On September 1st I had a fun day with the release of my latest short story collection ‘An Odder Quintet’, as part of the festivities David Haynes picked the title. The title immediately reminded me of an old ZX81 game – 3D Monster Maze, so here is my story inspired by David’s suggestion and a game from the ancient past.
Bright light welcomed me back into the world, a world very different from the one I remembered. Gone were the pleasant greens of a country park, covered in the deepest blue of a summer’s day. Instead I now saw a stark reality of harsh white light.
The light seemed to have no discernible source, it reflected from all angles from the shiny white walls. I reached out and touched the surface; it was slick like plastic, but warm like polished wood. The same plastic sheen covered the floor, I saw no cracks in the walls or floor. I looked up and the ceiling appeared to be made from the same material, but I noticed that the walls didn’t reach the ceiling.
Strange, I wondered why there was such a large gap.
With an effort I stood up, I groaned in concert with my limbs complaints. I must have been out for longer than I first thought. My legs always freeze if I sleep for too long. I lost my balance for the briefest moment and reached out to the nearest wall to steady myself and there on the floor I spotted a piece of paper.
I groaned again as I stooped to pick up the paper and I then read the words printed on it:
‘Welcome to The Maze,
find your way to the centre to find the key,
the key opens the door to the outside,
but beware the dinosaur!”
Beware the dinosaur? I grinned to myself, so this had to be some sort of children’s adventure park. Maybe a travelling fair or something, that thought discarded the weight of my initial worry.
Okay, so I’m in a maze. I used to complete paper mazes, but they were easy, you start from the end and work backwards to solve the puzzle. Here, actually stuck within a maze there wasn’t so obvious a solution.
The walls didn’t reach the ceiling. If I could get on top of one of the walls then maybe I could see a way out. The top of the wall was too high for me to reach. I tried a running jump and managed a sliding step against the wall, but failed to get enough purchase to reach high enough.
All right, so there wasn’t going to be an easy way out of this. I’d have to find the centre and get the key, play the silly game. Maybe I’d get to meet the cute dinosaur.
I’d regained consciousness in a dead end, so the first move was easy, I followed the corridor to the end. The ultra bright while of the walls disguised the junction, so I didn’t recognise the shape of the junction until I was only a few steps away. The T junction presented me with a choice. Left or right, which way would take me towards the centre? I had no idea, so followed a guess and went left.
A few minutes later I walked back through the junction, so much for guessing.
Next I tried following the passageways to the left, always turning left whenever I had the option. As I walked I realised how quiet the Maze was. I hadn’t thought about it until then as the frustration of being lost rose over me.
While I walked I wondered who at put me in this maze. Was it a prank? I didn’t know anyone who went in for these sort of tricks. Was it something more sinister?
I continued walking until I grew tired, in fairness that wasn’t for any great length of time, I don’t do much walking. More than a little vexed at the situation I slumped onto the floor and leant against the wall. It felt strangely warm against my back.
Again I pondered who might have done this to me and why. I still couldn’t think of anyone likely to do this and that worried me even more. If a stranger had done this then what did they want.
As I glared at the wall opposite me I noticed a subtle graduation in the shadow, it appeared longer in one direction than the other. The flat ambient light had deceived me, but now I realised that there must have been a light source at the centre. This gave me new hope; I now had a direction to follow.
With the shadows as a faint guide I worked my way to the centre and in less than ten minutes I found myself facing an open space. The space was several metres wide and in the middle stood a plinth made from the same mysterious material as the maze. Upon it I saw a silver key and remembered the note I read when I woke.
Halfway there! Now all I needed to do was to find the exit.
I didn’t think, why would I suspect a trap? I rushed across the room and collected the key and immediately headed through the opposite corridor.
A bell loud enough to wake the dead tolled. The immense vibration of it travelled through the maze, through the floor and into my terror frozen feet. My heart stopped, after so long only in silence the sudden noise paralysed me with fear. That fear faded as the sound did and once again I breathed.
For a while I continued outwards following the same trick I used to locate the centre. The problem with this plan was that the exit could have been on any of the outer walls, I didn’t know which way I should head. In essence I was searching blindly.
After hours of fruitless searching I detected a change in the air, a strange odour that I couldn’t identify. The air also felt warmer, more humid. I couldn’t think of any reason why this should be, but I took it as a good sign and followed the scent like a tracker dog.
I turned into a long corridor; the strange lighting meant I still had to follow to near the end to determine what options waited at the end. I cursed as I discovered another dead end. A rumble shook the floor as the words left my mouth.
A terrifying thought sprang unbidden from earlier ‘Beware the dinosaur’.
The rumble turned into a growl. A throaty horror that came from every direction at once. I looked around in panic, seeking the source, the most ancient part of my brain searching for the best avenue of escape, completely forgetting that I only had one direction in which to run.
My feet hadn’t forgotten, without any conscious thought I ran back down the corridor.
That terrible roar cried out again, its source somewhere behind me. I glanced back like some fool in a cheap horror movie and saw a bulky shadow looming above the walls. All I saw were the eyes that glittered from the monstrous face.
The beast had seen me!
I ran faster. The floor trembled as the creature chased after me. Its tread was slow and ponderous, but quickly gained pace. Within seconds it caught me up, glancing to the left I saw its head with one eye fixed upon me.
A thought from my rational brain battled through my terror, did this creature know the layout of the maze?
At the end of the passage I ducked right, away from the following monster. Its angry roar faded slightly as it changed direction. I turned again, this time towards the track the creature followed. Its stride was undoubtedly greater than mine, but I thought (hoped!) that I could turn quicker than it could.
Another junction took me back towards the creature, for several seconds we charged towards each other, I reached a turn before it did, but I faced a T junction, which way should I run? I picked left, right or wrong the beast followed in the same direction, its long stride quickly paced alongside and then ahead of me.
Another thought surfaced, if I put a monster in a maze, where would I put it? The most obvious choice would be near the entrance so everyone could be lunch. That wasn’t the case here, so the next obvious choice would be near the exit to stop anyone escaping. That had to be the case and it gave me a direction to use.
Adrenalin had kept me running so far, but now the ache in my chest slowed my pace. An angry growl spurred me on, but only for a few paces. I had to stop and catch my breath. The monster sensed my weakness and I heard it rage as it sought a path towards me.
With an effort I kept moving, but at a more considered pace. I didn’t know when I would need my strength for a sprint so I conserved it.
An hour of cat and mouse passed, although I spared my strength the tension of the creature’s hungry fury frayed the deliberate calm I’d forced on myself. The monster had also slowed, it now stalked rather than chased. We twisted and turned and gradually we moved closer to each other. Every so often I saw its eager eye and it seemed like the thing grinned at me, its face all evil desire and sharp teeth.
Familiarity breeds contempt and that almost proved my undoing. The beast hunted me, I was tired, but the fear had drained from me. It soon flooded back as I turned a corner and stared straight into the face of the beast that had followed me for so long.
It reacted first and lunged towards me, I dashed forward with the warm wet breath against my back. I ducked barely escaping the thunderous snap of its jaws. I ran, a brief glance back informed me that the beast was struggling to turn. The passages in the maze were wide, but no so wide that an angry dinosaur could turn easily.
It wasn’t much of a lead, but better than I had hoped for. Every shred of strength I had left pushed me onward. I had gotten past the beast, but somehow I needed to find the exit before it caught up with me.
The problem I now faced now was that I had no idea where to go. All I knew was that I could only run forwards. The strange light that had bugged me all day once again came to my rescue. I spotted greasy marks that dulled the floor’s sheen. They must have been the footprints of the creature.
They would lead me out of this nightmare!
And so with burning lungs and fading strength I ran. A fresh roar indicated that the chase was once again upon me. Only now there was no maze between me and it. I don’t think I knew what was louder the pounding of my feet on the odd floor or the pounding of my heart desperately trying to pump blood around my fatigued body.
The next turn led me into a long corridor, the last thing I wanted to run into. The long straight allowed the ravenous monster to catch up, I only just managed to dash around the next turn as the snap of jaws closed behind me.
Wherever I could I followed twists and turns, but managed to lose the trail I had followed in my panic. A series of quick junctions allowed me to pull ahead slightly, but by this point my muscles screamed for me to stop, with each step they trembled.
Almost at the point of collapse I turned and saw the exit in front of me, a final effort pushed me to the gate of black iron stark against the white walls. A terrible pain lanced along my arm as the creature’s jaws closed up my hand. I fell and kicked out as it lunged again.
The passage had narrowed, restricting its movements giving me one last attempt at the lock. The key slid in, I dragged the gate open and dived through into the warm glow of escape. Faint headed I slumped to the ground, savouring the wooden texture of the floor. I watched the blood drain from the ragged tear in my arm and as the light faded I revelled in my escape.