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A tall, thick, strong man approached us. His head bulged as if his skull was mutated. His eyes had a deep purple hue. The expression on his face signaled aggression and defensiveness. His motive seemed to be territorial and protective in nature.
“We do not mean harm. I can see that we scare you. We only mean to pass through. We fell from up above. Will you allow us to pass through in peace?” I asked, in a calm tone. I was beginning to sound more like Evelyn. It wasn’t clear if this was roleplay because of the TEP implant or if I was actually starting to change.
“Where are you heading?” he asked. His guard seemed to decrease. Concern still managed to contort his face, lifting one of his eyebrows, as he scanned each of us to sus out any detectable threats in our emotions.
Evelyn came forward and replied, “We need to get back to the overworld. We are heading near the base of the mountain. Please let us pass.”
He seemed to change demeanor at Evelyn’s presence. He became submissive and responded, “Of course. If your intention is simply to leave, this is acceptable. If you are to cross paths with others, I cannot guarantee your safety. If you approach our colony, you will not survive.”
I looked at him in the eyes with a fearless dominance. I read his emotions, the jump of his heart rate. It was somehow satisfying to maintain this level of emotional power. His reaction to my body was clear as day. It felt like I was learning the ways in which I had command over his body and mind.
Evelyn turned towards me and yelled “Riyon! Contain yourself!”
It became apparent that my interaction with him was not in the privacy of my own mind. Both his reaction and my reaction were relayed to Evelyn as well. She could see into everything I was doing.
The strange man spoke, “I will leave you now. Do not threaten the space we inhabit and you will travel in peace. Goodbye.” He walked off on the path ahead of us.
“You can’t just power trip like that. There is still much you don’t know. Don’t let your faith mislead you. You will get us killed,” Evelyn said in a scolding responsible tone.
She wanted me to be more afraid, like her. Our differences shone like a flare in my mind. Maybe she was right. I needed to learn how to be afraid of the unknown if I wanted to survive with these new powers.
I replied, “I’m sorry. You are right. I got ahead of myself. As I grow, I’ll allow you to lead the way.”
She gave a confirming gaze and lightly touched my shoulder, giving me a shudder of warmth that subdued me further. She was so good.
We began our long journey in this magical underworld. Glowing specs of green light coated the edge of underwater lakes and rivers. A fresh aroma wafted through the tunnels, luring us towards an opening to a larger cavern. Light burst through from the end of this aromatic tunnel.
Nell spoke, “So it’s been almost a week now since I’ve taken any of those meds! To be honest, I’m really feeling it.” Her expression took a momentary dip into upsetness. “I’m kind of excited to see what life is like without these drugs guiding my mind and body,” she said enthusiastically. Her tone shifted towards anxiety, “Taro, some part of me is worried that I won’t be the same person anymore, that you won’t love me anymore.”
Taro responded quickly, “Nonsense! I don’t see you like that. Even if your behavior or body changes, I will still love you. If it weren’t for you, I’d just be another slave to the queens. I love you for helping me escape that. No matter who you become, I am committed to you. I hope you feel the same for me!”
Nell blushed and they hugged.
We were almost at the rocky doorway. The light was obscuring what was on the other side. Evelyn suddenly ran ahead in great anticipation and impatience. “We are here!” she exclaimed back at us.
We all ran to see. After allowing my eyes to adjust, the beauty of the area sank in. An endless bed of colorful flowers coated the floor. Magenta, yellow, cyan, and purple painted this underworld meadow. Grass flowed in a gentle breeze. Rays of light broke through from the overworld, revealing floating pollen in the air. Large brown mushrooms of a few sizes and shapes acted as trees. The lakes sparkled in the setting yellow sunlight. A sense of familiarity and deja vu kicked in.
Evelyn looked all around, twirling herself around in the shining bits of pollen. She let herself collapse in the fluffy tall grass. “I’ve been here when I was a child! It’s known as the underground garden of Xanadu,” she said. The echoes of her voice reverberating on the distant walls of the cave produced a dream-like quality, making the moment even more surreal.
Nell asked, “Wow Evelyn! So you’ve been here before? When was that?”
Evelyn got up and looked towards Nell, “It was around 100 years after the apocalypse, so around 400 years ago.”
Everyone stared in shock. “You’ve been alive for 400 years?!” Nell asked with intensity.
She just smiled in response.
It was a weird development but nothing was too strange at this point. I’d already left behind any sense of knowing things about the world now. It was a state of pure undiscerning observation. I lived my whole life with a filter of my knowledge guiding the way and telling me what to see, and now I was free. Life seemed better this way. The grand sense of mystery was arousing. Wondering what the world was, captivated me. I laughed in response to Evelyn with no pressing questions.
Taro said in a responsible serious tone, “Maybe we should just camp out here for the night. It is getting late.”
Evelyn chimed in, “Sure, but we all know it’s not because it’s late. It’s really because this place is too beautiful and none of us want to leave yet! Let’s just have some fun for the rest of today.” She seemed to be loosening up to the rest of us, allowing her playful side to emerge. She went off prancing around, picking flowers and smelling them.
Taro responded with a smile, “Well, she seems to be in a good mood. I guess let’s just try to take it all in while we can. After all that we’ve been through, it might be good to just take time to relax and recover.”
Nell and Taro went walking into the meadow.
I went to follow after Evelyn. Once I caught up with Evelyn, I greeted her. She held out her hand, showing me what she found: a strange creature with stunningly beautiful wings.
“It’s a fairy!” she exclaimed happily. “They’ve also been called butterflies, historically. This is one of my most favorite creatures!” She brought the fairy closer to my face to help me observe it deeper.
The fairy flew off, startling me. Then Evelyn looked me in the eyes with a playful smile and booped my nose with her finger, then giggled and ran, gesturing me to follow. Her figure seemed to move in slow motion with a trailing blur. It turned into a game of tag; both of us taking turns chasing each other through the flowers, knocking more floral dust in the air. It was like we were children again. There was a kind of freedom that I never wanted to lose.
This time when I caught her, she grabbed my arms and we began to spin in circles. The background was a blurry mess of swirling colors. In the foreground was a beautiful portrait of Evelyn, who stared into my eyes with her pleasant blissful expression. She let go and we both flung into the soft grass below, laughing together.
She crawled over me, pinned my arms down, looked into my eyes, and then she kissed me on the lips. My face blushed red. She licked my red cheeks, smiled, and said, “It doesn’t taste like strawberries!” She pressed her chest to mine and my face was met with hers. Everything was so soft. We laid there for 2 minutes but it felt like time stopped. For the time being, this was the entire world.
My feet had a deep warmth and my body felt cushioned by pillows. The breeze tingled on my face. These feelings were unlike any I could have even imagined back in the Akiva clan. It was Evelyn who granted me this new life.
This time I got on top of her and messed up her hair playfully. “Stop!” she yelled while giggling.
She struggled and we wrestled until eventually she pushed me off and our eyes locked as we lay there in the bed of flowers. Her eyes grew dazed and soft. The sparkling pollen in the air drifted around us slowly as the light of the sun began to fade. For a while, we just sat there in a blissed state, drifting in and out of reality. It almost seemed like 30 minutes passed without any recollection. The moment felt eternal. My senses were heightened but also slurring around a bit. Starlight and glowing specks dimly lit the cave.
She sat up as if she were coming to her senses again. “We should find Taro and Nell,” she said in a concerned tone. We totally lost track of the situation.
I nodded and we got up, beginning our search for the other two. After roaming around for a bit, we came across Taro and Nell. They both had their arms on each other’s shoulders, just staring into the other’s eyes, seemingly in a euphoric stupor.
“Hey,” I said calmly.
They both snapped out of their trance and blushed at the awkward situation. Nell stuttered and said, “O-oh hey! Maybe we should prepare the campsite?”
We all nodded in agreement.
Taro said, “This place seems wonderful. It’s even a bit weird. I’ve never visited such a mystical place. What do you think?”
“Yea,” I responded shortly, knowing he wanted a more thorough answer. My mind felt too eased to challenge itself with such questions. I didn’t want to think anymore.
Everyone’s faces looked like a mix of serenity and a fight to stay awake. Sleep called us in. The safe feeling of this place allowed us to let our guard down for once.
Taro brought out pillows, handing one to each of us. We laid there in the middle of this strange flowery meadow and quickly drifted into slumber.
The world faded. I found myself staring into the darkness. A pair of red glowing eyes peered back at me. A disturbing aura filled the area. Mechanical tubes were connected to some kind of central structure. It looked organic, but also metal.
“I’ve been waiting for you, Riyon,” the creature said in a deep menacing tone. The earth shook violently and the creature continued, “It isn’t your time yet. Though, your fate is inescapable. Once you are ready, come and face me like a real god.”
A grey transitionary mist enveloped the area and a new dream sequence began.
Evelyn stood before me in her lewdest state yet. She took the form of a fairy. Antennae came from her uncomfortable-looking face. Wings grew from her backside. A shirt that exposed her breasts covered a tiny portion of her top half. No pants covered her bottom half, only some ribbons, high socks, and shoes. The lust that her appearance produced was uncontrollable, yet her expression was strongly deterring. Her folded arms gently reshaped her breasts, I didn’t want to look away but she very much wanted me to. She seemed bothered and almost judging, with her arms crossed.
It was honestly really awkward. My urge to hug her was overpowered by a sense of keeping a distance to subdue her discomfort. Why was she nude in the first place? And if she chose to be nude, why was she uncomfortable? Couldn’t she just dress again?
–The dream ended–
As I awoke, simultaneously did Evelyn. Our eyes met with peculiar synchrony. A fairy rested on her head. Rays of orange and yellow light filled the air, casting a spotlight on her. She appeared like an angel.
Her expression quickly turned to one of shame. She flinched, clenching the pillow. The fairy flew off in startle.
Oh no. Had we shared that dream?? This was obviously undeniable. Does she also feel my realization and panic too? A wave of dysphoria kicked in. The tunnels rocked with an earthquake, somehow seeming to co-occur with my emotions.
“I’m. . . I’m sorry, Evelyn.” I said in an embarrassed half-awake tone.
The color of her eyes turned like the time she panicked in Colony 25. This was all my fault. I sat up. My vision lagged behind me. Something wasn’t right.
Freaked out Evelyn mirrored my thoughts, “This isn’t right!” Her voice echoed much harder than yesterday.
A distant explosive sound could be heard.
It became apparent that we were surrounded. It was a group of the same kind we met when we first landed in the cave. Each of them looked identical to one another in an offputting way. We all got up.
“Where do you come from? What are you doing here?” one of the men asked in a serious blunt tone. They each had baskets of flowers on their back.
I took Evelyn’s panic as the signal to begin my attack. They must have triggered Evelyn’s fear of the unknown. I leaped towards one of them, read his body, and tripped him onto the ground.
He aggressively exclaimed, “What the fuck man?!”
The earth shook harder.
The other 3 men helped their fallen brother up. One of them yelled, “We gotta eat the Zaza and get the hell out of here. Leave these assholes behind.” He began handing each of them the pink flowers and they started chewing them.
This didn’t seem to be the danger. . .
Seconds later, an explosive hole burst open in the cave walls. Out of the dust cloud, a crazy fucking centipede creature came rushing towards us. It had razorblade teeth, deep blood metallic skin, and a seemingly endless body with tons of legs.
It loomed above Evelyn. She looked at it and her eyes returned to normal and then she. . . smiled??
The creature hesitated and turned to me instead. I screamed, “Evelyn!!”
She bolted toward me, grabbed my arms, and proceeded to kiss me passionately. My fear drained and was intruded on by the residual lust from the dream. The feeling was potent. The danger of the moment somehow amplified the euphoria that her soft lips injected into my brain. What the hell was happening? If this was how we die, then so be it.
The monster’s mouth was above us, dripping its saliva onto us but not coming any closer. As I was distracted by the horrifying creature, Evelyn pulled me back in and said, “No, Riyon. Focus on me.” She continued kissing me and I decided to trust her and joined mutually. Surely such a fucked-up traumatic scene was going to imprint on my memory, causing the development of some weird-ass fetish, assuming we even survive this.
One of the men who left screamed in the distance. All of us looked toward the source of the sound. The creature then let us be and changed course toward the scream. From a distance, the horrifying events of the man being consumed could be observed. The implant made it harder to ignore. My attention was pressed to the screen of the show and I had no permission to shut my eyes. The image of his body being shredded was still present when my eyes were sealed. I could see the sounds materializing into the horrors that were presented before me.
Evelyn noticed me squinting hard in an attempt to dissociate and said to me, “We are almost done, clear your mind and just focus on me.” She began making out with me again. It was so hot. Too hot.
It was definitely the weirdest thing I’ve ever experienced. The sound of the creature bursting back through the walls could be heard and then it vanished. “What in the hell was that Evelyn??” I yelled in a horny confusion.
She looked at me in disgust. “Don’t dream of me like that unless you have my permission!” she yelled.
Taro responded, “Dream? You mean you two are sharing dreams now? And they were kinky or what??”
Nell tugged on his shirt and said, “Let them sort this out, it’s none of our business.”
The empathy in her face returned and she continued, “I’m sorry. We are all okay now. That thing was an early prototype artificial intelligence designed to increase the well-being on Earth.”
Nell’s face grew interested. “That is supposed to increase wellbeing on Earth? How does that work?” Nell curiously asked.
Evelyn replied, “Yes. My mother created it as one of the earliest AIs. I don’t think it is sentient. It seeks out anyone who is suffering and eliminates them. It has a range though, so it probably only targets people down here.”
Taro started to rub his chin, thinking, epiphanizing. “You know, those men were collecting the magenta flowers. They also said something about eating Zaza as they ran off. Maybe the flower contains Zaza and they use its’ mood-boosting effects to avert the monster’s craving for suffering,” Taro said. “Perhaps we have been getting really high on Zaza since we’ve been here, just from inhaling the pollen in the air.”
Evelyn answered, “Yes. This is the case.” She paused, then continued, “There is a stairway that will lead us to the overworld, right at the base of Mount Xanadu. We should get there fast and try to avoid any other artificial monsters all the while.”
We all nodded and let Evelyn lead the way.
Through the tunnelway, a large dark opening appeared. A seemingly endless cliff to the right forced us to pay attention. In the distance of this grand cavern, there was a cityscape. I sensed no sounds or creatures, suggesting it was abandoned.
Nell commented, “It’s like some kind of giant termite mound. I wonder if anyone lives there.”
I responded, “I do not sense anything alive over there. It is unlikely.”
Nell replied, “Oh look at you Mr. Cyborg! Now you can see so much huh?”
The stairs to the overworld could be seen at the end of our path. Taro pointed in the direction and said with a curious tone, “So that must be our way out.”
Evelyn answered, “Yes. We are almost there. Let’s keep our guard up and soon we will be at the base of Mount Xanadu.”
An overwhelming feeling took over my mind. The centipede could be sensed, fairly far from us. I could feel the changes in the earth around us, to an unsettling degree. It was almost like the world around me was part of my body.
Evelyn yelled, “Everyone, get ready! Come where I’m standing.”
In the trust of Evelyn’s premonition, we ran towards her and waited for it. I still couldn’t see that deeply into the future yet but I was starting to understand how it worked.
The world shook again, collapsing the ceiling and closing off the way to the stairs. It was the movement of the centipede.
We were trapped.
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