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Saturday, June 1, 2013

Find the Exit

Steven Napoleon drove on in the night. The black sky had no lights dotting it, no circle of the moon. Steven did not wonder why. The tires of his car passed over the smooth, darkly reflective asphalt without sound. His headlights showed him circles of freedom beyond the windshield, and the streetlights illuminating the highway dribbled orange over his car. He was alone on the road. Neither tail lights nor headlights could be seen as he drove down the highway. It seemed to be going on for quite a while, and he wasn't very sure why he drove, but he drove.
     A car appeared and passed him. Steven hadn't seen it approach in his mirrors. It sped around him.
     It went too fast, and Steven swerved out of the way. It cut across his lane and smashed through the barrier on his right, plummeting down the slope on the other side. Steven stomped on the brake and then he was out the car and running down the slope, imagining a dirty crash, with torn bits of car, shredded tire, flames licking at the metal underside of the car that rested on its roof, the driver mangled and bleeding.
     Instead there was nothing. The gentle slope of the ditch became a pleasing field full of silent grass, waving to him in the night.
     "What?" Steven said, looking around him. He remembered the blur of lights across his vision from the car and the tear and screech of metal as it punctured the barrier, splitting it like wet paper.
     He felt hot and cramped. He wandered through the grass, trying to find something to assure him that he had really seen the car float across his, but there was nothing. The grass, waist-high and soft, tickled him. He looked around, and up at the dark sky, but it told him nothing.
     He walked up the slope back to his car, looking back every few steps. The barrier was still bent and broken, tire burns on the asphalt of the deserted highway still nearly glowed. Steven knelt down and inspected them. They smelled strong and cruel and he followed them, guiding him to the barrier.
     Giving up, he got back into his car and got back on the highway. His skin prickled with heat and his neck felt strange. He felt dizzy, like he had just twirled around.
     The glassy stillness of the road under him soothed him.
     And in the grisly mask of a face he saw in his windshield he was moved into a new space. He fell onto his stomach and groaned. Pains erupted on his skin and inside, and he flailed, cursing.
     The pain ended and he got up to his knees, glancing around in shock and rocking back to land on his butt. He pushed himself backwards until he ran into something from behind. He looked up and saw a thing.
     He could not call it human. It had no mouth, and blue skin. It had arms and legs, and everything a human has, except for a mouth, and nothing that a human did not have, except for the blue skin. Steven screamed and scrambled forward. His arms and legs felt tethered together and they moved only through conscious will. He ran up against another barrier, a wall, and looked behind him. The blue human had moved with him without sound, and stood no more than a foot from him. He cringed away. Nothing happened.
     He looked up at the human, watching it as it watched him. It had white pants and shirt, and pockets of fearsome instruments; their use Steven could not fathom.
     "What are you?" Steven asked fearfully.
     "I'm a helper." Steven heard the voice, but the creature had no mouth, so how could it talk? It wasn't a voice in his mind, nothing but a normal voice.
     "How can you talk? You don't have a mouth."
     "My mouth is hidden," the blue human said. It bent down and looked at Steven in the eyes. "You have questions."
     "Questions!" Steven hauled himself to his feet. "Of course I have questions! Where am I? Who are you? Where did my car go? Where did the other car go?"
     The helper responded without even the smallest of motions. "The magician's device bears you toward the mountain. I keep you here. Your car is behind us."
     Steven looked behind his shoulder and saw a clean wall. He looked around the helper's body and saw the same thing. He looked at the helper -- who always seemed to loom. "What? What does any of that mean? What is this place? And you never told me what happened to the other car?"
     "Look around you," the helper ordered. Steven turned his head.
     He and the helper stood on a large cliff overlooking an unnaturally level field. Similar cliffs ringed the field. There were no trees or animals, nothing that looked familiar of any kind. Steven looked up. A bright light shone down, but there wasn't any sky. In fact...
     "Are we inside something? Where's that light coming from?"
     "You are inside. I keep you here."
     Steven took a step away from the helper, holding his hands out. "Why? Where are you keeping me? Why can't I leave?" He looked up at the light again. "This structure must be miles high! There's nothing like this on Earth!" He looked at the helper. It didn't move. Steven sat, feeling tired, and looked at the ground. "This is metal!" The helper didn't respond. "Okay, I'm clearly inside something. You're a helper, aren't you? Well help! How do I get out?"
     "You have to find the exit."
     "What? Well... okay, that doesn't sound too hard. You're not being very helpful, though." Steven scuffed his foot on the metal under him and looked around. There didn't seem to be any way down from the metal ledge he was on. "Is it... near here?" The helper only watched. "Is it a door or something like that?" He dropped to his knees and knocked on the ground. It didn't sound hollow. "Can you tell me anything else?"
     The helper didn't. Steven sighed and pushed himself up. "Is there a way down, at least?"
     It didn't look like there was. Steven walked to the edge and looked down. Strange marks and bumps in the cliff face under him turned the strange smooth surface into something else. The other cliffs around the field had marks of the same nature, slightly different in each version. "I should be able to get to the ground if I'm careful," Steven said to himself. He looked over at the helper, and found him standing right next to him. Steven jumped back and stifled a curse.
     "Please stop doing that!" The helper said nothing. "Can you at least answer one question? How did I get here?"
     "You've always been here," the helper said. Lights flashed out of its eyes for an instant, and Steven was blinded in first one eye and then the other. Then the light was gone.
     "What was that?" The helper didn't answer. "What did you do to me?"
     Steven turned away, again with no answer, and got to his stomach. He reached down and grasped the first small ledge. It was just too small to stand on, so he put his feet first. The staggering distance down the smooth field didn't dizzy him. He hooked his feet on the first ledge and slowly lowered his weight down. The same distance below that ledge was a silver ledge with a rectangular hole in the middle. He dropped down to it, landing effortlessly in the cup of the hole. He was now in a small dark cavern. He felt the concave floor. It was plastic.
     Shaking his head, he clambered over the lip of the bowl and judged the distance to the next one. It was too far to drop without hurting himself, so he shimmied to the right side of the bowl. There was a vertical lip he clung to as he let himself drop slowly. Soon he was in the next plastic bowl and a fourth of the way to the ground. "This is too easy."
     He looked to his left and the helper was there, six inches from his arm. Steven jumped and growled. "Please stop doing that! How are you able to get around like that?" The helper didn't answer, so Steven climbed over the lip of the bowl. The next bowl was even farther than before, so he looked around. Off to his left there was a similar bowl a small distance above a gray ledge. On the way to that bowl he worked his way over a vertical gap that lacked any sort of hand hold, but managed to drop in without problem. From there it looked like ten feet down to the gray ledge.
     He landed on it, and was met with another surprise. When his feet touched the surface, it caved a small amount, sending him tumbling onto his back. He got up and pressed on the gray material. "And this is a cushion." He slapped his hand on it, and then punched it for good measure. "Why is there a ledge made of cushion here? I'm getting sick of this nonsense."
     He had traveled about two-thirds of the way to the ground, and started looking around for a path down. To his left there was a sort of metal ladder extending from the wall, only a few rungs. He used it, and then latched on to a small handhold under the gray cushion ledge. He monkeyed across it and landed in another plastic cup. From there to the ground was a slide down a vertical handhold next to the cup, and then a short drop to the ground.
     He was finally down, and felt the ground. More plastic. He looked to his right. The helper stood there, but Steven had prepared himself for the soundless teleportation.
     "I want you to tell me where I am," Steven asked him flatly. The helper didn't respond. "You called yourself the helper. Why won't you help me?" It still didn't answer.
     He looked up at the ledge he'd started from. It seemed to be hundreds of feet above him, yet he had scaled the cliff without worry. He couldn't ever remember going rock climbing, but not only had he moved with the surety of a goat in its home, he knew which way was the fastest and safest. Steven looked back at the helper.
     "I've done this before, haven't I."
     "Yes," the helper said, and Steven felt good from getting even that word out.
     "Why don't I remember it?" The helper had no answer for that. "Where do I go now?" He looked around.
     "We'll get there soon," Steven heard the helper say.
     "What?" Steven whipped his head at the creature.
     "It doesn't look good. Make sure they're ready." The lights dimmed and blinked, flashing like passing cars. The helper turned into a smear in the air and disappeared. Steven looked around him frantically.
     There was a long, loud beeping. He ground his hands down on his ears, but the noise persisted. His legs faltered and he fell to his knees, gritting his teeth as the sound drilled into his bones. A shock ripped his left arm and he screamed. What little he could see filled with endless copies of the helper, who shifted and split into hundreds of identical translucent versions.
     Steven blinked and the lights were normal, the beeping gone. The helper stood nearby as motionless as always. His arm hurt no longer.
     He picked himself up from the ground and rubbed his head. The lights seemed the same, but the light around him was different in a way he couldn't discern. He saw that the helper was looking past him instead of at him. He turned.
     Behind him there was a peaceful field of gentle grass that ruffled with an unfelt breeze. "The exit," Steven said, turning toward it. He took a step into the dirt and open sky and his nose was filled with the scent of pine, his ears heard with the sweet murmur of the tall grass, his eyes drew in the chilling waves and symbols the flowing grass drew with their rising and dipping bodies. His hand brushed a stalk and let it strain through his fingers. The air was thick with the joy of freedom and serenity. He took another step.
     The serenity and joy and sweetness switched to caustic chaos of hectic noise and screaming lights that he could not avoid. His arms and legs were bound to his sides and his heart exploded in terror. He heard a voice scream something from all sides at once. The calm sway of the grass turned to muddled, pain-filled darkness. He fell back.
     It ended. He pushed himself away from the grain field. His arms and legs could move freely again. He heard nothing except the breeze. He got to his feet and stepped back from the field, step by step. With each step the field got hazier, and when he was ten feet away it was just a wall. He walked up to the wall and pressed his hand against it. It stayed put. He was back in the immense structure with an unknown light over his head and a helper who was no help.
     He looked over his shoulder at the helper. He spun and strode at it, reaching out to grab its white shirt with a hand. Somehow, he missed. He found himself looking the wrong way, as if he had stepped on a spinning tile in the floor. He stepped back. "What was that?" He raged. "Do you know anything? About what just happened to me?" The helper, evidently, did not.
     But it did speak. "You won't be here for much longer."
     Steven stared at it, eyebrows pressed together. "Why not? Where am I going? Earlier you said 'we'll get there soon.' Where's there? How can we get somewhere when we aren't moving?" The helper didn't answer.
     Steven ran his hand through his hair, and looked around the area he was in. It was a large open space covered in uniform material and surrounded by the same unnatural cliffs. Only two of the four sides had ledges like he had climbed down from. The other two were massive, perfectly smooth walls, though one of them did have a large gray crack down the center. He went to that wall, a trip that took him several minutes, and pressed on the crack. Nothing changed. No field of grass mysteriously appeared, no hell assaulted his senses. He looked up at the light. It had the cold, unfeeling look of light that strained down over a cubicle. Steven listened carefully and heard a hum, but from where he couldn't tell; it seemed to be all around him.
     He stretched his head and looked around all of the interior. From his new position near the wall with the gray crack, he couldn't help but feel like he new what he looked at. The helper, who stood next to him without moving an inch, watched him look.
     "I've asked you where we are, and you haven't answered me," he said. "But I feel like I've been here before." He eyed the helper. "Can you help me understand that, at least?" The helper could not. "It's like deja vu on a physical scale," Steven said to himself.
     "We're nearly there," the helper said quietly, as if from far away. Steven looked at it, thinking maybe it would speak more. It didn't.
     He got up to its face. "Where's there? Where am I now? Who are you? Who am I? What happened to me? How did I get here? Who made this place?" In this assault of questions the helper didn't flinch. "Tell me something! Anything!"

Time passed in a strange stream, and to Steven it felt like an hour disappeared as he walked around the area he was in, inspecting everything he could find. The helper followed him without motion or sound, saying nothing.
     Slowly the structure he was in began to change. The light took on a cooler, darker quality. The air started to drop in temperature. Angular shadows passed over the light and covered the area in darkness for split-seconds, and when Steven looked up at the light, it burned as it always had, giving no hints to where the shadows had come from. The hum persisted.
     Steven sat and thought. He had been driving alone, without worry, and the other car had gone through the barrier in front of him. Then it had disappeared. He had taken steps out into the field of grass -- the same that had appeared in this building.
     He had gotten back in the car, and the face had appeared in his windshield. Could it have been the helper?
     Steven looked up at it, which stood next to him. It could have been. Steven didn't remember it all that well but what he could remember seemed familiar, in a way. Its mouth had been covered by a mask, but all he could see was the face. He could recall no other details.
     And now he was here, in some hellish building that never stayed the same, and seemed built out of random materials, and contained passages to fields of grass that gave him feelings both good and bad.
     He looked up at the helper again. It was looking away from him, up at two holes that had appeared in the wall with the gray crack down the middle. Steven stood and stared. They hadn't been there before. Dark sky peppered with blue stars could be seen. And towering over them, rising toward space-
     A mountain, white and cold and brutal, struck through with glowing red lines horizontal and vertical. It rose as a solitary peak with no mountain range or siblings to combat its ascent.
     A freezing breeze swept over Steven, who found himself no longer confined by the giant building. He was alone and unconfined on a circle of earth that floated free, except for a bridge that spanned a bottomless, stomach-turning chasm. Not even the helper was with him, and did not appear. He peered over the edge and saw nothing at all -- ground, sky, space. He was on the only thing in a land made of nothing, facing down what could only be his destination.
     He crossed the bridge. There were no hand rails, but the path was wide and motionless, without even a sway in the wind that ruffled his hair. He watched the mountain grow in his vision. Only the sound of the wind disturbed him. After the harsh glow from the building before, this cool sight was welcome.
     The mountain's starkness contrasted the dark depths of the sky behind it. Steven was no astrologer, but he didn't recognize the constellations that framed the mountain, and guessed that he wasn't on Earth any longer -- perhaps he hadn't been for some time.
     He stepped off the bridge onto solid ground. The path widened to lead him to the red-highlit mountain, opening out to span farther than he could see.
     When he got closer to the mountain, a flicker in the edge of his vision made him turn.
     There, to the right of him, was the field of swaying grass that had greeted him twice before already. Steven halted and watched, hypnotized by the movement. He heard sounds that wanted to draw him in.
     break out of it, but then
     Steven looked back to the mountain, and suddenly it seemed a harsh place, of pain and suffering. A place he would not escape. The grass looked to welcome in and care for him. He took a step into the field.
     Glaring light after glaring light passed in front of his eyes. He could not move. A chorus of voices alarmed him and a rising motion made him want to look above his head, but none of his muscles responded. A figure, from the left of his vision, put its head near his. It was the face that appeared, just before he had been transported to the first place, the building. It touched his face, and spoke.
     "Hse litls peissvorunen," Steven heard, and then he stood in the field again, still just one step in, the golden grain beckoning and urging. Steven looked over his shoulder at the mountain as wind blew from its direction. He took another step.
     Pain shocked him. "Dab car shcar," he heard as his senses overloaded and blew, plunging him into dark silence. Terror rose in him as his flailing limbs and screaming voice brought him nothing.
     He saw in a stuttering flash the other car pass in front of him, the face in the windshield, the giant building from before, the mountain, and the field of grass.
     Once more he stood in the field, hands caressed. He looked over his shoulder and found the mountain faded somehow, just as the field had faded before, as he stepped away from it. He looked back into the field and found low rising hills beyond it, and beyond that, lights that twinkled and asked him to embrace them. He heard the stirring of glass.
     Another step could bring him beautiful pleasure, or endless pain.
     He stepped back from the field, watching it dissolve into nothing, just as it had before. It became nothing more than more nothingness that fell away from the edge of the floating earth he stood on. If he had taken that last step, would he have fallen forever?
     Steven looked at the mountain again. It was the only thing he had left to look at. Lines of red drew across it in no pattern.
     Bright light came from its base. Steven walked nearer to it, finding a set of glass double doors that cracked open and waited for him to enter. Only white haze could be seen.
     With no alternative presenting itself, Steven stepped inside the mountain.

     He found himself in a long white hallway. He looked behind himself and found the doors to the outside gone. The hallway ended abruptly inches behind him. Lights from the ceiling blared down at him, and a low murmur, like a crowd, came from before him. He concentrated, but no words could be picked out. He ran his hands over the plaster walls and felt nothing out of place. The air stank of age.
     There was no direction to walk but forward, and so Steven went. His feet whispered over the tiled floor. He felt cold.
     The hallway went on, never ending or changing direction. He listened to the crowd that was ahead of him but never seemed to get any closer and, as he walked, began to hear it from behind him. He looked behind him and saw only the long hallway, which seemed to eventually file to a point. There had been nothing there, nowhere for a crowd to hide. Were there speakers in the ceiling? Steven looked, but couldn't find any. Trying to ignore the noise from behind him, he kept walking.
     He walked for longer than he could tell. The noises continued to stem from behind and in front, but he never met anyone, and the sound never changed.
     With grateful eyes he saw an intersection in the hallway with one path that went left and one that went right. Steven looked down each path; they were identical. He went left.
     He found himself in a honeycomb of rooms, with more hallways splitting away forever. The murmur of voices started to sound like the buzz of bees as he looked in the first room. It was a square place with no decoration, white as the hallway. He stepped out and looked in the one across from it, which looked the same. All the rooms looked the same. All the hallways split off in the same way, doubling with each iteration, leading him to more and more white empty rooms and more and more blank hallways, always filled with the distant speaking of phantoms.
     Steven saw no end to the breaking hallways, and so he reversed his path and went back to the original rooms and past them, to the T intersection. The long, endless hallway he had started in was on his right, and he passed it by, going straight ahead into unknown territory, putting himself into a new hell.
     Like before he found rooms building off from the hallway, but this time without any splits in the hallway.
     And in each room a masked face peered out at him. They looked like the helper, in that he could not see their mouths, but their eyes gleamed out at him with wicked desire. He identified them as related to the face that had flashed in his windshield, but they were not the same. Each body was the same, and each watched him with a turn of their head. He walked past each room, trying to find something, anything, that he was being led to.
     He found it, after a while. Past hundreds of rooms containing silent, masked men, Steven hit the end of the hallway. There was a white door and Steven, quite ready to figure out what he had been going through, pushed it open.
     The man from the windshield was inside. Steven immediately reversed and tried to back out of the room but the door was gone and only bare wall remained. He pounded on the wall but the action yielded nothing. He turned and looked at the man that he had seen in his car's windshield. Like all the others, he was white as death and had his mouth covered. A white robe covered his shoulders, and white clothing like the helper had was under it.
     The room Steven had entered was bigger than the cells he had seen in the hallway, but just as empty. The man stood in the very center of the room.
     "Who are you?" Steven asked, pressed against the wall where the door had been. He remembered the questions he had asked the helper, and wondered if asking this figure would be just as foolish.
     "The magician," the figure said. Steven relaxed a small amount.
     "Where am I?"
     To this the magician didn't answer. Steven sighed and crossed his arms. "How did I get here?" Again, no answer. "Are there any questions you can answer?"
     "Yes," the magician said, and fell silent. Steven waited without much hope.
     "Can you tell me what questions you can answer?"
     "Only you can."
     As he had with the helper, Steven considered violence. He discarded the notion, guessing that it would work no better than it had before.
     "Why are you here?" Steven asked finally, after pondering his next question.
     "I'm here to help you."
     "I thought that was what the helper was for."
     The magician shook his head. "The helper is to help me."
     "How do I leave this room?"
     "You can leave now." Steven looked at the wall behind him and saw that the door had returned. He opened it and looked out. It was the hallway just as he had left it. He turned back to the magician.
     "How are you supposed to help me?"
     "By helping you find the exit."
     "The exit!" Steven yelled. "The helper talked about the exit too! But there's no way out of here! There was no way out of the building from before! I've just been taken from place to place on the whim of some force! Was it you?" Steven stepped up to the magician. "Have you been taking me all over the place with nothing but enigmatic figures and nightmare fields?"
     The magician didn't answer. "I'm in a mountain that has endless hallways and voices that I can't ever find! Before, I was on an island in the middle of nowhere, and before that I was in a huge building that had seemingly no purpose at all! You have to give me something! Please!"
     Steven watched the magician peer at him, waiting and hoping. Nothing came.
     Steven wrenched the door open and strode outside, slamming it behind him. The magician stood next to him in the silent manner of the helper, and Steven jumped.
     They stood now in the hallway with the countless small rooms that contained the magician's near-clones. At least, they had contained them. They stood empty and forlorn, each one now dark and, seemingly, endless. Were they changed now? Steven ignored them and walked down the hallway, back again to the infinite hallways that broke again and again. There was nowhere else to go.
     Steven failed to notice that the voices he had heard were now silent, leaving the hallway filled only with the echo of his foot. Just like the helper, the magician made no noise.
     He did, though, notice the smell. Before these hallways had smelled of age and chemical, now the fragrance of outdoors floated along with him, spurring him to a faster pace. He couldn't place the smell, but it seemed horribly familiar to him.
     Of course, when he reached the intersection, the original path now on his left, he understood. The original path had transformed into a quaint wooden gate, and beyond was the field of grass that had haunted his footsteps to no end.
     Steven looked out over it. The hallway was gone, now just the field could be seen. He placed his hand on the wooden gate and looked back at the magician.
     "What is the meaning of this?" Steven asked without emotion.
     The magician's head bobbed to look at him. "You see two paths before you. One of these paths must be taken, for better or worse."
     The last time Steven had stepped in the field, there had been sounds and sensations too numerous, so many that his body had rejected them. He had gone from feeling and smelling the grass to hearing terror and tasting fear.
     But what waited in the other path?
     The hallway that went out before him, the one that would eventually begin to split, and split again, and again and again, so that soon there were thousands of paths and thousands more being born every time he went left or right. There had been nothing there before, but perhaps no it would be different.
     "Is there a right path?" Steven asked. The magician watched him, and Steven expected no answer.
     And yet: "I do not know."
     Steven mulled the words in his head. He didn't want to go back into the field, which seemed, time and again, to contain only harsh realities and confusion. So too did he not want to go down the white hallway that seemed to contain nothing but other paths. Would either return him to a world he understood? Did they both contain passages to hell and torture? Or did one of them give way to heaven's serenity?
     "Which one would you pick?" Steven asked.
     "I do not know," the magician replied.
     "Why not?"
     "Because you do not know." Steven looked at the magician, feeling the breeze from the field blow his clothing.
     Looking across the field, Steven saw again the lights over the solemn rise of the hill, and heard the tinkling of the shards of glass that told him yes, come... this is the world you are drawn to for a reason.
     The long white hallway to his right said nothing of the sort.
     Steven opened the gate and took a step in. His breathing became difficult, his muscles weak. His eyelids grew heavy, his stomach roiled, and his tongue lolled. Strange sensations of floating and twisting came to him, and his stomach heaved. He pitched backwards against the gate, clawing at it, as the feelings of the field threatened to snap him in half in every manner and meaning. He pulled the gate open and fell through to the cold hallway, and the feelings resided. He drew in a shaky breath.
     The magician still stood next to him, not moving, as Steven got to his feet and looked away from the field.
     He walked down the hallway that would, soon, split one way and the other, but never differing. It would grow to more and more, become an infinite number of identical passages that could bear nothing but empty thought as Steven walked. This was not the right path.
     Steven realized too late, and tried to turn back, tried to return to the field and its sensations, but the labyrinth of hallways trapped him and sucked him in until he was lost once more, so that the blank passage dulled and darkened, and the magician disappeared, until there was nothing but the smooth passage of black ground under him and the flicker of the orange lights overhead.

Alia Napoleon turned the corner into the hospital room and hugged her mother, who was just rising from the chair. Steven Napoleon lay motionless in the hospital bed.
     The wounds from the car crash created a patchwork look on his tan skin. The tubes stuck down his throat made it look like he had become a machine. His left arm was wrapped in long white bandages.
     "He's in a coma," Mrs. Napoleon said. "The doctor... Jadugara, I think his name was, said he might wake up... but we just have to wait. The nurses have to move his limbs and turn him so he doesn't wither." The mother sniffed. "I can't bear to see him wither."
     "He'll be okay, mom." Alia looked at her little brother, usually so big and strong, now feeble, and kept back her own tears. "I'm sure that he'll be able to wake up."

Steven Napoleon drove on in the night. The black sky had no lights dotting it, no circle of the moon. Steven did not wonder why.

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