I yelled, “What the fuck! What the fuck!! Why?!” This time, the reset hurt. All of our bonding was erased forever.
Arezo and Pandora looked shocked. Pandora asked, “Guhya?? What’s wrong?”
I ignored her and went right to Arezo, “In about 3 minutes, we are going to encounter the Lost Ones again. Your little brother is among them. It’s going to be deeply upsetting for you.”
She replied, “But how could you know that??”
Pandora just watched, as if she understood. Of course, she did.
Gadi looked exceedingly concerned.
I continued, “It’s worse. Tonight, you will die Pandora. I don’t know how, but I’m going to stop it. Whatever it takes! But I need both of you to follow my instructions carefully.”
Gadi interrupted, “What have you done, Guhya?!”
“I’ll explain that part later. For now, all of you need to listen.”
Gadi quickly replied, “No Guhya! What the hell is going on?? This isn’t supposed to happen! Never. Never! Never!! You must have abandoned your path to fate. How? What have you done??”
I grabbed Arezo and demanded, “Freeze time now.”
It was done. Everyone except Arezo and I was frozen in time and space. She asked, “Guhya… this is pretty concerning. What’s going on exactly?”
“Can you bring Pandora in as well?” I asked.
She nodded and Pandora’s body began animating again.
I began to explain, “Thank you. Both of you, look, here’s what’s going on. I came back in time after connecting to the Psychonet. I don’t fully understand how it works, but I keep coming back to the same point in time. It seems to be triggered when I become really upset.”
Both of them just watched in captivation.
I continued, “We don’t have a lot of time. I need to figure out who is planning to murder Pandora,” I said. I explained the whole situation again, remembering the fog this time, “So, we only have a little bit of time before the fog sets in.”
Arezo suggested, “I could generate masks that filter out the fog.”
I replied excitedly, “You’re a genius Arezo!”
I rushed over to Pandora, “I already found out who you are. I’ll explain all of that later. In our last timeline… we bonded a lot.”
Rather than speak, I just grabbed her face and started kissing her.
She blushed, “Oh, Guhya.”
Per my request, the movement of time was restored.
Gadi was flustered, “Guhya, explain now. We are too close to the fated encounter.”
I replied, “I’ve already encountered fate.”
He said, “No. No you haven’t.”
I stood my ground, “I connected to the Psychonet already. I can explain later, but we need to move now. We still must fall in alignment with the fated encounter.”
He replied, “This is really bad, but if you insist. As long as we stay on track with the prophecy then I concede to you.”
“Perfect!” I exclaimed.
Pax began his usual script, “Well, well! Guhya! You must have decided to join our crusade against the devil, Vaeda, am I right?”
Still bitter about what happened before, I said, “Yeah!”
Everyone in sync said, “Huh?!”
I laid out Pax’s plan before him, “Let’s just go with this for now. Pax, the rest of you, let’s team up in Xanadu and we will figure it out as we go!”
Pax seemed greatly concerned, “What’s up with you, Guhya? I’m suspicious now.”
Archie stepped forward. Arezo gasped and then shouted, “Archie?! What are you doing with them?!”
Archie said, “Arezo??”
She ran towards him and hugged him, “Where have you been all this time??”
Gadi grabbed my arm, “I don’t know what you are up to, but this isn’t good.”
Then, I realized: Vaeda wasn’t initiating the meeting. But why??
I replied, “How easy is it to stray from destiny, do you think?”
Bothered, he said, “Well, we are already way off course.”
I cut to the point, “I don’t think the map leads us to the Outside.”
Astonished, he replied, “What?? How could you know such a supposed truth?”
I danced around the answer, “We can’t get into this yet, but I promise I will. We will stay on track with the map and tomorrow, I will explain.” If he figured it out, we’d sink a bunch of time as he tried to process it.
Gadi was increasingly disturbed, “Ugh… fine then. But I’ll still be making sure we follow our fate.”
I praised him like a puppy, “Good Gadi! I knew I could count on you.”
He wasn’t very amused.
Archie’s words drew me in, as he said something unbelievable.
Archie spoke without much feeling, “I’m still plugged into the Psychonet.”
Arezo cried, “But how is that possible?!”
Seriously. What the fuck was that supposed to mean??
Archie looked down at the ground, “As I accessed the Psychonet, I was shown… the future, in essence. That’s… what I sought from the thing.”
I demanded explanation, “But how can you still be in the Psychonet?? That makes no sense at all.”
Archie continued, “The thing is… the need for consciousness, it exists so that we can experience and decide our choices. It’s so we can observe our reality and act in accordance with what we want. But, once we get that, the feeling fades away. We no longer need to feel or see or hear. We no longer need to be at all.”
“Still not making sense here,” I said.
Archie turned to me, “Have you heard of p-zombies?”
“A little…” I replied.
Archie said, “I believe I could be one. There is a way to test this.”
Gadi asked, “What is a p-zombie?”
Archie explained, “A p-zombie, or philosophical zombie, is a creature that appears conscious, but on the inside… it’s dead. For me, deciding… became obsolete. At the moment of accessing the Psychonet, I realized I could decide all future choices from that point on. Like learning to walk. We walk to reach some desire, food or our parents’ gratification. Each muscle we move requires a choice at first. But at some point, we walk in total dissociation, paying no attention to our body. Numb to our choices. As I said, a script.”
He rubbed his chin, “If deciding becomes obsolete… then I suspect consciousness itself may become too. Though, I can never be sure.”
Arezo’s crying intensified.
I asked, “So, you think you are just acting out scripts, dead inside?”
After hesitating, he replied, “There is one way to know for sure.”
Arezo asked desperately, “How?!”
Archie’s soulless gaze faced Arezo, “These words, I came up with them just now, inside of the Psychonet. If you hear these words coming from my mouth, then… it means I’m already dead. However, if I’m conscious, I’ll choose to say something else.” He looked up at the sky, “And I’ll never know if I became a p-zombie.”
My heart sank. He had sent a message in a bottle to his future self. One that he could never open. Only the rest of us would know what happened to him. He was a corpse.
Pax said, “You are a fucking p-zombie! I’m sick of telling you this!”
Archie replied, “That may seem so, but again, I’m still in the Psychonet. This is merely a vision of the future. Only you could know for sure. To me, you are simply acting out your scripted words.”
Now Arezo’s state made sense. Vaeda’s experiment on the Lost Ones was horrifying, sickening even. Yet, we had no time to grieve. Still, I didn’t feel right ushering everyone, so I let it sit for a minute.
After comforting Arezo the right way, we headed into Xanadu. I said, “Put on your mask now, Pandora.”
Archie asked, “Why are you doing that?”
I said, “There’s a fog that affects humans mostly. It blocks out our memories.”
“I see,” he said.
Pax remarked, “You seem to know a lot about this place. It’s sus.”
I ran up and put my arm around him and asked, “Hey! Could you come with me for a little bit? There’s some stuff I’ve been meaning to ask you.”
In the most ‘huh??’ attitude possible, he said, “Uh sure… I guess.”
After moving away from everyone else, I began my interrogation, “How do you feel about Pandora??”
“I don’t know who she is. Why??” he asked.
I dropped the bomb, “She’s been called Echo.”
Now he was surprised, “Why are you with her?!”
“Why do you fear her?” I returned.
Looking nervously to the side, he answered, “I’ve heard she’s out to kill us.”
Dismissively, I said, “That’s bullshit. Do you know what she is?”
He answered my quiz, “A time traveler. In the previous timeline, she murdered us.”
That was unexpected but it also felt true. I asked, “…Why?”
“I don’t know. Hey! Why are you asking me all this?? Are you going to help her??” he said, growing impatient.
In a threatening tone, I asked, “Are you going to kill her?”
He crossed his arms and gave a smug smile, “Only if she tries first.”
I replied, “She won’t, I assure you.”
“Then there’s no problem. But can you really guarantee that??” he asked.
In serious plead and threat, I said, “You are my prime suspect right now. I need to talk to Emory next. Just don’t hurt Pandora and we will be fine. If you hurt her, I’ll kill you myself. And if we are good, I’ll help you deal with Vaeda.”
He responded to my proposal, “Oh, will you? Well, that’s a nice thought. I’ll try to refrain from any murderous rage then.”
“This isn’t funny,” I said.
Finally, he mirrored my gravity, “Okay, I get it. I promise I won’t kill her. Just promise me she won’t kill us. I won’t let my guard down either. The stakes are too high.”
I ran to grab the next suspect, Emory. “Can we talk?”
He replied, “If you really want to.”
We walked away from everyone else. As we stopped, he crossed his arms and said, “What do you think will come from talking to me?”
I confessed straight, “Pandora is on track to be murdered tonight. I’m trying to stop this. You are the next suspect in line.”
He gave a most shocking and cold response, “What does it matter if she dies?”
Irate, I said, “Shut the fuck up. Are you serious right now??”
His condescension continued, “Take it easy. So, you think I will murder Pandora? That’s nonsense. It makes no difference if she lives or dies.”
“Of course it does! To me at least! Goddamn, what’s with your attitude??” I asked.
He denied it, “It’s not an attitude. You cling to some trace of meaning in your fragile life. It’s the only thing keeping you alive. It makes sense. I’m already dead. It is quite unrelatable. You are just deluded. Though, there is some fictitious beauty in that.”
This wasn’t going anywhere. But suddenly, I was. The world twisted. The portal opened and dragged me in. The meeting was over an hour late. What about this timeline could have changed Vaeda’s timing so drastically?
As I picked myself up off the floor, Vaeda looked at me with amusement.
She greeted me, “Well isn’t this interesting?”
My interrogating attitude continued on, “It is. I suspect you know more than you let on.”
“Oh?” she asked.
“Weren’t you going to meet with me over an hour ago??” I questioned.
“Why would you think that?” She giggled.
“Are you trying to kill Pandora??” I accused.
She designed a hopeful rationale, “That isn’t the intention. Whatever you are going through, it’s only a stepping stone in the larger picture. I would say not to take it to heart, but that wouldn’t do of course. Your heart is the key to your newfound ability.”
My body jumped, “So, you do know!”
“Well duh! You connected to the Psychonet. Most common information within the Psychonet relays back to me. And… there is a nifty device I’ll show you. Come.”
She walked over to a panel, “This allows me to enter information into the Psychonet, like sticky notes. If I have a hunch that something is occurring outside of this timeline, I can enter notes and inject them into the Psychonet. On the other end, I can receive notes, in a nearly timeless fashion.”
Growing distraught, I asked, “What are you doing here!? What is your end goal!?”
She consoled me, “Relax, Guhya. I’m not your enemy. If I was, you’d be far more fucked than you could imagine. Look. I know it hurts. I know you distrust the prophecy right about now, but it is in both of our best interests that you continue down this path. You’ll be able to save Pandora with enough will to do so. Consider it merely an exercise of your new power. Unfortunately, you are the Aeon of Regret. Your power is bound to pain. That’s not something I can fix.”
Bitter, I said, “Is this what you dream of for the future of this world? Am I the epitome of the power you wish to protect in this world? Because this is fucked up.”
She was taken aback, then collected herself, “Just give it some time. Your power may be contingent on pain, but it is also the solution to that pain. Would you really rather allow Pandora to die instead? You are a coward if so.”
My posture weakened, “If you are finished, send me back. I need to work on saving her now.”
She gave a hopeful smile, “You are strong Guhya. One of the strongest. Our connection is tumultuous, though I really do care for you. I know that I’m very peculiar in your eyes, but I hope that you can take me as an ally. Truth and reality are hard to bear. Both you and I have an immense responsibility in this world, I more than you.”
I said nothing back.
“Good luck and goodbye!” She waved me out.
The swirling space hole dragged me through, but this time, I didn’t seem to land somewhere. Pure blackness encompassed all. I felt a floor but didn’t see it. I saw my body, but nothing else. Far above, boiling black clouds bubbled about.
What happened? Was I stuck in between worlds?
I called out, “Pandora! Arezo! Gadi?!”
My own voice returned, but distorted, deeper, higher, a whole cacophony of phonies spoke my words back at me. The faintest glimpse of colorful motion spazzed around as if to illuminate those voices.
Frantically, I ran through the garden of void. Each stamp irradiated in a variety of colors that faded as fast as they were birthed. Pulsing echoes of each pounce of my foot slamming into the “ground” produced visible traces of warped space.
There was no time for this ominous bullshit. I still needed to investigate Archie. If it was him, it was the worst-case scenario, considering his connection to Arezo.
My sprint halted at the first sight of life: a human girl, sitting cross-legged, facing away.
“Hey!” I yelled.
“Hey. Hey? Hey! Hey?! Hey?? Hey!!” The alien echoes replied, growing deeper and slower with each iteration. Most unrecognizable to my own voice.
As I summoned myself before the queen of the void, her gaze met mine. It was… Sophy.
I said, “We must be in the Playground of Gods.”
Giggles and laughter surrounded us. An eerie choir in the void replied, “Clever one.”
“Sophy. Are you creating this?” I asked.
For the first time, she spoke, in a whisper, “It was the prophet.”
“What?” I said, before processing what occurred.
My body trembled. She wasn’t a zombie. In fact, the furthest from it. The rest of us were the zombies. “You… you see everything, don’t you?”
She responded with a single tear, acknowledging my acknowledgment of her still persisting mind.
She muttered only four measly words, yet it revealed everything. She solved it! It was Gadi. Gadi was the murderer. Sophy saw from all timelines. She saw everything.
I hugged her, brought her up to dance with me, and exclaimed, “Woohoo!! You did it Sophy! You really did it!”
As we spun in circles, the void sprouted flowers around our feet. It spread, contagiously consuming the bleakness.
She continued to play dead.
Finally, the void receded. Everyone else looked upon us as we stood frozen in mid-dance.
Pax yelled, “Hey, freak! Get away from her!!”
I let her go, excitedly raised my arms in the air, and announced the discovery, “I’ve realized who the traitor is! More aptly, Sophy realized it.”
Gadi already looked nervous.
I pointed towards him, “It was- err will be you Gadi! You are the murderer.”
Everyone gasped, except Gadi. He just stood there, looking defeated.
Pax demanded answers, “How is Sophy involved??”
I explained, “While in her created void world, Sophy muttered 4 words: ‘it was the prophet’, referring to Gadi. What did she mean? She meant that she saw the murder… before it happened.”
Pandora and Arezo were most shocked.
Pax looked at me like I was crazy, “This still doesn’t make sense, dude.”
More ecstatically, I said, “Sophy isn’t brain dead at all. Not even a bit. She has seen everything. I think that’s why she is broken. I’ve been returning, back in time, trying to prevent Pandora’s murder and she solved it before it took place.”
Pax said, “You are basing this off of specul-“
Gadi came forward and yelled out, “I have no choice!! The prophecy demands it. It’s a cruel necessary step if we mean to reach the Outside.”
Pandora moved further away from Gadi.
Arezo held her arm, as if to protect.
I said, “The prophecy is fake. I discovered your past, Gadi. You won’t like this, but you are just a puppet of Vaeda’s.”
His face was in anguish.
I continued, “The thing is, Vaeda doesn’t want to reach the Outside. So, she has gifted you the prophecy, hoping we would follow it, for her agenda, ultimately.”
“This… can’t be true. I have no reason to doubt you, but my mind begs me to. My whole life is nothing. A lie. Deceit. I’m dead inside. My mind is empty, only full of null lies. I’m a hoax.” He started walking away.
“Gadi, wait!” I called out.
He ignored me.
I ran ahead and grabbed him, “You can’t just leave us like that!! After all we’ve been through!!”
“What does it matter? I’m no use now. I have no soul. I’m just a robot slave puppet, here to lead you into someone else’s trap,” he continued walking off again.
“It’s not true, you are our friend!! Plus, I don’t think you are entirely useless,” I consoled him.
His tone shifted away from mope, “I’ve figured it out. If we continue on the path of the prophecy, we’d still have my insights into the future.”
“I know it hurts but what I’m saying is that following the prophecy might lead us into danger. It’s Vaeda’s prophecy.”
He clarified, “No, no. You see, we can simply fake the encounters when necessary, staying on track with the prophecy in its most hollow outline. Then, my insights into the tedious events of time will protect us and ensure that we go at least as far as the map takes us.”
“I see what you mean now! I read something like that in Vaeda’s place. She said that destiny can be changed, but following a particular path makes it easier to be prepared,” I said.
He started trembling and writhing. His hands were on his head, as if he were embracing some deep pain.
“Gadi?!” I yelled.
After a few more seconds, he stopped and answered, “It’s changed again.” He brought his head up, in confidence, “The prophecy is anew again!! No longer must we sacrifice our wonderful Pandora! Her death has been rewritten!”
Was this of Vaeda’s doing? Would she change the prophecy?? Nervously, I asked, “Any idea what made it change? Do you think Vaeda is watching us?”
He grew concerned as well, “Hm… that is a good question. I simply have no idea.”
I rushed in and hugged Gadi, “We did it!! We saved Pandora and now we don’t even need to kill her to continue our path of the prophecy!!”
Pandora and Arezo joined while the Lost Ones kind of just watched.
In the deepest part of my heart, I knew the journey would only get more harrowing from here on out. I couldn’t see the future like Gadi, but I could see a past that intensified leading up to the now. We still didn’t have a clue about how to reach the Outside. Those who were most helpless counted on us. Those in the village counted on us. I’m sure Riyon and Evelyn counted on us.
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