"It's good to see you again!" Ariadne said with a grin splitting her face as she saw Arthur sitting at the desk as she walked in. The messages she had received about this job had mentioned that it would be a reunion of a sort, and she should have guessed what he meant when Eames had picked her up from the airport. Eames had been full of innuendo and lighthearted teasing, and he had playfully ogled Ariadne in her sundress. Mombasa was hot and humid, and she would burn or freckle easily. Still, Ariadne didn't regret the amount of skin showing when she saw Arthur. His eyes traveled over her appreciatively, and his grin mirrored hers.
Yusuf would be the chemist they obtained their somnacin and sedatives from, and he was actually the one that had recommended the others for this particular job. One of his suppliers was getting in over his head dealing various chemicals, and he was caught between the illegal dream share agents and government bureaucracies. Hoping to limit his involvement in both avenues, this supplier was now hiring them all on to erase his name from the minds of the most troublesome individuals hunting him down.
"This will be complicated, since there are a number of them that we will have to work on at once," Yusuf told them all once they were assembled in one of his back office rooms. "So of course this is why I thought perhaps we should all work together again. The best in the business should be able to get rid of Khalid's problem."
"I've been working on some ideas regarding paradoxes and mazes," Ariadne murmured. She could already see the dark corridors that had been in her dreams lately, the endless formless shadows and empty doorways that would serve as traps. It hadn't been anything she could use in real world design or in the tamer dream share jobs she had been involved in after the Fischer job. Still, complicated jobs tended to need more fanciful and complex structures, so she could flex those creative muscles and really get down to work. "More theoretical than practical, of course. But that might be just the thing to give you enough time to find and lock away his name." She flashed a smile at the three men. "I can't wait to start."
Dreams are not well understood, but have been the topic of fascination and study since ancient times. The earliest known recordings of dreams date back over five thousand years to ancient Mesopotamia on clay tablets; they were felt to be the provenance of gods and interpreted by prophets. Other interpretations included messages from the dead, directives from malevolent spirits, creative inspiration or divine mandates. Some cultures practiced dream incubation in the hopes that dreams could be prophetic in nature. Most dreams are out of the control of the dreamer; upon waking, these dreams would have to be interpreted immediately or the details would be lost.
The exception to this, of course, is lucid dreaming.
-- excerpt from Gathered God by Darren Meen
Khalid had gotten involved with various dealers both legitimate and illegitimate. He was an official distributor for two different licensed somnacin manufacturers, and sometimes skimmed off of "stolen" shipments to sell quantities to local chemists and wholesalers. Three of these under the table wholesalers wanted more of the business than Khalid could safely afford to provide and had started making threats against him and his family. Because he knew Yusuf was involved in dream share, he came to the chemist for help.
Yusuf knew of the three wholesalers, of course. Most of the dream share market in northern Africa was subject to their price gauging; it was part of the reason why he had started to make his own chemicals. Eames was amused by that, as most jabs at authority figures tended to amuse him, and he sometimes assisted Yusuf or Khalid with smuggling components that Yusuf would ultimately use to create his own refined versions of the compounds.
"I admit I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to my compounds," Yusuf admitted as Arthur typed on his laptop. "I have worked endless hours to refine the chemicals into a cleaner form than the standard industrial grade somnacin. It's cleaner, much smoother dreaming. No side effects, no dry mouth or nightmarish after effects once you wake up."
"I've never had that effect when I woke up from industrial grade somnacin," Ariadne commented, sounding somewhat disturbed by the concept.
Yusuf merely smiled indulgently. "You're new to dreaming, Ariadne. Those effects develop over time. For now, your mind hasn't been damaged by the harsh edges of somnacin dreams. The rest of us, on the other hand..." His smile turned more self deprecating. "We're more seasoned, more attuned to the risks. Even the smallest deviations from industrial grade product can have large effects once you're asleep. For these minds, it's best to have it very sharp, very clear. Any blurring around the edges and you know you're sleeping. You realize you're dreaming, and then you begin to fight back. You won't accept the reality of the dream. For those dreamers in my den, that is absolutely unacceptable."
Ariadne chewed on her lip thoughtfully. "So it's imperative to protect Khalid. Otherwise, those wholesalers would ruin the local markets."
"Among other things," Yusuf remarked, shaking his head. "Somnacin isn't all they deal, and they aren't always nice about it."
"We'll have to test the boundaries of the dream before we take them inside," Arthur agreed with a nod. "It's rather delicate, and too much can go wrong with it if it fails."
Eames snorted. "This is Ariadne. I rather doubt it's going to fail."
She preened under the praise, and grinned at him in thanks. "So is it just the three of us going under? Or are there going to be others with us?"
"I'm definitely going to forge a new face and do one of the extractions."
"I'd still take point," Arthur remarked. "I actually don't like extracting."
"I don't know if I'd be a good fit for this," Ariadne admitted. "I mean, I can go in and get stuff, probably, but memorizing or manipulating information... That's different."
"Which means we'll need two more extractors," Arthur said. "That was the thought I had when Yusuf first told me about this job. I was thinking Reston and Holloway. They're both free and Cobol doesn't have a line on either one."
Eames pondered the two names for a moment. "Holloway would definitely work out well. He likes the complicated sort of jobs that this would fall under."
"I know Reston," Yusuf supplied helpfully from his desk. "I think he's worked with Khalid before, so he might be willing to help."
"Then it's settled," Arthur said, lips curling into that smugly satisfied smile he tended to make when details fell into place. Ariadne leaned back in her seat and wondered what it would look like as a fully realized smile.
Eames grinned at her and gave her a playful leer. "Let the games begin."
"What?" she asked, concerned by the expression on his face. "What are you talking about?"
"Jesus." He looked around at the others and saw that they didn't share his trepidation. "None of you saw that. You haven't heard of it? That film... Single most terrifying thing I'd ever seen." He ran a shaky hand through his hair and looked around them. They had come from an initial large room and were standing on the landing of a spiral staircase beside a cavernous room. The walls, floors and ceilings were all a singular ashen gray color, with a low ambient light suffusing them. Looking down from the landing of the staircase, the spiral seemed to descend down into forever, and the strange light in the walls slowly dimmed into utter darkness. "This is... Ariadne, how did you never hear of that film?"
Holloway was a thin, reedy black man dressed in explorer khakis and construction boots. He turned to look at Eames incredulously. "I thought you were a professional?" Reston was in his forties and had a receding hairline. He shoved his hands into his jeans pockets and rocked on his feet, chuckling as he looked around in curiosity.
Ariadne ignored them both. She reached out and touched Eames' arm. "Eames. It's just a maze I've been toying with. How else are we going to lock away information about Khalid?"
"Is that all you were doing?"
"Well, yes," Ariadne replied, voice a trifle uncertain as she pulled back from the vehemence in his tone. "Why?"
"Eames, if this is a joke..." Arthur began in a warning tone.
"Fuck no," he replied, turning that intense gaze of his onto the point man. "Jesus fucking Christ on a cracker, Arthur. This place."
"Start making sense, Mr. Eames," Arthur intoned darkly. He dreamed up a lantern and held it up, its light brighter than the dim glow from the walls. "We're just doing a practice run. If you get like this now, I'd hate to see you during the job itself."
There was an almost crazed look in his eyes as he leaned over the railing of the spiral stair's landing, looking down into the darkness. "There is no job, Arthur. There is no job because there is no escape. She built the house, and it's never going to let us out."
Ariadne rolled her eyes. "I know I went for creepy, but dammit, Eames, this isn't funny."
The look he gave her clearly indicated that he wasn't trying to tease her. "No, this isn't, Ariadne. This is very not funny."
From somewhere below them came a groaning sound. It could have been a house settling. It could have been a roar.
It could have been a minotaur.
There were multitudes of corridors and rooms leading off from each landing. Gaping wide behind them was the large cavernous space that had sparked Eames' initial fear. Holloway stepped off at the third landing and started down one passageway. As he stepped off of the landing, there came that same low rumbling sound from somewhere deep below them. He ignored it and kept walking while Eames looked ready to run back up the stairs.
More hallways and rooms and corridors split off from this first level, earning Ariadne's efforts an appreciative whistle from Reston. "This is quite impressive," he told her with his crisp South African accent. "Is every floor this complicated?"
"Absolutely. I built the basic template and set it to repeat with each landing. We'd only need three mazes, of course, one for each man we're extracting from. But with the floors set to an infinite loop, it was easier than closing the design."
The corridors were completely unlit and featureless, so they had to dream up lanterns or industrial grade flashlights to light the way ahead. The walls were that same singular gray color, with no flourishes to distinguish walls, floors, and ceilings. There were no features when Eames dared to reach out and touch the smooth surface; it was somewhat slippery beneath his fingers and sound seemed to be perfectly absorbed by the material.
Scratch that. Another groan reverberated, the only sound disturbing the perfect silence of the featureless gray corridor.
"What was that?" Eames asked, looking around them in concern.
"What was what?" Reston asked, eyebrow cocked at him.
Holloway was perhaps ten feet ahead of the rest of them, featureless gray all around him. The darkness beyond the scope of his flashlight seemed to swallow up the light greedily, though he didn't seem to notice that at all.
Eames stepped away from where he was touching the wall. "There was that sound. We've heard it three times now."
"Three is the magic number?" Holloway scoffed.
"Non sum quails eram," Arthur murmured, looking closer to the wall of the hallway. Flecks of ash came away on his fingers.
Subtly, there came another groan. The ash on Arthur's fingers was looking more like burnt letters falling from the sky— ashes, ashes, we all fall down—
Eames reached out and shook Arthur's arm. "You can't say those things," he said. His voice shook as Arthur looked at him as if he was insane. "Not in this house."
"But why?" Ariadne asked, brows furrowed as there was another groaning sound. "So what? We're at the end of the five and a half minute hallway anyway."
Eames spun around, eyes wide. "What did you say?"
Ariadne blinked as another groan sounded. "I don't know. What did I say?"
"Nothing important," Reston assured her. "We should continue. Eames is being tiresome."
Holloway up ahead started to laugh and kept moving. "Beware the minotaur."
Eames had to hurry and catch up. The darkness around them seemed hungry and waiting, and the groaning sound started again.
Sleep. Perchance to dream.
The next time the groan sounded, Holloway had turned down a random corridor. Ariadne watched his fascinated expression with amusement, and Arthur was simply taking in the ambience of the place. Reston was impressed, and kept telling her so.
Eames was the only one afraid. He was the only one that seemed to recognize the significance of the place, of the color of the hallways, of the groaning sounds as they reverberated through the empty, darkened hallways. He nearly wailed when another groan sounded as they turned yet another corner, going deeper into the maze.
Short, short, short. Long, long, long. Short, short, short.
Raise the knife.
Climb the walls. Descend the stair. Enter the house.
Oh, he didn't admit it
(he would never admit such a thing) but it nevertheless seemed to be inherently true. His steps were no longer as sure, and the explorer's sense in him was giving way to uncertainty. He held his flashlight high, and the backpack he had conjured into the dream seemed to weigh much more heavily on him now.
Reston was still enamored of the slick design, of the fact that there were absolutely no features to discern direction once you were inside the maze. He reached out to touch the walls on occasion, just as Arthur had earlier, but nothing came away on his fingers. There was no ashlike smudge, no flakes fluttering to the ground and then disappearing.
ashes, ashes, we all fall down
There was no way to tell time in the maze, and it seemed as though time itself was sticky in spots. It also seemed that the physics of the place were not as immutable as the physics of the real world. Ariadne looked on at their responses, pleased with how impressed they were. She had worked hard on this design, on keeping everything featureless and immutable. There would be no way for Khalid's name to escape the recesses of this maze once they went inside those three minds to lock it away.
"You don't know where you're going," Eames hissed at Holloway. Something was tickling the back of his mind, a little niggling doubt. He was missing something.
Holloway paused and peered into the darkness. He was perhaps ten feet ahead, the beam of light pointed ahead of him disappearing into the gloom. "Do you see that?" he asked, voice hushed with wonder and fear at once.
"I don't see anything but darkness, Holloway," Eames snapped, striding forward.
There was a groaning sound from somewhere beneath them, and all Eames could think of was the neverending spiral stair, the twists and turns descending as if to hell.
"There are eyes there," Holloway said, pointing. "Eyes and teeth."
"Why are we stopping?" Reston asked, coming up behind Eames.
"Did you want to turn back?" Ariadne asked, clear eyed and without inflection. She swept her own flashlight all around them in a circle, nearly blinding Arthur. "They're all the same, really. The design doesn't change the further you go into the labyrinth."
Holloway half turned. "Labyrinth?"
Ariadne smiled at him, not seeing the odd glint in his eyes. "Well, you did joke about a minotaur and my name is Ariadne. Seems appropriate at the moment, doesn't it?" Her tone was lighthearted and her smile was friendly. She didn't expect him to lunge at her, swinging the heavy flashlight in his hand. "What the hell?"
"You made a fucking labyrinth. A labyrinth," he snarled, teeth bared and spit flying as he struggled against Reston and Eames' restraining arms, "always holds a monster at its center. There's always a minotaur."
Eames cocked his head as he heard the groaning sound again. It was still beneath them, though he had a flash of bright red eyes shining in the darkness and the glint of teeth coated in blood. The dark things creeping in the shadows always looked for fresh meat, and the human mind always painted the darkness with eyes.
"There's no monster," Ariadne told Holloway in an insulted tone of voice. She had crashed into Arthur when she skittered back from Holloway's swings, and he had a protective hand on her shoulder. "I didn't make a monster. This is just a maze meant to keep them here long enough for you to do your thing and deep enough to keep Khalid's name locked up. That's it. There's no monster!" she repeated when Holloway pulled at the two other men again.
"Listen," Reston said in a reasonable tone of voice. "Why don't we just start heading back? I think we got a plenty good enough look at the maze, don't you? I think it's fair to say that those boys won't be able to find their way out once they're in."
"Of course they won't," Holloway said, glaring at Ariadne. "Because we can't get out, either."
The dark seemed alive around them, watching with oppressive eyes.
"You're being ridiculous," Arthur said, shaking his head. "We've gone mostly straight and just made a few turns. It's easy enough to find our way back."
"You say we've been going straight?" Holloway asked, voice hard edged with anger and rising terror. The others couldn't help but react to it. "Fucking let go of me," he snarled, pulling his arm away from Eames. He shone his flashlight back the way they came. "Then where's the goddamn hallway we came from?"
The others turned and looked behind them. There was no hallway. They were staring at an ash gray wall of a T junction.
"I didn't build that," Ariadne said suddenly, staring at it. "That's not mine."
"What are you talking about?" Reston asked, brows furrowed. "You're the architect."
"I... It's hard to explain. But you can feel it if it's your dream. Well, I can, when I'm building mazes and things. It's familiar somehow. That..." She pointed her own flashlight at the gray wall, which looked as seamless and blandly intimidating as the rest of the hallways they had walked through. "That doesn't feel familiar at all. That's not mine."
"Well, then," Holloway said in an edged tone. "Seems like we're fucked."
____ (Citation pending further edits)
2 Quantum electrodynamics (QED) is the relativistic quantum field theory of electrodynamics. It describes the interaction between light and matter and is the first theory where full agreement between quantum mechanics and special relativity is achieved. QED mathematically describes all phenomena involving electrically charged particles interacting by means of exchange of photons and represents the quantum counterpart of classical electrodynamics giving a complete account of matter and light interaction. Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, Julian Schwinger, Richard Feynman and Freeman Dyson were integral in fully developing QED theory; Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, Julian Schwinger and Richard Feynman were awarded the Nobel prize in physics in 1965 for their efforts.
____ (Verify citation in original manuscript)
Dramatic tension is always increased with the addition of a murder.
Don't answer the cloudwalker.
Change the focus.
"It's out there," Holloway said abruptly, a Ruger instantly dreamed up in his hand. He was peering into the darkness, which was unrelieved black. "I can see it, almost see the eyes and the shape of the thing."
"There's nothing there!" Ariadne called out as he took up a classic triangle shooter's stance. "Holloway! Nothing is out there!"
He fired. The sound was deafening.
Reston cried out as a bullet shot out of the dark and hit him in the shoulder. Eames jumped back and away from Reston as more bullets shot out of the darkness. There were three bullets to each one that Holloway fired. Eames had his own pistol in hand suddenly, and the return fire from the USP Compact was impossibly loud in the stillness.
Arthur started digging in one of the packs for supplies to clean out and bind Reston's wound. He found pills, rulers, a broken compass, bullet shells, a red kye, random photographs and scraps of paper with illegible symbols scrawled on them in the bag, but nothing useful. There were drops and smudges of a red liquid on most of the items, and he frowned at the questioning noise that Ariadne made. "What the hell?"
Ariadne opened her pack after dreaming up gauze, pain killers and a med kit that resembled a crash cart from TV. Reston breathed a sigh of relief at the sight of it. "What the hell is going on? Is there something down here with us after all?" he asked her, brows knit. "Is that crazy bastard right, there's a monster down here?"
"I didn't make anything," Ariadne said firmly. "Whatever is going on might just be Holloway not able to suppress his own projections anymore."
The four of them swung their eyes toward Holloway, who was just at the edge of light from the campfire. Beyond that point, visibility was nil.
"He's cracking," Eames muttered under his breath. "Just like those blokes on The Navidson Record. One of those blokes killed their own when he went nutters." It suddenly occurred to him what had been nagging at the back of his mind. "Wait... How long have we been down here? Shouldn't the timer have kicked us out by now?"
Ariadne frowned as she checked her watch. "It's stopped. That's not part of the physics of the maze. I'm not doing that."
Arthur's, Reston's and Eames' had all stopped as well. None of them wanted to ask Holloway, now that he was no longer shooting into the darkness. "So time stopped in this dream? Is that it? We've hit some kind of dead spot time-wise," Arthur commented sourly. "There's no way to tell when the kick will come, then."
"Fuck that shit," Holloway snarled from the graying edge of light. Apparently he had heard it all, even though he still didn't look in their direction. "I'm going to give myself my own goddamn kick," he said, spinning around as he pressed the Ruger to his temple.
"One problem with that idea," Ariadne told him evenly. "If time has stopped and this place is no longer behaving like the maze I built, there's no telling if shooting yourself in the head is actually going to work like a kick."
"I'm not going further into this place," Holloway said. "I'm not getting trapped in this goddamn house."
Arthur finished cleaning out Reston's wound. "It's pretty clean," he said, wrapping gauze tightly around his shoulder. Eames found a spare piece of cloth they could use as a sling as Holloway stalked back toward the campfire. "Well?" Arthur asked him.
"We need to start turning back," he said, jaw tight with anger.
"The only compass we seem to have is broken," Arthur told him with a sigh.
"So whose dream is this anymore?" Reston asked, wincing a little as he adjusted his arm in the sling Eames created. "If it's not hers the way it's supposed to be, whose is it?"
Ariadne shook her head. "I don't know. It doesn't feel like I've lost control of the dream, but there are distinct parts of this that don't feel right either. It just doesn't fit."
"You think it's like the massive collective dream that's down in the den?" Reston asked quietly, looking at the other faces. "I haven't ducked into that world personally, but it's been built up and worked on by so many different people. No one's really been in control of that world in a long time. What if this is turning out the same way?"
"Then whose bright idea was it to keep going into the labyrinth, then?" Arthur asked quietly.
Everyone looked over at Holloway, who scowled at them all. "Fuck all of you," he spat, stalking off into the darkness.
As he did, there was the distant sound of a door slamming.
They slept in shifts, until all of them felt more or less rested. It was cold in the gallery room, as if they were sleeping in a refrigerator, and dreamed sweaters or jackets couldn't take the edge off of the bone deep chill. Holloway didn't return, and the four of them gave up on waiting for him. There was no way to tell how much time had passed, though it felt like days in the bowels of this particular dream.
Ariadne didn't feel comfortable taking the lead, since she hadn't been paying as much attention to the directions that Holloway had initially gone in. Arthur was sure he remembered the way, and Eames agreed that Arthur had impeccable memory. She put a hand on his arm gently, reassuring him that they were still all together without saying the words. Eames patted her hand absently, his eyes all around them. She could tell that the bizarre architecture was affecting him badly, though he was trying his best to pull it together after his initial outburst.
"Eames," she murmured as Arthur and Reston pulled ahead. "Are you okay?"
"Of course, darling." He plastered a smile onto his face that didn't affect his eyes at all. It was as false as the name she knew him by.
"Tell me about the film this resembles," Ariadne said quietly. "I don't understand why it bothered you so much. I've never even heard of it, let alone seen it."
"I seem to be the only one," Eames muttered with a slight shake of his head. "It's a documentary filmed in Hi-8 film, cut together by Will Navidson. Have you heard of him?" He paused and saw Ariadne shake her head in the negative. "Ah, well. No matter. The house he lived in had odd dimensions. It didn't quite match up, and one day a hallway appeared. There was an echo in it, and it didn't make any sense, since a hallway that long should be visible outside of the house."
"It stands to reason," Ariadne said as he fell silent.
"They filmed the exploration of that hallway. Because there were doors and stairs and other hallways, a great anteroom and a spiral stair descending into darkness." Eames looked at her, expression taut with tension. She suddenly recalled his terror at seeing the anteroom and the spiral staircase she had built as the beginning of this maze. "There's madness in the darkness, Ariadne. Hearing it like that, seeing it in a story... It's not the same as seeing it. It's not the same as living it."
The way he said the words for some reason also made her remember his fear of limbo on the Fischer job. There had always been knowledge creeping beneath the surface of his words; he knew far more about a lot of subjects than he ever let on.
"Imagine the terror," he continued in a soft voice. "You're trapped in the dark, limited amount of batteries, light, food, source of warmth. You tell yourself stories to keep the silence at bay, call the darkness Mr. Monster to try to humanize it, to try to joke around. You have the feeling that something is out there, something might hurt you if given half the chance."
"People have always been afraid of the dark," Ariadne said quietly, her voice more of a rasp than she had intended it to be.
"And a maze in the dark," Eames agreed slowly, "is that much more terrifying. How do you know you're going the right way? What if your supplies run out? What if you're left to die down in the dark, nothing to keep you company but your own fears?" He turned and looked ahead; the ash gray walls were all uniform, a wide hallway that accommodated their progress. No doors marked the walls, so there was really no way to track how far they had come. "The monsters aren't always physical, Ariadne. And in dreams, they really don't have to be."
Ariadne dreamed up an infinite spool of thread. "Wait! Arthur, Reston, wait a moment. In case Holloway decides to join up with us again." Abruptly she drew an impossibly long stake from her backpack and drove it into the floor. It barely marred the smooth surface, and she jiggled the stake just to be sure it would hold. She tied the red thread around the stake several times and tugged sharply to be sure it wouldn't break.
"That forces the corridor to remain a corridor, too," Eames commented. He blinked. "They used fishing line in the film. I should have remembered that sooner, but it's been years since I've seen it. I've forgotten quite a few details."
"Well, this is no movie," Arthur said, shrugging. "We won't hold it against you."
Eames snorted and rolled his eyes. "Always so condescending." If anything, it seemed to bring him back to himself. "Lead on, then, if you remember the way."
Ariadne and Eames caught up with Arthur and Reston, red thread unspooling behind her evenly. The color seemed impossibly bright in the darkness, as if it was infused with a soft glow.
|Holloway was walking down a corridor, and he couldn't tell where he was going. His light remained steady and his Ruger felt comfortable in his hand. There were growling sounds and the occasional slamming door; he told himself that he knew the way back and the others would only slow him down. He was starting to regret that decision, but he knew there was no turning back, either. The darkness would swallow him up, and he couldn't even guarantee that the corridor was still straight behind him.
This entire place seemed to want to swallow him whole.
He was startled when he came to a doorway in front of him. It was the same plain gray as the walls around it, and there was barely any doorjamb for it to sit in. The door was flush against the sides, with only the slimmest of spaces and no sign of any hinges. The handle was a lever one, and it moved easily at his touch.
There was more hallway beyond the door, and further doors along the sides of this particular hallway, as if it was an ordinary hallway in an ordinary office building. Holloway advanced, keeping the door behind him wide open. The doors in this hallway were all shut, all with lever handles, and he went straight. He came to another doorway, much like the first.
Beyond that doorway was another hallway. It too had the doors lining its walls, all of them shut. He swung his flashlight behind him, for a moment its beam so intense that it cut through the darkness far enough to see the hallway and the open doors behind him.
He had never been so afraid in his life, had never felt so claustrophobic.
Holloway tightened his grip on his Ruger and kept going.
||Every time the hallway twisted and turned, Ariadne created a new stake that she drove into the ground. She wrapped the red thread several times around the stake to be sure it would not slip, then they continued on their journey. It made progress a little more slow going, especially as the hallways seemed to spiral around and around, but it gave them all a little more confidence. They were pinning this part of the maze into place, and they would be able to find their way back if they needed to. At least, they weren't crossing their own path as they moved. That was one fear they no longer had to deal with. Reston remarked that between the pain medication and the creeping cold, he couldn't really feel the pain in his wounded shoulder. It was a small mercy for this place; Ariadne had the feeling that they were moving in a golden spiral. She didn't voice this feeling, as it was vague and her understanding of naturalistic math and physics was basic at best. Anything complicated truly went over her head. "Are we going up or down?" Ariadne asked abruptly as they found another corner that they would have to turn. If anything, she was now certain that they were going around in a spiral, though she couldn't tell if it was shrinking or expanding. Arthur stopped abruptly and looked around the corner. More darkness greeted him. "It doesn't feel like there's an incline." Eames was paler than before, if that was even possible. "We hadn't gone that far down the stair. We shouldn't be that far from the anteroom." He grit his teeth and walked up to the turn, peering into the gloom with his flashlight. It flared magnesium bright, nearly blinding the others, and all he could see was endless ash gray corridor ahead of them. "Wherever we're going, it's certainly not back to that room we came from." He walked back to the place where he had been and held his flashlight behind him. The others protected their eyes from the flare this time, and weren't blinded when it went off. Immeasurably long corridor stretched out behind them, the faintly luminescent red thread hanging steady in the air. From somewhere in the distance came the sound of a door slamming shut.|
|.||Splatters of red on the walls|
|.||something almost like blood, but thinner|
|.||but thicker than ink|
|.||at odd angles|
|.||sticking up out of it|
|.||and streaks, as if fingers dragged through it|
|.||as if it was a painted scream.|
|Holloway skidded and fell on the ash gray floor||.|
|but he couldn't see what he had tripped on.||.|
|"The fuck?" he asked, stunned, breath knocked out of him.||.|
|The back of his head hurt;||.|
|bringing his fingers to the spot, he could see that he was bleeding.||"Whose is it?" Ariadne asked tremulously.|
|Holloway couldn't see what he had cut the back of his head on.||"No way to tell, really," Reston commented, frowning.|
|This fucking house.||"Which way to go?" Arthur asked Ariadne.|
|"Why are you asking me?" she asked, startled.|
|Holloway waited a beat, then pushed himself up to his feet, smearing the blood around as he did so. His breath hitched in his chest; he didn't know where he was going or what he was doing. He shouldn't have taken off, shouldn't have let this place wear him down. He was a professional. He should have acted like it.||"Darling," Eames murmured gently, touching her shoulder. "If this is a myth, then the girl with the thread will lead us out. You're Ariadne. Myths and dreams can be one and the same, so here you are the Ariadne."|
|He looked around the hallway and in all directions his light would allow him to see.||With that kind of logic, she had no choice but to agree.|
|All the open doors were shut.||Ariadne took the lead.|
|He was locked in.|
The labyrinth needed its sacrifices. The darkness was waiting, maw gaping, ready for the right time to bite down.
Here is the beginning of the end.
He scrubbed at his jaw. Some part of his mind was screaming
howling keening in frustration. This was not how he intended a walkthrough to go. To be fair, neither had Ariadne. This was simply the First Edition
of the labyrinth, and she couldn't have known this would happen.
But she should have. She should have. It was her fucking maze.
His hands were stained red, and for whatever reason, it wasn't rubbing off.
He was tempted to simply shoot himself awake.
He would risk limbo.
Okay, maybe he wouldn't.
This house was a goddamn menace, and it was trapping him in a cage. Oh, it was expanding if he kept circling, but it was making him dizzy and tired.
"Let me out!" he shrieked, pounding on the smooth gray wall in front of him.
It was locking him in, sealing him by inches inside a series of locked chambers; alone and alone and alone, he would go insane. Holloway had seen it happen before in dream share, the inexplicable dreams that haunted the dreamers long after they woke, ultimately driving them to committing suicide.
He didn't want to be one of those but didn't know how to stop it.
His hands came away gray from where he pounded the wall.
The wall was red. Bloodred, heartsbloodred.
His chest hurt. Holloway couldn't breathe.
And there was a groaning sound.
"Let me out!" he shrieked at the wall, too afraid to touch it now. The wall behind him seemed impossibly far away, as if he was no longer in a room
that was once a slim hallway but the great anteroom all over again, the yawning spiral stair gaping wide not that far away from him, the railing suddenly seeming to be so small and fragile.
It wasn't enough to keep him from falling.
Would he fall forever?
He could shoot.
But he wouldn't.
The fear was infectious. It doubled, tripled, quadrupled, became a roiling, seething mass in the center of his chest. It would kill him if he wasn't careful.
The others wouldn't find him if he died. They would never know what happened to him. The darkness would take over everything, its sharp teeth closing over his throat. He would be trapped in this dream forever, and it was as bad as limbo. Maybe worse.
"Poor thing," they would say. They would think Holloway's corpse was devoured by the minotaur or that he merely disappeared into the blackness of the house.
There was a sound like a groan. Or a sob.
It wasn't coming from him.
It was on the other side of the door.
"Who's there?" he asked, voice coming out more even than he thought it would.
The sobbing continued, a heartrending sound that threatened to shatter him to pieces. "Please," Holloway said, approaching the door. He didn't quite touch it, in case it leached blood out of him the same way the wall had. "Say something, please. Let me know you're okay."
There was an agonized scream, then all was silent.
Even if there was a monster, she would beard it in its den. There, that was a wonderfully archaic turn of phrase that would fit The Ariadne.
She would be like her namesake. She would lead them all out of labyrinth.
And then she would never build it again.
She was leading three men out of the labyrinth with nothing but her instinct and the red thread behind them to mark the way. She was aware that in mythology it had been the other way around; Ariadne had left them the thread to mark the passage into the labyrinth so they could retrace their steps and escape.
Allegory. Myth. Storied legend.
Even with her determination to keep going, Ariadne stopped abruptly when she heard the sobbing through the wall. Well, she could only assume that it was coming through the wall, as there was no one ahead of them and the corridor seemed to continue indefinitely ahead of them as far as their light could see.
"You do hear that, right?" she asked when the three men behind her didn't say anything.
"Well, yeah, but what are we going to do about it?" Reston asked.
Eames approached the wall and let his fingers rest on them gently. There was nothing to feel, no texture at all. At first the wall seemed to hold its impossible density, then it seemed to become more pliant under his fingertips. It was almost as if he could push his way through, as if he could rip it aside like plastic film around a package.
"Rip it," Ariadne commanded with a nod.
This was her maze, and it would obey her commands or else.
It didn't want to find out what the or else would entail, and the wall parted easily under Eames' hands. That seemed to buoy him up a bit, reminding him that this was not that movie he had seen. This was something completely different.
The wall parted, and they found a hysterical Holloway sitting on the floor with his arms wrapped around his knees, sobbing. He looked up, and they could clearly see the streaks of red on his clothes, the floor and his hands. There was a nasty scrape along the back of his head, and it resembled the bit of blood and hair they had found on the wall in one corridor.
Ariadne didn't question it, but nodded as if it all made sense, as if this all was working according to plan. It did have a certain dream logic to it, if she didn't think too hard about it. It was better not to think too closely, or else the very existence of the dream would unravel and take them all with it.
Better safe than sorry.
"Let's go, mate," Eames said, hoisting Holloway to his feet. "You're coming with us."
"That way isn't the way out," Ariadne told them with absolute certainty. "You need to come with me, Holloway. I'll lead us all out of here."
They left his Ruger, shotgun and rocket launcher behind.
Ariadne couldn't quite push at the walls with her mind or make the dream contort the way she wanted it to. The direct control she was used to simply wasn't there. She could feel resistance in the walls, almost as if another consciousness was controlling it.
She pushed the thought aside and kept going, following her instincts. They were generally good, and had gotten her this far.
"You're okay," Arthur had told her. "You're okay."
It had been her first death, her first trap within the dream.
And he had been right, after all. She was fine, she was okay.
She could do this.
The others were depending on her. She was the one that would lead them out of the maze, and she couldn't afford to second guess herself.
"Your design is flawless," Eames had said, looking over the snowy landscape in awe.
He had some experience with hidden things, with locks and vaults and keeping secrets concealed deeply inside where no one else could see. He had seen immediately what she was trying to do, what the symbolism was meant to be. His appreciation for the subtleties meant the world to her.
"I'll work with you again any time you like," he had said, absolutely meaning it.
Scared as he was, he trusted her with his life.
They didn't ask if she knew the way, since her strides were without any sign of hesitation. Reston and Holloway were silent, trusting in her now more than ever. They didn't want to distract her from her route, didn't want to chance disturbing her concentration.
There was a soft wind at her back, though there was no obvious source for it. The wind almost sounded like voices, faint whispers too indistinct to determine what they were saying. In the distance was a faint groaning sound, which set Eames to gritting his teeth and Holloway to looking almost sickly.
They feared the minotaur, even though they couldn't see it. They could feel its presence
and knew the darkness held teeth.
Reston and Arthur appeared the same overall, though Ariadne knew that they were not unaffected by this practice session as they wanted to appear.
Ariadne was almost tempted to sing something, just to break the silence between the men and quiet the whispers. She couldn't sing worth a damn, though, and there was nothing really appropriate that was coming to mind anyway.
I'm haunted by the sense of you
By all the things I cannot do
By all the things you see in me
And how you help me to breathe
No. Ariadne would not fall into this trap. She would not.
They all depended on her, and she could do this. She was tougher than some maze that she had built, no matter how corrupted it had become. She was the master of this domain. She was the one in charge, and she couldn't afford to fall apart now.
With a mental fuck you at the maze, Ariadne kept going, unspooling the red thread behind her for the others to follow.
I built the Shadows here.
I am Shadow here.
There is a wicked design at play,
growling and knocking in the walls—
knock, knock, knock
You have to follow me.
It's a question of architecture, of conversation.
If you don't listen you won't know what I'm trying to say.
There are words in the walls,
if you have ears to hear it
if you have eyes to read it
if you have a mouth to speak it.
knock, knock, knock
can you hear it? can you see it?
I built the Shadows here.
I am the only Shadow here.
"This wasn't exactly what I thought it would be based on your sketches and the model," Arthur said, falling into step with her. It was almost eerie how it seemed to echo the thoughts she had while walking forward. "The idea is still sound," he continued, looking around. "Maybe not for this job, but there are elements you could probably still use."
Ariadne looked at him as she shook her head. "Not like this, I wouldn't. There are other avenues I'll have to take for this job. Too many paradoxes in one labyrinth is just inviting trouble, I think." She looked at him with a wan expression. "I'll just stay up and design something again from scratch. I've pulled plenty of all nighters before."
"We couldn’t ask you to do that..." he protested.
"You're not asking," she told him firmly. The protective streak in him felt a little too cloying at the moment. She was a professional, just as he was, and this was her area of expertise. Arthur knew the rudiments of building, but she was the one that spoke it like a native language. She never would have subjected any of them to the stilted terror and pain that the labyrinth had created. It hadn't been for them, but that had been the result.
Arthur nodded and fell into the companionable silence they usually shared. "Thank you," he said finally. "This place... it'll give me nightmares for months."
She looked at him in surprise. "I thought you didn't dream anymore."
"I don't usually. But sometimes things creep through, usually nightmares, jobs gone wrong..."
"I'm sorry," she replied, contrite.
Arthur gave her a sad smile full of teeth. "Don't be. It reminds me I'm only human. I still have to work at what I do to keep everyone safe. The day I stop caring about that is the day I retire."
Ariadne nodded, understanding. Everyone had a reason for what they did.
"We're all going to be fine," she told him firmly, believing it with every fiber of her being. "I'm getting us all out of here."
The relief from the men was palpable. They all picked up the pace and headed for the landing.
There was no resistance to getting to the spiral stair, and it looked exactly as it had when they first descended from the anteroom.
She should have known it wouldn't be quite that easy.
"Oh, God," Holloway breathed as she turned. She was a half circle above him, and Ariadne could see a shadowy shape in the darkness, a deeper variation of black within the blackness of the pit surrounding the spiral staircase. "It's the minotaur."
"Bullshit," she snapped.
Without thinking, the red thread flew from her fingers toward the shadowy shape. It didn't quite have claws or teeth or eyes, but there was something there in the oppressive darkness beyond the spiral stair. The thread was like a harpoon, and it careened into the dark toward the opposing wall of the Great Hall beneath the anteroom.
"Eames," Ariadne said calmly. "Turn on your light, the really bright one."
Understanding immediately, Eames lifted his flashlight and it became the magnesium-white bright light that had nearly blinded them all in the smaller corridors. On the stair and Great Hall, some of the brightness was leached away by the shadows, but there was still enough of it to keep the shadows back. They all could see the red thread, now thick as sailing rope and attached to a heavy harpoon. The harpoon hit the opposing wall of the Great Hall with a dull thunk, and the shadows it pinned in place seemed to scurry away from Eames' light.
"Keep it on," she said in an even tone. Show no fear, she thought. "Don't turn it off, don't let it dim." She stared at the pinned shadow, though there was nothing there to look like a monster. Her jaw was set at its most stubborn angle. "That thing won't be able to move if the light remains that bright."
And the moment she said it, she knew it to be absolute truth.
They continued up the spiral stair, the bright light in Eames' hands like a star in the darkness of the Great Hall. They had been only three flights down when they started, but the distance between the flights was impossibly long now.
Ariadne smacked the central support in irritation. Inexplicably, the entire structure seemed to hold its collective breath at the gesture. "You behave now," she told it sternly, as if it was an errant child. "I'm the one in charge now, not you. You've had your fun, and now it's time for us to go. Stay still."
There were no problems getting to the landing at the anteroom.
The four men stared at her in various degrees of amazement, as if they had never truly seen her before. She wondered idly what they saw, who they saw. Was she still just herself, or had she really taken on mythic qualities?
She cleared her throat and felt almost like a schoolteacher. "Are we ready to go, then? I believe the kick should be coming soon."
"Fuck, yeah," Holloway blurted. "Let's just get the hell out of here."
Reston nodded. "Seems like a good time to go," he agreed.
"Whenever you're ready," Arthur said. His expression was bland, his eyes unreadable. Ariadne thought she saw something like pride there, and allowed him a small smile. He had been her teacher once, after all, introducing the basics of paradoxical architecture and dream building. This was a terrifying look at what she could really do, and it had been devastating and exhilarating all at once.
She smiled at them all, and indicated that Eames could lower his arm. "Time to wake up."
And they did.
Little solace comes
To those who grieve,
When thoughts keep drifting
As walls keep shifting
And this great blue world of ours
Seems a house of leaves
Moments before the wind.
— Mark Danielewski