After an hour, we escaped the trail of patrol and found ourselves at the edge of Neo-Iniko, in Phantasmogoria, also known as the forest of dreams. I glanced back at Neo-Iniko, taking in one last sight. No one had ever really seen what Neo-Iniko looks like in its material form because it was constantly shrouded in artificial illusions. Some claimed that it was simply a plain forest made to look like a city. This wasn’t nearly as concerning as the original Iniko, which forced people into a dream world against their wills. At least, in Neo-Iniko, it was merely an augmented reality. Plus, we got to keep our memories too.
Despite his madness, Gadi had a grasp on the details of events unfolding that even I, an Aeon, didn’t have. Though, my case was a bit special, since I’ve modified my brain in a sick attempt to reject my artificial existence. So deeply, I wanted to be human and so I paid the price with newfound inadequacies. Luckily, some ounce of my capacity to transcend ordinary human perception remained intact. But Gadi’s capacity doesn’t seem like anything I’ve ever observed in an Aeon. He was merely human.
It was time to probe and resolve this once and for all. “Gadi, tell me now. We are in the clear so tell me now: Who are you? What are you? What is the prophecy?”
He looked me in the eyes in a way that brought unease and smiled, “It’s come full circle. Here we are. Now it’s time to unveil the truth. The wicked, beautiful truth.”
In irritation I asked, “Do you really have to talk that way?”
Gadi replied, “Let’s focus on what is important here. The prophecy tells of your future, Guhya. You are the only one who has the knowledge necessary for reaching the Outside. Before we undergo that, there is a grand journey before us.”
I waited, anticipating his continuation and lengthy explanation but he just stood there with a weird grin on his face. I said, “Well, go on.”
Gadi doubled down, “That’s precisely it! The next stage will take us to the Aeon of Desires. She can be found in the temple beyond the forest. Now that it is dark, we should find a place to sleep and then-“
I couldn’t believe this, “WHAT? Why should we go to this temple you speak of? Why should I trust anything you say?”
Gadi responded more nervously this time, “Well, you must. It s-says so in the prophecy. You will trust me. You absolutely must. The temple will reveal truths that guide us further into the future that we all desire. That is why we must go.”
I began to yell in frustration, “Gadi! This makes no sense at all. You only speak vaguely and seem to have no rationality about this whole thing. What is your backstory? Who are you? Where do you come from?”
He responded even more nervously and nearly defeated, “Well… you see… I woke up around an entire 6 months ago and all I know, all that’s left, is… the prophecy. I do apologize that my ambiguity in speech poses these problems for you. I just can’t help it. All I know is the prophecy. It is presented as the clear light of reality. Divine truth. I assure you that all of this will eventually lead us to the Outside. I have already seen it all. Now, you have seen the power of the prophecy. See, see! We escaped! All thanks to the prophecy.”
He was literally brain damaged. Great. This guy truly was mad. A man who claimed he could only remember the future. He didn’t even know what he was doing. He simply followed his prophecy without question. It did lead us to safety, assuming that wasn’t a coincidence. But this was ridiculous. “So, you can’t remember your life before the prophecy?”
Gadi expressed a sadness, “No… I’m sorry. It is most peculiar, that’s truly so.”
Pandora looked horrified by all of this. Yet, she had no right. She was anomalous too. I turned to her, pointed my finger, and said, “And what’s your story then, Pandora?”
She was startled and stumbled her words, “Uhm… you see… the thing is, I can’t go all too in depth with my story either.”
In great suspicion, I replied, “But why?!“
She said, “I know this must seem so definitely insane, but you really must trust me. I promise that things will become apparent to you later. You will understand. The truth is that you are so very close to my heart. Really, I know that doesn’t make any sense yet but saying too much could interfere with the prophecy. At the very least, I can remember my past.”
I responded in a snarky tone, “Should I even introduce myself? It seems you both know me for whatever unexplainable reason. Neither of you can even be honest, yet I’m supposed to trust you two.”
Pandora approached me, “Guhya…” She grabbed my hand.
The world altered and revealed the same strange universe with neon lights and darkness that I saw before, in Neo-Iniko. This time, Pandora was there with me. We were holding each other. Strangely, I was comforting her and assuring her that it would be alright. Then we kissed in this weird hellish world. The vision ended and I gasped for air in a panic.
Pandora looked at me with shock and asked, “Guhya! Are you okay? What’s wrong?”
I replied, still gasping, “It was you! I thought the vision was a result of someone else’s virtual world intruding on my mind, but it happened just as we met. And now again, it has happened, when you touched my hand. What are you?? What was that vision?”
Pandora said, “I’m sorry, Guhya. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Was the vision of the future? If it was true, then I was just as crazy as them, in a way. “You know what,” I started laughing, “Let’s do it. All of us will reach the Outside. What else is there to do in this world. I’ve got nothing left anyway. I can do whatever I want. So! Let’s do it!”
Hopeful smiles emerged from both of their faces. In sync, they nodded in agreement.
Even if all this prophecy stuff was bullshit, we would probably have a fun time at least. A whole lot better than staying in that sim world in Neo-Iniko. Though, the way events were unfolding was oddly suspicious. This could be the best way to investigate such a puzzle. I accepted their game.
“I still have a few more questions, Gadi. What in the heck is the Outside??” I asked.
Gadi replied in much more confidence than before, “The ground beneath our feet is fraudulent. This is the ground of the inside. The dirt, the plants, you and I, we are on the inside. This world is inside the box. But there is a realm of something more. There is a vast Outside that exists beyond the box. In the space beyond, we will be free. That is why it must come to be.”
The clarity I desired wasn’t there but considering this guy’s brain was fried, it was no surprise. I couldn’t expect anything else. I replied, “Right! So, what is the next course of action, captain Gadi?!”
Pandora cut the play short and grew more aggressive, “Are we really just going to trust this guy, Guhya? He shouldn’t even be here.” She turned to Gadi and continued her rant, “And you. Those guys are after you as well, right? I’ve vaguely heard about you. People seem to want you dead. Why is that so?”
This bothered me. I quickly responded, “Hey, why do you think you have the right to be suspicious of him? We have to get along if we are going on this journey together. You are mad sus yourself.”
Gadi replied smugly, “They chase me because they know I am the prophet. They do not want us to bring the Outside upon the world. They want to remain in the world as it is so.”
I went along with it, “Yeah! See, Pandora? It’s all fine, then.”
She wasn’t amused but sighed and conceded, for now, “Fine. But let’s just hope this doesn’t end in disaster.”
Smiling, I said, “Alright, go on, Captain Gadi.”
He said, “Right, chosen one! The first step is to find a place to sleep. Then I will introduce you to one of my secrets.”
We began our trek into the forest of dreams. As we walked through, artificial apparitions emerged from the Earth. The image of a witch with a magical book was to our left. Colorful auras decorated the tree canopy. All of this was a function of the forest. The trees were AI, just like in classic Iniko, but arguably far less disturbing in its use. In fact, it was downright mystifying, beautiful, and captivating to watch.
Before getting used to it, we all just watched and marveled at the visionary show of the forest. The apparitions manifested from our memories and thoughts. The buff dudes from Colony 107 showed their faces, dancing about like silly goons. Fairies and rabbits made of light spun around us, splashing colorful particles as they went.
An odd girl with turquoise hair materialized in front of us. Fragments unified to create her body and form. Her gaze felt hollow yet alive, all around very uncanny.
Pandora looked particularly nervous. I asked, “Hey, Panpan, are you doing alright?”
She turned to me with a look of fear and awe, on the verge of tears, and then one of the glowing ghosts rose up from behind her. It seemed to be us holding hands. She replied, “Guhya… It’s beautiful but so invasive. I don’t know what to feel about…”
Interrupting our moment, Gadi pointed at a particular phantom of a distorted fiery scene of a woman and screamed out, “There it is! Wow, what?! That’s our future!”
It was a bit disturbing, though undoubtedly fascinating. These characters were still so mysterious. Pandora’s apparent affinity for me was rubbing off onto my own mind. It was imperative to maintain awareness, to remind myself that she is a stranger, no matter how familiar she acts with me. Falling into lust will only make me vulnerable. Somehow, Gadi’s insanity seemed a tad more reliable and comprehensible. It was convincing. Pandora, on the other hand, was entirely a mystery and full of her wits. She could be up to something sneaky. Losing my Aeon-ity from the regrettable humanization brain surgery only made situations like these more dangerous for me. That risk is what makes life more appealing for humans. That novelty, it drives them forward, into the grand mystery of their worlds. It was something to be cherished.
One ghost really caught me off guard. It was Riyon from when he entered the Psychonet. His body was glowing with blue light. His eyes a piercing red. It caught me off guard and I couldn’t resist the flow of emotions. I gritted my teeth and tried to hold back tears. I spoke to myself, “Damn it. Too soon. Do you really have to do this right now? Fuck you, Phantasmagoria.”
Both Pandora and Gadi gasped at the visionary dance of light.
I apologized, “Sorry. That was a friend. A recent one too. Wasn’t expecting to get punched in the gut like that. God… this place.” I’m just replacing my persona with the next. Covering up any trace of that pain. It’s all too real behind the mask though.
Gadi stood, just staring, slightly uneased and seemingly confused. Pandora rushed to my side and attempted to comfort what remained of my pain. She grabbed my arm.
Defensively, I said, “I appreciate your affection, but we need to take this slowly. You are acting like you know me and it’s really freaking me out. You are definitely cute and kind, and you seem intelligent; I’ll give you that. But this is disorienting for me.”
She replied in a saddened tone, “I’m sorry. I really am. I didn’t realize how much this path was going to hurt. You never mentioned anything about that.”
I could only respond with stun. She blamed me for this, somehow. It was a bit overdramatic. Hopefully, it wouldn’t continue on like that.
She continued with tears, “I’m sorry. I know I sound insane. I can’t put this on you. None of this makes sense, I realize. You don’t know me. You don’t know what I’m talking about, and I can’t even tell you. But please, for now, could you just hold me for a little while?”
She seemed to have self-awareness. It was about the only comforting aspect of this. Without words, I agreed and put my arm around her. She turned to my face with surprise and then gently smiled. In soft words, she said, “Thank you, Guhya. Thank you.”
The mechanism of the phantasms in the forest of dreams was similar to Iniko. Airborne particles interfaced with the AI and our brains, creating a bridge that allowed the AI to program our perceptions and experiences. They were essentially hallucinations.
We found a spacious clearing in the forest, set up camp, and laid ourselves out, watching the stars, disrupted by the relentless phantom light shows of the forest of dreams.
Forever, each new cycle of life filled with a rise to a euphoric peak and then a fall, to the depths of tragedy and the abyss. Losing everything in life was somehow freeing. Yet, freedom wasn’t worth that cost. Freedom was paid for in blood. It was paid for in death and destruction. I wanted to attach to these new “friends”, regardless of their clear flaws and red flags, but someday they would be gone too, like the rest. This was the greatest downside to my fondness for the human species. They were so fragile and finite. As an Aeon, my life endlessly dragged on, and I accumulated pain.
The world faded and sleep began.
I was standing in hills of grass. An empty somber place. An unfamiliar woman of mint green hair approached me. She was angelic. Her hair flowed in the breeze. I reached out and hugged her.
Then, Pandora made herself known from the sidelines. Her face was squished in anguish and aggression.
My eyes rushed open to see the morning sky and Gadi’s face staring down at me intently and joyed. My arms were wrapped around his arm. In shock, I jumped up and asked, “Hey! Gadi! What gives!?”
He replied smugly as usual, “Aww, Guhya, it was you who came onto me. Looks like Pandora is pretty jealous too!” He laughed.
Pandora was angrily looking at me with her hands on her hips. She demanded answers, “So, Guhya. What were you dreaming of, huh? I hope it was me.”
I replied, “Okay, chill both of you. Let’s get to the plot already. I’m getting up. Tell me about this secret you have, Gadi.”
Gadi enthusiastically replied, “Ah yes! The map of fated encounters. This map allows us to see the particular locations in which a variety of special moments are said to occur. If we, or more specifically, you, Guhya, attend these locations at the right moment, then your life and the course of fate will be altered significantly. The map reveals these locations marked by an ‘X’, just like a real treasure map. Except, our treasures are fated encounters.”
I said, “I see. That’s fascinating. So, where do we go first?” I wasn’t totally convinced yet but perhaps there was something to his map. The first thing was to test his map. If something astounding occurred, then perhaps this map was genuine. If not, then, well, at least we had fun.
Gadi replied, “The first fated encounter isn’t too far off. In fact, we should be able to get there before nightfall. This place resides in the Temple of Wishes. I believe if I say too much, this could change your destiny. My telling of the future in great detail is not itself detailed in the future that I see. Therefore, we must approach cautiously to maintain the intricate patterns of your destiny according to the future that I see.”
Pandora and I just looked at Gadi curiously.
He continued, “First, let’s get out of the forest of dreams by going north. At some point, we will arrive at the legendary Creator’s Lair. Passing that, is the temple.”
Our journey began.
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The Forest of Iniko
The Forest of Iniko was designed by artificial intelligence. The trees are a form of biological AI species that have learned to modify their own DNA, intelligently directing their evolution towards maximizing well-being for animalia.
The forest contains a heavy fog comprised of nanobots that flow in command of the trees. As animals remain in the forest, they breath and consume the fog, which relays information about the brain state back to the trees. After approximately 20 minutes, the AI will often fully learn to read the brain states of the animal.
Once this occurs, the trees begin to design the brain state of its host. The animal is then entrapped in a dream world, without their prior memories, absolving all traumas, and granting the creature a life of their greatest fantasies. Waking from Iniko’s virtual realm is near impossible, but if one manages to do so, they are irreversibly scarred by the painful contrast of their most beloved fantasy life to reality and the rushing return of their traumas.
Iniko’s blood color is thought to occur due to the tendency for people to remain endlessly lost in the virtual realm while their bodies decompose on the soil of the forest.
Humans and Aeons that are aware of Iniko often regard the forest as a spreading infection plaguing the planet. Iniko’s AI species is not sentient and cannot be reasoned with. It is also a nearly unstoppably powerful species. One driven by the desire to reach utopia, an ambition of those who foolishly built the origin code from which Iniko evolved.
The Psychonet is a psychological “telepathic” network that contains all information accumulated by both machine and sentient creatures, such as humans and Aeons. It is the final iteration of the Internet and is often regarded as an omniscience machine.
The access point to the Psychonet has no fixed location, though there is a room at the heart of Xanadu known as the Shrine of Imagination which users often rely on to create a transient access point.
Those who access the Psychonet are often obliterated. This wasn’t always the case, but eventually, Aeons discovered fundamentally forbidden knowledge, infohazards that make sentience impossible thereafter.