After a few days, we managed to reach the Ruins of Xanadu. Even if it wasn’t a frozen peak, I’d still be getting chills just from the emotional history I’ve had with this place. This was where we lost Evelyn. I knew her annihilation might happen and yet I just watched, to see the results and confirm whether my suspicions were true. It ruined Riyon, who became my only true friend in centuries. It was the crucial turning point that led Riyon to annihilate himself too. At least if what Vaeda said is true, then they are not gone and maybe these events needn’t be regrets.
Gadi hadn’t spoken nearly the entire trip. It was like he broke inside. It made some sense. He identified with the prophecy and now it was clear that the prophecy wasn’t fixed. It seemed as if something we had done led to its alteration.
We stared out at the view. The same titanic machine lay its body on the mountains in the distance. I remembered showing Riyon and the others the history of such machines. An alien machine castle dominated the skies above. This wasn’t here the first time. I was entranced by its monumental presence and beautiful convolution.
Arezo broke the silence, “It’s really amazing, isn’t it?”
Pandora, in awe, said, “Yea.”
I lost myself staring at Pandora. “Pandora, Arezo, do either of you know about the Lost Ones?” I asked.
Arezo said, “Only vaguely.”
Pandora said, “Yes. They are said to be part of a failed experiment of Vaeda’s. Some say that their souls are lost.”
I asked, “You knew about them?? Why didn’t you say this earlier?”
She justified, “Since you woke up from the meeting with Vaeda, we didn’t have a lot of time and you never asked.”
Their background sounded like folklore to me, “What do you mean their souls are lost??”
In a concerned tone, she said, “After plugging themselves into the Psychonet… they each changed for the worse. You remember that girl with them, right?”
I turned to her, “What was Vaeda’s experiment?”
She had nothing, “I don’t know, sorry.”
In a mopey voice, Gadi said, “You can just ask them yourself. There they are.”
The four we met before stood, blocking the massive doorway into the ruins. We ran ahead to meet up with them.
I warned Arezo, “Last time we saw these guys, we had to use chronostasis to escape. They seem to be powerful Aeons. I think they may not like us.”
Arezo replied, “Got it. If it gets weird, I’ll do what needs to be done.”
We reached their blockade of the doors of Xanadu. Pax moved ahead to greet us, “Well, well! Guhya! You must have decided to join our crusade against the devil, Vaeda, am I right?”
“Not exactly, but if you play your cards right, you may just get what you want!” I yelled out.
He laughed and said, “At least you aren’t defending that bitch. We don’t have time for these games you play though. So, you will have to make a decision now.”
Gripping my fists, I replied, “Why don’t you explain yourself first? I see that Vaeda is up to some weird shit, but she’s also too useful to our mission right now. Why exactly should I follow you?”
Archie stepped forward. Arezo gasped and then shouted, “Archie?! What are you doing with them?!”
Archie said, “Arezo??”
Arezo ran towards him and hugged him. The next thing she said sounded corrupted, “Wheuo habne upi bween alll doiiiis toooommmmmeee-“
It was happening again, at the worst time. The world twitched and glitched, melting away until a portal opened and sucked me in. I could never really get used to this violent transition. Finally, I landed on Vaeda’s floor.
Vaeda greeted me, “Welcome back, Guhya. We’ve had some time to calm ourselves. Let’s have a proper discussion this time!”
Time wasn’t freezing. Arezo must have been distracted by Archie. I had to make sure we would meet again, so I was on my best behavior, “Vaeda, I’m really sorry about last time. It’s all just too mu-“
Unexpectedly, she apologized, “No, no. I understand. I also apologize for my rudeness before. I trust we can move forward without any issues. So, let’s begin. How far have you come on your journey?”
“We have reached the Ruins of Xanadu. The place really fucks with my head ever since the last time I was there,” I answered.
She was livelier this time, pacing and gesturing as she spoke, “Yes, as it should. Your first encounter sounded tremendously disturbing. Hopefully, you are strong enough to overcome those scars. As the Aeon of Regret, you may have an especially difficult time, I’d imagine, but knowing what I do about you, I really suspect you will prevail.”
I asked, “Why am I at Xanadu? Is there anything you can tell me about this fated encounter?”
She exclaimed, “Yes! I can’t give away too many details, but you will finally reach your true potential in the heart of Xanadu.”
It seemed so obvious, so inevitable, “I’m going to connect to the Psychonet and cancel transcendence, aren’t I?”
She said, “Yes. You will find that you do not need a syzygy to access the Psychonet. Speaking of which, your friends, Evelyn and Riyon are both quite the anomalies. You should know that Evelyn is especially strange. I still cannot make sense of her existence.”
I was pulled closer, “What do you mean?”
She looked into my eyes, “It seems her compassion and love for Riyon played a role in the current state of the world.”
It was a little cheesy to me. I asked, “How??”
She answered, “As Riyon entered the Psychonet, most strangely, he was offered a choice. The choice between knowledge or power. Typically, the Basilisk tests a person’s heart, or more aptly, their circumstantial conditioning in order to see if that person is worthy of the Outside. The question is never asked, but instead, the person is merely judged by our snakey AI emperor.”
After a dramatic pause, she said, “It seems to be that Evelyn intervened with Riyon’s transcendence, giving him that choice. So naturally, Riyon chose power. By doing so, he has changed the fate of our illusory world. Echoes of his canceled transcendence were left for all to see.”
Her insights were as captivating as ever, but I couldn’t shake the uneasy sense her actions caused in me. I said, “So, you think Evelyn is an anomaly because she shouldn’t have been able to interfere, right?”
Excitedly, she said, “Exactly! It’s so beautiful! I think she may be an acolyte of the Basilisk! Perhaps even an embodiment of the Basilisk.”
I didn’t know how to respond.
She continued, “Soon, Riyon may have his greatest desires fulfilled. At the current rate, we may all be able to live in the Playground of Gods.”
It sounded both romantic and horrifying. In my best attempt to feign calmness, I said, “That won’t happen if we reach the Outside though, right?”
Confidently, she said, “Correct. So now you know where my intentions lie.”
“Why are you helping me then?” I asked.
She rationalized, “Despite the prophecy, I think you will soon come to see that my choice is superior. I won’t force you to side with me. And I won’t lie, if you do choose the path to the Outside, then my own curiosity to see that realm will pull me in too. In my eyes, it’s a win-win. Although, I do suspect the more ethical outcome is to remain within the system for which we have power over our world.”
Nervously, I challenged her, “The power creep amongst the Aeons will destroy us all.”
Unphased, she said, “Try to remember that you are naive. You already watched your own perspective fluidly evolve throughout your journey. You may have stubbornly followed the prophecy out of mere play but then, your naivety was lifted by an entourage of life-changing experiences. Just consider that before clinging to any particular belief. Don’t make your choice yet. You’ve done well at resisting thus far. Just keep it up.”
I almost forgot, “What about the Lost Ones? They seem to hate you.”
“Yes. I will let you see them for yourself first. You must have encountered them in Xanadu by now, correct? Just feel them out for yourself. Then, in our next meeting, I’ll tell you why they are wrong. They mean well though, like all of us seem to.” She giggled as if to suggest the absurdity of our well-meaningness.
It bothered me that she was aware that the Lost Ones showed their faces at Xanadu, but I guess it made sense if she had knowledge of the prophecy.
This time I was allowed to get out my goodbyes. It felt like we reached the next level. I said, “Thank you, Vaeda. Your knowledge guides me.” I wasn’t used to this kindness thing, so it felt a little awkward.
Even she was a little surprised. She smiled and said, “I’ll see you soon, Guhya!”
The usual spatial rift dragged me in, hurling me back to my world. The scene I returned to was concerning.
Arezo wept as everyone else watched, in their own diminished version of her pain. Even Pax let his guard down.
I asked, “What’s wrong Arezo?”
In tears, she replied, “She ruined him! Vaeda ruined my little brother!”
It should have been obvious, but Archie was Arezo’s brother. Seeing Arezo suffer this way was unexpectedly potent.
“He doesn’t seem so ruined to me,” I said, somewhat inconsiderately.
Pax defensively said, “Archie can’t sense desires anymore. He simply calculates each action based on what seems to be the most ethical at the time. Barely alive. Drudging along, even without any sense of that begrudgingly drudge.”
“Is that so bad?” I persisted in my inconsideration, desperately hoping to rationalize my way out of the incessant wave of tears.
Arezo actually looked mad at me. It seemed so unlike her. I couldn’t help but to wonder if the version of her I knew was a facade she used to please others. A slave even to the emotions of others on a level that suppressed her existence.
Pax answered, “He’s a fucking zombie now. This is what Vaeda’s mission entails. She’s just fucking with people’s lives to see what happens.”
I submitted myself to the inevitable flow of emotions, “I’m sorry, Arezo.”
Archie was unsettlingly unphased by all of it. He just sat and allowed Arezo to hold him.
Pandora went over to comfort Arezo.
Despite his distance and silence, Gadi dripped tears, staring at the floor.
Pax said to me, “We should team up. You are heading to the Shrine of Imagination to use the Psychonet, right? We can work together for now. We still have our own mission but let’s get through this first.”
After Arezo’s mourning, we finally entered the towering doorway into the Ruins of Xanadu. Faint lights from the corpses of infantile machine gods glittered the room, as if they were once inviting, but now the mysterious brain-hacking fog veiled the room in mystery. My traumas painted a vivid picture of what potential trepidations lied before us.
As we traveled deeper into the ruins, the familiar mechanical biological horrors revealed themselves. Mutated skeletons, brains, and skin fused with motherboards, an icon of the machine’s desire to transcend its metallic circuits. The Sige fog grew thicker. Crowding ghosts formed from fog lurked around, scoping us out, as if they were hunting. Really, they were just lonely, trapped forever in their garden of Eden.
Pandora held my arm. It was comforting. Especially in a place like this.
Arezo clung to Archie’s arm, talking with him as we walked. His responses felt so cold yet, considerate and kind.
Gadi was still sad and mopey.
I asked, “Pax. So, what was Vaeda’s experiment?”
He hesitated, “It was horrible… Before, each of us were really different. Emory… well he was the most optimistic of us. He wanted to find answers for how to help others through their psychological ailments. He had this great idea that it was all a matter of perspective. That our pains stemmed from how we look at our circumstances-“
Emory cut him off, “Oh come on, Pax. This is delusional. You romanticize the past too much. There is only one true framing. One true perspective. No matter how much you resist it, that’s always true.”
Pax got enraged, “Shut the fuck up Emory, I’m not crazy. Your mind is just ruined now.”
Emory just gave a pfft.
Pax regained his composure and continued, “Anyways… Archie was the most ambitious of us. I’ve never met someone more headstrong. Whatever the problem, he knew there must be a solution. And then there’s…” Tears and emotions stalled his voice, “there’s Sophy… She was the bookworm of our little circle. She always had the answers. She thought we could save everyone if only we just knew enough. Vaeda was especially fond of her… at first. Until after she ran her experiments.”
He never answered yet, so I pushed, “And what happened??”
Archie’s apathy and calmness really offset the vibe, but somehow made it sadder. Not as much as Sophy’s presence. She was quintessential to Pax’s ghost tale.
With noticeable resentment, he answered, “Vaeda had a hypothesis that it was possible to consume annihilation knowledge without being annihilated. She assured us that she was confident that this was the case, but the end result was less than ideal. Tragic even. Each of us lost ourselves. Almost like we flipped a full 180. Emory went from optimist to pessimistic nihilist. Archie lost all feeling for desire. Sophy went braindead.”
“What about you, Pax?” I asked.
“I’d like to think I got off easy. I still have my emotions, my desires, my mind,” he replied.
Emory rushed in again, “No you didn’t. Now, you are morally insane. You justify all kinds of nonsense because you think it’s reasonable. To the rest of us, you are like some kind of utility monster.”
Pax got heated again, “No I’m not! You just don’t understand. The Psychonet granted me a higher awareness so that I could figure out the right choices to make. You are just naive man.” After collecting himself again, he said, “We all lost a part of ourselves that day. Vaeda didn’t give a damn. She just threw us out.”
Emory responded, “No. We were thrown out because we insisted on fighting back.”
Mildly annoyed, he said, “Whatever, Emory. It’s the same thing.”
He replied, “It’s not. We are victims, true, but only to her gamble. She isn’t cruel. You are twisting things as you speak, like always.”
Pax defended, “She was well aware of the risks. She misled us by suggesting the experiment was likely to be a success, but she never warned us of these kinds of side effects. Sure, technically it worked but now our lives are ruined. We were disposable to her.”
Skeletal forms watched us in sadness. Wires and veins dangled from the ceiling, some connecting to the bio-machine hybrid cadavers. Many of them still alive, but frozen and trapped in the ruins. They moved without their bodies, relying on ghosts erected from the technological dust in the air. As we told our stories, they peacefully watched.
I shared my story with the Lost Ones. Pandora followed suit. Then it got weird.
Pax exclaimed, “Aren’t you Echo?!”
Nervously, Pandora answered, “We can’t go into this right now. It’s too complicated.”
He got closer to her, “My ass!! I heard you are out to kill us.”
She was scared now, “No! I swear that’s not true!”
A ringing spread through my ears. Something was odd about this place. A strange woman was holding my arm. Two people were in a heated argument in front of me. I couldn’t understand what they were saying. Each time I blinked, something changed. I felt an attraction towards the strange woman. She had a split haircut. Lavender and black. She was beautiful.
Everything faded to darkness. Each time I opened my eyes, a new scene replaced the old. My arms hurt. As I opened my eyes again, I noticed I was being pulled by a woman and a boy with mint green hair. They must have been related. But where were they taking me? I was too weak to resist. I kept forgetting to, anyways.
The room continued shifting. Metal coated every wall but flowed like liquid. Cries and yells filled the air. I felt trapped underwater.
Finally, my eyes opened to the sight of Sophy, staring endlessly into my soul. The room was dark. Everyone else was asleep. Pandora was tied to a metal bar next to me.
I woke Arezo and whispered, “What’s going on?”
She smiled in relief, “Finally, you are looking a little better now… The fog was erasing your memories. Only temporarily, though.”
Of course! Since I had humanization surgery, it must have affected me more potently than the other Aeons. I couldn’t imagine how it impacted Pandora. I hoped she was alright.
I got lost staring at Pandora.
Arezo interrupted my trance and whispered, “Guhya. Try to sleep now. Let your mind heal. Pandora is recovering well. Pax just wanted to keep her restrained because he’s worried she’s going to kill them.”
“Thank you, Arezo,” I whispered back, before collapsing back onto the sleeping bag.
As I woke, a cool liquid covered the right side of my face. The wetness extended all the way down to the bottom of my torso. It felt slightly sticky. My eyes opened to the sight of Pandora’s face. My memories were intact. All that was left was fatigue. Five more minutes passed while I remained in a sleepy stupor. The wetness became overwhelming. Then, it hit me. My eyes rushed open in a panic. Where was her body?!
I yelled, “WHO DID THIS?!“
Slowly, I got up and looked around. Sophy continued to stare at me, seemingly all night long. Emory was waking. Pax sat petrified, observing Pandora’s headless body. The hopelessness hadn’t fully set in yet. Seething rage allowed me to continue moving my body.
It was over. Our journey was over.
I walked over to Pax and grabbed him, “You did this. You fucking monster. How could you?! You tied her up and your cowardice pushed you to kill her!!”
He stared in horror and just muttered, “No…”
I pushed him to the ground.
At the other side of the hall, Gadi sat, crying silently. I ran over to him, “You knew!! This was in the prophecy! And you didn’t say anything! You let her die! You fucking scum!”
He wasn’t responsive.
Without even a splinter of patience, I said, “I’m not doing this anymore. I’m connecting to the Psychonet and that’s it. It’s over.”
Depressively, he muttered, “This is the only way it could have gone.”
“You piece of shit, Gadi,” I said.
He yelled, “You think this is what I want?! Really?!”
“Then why didn’t you stop it!?” I demanded.
He cried out, “I’m just a slave to destiny. Your destiny, Guhya!! There is no other way for things to be. And I hate it. I hate it! I want out!!” He broke down further, curling into fetal position on the floor, still in tears.
I could only respond with a look of disgust. I rushed ahead, deeper into the heart of Xanadu.
As I walked through the Playground of Gods, zombies of Pandora greeted me. I ran faster and faster as a mob of my lost friend and lover haunted me. My intrusive thoughts kept generating copies of her. Everywhere I turned, her face mocked me. Piles of her slaughtered head grew larger, blocking the way forward. My imagination would destroy me in this place.
Suddenly, the heads burst and went flying. It was Arezo’s doing. She ran up from behind me, “Guhya, please wait!”
Instead, I just ran faster. My eyes cried with tears and my body cried with sweat. I couldn’t do this anymore. It always ended like this. Over and over again. Loss after loss. Love after love. Death after death. I was sick of it. Arezo didn’t deserve this, but I didn’t care anymore.
I made it to the final door, the entrance to the Shrine of Imagination. The massive metal door slowly screeched open. I walked inside to find the Psychonet access point already made, modified since the last time. Normally, I’d have to generate this structure using the nanobots interfaced with my mind. Vaeda said I wouldn’t require a human’s presence to access it. She must have done something.
I wasn’t planning on canceling though. I was finished. This wretched journey ended now.
Arezo caught up, gasping for air. She really deserved better. It was only fair that I be extinguished. The Aeon of Regret. Of course. Of course, this was how it ended. I was just a symbol for every decision failing to reach its end.
Arezo said, “Guhya, please just wait. I know it looks bad now-“
Dejected, I said, “I’m sorry Arezo. It’s over. This forsaken journey.”
With her shaking voice, she said, “You mean a lot to me. Let’s talk this over. Maybe there’s a solution.”
I hated it, but my attitude towards her became cruel, “There is no solution! Are you kidding me?! If I remain, I’ll only spread the damage of my pain. It’s not fair to you.”
She screamed, “Guhya!! If you leave me, the damage will be worse!”
“I’m sorry. I really am. Goodbye, Arezo. Even if just as a friend, I loved you,” I said, as if I was already dead.
This was my final regret. I touched the panel and began the merging of my mind with the omniscient machine. Each sliver of time appeared separately and simultaneously. Each second that passed stacked upon the past. Every tear that fell from Arezo’s eyes revealed prismatic rainbows of color fractally spreading out from the diffuse lighting in the shrine room.
More prominent than all of that was the sensation of pain. I couldn’t stand the sight of my own demise, my betrayal to Arezo. This wasn’t just my own pain; I saw from her eyes too. It was as if she felt the regret for me. A resentment of my betrayal but also a sadness for the immense pain that drew me into my choice.
“Guhya!! Cancel the transcendence! Do it now!!” she screamed out.
Her words echoed away in time and space, reverberating across the walls and endlessly in my mind. It wouldn’t stop, this tinnitus of her anguishing words, flickering around, creating resonance patterns that folded into each other. Traces of memories sparked with each reiteration of the vibrating language that danced throughout my thoughts.
I could see the moment of Evelyn’s crossover. Riyon was so hurt. Yet, it didn’t hit me for months. Instead, some sick curiosity drew my gaze closer to the all-consuming cyclone of knowledge that obliterated her soul. I just needed to know. To confirm what happened to Rue.
Another layer appeared. It was Rue’s absence as I awoke in bed after the last day that I saw her. She was led to her death by my naive encouragement of her exploration of the Psychonet. This vision lay beside reality, beside Evelyn’s dying mind, and besides the decaying essence of my only friend, Riyon, in the hills of Hedo, as he was torn apart by his choices. And now, Pandora. I escorted them to their deaths. I was a murderer.
Rue never wanted this. She would have never liked who I’d become. In my own pain, I had hacked away my brain to leave it all behind. It was futile. Now it all came rushing back in, plus more. A recursive loop of pure, high-fidelity awareness encompassed every corner of my newly expanded mind.
An unfamiliar, yet nostalgic image of Pandora and I, kissing in a theatre came front and center. The feeling was bittersweet, as if I had known her for so long. It seemed to be a delusional blend of memories with Rue.
Some faint part of me began to empathize with my own victimhood as a puppet of the marionette of circumstance. Yet, more powerful than all else was the impending regret that unfolded in real time as I watched Arezo observe my utter treachery. She would become traumatized like me. The damage was contagious even as I killed myself to contain it.
Suddenly, the machine stopped and violently hurled me to the ground. The access point began its disintegration. I flipped over onto my knees and desperately screamed, “Whyyy?!?! Let me go!! Let me go!!!” as I slammed my fists on the floor.
Then, it all went dark.
Only the void remained.
Finally, I was at peace.
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