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We walked for what seemed like 6 hours. From the shore, we traveled onward through the forest. Vines dripped down from tall trees. The variety of greens painted a curling, spiraling carpet. Biological floor lamps were dispersed between taller wooden towers that scraped the sky. These tall ones were called “redwoods”, Evelyn noted. Broken parts of cars, appliances, and other unrecognizable trash were sprinkled across the forest bottom. A familiar mist enveloped the distance. Eerie calls from the various spirits and species of the forest created music to accompany our journey. It was alien compared to the world of the underground, which was like a cubic desert of bricks.
“We are getting close. This is where I have to warn you to keep your guard up. Some rogue squads have been circling the perimeter of the city, looking for easy targets,” Taro said in an almost fatherly voice.
“. . .Squads?” I asked.
“Yea. . . You know, like violent gangs of people looking to gather resources, or worse, food,” he replied.
“Food is worse?” I asked.
“Food is us. They would be eating us.” Taro answered in a blunt voice.
My walking momentarily paused in the shock, as the others proceeded forward.
The people around here eat each other? What exactly was Colony 25 anyway? Why was this place never spoken of amongst the clan or even in the overworld I knew of? There were so many questions that I couldn’t ask, either to Taro or Evelyn now. Even Nell has barely spoken at all yet. The mystery behind all of these characters was oddly unsettling. I didn’t anticipate harm from any of them but my mind raced with ruminations aimed at figuring out who each of them was. Seeking the knowledge of their “who-ness” was addicting.
Their silence suggested to me that they too were distracted by similar ruminations, trying to analyze one another. We were guarded. Our curiosities pressured us to resolve the invisible boundaries of our social safety. We craved to know each other enough to resolve that unsettling atmosphere, to understand the limits and rules of interacting, and yet we couldn’t have that. In a way, we all shared this right now. We walked through this forest in silence, with distance, yet with synchronicity in our curiosity and unease.
Nell grabbed Taro’s arm in a rush and Taro paused movement. He turned to us and looked Evelyn and me in the eyes, gesturing to us to keep quiet. Nell pointed to the right. I looked at Evelyn, and she looked at me, then time paused for a second until the sound of crispy leaves breaking shook me out of the momentary trance. She remained so calm.
Nell suddenly exclaimed, “Hero!!”
The bushes began to shake vigorously, followed by a roar. My trembling grew worse. Was Nell insane?? What did he mean by ‘hero’? A massive beast leaped from behind the bush and confronted us. This beast had a great mane, like a lion, and was generally very thick and fluffy, yet also terrifying and massive, almost double my height.
Nell moved closer and it approached him. The beast began to lick him with a tongue larger than his face.
“Ah, it was just our stray friend here,” Taro said in relief.
“. . . A stray?” I asked perplexed.
“Yeah. A stray doggo. We’ve hunted with Hero before so he knows us well,” Nell responded.
The beast came closer to me and began to sus me out through sniffing rituals. Then it proceeded to investigate Evelyn, to which she responded by placing her hand out and smiling. Then the monstrous creature licked her and she went to hug it. Her calmness throughout it all was impressive.
“How long have you known Hero?” Evelyn asked.
“We meet with Hero a few times a week. That’s been going on ever since. . . I want to say, maybe the year 511, which would mean about 8 years now! It’s been quite some time. It started when we left gifts for Hero to try to express our respect and desire for companionship. Then we start to go exploring on journeys together and he would even protect us while we camped out, looking out for any possible intruders to our camping site. And now we are basically best friends!” Taro answered.
Year 511?? Could this get any weirder? How was this even possible? The year was 2096. The sense that I was traversing an alien planet increased. There also weren’t giant dogs from where I came from.
“So Hero is a dog, is he? Why is he so big?” I asked.
Nell quipped quickly, “It’s pronounced doggo you silly guy, not ‘dog’ and he isn’t that large of a doggo. I would say medium-sized.”
This world was beginning to seem much different than I knew and believed it to be. My initial response was to jump to the conclusion that Taro and Nell were misled about their worldview and that my perspective was truer, but then the giant dog seemed to exist as material evidence against my understanding of the state of the world. Neither did Evelyn match up with my worldview in some ways. It was like we were all living in different worlds. But who’s worldview was correct? How did we end up holding such different perspectives?
“Let’s keep moving. It’s almost dusk. We aren’t too far from Colony 25 now. Hero! Do you mind escorting us to the wall?” Taro asked. He became our leader so hastily. He seemed dependable enough.
The color-shifting of the evening began again. This time, it seemed even more colorful, painting the forest’s mist with a shiny glow. As the night came on, the songs of the forest shifted and a more ominous mood took over the atmosphere of the area. From a distance, a large endless wall could be seen.
“What is Colony 25 like?” I asked.
Taro responded proudly, “It is great! We serve our queens while trying to maintain the electricity, eat delicious food, and just generally have a good time.”
Strangely, as we approached closer to the wall, the fog grew thicker, presumably due to the emerging night. The wall seemed to be made of the trunks of larger, redwood trees. They were stacked, one on top of another, the wall being a height of 3 trunks.
“How long did it take to put this wall together?” I asked.
Nell responded, “The colony’s ancestors are said to have found it as it stands now. The whole colony 25 structure was found and we just inhabited it and improved on it. They wrote that it was a gift from the gods. Though eventually, some colony members met with outsiders or came from the outside themselves, and we were informed that an ancient civilization may have built all of this instead. We think that the salvaged parts also remain from their world. To be honest, none of us are sure how we got here and what it all means yet but we are grateful to have it all. The walls protect us from both outsiders and from the larger creatures. Even if the ancestors of this land aren’t magical beings, they certainly had the capacity to utilize electricity to perform magical feats. So, in a way, they kind of were gods. Yet. . . they did not survive the test of time apparently.”
Nell giggled and continued, “Well, that’s your history lesson for today. I hope that wasn’t too much. If you have any other questions, feel free to ask! I love geeking out about these things.”
It was relieving to hear that he was open to questions because I had so many. Though, I decided to pace myself and not press too much. We also still didn’t know each other very well yet, so caution could be the smart move.
“Well, Hero! It looks like it’s the end of the line now and we will be parting ways. I look forward to adventuring together again soon. We will bring you treats next time as thanks for helping us today,” Taro said as he patted Hero’s chest.
Hero howled to the sky and then licked both Taro and Nell before coming to Evelyn and me to do the same but in a more cautious demeanor. Then he headed back into the fog of the forest.
We’ve finally reached Colony 25. The mystery was about to reveal itself. We walked through the doorways to the sounds of a bustling community. Lights of various colors highlighted the dim walkways. Food vendors lined some streets. Parties seemed to be occurring in all directions. There were roads covered in trash such as metal pieces, broken electronics, and plastics. Puddles of water seemed to emit banked aromas of what seemed to be a sweat-like smell. Small living spaces stacked up at least four or five stories high, wound together with thick cables. The cables were reminiscent of the organic design of the forest. It wasn’t horrid but unexpectedly less pleasant than I imagined.
Everyone in the colony was on foot. Not only on foot but literally barefoot as well. This was far different from the overworld I knew as a child. It was a strange fusion of fairly advanced technology and unsophisticated tools. Electronics from the 1980s all the way to the 2080s cluttered the streets. At the same time, there was a sense that all of this technology was found in the dumps rather than made by the people of this world. This must have been what Taro meant when he said that they salvaged ancient technology. This technology wasn’t that ancient though. We still had most of this in the overworld I came from. It seemed like a disaster had reset humanity. It really didn’t add up.
Taro invited us, “Why don’t you and Evelyn come and stay the night with us? We will even treat you to dinner. Originally, I was going to send ya off with the local inn, but I get the feeling that this place isn’t something you are familiar with. So maybe you ought to come with us for tonight.”
He caught on to our naivety so easily. “That would be great. Are you sure?” I asked.
“Yeah! It will be a fun time! Hahaha. We are almost there, just a bit further now.” He replied cheerfully.
Evelyn suddenly commented, “This place has really survived well since year 0, hasn’t it? It’s all unexpected from what I knew about the condition of the world.”
Year 0?? So Evelyn must know something about Taro and Nell’s world. How could she though? The whole thing was fairly suspicious because I thought she was coming from the same place as I. It was becoming clear that I may know nothing. I certainly didn’t know the people that I was traveling with.
Evelyn leaped ahead excitedly and went away from the sidewalk toward the front door of one of the buildings.
“Evelyn?” I asked.
“Sorry! I’m just excited that we are finally here,” she replied.
“Where, exactly?” I pressed.
Taro responded this time, “This is my place… How did you know which one it was, Evelyn?”
She had the look of both epiphany and sudden embarrassment as she replied, “Oh, I just had a feeling.”
Taro took the lead, “Anywho, let’s go inside and cozy the fuck up!”
The living space we entered was fairly chaotic but not unbearably. Thick chords plugged into the televisions, with at least one TV as the centerpiece of each room. The walls were coated with these cables. Exposed wires hung from the top of the kitchen stove. There was a faint sense of imminent danger due to the excessive and seemingly unscrupulous placement of wires.
“What’s with all these cables?” I questioned with a concerned voice.
Taro replied in a slightly defensive tone, “Well, how else are we going to run all the machines? Is there a problem?”
“Well, it just seems a bit risky having all these wires out like that,” I answered.
“It’s just the way things are here and if that is an issue for you, you’ll just have to deal with it or leave. Unless you wish to propose an alternative,” Taro defended even harder.
“No, no. It’s not really a big deal. I just don’t wanna get zapped you know?” I said.
“Ahahaha! No one is going to get zapped around here. That kind of thing rarely happens,” Taro responded in that cheery, fatherly way again. “I know the perfect cozy-maxing treat for tonight! While we were out treasure hunting the other day, Nell and I found marshmallows, perfectly preserved from the world of the ancients. Rare finds like this only come around once a year. Seeing as you two are also rare finds, I figured we can celebrate all this rarity with some great rare s’mores!” He responded confidently.
Nell excitedly joined the conversation, “That would be wonderful! We haven’t had any marshmallows since 3 years ago. I remember them being one of the most decadent treats I’ve ever had.”
Taro grabbed the cables above the stove and then pressed them against what seemed to be a doused piece of wood. Sparks flew and the wood burst into flames. He placed the flaming wood on the stovetop. He opened the prehistoric bag of marshmallows and placed them into a bowl of water. “Now we can begin! Here. Each of you, come over here and grab a stick. I’m going to assume Evelyn and Riyon haven’t worked with marshmallows before. The trick is to start by rehydrating them for about 2 minutes. Once that’s complete, we puncture the marshmallows with the stick and then place them above the fire using the stick. Pretty simple!” He explained.
We all grabbed sticks and waited for the first batch of marshmallows to be sufficiently wettened.
I turned to Evelyn and she seemed to turn in sync with me. Our eyes locked and she smiled. A wave of warmth flowed through my body. It felt like she could see into my mind somehow. As if she knew of that warmth and was happy that she was taking part in the command of my mind and my emotions. It was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. It wasn’t even clear what was really happening or why it seemed so significant to me. Somehow she seemed to know both herself and my mind so well that she could orchestrate such a warm rush through subtle maneuvers in her eye contact, smiling, and emotional expression. It was as if we were talking without words. I wanted to know who she was.
“Soon you’ll know the truth. Are you ready to face your destiny?” she asked in a whisper, breaking the trance we shared.
Had she read my mind? Was I simply that obvious? I only responded with affirming “mm” and a nod, despite my worries and insecurities about our future.
“Don’t let fear consume you. Trust that I will be your companion and that we will prevail against all barriers to our fate. We will succeed.” She replied in the same hypnotic tone from when we met back in the underground.
Nell interjected, “Come on both of you! It’s time to cook the marshmallows!”
We prepared our sticks, tipped with marshmallows, and placed them above the burning piece of wood. Mine caught fire and burned to a melted black crisp. Taro and Nell seemed to be skilled at it. Yet, Evelyn’s came out more perfect than all of ours. A crispy gooey golden brown with faint touches of crispy char.
Taro moved towards a cupboard and brought out bread. “We will place the marshmallows between two toasted crackers, along with some softened warm chocolate, a drizzle of honey, and powdered cinnamon,” he explained as he prepared the beautiful concoction. He gently toasted slices of bread with a layer of chocolate to melt. Cinnamon was sprinkled over the chocolate layer along with the honey. Finally, he smushed the marshmallow with the final piece of toast, causing the marshmallow and chocolate to ooze out of the edges. “It’s time to eat,” he remarked smugly.
We each bit into our s’more-like sandwiches. Our eyes began to glow and we smiled at the brilliant sweet taste of the meal. This was a nice relief from the chaotic journey we endured to get here. Finally, we could have some peace. Not only peace but a magical moment even. Underground, the days weren’t quite as pleasant. The coziness was real and the indulgence was divine. The overworld really did seem a lot better. I almost lost sight of the grand scheme we committed ourselves to. I almost wanted to lose sight in order to maintain such a wholesome existence. It was an alluring break from reality.
“Now that we are all in a food haze, how about we just chill and watch some television?” Taro asked the group. “It’s about that time of night anyways.”
Everyone nodded with their smiley sugar-doped faces.
Taro clicked on the television, with all its messy bundles of cables. A jarring scene with a voluptuous woman dancing in the nude started streaming into the dining room and ultimately taking center stage in our brains. The borderline romantic atmosphere suddenly dissipated and was replaced by a quaint mix of cringe and embarrassment. Yet, only I seemed phased by this situation.
“Taro? What’s going on?” I asked anxiously.
Taro responded confused, “What do you mean?”
“Uh. . . do you think we could watch something else?” I pushed desperately hoping to claw my way back to the wholesome vibes that helped me escape the future I dreaded.
He handed me the TV remote. It seemed to be powered by a cable, rather than by batteries. I frantically changed the channel. To my horror, the problem was not fixed. In fact, it only amplified. Each channel contained a different variation of a similar dancing woman, as if I had a glimpse into parallel universes in which the same person danced, in sync with their alternate selves across space and time. The cringe was inescapable and began to transform into something closer to panic.
“Why is every channel porn, Taro?” I asked as I tried to restrain my instinctual urge to judge him for what he has inflicted upon me.
“Oh! It must be different from where you came. These are our queens of course! They are the leaders of this community. I believe I mentioned them earlier, while we traveled through the forest.” He answered uncomfortably enthusiastically.
What the fuck?
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