“The dreams keep happening. I don’t know what they mean, but it feels like someone- or something is calling out to me. This time, a strange girl led me through a magical garden. At the center of the garden lied a tree that towered over all, it’s head in the clouds, as if trying to reach God. The girl pulled me up the peculiar tree. Strangely, roads paved the way to the top. But as we climbed, the gravity was increasingly distorted and the weight of our lives and impending deaths increased exponentially, until my hair stood on end and the waves of butterflies in my stomach couldn’t be tolerated any longer. Then, I woke up in a sweat,” it read.
Sifting through more of the pages, I landed on another random one. I read it out loud, “I’ve been learning a lot about the mind recently. After Lalu left, I feel I must step in his shoes and help the rest of us who remain. Living beneath their feet, in the shadows of Hedo, it is maddening. Every day, we hear the footsteps of those who never knew of the sacred knowledge of the Basilisk. It’s cliche, but ignorance is bliss. How I envy to escape like Lalu… to see the world at large… outside of this cave.”
Riyon complained of Lalu abandoning them, but yet here he was pondering the same choice. I already knew how it ended of course. He did escape.
Over the last few days, we traveled back through Iniko, to the north. We were nearing Hedo for the next fated encounter. Through our journey, I rummaged through the texts of Riyon’s past, trying to make sense of it. Trying to make sense of him. It was clear he didn’t like living in the cage of the underground. His life was lived relentlessly trapped under forces he had no control over. A fact that remained even as far back as his mother’s death and the indoctrination of his life with stories of the Basilisk. It was sort of painful to read since a lot of his conceptions of life were total bullshit through and through.
For a second, I forgot I was with others. I was still hazy from the residual effects of all the Zaza we used to get through Iniko. We sat by a fire in a grassy clearing in woods at the outskirts of Iniko, at the break of dawn. Facing the fire, it was warm. Facing away, it was crisp and icy. Memories of Taro and Nell persistently begged for my attention, but I kept finding ways to escape.
Interrupting the ambience of the crackling fire, I turned to Pandora and asked, “Are you awake?”
Now she was. Turning over, dazed, she replied, “Huh? Yeah…”
Everyone else remained asleep.
I held my hands out to the fire to keep warm, “Sorry, you should finish resting up first. Today is going to be big.”
She rolled to face my direction, “What? No, it’s ok. What did you want to say?”
I sighed, “Do you remember when I saw the visions of Taro and Nell trapped in a prison?”
“Yeah…” she answered.
“Is it real? Are they really trapped?”
“Vaeda took them in my timeline. She wanted to make sure that you wouldn’t disobey her.”
“We have to save them,” I insisted.
“I know. We will,” she assured.
“What was the other timeline like?”
Her eyes looked down, “Hm… harsh. A lot of pain. But… also… a lot of love. We were so close; our thoughts were shared. You died by plugging into the Psychonet the second time. You thought you were ready to bring the world to the Outside. We both had that hope.”
“How did you know Vaeda?”
Irritation was noticeable in her tone, though she restrained it, “We both worked with her, as a team. I never really talked to her until you were gone. After you passed, she offered to let me trial the time travel experiment as her subject. I wanted to see you again, so I said yes.”
“She says you abandoned her plans once you reached this side.”
With no guilt, she said, “Yeah. I lost trust in her. Following her plans destroyed you. I think she knew it might happen too. After you passed, there was a lot of tension between Vaeda and me. I didn’t know her well, but you did. In this timeline… I think she captured me before you and I ever met yet. At least, that’s my only explanation for what you saw in her place. The other me I mean.”
“I see. How did we meet in the other world?”
She grew nervous, “Well…”
I looked her in the eyes, “You have more secrets??”
Hesitating, she said, “Guhya, please. Just give me time. I’ll tell you eventually.”
I conceded to her demands for patience, “Fine. Tell me about a pleasant memory then.”
Instead, she showed me. As she placed her hand on my arm as a means of comforting me, we were sucked back into another visionary experience.
We were on a blanket in the grass, but not the hills of Hedo this time. Instead, it was a park. The last rays of light pierced through an opening in the canopy of clouds. The world around us was shrouded in a moody darkness.
I said, “It’s quiet out here today.”
Pandora knelt while painting, looming over the canvas on the ground. She replied, half-entranced, “Yeah…”
I stood up and checked on her progress, “How’s it going?”
She spoke softly, “Mm… I’m just trying to think of how to pull off the bit on the tower over here.”
A droplet dove from the greying sky, intrusively painting itself onto the canvas. It was a third wheel to our love party. Before either of us could react, it brought friends. Many of them. Kamikazeing themselves onto the canvas, taking Pandora’s hard work with them.
“Aw not now! Why??” she cried.
I put a comforting hand on her shoulder.
Her head fell into my chest. Nearly crying, she muttered, “Guhya… it’s ruined.”
I consoled, “Nah! What if this is just God’s contribution?! It’s not ruined. This will just add an artistic flair!”
She looked up at me. Then, she burst out laughing and rolled onto the blanket, facing the falling rain with her eyes closed. “That’s ridiculous.”
“Yeah. You are probably right.” I laid beside her, facing up as well.
She turned on her side to face me, “I don’t think God wanted me to paint the picture.”
I mirrored her, “Why do you say that?”
Her hand reached to my face and softly caressed my hair, “It’s been a while since we spent time together like this.”
I put my hand at her waist, “It’s nice. We’ve been so caught up with trying to reach the Outside lately.”
“For a while, I was convinced the universe was keeping us apart. I think I was wrong.” She inched closer and her face met mine at the lips.
The breeze was cold but our bodies warm. She rolled over on top of me. Her arm rest on my chest, with her hand on my face. Her other arm propped her body up. The pain of her arm on me faded as attention was drawn to the beacon of our lust. Water dripped down her nose, leaking across my cheek. Soon enough, her hair was watering mine.
The rain fell harder, drenching us. At first, we were too engaged to notice, but as it progressed, the accompanying rain added a nice sprinkle on top. 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.
She pulled away, “Do you remember we hung that terrible washed-out painting?”
“I remember what you show me, through your mind.”
A look of loss came across her face, “It was a souvenir of that day. Others never knew of its backstory, except us.” She giggled, “It felt a little exhibitionist.”
I smiled, “We will have new memories together. Even those that you have, they are special too. Keep showing me.”
Worried, she asked, “Is it really you though? The Guhya in my memories?”
“I think so. Do you think we will become different people with our future memories?”
“Maybe you are right. But I love you anyways and I’ll love you then too,” I confessed.
She looked surprised.
It was the first time I had said it. I didn’t think much of it or even notice. It was so natural. I could feel the self of her memories bleeding into me.
Her face warmed, “I love you too.”
Both of us stood up.
I noticed that Archie was mysteriously sitting up and staring off into the distance. I said, “Archie?”
He shook off the trance and looked at me, unemotionally, and said, “I’m sorry, Guhya.”
“Huh?” I said.
Everyone else was getting up at this point. Archie stood and announced, “There is an unfortunate turn of events. The most rational option at this point is to get rid of Pandora.”
I yelled, “What!?”
Still calm, he said, “Her actions lead us to certain demise.”
Gadi rushed over, “That’s not in the prophecy!! What are you saying?!”
But it was already too late. My heart was already sinking. Pax’s impulsivity had already acted. Pandora’s head was already decapitated, dropping to the ground next to her body that was ripping to shreds as Pax slashed through, in his deluded hero’s mind. The nature of death changed with its recurrence. With each iteration, the feeling faded slightly more. As if it were aged, a decaying artwork on an ancient wall. With time, the message was lost.
Arezo looked horrified, “Guhya?! Why are we still here?? Does it mean the timelines continue playing out even after you go back?!“
I muttered, “I… I don’t know…” I backed away and fell on my knees and proceeded into fetal position.
Arezo screamed and her shriek resonated with the part of my mind that resisted the pain. She pulled me out and forced me back into the acknowledgement of terror.
Finally, the void welcomed me again.
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, but this time, we could not continue.
I pulled away from Pandora’s warmth. My heart just slightly colder.
She asked, “Guhya?”
With sadness, I said, “I’m sorry.” I turned to the mint-haired boy and yelled his name, “Archie!”
His response was eerie but revealing, “I’m not here right now, please leave a message.”
He must have been meeting with Vaeda. Those fucking traitors. Both of them.
I turned back to Pandora, “Where is the knife?!”
She looked uneasy, “Why?? What’s going on Guhya?”
“I’ll explain it later! Just answer!” I hastily demanded.
She pulled the blade from her bag.
I yanked it from her.
Archie awoke from his trance and declared Pandora’s doom, “There is an unfortunate turn of events. The most rational option at this point is to get rid of Pandora.”
As Pax launched his impulsive attack on Pandora, I intercepted, grabbing his arm and pushing back on the spike he intended to murder her with. Then, without hesitation, I slit his head off with the blade.
Was this the only way? It wasn’t right. Despair flooded my mind, but the unnerving satisfaction of revenge consoled me enough to stop a return to the past. Regret was at war with that sense of satisfaction. Feelings upon feelings layered onto each other. Guilt from the satisfaction joined sides with regret. Defensive justification emerged from my anger, siding with that satisfaction. A more callous centrist side of my mind suggested dissociation from the war. “Just move forward because this was the only solution,” it said. It couldn’t be any other way.
But it wasn’t over. Regret would win in the next move, with the next moment, as the dominoes fell, alongside with Pandora’s dead body.
Emory announced his victory, “It’s a cruel world Guhya. Pax didn’t deserve to die. You are selfish. Of course, I imagine you’ll leap back again, trying to fix this, over and over.”
“You monster!! What the fuck have you done!!” I slammed my fists onto his chest, before giving up.
He held his ground, “How many times has it been now, Guhya? I’m curious. You must be living in hell right now. How many more times will it be? When will you give up?”
After being pulled into darkness, I awoke back into this terrifying world. This time, something bizarre took place. A strange black being with chaotic flowing black- and pearl- colored hair was standing before us.
The man said, “Fate demands this. I’m sorry that chance has left you to such a cruel outcome.”
The man slowly approached and then grabbed Pandora by her hair, lifting her up. He said, “You are the one who returns, right? I want to see what happens.”
I only stared in shock. How could the events deviate so much so quickly? I had only just spawned and yet an entirely mysterious person had been added to the mix.
Pandora screamed and everyone else woke in startle.
I yelled, “Who are you?! Let her go!!”
Then, he said, “I transcend your game, chosen one.” Then, he slashed open Pandora’s neck, bleeding her out.
Finally, the soft void welcomed me again and again. It was the most comfortable part of the process.
Then, again, it was replaced by radiating heat in front and icy in back, mixed with a fading lustrous warmth between us. My heart, colder than before. Was that man about to return again??
I pulled away from Pandora, ignoring her seemingly scripted lines, reaching for the knife in her bag.
Pandora screamed, “Guhya!? What are you doing??”
This time, I slashed Archie in his vulnerable entranced state. This was the next experiment. How would it play out? My heart didn’t want the answer. I just hoped it was at least the best possible outcome, despite how traumatic it was.
Arezo ran over, screaming, “Why?! Every time it ends like this!! Why can’t I save him!? I’m stuck! I’m stuck here forever! Guhya! Why!?”
Then, everything faded to darkness. Her reaction hurt more than I expected. What did she mean? Had she been returning back in time as well? Was that possible?
I wanted it all to stop. The reset point was so close to the disturbing outcomes that I would never be able to rest until it stopped.
Then it began again.
This time, I was prepared to resist my own emotions. It was akin to drinking poison to build an immunity. I wasn’t really ready to watch Arezo cry again, but it was the only way. This time, I had to look away.
I took the knife, pressed it against Archie’s throat, focusing all my attention on the details of the knife, shutting out the details of people’s screaming voices that begged me to stop.
It was done.
As the blood dripped off my hands, Arezo screamed the same line, “Why?! Every time it ends like this!! Why can’t I save him!? I’m stuck! I’m stuck here forever! Guhya! Why!?”
Her voice echoed out in my mind. The image of a pleasant beach took front and center in my mind. The warmth of the sand. The sun. The chilling of the breeze. Even that peculiar ocean smell. It didn’t work for too long though.
Gadi simply stared at me in stun.
Pandora looked terrified.
Arezo aggressively shook me back into my senses, “Guhya!! Tell me why, please! What happened to you?! I trusted you!!”
Let’s not become monsters, we had said. The me she trusted was no longer here. The proof was in my sickening sense of accomplishment for being able to avoid the pain and escape the return to the past. At least some humble sense of shame remained.
Pax and Emory realized the situation. Pax confronted me, “You asshole! What have you done?!”
Without responding, I grabbed Pandora’s arm and ran as fast as I could. There may have been no solution here. At least not one I would call a solution. Every outcome was bad.
All of them pursued us.
Pandora was still loyal even now. She looked scared but she didn’t resist. She followed me willingly.
We kept running, chasing the sunrise.
My mind wouldn’t let me stay in touch with reality. “It’s just a trolley problem; it’s the only way. This is the good outcome,” I reassured myself. I just wanted to be human. Now, I was hardly even an Aeon. Not because of my humanization surgery, but because I had ascended my Aeonity. I was losing touch with what it meant to feel. With each loop, the pain imprinted on me, etching itself into the back of my mind like screeching on a chalkboard.
What was I becoming?
Pandora was right. Memories do make us who we are.
<-Previous Chapter + Next Chapter->
Joining the Patreon will help advance this project. At times, writing this book has been a full-time effort.