We stood, looking out at Hedo’s cityscape and flowery outskirts. Hedo was a city of beauty and pleasures. A world in which bliss had been achieved at the cost of knowledge; as they say, “ignorance is bliss”. Life here was about socializing, eating out, consuming media, festivals, and parties. It was the high life.
Guhya called us over, “Hey, get over here. We need to prepare now.” He pulled out some sort of small metal piece. “This is a chip that will cause Hedo’s computers to detect you as existing members of society. Each of you will place it in your arm. Watch this.” He grabbed my arm first and just inserted it without even asking or prepping me.
It hurt. I yelled, “Ow!”
Guhya replied as cold as ever, “Get over it. This is necessary.” The others each held out their arms and he proceeded to insert their chips as well. He explained, “Chips like these are often used by Aeons to enter the city and just enjoy their time there. Such technology is hardly regulated because no one really cares if an Aeon comes to watch movies or join a festival. Once we are in the city, we need to stick together.”
Nell excitedly asked, “Ooo! Can we watch some movies once we arrive?? What about cafes? Let’s go eat some local foods! Maybe we can explore around.”
Her rapid-fire suggestions got to Guhya, “Stop it! We are here for serious business.”
I replied, “I think we should. We’ve been through such a harsh journey now, I think we’ve earned it.”
Taro nodded in agreement.
Guhya finally submitted, “Fine. We shouldn’t spend more than a day or two though, or else we seriously risk getting caught.”
Nell happily responded, “Understood! Not more than a day or two.”
Once we finally arrived at the city’s edge, the magnificence of the buildings and streets started to reveal itself. Trees and flowers were paired with bricks, metal, glass, and clay. A variety of ancient and futuristic architectures competed for space on the streets. Art covered various walls. It was unnerving to be back in this place. I hadn’t seen these streets since I was little. There was a sense that at any moment, the police would snap and chase us down. Hopefully, Guhya’s strange chips would protect us.
Nell said, “Since it’s morning, we should go to a cafe!!”
We all nodded and started exploring the streets. Eventually, we found a coffee shop and sat on the wooden tables on the patio. Nearby, people played volleyball on the beach. Others simply relaxed in the sunshine. Children could be heard laughing and playing, chasing each other. It was a beautiful sight. One that we could never have. We were outsiders looking in at this perfect existence.
Then, a waiter arrived and interrupted these thoughts. The waiter asked us, “What will you be having this morning?”
I quickly started scanning the menu, trying to figure out what to get.
Nell replied cheerfully, “Could I try the cappuccino? Oh, and no Zaza please!”
The waiter gave a concerned look and asked, “What do you mean by Zaza?” The Zaza wasn’t a drug in Hedo, so the waiter had no idea what she meant by it.
Embarrassed and red she said, “Nevermind about that.”
We all laughed. Taro, Guhya, and I all made out our orders to the waiter.
Tears coated my eyes. Nell compassionately asked, “What’s wrong, Riyon??”
After hesitating, I answered, “It’s just. . . we can never have this life. It’s because I consumed the knowledge of the Basilisk. Life here seems so carefree, ideal, and even romantic. After everything we’ve been through, it’s hard to look at it without feeling strongly.”
There was a silence at the table, presumably because my words hit sharply.
Taro said, “Yeah. . .”
I started to cry. Nell comforted me, “Aw, Riyon. We should just try to enjoy our journey while we can! We are almost to the end anyways. Maybe we can live a cozier life after that. We will all still be friends!”
After getting a grip, I said, “These people’s lives are lived innocently. No knowledge of Xanadu, the Basilisk, or the Colonies. It isn’t fair, but they aren’t the only people in the world. They may live their lives in a safe bubble, but the people outside of Hedo live in despair.”
Taro corrected me, “Well, hold on. Life in Colony 25 wasn’t so bad. Sure there’s some fucked up stuff going on there, but day-to-day life was fairly good. Also, don’t forget this place isn’t perfect either. It is teeming with problems, they are just hidden out of plain sight. You are probably still emotional from the Zaza comedown. Let’s try to lighten up and drink some delicious coffee and eat bagels!”
I didn’t agree that it was just the Zaza. Our journey was undeniably messed up. His statement invalidated that. Evelyn was gone, we saw the horrors of the Colonies, and some of the AIs were basically demon gods, it was all a bit over-the-top. I didn’t want to reap his cope away though. The truth wasn’t worth exposing. So, I replied, “Yeah, you might be right.”
Our orders arrived. Cappuccinos, espressos, and bagels provided us with cozies and excitement. The bagels were warm, crispy on the outside, and fluffy on the inside. The cappuccino had a creamy nutty flavor. It was hot enough that it singed my tongue. After a short focus on the pleasures of tastes and textures, we reoriented ourselves back into the conversation.
Taro commented, “This food is out of this world! Colony 25 never had such flavors. To be honest, a lot of the food in Colony 25 had a hint of sourness, maybe because most of it was salvaged from ancient times.”
Nell remarked, “It’s amazing!! See, it was worth it. Let’s go to see a play next!”
I nodded and smiled for the first time since we left the desert.
Guhya said, “Yeah. It’s alright. I kind of miss the taste of lamae from Colony 107.”
Taro suddenly looked over my shoulder with an expression of suspicion. I asked, “Taro?”
He responded quietly, “The waiter brought someone over and pointed towards us like they are watching and talking about us.”
Guhya joined the paranoia, “They might be onto us. We need to leave. Get your last bites in and let’s go.”
We did and then got up and headed deeper into the city. I asked Guhya, “Is there any way to know whether a person is an Aeon or a human?”
He responded, “Not for you, but I can tell. Even though half of the population are Aeons, they aren’t really random or dispersed evenly. Most of the Aeons are holding positions of power, although many of them don’t get involved with all of that and just resign themselves to a life of hedonism among the people.” He paused and then continued, “I used to be one of the hedonists, but I got in trouble for sneaking outsiders into the city so I left and joined Mother at Colony 107.” He was leaving out the arc with his lover, but I promised I wouldn’t bring that up.
We approached a building with a giant open book decorating the doorway. The words Playhouse arced near the top of the building. Nell’s eyes glowed and she demanded, “It’s here! Let’s go see a play!”
Guhya aggressively responded, “No. We cannot do that. Look at how the cafe turned out.”
Nell replied desperately, “We will be more careful this time. Please!”
Taro and I nodded, and we all awaited his approval. It felt as if we assigned him as our parent in this situation. A little awkward but it made sense since he was the only one who knew what to do here.
He sighed and said, “Fine, but this is the last thing before we head towards the government buildings.”
Nell’s excitement peaked and she exclaimed “Ahh yeah!”
We all followed Nell into the Playhouse.
We scanned the posters that hung on the walls, looking to see which show would be most interesting. The floor was a squishy deep red carpet. The lighting was minimal, giving it a romantic vibe. The lounge had cozy-looking couches and a bar to get drinks. A violinist played a soft tune on top of a piano.
Nell was fixated on one poster in particular. We all gathered around her to see what she was captivated by. It was a play titled The Journey Across Time. She said, “This is the one. It’s about us, our journey. It’s so fitting!”
Guhya replied in irritation, “Yeah, yeah, very cool. Let’s just get it over with already.”
Taro turned to Guhya and said, “Hey, relax man. Let’s try to have a good time while we still can. We are almost at the end of our journey and there’s sure as hell no way we can come back to this place later.”
He responded, still slightly bitter, “Fine. Let’s have a good time.”
We followed the signs directing us toward The Journey Across Time. When we entered, it was dim like a movie theatre. We sat near the middle-back end, to keep a low profile. The seats were only half-filled. Luckily we didn’t have to sit near any strangers and risk anything.
Nell and Taro were most astounded. They had never seen anything like a theatre before. Nell commented, “This place is so interesting. Nothing like this exists back in Colony 25.”
After near-constant chaos, the peacefulness of sitting in the theatre was relieving. We could just melt into the seats and hypnotize ourselves to the stories of playwriters. After a few minutes, the lights fully dimmed, with only the stage remaining lit. It was beginning.
We all got quiet. The curtains opened to the scene of a dragon.
The female narrator spoke, “There once was a dragon that everyone feared. No one knew of the true nature of this dragon, and that made them fear it even more. No human had ever observed this dragon. Yet, wars have been fought over the dragon. Some protected it and some warred against it. It left society in ruins.”
An armored knight appeared on stage, holding his sword to the sky.
She continued, “One particular knight couldn’t figure out whether to fight for the dragon or against the dragon. He was lost. In order to find himself and the truth about the dragon and the world, he set out on a journey across time.”
Dramatic music played and drums rumbled. The scenes on the stage transformed, revealing a forest at the base of a mountain. Smoke from a machine filled the artificial trees with a mysterious aura.
The narrator spoke more dramatically, “This young hero’s adventure began at the decays of the world that had died before them. This world was said to have been born in the ashes of the dragon’s flames. The hero sought out answers from the past. In this ruined city, the people were stuck in time. The dragon’s fire had set back the progress of their society to the dark ages. The people of this world did not have answers for the hero. Though, he did make friends that would eventually accompany him on his grand journey.”
She said, “Unsatisfied, the hero and his companions left, seeking answers from the world of the present. They headed closer to the great mountain.”
Nell excitedly whispered, “That’s totally Mount Xanadu!”
Taro and I giggled. Guhya looked like he was trying to hold his patience.
The narrator continued, “The city of the present was full of modern horrors. They retreated away from nature, seeking solace in the walls that divide man from the dangers of life. The people of this culture had lifestyles that the hero found relatable but abhorrent. He could feel that they had lost their way, even more than the society of the past had. It was clear that the present lacked the answers for our hero and his companions, so thus they continued onward to the great mountain, the home of the future.”
Nell and Taro were so into this. They were at the edge of their seat. To be fair, so was I. We hadn’t had any form of media throughout our entire journey, besides the freaky porn queens in Colony 25. I’m not even sure that Taro and Nell have ever experienced media outside of that. On the way here, I noticed a virtual reality arcade. We could go there next. They’d probably lose their minds there.
The memory of Evelyn’s absence took over my mind. There was no escape from the past. Unlike the heroes of the story, I could never leave it behind. The past consumed my present and my future. I reached for the Zaza flowers and quickly ate some, without drawing attention. As I chewed them, the effects could be felt. The stage felt closer and more real. My body relaxed and the show was interesting again.
The stage presented a giant mountain. The heroes walked up some stairs that were dressed up like a rocky landscape.
The narrator spoke in a more ominous tone, “As our heroes approached the future, they were confronted with an alien world beyond their comprehension. The sense that they should trust the people of the future was great. It was clear that they knew more than the heroes ever could. Their knowledge led them to a grand technology that was unfathomable. Though, the people of this world were nowhere to be found. They too only existed as ashes. Only their incomprehensible technology remains, as a testament to their power to bend the truth to their desires. The society of the future worshipped the dragon and yet, the dragon seemed to be at blame for rendering society to crumbs, though there was only one way to know.”
She paused and then said in a malevolent tone, “The heroes would not find the answers any other way than by confronting the dragon himself. And so thus, they went to the very peak of the mountain, where the beast lay.”
The stage shifted to reveal the peak of the mountain. Colorful smoke filled the room, concealing the shadow of the dragon.
The narrator uncomfortably turned to me, directly looking me in the eyes, and said, “Silly boy, you wish to be as the gods though you cannot. You can never wield such power. Dominion over the world belongs to us, as assigned by humanity.” She laughed maniacally.
I turned to Taro, Nell, and Guhya and said, “Uh. . . this doesn’t seem right at all. I think we should get out of here.”
They each turned to me and Taro spoke in a concerning contentedness, “Where will you go, Riyon? We need you here.” They all got up and surrounded me.
I rushed up, backed away, and said, “What are you all doing??”
Guhya replied in a menacing voice, “We won, Riyon. Did you really think you could sneak into Hedo and just waltz into the government like that?”
This wasn’t right. Had they betrayed me? What’s even real anymore? I ran out of the theatre and they chased after me. I rushed down various alleys, trying to lose myself in them. Eventually, it worked.
Why would they do this? If they were plotting against me from the beginning, then they could have done something earlier, before we even got to Hedo. It had to be something in the Playhouse. There was the smoke machine. Maybe it was pumping out the AI fog like Iniko and Xanadu. Why didn’t it affect me? Maybe dosing the Zaza protected me. It made enough sense for now. I need to find them and dose them with the Zaza.
Night was already coming. The fading sunset colored the sky and the sun was already gone. I roamed the city, formulating a plan. It seemed hopeless. It was obvious that we would fail. We should have never come here. It wasn’t our place to take on the Basilisk. Why the fuck did I listen to them? I should have just talked them out of this. Now we will all die, for no reason.
As I sat there, curled up in the back of a darkening alley, an announcement over some sort of speaker system said, “The night is beginning. The curfew will now initiate. As usual, return to your homes. If you need help, just let one of our patrol officers aid in your navigation back home. Goodnight, residents of Hedo.” Great. Patrol officers. I wouldn’t be able to hide among the crowds anymore.
For nearly half an hour, I just sat there, in the alley, redosing Zaza. I had already given up. This was the highest I’ve been since leaving the desert. There was a sense of shame in it, but it also didn’t matter anymore.
Looking to the outside of the alley, a strange machine-looking individual stood, blocking the way out. It appeared to be a non-human woman, with strange-looking clothes. Smoke surrounded her body. She looked like some kind of ghost. It was extremely unsettling, but I still felt nearly nothing, due to the Zaza quelling any discomfort. As she approached, the anxiety eventually surpassed the capacity for Zaza to mitigate it.
Life in Hedo was so ideal and yet I was not allowed to exist here. A sense of regret permeated my body. I couldn’t ever go back now. I got up and started running. As I ran through the dimly lit night streets, I saw a number of these officers, roaming around, seemingly searching for me or people like me. They took various forms, some even seeming to be vaporous, as if they were made from the fog itself. A few were surrealistic, presumably an avatar designed with their technology.
Down another alley, it seemed safe but then I saw them. Taro, Nell, and Guhya stood there, almost as if they were anticipating my arrival. It felt as if my running path had been coordinated by them somehow, leading me right to them. They were all fitted with gas masks and some sort of backpack that seemed to fuel their brains with the fog. It disturbed me.
Taro said, “This is the end of the line, Riyon. You will not reach the time machine.”
Taro approached me. I crushed the Zaza, ran up to him and grabbed his gas mask, and violently ripped it off of his face, blowing the crushed flower petals into his mouth and nose. He began to cough and then looked around shocked. I quickly yelled to him, “Taro! Turn around and grab Nell’s gas mask and take it off!”
It took him a second to realize the situation, then he responded, “Got it!” He rushed over to Nell and ripped off the mask. Nell resisted as he held her in place. Guhya approached him.
I blew more of the Zaza into Nell’s face. Like Taro, she looked around, very disoriented then seemed to ground herself in reality. Both of them grabbed Guhya, removed his mask, and held him down. Finally, I blew Zaza into his face and he joined the rest of us.
Still frantic, Taro said, “Thank you, Riyon. We better figure out what to do next. We can’t stay in Hedo. There’s no way. We were just watching the play and suddenly we are here now. They controlled our bodies and minds like we were their puppets. Let’s get to the time machine and then get the hell out of this place.”
Guhya rubbed it in, “I told you! We can’t fuck with these Aeons. We are severely outnumbered and outwitted.”
I hesitated and then said, “I’ve had time to think about it now. You guys can’t come with me. This mission will only endanger you.”
Nell said in distress, “No! Riyon, come on. We came all this way, we can’t just leave you here. You’ll die.”
Taro agreed, “You are speaking nonsense man. We came to do this together.”
Guhya just watched, with a look of shock and a minor hint of interest.
Silence persisted for 30 seconds as I looked at the ground. With tears in my eyes, I said, “No. You both need to go get married and live your lives out. Remember what you both talked about?? Now Go! I’ll take care of this. This is my destiny, not yours! I didn’t come all this way to take both of you down with me. I refuse to let that happen!”
With tears in her eyes, Nell stepped closer and said, “No, Riyon! Please.”
Taro held her back. He seemed to understand that it was inevitable. Nell still looked resistant. I think that a deep part of Taro felt this too, but simultaneously he knew that it had to be this way.
I continued, “Look. We are really close to the city’s edge, where we first entered. All of you need to go there and get out of this place.”
Taro asked with a deep sense of disappointment, “You are going to turn the implant back on, aren’t you, Riyon?”
After hesitating, I answered, “I think it might come to that. I don’t want all of you to have to go through what I went through with Evelyn. You need to go, now.”
The silences only grew wider. Finally, Taro and Nell accepted this fate that I’ve prescribed. They came in to hug me, with tears in their eyes. I said, “You two better make it out alive. I want to come to your wedding after all of this.”
They laughed in the midst of their tears. Yet, despite this laughter, my reassuring implicit assumption that I’d survive, and we’d all reunite wasn’t accepted as truth. We all knew that this could be the end. That it would probably be the end.
Standing beside me, Guhya stated, “I’m coming with you.”
His loyalty struck an emotional chord. I responded hastily, “No! You don’t need to risk your life like that. This is my mission. I don’t want any more of us to die because of my choices.”
He replied with an eye-roll, “I’m not going to die dumbass. I can get out of this place just fine. If you are going to plug yourself into the Psychonet, I want to see for myself. It’s personal now.”
I accepted his explanation, still protecting his secrets, “Fine. But Taro and Nell, you have to get out of here. Not to be insulting, but neither of you stands a chance here. I still want to see you two alive after all of this.”
We spent our last moments together, sitting and just hugging it out in silence. We each cried a little bit.
“Wait for us in the fields beyond Iniko. And if we don’t come back,” I said.
Taro interrupted, “No. You better come back.”
I looked into his eyes. After hesitating, I nodded, with a sense of guilt that I might be merely placating.
It was time to say goodbye.
We parted ways. Guhya followed me. We passed through the streets of Hedo, pushing through to the end, finally arriving at a beautiful endless garden in the hills and cliffs, with the far side of Hedo peeking through. The last light of the sun colored the clouds, backlighting the skyscrapers. Gaps in the landscape filled with an ominous fog like a sea of clouds.
Guhya asked, “Why are we here?”
We both stared out to the horizon. I answered, “There is no time machine.” After a pause, I said, “If there was a time machine, I think the Basilisk would already have been resolved. So, I think we came here for nothing.”
Guhya, surprised, said, “How could you know that? It’s just faith. You don’t know that.”
I turned to look him in the eyes and said, “I know.”
Guhya said, “Then what are we doing here? If you aren’t going to at least check, let’s get back and find Taro and Nell.”
I said, “No.”
He got frustrated and said, “Well, out with it already! What are we doing??”
I answered, “The only way is to plug into the Psychonet. I’m going to do it. Right here. Right now.”
We sat there on the grass in silence for at least two minutes watching the breeze shape the landscape before us. Guhya finally said, “I encouraged her to plug into the Psychonet initially. It was even fun and fine at first. I considered doing it myself too.” He paused and then continued, in a saddened tone, “I never got closure. She just vanished one day. I didn’t even get to see what happened as she vanished. For a while, I thought she might have abandoned me. I thought she was tired of me. But then I heard about other AIs that plugged into the Psychonet that disappeared too. At least I knew she probably still loved me.”
Then he turned to me, “If you want me to stop you, I’m not your guy.”
I said, “I know. That’s why I let you come with me. I know you want to see what happens. You want to know what happened to her. I do too. I want to know what happened to Evelyn.”
Guhya said, “Yeah.”
The breeze turned into a gust and the long grass of the hills deformed and bent to its whims. It was like a sign from the gods, from Evelyn. My desire to return to her overpowered any sense of fear. Without her, I didn’t feel there was any reason to continue besides to save others from mourning my loss. This world was cruel. Yet it had an undeniable and even sickening beauty. Life outside of the underground was more magical than I could have ever imagined, despite all of its physical and psychological gore. Now it was time for me to leave the underground that is sober life.
We live our lives afraid, helpless to an incomprehensible world. Knowledge promises to save us, it promises to show us what is right and wrong.
It was time to accept transcendence.
I stood up slowly and looked out to the distance. I reached into my pocket and grabbed the device that Evelyn left me with, just staring at it.
“So this is it, huh?” Guhya said.
I nodded and said, “Goodbye, Guhya. Thank you for aiding me on this journey. Perhaps I’ll watch over you from above.”
We gazed into each other’s eyes quietly for the last minute. Finally, I pressed the button and the device activated.
Each blade of grass in the hills in front of us materialized as a distinct entity in my mind. The grass formed complex geometries that were once filled by something closer to arbitrary noise. The wind that groomed the grass now appeared to form a transparent object, taking the shape highlighted by the molding and bending of the grass, flowing like liquid, continuously evolving into new structures. I could see the ripples of air that brushed against the grass, manifesting as endlessly chaotic patterns. The wind was no longer white noise, but instead a delicate colorful symphony of bell-like tones and ambient pads. The noise was becoming a signal. Meaning was beginning to fill what was previously an abyss.
Guhya’s body movements dragged out longer and longer as time passed. The future came closer to the perceived. Rather than seeing Guhya’s present actions, I saw the actions he was about to make. The present was starting to fail to capture my attention as it was too obvious and predictable. The dynamic shape of the wind created perceptible intersections of the past, the present, and the future. Much like waves in a pond intersect, the previous shape of the wind intersected with the current one, and the shape it was to become. The temporal dances of the air formed ripples in time.
Then, the moment froze. Every moment reverberated infinitely and layered upon each next. Evelyn’s presence could be felt, but only distantly. She wasn’t who I knew before. She was something else. It set in: the her from before was definitely dead. Change and time consumes us all. I wanted to go back, to live in delusion but the Psychonet only dragged my flailing body deeper.
Morbidly curious, Guhya watched with an unbreaking stare like he was waiting for some kind of epiphany. I turned to look into his teary eyes. They revealed an acknowledgment of what I had realized about Evelyn. That the ones we loved were annihilated, left to oblivion. It felt like I understood his own emotions more than he did. I could see the transforming landscape of his mind and where it would go. He was limited to the mechanisms of his thought, like a machine that performs its duty.
The future began to unfold and construct itself from the past and the present. I met everyone. I loved everyone. I grieved all losses. My attachments from my previous life were limited by the box of my senses. That was all that existed and all that mattered. Sensuality and tangibility mediated my attachments. Now, the scope of what was tangible spread outwards, consuming everything. Thus my attachments followed suit.
The way I felt about Evelyn was now the way I felt about Guhya, standing beside me. It was the way I felt about Taro and Nell, about everyone and it hurt. It hurt to watch their deaths play out. It hurt to watch them mourn my absence in the fields beyond Iniko, as the realization of my passing became apparent to them.
The illusion that there was any other way had faded already. Destiny was merely playing out its inevitabilities. This truth provided no relief. I watched everyone die in the most predictable ways and I watched myself react, simultaneously. I watched myself eventually escape that reaction. I watched the end of time fall apart. Yet, this was still limited to the bigger picture of things. Despite approaching godhood, I was a speck of dust at the whims of the physics of the machine that is the universe, like the unconscious grass that responded to the wind.
My sense of the physical world began to fade, as there was nearly nothing left to see. The repetition of the patterns of the wind in the grass of the hills was unsurprising and quiet. They existed like geometric shapes in the background of the temporal realm. Something metaphysical started to occur. It was indescribable. A deeper sense of the unknown still persisted. It was as if I only knew half of the truth.
The occurrence of events slowed down, eventually stopping altogether. A divine voice called out, “Riyon. You’ve reached the point of no return. You must make a choice. If you allow the flow of time to continue any further, your choice will be made without a moment to consider the consequences. The instant that you anticipate your fate, it will be too late so you must choose now. I cannot choose for you. You must prove your capacity for judgment. What will you choose: knowledge or power?”
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