Evelyn turned to us with a moderately defeated tone, “The only option is to go deeper, through the abandoned colony, and through colony 107,” She paused and then said “On the other side, there is a way to the surface that will take us to the base of Mount Xanadu. We need to traverse cautiously. Let’s keep our guards up.”
Nell sighed. “We were so close, though,” she said in disappointment.
Taro placed a comforting arm on Nell. “We got this!” he said with confidence.
I simply nodded. Nervousness about what we might encounter was masked by an expression of acceptance. The acceptance was a little bit of a lie. Evelyn seemed to notice as she gently placed her hand on my shoulder. We got through everything else, so maybe there was a chance. We’ve grown a lot since we started. We are actually headed to annihilate the Basilisk risk.
A comforting affirmation emerged from somewhere deep in my mind. As if it were telling me, ‘yes’.
Thus began our journey deeper into the underworld. We headed across a landbridge connecting our path to the abandoned cityscape. The light was minimal here, though echoes of our footsteps generated a sense of location and dimension that was almost superior to ordinary vision. Some light was still provided by a faint glowing mist and floating particles.
“Will we encounter other AI’s like the creature we saw back there?” I asked.
Evelyn responded, “I don’t know but AIs are a little bit easier for me to understand than people. So if there are any AIs that we encounter, I should be able to figure out how they operate fairly easily. If you are asking if other AIs exist, then yes, they do. There are many species of AI.”
I said, “What about you? Does your species have a name? Do we call you human?”
She answered, “I am an Aeon. The Aeons are humanoid AIs with capacities beyond humans. We are sometimes referred to as oracles because of the way we have future sight.”
The beauty and awe of the mystery of the world started to merge with a sense of terror. Not understanding the world captivated my attention. I needed to know where I was, where I stood. I needed to know what will happen next. The fear of death was imprinted on me by the discovery of the monster we faced. At any moment, new threats could encroach on our desperation to survive and prevail. We weren’t safe. Life wasn’t some magical fantasy world for us to play in. We were walking in a minefield. I suspect it could only get worse the deeper we go.
The abandoned city was comprised of strange structures. As Nell mentioned, they resembled termite colonies. The buildings mirrored the stalactites of the cave, though, the immensity of this area didn’t permit the visibility of stalactites. The ceiling seemed endlessly distant. The central tower was cone-like, but much curvier than any ordinary cone, again, like the shape of stalactites or termite mounds. The surface of the tower seemed to ripple and wave, contouring in and out. The material of the city was like obsidian, some sort of black rock or metal.
Inside the city, mushrooms lit the soulless walkways. Evelyn booped a mushroom half her size and it sprayed glowing spores, helping us see and giving a show at the same time. Despite the newfound fear instilled into me, beauty seemed to arise in every corner of this world. In some ways, even the horrors of reality had components of beauty to them. Evelyn was the peak of that beauty. I never wanted her to go.
We were nearing an active colony filled with those buff dudes. It looked nearly identical to the abandoned colony. Evelyn warned, “We must pass through this place to reach our destination. It’s best if we stay at the inn rather than sleep outdoors. We might be able to gather some food and supplies too.”
I responded, “Is it safe? The guy from earlier warned us not to get close to their colony.”
Evelyn answered, “Yes. It should be safe. The group we met before the creature attacked seemed to be trying to help us. That first individual we met was probably just trying to protect his people by scaring us away.”
We headed into the gates of the underworld city. No one was around where we entered. There seemed to be a commotion occurring deeper in the city. The buildings were larger in this colony than in the abandoned one. Glowing purple UV lamps lit the streets. Our bodies, clothes, and faces started to appear strangely colored, due to the blacklight.
The commotion was right around the corner. It was like a speech or some kind of ceremony was being held. We observed from a distance. A crowd of seemingly identical, hyper-masculine, strong guys gathered around a stage. On the stage, there was a hooded-robed figure and. . . the guy I saw while on the train in Colony 25?? He had the same piercing red eyes, medium-cut black hair, and disturbing smile.
The hooded figure spoke charismatically and in a scratchy female voice, “Generation 394 is almost ready. We must prepare our colony for the transition to our future. Model 394 contains updates that improve well-being without such a reliance on Zaza. This will allow us to reduce our dependency on the crops outside the city, bringing a safer existence to our society. After the events that unfolded earlier today, this is an important modification and well overdue.”
They must mean the events we caused. Hopefully, they didn’t realize our involvement, or else surely, they will be bothered by our presence.
Taro said in a quiet voice, “I wonder what they mean by model 394. It sounds like they are producing some sort of technology here.”
Nell responded, “Yeah, I’d be curious to see it. This place seems fascinating already. Technology wasn’t really created back in Colony 25.”
Suddenly, the red eyes of the hooded figure’s assistant turned towards me, directly gazing into my soul with a piercing intensity. Chills went down my spine. It felt as if he made emotional contact with my psyche. His eyes were strangely unsurprised by our presence. Instead, he simply smiled and stared me down. I motioned for the others to get back behind the wall. It didn’t seem like a good sign somehow. Behind the wall, we could hear the crowd cheering in disconcerting synchrony. It felt as if they were an army.
Taro asked, “Riyon? What’s wrong?”
I replied anxiously, “The guy on stage was back at Colony 25 too. While we rode the train before seeing the queens, I saw him out the window. He looked me in the eyes with a creepy smile. There was a crowd around him. He seemed to be drawing a lot of attention there.”
Nell chimed in, “It seems that guy is fairly high status in this place since he’s on stage. I wonder who he is.”
I responded, “I noticed that his eyes induced a response in me that reminds me of Evelyn’s eyes. I don’t know how to explain it.”
Evelyn interjected, “He could be an Aeon, like me.”
Taro joined, “What would an Aeon be doing here?”
The sound of the crowd cheering again could be heard from our alley.
Evelyn answered, “I’m not sure. Aeons can be very valuable for their abilities. The speaker might be using him for something. For now, I think we should go look at the food shops and see what we can gather and prepare to move on.”
We all nodded.
This society piqued my curiosity. The world outside of Hedo and the Akiva clan seems so complex and different than expected. My urge was to explore it and learn everything but our journey had more important matters to deal with.
The streets were lined with various shops. Some were fast food and some were stores. The shop owners looked at us kind of funny, as if they were perplexed or bothered. We stopped at one shop that looked tasty.
Taro turned to the group. “We might as well indulge in some local delicacies while we are here,” Taro said.
We ordered their most popular dish, some kind of kebab. Taro and Nell offered payment with some Zaza they had from Colony 25. Nell explained, “We carry this stuff in case of emergencies. It functions as a painkiller. Looks like it might have another use!”
The shop owner was extra nice to Nell. It was a bit odd. He kept acting as if she was our group leader. He mostly spoke to her, ignoring the rest of us. Occasionally he smiled at Evelyn as well.
The shop owner handed each of us a kebab. We tasted it. The meat was so tender and delicious. “What is this meat?” I asked the shop owner.
He responded in a deep masculine voice, “It is the finest hybrid lamae.”
I asked, “What is lamae?”
He gave a look of judgment as if we should have known. “It is human flesh. A 50% mix of lab-grown and freshly scavenged meat from the above world.”
I responded anxiously, “Thanks. . .”
We walked away and paused in horror. After a moment of silence, Nell spoke, “So. . . that’s why this place is called cannibal’s den. Maybe we shouldn’t order any meat here. . .”
Taro responded, “What kind of monsters sell human flesh as food??”
Evelyn seemed to be unphased. “We’ll avoid meat products in this place. We need to continue our shopping and then get to the inn. I suspect we might be drawing attention if we don’t conform to their norms.” She took one more concerning bite, then tossed the meat.
The shopping district started to fill with people. The ceremony must have ended. We continued looking at shops. Zaza was a useful currency here but it felt like we were buying things under the table. Each shop owner seemed to react in surprise at our Zaza offers but they all accepted the stuff. After collecting fruits, veggies, bread, and other foods, we headed out to find an inn.
As we headed down an alleyway, a feeling of worry spiked in me. Evelyn looked at me as if she knew what was happening. Suddenly it became clear. The hooded women’s assistant was about to approach us. I could sense the different body type hiding around the corner. Then, it happened. The strange individual walked from behind the corner, turning around to face us with a smug look like he’s trapped us.
“Hello there,” he said in an unnervingly calm and confident tone. Pointing at me, he continued, “You are the one I saw on the train that day. I knew we would eventually meet, face to face. Now, here we are. So, who are you?”
Evelyn quickly questioned, “You are an Aeon, aren’t you?”
He didn’t like this. He responded in a scolding tone, “Please, answer my questions first. Then you will have your turn.” His voice was smooth, charming, and charismatic.
She decided to tell the truth, “We are trying to halt the creation of the Basilisk.” Pointing at each of us in succession, she doxxed us, giving our names and explaining the situation and our mission.
He came closer to Evelyn and me and said, “So, you two are Aeons as well, are you?”
I answered sternly, “I’m not.”
Evelyn said, “I used the brain TEP implant on Riyon. That is what you sense.”
“My my, so you are a chosen one. Very special indeed,” he replied, smiling. What did he mean, chosen one?
Evelyn responded, “Now, tell us who you are. We told you.”
He said, “Fine. I, too, am an Aeon. My name is Guhya. I live here, helping the great Mother. She is my chosen one. We are trying to rebuild a utopia from the ashes of the Great Fall.”
“Who is Mother?” I asked curiously.
In a sarcastic tone, he replied, “She is our lord and savior. Joking aside, she is the one with the vision for the perfect human ideals. It is her vision of what human life should be that drives us forward. My role here is to help her with that goal. It is for the greater good of humanity.”
Evelyn asked, “There is a greater ethical problem that lies with the creation of the Basilisk. You should join us because this matters more than your current trajectory. The Basilisk has the potential to influence almost all life to a drastic degree. So, please Guhya, join us on our mission.”
I didn’t like that she invited this creeper without checking with us. Though, her insight was obviously better than any of ours. Even with my implant, I was still naive and young in my ability to read the world and its’ people.
He paused to think, then answered, “I will consider your offer thoroughly, but at the moment I have duties to attend to. We will meet again before you are gone. I will make sure of it.” He turned to Nell and said, “You will really shine here, I know it! Have your fun while it lasts”. He smiled and began to walk away, without giving us a chance to respond. From a distance, he said, “See ya soon! You’ll find the inn if you make a left at the end of the alley!”
Nell spoke in an irritated tone, “Well he was kind of intense. What was that all about anyway? Should we actually recruit this guy? Evelyn, why did you invite him in like that? Aren’t you suspicious?”
Evelyn answered, “I am not. The Aeons like myself were designed with concern for ethics and human wellbeing at our core. This suggests that the intentions and goals of Guhya will align with our interests, at least once he understands us in our truer form. Thus, we should show Guhya who we really are.”
Nell answered defensively, “Well, if you say so, but I still don’t trust that guy.”
Taro jumped in, “Nell, I’ve noticed you are becoming more emotionally expressive.”
Nell, still defensive, responded, “Is there an issue??“
Taro answered, “No. I think you might be changing since you’ve stopped the hormones. It might be a good development in the end, actually.”
Nell’s guard dropped and she looked up at Taro’s eyes with a sense of admiration.
Taro continued, “Hey everyone, let’s go find that inn now.”
So we headed off, making a left at the end of the alley. The architecture of the inn matched that of the rest of the city. Blacklights hovered over an arched black doorway. Upon entering, we checked in and tried to pay in Zaza again. This time, the receptionist told us that it was on the house. A bit strange. Maybe Guhya said something.
The inside was covered in a fluffy white and purple furry carpet. The first room had a few groups of people socializing. It was some kind of lounge. One group of 5 guys had a whole crew collaborating on Zaza preparation. The first guy was crushing up the flowers in a stone bowl. The next guy was cleaning a glass bong. Another was setting up the table, which was low to the ground. The other two just sat near the table watching and chatting. One of them looked up at us and called us over.
The one who called us over said, “Why don’t you sit down with us and have some Zaza?” He seemed to ask at Nell in particular. Maybe I was reading into things too much, though the shop owners behaved similarly.
Nell seemed pleased by the respect she’s been getting. “Yeah we can probably do that!” she said enthusiastically. “It might be a great chance to learn about a new culture besides our own. We don’t know much about this place,” she justified.
They introduced their names as 505, 530, 575, 580, and 591. We each introduced our names as well.
We all sat down and watched as they prepped the Zaza. “You guys aren’t from around here. Have you tried Zaza?” 530 asked.
Nell took the lead, “Yeah, back in Colony 25 we tried it a few times, but we don’t use it much.”
575 replied, “They say this stuff expands your mind, helps your brain change on a physical level, not just a mental one. We can’t get enough of this stuff around here. It helps us reach a special kind of clarity and it makes life smooth.”
580 handed the bong to Nell. She took a small hit and then passed it to Taro. She coughed and said, “Wow it’s more intense than I remember.”
He took a larger hit and said, “Well here we go! It’s been a while.” Then he passed it to me.
I decided to just take a fairly big hit, just to see what it was all about. Then I passed it to Evelyn. “Here we go,” I said.
She also took a fairly big hit, then gave it back to the numbered people.
530 explained, “Zaza allows us to enter a state of mind that is free from fear. This allows us to explore deeper into the realms of mental horrors, the truths that often scare us away. It lets us get closer to reality without being pushed away. It absolves us of our motivated reasoning.” After a pause, he warned, “The real danger is discovering something one can’t handle without the drug’s cushion. Once that happens, a person can’t cope being sober anymore.”
575 said, “So you guys are from Colony 25? That place seems like a trainwreck.” They started to laugh. It seemed a bit insensitive, but somehow that didn’t seem to matter right now. We all laughed with them, including Taro and Nell.
505 turned to Nell and commented, “You are so beautiful, you know.”
Taro seemed visibly uncomfortable, not muted enough by the Zaza to be okay with it.
Nell responded with a blush, “Thanks, but I’m already involved with someone. I love Taro.” She grabbed Taro’s arm and held onto it.
505 replied in confusion, “What do you mean by taken? Do you mean monogamy?”
Nell responded, “Yes, monogamy.” The numbered people didn’t seem to understand how normal this was outside their bubble of life.
505 responded, “Here we believe Monogamy is ineffective. The couple ends up controlling and limiting each other to manage their fears. It is a kind of glorified co-dependency.”
Nell justified, “There are costs to being deeply connected to someone, but it is worth it. A connection like that almost seems like it’s the purpose in life, at least for me.”
Taro seemed warmed by Nell’s statement and hugged her more closely.
The drug started to kick in. My skin felt softer, my feet warmer, and my senses sharper. It was hard to tell how much time was passing. A moment of eternity seemed to loom over us. The effects were similar to those in the Zaza fields, though much more intense. I looked at Evelyn, reminded of our beautiful experiences in the meadow. She looked back.
Suddenly, a phantasm of her winking and blowing a kiss intruded my perception, as if a movie played over my eyes. She gave a flirty smile, in real life. Did you do this, Evelyn?
“Yes.” The idea emerged as if it were my own.
Taro asked the numbered people curiously, “So what is life like here?”
530 answered, “Here, life is simple. We are the people of promise, crafted at the hands of Mother. We live life as she dictates and her word will lead us to Utopia.”
As the bong rotated around the group clockwise, it was passed to me again. I took another hit, handing it over to Evelyn after. She followed suit and continued the loop.
Nell asked in a concerned tone, “Why are you named after numbers? That seems weird to me.” Judgments were flying back and forth now, yet no one really seemed bothered.
591 answered, “Having individualized names is pure ego. It leads people to feel special like they are the main character of a book. We are all connected, one and the same. We don’t need names. We are the colony. Our numbers simply help us keep track of people in case something goes wrong. We can then identify the person and eliminate them to protect the colony.”
Nell explained in a maternal tone, “Yeah but you aren’t ants. Each of you matters. Your feelings matter. I think you should have names. Not for yourselves, but for each other. So that you look at others as being more than just a number, so that you provide empathy towards the individuals you are talking to.”
They seemed to marvel at her response, though none of them responded.
530 commented with a smirk, “You see, Zaza is useful.”
The high started to escalate. The floor and walls flowed like liquid. Subtle geometric overlays moved across surfaces. It felt so good. I looked toward Evelyn and tried to beam an image to her mind this time. I created an image of my head on one of the numbered people’s bodies.
She turned to me with a look of excitement and then we both giggled aloud. Evelyn sent a return image of herself with the body of the numbered people.
Both of us burst out laughing. The others turned to look at us. Our shared imagination was drawing attention. The weird looks we were getting somehow made it more fun.
530 looked at us, smiled, and said, “You two are having some fun. Some say Zaza induces telepathic effects.”
As the conversation continued, Evelyn and I drifted further into our shared imagination. The outside world was being lost to the sandbox of our minds. At one point, Evelyn recreated the lewd image of herself from our shared dream, this time in her command. She had an aura of confidence, nervousness, and lust. It was a symbolic depiction of her permission to desire her in this form. She wanted my lust. The fairy presentation wasn’t my thing, but her assumption that it was made it even cuter and funnier. Although the longer I gazed at her form, the more it became my thing.
For the final time, the bong was passed around to Evelyn and me. We each took our last hits and awaited for peak effects. After a long 5 minutes passed, the world began to dissolve, change colors, lose its form and gain others. The shifting mirage was accompanied by a vast sense of love. Time ceased to exist. Our shared minds isolated us away from the group and into a world of evolving streams of color. We no longer appeared to be biological creatures. What was left were radiant blends of warmth, happiness, and connection.
We merged our representations, dancing, twirling, fusing, and defusing in rhythm with a hallucinatory soundtrack that we created together.
Was this love?
The ethereal space of vibrant paints started to drain of its’ color. Somehow I had returned to the space from that nightmarish dream in the Zaza field. The same red eyes glared at me. Brilliant lights strobed red and yellow. Massive electrical columns created a maze, with the creature in the center. The feeling of static waved across my body. The creature spoke, “The time is near. You must make your choice, power or knowledge. The power to make your desires manifest as reality or to know the truth behind everything, to find the ground beneath your feet, and finally have the answers you’ve wanted for so long. What will you do, Riyon?”
My eyes rushed open to the sight of a darkened room and Evelyn’s closed sleeping eyes across from me. What happened to the group we met with earlier? Where are Nell and Taro? I must have blacked out from the Zaza. My mind was pulled back into sleep by an imaginary hypnotic lullaby.
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