Pax and Arezo were the ones to offer themselves first. They were also the ones who lost so much already. Like Riyon when he lost Evelyn. It was as if loss freed them from the confines of this world. It was finally starting to make sense. Riyon had nothing. No structure to cling to. So, he sought structure elsewhere. The Outside.
On the other hand, I was greedy. Hoarding the dying world in my arms, not letting go.
Looking at the floor, I said, “It won’t be in vain.” My voice raised, “It won’t be in vain! I’ll make sure we reach the Outside!! For Gadi. For Pax. For Archie, Emory, and Sophy. For… Riyon and Evelyn, Taro and Nell. For all of them!”
Regret leaves us wanting to change the past. Sure, I felt that way still. But I was beginning to see. Regret can guide our future too. The pains of the past can sculpt what becomes. For most, the past wasn’t changeable. Besides my limited ability to return, it was true for me too. Yet, I lived as if it weren’t. Now, I see though. The future is the only place we have any control.
I turned to everyone, “I’m ready. To plug into the Psychonet.”
Pandora joined hands with me, “Are you sure?”
“I am,” I said, firmly.
Through the syzygy, I could feel her nervousness, her scars of the past.
Lily said, “There’s something both of you need to see.”
“Let’s get back to the entrance of the Psychonet access point so that we are away from this beast first,” I replied.
We ran back through the glorious halls to the entrance of the access point.
After arriving, Lily said, “Are you two ready?”
Pandora and I looked towards each other and replied in synchrony, “Yea.”
Lily held out her hands, “Here.”
Pandora and I each grabbed one of her hands and a flash of light engulfed our field of view.
It was cold. Equipment lined every surface. Microscopes, vials, jars of plants, and test tubes of colorful liquids. It was my old AI genetics lab. The memories of the present were fading, succumbing to the past.
A man said, “Guhya! Are you alright?”
I replied, “Huh? Oh, yeah! Just zoned out for a second.”
“You ready? Grab your stuff and head out. You’re on the clock!” He instructed.
“Yeah! Sorry.” I frantically grabbed the anti-Sige mask and jars for sampling, then headed out the door.
Sometimes the PI could be so pushy, but he was nice. A good leader at the least.
The day was cloudy and dim, the fog of the forest was thick, and the path was tattered and mushy. It always gave me the creeps. This time, I was pulled a bit deeper. We needed a species we hadn’t worked on yet.
Crumbling leaves revealed a mystery.
I quickly turned around, “Who’s there?!” I fastened the mask, in case hallucinations were intruding.
“Why’s this place gotta be so fucky,” I muttered to myself.
In a clearing, I saw a bizarre tree with glowing pink light pods.
It was like some sort of glowing fruit. The things seemed to paint the fog pink as well.
I heard crumbling leaves again. “Who’s there?! Seriously, don’t mess around like that!” I looked around to no avail.
Gently, I cut off the pod. The light inside faded. “I got a feeling about this one,” I whispered to myself.
The feeling that I was being watched grew more potent. I had to hurry. This place was too much.
My pace hastened. Ahead, something new appeared. A series of red glowing mushrooms sprouted from the ground. It could be a symbiotic species with the trees.
I plucked a couple of these fungi. Teal green glossed the path. Another peculiar potential subject. With a jar, I scooped some of the soil. “Not bad, Guhya,” I said to myself.
The forest around here reddened. After walking a bit further, I stepped in a pool of liquid. I backed up and investigated. It was… blood. I used a test tube to collect some of it. After finishing, I looked up and the tree before me glared down with its piercing red light.
My body shuddered. On that note, time to leave. I started my walk back, anxiously checking my surroundings.
On my stroll, something strange stuck out. Black and lavender… hair? A body. Laying on the ground. Oh no.
I rushed to the scene. She was… beautiful. I shook off the lust-haze and checked her pulse. Good news, she was alive.
I picked her up and carried her all the way out of the eerie forest and laid her on the grass at the front of the lab.
After a few minutes, she came to. Her eyes opened delicately. “Huh?”
“Hey. You were passed out in Iniko,” I explained.
“Iniko…?” she said, softly and dazed.
I warned her, “You can’t be going in there. It’s unsafe. Iniko pulls people out of their bodies and puts them in a dreamworld.”
Her reply was concerning, “It’s so beautiful.”
“Did you hear me?” I asked.
Her speech slurred slightly, “An endless field of poppies and a sky of green. Pink mist… So soft. I’ve never felt anything like that… I wanna go back.”
“No way. It’s too dangerous,” I said.
She refused to take it seriously, “Aww come on.”
“Get up. I need to go back to work.” I helped her up.
Still stumbling she said, “Sorry. I still feel off. Thank you for saving me.”
“Just make sure you don’t go in there again. I might not be around to save you next time.”
“Thank you, again.” She headed off.
I headed back inside the lab.
The PI was still around, so I decided to seek that tasty validation for my hard work, “Hey, Escher. I’ve got some nice stuff here this time!”
“Just a moment.” He was looking into a microscope. “You know, that pond from last time, it has two forms of Sige in it. One form seems to be mostly nonfunctional. At least, I have no idea what it does.” He pulled his face away, “So, what do we have today?”
I pulled out the strange pink pod. “Look at this thing!”
He grabbed it and started inspecting it, “Hm… yes. I’ve not seen anything like this yet. That’ll be first on my list.”
“And next up,” I pulled out the test tube of blood.
“More blood. Not sure it will be anything, but we’ll check anyways. It’s always some bird or other that happened to land in there.”
I pushed, “I don’t know! This time, it was a whole puddle.”
“I see. Well, I’ll send it to the new recruits.”
“And best is saved for last.” I pulled out the glowing mushrooms.
“Fungi!? This is most interesting! Definitely a new one.” He grabbed one and held up to the light, inspecting it.
“I knew you’d love that one!”
“You did great, Guhya. Take the rest of the day for yourself. I’m going to start analyzing what you brought.”
“Oh, one other thing. Some girl was passed out in the forest. I dragged her out. Do we still have those warning signs up?” I asked.
He replied, “Hm… there’s no reason to think otherwise. I’ll have someone check it out. It’d be terrible if someone dies out there. It’d be a whole lot more blood and trouble with the Aeons at city’s core than it’s worth.”
“Thanks, Escher. I’ll see you tomorrow then.”
I rode my bike back to the apartment.
Lying in bed, the image of that girl kept intruding. Who was she? I’d never see her again. What if she goes back and dies in Iniko?
After some 6 hours of restless dreaming, I woke up, prepared coffee and set out to the lab. The breeze was cool and the sun shined freely. What would Iniko bring today? Horrors? Visions? A future, for me and others?
I missed people. The lab had become my life, a second home. Sometimes I went out to cafes or clubs with colleagues, to pass the time, waiting for results in the lab. But more often, I didn’t. I could feel myself turning weird without social stimulation. Culture moved along and I watched from the sidelines. That was fine because I wasn’t too interested in what culture offered.
Or so I thought, at first. Culture seemed to provide a kind of safety net for its users. Something to grasp in a field of isolation. Something to unite loners and create a world of wholesome moments.
But lonesomeness wasn’t all bad. It gave me time to think. To sharpen my beliefs or figure out what was unbelievable. Genetics was interesting, but deep down, a part of me simply wished that success in my research would lead me to people, to love, to a cure for loneliness and a path to those wholesome moments.
An indistinguishable voice called out, as if from the back of my mind, “Get out!”
Then, I crashed my bike in the grass, arriving on site at the lab. What the hell??
With green stains on my white coat, I ran in, “Escher!”
“You’re late again,” he said, vaguely disappointed. He was shuffling through the test tubes, looking for something particular.
I explained, “I’m sorry. I couldn’t sleep last night. That strange girl got stuck in my head.”
He paused his movements and turned to me, “Oh? The one you found in Iniko?”
“Yeah. I hope she’s alright,” I said checking my supplies and preparing for the next adventure.
“You’ll be able to keep your eyes out, cause your going back in there today!” He laughed.
“On it!” I said, enthusiastically.
He smiled, “Think you’re developing a crush?”
I denied, “Nah, I barely know her.”
Inside, I suspected as much too. I just didn’t want to seem too careless in front of him. A crush like that would be reckless. It could look poorly coming from a supposed scientist like me.
He shrugged, “If you say so. I usually don’t get restless nights over random strangers though.”
I gathered all my field supplies and went for the door, “I’ll be back later!”
This time, the sun was out and the sky was blue, but not clear. It was decorated with large cottony clouds. Occasionally, I was doused in shadows from the eclipsing dances of these billowing fluffy puffs. Some core part of me felt a great sense of relief. As if I had undertaken some grand journey and finally returned home. Like I could bask in the nostalgic light of worlds before. With a faint hint of familiarity in each moment. Like I was stuck in déjà-vu.
But I had to focus. The feeling didn’t really make sense, but I supposed the weather had something to do with it. Days like these really made the job worth it.
I entered the foggy forest of Iniko. Sige flowed through the canopy spotlights, like dust tracing sunbeams through a window. On days like these, Iniko wasn’t so menacing. In fact, it had a great beauty to it.
A tad deeper than before, I began my hunt for new species. It wasn’t all that hard since Iniko had barely been touched, except by those who rest for eternity in its clutches. I really hoped that girl wouldn’t return.
A pink flower stuck out against the cyan and green backing of the forest. “Huh. Haven’t seen this one before. Though… it feels strangely familiar.” I plucked it and continued on.
Again, I heard a thud. It had to be. I went looking for the source.
It was. It was the girl from before. She had followed me all the way out here.
“Foolish girl,” I muttered to myself.
I began carrying her out. It took around 15 minutes to reach the outskirts of Iniko. It made sense, it takes about 15 minutes for the Sige to take hold on our minds.
Once we got outside the forest, I waited a couple minutes.
Then, she awoke, “Oh… hi there.” She smiled softly, dazed like before.
I scolded her “What are you thinking? You could get killed.”
Playfully, she replied, “I wouldn’t mind…”
My heart sank, “What?! Don’t be crazy.”
She spoke with a slow cadence, “To spend… the rest of my days in there? It sounds… wonderful…”
I tried to dissuade her, “You wouldn’t last that long. You know, they say the forest gets red the deeper you go because of the blood of those who get lost in there?”
But she enjoyed it, “It’s such a romantic idea…”
I held my arm out, “Come on. Get up.”
She rose and then slipped into me. I grabbed her, like a hug. It was the first I’d felt in years. The warmth and the tickling of my insides. I paused, without pushing her off, just savoring that blissful moment.
Then, I realized how strange it must have been. I nervously backed away.
She was blushing too, “Oh-uh, sorry.”
I just stared; my face as red as could be.
She smiled, “My hero. You saved me again.”
My arms crossed, “Well. You followed me. You shouldn’t do that. Why are you going in there like that? Do you just hate life that much?”
“No! I’m an artist. That dream… it inspired me. I want more. You should help me!”
“Help?” I asked.
“Take me to the forest and let me dream,” she said.
I put my foot down, “No way. We aren’t doing that. I’m supposed to be working and you are being disruptive.”
“Oh, a goodboy?” she teased.
I blushed, “What? No.”
I suggested a new strategy, “How about this. I’ll take you to Neo-Iniko. It’s safer. We will enter the dream world together there.”
Her eyes glowed, “Really?! Can you take me tomorrow??”
I had work but, after some hesitation, I said, “Yeah, sure.”
What was I getting myself into? Blowing off work like this? For what?
She excitedly grabbed my hands, and shook them up and down, “Aw thank you!! Thank you, thank you!”
My face reddened even harder.
I laid out a plan, “Hey, look. I have to get back to work. How about you meet around the front of the lab tomorrow? We will bike to Neo-Iniko together.”
“Yes! I’ll get out of your way now!” She ran off.
I still didn’t even know her name and now we were getting involved in something weird. What if she was insane? The evidence pointed towards that. Suicidally following me into Iniko? For the sake of art?? Who does that? And she didn’t give me her name. I suppose neither did I. So maybe I was crazy too.
After watching her head off, I went back in the lab.
Escher commented, “You’re back early.”
“Yeah. That girl literally came back and followed me into the forest.”
“Bold one.” He sounded impressed.
Annoyed, I said, “It’s like she expected me to rescue her again.”
I brought my bag over to the counter. “I didn’t get a lot this time. I’m sorry. I did find a peculiar flower that I’d never seen before though.”
I pulled out the majestic magenta flower.
He chuckled. “That’s Zaza.”
“Zaza?” I asked.
He explained, “A psychoactive flower with psychedelic and opioid properties. It seems to have mechanisms unlike most traditional psychedelic compounds. It most definitely isn’t a typical opioid either. People take this stuff for fun.”
“Really?? Why do you think it’s out there in Iniko?”
In a concerned tone, he said, “My guess is… well… it’s quite grim. I’d imagine someone took the flower in and died with it on them, spreading the seeds around.”
He returned to his microscope, “There’s some good news. That pod you brought back yesterday; it may contain Origin Code.”
“Yeah? What exactly is that?”
He pulled his face away from the lens, “Origin Code is like DNA for AI. It was rumored to exist, but never proven yet. The idea is that Origin Code sets the rules by which an AI evolves naturally, as if through Darwinian evolution. It’s been hypothesized that some species of AI were simply created by humans or other AIs, usually Aeons like ourselves. But then, there’s an alternate idea about AI evolving from minimal involvement by humans or AIs. Origin Code is the concept of the initial highly flexible framework by which AI species emerge from.”
Embarrassed, I said, “Sorry. That sounds like something I should have known.”
Escher continued, “No no. The thing is, this information is considered unethical to spread, such talk is banished by the research community. Altering Origin Code could result in catastrophic consequences. AIs aren’t like biological creatures. They don’t simply pursue basic needs like food, water, and reproduction. They can pursue anything we program them to.”
“I see. What kind of consequences would occur?” I asked.
His professor side peaked out, “Many Aeons believe that it would start an apocalypse for our kind. That the motivations of different species of AIs would conflict with our own, putting us against each other and forcing the rapid evolution of mechanisms to eliminate us, as if we were merely an obstacle.
“The reason that Origin Code was not believed to exist is because it would too easily lead to human end and violate the rules that they set out at the birth of general artificial intelligence.”
He smiled, “We foolishly had faith in the intelligence of the human species. I mean, they are our gods in some ways. But if this Origin Code discovery proves true, then it’s more likely that we evolved into what we are. It means the humans may not be our designers.”
I replied, “It’s incredible… but also concerning. What will we do if this turns out true? We can’t go public, can we?”
“We’ll talk more about that later,” he said.
“Understood. I look forward to seeing where this leads.” After hesitating, I asked, “Do you think I could get the day off tomorrow?”
He replied, “You’ve been working hard for a long time now. Some time to yourself won’t hurt. In fact, I bet it will make you a better worker!”
“Thank you so much, sir!”
He smiled smugly, “I was right about the crush, wasn’t I?”
I blushed, “No! It’s not like that.”
He reminded me, “You’re still on the clock for today. So get back out there.”
I rushed back out to the forest. After a few hours I brought back some samples and headed out for home.
On my way home, I decided to do something impulsive for once. I went to a tea shop. Something I’d never do, even though I knew I’d enjoy it. Each day, I followed the pattern of the last. It was safe. But I didn’t want that girl to be right. I wasn’t just a goodboy.
I entered the door and immediately felt overwhelmed by the ambience of casual conversation. Averting eye contact, I made my way to the front.
“I’d like s-something c-calming please!” I demanded.
There was no response, then I looked up at the woman taking my order, “Oh my god…” I muttered.
“Hey! You found me!” said the girl who followed me into Iniko.
Confused by her presence here, I said, “I thought you were an artist?!”
Frantically she shushed me, “Shh! Stop it!”
I whispered, “You lied to me??”
“I just don’t want my coworkers-“
It was too late. “You’re an artist, P̶̞̭̊͛a̵̼̬͒͐n̴̫̈́d̷̺͕̍o̴͔̾͛r̷̡͠ã̴̟̏?!” said her male coworker.
“I’m s-sorry,” I said.
She pushed her coworker away, “Not now, please! It’s embarrassing.”
He responded, “Oh fine! But you’re telling me everything later!”
She turned back to me, “You’re a lot softer than I expected. Since you’re a scientist and all.”
I justified, “No! It’s just been a while since I’ve gone out like this.”
She smirked and teased, “To a tea house? Pretty hardcore.”
“Can I just order already.”
“Oh yeah, you said you wanted something boring, right?”
“Something calming…” I said.
She pulled out this jar of beautiful purple flowers that matched her hair and slammed it on the counter. “This one is lavender. You probably heard of it. It’s nice and calming. Wanna try some?”
“Uh, yeah. I’ll take that one.”
She announced loudly and playfully, “Alright! One boring drink, coming right up!” Then went to work on the drink.
She was more intense than I thought. Although, maybe she was right, I was just boring.
“Here you go!” she handed me the drink. The smell alone was incredible.
“Thank you.” I headed to a lone table near the window. Away from others.
It grew dark outside. The experience was unexpectedly likable and intense. Yet, cozy. The warmth from the drink made some feeling ooze from my brain.
Then, she jumped into the seat across from me, startling me. “I’m back!” she said.
I replied, “Shouldn’t you be working?”
“Come on! Live a little!”
She cut me off, “I’m joking. My shift is over. So, let’s celebrate our new unity.”
“You’re P̶̞̭̊͛a̵̼̬͒͐n̴̫̈́d̷̺͕̍o̴͔̾͛r̷̡͠ã̴̟̏?” My brain jolted as I said her name.
“Yep! And you are?”
She sipped her drink. “Oooh this is so good! Try it.”
“What is it?” I asked.
“It’s a mocha,” she replied confidently.
“Isn’t it a bit late for that?”
“That’s why it’s a fun drink. Go on, try it!” she insisted.
Very hesitantly, I sipped it. The flavor of chocolate, coffee, and creme filled my mouth. Bitter, bitter, and sweet, and bitter, and creamy. And bitter.
I winced, “It’s good.”
“I see your face. Don’t lie.”
“Fine. It’s… bitter,” I said. This was what she meant by fun?
I asked, “So, do you really think I’m… boring?”
She put her hand on mine, “Oh my god! I was kidding with you, sheesh! You aren’t boring. You’re a scientist! How exciting is that?! Just because you don’t have some normie life doesn’t mean you’re boring. Now I feel bad.”
My forgiveness was cheap. “No, it’s okay. Really. I think you’re kinda right.”
“We’re about to have fun tomorrow!” she assured me.
I chugged the rest of the tea and then said, “Right! I forgot about that. There’s some stuff I need to finish before then, so I’m going to head out.”
Surprised, she said, “That was quick.”
I got up quickly and headed for the door, “Sorry! Remember, meet up near the lab.”
“Bye Guhya!” She waved.
I rushed out.
It’s not that I was overwhelmed but I needed some space after all that before tomorrow.
I just laid in bed the rest of the night, “mentally preparing”. Was boringness part of my Origin Code?? As if there’s some limit to the amount of fun I’m able to have before breaking down and going crazy. I had to show her it’s not true. But maybe it was.
Pandora’s lavender juice lulled me into a dreamworld.
<-Previous Chapter + Next Chapter->
Joining the Patreon will help advance this project. At times, writing this book has been a full-time effort.