Two doors. That’s the first thing I register as I enter the room slowly, and a familiar feeling of uncertainty starts to make it’s presence known in the pit of my stomach. The feeling will spread if I let it, creeping down into my legs to turn my muscles into useless jelly so that I can hardly stand. Then it will move upwards into my chest, constricting my lungs until I have to fight to draw a single breath. It will continue it’s journey upwards, pulling my shoulders and neck tight as though an invisible hand draws a needle and thread through my muscles and skin, bunching the fabric of my body together into a firm knot. It will creep into my brain, paralyzing my thoughts and leaving me incapable of determining any action, making any decision until all I can feel is a blackness and despair.
So I close my eyes and take a deep breath, pushing back against the panic until it subsides, subdued like a dog berated by it’s master, lying curled and watchful for the moment it can rear up again. Having regained control, I pay more attention to my surroundings. The room is illuminated by the same dim neon lighting that lit the corridor I have just left, and indeed, the same lighting that has accompanied me since I entered this level. The room is by far the oldest that I have encountered; a think layer of dust covers the floor, covering also the large boxes and storage containers which line the walls. The air smells different here too, musty, somehow older than the air we breathe on the upper levels. Presumably the purification systems aren’t running down here, and now that I think of this, I realise that the ever-present background hum of the filters is missing, and that I have been walking in an eerie silence during the last hours.
So this must be right, this must be the way. If it wasn’t for the two doors. The instructions didn’t say anything about there being two doors here. There was only meant to be one door, one door that would lead me out of the system here and into freedom. I look at the doors now, one on the left, one on the right. Left or right, right or wrong, true or false, a binary decision which would bifurcate my future into the is or could-have-been. How could I make this decision? For I suspected a decision would have be to made; there would be no option for doubling back, or trying one then the other. No sniffing ahead to sample the consequences, no chance to reconsider if I make the wrong choice. Ha, choice! Choice implies free will, and I don’t even know whether I have that. What if the instructions weren’t from a friend? What if this was simply a test, a way for the system to determine those who don’t belong, to weed out the misfits and the trouble makers, the ones who could destabilize the status quo?
I sink down to the floor, and lean against the wall, thinking back to how this all began. Perhaps if I retrace my steps, go back over the discoveries I made, the decisions I took, I will find some discrepancy, unearth some clue which could help me now. My life was actually pretty good, or so I thought. There was plenty of food to eat, although thinking now of the coloured cubes I ingested induces nausea. There was company and conversation, sport and games, sex too, if I wanted it. We weren’t lacking entertainment. Everyone was happy and unencumbered, but a sense of dissatisfaction was gnawing at my soul, leaving a yearning for something I didn’t know how to express. I tried to discuss this with my friends, or at least, with the people who I seemed to get along with better than most, but they would just look at me quizzically, or laugh uncertainly and profess that they didn’t really know what I meant, before turning the conversation back to the latest fashion trend or entertainment show.
I began to withdraw from this mindless inconsequentiality, preferring my own company and thoughts to those around me. I stayed in my room, but even that didn’t provide the comfort or solitude that I sought. I took to pacing around in circles, sometimes going on hands and knees, crawling on all fours like an infant, or curling myself up tightly into a ball and rolling around the enclosed space, simply to gain a different perspective and alleviate the emptiness which sometimes threatened to engulf me. It was during one of these escapist sessions, where I lay flat out on my stomach and crawled around the floor like some demented lizard, that I first noticed the scratches. They were quite faint, and very low down on the on the wall in the corner, so had it not been for my reptilian perspective they would have gone unnoticed altogether. They were the first blemish I had seen in the otherwise blank and sterile walls, so I lay where I was and considered their imperfection with increasing interest. The more I thought about it, the more the scratches didn’t look random, but rather more like a short arrow, pointing downwards.
Intrigued now, I examined the floor more closely. Running my finger over the area, I felt the slightest gap, as though there was some sort of small panel occupying this space. I stood up, and fetched my razor from the personal hygiene area. I knelt down, and tried to fit the thin blade into the gap, but with no success. I then tried the blade between the wall and the floor, and felt it sink slightly. I twisted the razor a little, and a small panel sprung out of the floor with a satisfying pop. The area underneath was very shallow, just enough to fit the small piece of paper, which I pulled out eagerly and unfolded. It contained a message, written in tiny neat handwriting:
Greetings friend, you are not alone! There are others who think like you, and you are welcome to join our company.
The rest of the note was taken up with complex directions. If I understood correctly, it was instructing me to somehow leave the system, to drop out of this non-existence and join some band of outsiders, who were hiding God only knew where. The final sentence, written seemingly as an afterthought, caused me perhaps the most consternation:
PS: Don’t eat the blue cubes!
Whoever wrote this obviously know about our dietary supplements. The instructions would be hard to follow, but that last piece of advice would be easy. Looking back now, I realise that that single piece of advice was probably responsible for my resolve and current clarity of thought. After abstaining from the blue substance for a number of days, I felt like a cloud had lifted from my mind, and that I knew that I must follow the other instructions as soon as possible. Easy to say, but I did not take the decision lightly. Dissatisfied as I was with my present circumstances, for all my eccentricities I was essentially a coward, subservient to a system designed to keep me in my place like a sheep grazing obliviously in the pasture, blissfully unaware of the butcher’s shop. Not that I had any experience of sheep, or of butchers of course – even the concept of shop was unknown here. My pleasure-seeking associates wouldn’t understand the idea, but I had read some of the old archives, and knew how we used to live, many centuries ago. How we got into this opulent, opium infused prison of a society is not well documented. Our wishes and pleasures are fulfilled, our dreams are granted. Except that we forgot how to dream, and we paid the price with our freedom. We live deep underground, trapped in a paradise from which there was no escape. Or was there? I had no way of knowing what awaited me and I was scared, and paranoid that I might now in some way be marked, or stand out. I had been flushing the blue cubes down the waste disposal, but perhaps they could detect a change in my behaviour, I mean, even more that the usual idiosyncrasies which caused people to look askance at me. I would have to be careful.
The journey was difficult, not least because I had to enter one of the forbidden areas to start it, but luck was on my side. I kept a lookout over the following days, and when the opportunity presented itself I was able to sneak into a restricted corridor unobserved. I found the storage room fairly quickly, and moving the boxes to one side, found the entrance to the underground tunnel system described in the instructions. I moved quickly, following the directions to the letter. I found everything was as described; the long winding tunnels, the passageways which seemed to loop back on themselves, or suddenly opened out in to vast underground chambers. I travelled for miles, till I came to the end, to that last corridor and those two fucking doors, which should only have been one.
So now I’m sitting here, head back against the wall. That’s it, I’ve retraced my steps in my mind, but I’m still none the wiser as to which door to take now. The instructions have come to an end, and I’m sure I followed them all correctly. Left or right, A or B, death or salvation. That’s how I’ve come to see it now. I can’t go back. Already my absence will be noted, and then what? Will they try and look for me? Sweat is trickling down my face, even though it’s not warm here. In fact, it’s cool and clammy, and I shiver involuntarily. I stand up and look around the room, hoping for some sort of clue. Perhaps whoever wrote those instructions also left some sort of message here as well. I scour the walls and floor, moving the boxes which are light enough to be moved, but find nothing. The boxes are locked, and even if they contained anything to help me, I have no tools to open them.
Indecision wracks me. I’ve not been brought up to deal with such dilemmas, I’ve had it easy all my life. I’ve tried to think for myself, and I’m sure I think more than most of the pleasure-filled zombies who gyrate around me, but when it comes to making such a decision, I’m lost. But confound it all! When I’m so close to my goal, I can’t let this defeat me now. I move to the left door and examine it all over, then do the same to the right. No difference. Perhaps I can look first, before I choose? With a tentative outstretched arm I press my hand against the left hand door. It opens with a soft hiss, and I look through into a corridor which extends few meters before it is blocked by a second door. Damn, it’s an air-pressure door. The second door won’t open until the first closes. No chance of finding out the easy way what lies beyond. And would it even help me? Surely through both doors I would just see more corridor? I do the same with the right hand door, and am presented with the same view. Back to square one.
Should I make a random choice, roll an imaginary die determine my fate? No! I am responsible for my fate, and no-one else. It’s my choice to make, even though I may make the wrong choice, I will own it. I stride back to the left door and open it again, and without hesitation I walk the few steps to the second door. The first closes as I touch the second, and my choice is made. I walk quickly through and the door closes behind me. I turn around and place my hand upon the door, but nothing happens. A one way door, so my decision is well and truly made. Did my life just split at this point? Is there another version of myself now walking down the right hand corridor, also turning back and finding the door closed behind him? In some ways I find this a comforting thought, that at least one of us will make it, and I send my other self a silent greeting and encouragement, before making my way down the corridor.
It is illuminated by the same dim lighting, although the walls of the corridor seem less smooth than the previous ones. I’m not sure how long I walk for. It feels like a long time, but I have no real way to track my progress. After a while though I sense the floor is taking a faint downward slope, and the air feels slightly damp. The walls too feel moist to the touch, and this unsettles me more than I care to admit. With nowhere else to go I continue onwards and downwards, and now I’m splashing through water a couple of centimetres deep. A few more metres and the water is up to my knees, and now I’m wading up to my thighs in bitingly cold water. That’s it, I’ve made the wrong choice and now I have to live with the consequences. There’s now going back, and no going forwards. I’m chest high in water, and the corridor has come to an end. There’s a wall ahead of me, sealing me in to a watery tomb. I start to shiver, the panic again threatening to overcome me as much as the cold. But some part of me is still able think clearly, and I realise this can’t be all there is, as the water has to come from somewhere. I take deep breath and duck my head under the icy water, letting myself sink down to try and get a look at the bottom. There, I was right! A hole in the wall indicates that the tunnel doesn’t end, it just gets a hell of a lot smaller, and probably a lot darker too. I break the surface again, and consider my choices. Ha! There’s that word again, the illusion of free will, as I know my choices amount to starving to death in the tunnel, or a quicker death by drowning if I’m brave enough to attempt the tunnel. I give an affectionate salute to my alter ego, who is probably now emerging into a new frontier of freedom. After taking two or three practice breaths, I fill my lungs with as much air as possible, and dive down through the hole.
Swimming was one of the recreations I really enjoyed, and thankfully I’m pretty good at it. Even without light I can sense the tunnel in front of me, so I continue to swim with strong strokes, all the while feeling the pressure building up in my lungs. Just as I think that I can go no further, I sense the tunnel opening up in front of me, and I swim out into open water. My lungs are almost bursting, but above me I can see light, so I kick my legs with all the strength I have left, willing my arms to lift me up until my head bursts through the surface, and I take huge gulps of beautiful, crystal clear air. I’m disorientated, and the light is blinding me, but then I feel strong arms grab hold of me and lift me up. I feel myself being dragged out of the water, and now I’m lying on a soft green blanket, looking up into the infinite depths of what must be the sky, and it’s so vast and beautiful that I feel overwhelmed and I feel tears running down my face.
A face appears above me, it’s wearing a smile, and a hand is being outstretched. I grasp it, and pull myself up to embrace my rescuer. I made my decision, and I won. Exhausted but triumphant, I stand up tall, ready to face the challenges of my new world.