to the clinic’s white ceiling when he opens his eyes. The clinic smells like antiseptic, of hopelessness, and of depression. It smells like everything he’s been avoiding to become a living and walking example of.

 

He plucks his lab coat off the rack just beside the sleeping pod, only one of many in the clinic, and leaves without opening the notifications that greet him to head for the survey tower, to Baekhyun. He lets the recollection of the past trial flood him, and if it means to accomplish anything, it only intensifies his desire to check up on his nymph. He wants to see Baekhyun.

 

He has to see Baekhyun.

 

He wastes no time walking and lets the System insta-transport him, closing his eyes from the full circle beneath his bare feet that glows a painful, neon orange as respect to the name Park, before he’s opening them to stare at letters printed over a dead end. The message is bold, intimidating, and its shade a darker red than he remembers.

 

If you love me, save me, the message reads.

 

It changes every year, he’s heard. This time, it reminds him of Baekhyun. Everything points to Baekhyun.

 

Chanyeol waits for the panda sentinel to welcome him, to come and scan the band on his wrist so he can see his nymph. It… comes, except that the panda informs him the room he wants to access doesn’t exist. Sentinels can’t lie, because they aren’t alive. They only rely on the most complex algorithms known to man thus far and cannot think for themselves, so even if he wants to demand answers, to interrogate the fake prowler, he knows he’ll only be wasting his time.

 

He can’t waste time. Baekhyun is only allowed to be in transported to two places, and if—if Baekhyun isn’t in his room, then Baekhyun must be—Chanyeol heads straight to operating room in haste, heart already slamming in his chest before he has even acknowledged it.

 

Insta-transport. Orange at his feet again. White space. Black walls—ground zero, the operating room.

 

He runs the moment he’s stabilized, with bare feet harshly slapping against the cold floor. Whether his legs suddenly hurt from the sudden exertion or the muscles beneath his skin protest at the sudden onslaught of strain, he deliberately ignores it all and just—runs, until it hurts to breathe; until he sees the red light after he has pushed open door, after door, after door.

 

Baekhyun—Baekhyun must be there, Baekhyun should be there—Chanyeol gasps, sweat trickling down the side of his face as he pushes the door leading to the operating room open. More red light—aggression, pain, danger—escapes through the sliver, only to be snatched out of his sight just as quickly because he’s suddenly being wrenched backwards.

 

“No—Baekhyun!” He snarls like an animal, struggling against mechanical hands. “Baekhyun’s body can’t handle any more!”

 

[ Access denied, Dr. Park. ]

 

Sentinels. Beautifully elven in appearance, pure apprehension in purpose. They twist his arm when he refuses to budge, when he refuses to be ripped away from the door leading to Baekhyun.

 

[ Access denied, Dr. Park. ]

 

“Let me go! Kyungsoo! D.O.!” The doctor screams as he continues to thrash in the sentinels’ cold grasp. “Let me go! They have to stop, let me fucking go you fucking piece of shit—”

 

[ Access denied, Dr. Park. ]

 

They bodily throw him down, slams him flat on his stomach and shoves his head down on the floor, depriving him of even the sight of a black door. The unsheathing of a blade cuts through the air and threatens to slit his throat, but he’s part of the fucking government and he knows its dirty, fucking secrets. However he retaliates, the sentinels wouldn’t kill him.

 

“Let go! They don’t—they’re going to kill Baekhyun! Fucking let me go!”

 

[ Access denied, Dr. Park. ]

 

But even then, even if he wasn’t so privileged, he resists. He screams and resists, with every fibre of his being, and even when his mouth opens involuntarily into agonizing screams from having his skin and bones broken.

 

“Please… please—just let me go,” Chanyeol begs, numb as he cries and is rendered unable to move. “Let me see Baekhyun, please.”

 

[ Access denied, Dr. Park. ]

 

[ Access denied, Dr. Park. ]

 

[ Access denied, Dr. Park. ]

 

He knows it’s over when the tugging inside his chest disappears.

 

Soon after, the beating inside it stops too.

 

 



 

 

 

It has always been cold in Sector 4.

 

It’s the research facility that is known to preserve subjects cryogenically, whether they remain alive or otherwise. The practitioners it houses stroll through storage chambers, pick a subject out, and cut them up to their hearts’ content. Mortality rate for test subjects is the highest in Sector 4 and, for this reason, the sector gets the best of the healing serum, both the regular and that manufactured for the exclusive care of cadavers.

 

With how easy it is to reverse a surgical error, very few worry about making mistakes nowadays. Even fewer are those who will even consider compensating for any erring. Sector 4’s researchers have become as notorious as the sector they belong to—known for being cold if not simply heartless.

 

This is not the case for Do Kyungsoo.

 

“The nymph died, you say?”

 

“Yes sir.”

 

“What a shame. We haven’t accomplished as much with just one subject as we have with ECHO. A sample of one bearing what is supposed to be for a sample of fifty… if only the Commission had secured more of them, perhaps,” Kim Junmyeon sighs, forlorn, but Kyungsoo knows the man doesn’t mean it. “What of Dr. Park? Why hasn’t he been coming over for coffee?”

 

“Dr. Park—he’s—” The newly-appointed Chief of Sector Research swallows the bile rising up to his throat, swallows the disgusting after-taste that comes with the memory of being the one to walk into a dirtied room. “Dr. Park committed suicide, sir.”

 

Kyungsoo shakes his head as he tries to forget the sight of Chanyeol’s fresh corpse, the only thing of color, slumped like a ragged doll in the middle of what otherwise is an obsessively white room. It was—it was repulsive, the stench of blood had been so thick, and flesh just… just splayed out like a butcher’s mess. Chanyeol had stabbed himself with such force that the scalpel stuck in the cavity of the late doctor’s chest, and numerous times, even, for the bone had chipped and the heart—it—it was… everything was just such a mess.

 

He’ll—he’ll never forget how desperate and empty the expression on Chanyeol’s face was—

 

Chanyeol… Chanyeol was the only one allowed to approach the nymph. For some reason, the nymph only wanted Park Chanyeol, who called it Baekhyun without realizing he had been calling every other test subject his Baekhyun. Baekhyun who always, always comes back to Chanyeol, no matter how many times Chanyeol kills him. Whether it’s with a scalpel making a slice in the wrong place, a sentinel’s gun, or by trying to save Baekhyun by sneaking off, it’s always Baekhyun, and Baekhyun dying never fails to preempt Chanyeol dying as well soon afterward.

 

“Always had a lot of guts, Dr. Park,” Junmyeon comments, patting his shoulder as if they were talking about the day’s menu. “Always falling in love with Baekhyun, no matter what form he takes.”

 

Kyungsoo wants to vomit.

 

But he can’t. Showing the person in charge, the person who already doubts his competence—of how shaken he is by the turn of events despite already expecting it because everything is also an experiment surrounding the curious connection between two separate albeit heavily co-dependent entities—will only lead to more eyes watching him. He can’t let that happen.

 

He… he can’t let Junmyeon think he’s dispensable. Not now.

 

“I suppose we’ll just have to boot another clone for him, won’t we, Dr. Do?”