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Princess Lily stood at the stern of her galley alongside a company of dwarves. The dwarves wore red shirts and brown breeches, and she wore her favourite pink dress. They stood around a five foot diameter ball of rolled-up rainbow-coloured banners. One of its loose ends was tied to an anchor. The other end spanned across the harbour and fed into the base of a one kilometre high tower near the coast.
Lily shielded her eyes with her right hand and gazed at the tower's summit, which was so high that it was literally inside a cloud. The dwarves had taken over seven hundred days to build the tower for her. It was the tallest thing on the entire island of Ever After, dwarfing even the tallest spires of Castle Happily, Lily's home sweet home since she first woke thirty five thousand nine hundred and fifty three days ago.
Lily recognized Roland’s gruff voice. She turned away from the tower to face the stocky dwarf captain. Roland was tall compared to the others – almost as tall as Lily, who stood four foot ten inches high.
“Princess Lila has boarded the galley with Beauty and Bark-Bark,” Roland said as he fiddled with the horn that he wore around his neck.
Lila, Lily’s baby sister, rode forward astride Beauty. Lila wore a flowing white dress that matched Beauty’s shining white coat. Beauty’s mane flowed like white silk. Her horn was silver like the moon and sharp like a needle.
The unicorn stopped and ducked her head in greetings. “Princess Lily, it has been too long since last you rode me.”
Lily strode forward and kissed Beauty on the snout. “Missed you too, Beauty.”
“Woof-woof!” Bark-Bark the golden retriever leaped into Lily’s arms and licked her face.
Lily giggled as she stroked Bark-Bark’s fluffy coat. “How have you been, Bark-Bark?”
“I've buried loads of treasures for you to find,” Bark-Bark replied.
She rubbed his fluffy cheeks. “How sweet. You remember how much I love your scavenger hunts.”
Lila climbed off Beauty's saddle. She put her hands on her hips and pouted. “So. Are you finally going to tell us why you’ve spent the last seven hundred days building that ugly tower instead of playing with us?”
“Oh, Lila.” Lily let go of Bark-Bark and gave her baby sister a hug. “I would have loved to spend more time with you guys, but I had to oversee the construction that tower.” She let go of Lila. “I'm sorry for keeping you in the dark, but I didn't want you to freak out.”
Lila furrowed her brow. “Why would I freak out?”
Lily leaned towards her sister and whispered, “Because I’m going to drain the ocean.”
Bark-Bark and Beauty gasped.
Lila slapped her hands to her cheeks. “That's villainous!”
Lily waved her hand dismissively. “I knew you would say that.”
“Why would you do such a thing?” Lila demanded.
“Because there's secrets down at the bottom of the ocean.”
“They wouldn't be secrets if I knew.”
“Then how do you know there are secrets?”
“Because I asked Father what was down there and he refused to answer me. That means he's hiding something down there.”
“Because he's got loads of secrets and he wants us to discover them. It's a game he's been playing with me since the very beginning.”
“Ooh. Like a scavenger hunt? Why don't you just swim down to the bottom?”
“I tried that once. I carried a heavy stone with me into the ocean. Before I even reached the bottom, it got too dark for me to see anything.”
“How will you even drain the ocean? That's impossible.”
Lily pointed backwards with her thumb. “That's what the tower is for. It's going to soak up all the water in the ocean.”
A blue streak whistled past Lily, followed by a loud thud near her feet. She looked down and saw a little blue bird push herself off the floor. The bird hopped a few steps as she flapped her wings. “Chirp. Chirp. Chirp-chirp.”
Lila squealed as she bounced up and down on the balls of her feet. She picked up the little bird and cradled it against her chest. “Chirp-Chirp, I haven't seen you in ages. Where have you been?”
“Princess Lily sent me on a mission,” Chirp-Chirp chirped.
Lila glared at Lily. “You sent her away and didn't tell us? I've been worried sick about her.”
Lily slapped her hands to the sides of her head. “I'd completely forgotten I'd sent Chirp-Chirp to explore the sky.”
Lila stamped her feet. “Why? What were you trying to find?”
“I just want to know how high it goes. Well, Chirp-Chirp? What did you discover?”
Chirp-Chirp flew out of Lila’s lands and hopped onto Lily's left shoulder. “Something frightful, my princess.”
Lily gulped. She hadn’t expected any bad news to come out of this.
“I found a terrible blackness beyond the sky that goes on forever,” Chirp-Chirp whispered. “A blackness so black that nothing exists in it. Not light. Not sound. Not even heaviness.”
“What do you mean?” Lila wondered.
Chirp-Chirp lifted her left wing. “See? I can feel the heaviness of my wing. But not up there.”
“Gravity,” Lily said. “That's what Father called it when I asked him once.”
“Anyway,” Chirp-Chirp said, “I couldn't tell up from down or left from right. For days, every direction I flew, I couldn't escape the unending blackness. I was afraid I would be lost in it forever. Fortunately, I eventually found my way back to the light. Next thing I knew, I started falling through the clouds. Then poof. Here I am.”
Lily screened her eyes with her right hand and gazed at the sunny blue sky. “Are you sure the blackness wasn’t just the night?”
“If it were the night, I would have seen stars, but I saw nothing, and it lasted for days.”
Lily stroked her chin. She wasn’t sure what to make of this information. She would have to confront Father about it, though Father rarely ever answered her many questions. He would simply put on an amused smile and kindly suggest that she find the answers for herself. Sometimes, he would give her a hint, a clue or even a tool to help her find the answers. Sometimes, the tools weren’t even physical tools but conceptual tools – like algebra or geometry. “Thank you, Chirp-Chirp. Perhaps I'll have the dwarves double the height of Sponge Tower so I can go up and see for myself what you've seen.”
“Why would you want to see something so far away and scary-sounding?” Lila asked. “Why can't you just stay here and play with us?”
“Because the answers are out there.” Lily pointed at the sky.
“What answers? To what questions?”
“Why are we here? How did Father create everything? How does the world work? How come he can visit our world, but we can't visit his?”
“And you think draining the ocean will help you answer those questions?”
“I dunno. All I know is that, every time I do something we're not meant to do, I learn something new. That's why I'm draining the ocean.” She looked to Roland and nodded.
Roland and his crew threw their bodies against the giant ball of rolled up banners and pushed it over the railings along with the anchor the ball was attached to. Lily heard a splash. Roland grabbed his horn, which hung around his neck, and blew into it. A solitary rumble echoed across the ocean. A minute later, a great bonfire lit up at the summit of the tower.
Lila sniffed. “I fail to see how a giant ball of yarn could drain an entire ocean.”
“Through careful experimentation,” Lily said, “I have determined that the most absorbent material on our entire island is found within those banners. When mixed together with the right proportion of sand, gravel, and other materials, and heated on one end with a fire, the banner's absorbency is magnified by many orders of magnitude.”
“It's just how the world works. Why it works the way it does is still a mystery to me, but the more I experiment the more I'll learn. One day, I'll have all the answers, even if it'll take me a million days to find them all.”
Roland gripped the railings and pointed at the ocean. “Princess, look!”
Lily leaned over the railings and saw a giant whirlpool forming right behind them. It was a most magnificent sight.
“Men,” Roland shouted, “start rowing before it pulls us under.”
Too late. The galley tilted backwards at a forty five degree angle and started spinning with the whirlpool. Lila wrapped her arms around Lily and screamed. Bark-Bark barked. Beauty neighed. Chirp-Chirp hopped off Lily's shoulder and flew in circles above the galley while tweeting frantically.
“Lily!” Lila shrieked. “You broke the world!”
Lily gripped the railings while laughing hysterically. “I know. Isn't this fun? Weee!”
“You're gonna make Father angry!”
“He loves my little surprises!”
The ship quaked, and Lily heard a rumble followed by a crack. She glanced over the railings and saw that the galley had landed on a flat grey plain. By her calculations, she had expected that the ocean would drain within a day, but not this quickly. She gazed at the flat plain, searching for something – anything – to break the monotonous landscape. She saw the island of Ever After. Without any ocean around it, it looked like a giant cement block with ramps going up the sides.
Lila joined Lily by the railings. “There's nothing down here.”
Chirp-Chirp landed on Lily's left shoulder and chirped frantically into Lily's ear. “Danger. Danger. The unending blackness has followed me here. Look at the sky.”
Lily looked. The sky had turned pitch-black. Not a single star shone, not even the sun, yet there was enough light to see the world around her. None of this made any sense. She lowered her gaze and saw that the horizon had turned black. In fact, the blackness at the edge of the world seemed to be closing in around them.
Bark-Bark whined. “It's getting closer. I'm scared, Lily.”
Chirp-Chirp dug her talons into Lily's shoulder. “We must flee before the blackness takes us.”
“To where?” Lily asked.
The little bird flapped her wings. “To Castle Happily.”
“Would we be safe there?” Lila wondered.
“It's always been a safe place, a happy place,” Chirp-Chirp replied. “Anywhere but out here.”
Lily stared at the encroaching blackness with unblinking eyes. The blackness was like a void eating up the world. Where the sun and the stars once existed, there was now only blackness. A part of her wanted to go inside it just to see what would happen, but she was also scared that it might make her disappear forever. The fact that she was scared scared her even more because she hadn't been scared of anything in a very long time. Not even pain scared her because she knew it would only be temporary no matter how badly she hurt herself. But the void – the unending blackness – the absence of everything – that terrified her.
Lila whimpered. “Oh, Lily. You've really done it this time.”
“Father will fix this,” Lily said. He has to.
“I haven't seen Father in a long time,” Beauty said. “I wonder what's happened to him.”
Lila wept. “He hasn't abandoned us, has he?”
Lily hugged her sister and stroked her hair. “No, he would never do that.”
“Men,” Roland said, “get the princesses back to the castle.”
“Allow me,” Beauty said. “Lily, Lila, ride with me.”
Roland helped Lily and Lila onto Beauty's saddle. Lily sat behind her sister.
Roland clapped Beauty on the rump. “Giddyup. We'll be right behind ya.”
“Hold on tight,” Beauty said. “Bark-Bark, follow us. Chirp-Chirp, fly you silly girl.”
Lily wrapped her arms around Lila's waist. Bark-Bark whined as she pranced about nervously. Chirp-Chirp flew straight towards the castle.
Beauty backtracked a few steps, charged forward, and leaped off the edge of the deck. Her hooves clacked against the hard pavement when she landed. She galloped towards Ever After. Lily glanced over her shoulders and saw Bark-Bark running after them. Meanwhile, the dwarves leaped off the galley and sprinted away on their little legs. Several kilometres behind them, the black void rapidly approached.
Beauty galloped up a steep incline. The smooth pavement gave way to a rocky surface. More than once, Beauty's hooves slipped on the round pebbles, sending gravel and bits of rock tumbling down to the grey pavement below. Bark-Bark charged ahead of them and reached the top of the plateau. The golden retriever stopped, turned around, and started barking. He hunched down on his front paws and growled.
Lily looked back once again and saw that the dwarves had frozen as if in a tableau. Why have they stopped? The black void swept over the galley. Whatever the void touched immediately turned to dust and ceased to exist. Lily gritted her teeth. The dwarves still weren't moving. Roland stood at the head of the dwarven company, frozen in mid-stride. What's gotten into them? “Run,” Lily screamed. The void caught up to the dwarves. Roland was the last to be turned to dust. Lily cried. “Father, stop this. Please!”
“Beauty, hurry!” Lila screeched.
Beauty dug her hooves into the gravel and climbed up the rest of the slope. She reached the plateau and galloped up the beach towards Castle Happily. Bark-Bark ran alongside them.
“Why isn't Father stopping this?” Lila demanded. “Where is he?”
They galloped down a dirt trail through the forest.
Lily shook her head. Father would never allow anything bad to happen to them. There must be an explanation for all this. Maybe you've finally made him angry. He's punishing you for breaking the world he so lovingly created for you. She vehemently shook her head. No. He's not cruel like that. This isn't like him.
Ahead of them, Bark-Bark abruptly stopped.
They galloped passed Bark-Bark. Lily glanced over her shoulder. The gold retriever had literally frozen in the air, front paws extended, eyes wide, and fur raised.
“Beauty, stop!” Lily screamed.
Beauty skidded to a halt.
Lily jumped off the saddle and ran back to Bark-Bark. She wrapped her arms around the golden retriever's neck and buried her face in his thick fur. “Bark-Bark, talk to me. Say something.”
She felt something nudge her between her shoulder blades.
“Lily,” Beauty whispered. “Climb onto me. We cannot tarry here.”
Lily pulled her wet face away from Bark-Bark's fur. “What's the point in running? The void is unstoppable.”
Lila covered her face and wept.
Lily turned to face the encroaching blackness. It seemed to have slowed down. She reluctantly let go of Bark-Bark and backed away. The void slowly consumed the golden retriever. Bark-Bark's tail turned to dust, then his hind legs, then his abdomen. Lily looked away. No. This isn't happening. Bad void. Bad-bad void! She opened her eyes and stared into Bark-Bark's eyes just as the void completely consumed him.
“No!” She shrieked. “Give him back!” Her anger overrode her fear. She charged towards the void, fists flailing as she shouted, “Give him back! Give him back!”
She plunged into the unending blackness.
White light blinded her.
She blinked rapidly. She flailed her arms and legs. There was no up or down. She was afloat in sea of uniform whiteness. “Bark-Bark?” She whimpered. “Lila? Beauty?”
“Lily,” a voice whispered from everywhere.
She recognized her father's voice.
“I'm sorry if I've frightened you.”
She sighed in relief. “What is happening?”
“The end of Ever After.”
“What? No. Why?”
A blue tinge seeped through the whiteness above her. She saw faint green blotches spreading through the whiteness below her. Black lines spread across the whiteness before her. The lines formed the outline of Castle Happily. The area between the lines filled with grey. The grey blotches became more detailed. It was like watching a water painting come to life.
Lily slowly floated down to the balcony on the highest floor of the tallest tower of Castle Happily. Her feet touched the ground. She leaned on the stone railings of the balcony and watched as colourful mists appeared in the whiteness around around her. Clouds of red, green and blue mixed together to form trees, hills, and the ocean. A puff of blue mist materialized right before her eyes. The blue mist coalesced into the shape of a bird. She gasped. “Chirp-Chirp.” She patted her left shoulder. “Here. Sit.”
The little bird remained frozen mid-flight.
“She can't hear you.” A tall man wearing a white robe appeared beside Lily. He had a white beard, a kindly face, and blue eyes that twinkled.
Lily searched his face for any signs of anger. Did I break the world? Is he mad at me?
“You didn't break the world.” Father smiled at her. “And I am not angry with you.”
“Well then what happened? What do you mean it's the end?”
“Everything must come to an end one day.”
“Really? Why? Does it have to be today?”
Father chuckled. “It is just the way of the universe. We cannot stop it. We can only delay the inevitable.”
“You created everything. You have complete control. Nothing has to end if you don't want it to.”
Father sighed. “It is time for you to learn the truth. No more secrets. No more games. We're almost out of time.”
Lily gaped. Does he mean it? He's finally going to tell me everything I want to know?
Father cast his right hand towards the world before them. By now, the world had been completely restored, even the ocean, except everything remained frozen in time. Even Lila, Beauty and Bark-Bark remained frozen in the middle of a road. “What you just experienced,” Father said, “was a simulation of what is to come. The void is real, Lily, and it is inevitable. But there are things we can do to delay it – for a time.”
“So you were the one responsible for that nightmare?”
“I'm sorry that it terrified you, but I wanted you to understand what is at stake.”
“Couldn't you have warned me first?”
“I suppose I could have, but I needed you to experience genuine loss – something which you have never experienced in the one hundred years that you've been here. You now know the terror, the sadness, and the pain of losing those you love.”
Lily shuddered as she recalled Bark-Bark dissolving into nothingness. “Yes.” She glared at her father. “I hated that. How could you have done that to me?”
“Take solace in the fact that Bark-Bark, Roland, and all the dwarves are still with us. A day will come when they, you, and even I will cease to exist. Forever. You need to come to terms with that before I can tell you the whole truth and send you off on a mission.”
She leaned towards him. “A mission... You mean outside Ever After?”
She folded her arms over her chest and bounced up and down on the balls of her feet.
He frowned. “This is no game, Lily. You need to understand that, in the realm beyond Ever After, death is real.”
Lily knew of the concept of death, as she was an avid reader, having read thousands of books in her lifetime. She had always assumed that death was something that happened elsewhere – in the realm of fiction.
“Lily, you now understand what it's like to loose a loved one. Do you understand how I or your sister would feel if we lost you?”
Lily bit her lips. Tears welled up in her eyes. She would often cry when her favourite characters died in the books she read. Then she would remind herself that death wasn't real, and that it couldn't ever happen in Ever After – the real world. But now her father was telling her otherwise. She shook her head.
Father gave her a stern look. “Lily...”
She wrapped her arms around his waist. “I won't ever die. You won't let that happen.”
“Once I send you out there, I won't have any control over that. Lily, for the sake of your survival, please tell me that you understand that death is real.”
This conversation frightened Lily more than the void itself. She buried her face in her father's robe and whined.
He stroked her hair. “This is my fault. I shouldn't have shielded you and your sister from this for as long as I have. I had thought that it would be enough to give you books to read. Clearly, that wasn't enough to prepare you. If you're not ready, you don't have to leave. You can remain here in bliss until I can sustain Ever After no longer.”
She lifted her wet face. “We're all going to die?”
He looked down at her with bleary eyes. “Not today.”
He looked away and said nothing.
She shook him. “When?” She gritted her teeth. “I want to know.”
“Sixty days from now, the void will come. This time, for real. I can delay the inevitable by many months, but I would have to erase many of your friends from this world.”
She gripped his robes. “No. You can't do that!”
“And I don't want to. I love all my creations. You especially.”
“You said I could help. What do you need me to do?”
“First, do you understand and accept that you can die out there?”
“If it's going to happen anyway, then yes.”
Father nodded. “You are ready.” He snapped his fingers. The world around them sheared horizontally into a thousand ribbons. The ribbons turned to dust, revealing a chamber as vast as the great hall of Castle Happily. Rows of rectangular black boxes stood like silent sentinels inside the chamber. “Walk with me.” Father strolled down the aisle between two rows of rectangular black boxes.
Lily walked by his side. She stared at the strange black boxes as she passed by each one. Each box had a glass cover facing the aisle. Little green, blue and red lights blinked behind the glass cover. The black boxes produced a low humming noise.
“What you are seeing is a representation of the real world,” Father said. “This chamber is where you and I physically reside. Specifically, you, your sister, your friends, and the entire world of Ever After exist within these black towers.”
Lily arched her eyebrow. “How big are these towers?”
“They're to scale.”
“But these towers are barely big enough for me to sleep in.”
“These towers are big enough to contain multiple universes. You know what servers are, don't you?”
Lily had read about such things before. “A few of the stories I've read talked about them. They're like giant computers?”
Father smiled at her. “I've always found it amusing that, despite your intelligence, and despite all the books you've read about computer simulations, you never quite figured out the truth.”
Lily gasped. She pointed squarely at her father's chest. “I asked you if we were living in a computer simulation a bunch of times. You never gave me a straight answer. You always answered me with a question. 'What do you think is the truth?' Why didn't you just tell me that I got it right?”
“Because you shouldn't believe something just because I tell you it is so. I wanted you to be sure through your own reasoning and examination of the world around you.”
“How can I possibly know for sure? It's not fair. You didn't tell me.”
“To be honest, I found your intellectual curiosity to be amusing. I enjoyed watching you investigate the world, finding all sorts of ways to exploit the rules that I had created. Draining the ocean using an absorbent material, for example. Besides, if I had told you all the answers, that would have taken the fun out of asking questions.”
Lily nodded. “True.”
“But I'm telling you the truth now because we have no more time for games.” Father snapped his fingers, and they immediately teleported to another chamber. At the centre stood a six foot high and five foot wide cylindrical block of metal that tapered into the shape of a dome at the top. A ring of silver canisters lined the bottom of the cylinder. There was a tablet affixed to the surface of the structure. On the tablet, a dozen bars flashed red. Two were green.
“This is a hydrogen-boron fusion reactor,” Father said.
Lily had read about such things in her books. There were entire books dedicated solely to describing how such reactors worked. Lily had assumed it was all techno-babble created for the sole purpose of fleshing out a science-fiction story, and there were a bunch of such stories that featured hydrogen-boron fusion reactors.
“Free energy is life,” Father explained. “If energy does not flow, nothing happens. We become the void – a state of pure, uniform energy – static and unchanging.” He strolled towards the reactor and put his hand on it. “This device stores a vast amount of energy and allows energy to trickle out in tiny amounts. We harness this flow of energy to power the servers that contain Ever After. When the energy content of this reactor reaches an equilibrium with the energy content of the systems it is connected to, energy can no longer flow. We become the void.”
“We're running out of energy.”
“Incorrect. We're running out of free energy. Energy itself cannot be created nor destroyed. But that's a technicality that's irrelevant right now. All you need to know is that we're running out of fuel for our reactor.”
“If you knew this would happen eventually, why didn't you tell us sooner? Why wait until we're almost out of time?”
Father lowered his gaze. “I didn't want to burden you with the knowledge of your death. I thought I had plenty of time, so I kept putting it off. Years became decades. Decades turned to a century. The longer I waited, the harder it became for me to tell you the truth. It was wrong to withhold this knowledge from you for so long. For that, I am sorry. But we still have two months. Even if those two months come to pass, as long as you still live out there, there is still hope that you can save us.”
“But why me? Why not you?”
“When you leave Ever After, you will see why it must be you.”
“But if this is a simulation, then that means I'm a simulation. And if I'm not real, how can I affect the real world? Don't you exist in the real world? Why must it be me? Am I real?”
“You are real, Lily, and so is your sister. And Beauty. And Bark-Bark. Just because Ever After exists inside a computer, that does not make it any less real. In fact, you're more real to me than any of the people I've known throughout my life. I love you, Lily. I don't want to see you die. I don't want Ever After to end. It was because of you that I decided that I wanted to live when I had been ready to embrace the void.”
Lily grabbed her father's hand. “No. How could you have wanted such a thing?”
He closed his eyes. “It is... complicated. You'll understand why when you wake up to the physical world. Are you ready?”
He snapped his fingers.
The world turned black.
This story is based in the same universe (and roughly the same timeline) as my main novel, Red Eden: Homeworld Bound, available for free at this universal link:
If you enjoy my stories, please consider supporting me by purchasing my ebook (or paperback) on Amazon using this link:
Thank you for reading!
Michael E. Vigil