Metal Fever II: The Erasure of Asherah

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Chapter 11

More importantly, it meant I could recharge my prosthetics every night without fear that an unexpected gas front would asphyxiate me in my sleep. It felt gratifying, like a small but important step.

Towards what, though? It got me no closer to civilization. I set out into the jungle and circled around the crash site in larger and larger loops, foolishly hoping I’d run into a village or something in the process.

Just more jungle, with yet more beyond that. As I explored though, I noticed a strange, exhilarating sensation. Here I am, fish out of water, climbing over fallen logs in a sweltering jungle...but I’m not tired. Having secured a means of charging my arm and leg, traversing the terrain was not only easy but pleasurable.

I brought my metal foot down on a small boulder, hands on my hips, sucking air in my nostrils. “I’m going to make it through this”, I thought. “I’m no mere animal. I am not even just a man. I have the strength of modern machinery behind my every step.”

The hydraulic piston in my leg hissed loudly as I finished stepping over the boulder and set about climbing up a steep embankment. “Well, alright” I thought. “Nearly modern.” Once again, climbing over the obstacle was trivial. It felt good to put my prosthetics through their paces, and get the full intended benefit from them.

When I found a fallen coconut, I was able to quickly crack it open with my prosthetic hand, a feat which otherwise would’ve been exhausting. I drank eagerly of the juice, then began eating the solid white innards.

An unorthodox meal, but it filled my stomach. Besides which the increasing commonality of coconut palms suggested I was getting closer to the coast. From there, I might be able to flag down a passing container ship or something.

My mood immeasurably improved by food other than peanuts and renewed hope of rescue, I forged ahead, brushing ferns out of my path as I made my way through the jungle. Despite my body being in relatively poor shape, I felt lean and powerful.

Shock absorbers flexing, metal foot sinking into the soil, I felt like a force to be reckoned with. Back in Shenzen, I was at the very bottom of the food chain. Out here, I was at the very top. Bigger, badder, stronger than any living thing I was liable to run into.

Just desserts, then, that I was humbled by microorganisms. About an hour later my meat leg began to itch. I ignored it until it grew intense enough to warrant closer attention. There was a scrape I’d overlooked when assessing my injuries after the crash. It was now red and swollen.

Fucking awesome. I’ve got an infected wound in the middle of ass fuck, nowhere. I became much less worried for my life when, upon returning to the wreck, I found a first aid kit stashed behind my seat. It saved my leg and perhaps my life, but did nothing to make the following forty eight hours any less miserable.

I suffered alternating hot and cold flashes, and coughed up what seemed like a liter or so of mucus. Do I need that inside of me? I hope not. I scolded myself for not searching for the first aid kit immediately after the crash. The tireless, insensate nature of my prosthetics made it all too easy to ignore what bad shape the rest of my body was in.

Those chickens had finally come home to roost, and for the next two days I could do little else besides weakly writhing in pain while I rode it all out. In the end my immune system successfully fought off the infection, but it left me in a dangerously weakened state.

I’d lost more weight than should be possible in that timeframe, my eyes looked sunken in and in all other ways I appeared on the verge of death. No more hanging around the crash site, I decided. If GPS is really down worldwide, there would be no help on the way. The only people who know my location are the last people I want finding me, least of all in this sickly condition.

So I set off into the jungle, stumbling feebly along with the help of a branch I’d stripped into a serviceable walking stick. Being a conshelfer, the previous owner of the body had an implant for recycling his own urine, salt water or any other grey water back into a drinkable state.

I could reuse it only a couple of times before needing to replenish from the stream, however, so I resolved to walk alongside it this time. As I did so, it soon occurred to me that I should have been doing that anyways.

The stream would necessarily lead me to the ocean, wouldn’t it? How I wished I knew more about how to navigate wilderness. The only information along those lines still loaded into my system was all related to open ocean survival. Not much use at the moment.

My second post-crash stroke of luck came in the form of a metal crate, roughly four feet to a side. Air dropped by the looks of it, surrounded by a bunched up parachute blanketing the forest floor. There only outwardly visible markings on the crate were unintelligible strings of numbers and letters.

The chute, however, turned out to have an enormous InterNourish logo on it once spread out enough that I could tell what it was. Don’t tell me...I used the screwdriver as a chisel and the wrench as a hammer to pry one of the sides loose.

Inside was the answer to my prayers. The revolting, chewy, flaky answer, in the form of perhaps a thousand InterNourish mealbars. Never thought I’d be the one choking these down, but even moreso here than in Shenzen, beggars can’t be choosers.

It sated my hunger at last, and I felt some measure of comfort and security knowing that I had a few months worth of food here...provided I was willing to keep eating this crap. A tough sell, even when the alternative is starving to death.

Pretty soon my color returned, and much of my strength with it. I had nothing like a map, but at least my body included some sort of compass equivalent, such that I could tell I’d been following the river East for the past hour or so.

I expected it to lead me straight to the ocean. What I didn’t expect was to find a five inch thick cable in the way. Grid related? Some sort of power line? But then wouldn’t it be up on supports, or buried if that were the case?

I studied it more closely, zooming in with my optics, and discovered the black material was neither rubber nor any sort of metal. Instead it looked to be carbon fiber. “No fucking way” I muttered to myself. “It can’t be.” This close? It must’ve fallen nearly on top of us.

Once the shock wore off, I reasoned that the cable would’ve wrapped itself around the equator as it collapsed. That helped narrow down my probable location. It also meant that besides whoever sent those enforcers after Dad, I could expect government spooks to arrive at some point.

Hard to say which is worse. I didn’t especially want to run into either, so I doubled back the way I came and resolved to explore in the opposite direction. On my way back to the crash site I began inwardly bitching to myself about this and that.

I needed to complain, but there was nobody else to listen. “I want ramen” I thought. “I want a hot shower. I want freshly steamed dumplings, and snow pear tea.” Instead, lunch was another bar of processed lard and some water recycled from my urine.

Is this my life now? Fat bars and pee water? Even my first day in Shenzen wasn’t so miserable. “On the other hand, at least I’m no longer sick” I thought. “At least I’ve got food, water and shelter.” That’s something. However bad it gets, unless I’m dead, it could be worse.

At least that’s what I thought until the diarrhea. Something in the water, has to be. The implant filters out salt, ammonia and nearly everything else I might want it to. But viruses are tiny. Viruses make it through, which unfortunately hadn’t occurred to me.

In fairness it could also be these nasty fucking mealbars. Or the infection’s last hurrah? Whatever the cause, I spent a solid hour hunched over, grunting and wiping tears from my eyes as I emptied out my insides all over the unfortunate plants behind me.

I want a shower. I want hot food. And now, I want toilet paper. Add that to the list of wishes that this beggar would ride, were they horses instead. Now dehydrated and light headed, my water purification implant went into overdrive replacing what I’d lost.

I wound up having to drink from the stream again. There’s just no alternative, at least not until it rains. If I could rig up some means of catching and storing rain water...then again, by that time my body will probably have adapted to the local microbes.

Wishful thinking maybe. But it kept my mind off the ugly reality that in all likelihood, I’m being hunted by highly paid corporate assassins. It gave me reason to question the wisdom of returning to the crash site.

However I could do nothing else if I wanted my prosthetics recharged. I settled into the springy pleather seat and relaxed as the coils activated, a notification popping up beneath my eyelids to inform me that the charging cycle had begun.

How precarious, this little bubble of technology. Of civilization, half crushed, buried partway in mud. My only lifeline. What would I do if the solar film stopped working for some reason? Or if the amenities battery were to catch fire after all?

The sort of problems I never gave any thought to back in Shenzen. Why would I? Technology surrounded me there. Immersed me, up to my eyeballs. That’s the ecosystem my prosthetics are designed to thrive in. The rest of me, not so much.

Out here’s a different story. The next day, having gotten over the worst of the infection and with a belly full of convincingly food-like biomass, I could feel my body starting to wake up. I can think of no better way to describe it. All my pores opened wide, my skin tingled with unfamiliar sensitivity and the fresh air invigorated my every muscle.

I could feel myself getting stronger. The illness must’ve been something like a biological system shock. A consequence of abruptly transplanting myself from the sterile world of machinery back into the lush, living wilderness. Yet in spite of the heat, in spite of the humidity, I began to feel outrageously, powerfully alive.

How similar it was to the way I recalled feeling on my ebike. No longer relying on my prosthetics to pull my weight, but cooperating harmoniously with them. Making full use of my meat leg, calf and thigh muscles flexing alongside the pneumatic pistons in my prosthetic as I trekked through the bush.

Something in my body was definitely reacting to the environment in a manner I’d never felt before. Like I could somehow absorb energy from my surroundings. Some kind of communication seemed to be taking place on a chemical level, though I couldn’t work out what any of it meant.

Has it always been like this? Has this feeling always been waiting out here for me, in the wild? I can’t think of any time in my life when I was away from civilization for this long. Field trips in school, visiting Dad out in the country back when he lived in that trailer, sure.

But I was always back home within a few hours at most. Back within range of a charging field and fast internet. It felt scary and humbling to be stranded this deep into what was, in many ways, an alien environment. Scary, but nourishing.

With every passing hour, more color returned to my cheeks and more of my strength returned. My posture improved, the skin around my eyes tightened somewhat, and my pulse slowed. The more I actually used my muscles, the less tiring it became. Is that how the human body normally works? Seems backwards to me.

So enamored with this feeling was I that I didn’t notice the figure creeping out of the jungle until he was right on me. In a flash, I had my gun out and trained on the short, wrinkly old man. Brown skinned, black hair in a bowl cut. Indigenous? If he were a Remnant, he’d be white. But then, I’m too far south for that.

The frail looking fellow held his hands up, but didn’t appear frightened. Instead he smiled warmly at me, and patiently waited until I put the gun back in my waistband to lower his hands. His face paint and haircut suggested indigenous, but he wore a faded yellow InterNourish t-shirt.

He noticed me studying it. “The clothes are fine. You can keep sending us more clothes if you want. No more of those bars, though. They’re terrible, we don’t eat them.” I laughed, taken aback. Apparently whatever dialect he spoke, it was included with my translation software.

“I don’t blame you” I replied. “I’d rather eat my own face than choke down another one of those.” The software dutifully translated it into his own tongue and a moment later, it was spoken in a synthesized voice from a speaker embedded in my arm.

He looked at my prosthetic arm. Then at my leg, then back up at me. Slowly, he shook his head. What’s that about? Am I really that unfunny? Aubrey always used to laugh at my jokes. He gestured for me to follow him down a well worn path through the undergrowth I’d only now noticed.

Should I really follow some random old indigenous man I just met? For all I know, this is how they hunt. For all I know he was sizing me up and working out the choicest cuts of my body to serve his extended family.

I meant to find civilization in a hurry though, for lack of any other way to get my bearings. This man was the first sign of civilization I’d so far encountered, and it seemed foolish to let him slip away without at least asking a few questions.

They couldn’t be one of those uncontacted tribes you hear about, otherwise they would most likely speak a dialect sufficiently different from anything already known to linguists that it couldn’t be included in my translator.

InterNourish wouldn’t just air drop aid crates onto the known locations of uncontacted tribes either, as it would contaminate the ongoing research of anthropologists. Who are these people, then? Might they have some form of internet access? Or better yet, a vehicle?

No such luck. When I asked him about it, he waved me off and insisted they had no use for such frivolous things. “How do you mean?” I badgered. “Without either of those, how do you get supplies?” He peered over his shoulder at me with a familiar expression on his face.

The expression of somebody who’s just heard the dumbest shit in their life. It didn’t bode well for my chances of catching a ride to the nearest city, and indeed when we arrived at his village, it was more or less paleolithic.

Wreaths decorated with flowers hung upon every other branch. Amid the trees, rather than in a clearing, sat around two dozen huts fashioned from leaves and grass. Villagers with the same complexion and haircut as the old man milled about or chatted with each other.

Not one of them had any sort of robotic prosthetics, which didn’t surprise me. What did surprise me is that they didn’t have anything electrical at all. No generators. No lights. No radios or televisions, no computers, no nothing.

Some of them were wearing InterNourish shirts, like the old man. Others were wearing clothing apparently made out of huge leaves. From banana trees, if I had to guess. Except when several of them congregated to greet the old man and get a closer look at me, I could see no stitches anywhere on the garments.

“How did you make these?” I queried, rubbing the sleeve of the woman nearest me in bewilderment. “We didn’t” he answered, then led me into the largest hut. I expected to find the cheiftan here. In fact, I half suspected it was the little old man the entire time.

Instead, I was greeted by an absolutely radiant beauty of a woman wearing the same plant based garments as many of the villagers, perched on a throne which looked to have grown out of the ground into the desired shape.

She was lovely in a way that I never knew a woman could be. Her face round and flush, her body well muscled from what I could see. Even beneath the jungle canopy, she shone like the sun, exuding health and power with every word, gesture and step.

“Welcome to our humble home” she said, smiling at me the same way the old man had earlier. As if we knew one another for years before this. “If you’re a missionary, please leave whatever book it is you mean for us to read on the pile over there.”

She pointed to a stack of various holy books in the corner on a table which apparently grew out of the ground into that shape, like the throne. How did they make it do that? Besides which, if they’ve been contacted, why don’t they at least have smartphones by now?

I asked her name. She frowned as if I’d done something untoward, but obliged. I couldn’t pronounce it, and elected not to make any more of an ass out of myself by trying. “I’ll just call you chieftess if that suits you.”

She smirked, betraying a hint of irritation in her expression. “As well you should. I didn’t just start calling myself a ruler one day, I’m the one who brought these people together. Who kept them united through hardship, guided them in their ways all these years, and protected them from harm. You will indeed address me as chieftess, and look at your feet when you do it.”

Fair enough. I then somberly introduced myself, though she seemed uninterested. “We know your kind. You come from the world of metal. There is no metal here. We have renounced that way. The world of metal demands aggression, duplicity and cruelty. In such a world, the only unforgivable sin is gentleness. Our way of life can only survive so long as it is kept separate from that world.”

It made some sense of why they didn’t lift any gadgets off the missionaries, or make use of the charity laptops regularly delivered to villages like these. By the sound of it they viewed such offerings the way I would view a dealer who offers me a free sample, hoping to get his hook in my mouth.

“You wear the shirts though.” She nodded. “It’s thoughtful of you to send them. We would be rude to turn them down. Please, no more of those chewy bars though.” She sounded just as adamant about that part as the old man before her.

I recounted how I crash landed in the jungle and found the InterNourish crate nearby. “I’d have starved otherwise. Though I agree, eat enough of those things and starvation starts to look pretty good.” She offered to feed me and have someone examine my wounds.

I accepted the offer of a hot meal but wasn’t keen to let the local witch doctor put leeches on me, or whatever passes for medicine around here. But for that matter, who knows what they eat? Their apparent matriarch seemed friendly enough I doubted that I was on the menu, but that didn’t rule out insects, monkeys and a great many other things I’d rather not inflict on my stomach.

Instead, it was a vegan banquet. The fruit and vegetables were unlike any species known to me however, which I put down to my unfamiliarity with South American ecology. That is until I bit into one of them.

“This tastes exactly like pork” I remarked. The fellow next to me handed me another. “It’s a copy fruit. Replicates the flavor of whatever you rub it on.” I rejected it. “That’s impossible. No such fruit exists, and I doubt if genetic engineering has come far enough to make something that sophisticated.”

He didn’t bother trying to convince me, just turned his attention back to his own meal as I continued munching on the green, meat flavored pod. The next one I bit into tasted just like venison. How can something like this exist?

“You could make a fortune exporting these” I mumbled through a mostly full mouth. “What would we buy with that money” the woman across from me inquired. “Meat?” I was struck at once by the absurdity of it, as she probably intended.

“Maybe you think we could use it to buy clothes.” Again, they clearly had the means to grow their own. I studied the jungle canopy around me until I spotted a tree with shirts, pants and slippers dangling from it. All looked as though made from leaves, but apparently grew into that shape of their own accord.

Various other trees also had useful products growing from them, as did a handful of nearby bushes. Knives, arrowheads, hatchets and other sharp implements, formed out of a rapidly hardening resin secreted by bright yellow bulbs on the bush behind me. I took care not to lean back too far.

Another grew what looked to be respirator masks, presumably how they survive gas storms. The next one over grew rope. Not the individual filaments one might weave a rope out of, but complete, pre-woven lengths of rope. What the fuck is all this? Some sort of illegal, off the radar field test for genetically engineered flora. I felt sure of it.

Who in the world is engineering plants at such an advanced level, though? Has biotech really come that far in the six years I was locked away? I could scarcely imagine it. I would’ve seen stuff like this back in Shenzen if that were true.

Even the huts, now that I thought to examine them more closely, were basically just huge dwelling-shaped plants of some sort. Like short, squat weeping willows but with long, wide, overlapping leaves that formed a fully enclosed shelter.

What I didn’t see were animal skins. None of their clothing looked to be made from animal skins, nor were they present in any of the decorations. The knives, arrowheads and such must’ve been mainly for defensive purposes then. I wonder how many intruders, less friendly than I, they’ve had to kill so far.

There was no cleanup after the meal as even the dishes were edible. Delicious too, though by now that was unsurprising. Who are these people? How did they get ahold of biotech this far beyond anything I’ve seen in the developed world?

To my chagrin, I was even able to take a hot shower. I took these people for primitives when I first arrived. What else are they hiding? The hot water came out of something resembling a five foot tall pitcher plant.

There was a veiny, ribbed green tube projecting from the top, then suspended from one of the overhead branches, terminating in the organic equivalent of a showerhead. Look at all those precisely formed little holes. Whose signature would I find in this thing’s DNA, if I had the means to sequence it?

It was still pretty warm out. I’d actually have preferred cold water right then, but could find no way to adjust the temperature. There were no protuberances resembling knobs or buttons anywhere on it that I could see.

“Feeling better?” I spun around to find their chieftess standing in the shelter’s opening. I covered myself, hot water still running down my body. “Come now” she urged. “Don’t bother with that. Shame is another vice from the metal world that we live without.”

She stripped out of her leafy green garments and stepped under the shower head with me. My eyeballs must’ve been the size of dinner plates. I no longer knew where to put my hands, so I held them up as if she had a weapon pointed at me. In truth, I was the one with a weapon pointed at her.

If she noticed, she gave no indication of it as she busied herself washing that long, thick mane of black hair which reached down to her knees. Eyes closed, she pointed to a seed pod of some kind on a little shelf just beyond her reach.

Still gobsmacked, I wordlessly handed it to her. She squeezed it, and a foamy substance I quickly worked out was some kind of soap oozed out of its pores. She used the foam to lather up her hair, and scrub down every inch of her glorious brown body while I struggled not to have my first hands-free orgasm since the Small World ride at Disneyland.

She handed the seed pod to me. Sheepishly, I squeezed it the way I saw her do it. More foam came out. I proceeded to finish washing myself as she dried off using a matted sheet of what I assumed had once been moss.

“I’ve got about a thousand questions for you” I sputtered. She looked amused. “Really? At a time like this, information is what you want from me?” I pretended I didn’t know what she was getting at, sitting awkwardly on the only chair in the room in a position I hoped would hide my erection.

“How the hell does your economy work? Houses for example. Is there a housing market? I don’t see any way to sell somebody a house when they could just grow their own. Do you have anything like a currency? How is labor divided?”

Her amused expression slowly transformed into one of impatience as I spoke. “The same tiresome questions as always. A beautiful woman joins you in the shower, and you want to know about money. You do seem at least somewhat different than the others so far, though. You’ve not tried to steal anything.”

The thought did cross my mind earlier. If I could smuggle even a tiny genetic sample from any one of these plants back to Shenzen, I felt certain it would make me revoltingly wealthy overnight. It surprised nobody more than me that I couldn’t bring myself to rob these people.

“There’s something else” she added, wringing her hair out and pulling her garments back on. “I sensed an energy in you when you first arrived. I wasn’t certain of it then but now I’m sure. Have you been contacted by any spirits?”

I reassured her that if I had, I would’ve first had my head examined before possibly calling the Ghostbusters. I don’t know why I thought she’d get the reference. She wouldn’t leave it alone. “Perhaps the metal world no longer has any concept of spirits, but have you been visited in dreams?”

I was about to rebuff her again before I remembered the strange dreams I’ve been having. The visions of a crude virtual world, my inexplicable birth into it and subsequent explorations. “Alright, yes. If you want to frame it that way.”

I expected satisfaction, but she instead looked troubled. “Even I was beginning to doubt. But for you to arrive so soon after the black tower fell…” I intuited she meant the collapse of the space elevator. “We must bring you before her at once.”

“Her”? Could there be some higher local authority I’d not yet been introduced to? Would she also barge in while I’m showering? Perhaps it’s their custom. But she didn’t lead me to another dwelling. Instead she summoned ten other villagers who accompanied us to a round wooden platform about twenty feet across.

There were soft round mats equally spaced around the outer rim, which the ten villagers and the chieftess settled into. I followed suit, not knowing what to expect. It was drugs, naturally. Nothing so cliche as a peace pipe, instead one of them handed out small clay cups.

Another then made the rounds pouring fragrant tea from a pitcher into each of the cups, one at a time. “Listen babe, you’ve been wonderful so far. I can’t fault your hospitality, and you’ve got a rockin’ bod no question. But I still don’t know you that well, I dunno if I want to trip balls alread-”

She shushed me. “Really though” I continued, “I get all emotional n’ shit. I pour out all my feelings everywhere, it’s really something I was only ever comfortable doing with Aubrey. I haven’t so much as dropped acid for-”

She glared. Everybody else gulped down their serving of tea. Shouldn’t this be the point where some popular cartoon character appears to talk about peer pressure and the importance of saying no to drugs? Or is that after you’ve dosed?

Oh well, when in Rome. I slurped down the contents of my own cup to her apparent satisfaction, at which point she did the same. “What have I done”, I thought. “What the fresh hell have I gotten myself into?” I was so dazzled by their technology I didn’t consider the possibility that this might be some kind of weird nature cult.

This better not be a group suicide. That better not have been poison I drank. If so, I resolved to haunt the bujeezus out of this village for eternity. Hella rattling some chains and shit, if I could even find any. Do you get complimentary chains when you become a ghost?

My anxiety mounted as I felt the tea kicking in. The first visuals to manifest were gentle, swirling distortions of the branches overhead. The setting sun darkened the jungle such that every shadow seemed full of pulsing, dancing geometric patterns.

The sort of stuff you see on substances of this nature with your eyes closed. Because you’ve deprived your brain of any real imagery to misinterpret, so it begins making imagery of its own. Hard to say whether the open eye or closed eye visuals are more entrancing.

It wasn’t acid in the tea though, that’s for damn sure. The intensity just kept ramping up even after it reached the level a strong dose of acid usually plateaus at for me. The distortions only grew more energetic and violent. Soon I could barely make sense of the jungle around me.

My stomach churned. I really, really didn’t want to throw up in front of everybody, but the nausea only grew worse until I gave in. Hunching over the edge of the platform I emptied the contents of my stomach onto the forest floor.

The others were presumably doing the same. I could hear people throwing up, but could no longer recognize the shape of a human being anywhere in the mess of pulsating, colorful patterns all around me.

I began to panic, but my motor control was compromised such that I couldn’t get up. I just tumbled over onto my side every time I attempted it. “Don’t fight it” she said from somewhere in the visually baffling mess of shapes. “It’s not for you to control. Let it take you where it wants. Trust it to take good care of you, and it will show you many wonderful things.”

I focused on the sound of her voice and let it calm my nerves. As I calmed down, perhaps in response, the visual confusion around me also slowed down. It became less energetic, less jagged. The shapes were now smooth, rounded and flowed from place to place like neon liquids.

“Look” the chieftess said, what I figured for her hand pointing up at the jungle canopy. “She comes.” She? Who could she mean? But as I’d resolved not to trouble myself with questions, nor to fight for control over what was happening to me, I laid on my back and followed her direction.

Gazing up into the branches overhead, a shape began to resolve. A humanoid figure. At first vague, it gradually grew sharper and more distinct. At last it was revealed as a beautiful, shapely woman made out of the overhead branches and leaves.

“She comes” whispered the chieftess once again, voice full of wonder. “Asherah communes with us.” I now had a name to put to it. As if that’s what it was waiting for, it began to dance. I could hear the other villagers on the platform around me laughing and gurgling like happy babies as they watched, apparently seeing the same thing I was.

I felt my mind growing, somehow beyond the confines of my own skull. Stretching out, extending into the environment. Into the trees and ferns, into the insects and birds. I became aware of the forest in an intimate way which defies description in any currently existing language.

I could see in my mind’s eye that the trees behaved like neuron analogs, propagating chemical signals between one another rather than electrical. Networking every tree in this jungle into a massive, conscious mind...just a very slow one.

“It is no great crime to perceive time differently” a booming, womanly voice opined. “Does it not already move too quickly for you?” My body tensed as I realized that the very moment I’d become aware of the forest intelligence, it had also become aware of me. Some sort of channel of communication was opened by that mutual recognition.

Above me, the feminine figure danced and flitted about through the canopy which by the looks of it was the medium in which she existed. Or at least her means of appearing before us in a visually comprehensible way.

“My queen” the chieftess declared, “an outsider came to us today. He came from the kingdom prepared for your lover, by those followers of his which still deny you. I thought I sensed his essence on the outsider, but only you will know for sure.”

I stared, transfixed by the alien beauty of the tree woman. Her generous locks of long, luxuriant hair flowed continuously like rivers. She seemed a giant by comparison to us, her face alone perhaps five feet high.

Her eyes shone with an energy that stirred my heart. The same gentleness I detected in the smiles of the chieftess, and the old man who led me to this village in the first place. I knew I could mount no emotional defense against a smile like that.

“Why this one, I wonder” spake the gigantic tree goddess as she loomed above me. “He doesn’t look the part, does he?” I felt somewhat indignant but wasn’t about to say so to the face of a hallucinatory nature goddess.

“Look at your heart. Look at your intestines, you’re so poisoned! What have you been eating, you poor thing?” I always knew my hermitic diet of instant ramen and frozen dumplings would fuck me over one day, I just never imagined the consequences would be metaphysical.

“What business is it of yours?” I demanded. “Who are you? WHAT are you, for that matter?” The confounding music of her laughter rang out, echoing through the jungle around me. “You’re a sassy one. Do your people still know of the elohim?”

Her voice oozed calm confidence even while terror gripped my heart. The entity, or vision, or whatever I ought to call it had no obvious intention to harm me. Yet simply gazing upon her inspired a unique mixture of awe and terror which I’ve only read about in the context of religious visions.

My heart raced, pounding so violently I felt sure it would soon burst through my ribcage. I could no longer tell where my body ended and the platform began. Or the jungle, for that matter. It felt as if I was melting. Blending into everything, the distinctions which make me separate from all of it having been illusory all along.

I screamed, then got up and ran. My body now responded to my brain’s commands well enough that I was able to scramble feverishly through the pitch black jungle, alarmed voices of the chieftess and villagers calling out behind me.

I just kept running. Whenever I fell, I continued on all fours until I could pick myself up and resume running properly. I’ve never been so fucking terrified. Like constant electrocution, the only thought I could process being the imperative to flee.

I knelt and puked a second time, then again until I could only dry heave. I pulled myself to my feet, still seized by the conviction that I would surely die if I didn’t get as far away from what I’d glimpsed back there as possible.

I continued running until I tripped over a root I couldn’t see in the darkness, twisting my ankle. I cried out in pain and collapsed in a heap, feeling tenderly at the joint. Not broken so far as I could tell, but possibly sprained.

This fucking meat leg! I’d be fine if I’d tripped with the prosthetic. I limped along, still surrounded by incomprehensible dancing figures in the darkness of the jungle, which had suddenly become a lot more menacing.

They were only ever a reflection of my own internal state, I realized. That’s all the tree woman ever was, too. They must’ve planted the idea in my head, priming me to see what they wanted. All just a result of my own expectations.

That rationale did very little to calm me. I witnessed the chieftess speaking to it, and heard it reply as if it understood her. We had to be seeing and hearing the same thing, then. Whatever they put in the tea must’ve also been the result of genetic engineering, surely?

I’ve never heard of a naturally occurring psychedelic with reproducible, synchronized effects on multiple people tripping together. If not for that element of the ceremony I’d be content to assume it was ayahuasca.

The visuals were consistent with what I’ve read about DMT, and I knew it to be ritualistically consumed as a tea in ceremonies Western new age types fly to South America in order to experience. Why did we see and hear the same thing, though?

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