6 months later

Rays of the sun highlighted the flows of dust in the air, as they moved in slow-motion. It was tranquil. A gentle breeze tickled my skin, brushing my hair, cooling me from the heat of the sun that emanated in the desert. The world was so quiet, only illuminated by reverberating sounds from children laughing and playing in the distance.

Evelyn laid beside me, weakly smiling at me from the bed across. The dust-coated air created a wall between us. My sense of time was gone. I no longer needed it. It was more important to savor the experience than to count each second in anticipation of the next. Moments grew richer when time was lost.

Though, it began to fade. Time was imposing itself again. The future begged for my attention, which I viewed as an abusive side effect of our evolution. I sat up and started to look for the solution. It appeared beside my bed, in sight of Evelyn’s vanishing ghost. Her disappearing body was unsettling and somehow shocking, despite that this loop pervaded my daily existence now. The solution, the Zaza, helped me maintain that surprise by suppressing my awareness of Evelyn’s absence from life. I kept forgetting where I put the Zaza, but it was always within arm’s reach. Any further and the reality I clung to would wane and be replaced by the one that harms me. The drug allowed me to live endlessly in the playground of gods, at least within my own mind.

A few hours passed and the need to get up became prominent. I went outside my tent to seek the teacher. He was found sitting crossed-legged in the sand. I said, “Teacher, my desire for Evelyn still consumes me. I do not want her to be dead.”

He sat there, almost ignoring my presence, then finally he responded, “Riyon. She was never alive. You choose to create that interpretation of reality. A true interpretation does not exist for us humans. We can only assume our imagination onto reality. You must create a better existence for yourself. Reject the narratives you were fed by life. This is not reality. Evelyn as you knew, was merely a persona that you imposed onto the world yourself, to guide your actions and choices. She is not who you decided she would be. The Evelyn in your mind still exists as it always did. She just isn’t the same person as the one who died. You choose to kill her inside of your mind, but she never lived at all.”

My reality was shattered by continuous exposure to Zaza and the divine words of teacher Lalu. Back in the Akiva clan, Lalu was my mentor growing up. He taught me the ways of the mind. He helped me manage the loss of my mom. One day, he rejected life in the underground. He insisted I follow him but I refused because I felt obligated to take over where he left off. I couldn’t just leave his clients abandoned like that. The night before he left, he told me where to find the desert of Rachika.

He continued to lecture me, “Your relationship with others is a fantasy. Both parties create an imagined self and an imagined interaction. In reality, each person fabricates the image they project onto the world, for the sake of self-protection or to aid in their goals. Sometimes that goal is to achieve love and its magical euphorias. Yet, it is not genuine. If one means to deviate from reality to serve such a purpose, you can do so even now within your own mind. Even if people were not led astray from reality by their motivations, their capacity to interpret truths is beyond fallible. Even our very biology is driven by motivations that don’t align with truth-seeking.”

He paused before continuing to the more sensitive conclusion, “You should have learned this from Evelyn’s contact with the Psychonet. She moved on to oblivion because she gained clarity. You would too, you cannot deny it. She merely experienced it for herself.”

These last words aggravated me, but I maintained my calm demeanor. I resisted because I knew he was right. It was just an undesirable truth about the world. I replied to his speech, “Thank you, teacher Lalu. I will continue my mind journey with Zaza.”

He smiled and returned to his meditation.

I walked out aimlessly into the desert heat. After snorting more Zaza, I rest in the sand, drifting in and out. The grains of the earth felt soft in my state. The setting sun painted the sky with a psychedelic geometry. It lulled me into a trance. All that existed were my senses. Even the interpretation of these senses was fleeting. If I tried, the frameworks biasing my perception could be remembered, but it was relieving to just watch the pixels of light shift and morph, allowing my interpretation to be free from its confines.

The desert was merely lines, contours, and a flurry of colors, without any assumed dimension. As I gazed mindlessly into this comforting piece of art, a blackness formed in the sky. The image was interpreted as a growing void. It was Evelyn’s oblivion and she called upon me. Even in my most obliterated state, even when my perspective was nearing emptiness, Evelyn’s presence still encroached and found its way through the cracks. My mind put her above all other objects of attention. I wasn’t allowed to forget.

Night comes

I came to the sensation of my skin burning. It was morning already and I had slept a dreamless sleep in the sand. When Evelyn left, she described herself as becoming like the sand. Some days I imagine that the sand is Evelyn’s arms, hugging me as I lay in a Zaza-induced stupor. I dream that she lives on as a panpsychist ether that permeates all things.

A blurry figure positioned itself in front of me. “Riyon! It’s time to get up, brother!” he said in a cheery, yet authoritative, voice.

He held out his hand for me to grab. I took it and got up from the sand. Upon clarity, I realized it was Taro. It’s been almost 3 months since we last talked. Before then, he was visiting me weekly, trying to get me out of this place. I haven’t seen Nell or Guhya since the events at Xanadu.

“Hey,” I said briefly.

He hugged me and said in my ear, “We need to go this time. Follow me.”

The last time he was here, he begged me to stop the Zaza. Destroying myself destroyed him. Though I now realize that nothing is really being destroyed, only altered. Lalu taught me well. Taro rejects my decision to believe in something happier. Seeking truth is futile though, we might as well be deluded in the ways that we desire. We might as well even delude each other, for the greater good. Whatever shit-show was going on in Hedo, with the alt-perception AIs, could be a good thing. Truth destroys us. Truth destroyed Evelyn and it destroyed me.

We walked and he led the way. I submitted to him without even asking what we are doing. I didn’t care. He finally broke the silence, “Hey, Riyon. I know it hurts so much, but we still have a mission to fulfill.”

He meant the Basilisk. I responded, “You know, Evelyn was the real hero the entire time. We can’t defeat the Basilisk. We are just a bunch of nobodies. Evelyn was like some kind of demi-goddess. There’s no chance.”

Taro responded confidently, “Nah man. We saved her too. We saved each other. Remember Colony 107? Evelyn even admitted that we saved her. Remember when we took you in, at Colony 25? Knock it off. Evelyn is great, but so are we.” He paused, then said something harsher, “You are making yourself delusional with the Zaza and the lesson from your cult teacher. You are afraid, so you hide from the truth. But it’s at the expense of others. That’s why you gotta get yourself together.”

He was right but I didn’t respond to what he said. Instead, I asked, “Do you remember the AI in Xanadu that made us dream awake? I’ve been thinking, that AI gave me visions that showed Evelyn turning off my implant and then betraying me. The waking nightmare instilled a fear in me that arose again right before Evelyn accessed the Psychonet. What if the AI was trying to warn me? What if I had just listened to my fear and my intuition? Evelyn would still be here.”

He replied, “I think Evelyn would have plugged into the Psychonet regardless of what you did. Also, she probably would have persuaded you eventually anyway. You can’t change the past man.”

The heat was disorienting. Up ahead there was an oasis with a small forest surrounding it. Once we arrived, it became apparent what was occurring. Nell and Guhya awaited me, smiling superficially. Sure, they may have missed me, but this meeting had a fairly dark context. It was like they were visiting me in a hospital, and I was dying of cancer. It was that sort of smile. I wondered if we’d ever be able to return to our prior states. Our memories were only a reminder of what we’d lost.

They both greeted me. Guhya started, “Okay! It’s time for some serious business now. We’ve all sacrificed our lives to help you with your mission with the Basilisk. So, now you need to get your shit together and come with us to finish the job.” He was really blunt about it, which was respectable in a way.

Nell put in her words, “Riyon, I know it hurts a lot. We hurt too. Not as much as you, but we still hurt. We can share this pain together and leave the legacy that we all want.” Her approach was a tad more manipulative. She basically just asserted that I want the same things as the rest of them.

They looked at me while I sat there fairly deadpanned. Some part of me knew that I’d agree to go with them, but I didn’t want to give that to them so easily. “How exactly do we proceed? It seems like a hopeless cause. What’s even real? What if this Basilisk stuff is nonsense?” I said.

Guhya replied in haste, “It’s not. Don’t you think Evelyn would have told you that if that were the case? After connecting to the Psychonet, she would have all knowledge so her judgment would be sharper than any of ours.”

Nell said, “Evelyn is still counting on us. Even if she isn’t here to witness this. Though, remember she said she saw everything, so maybe she is witnessing this. She could be here watching us now!”

Nell’s words really got to my emotions that time. I began to cry. She could be right. Would Evelyn want to see me in this state? I responded, “Look at me. I’ve failed her.”

Taro comforted me, as the brotherly figure he always was, “She would have already seen all of this and still she is counting on you, on all of us, to finish the journey. We gotta get you away from this Zaza and this crazy cult and move forward.”

I paused and then said, “Fine. . . but I still think it’s a hopeless cause. I just can’t leave you all like this after everything we went through and the sacrifices you made.”

My hand grabbed the Zaza bag to manage the discomfort of my agreement. Taro interrupted me before I could dose and he grabbed my arm, to manage his own discomfort. There was an odd symmetry in our connection at that moment. We were both wanting, demanding even, that we should be allowed to subject each other to discomfort for our own gain.

Taro said, “No. You don’t need that now. Let us help you instead.”

The power he insisted to seize from me made me want the Zaza even more. I replied nearly monotone, “I’ll experience intense distress if I stop.”

He responded, “We’ll experience intense distress if you continue. Look at us, you are outnumbered.”

It was so unfair. I shouldn’t have to regulate their emotions by subjecting myself to the torture of Zaza withdrawal. A defeated weak-willed look covered my face. It was obvious that I lacked the determination to defend my use or take any action in this situation.

Zaza withdrawal entails a self-subjugation of a flood of traumatic ideas. A return of awareness of the darkest aspects of the universe. It meant that Evelyn would infect my mind again, much more emotionally than before. Though my pleasant visions of her would die, only the identity of her dead existence would visit me and intrude on me, as if to remind me of how bad things were.

Taro empathized with my defeated tone and offered a midway. He revealed a large bag of flowers from his backpack. He said, “Use this instead for now. It isn’t as potent as the extracted stuff you are relying on. It will at least help cushion the blow while we get you situated.” He handed the bag of Zaza flowers to me, paused, and then switched subjects, “We need to find our way to Hedo. Nell and Guhya took the liberty of mapping out a path.”

This marked the beginning of our trek into hell. But first, we went back to Lalu’s Village to prepare ourselves. After collecting local foods and items, we left into the desert of Rachika. It was about midday and the sun’s heat was at its peak.

Eight hours into our journey through the desert, my reduced Zaza consumption began to reveal its symptoms. Lalu’s teachings that were once a gift of mental relief were now showing themselves to be scars in the back of my mind. One of the numbered men from Colony 107 warned about this kind of thing. He said Zaza allows one to see the unbearable truths but without the drug, we can be crippled by those truths, forcing us to be reliant on the Zaza for sanity.

Lalu was engraving my mind with the idea that nothing is real. It was useful the more that I hated the realm of the real but now I was questioning whether Taro, Nell, and Guhya really existed as I believed them to or if they simply existed to me as a hologram created by my imagination of them. Maybe it didn’t matter. It was still upsetting and felt like my brain couldn’t decide if these people were worthy of my empathy or if my imagination was worth entertaining for the sake of my mental health.

In a distressed tone, Taro said, “The heat is endless even with the day closing. I can’t believe you lived out here, Riyon.”

Nell was failing to keep her posture straight. She said, “Yeah. This is ridiculous.”

Guhya joined in happily, “Since I have my AI bits, I can regulate my body temperature on command! So I’m doing quite fine so far.” His enthusiasm wasn’t wanted in this particular instance.

Taro replied, “Well, great. I’m happy for you.” It felt a bit passive-aggressive. He, and the rest of us, were a bit irritated by the heat.

I said, “While I lived here, the Zaza made it difficult to really notice the heat. Now I can feel it more since you’ve thrown out my extract.” My tone sounded blaming, though I didn’t mean it to.

Taro replied, “Sorry man, but it’s necessary. It’s for the better. You need to get away from Zaza and stop imprisoning yourself in the dream world.” He paused, then his voice grew more sensitive as he expressed vulnerability, “Remember, I used to be hooked on the stuff before Nell came along. It will be rough at first, but you’ll be able to go back to normal. You just gotta hang in there for now.”

This must be why he came with the bag of Zaza flowers. He knew what he was doing, from experience. Despite Lalu’s absurd ideas, my empathy was coming back now that the Zaza was wearing down. The drug numbed out my sense of feeling for others. Taro’s urge to take care of me in my weakest moment felt healing. Eventually, I’d give him something in return.

I turned to him and said, “Taro, seriously, thank you. I’m a little less high now and I’m starting to see what you are doing for me. I’m sorry if I came off as resisting initially. I’m also sorry that I’ve let it come to this.”

A cool breeze finally pushed toward us, creating a euphoric solace in our bodies. In the near distance, the biome started shifting. A dark forest could be seen. Soon we’d be able to escape the relentless spice of the desert. Plants began to coat the ground. Bushes, sporadic trees, and occasional flowers decorated the nearly barren land.

Taro smiled and then replied as if he hadn’t registered what I said, “Ah! There it is. That nice breeze means we are almost to the forest. Once we get there, it should be smooth sailing to Hedo. Guhya has a plan so that we can infiltrate Hedo without being caught.” He was good at dodging the credit and switching subjects. His humility was impressive.

The new world that presented itself before us was eerie, ominous, and mysterious. It was a forest filling with a deep mist that obscured sight. The typical forest colors of green and brown were competing with a new unusual color of a dark magenta-purple, vaguely reminding me of the color of blood.

We all stopped in front of the forest walls. The ominous tone pushed us out but our motivation to reach Hedo required us to enter against our wills.

Nell admitted first, “It’s real spooky, isn’t it?” Her voice trembled a little bit.

Taro replied with his usual comforting reassurance, “We will be fine! Let’s push forward. It’s already getting late. Let’s find a place we can stay for the night.” The quiver in his voice revealed his true feelings.

Nell replied more anxiously, “In there?!

Guhya got excited by the impending danger, “Yeah! Let’s do it!” His fearlessness was both concerning and comforting. Death didn’t seem to be an option for him.

I replied unenthusiastically, still feeling the dose-reduction of Zaza, “I guess so.”

We headed into the mysterious maze of trees. Luckily, Guhya had an internal compass, leading our way through. The air glowed in different shades of purple and pink. The vibe was enchanting. Lights from the plants were sprinkled throughout the brush.

Nell appreciated the beauty of it. She commented, “A lot different than the forest in Colony 25.” The bushes and vines were thicker. There were no redwoods. Instead, there were giant willow trees. It was more of a struggle to traverse.

Taro pointed out to the distance, remarking, “Look! There are a bunch of lights ahead. Maybe it’s a town that we could stay the night in.”

Guhya replied, “That’s correct. There should be a town if my memory serves right. I’ve heard about this forest before.”

We all ran ahead to see what we found.

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