We approached a tree line into an area that looked like some sort of abandoned town. The buildings were unusually structured, asymmetrical, and made of an unrecognized red and black material. Many of them looked like wireframes of buildings that once existed but were now in decay. Eerie purple lights brightened the area, appearing like light fixtures. There were no signs of life.
I commented, “It’s strange. This place looks way more advanced than Hedo, yet Hedo is preserved and persists with life, while this place seems to be in decay.”
Taro and Nell just looked around captivated, too much to notice anything I said.
Guhya responded, “Yeah. I think I know where we are. This is the lost city of Iniko. It was generated by design plans created by artificial intelligence and then put into action via genetic modification of the plants. The buildings here are all both plants and AI themselves.”
Nell said, “Wow! This is incredible! So all of these houses are grown from the ground?”
Guhya answered, “Yes, they are.”
The building structures were fused to the plants. Above us, the trees intersected, creating a net. Their growing patterns were unlike ordinary trees. The homes simply grew out of the ground as programmed by the DNA of the plant, commanded by AI.
Taro investigated the buildings, probing them with his fingers. “It almost feels like rubber. Some of it feels metal or plastic as well.” He continued, “We can probably find a sweet spot to sleep here tonight. They are houses after all.”
The night grew darker, so we all nodded and started to investigate each “house” to see which was best.
In a concerned tone, I asked, “Why do you think it’s abandoned, Guhya?”
He sat for a second to think and then answered, “I’m not really sure. This place seems like it would be fine. Maybe everyone was pushed into Hedo after a while.” It made sense.
The sky above us was a deep and calming blue. The warmth of the spring sun cast a pleasant heaviness on my body. The breeze added a contrast that sedated me further. I turned to the group and said, “It’s really nice here.”
Everyone nodded and expressed an ‘mmm’ of relief. Taro got up from the grass and stated, “Nell and I are going to go pick some berries and fruit so that we have food to eat later.” They both got up and walked through the everlasting fields of green that were sprinkled with a rainbow of wildflowers, and headed towards the fruit orchard.
I turned to Guhya and suggested, “Maybe we should get back to working on that shed before the day is lost. We can always come back and laze around in the field later. Sunset is a better time for that anyway.” I took a last sniff of the fragrance from the flowers and then got up.
He peacefully agreed, “Yeah. . .” He got up and we both headed through the meadow, towards the hills where the half-built shed was.
Guhya handed me plywood and asked, “You think they will get married eventually?”
I grabbed the plywood and positioned it onto the draft of the shed and replied in confidence, “Yeah, of course. They love each other. They are inseparable.”
Guhya responded, “What about you? Are you looking for someone?
An indiscernible sadness trickled into the back of my mind. It wasn’t clear where it came from. I answered, “Yeah. It would be nice. Maybe one of the women from the village. I’d really like one of the musical ones. I think I fancy the one in the band we are seeing later tonight. How about you? I never hear about your love interests.”
He replied, “I don’t know. There is a worry that I’ll lose a part of myself if I join someone else. It could be rough.”
I said, “Yeah. I see what you mean.”
We continued working on the shed until it was sunset. Then we met up with Taro and Nell back in the field, near the lake.
Nell looked ecstatic. I asked, “What’s with you?”
She exclaimed, “Taro proposed! We are getting married!” The coincidence had me thinking my previous thoughts were premonitions.
Guhya and I congratulated them.
Taro pulled out some wine to celebrate. We all took turns passing around the same bottle, taking swishes. Eventually, we were 3 bottles in and it was time to go to the folk concert.
We came up to a small stage in the middle of the flower fields. The woman I felt an attraction to was the harp player. As she played her beautiful part, I stared, hypnotized, at peace with the world. Life here was as it should be. It was bliss.
After the show, I flirted with the woman. We decided to hang out later. Taro, Nell, Guhya, and I all regrouped, laying near the lake and watching the constellations move across the sky.
Three months later, we were at Taro and Nell’s wedding. It was in the same perfect field of flowers. Flower petals slowly drifted in the ethereal breeze of the moment. Their new status as married made me realize how fast time was passing. There was a deep sadness and also euphoric beauty thinking about that. We were all moving about life, collecting incidents and storing them in a library of memories. Between the moments of beauty, we basked in the nostalgia of prior moments. Their wedding brought me to tears. This is what I wanted too. I told myself I’d marry the woman from the band.
Another month passed and we gathered to celebrate the finishing of the shed. It was a monument of what we could achieve through team efforts. It was a symbol of our connection to each other. We planned out our next project, a larger home that could house all four of us, and eventually, a fifth, once I proposed to the harp woman.
Over the next six months, I finally built up the courage to propose to her. She said yes. We finished building the house. Nell was pregnant. We were all getting older. The festival of cherry blossoms was coming to the neighboring town. We planned to take a trip there.
–One year later–
I found myself lying in bed with an inexplicable sadness in the back of my mind. On the floor, a familiar flower appeared. This flower activated some deep part of my mind. What was this? I picked up the mysterious flower. It was a reddish pink. Where could it have come from? An intuition to consume it compelled me.
So I did.
A thick, cloudy fog was filling the room. Darkness cast over the light of day. It was the first time I felt terror in years. What have I done? I frantically went to search for the others. Had I poisoned myself? The world began to change its form. Everything melted and twisted, reforming anew. Ominous purple lights stared at me from the shadows of this new realm. Strange trees and large mushrooms filled the area. I hyperventilated and gasped for air, drenched in sweat. Was this a dream? A hallucination?
Then I realized: we were in the forest of Iniko. The flower was Zaza. It must have awoken me somehow. I looked around and eventually, I saw Guhya, standing there in a hypnotic trance, gazing into the abyss. Taking a leap of faith, I crushed some more of the Zaza and then blew it in his face.
He began coughing and came to. Guhya looked around in a panic and then realized the situation. “We are in the forest of Iniko. This isn’t good. It’s the fog again, like in Xanadu. The trees are controlling the fog and therefore our brains. They put us in a shared hallucinatory world. It’s kind of a bummer, I was really digging that place.”
The sense of loss consumed me, even with the small amount of Zaza I was on. We lived an entire life there. A good one at that. I had just gotten married. Nell was about to give birth. We even built ourselves a lovely home. All of that was gone now. We must have been there for years.
Guhya asked in a rush, “What did you do to wake me up? How did you wake? Where are the others??”
I answered, “In the dream world, I noticed a flower and ate it. It was Zaza. Somehow that worked and then I realized what was happening and blew some of the Zaza in your face and it worked on you too. I haven’t seen Taro and Nell yet.”
Guhya thought to himself for a moment and then replied, “It makes some sense. The AIs train themselves to understand your mind through your interaction with the fog. They learn how you work as you integrate the fog into your brain chemistry. Then, once they have figured you out, they can control individual neurons and ultimately create a hallucinogenic reality or metaverse. When you took the Zaza, it changes your brain such that the AI loses its grasp on you. You’ve essentially created a foreign brain environment that the AI must learn all over again. If this is true, we only have a little time left before it figures us out again. We need to hurry and get to Taro and Nell and then get the fuck out of here before it starts again.”
The feeling of loss still permeated my mind. I asked nervously, “Where should we start looking for them?”
He responded confidently, “I interfaced with the fog and I sense them through their connection to it. Just follow my lead.”
We headed into the forest. I questioned him, “Evelyn didn’t seem to experience any effect from the fog before. I noticed you experienced some effects in Xanadu like us, like the humans. Why is that?”
He hesitated before answering, “Well, Riyon. We aren’t so different. This is going to get touchy. The woman I loved before was an Aeon like myself. She, like Evelyn, connected to the Psychonet. I was opposed to this because I felt it reduced our individuality. It puts us in connection with the minds of all other AIs that have connected before, rendering our personhood null. This was back in the early days before significant knowledge was accrued.”
He paused, seemingly emotional before continuing, “In the same way as Evelyn, she one day experienced self-annihilation. I was never given answers about this. When it happened to Evelyn, it all started to click. I’m not sure how yet, but the Psychonet must have fed my prior love a deep knowledge that leads one to self-destruction. As fucked up as it is, we share that now, Riyon.”
I didn’t like that he never mentioned this before Evelyn connected to the Psychonet, but I couldn’t really blame him if he didn’t know. Still, it bothered me. “What’s this have to do with the fog though?” I asked in confusion.
He got snappy for a second, “I’m not done yet, wait you fucker!” Then he continued explaining in a chill voice, “After I lost my greatest love, I didn’t want anything to do with being an AI. I resented her connection to the Psychonet because it pushed us further away from the people of the world. Then, after I started working with Mother, I resented even myself, as an AI. I just wanted to be human. I asked Mother to surgically alter my brain so that I was less AI and more human. This was given to me in exchange for giving Mother my implant. We both helped each other. Now I seem to be sensitive to the fog like humans are.”
I was suspicious that he knew the Psychonet was related to the death of his lover, which made it seem like he was testing his hypothesis by letting Evelyn connect. It was screwed up but I couldn’t really prove mal intention. Regardless, I can see why he resents his existence and wishes to be human. The longer our journey goes, the more I share the sentiment. We were both being destroyed by the sick nature of reality and its truths, and now we have a bond.
I responded shortly, “I see. That’s a lot to go through.” Then, out of bitterness from his snappy response, I said, “I think you were nicer in the dream world.”
He defended, “Well, yeah, I wasn’t burdened by my memories.” After a moment of silence, he explained, “AIs are usually developed with the purpose of helping humans or creating perfectly ethical systems of life. These particular plant AIs may be trying to solve ethical problems by putting us into a perfect life, free from worries and free from our traumas. It sounds nice but it also feels kind of fucked up once you come out of it.”
Guhya pleaded, “I don’t really do the whole emotional vulnerability thing, so can we just keep this between us?”
I nodded and he returned a smile. Maybe Guhya wasn’t so bad. Taro and Nell could be seen, through the chaotic tangle of growth that functioned as a window of a house. We ran into this bird cage-shaped building. They sat staring mindlessly into each other’s eyes.
After crushing more of the Zaza flowers, I blew it into their face like I did with Guhya.
Guhya commented in his typical charming tone, “Wow. It’s kind of flirty the way you blow the kiss at them like that.”
I hastily and nervously responded, “That isn’t what I’m trying to do here. Don’t frame me that way.”
He laughed it off, seeming to get a kick out of my embarrassment.
As Nell awoke, her face was in shock but quickly transitioned into an expression of agony. She burst out crying. Her perfect life had been torn away from her.
Taro was still processing what was happening. Soon after waking, he also realized the situation and went to comfort Nell. He hugged her, seemingly on the verge of tears himself. He got on his knees and asked, “Nell. Please. Will you marry me?”
Nell grabbed his hands, looked into his eyes in tears, and said, “Yes!!” They hugged and kissed. Our dream world left them changed. Maybe all of this was a good thing.
Guhya interrupted, “Hey lovebirds, this is sweet and all, but we need to move quickly. We don’t have much time left. The Zaza disrupts the effects of the fog but not for long. So let’s move it!”
We ran out of this oversized birdcage and headed east, with Guhya at our lead. He went for my bag of Zaza and just grabbed more, shoving it in his mouth. Guhya justified himself, “Can’t take any chances. If any of you fall back into that hypnogogic delusion realm, then you will need me to wake you up again.”
As we rushed through the forest, the scenery began to change again. The plant-created structures were not only shaped like houses but also like entire skyscrapers. My jog was slowed to a halt as I lost track of pushing my body forward due to the distracting awesomeness of these immense biological towers. They fully consumed my attention.
Guhya had to snap me out of my trance, “Hey! What are you doing?! Keep going. We don’t have time, remember?!”
After passing the cityscape, the forest continued on without the building structures, reverting to its more basic plant-like form. Through the trees, an opening with a small fountain-shaped pond lay near tree trunks that appeared similar to body shapes.
The one nearest the pond was Evelyn, it had to be. I walked closer, and her form clarified further, looking increasingly Evelyn-esque. It was her. She approached me, grabbed my hand and we began twirling around, dancing in the mist in this forest clearing. Our feet crumbled the leaves beneath us, creating a comforting crisping sound. The fog could be seen flowing with our movements. It was beautiful, spectacular even. At last, we could be reunited.
Suddenly, Evelyn was flung from me. Both of us held our arms out, trying to reach for each other. We flew further and further, falling deeper into sadness and hopelessness. As I lay on the ground, I looked up to see Taro, Nell, and Guhya staring down at me. I began to cry aloud and exclaimed, “Evelyn, please come back!”
Their faces were all drained of their content and they were left a third as sad as I. Nell said, in a sympathetic tone, “Riyon. . . I’m sorry.” After a long moment, she continued, “I think I see why you preferred the delusional world you created with Zaza now. I never understood why someone would do this until now. I’ve seen it with my own eyes and that beautiful life was torn away from me. It hurt as much as reality ever could.”
Taro, looking saddened, promised Nell, “We will live a life like that. Once our journey is complete, we will get married and move to a place just like that! I swear it!” Watching their love increase warmed my body.
We were finally out of this creepy dream forest and back into the dark universe that AI has created for us. Whether we lived in the dream world or the real world, our lives were inescapably engineered by AI. We were at the whims of a programmed fate and artificial gods.
The path ahead was a field of grass. In the distance, Hedo’s cityscape could be seen. It was full of colors and interesting architecture. The one most near to us was some kind of bubble entrapping a tower. Hedo was full of flowers, metal, and glass. It was utopian.
We were finally here.
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