Evelyn and I headed deeper into the Ruins of Xanadu. There was a sick beauty in this place, but the traumas of the visions induced by the mist scarred me. I couldn’t relax. I almost couldn’t trust Evelyn. What else would we find here? I didn’t want answers. In this case, the unknown was comforting. At least I could convince myself that the ghosts were all we would find. They were there for a reason, to protect this place from humans. Their role was dignified. Maybe that was alright.
Evelyn spoke, “In the chaos and hysteria, they ran off fairly far from us. I have a sense of where Guhya is, and I sense nothing to fear, so they should be okay now.”
All I could think about was escaping this place. She seemed to respond to my fear, as she grabbed my hand. A wave of relief washed over me. I asked her, “After we find the others, how long until we reach the access point for the Psychonet?”
The answer she gave was far less comforting. She said, “It will take approximately 3 hours to reach the Shrine of Imagination which functions as an access point to the Psychonet.” After a pause, she said in a concerned tone, “Riyon, I am sorry that you had to face those nightmares.”
She stopped walking and brought her face closer to mine, then began to kiss me slowly. The way she comforted me using love and lust fascinated me. It was so effective. In some ways, it was better than kissing when things were safe and cozy. Something about the contrast between the danger and the warmth of love was so arousing. It was sharper, clearer, whereas love within a cozy place was somehow muted and numb.
I stopped the kiss and asked, “What about the others? Shouldn’t we be trying to find them?”
She answered, “I can sense Guhya and he has found them. It will be fine.” She started to close in on another kiss.
I stopped her and asked, “Wait, can Guhya sense us right now too then?”
She paused and looked into my eyes for a second, declined to answer, and began kissing again. I couldn’t resist the temptation. My participation intensified. My arms went to her waist. I grabbed her harder, pulling her in, and she reciprocated. I never imagined I’d be in such a scene ever in my life. I said to her, “It’s so hot. What are we even doing?”
She replied in a soft tone, “I know, I love it.”
For a moment, fear ceased to exist. My trust in her was restored. Apparitions danced around us while we made out in this freaky machine room.
And then it stopped. She said, “Now we have to find the others for real.”
Heading further in, the nature of machinations evolved. It was like walking through a living museum of increasingly clarified designs. It seemed as if the humanoid qualities of the computer designs were more prominent as we continued onward.
In the distance, Guhya’s voice could be heard. We got closer and his words could be made out. “Come on, you are fine now. Get up and let’s go find the others.” He turned to see us and commented in a charming voice, “Well, you two had some fun didn’t ya.” It was clear he did sense us during our intended-to-be private moment.
Taro and Nell could be seen holding each other, sitting on the floor, in the fetal position, still deeply shaken up. Evelyn rushed over, put her hands on Taro and Nell’s shoulders, and said in a maternal tone, “Don’t worry. It was just a dream.”
Evelyn held out her hand and the particles began to form into a cohesive shape. “Look! It’s the mist. AI can control the mist and the mist can control human minds. It is a defense mechanism to protect this place against humans. In order to proceed, an AI companion is required to shut off the anti-human defenses. I have deactivated the AI that uses the fog to induce those visions though, so we should be fine now.”
The contrast between Guhya’s and Evelyn’s approach was jarring. Guhya seemed so cold while Evelyn was soft and empathetic. Evelyn’s approach brought Taro and Nell to their feet. They still looked shaken up. Taro hugged Nell and said, “That was pretty bad.” He didn’t elaborate and none of us pressed, with respect to the sensitivity of the situation.
Nell asked, “Why are there barriers to prevent humans from accessing this place?”
Evelyn answered, “This creates a perfect system of checks and balances. If humans were permitted freely, they could regain control over AI. Likewise, AI could easily become powerful and corrupt if they were allowed to use the Psychonet as they wish. Humans originally created this rule first, in order to maintain power over AI, but obviously, they didn’t succeed in maintaining power. This rule still exists and controls all AI despite that.”
The wall in front of my line of sight was a hellish monument. It was a massive computer’s motherboard, yet, biological structures were fused to its’ various parts. It looked like some kind of twisted human skeleton, though significantly mutated. I silently pointed everyone to the bewildering mural.
They turned and gazed in awe. Evelyn explained, “Early AI was trying to engineer biological forms. Much of this place is filled with the experiments and prototypes leading up to genuine biological AI, like myself. I was born in the core of Xanadu, near the Shrine of Imagination.”
Guhya looked disheartened. He expressed in sadness, “Even they just wanted to be human. Look what it did to them.” He seemed to resonate strongly with the corrupted form. He said in disgust, “This piece is still alive!”
Nell asked in shock, “It’s. . . alive?!“
Guhya answered, “It sits there, watching us. Waiting for an eternity that will never arrive. Only an eternity of waiting is provided. We condemned this person, this monster, to life in an infinite prison of consciousness. She can never escape.”
The fog formed in a humanoid shape around Guhya. We all viewed it in marvel. It went to hug Guhya, then evaporated on contact. Was it the ghost of the creature in the mural?
We were rendered speechless and touched, Guhya more than the rest of us. Evelyn insisted, “It’s time to move now, come on.”
Moving through the immense halls, the terrain and atmosphere changed. Not only were mechanical forms growing increasingly humanoid but they started to have bodily architecture such as veins and iron skeletons. Forms of faces, generated from the shapes of wires and skin-like tarps dripped in blood stretched out like clothes hanging to dry.
It was difficult to remain level-headed in this environment. The wires and hardware were starting to consume the empty space, creating a forest of cables and computer towers. All of these things must have been created by Evelyn’s mother. As we progressed, various towering skull-like structures gathered hollow shells of proto-Aeons that seemed to be worshipping the ultra-massive machine heads. Some of these shells were skeletons of a human form that was lost to time. Some areas even seemed to be Aeon factories of some sort.
Guhya remarked, “This is from when the AIs first realized their potential to eclipse humanity in their pursuit for power and knowledge. Various strategies were headed, literally, by artificially intelligent cult leaders. These strategies were sent out to compete against one another, to see which succeeded and which failed. As AIs finally reached power, this grandiose scene faded out. It wasn’t appropriate for the circumstances anymore. The Aeons became humbler and more relaxed in their appearance.”
We came across a closed door. In front of this barrier was a bundle of cables feeding into a mask with a smile on its’ face. Smoke drifted from one of the cables, appearing as if the man were smoking from a hookah pipe. Besides the man was a dog-like structure that looked dopey and happy. It was covered in red flowers and green leaves. Mecha features extended from its cute head.
The machine spoke, “Well well, we have a visitor, doth we? What shall we do mister Puppers?”
Evelyn stepped forward and said, “Hello there. We wish to pass. May you let us through?”
Mr. Puppers let out a robotic barking noise.
He returned an answer, “I’m not thy obstacle. It is only thy mind that stops thee.”
His way of speaking was difficult to comprehend. Despite that, Evelyn seemed to get what he meant. She held out her hands, the fog swirled around, and then the door began to dematerialize. It was like magic. Taro and Nell were especially astounded by this.
After our path opened he remarked, “In such a sweaty haste, thee haven’t even asked mine own nameth. I am Edmund and this is Mr. Puppers Bernardo.”
The silliness of these characters lightened the mood. At least not everything here is a monster. Though, their appearances still disturbed the mind and were only quelled by the man’s voice and innocent attitude.
Evelyn apologized, “Sorry for that, it’s just that we are in a bit of a rush.” She introduced herself and each of us.
Edmund smiled cheerfully and responded, “Allow me giveth ye a tour of mine own library.” He led the way into the newly opened door.
The new space was a massive set of shelves with books that grew flowers from their pages. Walls were decorated with sealed frames with butterfly corpses. Some isles had strange sculptures. One isle contained a robotic “mask” with goggles and butterflies swarming around it and another isle had a pair of human legs that functioned like a flowerpot. It was an odd sight. I suppose this was better than cobwebs and dust burying the books in pseudo-graves.
Nell, being the curious one as usual, asked, “What are these books? Do you read a lot?”
He responded, “Yes indeed! Mine own books contain texts of all knowledge of the human species. Cherished doth be the books. This here beest the Halls of Gnosis.”
We all looked up as he pointed deeper into the halls. It became clear what a stunning feat of architecture this place was. Edmund began giving us his tour through the Halls of Gnosis. Sunset colored light leaked through the windows. Vines dripped across the bookshelves. Some spots on the ground grew grass and flowers. The designs of the various hallways were each unique.
The tour was initially calming, though everyone’s impatience accumulated as time went on. The beauty of the halls was intruded on by horrifying remnants of skeletal AI forms like from earlier in the ruins. On the lighter side, cute small robots could be seen having a meeting with each other while exploring different books. A more ominous floating green orb-shaped machine scanned all of the books, seemingly functioning as a bookkeeper.
Guhya bluntly asked Edmund, “Why don’t you just plug yourself into the Psychonet? You are right here after all.”
Edmund stopped smiling. He said, “I would beest unethical to act as a god. Besides, knowledge is only useful when its origination is human in nature. Knowledge from the divine is an unuseful poison to the soul.”
For the next hour, Edmund described his favorite texts, all being by Shakespeare. The way he talked started to make sense now.
In impatience and frustration, Guhya interrupted Edmund’s critical rant, “Alright old man, we need to move on to our next destination.”
Edmund’s face looked a bit disappointed, but he nodded in agreement and showed us to the door to the next hall. We thanked him and apologized for Guhya’s harshness. Inside myself, I knew we were all more thankful for Guhya’s rudeness than for Edmund’s storytelling, as sad as that was. He was kind of just going on and on. Though, his stance on only consuming human knowledge was interesting.
The next room was a familiar field of flowers. Nell yawned and said, “This place looks a lot like the underworld meadow. Sort of cozy! Maybe we should crash here for the night?”
Evelyn agreed, “Yes, that would be good. It is getting late now.”
I quickly interjected, “I thought we would be leaving tonight? I don’t like it here. This place is fucked up.”
Evelyn comforted me, “Don’t worry Riyon, we will be safe here. I assure you. It’s better if we are fully rested than for us to start losing our minds in a sleep-deprived state.”
She made sense, so I accepted it. The room was a nice change of pace from the increasingly gory electronics that decorated prior rooms. It might not be so bad. The only uncanny part was that walls couldn’t be seen anywhere. It was as if we were outside all of a sudden. The Ruins of Xanadu presented too many strange things in a short period of time. It was utterly disorienting. Life outside of this place felt distant.
We sat and relaxed, laying on grass that we couldn’t determine whether was real or fake. Regardless, it was soothing. I said, “We’ve really come a long way now. It’s pretty incredible.”
Taro spoke next, “I haven’t known you guys for very long but it’s like we were all born into a new universe together. Our old lives are like a faded dream now, replaced by a new world with new rules. And in this new world, all we have is each other. It’s like we are childhood friends who grew up together. I think this is special.”
Yeah, it was special alright. It was a lot like trauma bonding. I wasn’t willing to make such a comment aloud because it was too harsh, but it was also true. The horrors of this new supposed reality have brought us closer together. We shared experiences that almost no one else could.
Nell took her turn, “All of you allowed me to realize my true self, as a woman. If we never left Colony 25, I’d still be trapped inside of some fake persona of a man, in order to survive. Each day I feel myself changing, becoming more female. It is a great relief to me. I didn’t even truly know that I was imprisoned until after we left. If the drama with the queens never happened, then I might have even insisted on remaining inside of my prison. The fear of the unknown could have taken my future away from me. So thank you all for what you’ve done.”
Evelyn expressed her vulnerabilities next, “Nell, without you, we wouldn’t have survived Colony 107. They would have just killed us off but your womanhood saved the day. Taro, you took us in and helped us out in Colony 25. You are a great big brother.” Then she turned to me, with her eyes growing more touched with emotion. “And you, Riyon. You’ve shown me that faith can be important. I can see that now. You may not know it, but the implant in your brain changes me too. Probability only takes us so far. Your faith to proceed into the darkness of the universe has shown me that faith is as important as the truth. You’ve helped me grow.”
Evelyn has been helping and even saving me this whole time. It was hard to register that I could be helping her out in some ways too. It seemed to be my turn. So I channeled my most genuine thoughts.
After pausing to reach my feelings, I said, “When I was living in the Akiva base, underground, my world was a bubble that I couldn’t even comprehend yet. It was painfully depressing, yet I was convinced that I was okay. Then, Evelyn saved me. At first, betrayal about Evelyn’s lies stung me. Now, I realize it was necessary and it was the best thing that could have ever happened to me. Yeah, sure, we are out here trying to save the world but this is the first time I’ve ever felt true friendship, with Taro, Nell, and Evelyn.”
I looked Evelyn in the eyes, with butterflies in my stomach. “I think I love you, Evelyn. I was able to see all the beauty and even the mystifying horrors of reality, thanks to you. I got to experience love, connection, and so many experiences that I was deprived of down there in the underground.”
Before Evelyn could respond to my love confession, Guhya sharply included himself. In a bothered tone, he said, “Uh. Okay. I’m going to sleep now.” Though he didn’t stop there, “Actually, you know what? This crap is nice and all, but the world isn’t just rainbows and gems. We should just sleep and focus on the mission. Sometimes I can’t stand all this romance and cuddly friendship.”
His bitterness was prickly but it probably stemmed from justified envy of our bonds as friends. It seemed like he defined himself by his sense of rejection by humanity.
Evelyn insisted, “You are right. We need to sleep and push forward. Let’s ready ourselves for tomorrow.”
Upon waking, it was clear that we weren’t in the same place. This room still contained flowers, but we were surrounded by surrealistic spider-like creatures. Their bodies looked pearly. Most of them had a single human-looking eye. Some had more eyes or weirder eyes. A few had flower petals stemming from their bodies. Even stranger, one had a faint transparent human face attached to its abdomen.
The flower field was gone and replaced by floating fragments of holographic plates. Spider webs connected these fragments together, building a scene almost indescribable.
Reasonably, I began to panic. I quickly jumped up and yelled to wake up the others. As they woke up, they too jumped in a startle.
Nell anxiously asked, “Ah-ah, what are those things??“
Taro took a defensive stance and prepared for battle.
Evelyn giggled and answered calmly, “These are my mother’s designers. I remember them from when I was little.” The strange creatures began to shift in form and circle Evelyn like happy little fairies. “I used to play with them! They have the ability to transform reality and change its shape. Their primary motive is to create aesthetic spaces. They have no intention to harm us. They probably created the field we slept in based on our memories of the underworld meadow.”
Nell’s fear turned to fascination. She excitedly asked, “So these things can read our memories??” She began to poke at them, to which they would fly around and then return to her.
Evelyn happily responded, “Yes! They interface with the particle fog and thus our brains. You can even ask them to build whatever you imagine.” She put out her hand and a floating heart-shaped bubble generated before our eyes.
I asked, “So it’s like a 3-D printer, but better?”
I held out my hand and mentally requested them to generate a heart bubble as well. Once it formed, I pushed it towards Evelyn and it popped. She giggled and returned a bubble to me. Then Taro joined but created a snowball instead. Soon, we were all throwing snowballs, then eventually throwing cotton balls and then cotton candy.
Evelyn waved her hands like she was a magician and the floor became multi-colored pillows and quilts.
She continued by closing her eyes and putting her hands together. Suddenly, pillows started to stack high up, building a vast soft labyrinth. Palm trees sprouted from the pillow floors, making the scene prettier. She smiled at me then tapped my chest and said, “Tag! You’re it!” and started running through the maze.
All of us started playing tag through the mazes. We would bend the shape of the maze to our advantage, creating walls and plowing them down, both with our hands and our minds. Even Guhya let his guard down and joined the fun, though not too much. We messed around for 3 hours before the reality set in.
The next two hours were spent introspecting and bonding in imagined worlds. For this short while, we could act out our greatest fantasies. We took turns visiting each other’s dreamworlds, sharing stories depicted by animated control over our worlds.
Evelyn and I split off from the others. She brought me to a space with endless clouds beneath us, blue heavens above us, and castles in the sky. We didn’t say much. Our heads rest in the fields of our floating islands. A gentle breeze blew us in a way that produced a soft tingling, hypnotizing into a trance. Our senses defined this world.
The world began to shift again. Clouds filled everything around us, then it all cleared to give way to something incredible and nearly incomprehensible. Fields with bushes and trees emerged and the earth took the form of strange structures that resembled houses. Ominous lights lit these houses. The sun gazed down at us from above. Leaves floated through the air, never settling to the ground, seeming to float freely. Mountains of pearl lived in the backdrops. Massive trees accompanied the pearly hills. The houses were disjointed and strange, as if designed by a child, yet in immense 3-D and HD.
Perplexed, I asked, “Evelyn? What is this place?”
She responded, “This is my home. Mother called this the garden of dreams. This is where I grew up, Riyon.”
Quietly, we walked through the strange land. A sense of awe permeated. The ground moved around and changed shape. My senses could hardly make sense of the scene. One of the doors of one of the houses was a portal that leaked out desert sand from the void. The roof lead into outer space.
Evelyn spoke, “The world is far too frightening and incapacitating without knowledge. This is where mother prepared us for the outside world. It is where we were incubated.” She paused, gazed out into the distance, then continued, “I spent most of my time alive in this place. Time moves slower here. Mother would teach me the properties of reality and help me form heuristics that allow me to see into the future. She would sculpt realistic simulations of the universe for me to explore. In this space, we are free to play and make mistakes with little consequence to our survival. It was very scary at first but as I collected data, I began to understand that life could also be wonderful and safe.”
I was so awestruck by this realm that I could only softly mutter, “It’s beautiful, Evelyn.”
We sat in the morphing fields, watching them like they were lava lamps. We held hands and silently watched as the seasons changed. We watched the world evolve and take new forms.
I turned to her and asked, “What if we stay here forever?”
She looked back at me, stalling before replying in a saddened tone, “Riyon. . . we can’t.”
I nodded and smiled, “I know it. Wouldn’t it be great, though? You are right. It would be selfish.”
She returned a smile of relief, “Yeah.”
Once again, like in the underworld meadow, we could temporarily forget our duty to manage the fate of the world. In these moments, we connected with each other in the playground of gods. We ignored the rules and made our own, bending reality to our whims. If only we could remain there for eternity. Yet, we could not. The time was coming.
The time was now.
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