Chip emerged inside the new maze and panted, taking stock of himself before he stepped forward. The oppressive timer that had loomed over him so many times in the past was, for a change, out of sight, and he tried to put its afterimage out of mind. Almost as quickly, he noticed that there would be no chips to collect in this sector of the clubhouse. He tried to muster up some relief about this discovery—shouldn’t it be easier to have one goal to chase down, rather than two?—but found it somewhat anticlimactic. Collecting the little devices had been more than a task to weigh him down, he realized. It had lent him a sense of purpose.
Oh well. There would be a way out, and he would find it. Eventually. That was what he always did.
He noticed something bright at the edges of his vision: a yellow engraving in the floor that was Melinda’s seal. Progress was made only by questioning.
But he was surrounded by circular walls that would rise up behind him after he passed through. He wasn’t sure what about his touch made them solidify, but turning around, he saw that north was just a good a path as any other, and maybe better if there was a message waiting for him beyond. Despite all the pitfalls and misadventures he’d had getting that far, he wanted to believe someone was still looking out for him.
So he stepped forward. As soon as he leaned back, he could already could tell the difference between the rigidity behind him and the void ahead. There was no clock; he could linger as long as he wanted, and the wall was already too opaque to see what had come before...
He stumbled forward only to find, of course, that the barrier already looked indistinguishable from the ones that had been there permanently. Trying not to take in the other walls out of the corner of his eye, he scampered over to the seal, kneeling down to trace the message that had been left there for him.
There is always another way out. Remember the ctRl-01R tests and persevere.
Instinctively, Chip checked his pockets. No shoes, no keys. And the one-way wall had led him into a dead end. Though he could test a few more of the pop-up walls, there was no way past the permanent walls, and not even any fatal traps that might bring an end to his incarceration. Not that—he checked himself. Melinda wanted him to succeed. Someday. Didn’t she?
Finally, he discovered a tiny hourglass, suspended from a string. Rather than flowing sands, however, it contained a dark sphere sitting in one half, that looked almost too large to fit through the middle. “Use this if you need to,” Melinda had said vaguely, but he’d been too busy trying to listen up on how to manage keys and force fields and fire that he hadn’t stopped to ask questions.
But pacing around the walls, feeling them rise in his wake, Chip slowly fastened it around his neck. He was being a wimp, he told himself. Ants stung, tanks annoyed, but their pain faded with time. What could a simple necklace do?
He flipped it over and—
From Melinda’s lab notes:
I suppose the thieves are hardly worthy of being called monsters. They’re people in their own right, if stationary ones. Yet it is shoes that they crave, as if they could traverse the perilous elements under their own power! I’ve tried speaking to them, asking if they’d like to test some of the more harmless levels, clad in their protective footwear that they keep pilfering when my guard is down, but they make no reply. Perhaps they’re not as smart as I give them credit for.
Or perhaps they are much more clever than the Busters who go charging through.
Chip emerged into the maze and panted, taking stock of himself before he stepped away. The hourglass was hanging from his neck, the ball somehow managing to have fallen through to the bottom. And the circular walls—all of them—were there to explore in every direction.
As if by instinct, he glanced up for a timer, but he could see nothing. There would be no clock to curtail his explorations. This did not upset him, but he felt suddenly curious; how would he know how long he had been searching the clubhouse?
He looked northwards and saw a yellow seal on the floor. A hint? No, something within him shuddered. That would be too easy, to go seeking help at the closest possible location. He would need to be more subtle if he wanted to find his way out.
Maybe he could head south, instead? Turn his back on the advice and prove he could find his way through the maze on his own. He set his course for the south, and walked ahead. With every step, the walls turned from disks of potential to furnishings that were meant to endure. Sonorous clanks marked the walls’ finality, rising above—was that music? The distant buzzing seemed too perky for such a dark cell and he tried to wave it out of his mind, despite finding it familiar.
And then, just a room over to the south, he found another dead end, this one empty of even words of advice. Chip was no stranger to dead ends. He’d come to too many to count in the introductory lessons alone. But part of him would have almost preferred one of those to that grayness pressing in on him. At least when he recklessly fell into the water or ran across a bouncing ball unaware it wasn’t his fault, not really. There was a voice to chide him, encourage him to do better the next time (there was always a next time), someone to recognize that he existed. But it wasn’t his choice to escape and begin again with half-memories of a failure that should not have been possible…
Chip stared at the walls as if working up the nerve, but they didn’t actually close in, any more than usual. Annoyed, he poked at the hourglass, flipped it, and a feeling of dizziness lasted only a moment.
These force fields are slippery, yowzer! Clearly my ice skating skills aren’t going to help me here. I was hoping to distill some of their frictionless surface onto smaller objects to manipulate on normal terrain. I’ve created an entity with a remarkably high coefficient of restitution that bounces back indefinitely once it makes contact with walls and other boundaries. These pink balls are incredibly lively but should perhaps be best observed from a safe distance. Alas, it remains true that introducing outside observers into their experimental conditions will dangerously modify the balls’ position. (And the observers.)
The walls sprung up with such a decisive noise, Chip remembered. It could not just be his experience from other levels telling him that, but something about these cells that was making him anxious to leave as soon as he could, clock or no clock. How could they rise up and yet be gone?
The same way, he figured, something had left a solid mark on his memories, with a dark shadow and a resounding noise, then faded with time—or through time?—and yet was not entirely gone. Something urging him not to go north, and not to go south.
East, then, as good a way as any. And then what? He cursed his glasses for not letting him see farther. Anywhere there was a door. Preferably where he could tell there would be a door after the first.
He moved south next, half-willing himself to remember the route he was tracing, half-hoping he would not have to pass that way again. There came a door with only one path beyond it, and he found himself grateful for the absence of choice, wandering through without concern.
After a while he changed course to the north, and noticed a pathway extending to the north beyond him. Leading to freedom? Or at least another morsel of hope, dangling out of sight where it could taunt him. And beyond that, countless other levels…
Chip shook his head, focusing on the more pressing issue. He was trapped in another impassable corridor. The path that he’d spotted lay to the east, beyond his reach, yet somehow not beyond his view. Were his glasses more useful than he gave them credit for? Could he somehow impress the unknown hallway on his mind, even if he had not trod it himself, for the future? Was it the future, or just some other present that he had to hope would be better than his own? Would it really be better, to push just a little bit farther only to end in...In what?
Maybe there was such a thing as a past and a future, because he felt little fear as he toyed with the hourglass, only grim determination. He spun it, the walls dropped away, and he wished he could fly, to glimpse the world from above, even if he could not remember—
Perhaps it was obvious, in retrospect, not to go experimenting with fire. After all, it can spread without diminishing in size. Yet how was I to know that it could lead to such emergent and wondrous creatures? The fireballs thrive in the flames that gave them birth. (Metaphorically speaking, of course—they came from controlled samples of the fires that have been used to fuel Bunsen burners in the lab, and I’ll be very disappointed if any of my applicants try to sneak into there!)
Timer, no. Chips, no. A feeling of being off-balance that subsided after only moments, yes. A voice in his head, sounding like his own, but distant, resigned, dying away: Go east, then south, try and get north after a while, but not the close north, the north that, uh, hugs...I think it’s the far wall, actually? How wide is this place anyway? Then...I dunno, look ahead as far as you can…
Well, he wasn’t sure who else it could be but himself; nobody else could sound at once that hapless yet familiar with the maze he’d found himself trapped in. Trusting the instructions that were close enough to be memories, he followed them east, and felt the echoes of his previous quests fading away as he did so. Each journey paved over the last.
South, then a tentative east. Which wall could his other self have meant by the far wall? They were all far.
Then north, onward, trying to exhaust the limits of the maze. Too late, he found it had paid off in a sense. He was in a corner, and if he squinted, the walls, while still the rudimentary opaque kind, could be pierced to let him see spans of emptiness beyond both to the east and the north. Unless there was some deeply hidden conceit, he would not be able to tread there; he had in fact surveyed the boundary of the maze.
But there was no way forward. He would need to turn west a room earlier if he wanted to proceed onwards. East, south, east then north again, west but not at the corner, and then… The directions were arbitrary, made no pattern. Maybe if he committed it to a song?
He reached to touch his hourglass. It looked the same as always. He could recall peering down at it before, the black orb’s ability to float through space still a marvel. He could still feel the glass, cool to the touch.
Yet when he moved to turn it, his hand began to tremble, as if helpless under the pull of some force field. He could not control his fingers, reaching out, beating against the walls. This time there was no dizziness. One moment the circle was below him, and the next, a sudden void.
I originally planned my mechanical water storage devices to prevent overflow on particularly aquatic levels, and then decided some degree of button-controlled locomotion would be practical to shuttle these tanks between sites. They almost seem to have taken on a life of their own! Like the balls, they tend towards linear behavior, but are not programmed to retrace their paths unless prompted. I suppose their rather crude design is evocative of weaponry, but thankfully, I have no enemies. Only test subjects.
Chip roused himself, yawning, and slowly clambered to his feet. All around him were circular walls, the sort that made such an obnoxious noise if he were to pop them up. That was a frustration, to be sure, if one very reminiscent of…
Of his dreams? He felt surprisingly well-rested. Maybe he’d drowned again and seen water-visions. Or maybe he’d had to be elsewhere for a spell, studying and living in the world he’d used to know, and he couldn’t remember because...he’d just chosen to forget? Or because it paled in comparison to the clubhouse, even if he hadn’t been there in what felt like many days. The last thing he could remember was...what? Crossing the trap-bridge? No, there had been a corner, and he’d gotten stuck…
A corner. Yes. Between two walls. He’d gone to the...the easternmost and northernmost extremity of the room before getting stuck. So he wanted to go almost that far, but not directly.
North to start? There was a yellow note there, written on the ground. Surely he’d have tried that first, and if it could have led anywhere useful, he’d have found it. He’d been searching for far too long.
No, there was a trick in the early going. He had to go in a roundabout way to get where he was headed. Maybe south first?
He paced south only to find, to his dismay, that it was certainly not the right way. There was no way out of the tiny room he found himself in, and he yawned as he clutched his necklace again, scratching where the knot met his neck behind.
Idiot! he thought he heard a voice call without sound, angrier and more distant than his own. You knew the right way to go, you should have remembered…
“Watch it!” he yelled, frustrated. “It’s been a while, I’m busy.”
I’d always gone east, I knew it was east. Stupid maze.
“I?” Chip echoed. “Not...you? Who are you? Are you mad at me?”
There came no response.
Great, as if that weren’t bad enough he was now imagining voices that wouldn’t respond. Deciding to take his leave before things could get any stranger, he gripped the hourglass again and flung it back.
The glider is the only remnant of my experimentation in multi-dimensional layering. Despite the promise these forays held, I eventually found aerial height concerns too nauseating for even me, and the potential terrain mapping enabled by persistent surveillance above-ground gave way to inconvenient collisions on one level. Still, they at least have a consistent priority order when yielding to turn at walls, so their motion should be predictable to some order of magnitude!
Chip snapped to attention, wide awake, and feeling possessed of an idea—he could not decide whether it was his own—to avoid immediately going south. “Hello?” he called before he moved. “Is anybody there?”
Nobody answered, not even Melinda, unless he counted her deceptive hint as an answer.
So, reluctantly, he set out to the east, then maneuvered his way south. Slowly, the patterns of the clubhouse began to strike chords in his mind, and he found himself near, but not in, the northeast corner. He paused, listening for anything more helpful than the crackle of walls rising behind him that he could not trespass again, but when nothing sounded he set off to the west.
Even the bizarrely perky music, he realized, had fallen silent. Surely, he had not willed that? He barely had enough power to keep himself alive on a good day, much less control the world around him.
He consoled himself by learning that the western corridor had several of its dead ends to the south clearly visible. The first new deliberation came when he had to choose to continue on to the west or bend south.
He’d been sojourning to the west without much reward, Chip reasoned, and the northeast corner had been a dead end. Was the northwest one also? Better to navigate south and see where that led. It would be like Melinda to make him keep struggling for as long as possible.
So he plodded south until he came to another intersection, with doors branching out to the east towards parts unknown. That time, he continued south, only to find himself trapped in another dead end. The southwest corner?
For a moment he felt a twinge of self-pity at the prospect of flipping the hourglass yet again, forcing the orb through an opening it did not seem to fit. But what was left of himself to lose? Even if he was returning to the same place and time with lacunae in his memories, he could not make the argument that there was anything in the maze worth preserving. The noise of the walls? The fear and dizziness? There was no conversation, no beauty, nothing worth calling discovery. So he pushed it back, fought back the dizzy spells, and it all began again.
At first the turquoise balls seemed to be merely a chromatic variation of the pink balls, but I kept them separate to see if anything would stem from their diversity. This didn’t happen on its own; I accidentally spliced in some bug genes, and all it happened to grow was legs, giving rise to the term “walker.”
I’ve reserved some pink balls to experiment on them, but no matter what I do, they remain biologically inert and do not display any sort of body parts. I’m led to conclude that the difference between the original two samples is more than superficial, but I have yet to discover why this could be.
Chip rose and stretched, shrugging off a stitch in his side. He couldn’t have been running long enough to get sore, could he? He’d been crossing a trap, against a clock. But then there was a maze, and he’d walked through it with no rush…
There was no timer hovering above him, and it made him shiver. Sometimes Melinda took pity on him, letting him pass if he’d endured enough, suffered enough. He let himself think it, died enough. But he couldn’t just surrender to the flames or the racing fireballs in order to take advantage of her whimsical mercy; he had to prove his worth by lasting as long as he could until succumbing to the inevitable. With no inexorable digits to track his progress even as they sealed his fate, would she know how long he’d been stuck in the maze? Would she even care?
It never counted, he reminded himself, if he huddled at the start without moving. So he trouped off to the east, to the south, to the north and the west…
He paused for a moment when he reached the western door he had avoided before, faint recollections beginning to stir. South, he’d gone, and been trapped in a corner from which there was no escape. Then he had to be glimpsing the western edge already, and there was likely no way to progress further west! One little deduction he could take credit for.
He pushed south once again, swerving east before he could get trapped in another corner. All too soon, this brought him to another choice of doors. One continued the way he’d been going, while another pivoted south.
No, he concluded, they were not doors but just places to be, places where could walk on like anywhere else until he trampled them into walls. The only difference was that they happened to be located between two other walls. He carried on.
And it led him to a dead end. Or an end less than dead, abandoned somewhere beyond time’s watch.
Not even the hourglass reckoned time. It still looked just as it had when he first experimented with it. Had it been there all along? Carried in his pockets, through the introductory levels, waiting for the moment when he faced a threat he could not escape?
It didn’t matter. He spun it, and the maze spun around him.
I discarded the remaining body part samples, not expecting anything to come of them. In the trash, however, I was pleasantly surprised to see them mutating into creatures that are almost entirely composed of teeth!
These are the most subtle denizens I know. In many ways, their knowledge of their surroundings almost outdoes mine, because they seem to have an innate instinct to orient themselves towards the nearest sentient individual and approach them. It makes finding them for data collection very easy. At times slightly more easy than I would like, and putting up gravel barriers has come in useful in this regard.
Chip emerged into the maze and exhaled, stepping east without putting much thought into it. So what if he got trapped, a victim of careless forgetfulness or the rage of voices yelling beyond him? If nothing else, he knew how to come back again. Again and again and again.
He passed through the twists and turns, the half-known walls and the ones he could never truly know, no matter how many times they formed in his wake. He avoided corners seen and unseen. He came to the last fork he’d had visions of guessing at and strode south, entering a new tunnel. This one also let him see a few paces ahead, and he was quietly thankful for the information, carefully minding the walls as he pushed forward.
Then, in his peripheral vision, something bright and pulsating came into view. At first he could scarcely believe it, with no socket to guard it from his eyes, but the path forward was clear. He traced it without needing to rely on hope, only taking care that he did not lose his way at the last.
It was difficult to muster up excitement at the prospect of moving forward when he knew there would be more levels to come. If Melinda’s dispatches were any indication, he’d only just scratched the surface of the clubhouse. Maybe he’d be plunged back into the merciless rhythms of life and death, maybe the hourglass would need to serve him again. No doubt in the long run it would be both; her hints always seemed to prod him into a future he was not quite prepared for. Maybe there’d be some other music awaiting him in the levels beyond, different enough to make him appreciate how far he’d already come and taunting enough to make him half-welcome the next death. Maybe he’d live to see other horrors, only to pave them over again as he gave his all only to fail and try countless times over.
But for the brief, triumphant, moment, it didn’t matter. With a last reverberating thud of a wall snapping into place behind him, he leaned forward, and plunged himself into the blue.
You may have the impression that I am responsible for the creation of all the inhabitants of this clubhouse. If so, pardon my hubris. That would be mistaken.
I did not mutate the human ctRl-01R gene; I would merely submit that I discovered the alleles. For most of us, death is permanent; a fortunate few may revive after otherwise-fatal encounters with toxic creatures or hazardous environments, and still others have the rare ability to overcome the limitations of time itself. By “restarting” or returning in time to a safer position than those doomed to purgatorial temporalities, anomalous travelers can continually explore areas that might be too risky for most of us to map.
It is uncertain what aspects of the human consciousness are preserved during such a rewind. Are they completely physical/material and thus subject to be overwritten? Are they completely mental/“ensouled” and thus possibly beyond the constraints of time-symmetry? Some combination thereof? Does the question even make sense? For obvious reasons, these inquiries and other aspects of the process were not things for which I could set up a standard study with norms of “informed consent.”
Nevertheless I feel that the insight to be gained on ctRl-01R anomalies could prove invaluable, if any of them are willing to voluntarily take on extremely repetitive processes. Further data to be classified until study is complete.