The day was more beautiful than the last. Still, billowing clouds and sunshine, occasioned by a breeze that jittered branches and swayed the leaves. Invisible streams carried remnants of flowers, both pollan and petals drifting through the air.
As I arrived, she was already waiting, as bikeless as before. I asked, “Where’s your bike?”
Embarrassed, she replied, “Oh! I didn’t realize.”
“I said we were biking.”
She said, “Yeah… I just figured we were sharing.”
I blushed, “That’s fine. Get on.”
She smiled and got up behind me. Wrapping her arms around my stomach.
“Ready?” I asked.
“Atta’ boy! Onward!”
I defended, “Hey, I’m not a horse. Okay?”
We began our first journey together.
Having her wrapped around me was as warm as her accidental hug from before. But this time, better because I knew it was willful. Still, it wasn’t an expression of affection, she was simply holding on for dear life. Either way, the warmth was welcomed.
She sighed and said, “You were right. The mocha kept me up all night. Or maybe I’m just so excited for today.”
“Sorry to hear. I guess being fun has a cost,” I joked.
“No! I just messed up this time.”
I pointed, “Look ahead. See that fog shrouding the city?”
She marveled, “Oh… yeah. It’s pretty in there.”
“That’s Neo-Iniko. The fog is Sige. These tiny nanobots that go in your brain. Then they learn it inside and out and change your reality.”
“Oooh. So, you study that stuff?” she asked.
I clarified, “Well, sort of. I study genetics but the forest of Iniko has lots of Sige so I have to learn about that too.”
We entered the fog. Nearly nothing could be seen.
“Kind of eerie in here,” she said.
“Like the rush? Don’t worry. It’s not dangerous like Iniko.”
Her hug grew tighter, “You sure? You’ll rescue me if anything happens?”
I assured her, “Of course. But it won’t come to that. Neo-Iniko is consensual. You choose your dreams with your own choice and you keep your memories.”
“Sounds… a little less incredible than the forest from before.” She sounded disappointed.
“It’ll be fine!” I hoped.
A bunch of skyscrapers showed up.
Pandora exclaimed, “Wow! A whole city??”
I explained, “Some say it’s just augmented reality, an illusion. We are already within the Sige field. But we can’t create our own world yet. Not until we enter one of those buildings.”
We parked outside one of the tall towers and walked in.
“Sit here,” I pulled out a seat. “So, you’re the one in charge here, since you’re the artist and since you’re the one looking for inspiration.”
“Oh… alright.” She sounded shy.
I walked her through the plan, “Basically, all you have to do is imagine a world. The AIs in the building will take care of the rest. It’s pretty intuitive.”
I continued, “In order to share the worlds, we can either enter a code or hold hands as the world initiates.”
She looked at me without words.
Still continuing my lecture, “Since this is your first time, the code might be a little difficult, but I’ll walk you through it first. So, there are going to be a few menus you can access by-“
She grabbed my hand and we were hurled into the next realm. My face went hot. Her hand was so soft.
She turned into a schoolgirl. A skirt and a nice shirt covered her body.
The world had become a planet of books… in space. The stars were out and other planetary bodies appeared close.
She turned around to me and said, “Well, we’re here! Now what?”
I replied, “I don’t know. Let’s look around?”
We started exploring. The first area had a lot of empty space with books as floating platforms. It was mostly flat.
“The theme seems to be academic?” I noted.
She seemed confused, “Yea… weird.”
“Is it? You created it.”
She nervously laughed. “Oh look! They are getting taller now!”
She pointed, “I think I see a way.”
I followed her. Bookshelves created halls. Books even paved the floors. Many whimsically floated around us.
After going through the wooden paper mazes, we ended up at a lookout.
“Look! A city!” she yelled.
Smiling, I asked, “So, you must really like books?”
She answered, “Not exactly. I mean, yeah. Fiction sometimes.”
“Hm… Why are we in bookworld then?”
She nearly jumped in excitement, “Isn’t it gorgeous! Let’s get to the top! We’re gonna be late for school!”
Suddenly, her appearance was like paper: a cutout, 2-dimensional and sepia-toned. She was drawn in pencil and separated from the background. I suppose this was an example of her artistic side.
I decided to play along with whatever this was, “Yeah! Of course. We can’t be late.”
We picked up our pace, hiking up to the top of Bookworm Mountain.
Panting, she said, “We have to get there before the first eclipse passes. Otherwise, he’ll be pissed at us like before.”
I resisted shuddering at the weirdness. It certainly was fun, though it was getting slightly unnerving as well. Was this the peak of my boring nature?
After a few minutes, I relaxed into it and even started to enjoy it. The atmosphere was surreal. Sort of dark, but colorful too. She’d definitely be a top world designer in Neo-Iniko given the chance.
We finally arrived at the top of Bookworm Mountain. Both of us had our hands on our knees, catching our breaths.
Still panting, she rushed us, “Let’s get inside already.”
I followed her in.
It was tightly spaced and cramped. It felt like some kind of basement or attic, rather than a school. Books and cobwebs competed for space on the shelves.
We had to climb stories before reaching a dingy room with just two desks for us to sit in. The classroom was incredibly long and slender.
“So, what exactly do we do here?” I asked.
She turned back to me and giggled, “Silly, we attend class and be good students.”
“Alright. I’ll go with it.” I wondered if she could detect my nervousness. It didn’t seem like it.
We both sat down in the only lonely desks in the room, besides the ones in the professor’s territory. But, it was quiet. Just the two of us. No students and no teachers.
I tried to get a conversation going, “What’s your favorite subject?”
“Shhh he’s coming,” she whispered.
“Uh…” My nervousness peaked.
Then, a black cloud assembled itself at the back of the room. A man or something like it appeared in the dissipating smoke. The corporate faceless lacked a head but wore a fine suit to make up for it. Like Pandora, it was drawn, with skin made of pencil markings and scribblings. The thing was downright disturbing. I admit, it sure was creative of her.
In a deep distorted voice, it said, “Welcome to lesson 1. You’ll begin shortly, but first you must complete your worksheets and prove yourself worthy of the Order.”
The creature pulled out the professor’s chair, making a horrible screeching noise, then it sat in it and began its busy work.
A strange paper appeared on my desk. It was full of bizarre puzzles.
The silence was unsettling, but worse were the sharp noises our pencils made masking what would have otherwise been the comfortable void. I held my breath, afraid to be heard, only inhaling and exhaling in short, controlled bursts.
I looked at the creature and this time it had a head, or something like it. It still lacked eyes, but it acquired a mouth that glowed red. Nothing was really clear about this thing. It was sure as hell creepy though.
The corporate faceless viciously wrote onto a manuscript. As it scribed, the air was stained with swirls and scribbles of blood. In passing, text could be made out in the drenched air. Something about the “Legion of the Order”.
I continued working on the puzzles. In one, I noticed two solutions. One was obviously the intended one, but the other… perhaps I could impress this freaky fuck if I pulled that one off.
The thing’s screeching pencil movements came to a sudden halt, “Quiet yourself!!”
“I haven’t said anything!” I defended.
“Ugh, disgusting.” He returned to writing.
I went back to focusing on the puzzle. This second, more unusual solution-
He interrupted my mind again, slamming his fist on the desk, “Your thoughts, they infest my mind, it’s putrid. Stop it. Stop! You are not worthy of the giants. Only the permitted may think, after years of rigorous preparations and conditioning. Foolish insolents like you must silence your minds, stay within the confines, else ye commit high heresy of the Legion of the Order.”
It only seemed to react when I thought of the unusual solution.
I turned to Pandora and whispered, “P̶̞̭̊͛a̵̼̬͒͐n̴̫̈́d̷̺͕̍o̴͔̾͛r̷̡͠ã̴̟̏, you know you’re in control of this right?”
Bewildered, she asked, “In control of what?”
Oh no, she really was crazy.
The creep announced, “Time’s up!”
He continued, “P̶̞̭̊͛a̵̼̬͒͐n̴̫̈́d̷̺͕̍o̴͔̾͛r̷̡͠ã̴̟̏, your work seems suspiciously flawed. Every movement of your pencil, ugh, I could hear the absurdity of your answers. Come forth.”
Behind us, the wall began to collapse. Papers and books were flying around.
Pandora handed her sheet over, “I’m sorry, sir.”
The creature violently grabbed the paper and began to scan it, “Just as I’d thought. A fatal error. This won’t do. We are beings of the highest rationality. Of the utmost logic. You must pay for your sins.”
Her voice trembled, “Sir?”
He placed the paper in front of her eyes, pointing at one of the puzzles, “You see this? Absurd. Absolute filth.”
She tried explaining herself, “I just thought-“
He held out his hand, as if expecting her to give him something, “Citation please.”
Shocked, she asked, “Wha?”
He held out his finger in declaration, “Know your place on the pyramid. You shall not think nor speak unless you cite. You are a vessel for the voices of those above you.”
Pandora’s face turned down in shame, resisting tears.
He got in Pandora’s face, “If you wish to survive in this world, demonstrate your true value. Do you wish to receive the mercy of the Legion of the Order?”
“Y-yes sir.” She began to unbutton her blouse.
The creature slurped and drooled, “That’s right, express yourself.”
I couldn’t stand to watch any longer. I rushed to her side, “P̶̞̭̊͛a̵̼̬͒͐n̴̫̈́d̷̺͕̍o̴͔̾͛r̷̡͠ã̴̟̏?! What are you doing??”
Softly, she replied, “It’s the only way… it’s all my worth.”
“Ridiculous! We’re leaving!” I grabbed her arm.
The thing turned to me and hissed and growled, “How dare you defy the Order. The Legion will arrive shortly.” It turned back to Pandora, “Soon, you will realize just how much I command your fate, you helpless, sickeningly innocent child. It’s time to put away your crayons.” Then, it vaporized into a cloud of black dust, which slowly settled to the floor.
I buttoned her shirt back up, “What the fuck was that??”
Disappointed in herself, she said, “I’m sorry. I tried my best.”
“Why are we here? Do you like school or something?”
Without explaining, she said, “No…”
I asked again, “Then why are we here?”
The back wall fell apart, revealing a scene of chaos.
Excitedly, she said, “You’re right! Let’s ditch class today!”
She was really into this roleplay thing.
We ran to the edge of the open wall, peering out. Fire engulfed the dying library maze.
She giggled and turned to me, “Look! The first eclipse is still going on! We have time!” Strange drawn critters floated around her, matching her penciled style.
“Time?” I asked.
“Let’s go!” She platformed her way down to the bottom again. Her appearance was often shifting, as if days were passing in moments, and eras in hours. As if she were a different version of herself as time passed or maybe depending on the location.
“Welcome to the jungle!” she exclaimed happily.
At least she was still happy. That faceless creep really got under my skin.
Trees grew from the bookshelves. The scene was a mess. Piles of books, moss everywhere, vines, and dangling lanterns.
I checked, “So, P̶̞̭̊͛a̵̼̬͒͐n̴̫̈́d̷̺͕̍o̴͔̾͛r̷̡͠ã̴̟̏. You remember we’re in a simulation, right? We’re in Neo-Iniko.”
“Neo… Iniko?” She really forgot.
I waved my hands, “Nevermind. I’ll tell you later.”
We turned and twisted, through mazes like cautious mice, like subjects of her tortured mind. Tombs dangled from branches of burning trees.
I turned to her, “What do you think the Order is?”
Saddened, she replied, “They don’t want me. I tried so hard. Life, biology, physics, it’s all so interesting, but they turned it into a game. A bad game. To win, it’s not about finding cool stuff, but instead, it’s about ranking above one another.”
“Why don’t they want you?” I asked.
She explained, “Because… having me lowers their chances. It’s competitive. Only some of us can make it. So, they discourage a few to make room for themselves. That’s the metagame.”
“You want to be part of the Order?”
She looked sad, “My parents wanted that. It’s prestigious.”
This was by far the most bizarre first date I’d ever gone on. “What are your parents like?”
She sighed, “They’re alright. What about yours?”
I started, “Well-“
She grabbed my hand and rushed us both behind a bookshelf, “Fuck. Shh. I think they’re coming.”
“Who??” I asked.
She whispered, “My parents, duh.”
“What?!” I said in a high-pressure whisper.
The fairies guiding us dissipated and ran off, squeaking and chirping along the way.
Some creature stood at the center of this magnificent ruinous library forest. The shelves were destroyed, the trees sheltered their pages, and fire backlit the distance. Above all, the moon rose, full and wide. As if to warn us.
The creature in the dress shouted, “Pandy! There you are! We’ve been looking all over for you! Where have you been?! Cutting school again??”
Pandora surrendered, “Ugh. Fine.”
It got closer and began petting Pandora on the head, “You know you can’t keep doing this. What would your real mother think?”
Softly and with an urge to resist, Pandora replied, “I don’t know…”
“Be honest,” the thing demanded.
Painfully, she answered, “She’d hate me.”
The creature spoke in a comforting tone, “She had so much hope in you. That’s why you have to keep on pushing. You can’t be running away like this. You’re going to let her down.”
Pandora began to cry, “I know, I’m sorry.”
The creature replied”You’re lucky she’ll never see you like this.” Even I felt the stinging of the thing’s response.
Pandora’s tears fell harder. Her anguishing cries struck my core.
The thing rose its voice to a motivational tone, “Hey dear. Don’t cry. Look. Even if you don’t manage good grades, you’re turning out to be quite the looker! I’m sure some sucker will fall for you and take care of you.”
Pandora was weak, “Uh huh.”
The creature demanded explanation, “What happened today? Why did you run off?”
She admitted, “I did really bad on the test.”
The creature was disappointed, “Again? Geez P̶̞̭̊͛a̵̼̬͒͐n̴̫̈́d̷̺͕̍o̴͔̾͛r̷̡͠ã̴̟̏.”
A pulse of pain jolted my brain
Defeated, Pandora replied, “I’m sorry.”
With an envious glance, the creature said, “Sometimes I think you possess an innocence you don’t deserve to bare.”
Softly, she asked, “What do you mean?”
The creature commanded, “You need to march back to the professor and show off your true value. Don’t settle for rejection. If you really prove yourself and work hard, I know he’ll look past this.”
Pouting and resistant, Pandora said, “Fine. I will.”
The creature’s attitude sharpened, “You’re spending too much time with your art. I’m going to take your stuff away while you figure out your grades.”
“Please, no!” she begged.
In dominating tone, the creature continued, “And that puppy. I thought it would help you get past what happened with your mom, but I think it’s just distracting you. I know where we can deal with it.”
Pandora screamed, “No!! Don’t!! You can’t!! You aren’t my real mom!!”
The sound of a smack vibrated the shelves and a book fell.
Pandora’s face glowed red at the site of injury.
“Don’t you dare speak to me like that!” the creature demanded violently.
After a shocked pause, Pandora cried and ran off.
I chased after her.
The strange pseudo-motherly creature yelled out, “What’s this? A boy? You’re really in trouble now. Just wait until your dad finds out.”
I finally caught up to Pandora and grabbed her arm.
Scared at first, she turned around to me, then she was relieved. “Hey, run away with me.”
“Runaway?” I asked.
Her hand grabbed mine and tugged it. She pleaded, “Let’s run away from home together. I can’t take it anymore.”
Still playing along, I said, “Yeah, sure.”
I was worried that she was revealing a lot to me without realizing we were in Neo-Iniko. But… I was too curious to stop. I wouldn’t do anything bad with these truths, so maybe it was alright.
The earth shook and a shockwave of light moved across the land of books. Something had changed.
Suddenly, we were in a new place. A shell of shelves surrounded us, like some comforting fortress made of her miseries. At the center, on the floor, there was a swirling vortex of paint, circled with papers and folders scattered across the room.
“So glad you finally got here! Come in! My dad won’t be home for a while.” Her uniform was still on, but disheveled.
I looked into the vortex, “Looks like you got some art going.”
Her arm nervously scratched her head, “Ah yeah. It’s nothing. Literally. It’s just something I made to get my head out of the usual, you know?”
She nervously dodged eye contact, then finally asked, “Hey, are you alright with everything so far?”
I asked, “You mean all this stuff you’ve been showing me?”
Our eyes met, “Yeah… just with me and everything.”
I assured, “Yeah. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.”
“Great! Come.” She grabbed my hand and escorted me deeper into her realm.
She backed herself against a bookcase, looked me in the eyes with an intense shyness, grabbed my hand, then slowly positioned it on her breast.
I was too shocked to say anything. But I had to, “P̶̞̭̊͛a̵̼̬͒͐n̴̫̈́d̷̺͕̍o̴͔̾͛r̷̡͠ã̴̟̏?” My brain sizzled at the sound of her name again.
She whispered, “It’s okay. I want this.”
Nervously, I replied, “It’s just… I don’t know you that well. Are you sure?”
“I’m sure.” She squeezed my hand against her body, showing off her plushness.
My head rushed with arousal, but also guilt. I pulled away, “Sorry. It’s just-“
She nervously averted her eyes, “No. I get it. I’m being selfish. I’m using you as a distraction.”
Pretending not to know it, I said, “Huh?”
She walked away, towards the center of the room and grabbed one of the paint brushes. Her hands gently dipped the brush and began going to work on the rainbow wormhole.
I tried apologizing, “Hey, look. I didn’t mean to upset you. I’m happy with you.”
Her hands kept working. She gave no response.
Figures. I deserved this.
Mesmerized, I stared into the swirling paint. Watching her go tickled my soul. I could see why she does this. With everything we saw before, it was no wonder.
A surge of pain burst through my head, “Agh!” Then, visions of a world of crystal landscapes flashed through my mind.
A voice whispered, “Get out. Escape. Run away.”
In a blink, all that faded and reality snapped back to normal.
After a while, things started to get weird again. Her body appeared to be fizzling away.
I called out, “Hey, P̶̞̭̊͛a̵̼̬͒͐n̴̫̈́d̷̺͕̍o̴͔̾͛r̷̡͠ã̴̟̏?? What’s going on?”
Still, no response. She just kept painting.
I waited a bit longer, but it started to get too weird. I said, “Seriously, what’s going on?? I’m getting uncomfortable with this.”
Her body was mostly gone. All that remained was something like a head, if I’d even call it that. Still, whatever was left painted away. I started to worry that this hobby was hurting her.
Then, the earth shook, and something made itself apparent in the distance, at the end of the eternal hallway. A monster. Like the faceless corporate, it wore a suit. Half of its body was clocks. Massive fangs coated its jaws. It seemed to have the skull of an animal, but no muscles or skin to retain modesty. Even its hardened soul was exposed through its menacing expression. A symbol of impending life.
I turned back to her, “Uh… P̶̞̭̊͛a̵̼̬͒͐n̴̫̈́d̷̺͕̍o̴͔̾͛r̷̡͠ã̴̟̏?? This is serious now. Someone’s coming.”
Still no response, instead just happily fading away.
I ran up to her, “Look. I know life is scary. All this? Terrifying! But you can’t run away forever.
Ticking and tocking filled the air. The time beast was close. The hallway walls distorted and bent in its presence.
It bellowed, deep and crunchy, “It’s 2:00 PM on a Tuesday!”
It continued, “I didn’t put you in the University of the Order for you to pull this shit!”
Oh god, it was tormenting her.
It spoke again, “I thought we were done with this. There’s no time! You’re throwing your life away!”
Pandora was nearly gone. Only fragments of her face floated above the vortex.
“You’re being selfish. Think of mother.” The time beast must have been her father.
Its blow hit too low. I intervened, “You’re the selfish one! How did you let it get like this?! You’re supposed to lead the family!”
It turned to me, “Who’s this boy? Are you being a dirty slut again?”
I yelled, “Ugh! P̶̞̭̊͛a̵̼̬͒͐n̴̫̈́d̷̺͕̍o̴͔̾͛r̷̡͠ã̴̟̏ don’t listen to him! Fuck this guy!”
Finally, she said something, “The second eclipse, it’s almost over! It’s time for graduation!! I’m not ready!”
The beast mocked, “The bills, they haven’t been paid!”
And mocked, “Your grandmother, she’s dying!”
And mocked, “You only have 3 weeks, 4 meals, and 6 showers left to live! What will you do then?”
The ticking and the tocking turned way up, becoming a thumping and cracking.
I grabbed the little bit left of her and said, “I know, it’s scary as all hell!! When life is coming at you full speed and you have no room to breathe! When all you want is to escape and find somewhere safe! I get it! But you don’t have to do this alone anymore!”
Her form restored. She looked into my eyes.
Softly, she muttered, “Guhya…”
The papers were swept up in a whirlwind and sucked through a wormhole in the sky. It was the emanation of her work. Our escape.
The time beast grew frantic, “Taxes! Rent! Life! Death! Cancer! Prison!”
Pandora covered her ears, terrified of life itself. She strained to speak over the chaos, “We need to… go… through… the vortex!”
The fading cry of the beast could be heard, “Society! Society!!“
We slipped into the hole in the sky and everything went quiet.
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