The fading taste of sweet and sour drained from my mouth.
Lily yelled, “Hey! Stop it!”
Pandora released her and sighed, “Ah. That feels better.”
Lily recovered, “You are cooler than I thought, Pandora.” She walked closer to Pandora but then she stopped and turned to me. She slowly walked up to me and then softly placed her hand on my face. Her expression was one of awe and horror, “Oh my god…”
Gadi called us from down the hall, at the next opened door, “Guys?! You’ll need to see this one.”
Both Lily and I turned, then she turned back to me. I burst into tears. Lily comforted me with a hug and said, “I see now.”
Pandora rushed in, “What’s going on??” Then she saw my tears and said, “Did you just return??”
Lily softly answered for me, “Yea…”
Gadi called again, “Guys! You really should see this!”
I stood my ground and pushed off the feelings. Then, I grabbed Pandora and said, “I’m sorry.”
She petted my head, brushing my hair, sending gentle tingles through my body, “It’s okay, Guhya.”
Lily watched us and remarked, “Incredible.”
Once again, Gadi demanded, “I’m serious, you need to see this!!”
We caught up with him. Immediately, I said, “Hey. I just returned and we have to go-“
Then, I was caught off guard. Half of the bizarre glitching corpses were missing.
Lily turned to me and asked, “Wh-what does this mean??”
I answered, “I don’t know… how could this be different already?”
Gadi attempted to explain, “Look here. It’s as if they were in agony before-“
The distant sound of slamming started again.
I grabbed Pandora’s hand and said, “Let’s go! I’ll explain later!”
We ran out of the room. At the far end of the hall, the beast stood. It was unlike it was before, back when I first saw it in Iniko. It had changed. Grown. It had become a monster. Red lights glowed where its face and mouth portal lived. A series of antennae curled off of its head part. It’s body and head were one. The creature was definitely still biological AI but had a subtly robotic or even insectoid look to it. It was clearly fused with the Mekkad.
I pulled Pandora in the opposite direction. Everyone else followed.
As we ran, I looked back at Pandora. I wondered how many more times we could return before it stopped working altogether. We had to use this ability as little as possible, otherwise we would be fucked. We couldn’t get careless.
Arezo stopped, put her hands out, and generated a thick wall, blocking the hallway we were in. We were far enough away that the creature’s Sige disabling wasn’t an issue.
At the end of the hall, we were led to the open air, into the sea of clouds. It was night, finally. Blood red lights from the Aetherium lit the air with an eerie glow, similar to the beast. I couldn’t shake the image of the beast, but we couldn’t dwell or else its proximal dysphoria sensing would track us down. What a fucking hunter.
Arezo looked pained.
I put my hand on her shoulder, “Hey, are you ok?”
She wouldn’t look me in the eyes, “Since we got here, Mitesh’s link went dead.”
For a moment it was just quiet. Then I said, “I’m sorry.” The temple could have been hit by the Sige.
Gadi tried, “Maybe we are too high up for reception?”
Pax called out to us, “Uh, you’ll wanna see this.” He stood at the edge of the Aetherium, looking out to the Earth below.
We all gathered round, looking out with him, at a sea of disaster. The entire floor below was consumed by crystals. Prismatic effects and rainbows patterned the ground. It was beautiful, but horrible.
Arezo cried first.
Pax put his arm around her, “It’s downright bad. I know. But you are close to the end. We’ve both lost the ones we cared about. We are in the same boat now. It’s just so God damned stupid. Who wanted this world? I think we all know. Vaeda.”
Arezo didn’t respond with words. She simply curled up in his arm and shared that agony.
We gazed at the new world in silence, with only the sounds of our expressed pain filling the empty air. This was the new world. This definitely wasn’t the world Vaeda wanted. It was a world that the Sige deemed most valuable. But why? Of course, I couldn’t understand. Really, I was the peak of what blocked the progress of the Sige. I was the blockade to their evolution. The resources, the air, the earth, everything I loved was merely an obstacle to the new order of life on this planet. To them, we were the invasive species. The unwanted. The unneeded.
Before that moment, it hadn’t really hit me. The state of this dying world. The knowledge that we may be the last ones left. At least, the last of our kind. Perhaps, if we failed, this new species would flourish. Who were we to decide who deserved this world? Was it first come, first serve? No. There were no rules. We made the rules to manipulate each other. To instantiate power over each other.
A warped roar filled the chambers of the Aetherium. The sound was like a whale’s call, but grittier and more metallic. It was the Necrokami.
My body shook to the core, “Lily, Arezo, we need to be using Zaza while we are here. That roar is to shake our minds. It’s trying to lure out our fear so that it can locate us. So we have to use Zaza and try to ignore it.”
From behind me, Lily said, “Already on it!” She had two Zaza cigarettes between her lips.
I squinted, confused, and asked, “I thought you quit??”
“I quit quitting. It wasn’t very fun.” Lily walked up to me, “Hold still.” Her hand slowly removed one of her cigarettes from her lips and then placed it between mine. “Now, inhale, but not too quickly, it will hurt.”
Her fingers gently rested on my lips the entire time. My blood started to flow. This time, it seemed weirdly suspicious. Like she was trying to seduce me or something. The idea of it was unshakeable. Still, I inhaled while her fingers touched my lips, holding the cigarette in place.
After following her instructions, I responded, “You know I’ve done Zaza before, right?”
She returned with the mischievous smile again.
“What are you doing??” I asked, accusingly.
“What? That feeling is all yours.”
I turned to Pandora, “It’s weird right?”
Unexpectedly, she replied, “I think it’s only weird if you make it weird. You know, I think you have some lust for Lily. I don’t think that’s her fault. I can feel it though. With our syzygy.”
Irritated, I asked, “You think I’m crazy?”
Pandora said, “I think you are scared I’ll get jealous. So, you want to blame her for it. This is just Lily’s personality.”
I just grumbled, “Ugh.”
Lily excitedly smiled and said, “Yea! Trust Pandora a little. I don’t think she’s even as jealous as you are imagining. Watch!” Lily grabbed me and hugged me tightly. She unleashed butterflies inside of me. Then she said, “See? Feel anything with that brain connection?”
Still resistant, I said, “I guess not.”
Pandora smiled and reassured me, “I’m not mad. It’s unavoidable and natural. I’d only be mad if you were planning to replace me. And I don’t sense that. So, I’m not worried if you aren’t. Just don’t get carried away.”
Again, I just, “Ughhhh.” I couldn’t believe I was being blamed for this. I was sure Lily was doing this intentionally. Though, it didn’t really matter either way, if there were no consequences. I could just ride it out and wait for it to pass.
Pandora came up to me and grabbed my hands, “Look! It’s okay Guhya. Everything is fine.”
“I guess so.” I couldn’t help but be defensive.
Lily exclaimed, “Your turn now!” and then gently placed her other cigarette between Pandora’s lips. She gave the same sensual guidance and intimacy that she did with me. Lily instructed, “Now, just inhale slowly… Mm, feels good, yeah?” Even watching them felt arousing. Maybe I was just imagining it.
Arezo shared her pipe with Gadi and Pax, passing it back and forth. Quickly, Arezo turned from mortified to fortified. Zaza really helped her. But I could tell that there was a mask covering her truth. Though, after a bit longer, I couldn’t tell anymore.
Even closer this time, the magical roar of the beast echoed out of the halls of the Aetherium, making the ground shiver.
High as fuck, I announced, “Time to move.”
The ferocious roar had no effect on me. We still had to relocate because that spot most certainly got pinged earlier.
We all walked to the next hall, somewhat casually.
My feet were warm and gushy, like heated cushions. My thoughts raced and lost control. Not in a bad way, but like a euphoric spiral, twisting each thought down tangential rabbit holes. Like a… like a tree of life, or something. Lily kept popping in my head. Blocking roads like traffic cones. It annoyed me.
Pandora rescued me, wrapping herself around my right arm. My thoughts dissipated and my senses took over. The air was cool. Her skin was warm. The mood of the architecture was hellish, but with her by my side, it was a wonderful adventure. I felt safe. Cozy even.
I leaned into it, “Thank you, my hero.”
She giggled. “Poor Guhya, I’ll save you…” She pulled me in, and our lips touched, softly at first, then we simultaneously sank deeper, our tongues dancing, or even fucking. Pink, green, red, and yellow swirled in my mind.
We walked into the next hallway of the Aetherium. The walls jittered and rippled, slowing down, melting away. The black turned warm and red. I turned to Pandora, “Look, the walls are blushing.”
She blushed and giggled. As we walked, she nuzzled my arm. Even when she paused, echoes of her actions were felt, like relentless ghosts.
I brushed my hand through her hair. It was like silk. Soft and strangely damp.
She turned to me and grabbed my hair, pulling me back towards her face again. Her tongue petted my lips, then my cheeks. Her mouth went to my ear and whispered, “I’ve never done it before.”
She continued, “Zaza, I mean. We should do more.”
It was odd seeing her this way, but not unpleasant. In fact, I was euphoric.
Lily stood at the sidelines, nearly creeping. She smiled and presented us both Zaza blunts and said, “I’m here for ya!”
“Are you sure we should…” I said, fighting for responsibility but also pushing off my desire to sink into the Zaza space.
“Of course, I’m sure. Look at you two getting all spicy! It’s the perfect moment!” Lily jumped and smiled, “Plus, you have a syzygy together!”
My head tilted, “Huh?”
Pandora said, “Yess… yesss.”
The accurate sense of danger was not to be felt. Instead, only something closer to bliss. I was in love.
Lily placed the blunts between our lips, as gently as before, then pushed our faces together so that the ends of the blunts touched and our cheeks met, then she lit them both with one flicker of the lighter.
With each hit, the watery flow of the walls grew heavier. Colors drifted. The textures of the walls moved and morphed.
Pandora blew the Zaza smoke in my face and then laughed.
I suggested, “Let’s not get too carried away.”
Pandora replied flirtatiously, “So unlike you, being the one to reject the fun.”
She pushed up against me, leaning in, forcing us both to stumble and fall back against the wall. I was cornered and I loved it.
My whole body, but especially my face, warmed.
In the distance, Pax, Arezo, and Gadi already got ahead of us. But Lily was acting as our chaperone, or more appropriately, our voyeur. It was a bit weird, but I guess she would keep us safe.
Pandora leaned deeper into me, her weight pushing us against the wall. Then, the wall gave out and we were hurled into an empty space of black, floating amongst the stars. Both of us gasped.
Our bodies drenched with many colors, as if threads of light entangled to create our forms. Echoes of our actions rippled out in the ether. It was such a relief. Maybe this was the life we could look forward to in the Outside.
My hands curved across her plush chest, “You’re so soft.”
She stuck her chest out, as if presenting her breasts to me. Her hands met with mine as she pressed us deeper into her body. Then her hands moved across my arms, softly and tingly, meeting with my face, admiring the colors that replaced our forms.
I licked her neck and moved down to her chest. Warm liquid moved across my lips as they pressed against her supple skin. It tasted so pleasant. Salty. A bit electrical? Was it a metallic taste? The Zaza obscured the weirdness, and the flavor was too fine-grained to pin down. As I looked up, the hazy bliss of the Zaza and of my love quickly drained. It drained alongside her leaking body, red spilling into the endless expanse around us. The colors had all faded.
The walls of the Aetherium returned. Pandora was now licking my neck. The feeling was like when she died. My imagination was filled to the brim with her blood. My tears interrupted her passion, like usual. It was always like this for us.
And like before, she pulled back and said, “Guhya?”
Softly, I said, “I’m sorry.”
Lily gazed on at us, looking saddened herself. She ran over and hugged both of us and said, “That’s so fucked up.”
The roar of the beast vibrated the hallway.
Lily said, “The timing, sheesh. We gotta go now, lovebirds. Hang in there.”
She held both of our hands and ran with us, as we stumbled, nearly tripping.
My wires had crossed. This damned ability was going to program me. Love and death. Death and love. Worse yet, it already had.
We had to stay focused. I asked Lily, “Hey, what are your feelings towards Vaeda?”
“You have to ask that now??” Pandora questioned, panting.
“It’s important to our plans,” I said.
Lily responded, “We shouldn’t let Pax kill her.”
It was a relief. Once the time came, she would be an asset.
Lily stopped at a smaller hallway, “That thing wouldn’t be able to fit in here.”
I replied, “Right! Let’s go!”
We calmed our run to a walk.
The hallway was filled with prison cells. An opening could be seen at the other end.
Lily suddenly said, “It’s a lot easier with the Zaza.”
“What?” I asked.
Lily stopped walking, “You know, before I met Vaeda, I was totally alone all the time. My parents were never there. I was isolated. I hadn’t even met my siblings yet.”
Pandora’s heart went soft, “Lily…”
Lily looked down, “My whole life was filled with a deep loneliness. I didn’t really understand that until I first saw other people. My parents wanted to shelter me from the world, to protect my innocence. They saw such darkness in this life.”
I said, “That’s rough. Looks like you made it out though.”
Lily took a hit from her Zaza, “Then, Kaos showed up. My hero. He showed me the outside world. I met all kinds of people. Some were cruel and some were amazing. My parents were right, in some ways. But also wrong in others. Connecting with others was never easy for me. I was desperate though. I learned and learned. Often, I could read others, but I never felt truly connected. Like there was always this glass wall between me and others. I think… I think it’s because my life was too unusual for others to understand.” Tears emerged in her eyes.
Pandora grabbed Lily and looked into her face, “We will find Kaos. We have to!”
Lily was shocked, “Thank you.” Then she looked back down, “It’s some sick fate, huh? The Aeon of Connection, the one who can never truly bond with others. We always want what we can’t have.”
Her words echoed in my head, “We want what we can’t have…” It was true. What did I want? I always wanted to change the past. At the root, I think I wished I had never let Rue connect to the Psychonet. My greatest regret.
Honestly, if Pandora wasn’t around when I plugged into the Psychonet, I might have tried something crazy, like reuniting with Rue. I would have selfishly clinged at the expense of this dying world.
Pandora grabbed my hand and looked towards Lily, “Sometimes I wished I could have saved Guhya in the original timeline. So much of our lives were lost. Our memories, all of that was gone.” She looked me in the eyes, “But… even so, I’m glad I met Guhya again. We’ve been through so much now. I couldn’t regret something like that.”
Lily turned to Pandora and gave a saddened smile, “Once this is over, you’ll both be together forever. I believe your ending will be happy. I’m kind of jealous!”
Pandora’s eyes teared up.
Lily blushed and looked down, “You know, I’m sorry for earlier. About lying so much. Eventually, connecting just seemed futile. I realized it wouldn’t even matter if I told others the truth or made up some random bullshit because either way, they wouldn’t really know me. Sometimes it felt better to just keep my distance. Telling the truth only teased me. That sense of hope that maybe someone could finally understand. But even when I tell the truth, people don’t hear the truth. At least, not totally. Of course, they get some off idea about what I am, but then I’m still an alien to everyone.”
Pandora hugged Lily tightly. That must be how Pandora felt when we first met in this timeline. She said, “We’re all aliens here.”
My heart warmed. I asked, “How did you get involved with Vaeda.”
Lily’s tears returned, “One day, Kaos introduced me to Vaeda. When I met her, she said that she could reunite me with my siblings. Who else would be able to understand me better than my own siblings. They lived the same life as me after all, even though we were all separated, we shared that separation, that isolation, that pain.”
I asked, “Those are the ones inside that cell we saw, right? The Missing Numbers.”
Lily nodded sorrowfully, resisting full-blown crying. Her voice trembled, “Vaeda offered to reunite us, but only if we joined her in her quest for knowledge. It was a trade. All of us were used in her experiments on Gnosis. She thought that Evelyn still existed in this realm. Not as an Aeon, but as an Angel. And she thought gnosis was the path to becoming an Angel.”
She held out her hand, looking at it, “That’s why I’m so pale. You saw the others. It was fucked up.” Her hand started shaking. Then, she quickly withdrew her arm.
“Gnosis?” Pandora asked.
Lily explained, “She thought that abandoning the material world was the path to transcendence and godhood. Our connections to this world only hold us back. There is a peak state of knowledge one can acquire while avoiding all annihilation knowledge. This is what she called Gnosis. She said that Evelyn’s fear of annihilation was at the root of it all. That she evaded annihilation knowledge ’til the very end of her Psychonet journey.”
For a second, we only stared in awe but also in horror.
In a lot of ways, Vaeda seemed irredeemable. But yet, she was the one most interested in saving this world. She just didn’t know how. Was her ignorance a crime? Was her naivety? If so, we were all at fault in some way. It wasn’t like she was the most naive of us. In fact, she had more knowledge than any of us in this world, but with that knowledge came a greater responsibility, which she failed to wield. Despite that, no one else could have been more suited for that responsibility. It was an absurdity.
As we accumulate knowledge, the danger of that knowledge rises, as does its value, until we hit omniscience, which should guarantee our choices will always be as informed as they ever possibly could be. But omniscience is only worth chasing if it can actually be achieved. If not, we risk the annihilation of everything we value.
I asked, “And you don’t hate Vaeda after that?”
She pondered for a moment, then answered, “Sometimes I do. But it was an accident. She already learned her lesson by seeing the results of her experiments. Nothing I do will change her ways more than reality already has. And I’m not into the idea of petty revenge.”
Pandora said, “I’m glad you escaped.”
In a guilty tone, Lily replied, “Only because of my ability… I didn’t really deserve to survive. I wished it were me instead of my siblings.”
Pandora yelled, “No! Of course, you deserve to live! Don’t say things like that!”
Lily looked down and took another hit of her Zaza, “I’m sorry.”
“You’ve been using a lot of abilities. What’s your deal?” I asked.
“I’m like the Necrokami.” She turned to me and looked me in the eyes, “I… am a telepath.”
Chills shook my body. It was starting to make sense. So, she was reading our minds this entire time.
“Yes. I was,” Lily replied to my thoughts. “Even with that, I haven’t been able to connect with others in a truly meaningful-“
Pandora rushed in and squeezed her again, much tighter than before, “Aww Lily. Stay with us. You’re our friend now. You told your truth, and we see you.”
This time, I joined the hug as well. A great and somber warmth encompassed our bodies.
Lily cried more, “Thank you, guys. Thank you.”
The sound of metal scraping concrete came from a cell up ahead. I yelled, “Who’s there?!”
A distressed voice cried out, “Guhya?!”
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