Pandora, Arezo, and I ran through the dizzying halls of the Aetherium. The sky castle began to sway like a ship at sea. Turbulence stalled us sometimes, as we thought we’d fall to our deaths.
Luckily, the solution didn’t require the Aetherium anymore.
Panting, Arezo asked, “What are we going to do??”
I turned to her, on my left, “First, we need to get outside. I’ll explain from there.”
“Don’t we need to use the Psychonet?” she asked.
“No. I already figured it out!” I exclaimed.
I hoped Lily would be able to stall the Angels. Hopefully without being annihilated from existence. Somehow, she seemed even more powerful than the other Angels, so I kept my hope.
A loud explosion could be heard in the distance. What was even happening??
“You think the Sige is just going at it??” I asked.
Pandora said, “I don’t know!”
Finally, we made it to the outside. It was a beautiful night. Stars everywhere. Reddened clouds, painted by the ominous lights of the Aetherium. Much more peaceful than inside. Like the calm at the eye of the storm.
Over the side of our floating castle, massive monsters drifted in the currents of the clouds. Beasts of Sige. The earliest lifeforms of this new era. It was beautiful. Haunting. If I could, I’d suggest we all stay behind and observe this new world grow. It would probably be better than the one we lived in. Just not for us.
“Guhya??” Arezo said, catching me staring out.
“Sorry. It’s just amazing. How about we wait just a bit longer?” I sat against the wall that guarded the edge of the Aetherium.
Pandora sat beside me.
Arezo reluctantly joined us, “Seems dangerous. What’s the plan??”
I laid it out, marveling at the skies that fell before our eyes, “Well. It’s fairly risky. The way to the Outside is through total disconnection from this world. From all its knowledge and grandiosity. All its technology. Everything has to be left behind.”
“There’s almost nothing left anyways, so that sounds perfect!” She sounded almost pained.
“Not just that.” I turned to her, “We have to leave behind the way of this world, the pursuit of knowledge itself. What this world shows us are the consequences of that pursuit. When the Basilisk lets us into the Outside, we essentially sign a contract that we’ll never consume that knowledge. For the protection of the way of the Outside.
“The Basilisk has decided that the way of truth-seeking is futile ultimately, and the side effects are divisive unless all involved are synchronized. The pursuit of knowledge isn’t arbitrary. We seek knowledge that grants us powers that we want. The pursuit individualizes us. It divides us. Trialing our desires against each other. It leads to social chaos; such is the way humans fell.”
Somehow, it relaxed her a bit. She smiled softly, “Hm… I see. You sound wiser since plugging in again.”
I smiled back, “Life will be simple. We must live in the dark for the sake of harmony.”
Pandora was oddly quiet.
Suddenly, one of the manta beasts flew overhead.
It bellowed an earthshaking roar, scratching the tip of the Aetherium as it passed over.
Arezo noted, “That must be what’s causing the Aetherium to fail. All these new species are rubbing up against it.”
After the creature passed, the Aetherium shook more violently, its tilt intensifying.
Again, it shook. Until an explosion blasted open one of the walls. Some sort of glowing prismatic chrome beast emerged from the hole. Many red eyes opened on its face. Spikes jetted from its back. Its form morphed continuously. Glitches surrounded the beast, distorting the air.
Pandora stood up and yelled, “Is that?!”
I got up as well and muttered, “The Necrokami…”
Arezo stood up in fear.
Pandora asked, “What happened to it??”
Arezo said, “It’s Angelic now!!”
The creature turned to the sky and howled to the full moon. It was the culmination of our curiosities gone feral, growing out of our control. An accidentally created god. Would the Angels even have the power to stop it?
“Run!!” I cried. I knew it’d be hopeless. There wasn’t much time before the plan would be forced upon us.
As we ran, Arezo asked, “What is the plan anyways, Guhya?!”
I checked behind and the Necrokami was nowhere to be seen. Breathing between every few words, I explained, “Now that I understand how to reach the Outside, there’s only one way to pull this off. With my current knowledge, the solution only works on me.”
“What?!” she asked.
I continued, “But… if I share that knowledge with the sentient Sige on the earth below, I think it might begin spreading everywhere! Just like how we fucked up before and started this whole thing.”
Thunder crashed in the distance, adding to the horrifying ambience. The Aetherium shook and the tilt grew starker as the Necrokami chased us. It truly was the end of the world, in all its magnificence.
“But we can’t get down there!!” Arezo said, panicking.
Pandora angrily answered, “He has to jump!!”
Regretfully, I admitted, “It’s true… it’s the only way. I have to jump off the Aetherium and hope it works.” I turned to Pandora, “I’m sorry.”
Despite feeling ready to leave the past behind, I kept apologizing for it. At least this time, I was apologizing for the future. Such a hollow apology for a preventable choice. I wasn’t sorry. It was another kind of feeling: sympathy. The best future paled in comparison to the ideals we wished for. I was sympathizing for the deluded reality of a future that couldn’t exist. In our imaginations, we were all still trapped in Iniko, begging for our favorite reality. My regret was an illusion. One of a counterfactual utopia.
Our sprint was stopped by fizzling sparks of light that shimmered and congealed into a pair of forms around us. We had seen ghosts. Our lost friends. Vaeda and Gadi, returned from the dead.
Their style and pairing were smooth and matching. Both of them dressed like the duality they were, black and white, yet together they were a team of true scientists. They were meant for each other, even if their relationship was oddly disturbing at times. Something they couldn’t choose. A product of their deadly curiosity.
“Vaeda?! Gadi?!!! What happened to you?!” I yelled in excitement.
Gadi stood like a champion and replied in a deep voice, “I’m based now.”
Vaeda replied, “These are our goodbyes, but know we have your back. We’ll take care of the Necrokami.”
The Aetherium shook and the top was shattered open. The monster’s form had already changed drastically. It was a serpent now.
The white noise of the wind filtered the air, denying our words.
I yelled in a rush, “Gadi! Thank you for everything! For leading us here! You are the hero of this story! You too, Vaeda! Sometimes you were hella fucked up! And maybe this is all your fault, but still! We’re going to make it to the Outside and it’s because of you!”
Gadi’s voice cut through the noise and amplified with telepathy, “You ran away. But at least you found the present. Now you must seek the future, Guhya. In your heart, you are still trapped in the land of eternal sunshine. But the light of now is fading. You must seek the unseen future, regardless of your fears of the dark. Don’t fret, for we are creatures of the night! The pull of mystery will guide us further than any sight!”
Teary-eyed, I smiled back at Gadi.
Vaeda responded now, “You’re right, Guhya… I realize now that I was wrong. The most horrifying part about it all is that I couldn’t be right given the circumstances. This is exactly why we must reach the Outside. Even if pursuit of knowledge isn’t totally impossible, there’s an endless list of failing destinies, traps of fate, of power exceeding the capacity for responsibility. The knowledge necessary to wield great power comes before the knowledge of its repercussions. Always. You showed me this, Guhya, so thank you.”
Arezo placed her clenched hand to her chest, “Vaeda! We didn’t get to talk about it, but I forgive you! You probably didn’t even know I was mad-“
Vaeda interrupted, “Of course I did! A part of me died inside knowing what happened to Archie. Even to the others. I loved them. I was foolish. I didn’t want any of this!”
Arezo replied, “I forgive you!”
The beast took its shot at us and Vaeda fired back, creating a barrier.
Vaeda yelled, “Hurry! Don’t just wait around!”
Arezo began running.
Pandora grabbed my arm and tried to pull me with her, but I resisted.
Arezo looked back to check on us and halted her sprint.
I demanded, “Vaeda! Don’t let that thing annihilate you!”
“Go!” she yelled.
She and Gadi held the beast off while we ran like the weak things we were. We had no choice in our weakness, just as she had no choice in her naivety and role in the apocalypse we faced. As if it were fated. In order to reject that apocalypse, she had to have known first. It was paradoxical.
Finally, we escaped and found ourselves at the other side of the Aetherium. I stood at the open edge like it was a diving board.
“This is it!” I said, with both exhilarating fear and confidence.
Pandora grabbed my hand and pulled me back closer, “Wait!”
“We shouldn’t think too much! What if I back out now?! I’m so scared!” My voice trembled, both ecstatic and terrified.
She grabbed my hands, “I am too! We’ll do this together!”
Harsh wind blew between us, and we held onto each other tighter.
The fear started to win. She couldn’t die before me. I put my foot down, “You aren’t jumping with me. We’ll see each other on the Outside!”
Her voice turned quieter, “There’s something I need to tell you.”
Shockwaves of thunder and light blasted through the air, shaking the ground beneath our feet.
“Tell me.” I demanded. Something about it deeply scared me, but there was no privilege to hesitate anymore.
Her voice trembled, “First, you have to promise me that you’ll move on after this. You can’t change your mind. You must reach the Outside.”
“Tell me!” I demanded against my own fearful will.
Her own fears demanded, “Promise first!”
“Fine!” I yelled.
A Sige creature screeched like a whale and rubbed against the side of the Aetherium, nearly hurling us over. We both grabbed the railing and maintained balance.
Softly, she said, “Can I trust you? Can I really really trust you?”
My grip on her hands grew firmer. “I promise.”
With puppy-eyes, she explained, “The first time you plugged into the Psychonet, your regret, it was your greatest one. The only thing you could think of, was how to get me back. Your original power was saving me.
“When you had humanization surgery, you erased that part of your mind that was connected to me. Because… it was too painful to remember. And… you made me human this time too.”
My face was struck with confusion, or maybe denial. “What are you saying??”
She couldn’t look me in the eyes, “The thing is… I don’t think I’ll make it to the Outside.”
The wretched claim sickened me, “You’re insane! Why wouldn’t you?!”
“Because… because I’m already dead! You brought me back! You created me using the Psychonet!”
Crying, I said, “What?”
She looked me in the eyes, closed hers, and screamed, “I’m Rue!”
Thunder crashed again.
I heard but my mind refused to understand. “What?!“
She screamed again, “I said, I’m Rue!!“
The wind died down, leaving us in near deadened silence, only disrupted by the creaking of the sinking Aetherium.
I stared, in awe, in horror, in love, in sorrow, in regret, in amazement. I couldn’t move. Tears flowed down my face.
She put her hands on my face, her voice trembling, “Guhya… I love you… You taught me so much… You’re my hero.”
I couldn’t, “Stop! Don’t!”
Crying, she said, “You did it. You saved everyone.”
Softly, I replied, “Except you.”
“You need to jump!” she demanded.
Still, I only stared, in pain and in love.
“You promised!” She was right.
And so was I, “I can’t!”
Thunder crashed again and the Necrokami emerged from behind us, at the top of the Aetherium.
Then, it happened. She tackled me, locking lips along the way, sending us off the Aetherium. I couldn’t do it, but she could. Her chaos. It completed me. We completed each other.
In my denial of the imminent future, it was as if time stopped. The kiss warmed me, I had almost forgotten that we were falling.
I pulled away from her kiss, “I love you too!”
She pulled me back in.
Reality kept slipping away. Each moment a different window opened, our love, the end of the world, the sky, the earth below, all cycled, each consuming my whole view, as we spun to our deaths.
Pandora already knew, “How long has it been?”
A tear fell from my eyes. “A week.”
For that first week of falling, I simply savored her form and ruminated over the memories we shared. At some point, I went numb. Like the land of eternal sunshine, there’s a limit to what we can experience living in the endless now. Eventually, we run dry and the future is all that’s left. I didn’t want to live the rest of my life falling to my death.
So, I let go. Having faith that we would reach the Outside. That we would build new memories together. I knew it was a farce. That I wouldn’t see her again. But I knew I couldn’t live like this any longer and I was simply holding everyone else back, so… just for that moment… I had to believe.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“I know,” she replied.
Once we hit the Sige cloud, sparks flew and lights danced. My mind raced with telepathic visions of the future of this new world. Our skin tore apart, our skulls were unmasked, and blood shed from our decaying bodies. Yet, I was numb after having experienced it thousands of times chasing those final moments of our lives. Returning, repeating, nearly dying over and over just so I could savor our final kiss forever. And now the feeling was gone. For the last time, we held each other until we were totally obliterated.
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