We imagine killing to be an unbearable task. Too gruesome to swallow. For most, that applies even to the vengeful slaughter of one’s most despised enemies. Most do not even try to imagine killing those that they love. Why would they?

This. This was an entirely different thing. A beast like no other. The only thing that could be worse than killing your truest love would be if there was no possible return in time. But we were gambling here. We didn’t know if the return mechanism would initiate.

Moments after Pandora’s death, a sense of thrill emerged. As if I had accomplished the most difficult task imaginable. This was it. I’d overcome the greatest challenge now. At least that’s what I thought at that moment. Along with a guilt tax for that thought.

To my relief, the deepest pain I had ever felt consumed me and the void welcomed me home.

Then, it was replaced by radiating heat in front and icy in back, mixed with a lustrous warmth between us. It was the campfire. Everyone else was still asleep, so this time we could continue. And this time we did. Her lips remedied my pains. It hadn’t been long, but the time loop felt eternal. The adrenaline made it eternal.

The floodgates wouldn’t last. Tears were already leaking down my face, between our lips. Then, it burst.

“Guhya?? What’s wrong?” Pandora said.

I saw Archie, spaced out like before. My heart sank. Was it all about to start again? I searched through Pandora’s bag, grabbed the knife and prepared. Any second, he would come back for the moment of truth.

“Guhya! Please! What are you doing?!” Pandora yelled in fright.

Arezo had a horrified look on her face, “Please, Guhya… Not again. I can’t take it anymore.”

Archie’s trance ended and I aimed my knife at him. He turned to me, “Huh? What’s going on?”

A sense of relief washed over me. But quickly, it was replaced by a flood of pain from the memories of murder. I dropped the blade and fell beside it, laying in fetal position, crying and letting it all out, “It’s finally over! I kept returning every 2 minutes. Over and over. Pandora kept dying. Then, I kept killing Archie. Over and over and over! I killed Pax too.”

Arezo had tears too, “So… it’s finally over.”

Pandora rushed to my side and comforted me, her gentle hands on my head, “It’s going to be okay.”

“This is ruining me,” I muttered.

Pandora brushed my hair, “Once we reach the Outside, we will be free.”

I hoped that she was right. That this wasn’t in vain. I turned to Arezo, “You’ve been returning too? But how?”

Arezo replied, “I asked you to give me your power as a backup.”

“I never did that though. I don’t even remember you asking me,” I replied, perplexed.

Arezo thought for a moment. “Hm. I must have returned to a time before you gave me the power. It’s disorienting.”

Pandora asked, “What does this mean? Are we all just drifting in different timelines?”

After hesitating, I replied, “I don’t know…”

Gadi stood up and said, “Don’t let this crumble your souls. All of you. We are close to the fated exit of this world. Close to the divine Outside. Only two major destinations remain. Cling onto hope for just a while longer. We will prevail.”

As cheesy as he was, it was inspiring to see him comfort us like that. He really did see the future, so his confidence wasn’t empty.

I rose up from the ground. With pain still in my voice, I said, “Captain. Where to next?”

It made Pandora and Arezo smile.

Confidently, he exclaimed, “Aha! Next up is the city for whence I was born and raised. Before I was dazed and torn from my memories. The vast luscious city of Hedo, a place of new beginnings and where time ends.”

Hedo was where my last journey ended. Where my life ceased to move forward. The thought of it haunted me. Riyon disappeared just outside Hedo. Taro and Nell parted ways and my new life of stillness began. Gadi’s description was apt.

I cleaned off the tears, “Let’s do it.”

In the distance, Hedo stood tall. It resided just outside of Iniko. We went around the long way, avoiding Iniko, for obvious reasons. Any humans who escaped the clutches of the Aeons that ruled Hedo were just euthanized by that dark forest.

Most of the rest of the day was spent on our hike to Hedo. The anticipation was a slow grind.

“What are we doing in Hedo, Gadi?” I asked.

“The entrance to the Gnostic Aetherium is deep inside the city. This is where the Aeon of Gnosis first took to the skies,” he answered.

“The skies?” I asked.

“The castle in the sky we saw above Xanadu. That’s where Vaeda lives.”

Anxiety crept in, “So… we are going to Vaeda’s now?”

Gadi said, “That is the final destination, indeed.”

As we approached the first streets of Hedo, its newly altered appearance was clear. The change was like we saw in Colony 25. Sige fog blanketed the sky, though the ground was still mostly clear. The city itself, unrecognizable. Distorted. Towers of strange designs and shapes endlessly climbed like giant beanstalks, ascending to the heavens. Many buildings were thrashed and warped, like scrap metal, like a clutter of trash. The street signs were painted in symbols from a foreign language, though a faint hint of English persisted, as if the signs had been altered only enough to rest in the uncanny valley.

“What is this?” I asked.

None answered, expectedly. We only stared in awe at the chilling alien image before us.

I had a hypothesis though. I didn’t want to admit it, but I had to, “I think… it might be the work of one of the new Sige species. One that rematerializes matter.”

Arezo noted, “This doesn’t look random though. If it were due to Sige, wouldn’t it be random?”

I realized I didn’t explain it much before, “Well… Vaeda said the new species is actually sentient.”

Everyone turned to me in horror.

Emory returned his gaze to the dying cityscape, observing the overcast of Sige in awe, “It really is the end of the world then… It’s kind of a beautiful sight at least, right? Something a person only gets to see once… The most twisted state of the world.”

No one answered him.

Gadi looked especially disturbed.

I asked him, “Gadi? What’s up?”

He anxiously replied, “This. It’s not like the future I saw. So very much not. There’s nothing we can do about it either. I don’t understand.”

Trying to comfort him, knowing all too well that this was partly my fault, I said, “We might as well at least try to continue following the prophecy, right?”

He looked down, shivering, “We can try.”

“We have no choice,” I replied quietly.

We began our tour of the dystopian wasteland of the new Hedo. Unexpectedly, people still roamed the streets, many looking like zombies. Others appeared quite energetic, ranting, running, vandalizing what was left of shops.

A man was rummaging through a trashcan.

I asked him, “What’s going on here?”

Frantically, he ran up and got in my face, “How do you not know?! Were you asleep?? Well! Get up and get your head out of the clouds! Look around!” Then, he ran off.

Another man approached, and spoke in a cool, confident, and mysterious tone, “It was superheroes.”

“What?” I asked.

The man continued, “You know. Like in the comics. Superheroes came and wrecked the place.”

Another guy came up to us, “Nah, this guy’s nuts. A bunch lost it after Russia hit this place.”

“Russia?” I asked.

He scoffed, “What? You don’t know about Russia??”

My gaze grew irritated, “No. Just tell me already, I’m getting impatient.”

The man laughed, “You are an illiterate bunch, eh? Russia is a country overseas, to the east. They have developed a new technology that can really mess up the place. A lot of buildings disintegrated or changed form. It’s some kind of ray gun they got. Invisible stealth planes have been flying through and doing some real damage.”

I laughed hysterically.

He said, “What’s the matter with you?? You think this is funny, do ya??”

“Just a bit.” I turned to the rest of us, “This is great, let’s ask a couple more people. The lore is juicy.”

The man said, “Imbeciles,” and left with the other stranger.

Archie explained, “Fear drives people to form stronger conclusions. It’s a safer than sorry strategy.”

Pandora grabbed my arm, “Do you really think we should be doing this right now?”

“I’m curious,” I said.

“That’s just like you, Guhya.”

Then I grabbed her face and kissed her. I justified, “We should update the reset point, right?”

The sky grew dark, and drizzle filled the air. An ominous purple tinted the cloudy heavens. People moving about the city would sometimes flicker and vanish, like the ghosts of Xanadu.

A hooded woman sitting outside one of the skyscrapers caught my attention, “Let’s ask her!”

After we approached, I asked her, “What’s going on here?”

She slowly turned her gaze up toward me, “How did you know to ask me?”

“I didn’t. You just looked interesting,” I said.

She smiled, “Or so you think. It was probably something subconscious that drove you here.”

“Ok sure. So, what happened to Hedo?”

Someone burst through a nearby window, but she remained unphased, as if it were to be expected. She began, “Aliens-“

I burst into laughter, without giving it a chance. Pandora laughed a bit too but tried to restrain out of respect.

I apologized and she continued.

Her voice grew menacing, “If you wish to be safe, heed my words. A mysterious aura has surrounded the city. A fog. Crystal showers splintered the building walls, evolving them. It is most definitely alien technology.”

It wasn’t true, but strangely closer than I would have expected.

She continued, “The mayor, the man of the town, he’s one of them. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.” She pointed at the tower behind us, “Right up there.”

The tower glowed with purple lights. Its structure had melted into neighboring buildings.

Gadi grew nervous and said, “Th-that is where our next fated encounter lies!”

“Oh really,” I said with growing interest. I turned back to the hooded woman, “So! Tell me about the alien mayor.”

She stood up and smirked beneath her hood, “Following a prophecy, are ye? Heh. And you thought I was crazy. Let me tell you. This man, or non-man, he uses the people like puppets. He has powers beyond comprehension. He and his crew. The man himself looks fairly normal but his assistants are quite the lookers. Not human at all. The people of this city are like zombies. They follow his every command when the fog grows thick.”

“And you say this guy is in that building there? Right now?”

She nodded, “He hasn’t emerged for days now. Ever since the buildings changed, it’s like he’s in there, maybe too busy doing the weird shit to the buildings.”

Then, she tickled my heart. She grabbed my hands and said, “Let’s go then, Guhya! My name is Lily.”

Pandora winced, “Hey! Why are you grabbing him like that??”

Lily backed off and said, “Sheesh! Fine then. You can have him.”

I grabbed Pandora’s hand.

“How did you know my name??” I asked.

Lily giggled, “Oh, come on, your famous, duh!”

Pandora commented, “This is weird, Guhya. I don’t like this.”

I reassured her, “It should be fine. This seems fun. Let’s go with it.”

“You are always playing with fire. But if it goes wrong, just consider all the pain you’ve already been through. You get your special second chances, but you know… it’s going to hurt if it goes wrong again.”

Lily intruded, “Nice! I must be the fire you’re playing with. Sounds hot.”

Pandora grew more uncomfortable.

Lily put her hand on Pandora’s shoulder and said, “Don’t worry! I’m not so bad. A little odd but just go easy on me for a bit.”

Pandora was still uneasy.

Lily grabbed Pandora’s hand and locked pinkies with her, “Look! I promise I won’t steal your man, okay?”

Pandora blushed, “That’s not…”

“Oh, come on! Don’t be ashamed. Jealousy is just a sign of your love.”

I said, “That’s not going to happen, even if you tried Lily. I’m sticking with Pandora.”

Lily softly touched my hand, “Yeah! You see Pandora? It’s going to be fine.”

Arezo said, “Are you sure about this, Guhya?”

“No, but I think we can handle whatever comes at us. We won’t lose.”

Pax said, “That kind of attitude is real naive man. But I guess that’s how you met us too!” He laughed.

I replied, “And Pandora, and Arezo, and Gadi. You see? My judgment ain’t so bad!” I wasn’t sure why I was so fine with this, but somehow, I trusted her. Plus, what could a mere human do?

Gadi was faced away, silently staring out.

I went up to him, “Hey! Gadi! What’s up? Are you fine if Lily comes with us?”

Gadi said, “While we’re here, the prophecy doesn’t track. The city is too altered. I accept your proposal for this new woman, but I can’t help much with what lies in the future. I’m sorry Guhya.”

I put my hand on his shoulder, “Aw, don’t worry Gadi. We already strayed more than once now. Sometimes you seemed to forget about it too. Like your mind is just fed an updated version of the prophecy. We will make it through this.”

Still nervous, he said, “Is that so? It’s concerning but maybe it’s better that way. Then at least I can see more futures than one. We should follow the map, even if things are weird. We need to get to the top of the tower here. That’s where the entrance to the Gnostic Aetherium is.”

I nodded and smiled at him. Even if his memories were out of wack, he was still handling this far better than the first time. He still changed and grew.

Lily excitedly said, “Come on everyone! It’s time to fight the aliens and take back our city!”

“Do you really believe in the alien stuff?” I asked.

She just laughed and said, “Let’s go.” Then she ran towards the strangely shaped tower.

We all followed.

She ran up to the front desk, slammed her hands on the table, and demanded, “Take us to your leader.”

The receptionist woman gave her a disgusted look and said, “Not you again. You need to leave.” Then, she saw the rest of us walking up, “Oh! We’ve been awaiting you. The mayor is busy at the moment but sit down and wait for 15 minutes or so, he should be out of his meeting by then.”

“Huh?” I said.

The receptionist said, “You wish to reach the top of the tower, is that correct? The mayor can help you with this. Just have a seat and I’ll call you once he’s ready.”

We all sat in the chairs in the waiting area.

Arezo commented, “It’s weird that they expect us, right?”

I replied, “Yeah…”

Lily grabbed Arezo’s arm and excitedly said, “Arezo, you are so cool! You like Zaza don’t you?”

Arezo nervously responded, “Well… yes…”

I locked arms with Pandora. The smell of her blood had burned into my head. The softness of her frightened voice echoed in my mind. I couldn’t shake the intrusive memories of her murder.

Pandora shook me out of my trance, “Guhya? Are you alright? Is it remorse?”

I flinched, “Is it that obvious?”

“Our brains are connected you know.” She smiled.

A tear dropped from my face, “In the last timeline… I killed you. I had to. It still hurts too much.”

She began kissing me, “It’s alright.”

“You said that before too…”

She looked down, “You had to do it so you could feel enough regret to return, right?”

“Yea…” I replied.

“I’ve been thinking about this for a while. I thought it might come to this. So… I want you to know, if you need to do it again… you have my permission.”

I winced, “No… I don’t want to.”

“That’s good, right? Then it will work. It’s not like I’ll be gone. You’ll return and I’ll still be here.”

I grabbed her face and kissed her more passionately, our tongues rubbing against each other. It helped escape from the pain of truth, more effectively than Arezo’s private virtual reality.

Suddenly, Lily sparked a flame from her lighter and lit a cigarette inside the waiting room. She turned to Arezo and offered, “It’s Zaza! Want some?” she said, smiling.

Arezo nervously laughed, “No, no, not here. Don’t get me wrong, I love Zaza. This is just a bit awkward!”

Lily replied, “I knew you were too much of a goodie! Hah!” She put both cigarettes in her mouth and inhaled deeply, “I guess I’ll just smoke both!”

The receptionist glared at Lily, “What in the hell are you doing??”

Suddenly, a woman pounded on the windows of the building and screams came from elsewhere in the streets. The flickering ghosts surrounded the woman as she pleaded for help.

The receptionist turned to me and announced, “Sir! Mr. Truman is ready for you now. Please follow me to the final floor.”

I turned back to the window, but the frightened woman had left. The outside world was eerily silent. Then, it hit me: the receptionist said Truman. Could it be?

The receptionist escorted us through the building, “It’s going to be the 13th floor.”

Lily happily smoked away, with total smug, as if to taunt the receptionist. “Mm… feels so good.”

Loneliness filled the halls. Something seemed off.

The receptionist vanished.

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