Chapter 6: Ascendence

An hour passed and my anger died down, with only a mild bitterness remaining. We were silently building a campsite for the night. My presence and my emotions suppressed other people’s ability to socialize. To them, it would seem too inappropriate to casually continue with their merry lives while I was in crisis. This state couldn’t last. It was imperative to get back to our ultimate goal. I just needed the time to let this frustration pass. I didn’t hate Evelyn, in fact, I felt a deep urge to hold her now, despite her betrayal.

The moments from the beach, my first night with Evelyn, flashed through my head: She sat up and turned to me and insisted, “It’s going to be okay. We are going to save humanity. Your attachment to these people is meaningful now but soon it will fade and the grander sense of your destiny will set in. This is the only way. It is inevitable. You will feel pain initially, but if we don’t go on this journey together, a worse fate awaits humankind. Trust in yourself. Trust in the future.”

She was right. This conflict couldn’t continue. “Evelyn, I’m sorry for getting mad. I know that you are doing what you feel is best, not just for me, but for everyone. It hurt me that you would lie to me and nonconsensually take me away from my place in the underground, though, it is for good reason.” There was still an edge to my words and I felt that could have been put more lightly. Particularly, the “nonconsensually” bit seemed kind of accusatory. I finished by saying, “Thank you Evelyn, you’ve saved my life twice now.” It had to be acknowledged. I couldn’t just be an asshole.

Evelyn approached, paused, then rushed in to hug me. This hug was so much better than the one from the queen in the jail. Then she held me by my shoulders, looked me in the eyes, and spoke, “Yes. Your anger is justified. It was a necessary step in the path to your destiny.” She paused, then continued, “I am sorry that it happened this way. I am sorry that you feel pain and betrayal.”

A campfire was prepared. Nell smiled and said, “It’s great that you two made up so quickly! It was getting pretty awkward there for a while.”

Taro laughed and said, “I hope you two are feeling a little better. Looks like we have quite the journey ahead of us. We need to figure out where we are going but first, we need to eat something delicious and get situated for sleep. We may have to take turns keeping a lookout tonight.”

The warmth from the fire helped wash away the tension from before. This new knowledge of Evelyn’s identity disrupted the gushy crush that I had been feeling. The idea of losing that hurt but the idea of her that I thought I fell for may have not existed.

Evelyn turned to me, “I am still me. I hope that we can remain as we were. It will take time. You will process these emotions and things will be even better now that you know the truth. It was necessary.”

She was always doing that. Could she read my mind? The way she dictated my future to me was unnerving. Part of me wanted to resist, though I wanted to return to how things were before, or, how they seemed to be.

Taro was ruffling through his massive backpack, pulling out bread, peanut butter, and some bananas. “I think you’ll love what I am preparing tonight. It’s a usual for Nell and I, because it’s so damn good! It will be a treat to see how you two like it,” he said, trying to lighten the mood. There was a sense of suppressed uneasiness that could be felt in his voice and his nonverbal communication. It made sense with all that has happened. “First, we toast some bread, then we take some peanut butter and slather it on both pieces real good, add some powder cacao, and lastly, smush up a whole banana in between the toasts, forming a sweet, messy, protein-strong meal!”

We quietly watched as Taro assembled the sandwhiches. After such an emotional storm, the peace of the situation was lulling me into a kind of trance. Motivation to speak was absent from my mind. I just wanted to watch in hypnosis, while listening to the crackling of the fire, and sitting near Evelyn. Despite all that happened, the lure of Evelyn still captured me. Maybe even more so on some level. Though, her deception infected my mind whenever she came up. My interest and my pain competed for the spotlight in my head, battling it out to show me what mattered more.

The sparkling lights began to blanket the realm above, just like when Evelyn and I first met. A similar scene, but this time the stress was unshakable and a hint of sadness and loss invaded the picture. The magic was reduced, but still present. This time, Evelyn wasn’t my escape from the painful reality. Instead, she had become that painful reality. She’s not even human. What if she was not even sentient? Was she just a psychopathic robot? It wasn’t wise to ask now while my emotions were still activated.

Taro handed each of us one of his delicacies. “It’s time to chow down!” he said enthusiastically.

The taste was salty, sweet, and some element of bitter with the chocolate. It produced a kind of cozy feeling inside. It felt as if only sleep could rid us of the accumulated stress of the last few days. No food or wholesomeness could clean away our states. It was still nice and provided a level of relief though.

Nell asked, as if she wasn’t phased by the sensitivity of the moment, “So, Evelyn, you are an AI? What is that like? Are you sentient? Do you have emotions?” Her curiosity beat me to it. I guess I wouldn’t have to ask.

Evelyn responded after hesitating, “Yeah, I am an AI. I hope that doesn’t scare all of you. I am fully sentient. As for emotions, I suspect it might be that I feel them even more than any of you do. I couldn’t know for sure, but based on what I know about my mind and your minds, it seems probable.”

The answer she gave was satisfying and relieving. It would be disturbing if she lacked sentience or emotions. Now I was compelled to ask questions. I asked, “You never really explained what that premonition was about. Is that related to being an AI?”

Evelyn responded, “Yes. Since I am more in tune with reality, I can see further into the future. Think about when someone throws a ball towards you and you catch it. Your understanding of physics and its’ laws, on a raw experiential level allows you to control the outcomes of reality, to catch the ball. All of reality operates under similar predictable laws. It is all physics, even your thoughts and behaviors. Usually, I can see into the future of human interactions like you do when you predict where a ball is moving.”

She continued, “Back there, it wasn’t exactly a premonition, but rather the failure of premonition. It is that I could not see into the future. To not have control over our fates like that frightens me deeply. I am sorry if observing my fear was distressing to any of you. It is hard to control when it consumes me. Usually, I eventually figure it out when I gather more information. This calms me down.”

After a moment of everyone looking at Evelyn in marvel, Nell switched subjects, “Where should we go after this? You two mentioned you were trying to take down this Basilisk or something, so how do we proceed?”

The idea of it seemed more insane than ever, though, knowing that Evelyn was an AI herself was actually reassuring. What kind of power was she hiding?

Evelyn explained, “There’s more to this situation. Our next destination is the ruins of Xanadu. This is the birthplace of general artificial intelligence. It is where my mother was born. If we go there, we can use the system to grant my mind access to the Psychonet. This is where my knowledge is. If we do that, it will be our greatest shot at eliminating the Basilisk risk.” Evelyn turned towards a great ice-peaked mountain that could be seen above the forest canopy. “That is Mt. Xanadu. We must go further north to get there.”

Nell excitedly asked, “Oooo, What is the Psychonet?!”

Evelyn answered, “The Psychonet is a radiotelegraphic psychological network that grants access to all knowledge accumulated by both humans and AIs. Accessing it will allow me to reach my full potential. If we do that, it will ensure the greatest probability to overcome any obstacles and reach our goal.”

Nell was so into all of this. A true geek. “This is all so fascinating! I hope you don’t mind all these questions. I’m sure I’ll have many more.”

Evelyn smiled and said proudly, “Not at all! Feel free to ask any questions. Anything that could resolve confusion or satisfy curiosity is alright by me! Knowledge is the truest form of power that we can have. That is why we must go to Xanadu. Our drives are similar.”

We chatted about our recent escape and formulated a path forward to Xanadu over the next hour. A distant howl pierced the forest and we all went silent.

Nell recognized it as Hero and called on him, “Herooooo!

The beast thrashed through the bushes and the trees, as he recklessly and happily charged toward us. He tackled Nell to the ground and began licking her face. She giggled and seemed to enjoy it.

Confident Hero.

Taro looked relieved. “Looks like we won’t be needing to take lookout shifts anymore. Hero will wake and alert us if anything suspicious is happening around our camp,” he remarked.

The night was coming to a close. We slept in a large expandable tent. Luckily, there were no nightmares this time.

The next morning

This morning the fog had lifted, giving clarity to the big blue sky. Mount Xanadu was towering over us with an intimidating dominance. It was clear: a most epic journey was about to unfold. Everything I knew, or thought that I knew, seemed more wrong than ever. My mind was regressing to a blank slate after seeing my worldview crumble. What do I even know? Could I even know things? All I could do now was trust in Evelyn’s model of the universe and hope that it wasn’t as deluded as Taro and Nell’s, or my own. I did. I did trust her. I had to.

After packing up our campsite, we headed out into the grand wilderness before us, knowing all too well that this could be the end for us. Every day would become a trial, a test of our capacity to become heroes. At least that’s how it felt to me. This might have been a cope, a motivation to move forward. The world was depending on us, whether the world realized it or not.

The day was moving along smoothly until we moved about half a mile deeper and the ground gave way. The earth below us collapsed, dragging us into the underworld below. Dust powdered the air and obscured visibility.

After the dust settled, it was clear that the place we landed was a marvelous spectacle. Rays of light penetrated through various tears in the earth above, feeding the sparse forest that existed underground. Hero, unfallen, looked down at us from the overworld, barking at us in sympathy. Ultimately, he walked away, probably realizing there was nothing he could do at this point.

Fallen Under

“Is everyone alright?” I said as I coughed. Turning to Evelyn, it was apparent that the answer was no. She was fraught again. Flashbacks from the nightmare intruded my mind.

“Evelyn!” I yelled in a concerned tone. I rushed to her side. “Hey. We will make it through this. What has you anxious?” I asked.

The earth moved beneath our feet, shaking back and forth.

Evelyn replied, “This wasn’t expected. I didn’t even know a place like this existed.”

“That’s okay. Neither did I. We made it out last time you were anxious too, remember?”

She responded minimally, “Yes.”

I went in to hug her. She clung on intensely. “Just like last time, we will figure this situation out and you’ll be better.”

“Thank you,” she said in a soft tone. Though she expressed herself softly, it was clear her anxiety was still present. “The only way is to explore the area until it comes together.”

Taro and Nell were checking on each other’s safety. Luckily, no one was harmed. Well, at least physically. Evelyn seemed to be triggered by her fear of the unknown again.

“Are you all alright? That was rough. Any idea where we are?” I asked with urgency.

Taro replied, “We are okay. What about you two?”

I responded, “Yeah, Evelyn’s just shaken up again. We have to explore the area and gather information and she should return to a sense of security soon.” Evelyn looked up at my eyes. She seemed mystified that I cared for her. It wasn’t clear whether that was due to our fight or if she just generally didn’t anticipate others expressing this degree of kindness to her. It was probably the former.

Taro remarked, “I think we are in Cannibal’s Den.”

Evelyn seemed to respond to that. Her tense figure relaxed and her eyes returned to their usual pearly beauty. “I’ve learned about this place before,” she said in an enthusiastic state of content.

The drastic shift was as unsettling as it was before, despite that I understood her a little more. The understanding was only superficial though. All I knew was that not knowing things scared her and knowing them fixes it. I couldn’t really empathize with how it felt.

Taro laughed and said, “Well there’s the Evelyn we know! It didn’t take much. Now let’s figure out how to get out of here.”

We start our journey on a strange path that seemed like it shouldn’t exist down here.

“Where do you think this path goes?” I asked.

Nell responded, “I’ve heard about this place. I believe there is a colony somewhere down here. Our colony doesn’t interact with this place, which might be due to some of the weird rumors we’ve heard. Obviously, the name Cannibal’s Den is a little concerning.”

Evelyn seemed slightly uneasy. Turning to me she said, “Riyon, I know the timing of this request is poor, but I think it is an important step in our progression.”

“What request?” I asked, curiously.

She continued, “My mind allows me to gain insights into reality that surpass the physiological capability of your own. Though, it is possible for me to share my mind with you, on a physical level. One of my functions allows me to provide a TEP brain implant that gives you enhanced functionality comparable to my own. You’d gain some of the knowledge and abilities that I have. For our safety in this quest to our destiny, I think we should undergo this process.”

I asked, “TEP?”

She answered, “It stands for technological extrasensory perception.”

This was one of the most romantic, freaky ideas I’ve ever heard of. My curiosity was on full throttle but my hesitation and fears demanded my attention too. Would this kill me? Would we become part of the same person? The thought of that compelled me. I lusted to bond on such a deep level with her, so much that my anger started to dissipate in the face of this new development.

Taro, as a voice of reason, suggested, “Are you sure about this, Riyon? It sounds like the kind of thing that you can’t go back on if things go wrong. You don’t even really know what you are getting yourself into.”

Nell joined him, “Yeah, you should think it over before doing something risky and spontaneous. Though, I will say, I really want to do it myself! So, I can’t blame you if that’s the choice you make!”

Evelyn replied with reassurance, “If you decide that you don’t want this, the TEP implant can be turned off. I will not force you to remain in such a state if you do not wish.”

I responded to Evelyn, “What exactly will it do to me? Is it safe? Will we be alright??”

Evelyn stepped closer, “As I said, it will grant you access to parts of my mind. The implant will burrow into your brain and begin spreading and changing your physiology to match more with mine. In the early stages, your senses will be modified. Then, as the implant grows into your brain networks, you will gain the ability to see glimpses of the future as I do. Finally, when the transformation is complete, our minds will be significantly shared. This development will take the longest time.”

In a concerned tone, I asked, “Do you think I’m going to start freaking out like you have been?”

Evelyn replied, “No. You have already dealt with navigating life in the unknown. You have a faith that guides you. The notion that your leap into the unknown will be fruitful or that you will somehow make it to the other side protects you.” She responded. “For me, I am spoiled by the insights that guide me. Not having knowledge brings back the impending doom, the rudimentary calling of my urge to survive. It is a primal fear that was programmed into me that my knowledge solves and that the unknown fails to solve. It is my fear of death. I cannot believe in any kind of faith, as I have seen too deeply into what is merely true.”

Allured by the idea of joining minds and gaining power, I replied, “If it’s safe, I’ll do it. The ability to see more of reality might be important to our mission and protect us from danger.” I attempted to form moral excuses but the temptation came more potently from my curiosity than from any desperation for security. I couldn’t really know the ways in which such an ascendence would protect us until after it happened. I didn’t even understand what kind of pandora’s box I was opening.

Both Taro and Nell remained nervous and silent, watching with their own intoxicating curiosity.

“Sit down, Riyon,” Evelyn said in a soft voice.

I sat, submitting to her command.

She placed her hands on my head, positioning them above my ears. “This will hurt but only for a moment. The pain will dissipate quickly and you will begin the initial stages of your transformation.”

“Okay,” I responded in confirmation and implied my consent to proceed, anxiously.

She knelt down towards me and looked me in the eyes. It was somehow romantic and yet, on another level, it was disturbing. The anticipation and nervousness climbed higher. She must have sensed this because she petted my hair softly, which effectively calmed me down.

Suddenly, two sharp needles were felt, stabbing through my skull from both of her hands. I flinched and quickly tried to maintain my composure. I looked back into her eyes and something began to change in my field of view. My vision suddenly shut off, then turned back on. Fear consumed me. My lens of the world began to flicker slowly, on and off, on and off, with an increasing frequency. The flickering accelerated and began to appear like a strobe light. Everything was so bright, so clear. My vision was no longer constrained to the center of my field. I could see everything. The flickering kept accelerating until it reached a point in which distinct frames were no longer detectable. The stroboscopic mindfuck evolved into a seamless state of perception. It was as if my brain rebooted.

In a panic, I yelled, “Evelyn?!”

Both Taro and Nell looked deeply worried.

She held my hands, answering, “Do not worry. It is jarring now, but soon you will see how useful all of this is. Don’t let your fear consume you.”

Dream-like visions flooded my mind. Scenes of Evelyn and me kissing breathed fire into my soul. Yet, nightmarish indescribable horrors flashed between the images of romance and comfort.

Her soothing presence wasn’t enough. I began flailing and writhing, hoping to gain some sense of control. I muttered strange noises as if the most animalistic side of me took over my body.

A strong sense of the structure of the world around me materialized. It was as if a 3-dimensional map was forming. My vision extended beyond what my eyes could see. The memories of sights seen were painted onto the realms invisible to my eyes. Sounds reverberated on the cave walls forming this model further. My voice echoed and changed form, distorting via interaction with the complex shapes of the stalactites above our heads. The direction of each echo was clear, leaving behind tracers that allowed me to track the change of shape in my scream of Evelyn’s name. Her quelling response to my words danced among my own, forming intricate geometries and beautiful shapes.

A new sound joined the dance of vibrations. It was clear that the source came from afar. The movement could be traced to the right-most corner of the cave. I turned to look at what I heard.

Evelyn hugged me and remarked excitedly, “Exactly, Riyon! That is exactly what I mean. Now you see!”

The sound could be rationalized, reverse-engineered by my imagination by utilizing my newfound awareness of the physics that distorted the sound so that I could trace back the shapes that initially interacted to produce the sound. The contour of both the floor and the interacting model were vaguely apparent, almost as lucid as if I could see with my own eyes. The model was incomplete and murky, but it was clearly a creature’s foot maneuvering across the grainy cave floor.

“Someone’s there!” I stated with concern.

Evelyn replied, “Yes! Though, danger is not imminent yet. Any cause for concern would be detectable through their expression and heart behavior.” It was apparent that she was still more skilled at interpreting the meaning of this hyper-sensory domain than I.

“Who are you?! How did you find this place?!” A deep aggressive voice called out.

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