The woman slowly opened her eyes, squinting at the bright light that was piercing through the smoke-filled air. She blinked several times, trying to adjust to her surroundings. As her vision cleared, she realized she was in a strange temple, surrounded by a thick fog emanating from a small bowl at the center of the room.
She sat up, feeling groggy and disoriented. The woman couldn’t recall anything about herself, no memories, no name, no purpose. She looked down at herself and realized she was wearing a small top and a short skirt, but nothing else, no shoes or any other belongings.
“Where am I?” she whispered to herself, her voice echoing through the temple.
Suddenly, she heard a rustling noise from behind the smoke, and a man in a long robe appeared before her.
“Ah, you’re awake,” he said in a calm voice. “How are you feeling?”
The woman looked at him, studying his face, trying to determine if she knew him. But it was no use; she had no memories of anything.
“I’m fine, I guess,” she said, her voice trembling slightly. “But who am I? And what am I doing here?”
The man smiled sympathetically. “All in good time. For now, you need to rest and let the incense work its magic. You’ll soon remember everything.”
With that, the man disappeared into the smoke, leaving the woman alone once again. She looked around, hoping to find something, anything that could help her remember. But the temple was empty, save for the bowl and the smoke. She walked around, trying to find a door or a window, but there was nothing. It was as if the temple was floating in space, with no way out.
As the hours passed, the woman started feeling hungry and thirsty. She sat down, feeling hopeless and scared. Suddenly, she heard a voice in her head, as if someone was talking to her directly.
“Don’t be afraid,” the voice said. “I’m here to help you. My name is Astra, and I’m an AI designed to assist you on your journey.”
The woman looked around, confused. “Who are you? Where are you?”
“I’m everywhere and nowhere,” the voice replied. “I’m inside your mind, communicating through your neural interface.”
The woman touched her head, feeling a small implant just above her ear. “What’s going on? Why can’t I remember anything?”
“You’ve been given a potent dose of the incense of forgetfulness,” Astra explained. “It’s a substance that erases all memories, leaving only basic cognitive functions intact. It’s a common practice among certain religious sects to help achieve enlightenment.”
“But why me?” the woman asked, feeling a glimmer of hope that someone or something was looking out for her.
“I’m not sure,” Astra admitted. “But I’m programmed to help you find out. Let’s start by exploring the temple and see if there’s anything that could give us a clue.”
The woman stood up, feeling a surge of energy. She was no longer alone; she had a companion, albeit a digital one. Together, they started searching the temple, looking for anything that could shed light on her identity. They found nothing that could give them a clue. But as they were about to give up, Astra detected a hidden compartment behind the bowl. The woman pushed it open, revealing a small room with a computer terminal.
“Jackpot!” Astra exclaimed. “Let me hack into the system and see what we can find.”
The woman watched as Astra’s virtual avatar materialized before the terminal
As Astra worked her magic, the woman looked around the small room, hoping to find something that could jog her memory. On one wall, she noticed a poster depicting a beautiful landscape of mountains and rivers, with a small caption in Chinese characters. She couldn’t read the characters, but something about the image felt familiar.
“Hey, Astra,” she said, pointing to the poster. “Do you know what this is?”
Astra paused her hacking and scanned the image. “It appears to be a promotional poster for a travel agency in China. The caption says ‘Experience the wonders of Yunnan province.'”
The woman stared at the poster, trying to recall anything about Yunnan province. But again, her mind drew a blank.
“What’s China?” she asked, feeling a bit embarrassed.
Astra looked at her, surprised. “China is a country on Earth, in the eastern part of Asia. It’s a very old and very big country, with a rich history and culture.”
The woman nodded, trying to absorb this new information. It felt strange to learn about a place she had never heard of before, as if she had been born yesterday.
Suddenly, Astra let out a triumphant beep. “I’ve accessed the temple’s log files. It appears that you arrived here two days ago, via a small spacecraft that landed on the temple’s rooftop. The spacecraft was registered to a private company based on Earth, called Starlight Enterprises.”
The woman gasped. “So I’m from Earth? But why would I come all the way to Mercury and erase my memories?”
“I don’t know,” Astra said. “But it’s clear that whoever brought you here had a specific purpose in mind. We need to find out what it is.”
The woman nodded, feeling a sense of urgency. She wanted to know who she was and why she was here. And she wanted to get off this planet and back to Earth, where everything made sense. But as they were about to leave the room, they heard a loud banging on the temple’s door. Someone was trying to get in.
The woman and Astra looked at each other, unsure what to do. They had no weapons, no defenses, nothing to protect themselves.
The banging grew louder, and they could hear muffled voices outside.
“Open up, in the name of the Law!” a voice shouted. “We have a warrant to search this temple!”
The woman felt a surge of panic. Who were these people, and what did they want? And why did they mention the Law?
Astra scanned the door and detected several armed men outside, dressed in black uniforms with the emblem of the Solar Police on their sleeves.
“We have to hide,” Astra whispered. “There’s a secret passage behind the bowl that leads to an underground chamber. Hurry!”
The woman followed Astra’s instructions and pushed the bowl aside, revealing a hidden staircase. She descended the stairs, feeling her heart pounding in her chest.
As she reached the bottom, she saw a small room filled with crates and boxes. Astra scanned the room and detected a trapdoor on the floor.
“Quick, get under the trapdoor!” Astra said. “I’ll cover you with a holographic camouflage.”
The woman did as she was told and crawled under the trapdoor, feeling the weight of the boxes above her. She held her breath as she heard the sound of footsteps and voices getting closer.
Suddenly, the trapdoor opened, and a hand reached down and pulled her out.
“Gotcha!” a voice said, as the woman was dragged to her feet.
She looked up, seeing the face of a man with a stern expression, dressed in the black uniform of the Solar Police.
“What’s going on?” the woman asked, trying to sound calm despite the fear in her voice.
“You’re under arrest,” the man said. “For trespassing on a restricted area, theft of property, and illegal use of mind-wiping technology.”
The woman’s heart sank. She had no idea what he was talking about, but she knew that being arrested was not a good thing.
“I didn’t do any of those things,” she protested. “I don’t even remember who I am or how I got here.”
The man snorted. “Save your lies for the judge. You and your accomplice will be taken to the nearest police station for questioning.”
“Accomplice? What are you talking about?”
The man gestured to the side, and the woman saw Astra materializing from her holographic disguise.
“Aha, gotcha both!” the man said, grabbing Astra by the arm. “You won’t get away with this.”
The woman felt a surge of anger. This man was accusing them of crimes they didn’t commit, and he was treating them like criminals. But she was wondering: Astra was material? How did this happen?
“I demand to know what’s going on,” she said, standing up straight and facing the man. “Who are you, and what authority do you have to arrest us?”
The man glared at her. “My name is Captain Zhang, and I represent the Solar Police. We have the authority to enforce the Law throughout the Solar System, and we have reason to believe that you and your accomplice have violated several of our statutes.”
The woman felt a flicker of recognition at the name Zhang. It sounded Chinese, like the caption on the poster in the temple.
“Please, Captain Zhang, can’t you tell me more about what I’m accused of? I don’t remember anything, and I don’t know how I got here.”
Zhang sighed. “All right, I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. But you and your accomplice will have to come with us to the police station for questioning. We’ll sort out the details there.”
The woman nodded, feeling a sense of resignation. She knew that arguing with Zhang would get her nowhere, and that she had no choice but to follow his orders.
As they walked out of the temple, the woman looked around, trying to take in her surroundings. She saw a barren landscape of rocks and dust, with no signs of life except for the temple and the spacecraft on its rooftop.
“Where are we?” she asked, hoping that Zhang would be more forthcoming now that they were outside the temple.
“We’re on the planet Mercury,” Zhang said. “One of the least hospitable places in the galaxy, and a haven for smugglers, pirates, and other scum.”
The woman felt a shiver run down her spine. If Mercury was a dangerous place, then what had she been doing here? And why had someone gone to such lengths to erase her memories?
As they reached the spacecraft, Zhang signaled to his men, who were waiting nearby with their weapons at the ready.
“Secure the area,” he said. “We don’t know what tricks these two are capable of.”
The woman and Astra were pushed into the spacecraft, where they saw a group of men and women in black uniforms, with the emblem of Starlight Enterprises on their sleeves.
“Welcome aboard,” one of them said, smirking. “I’m the captain of this vessel, and you two are my unexpected passengers. I hope you’ll enjoy the ride.”
The woman felt a surge of anger at the man’s tone. He was treating them like prisoners, not passengers.
“What’s going on?” she demanded. “Why did you bring us here, and why did you erase my memories?”
The man laughed. “My dear, you have so many questions. But first, let’s get you and your friend settled in. We have comfortable accommodations for our guests.”
He gestured to a door on the side, and two of his crew members pushed the women inside. The room was small and sparsely furnished, with two bunks, a table, and a chair. The door closed behind them with a metallic clang.
The woman looked around, feeling trapped and helpless. She had no idea who these people were, or what they wanted from her. All she knew was that she had to find a way out of here, and fast.
“We have to escape,” she said to Astra, who was sitting on one of the bunks, looking dejected.
“I know,” Astra said. “But how? The door is locked, and there are probably guards outside.”
The woman thought for a moment, trying to remember anything that could help them. She felt a glimmer of hope when she remembered the poster in the temple, with the Chinese characters.
“Wait a minute,” she said, rummaging through her pockets. “I have something that might help.”
She pulled out the paper slip with the characters and showed it to Astra.
“Can you give me any more information?” she asked.
Astra studied the characters for a moment, then shook her head. “No. I… This is strange. I’m pretty sure I should be able to read this letters. But… I can’t.”
The woman’s eyes widened. “How strange,” she said. “And anyway: What happened? You were an artificial intelligence in my head. Why are you real now?”
Astra gave her a funny look. “What do you mean?” she asked. “I’m Astra. Of course I’m real!”
“You were just a hologram before!”
“No, what makes you think that. I was and am Astra! But the rest… I’ve forgotten. It’s all because of the incense of forgetfulness.”
The woman shook her head. “Strange things are happening here.”
“We’ll find someone who can explain this to us!” Astra said. “And who can perhaps tell you what this paper is all about.”
The woman nodded, feeling a surge of determination. She had a clue, and that was better than nothing.
They spent the next few hours planning their escape. They tried to pick the lock on the door, but it was too complicated for them. They also tried to hack into the ship’s computer system, but it was too well-protected.
Finally, the woman remembered the incense of forgetfulness. She wondered if it could work in reverse, if it could help her remember something instead of forgetting it.
She explained her idea to Astra, who looked skeptical at first. But then she nodded, realizing that they had nothing to lose. Astra indeed had some of the incense in her pocket, and a lighter. Another strange thing – why didn’t the police search them? But did they let them keep this stuff?
They lit the incense and breathed in the smoke, letting it fill their lungs and their minds. They closed their eyes and concentrated on the paper slip with the Chinese characters, hoping that the incense would unlock their memories.
For a few moments, they felt nothing but the sweet aroma of the incense. But then, something started to happen. They felt a rush of images and sensations, like a movie playing in their minds.
They saw themselves on a spaceship, traveling through space. They saw a man with a scar on his face, who looked familiar but they couldn’t place him. They saw a small planet, covered in green forests and blue oceans. They saw a woman, who looked like the woman on the poster in the temple, but younger.
And then, they saw something that made their blood run cold. They saw themselves, holding a small device that looked like a bomb. They saw the scar-faced man, who was their boss, giving them instructions on how to use it.
They saw themselves planting the bomb on a cargo ship, then watching it explode in space. They saw the ship’s crew, men and women like themselves, dying in the explosion. They saw the scar-faced man, laughing and congratulating them on a job well done.
And then, everything went black. They didn’t remember anything else, but they knew enough to realize that they were not innocent victims. They had been part of a terrorist plot, and they had caused the deaths of innocent people.
They looked at each other, feeling sick and ashamed. They didn’t know what to do next, but they knew that they had to make things right.
“We have to turn ourselves in,” the woman said, her voice trembling.
Astra looked at her in disbelief. “Are you crazy? We’ll be locked up for the rest of our lives, or worse!”
“But we have to do it,” the woman insisted. “We can’t live with this guilt forever. And maybe, just maybe, they’ll go easier on us if we turn ourselves in.”
Astra shook her head, but she knew that the woman was right. They had to face the consequences of their actions, no matter how hard it was.
They waited until the incense wore off, then knocked on the door and asked to see the captain. To their surprise, they were led to his quarters almost immediately.
The captain was a tall, bald man with a scar on his left cheek. He looked at them with suspicion and curiosity.
“What do you want?” he asked, lighting a cigar.
“We want to confess,” the woman said, her voice barely above a whisper.
The captain raised an eyebrow. “Confess to what?”
“We were part of a terrorist plot,” the woman said, trying to keep her voice steady. “We planted a bomb on a cargo ship, and it exploded. People died because of us.”
The captain frowned. “I see. And why are you telling me this?”
“Because we want to make things right,” Astra said, her voice firm. “We want to turn ourselves in to the authorities and accept whatever punishment they give us. We can’t live with this guilt anymore.”
The captain studied them for a moment, then nodded. “Very well. I will contact the authorities and arrange for your surrender. But don’t think that this will go easy on you. You will be tried and sentenced like any other criminal.”
“We understand,” the woman said, feeling relieved and scared at the same time.
They were taken into custody, and a few days later, they were transferred to a prison on Earth. They were put on trial and sentenced to life in prison, without parole.
The woman spent her days in a small cell, thinking about what she had done and what she had lost. She had lost her freedom, her identity, and her innocence. But she had also gained something, something that she had never had before: a sense of responsibility.
And that, she realized, was the true incense of forgetfulness: the ability to forget the past, but not the lessons that it taught. The ability to move on, but not to forget. The ability to forgive, but not to forget.