“How long has it been?”
“We just passed nineteen hours.”
I took a deep breath and exhaled. “And the longest he’s been under until now?”
The technician gulped, and I knew that whatever the number was, it was a far cry from nineteen.
“The biology is not the problem,” another tech said, rolling back from the chair where she’d been stationed. There was no paper in the room anywhere, but for some inexplicable reason, she had the stub of a yellow pencil tucked behind her ear. “And the technology is not the problem. At least not from what we can see.”
“You have theories, I assume?”
“It could be psychological. Maybe his subconscious put something in there, or built a section of the maze on its own, and he’s having a tough time getting out.”
“And what else?”
The tech frowned at me as if I already had the answer and was purposely keeping it from her so she could figure it out on her own. But I was just trying to gauge what their box was, and how far outside they had gone to figure out what was happening to their boss.
“I don’t know, Doctor,” the tech with the pencil behind her ear said. “It hasn’t been long enough for us to form other theories—not reasonable ones, anyway.”
I smiled. “I don’t have any doctorates,” I said, pointing to the letters “Ph” and “D” on the tech’s badge. “Unlike you. I’m just plain old Ms. Roca.” I reached out my hand. “Or better yet, I’m Jumari.”
The technician held up both her hands. “I don’t do that. I do this.” She grinned and waved at me. “Allie.”
The other technician, the one who’d been officially assigned to escort me through the facility and to the simulation support room and the simulation chamber itself, stepped beside me.
“As I’m sure you’re aware,” he said, “Doctor Percival’s primary objective, his mission, is to expand the human mind by allowing it to wander in a virtual simulation with no limits. Of course, that could be quite the shock, so he started with a simulation that is true-to-life. Then slowly began playing with the variables that are constant in our world.”
“I’m sure she read the brief on the way over here, Joe,” Allie said over her shoulder as she rolled back toward her terminal.
I had, but I listened to Joe’s summary anyway, in case he provided any details that weren’t in the summary, especially any new developments or observations.
As I did, I felt eyes on me, not all at once, but a few at a time. I didn’t hear any whispers. The technicians and researchers in that room were too professional for that. They would whisper, of course. Just not when they were actively engaged in their work. And at the moment, all their attention was bent on one thing, integrating my mind-mapping prototype with Tae’s simulation.
But most probably knew some version of the story between Tae and me.
The age-old story. We used to be friends, long, long ago. And then we had a falling out. And we both disagreed about what that falling out was about, which means that we continued to be…fallen out.
The human mind is what brought us together the first time.
We were both in the same undergraduate class, Neurobiology. Both paired up to be project partners. Half our grade would depend on that project, and we’d both been afraid that we would be paired up with someone who didn’t really care about the mind as much as they cared about the brain.
The human mind is limited by biology and physiology. In other words, the mind is limited by the brain, that actual physical organ.
Tae and I used to wonder (like many young scholars before us) what would happen if the mind could expand beyond the brain. We had many a simultaneous eyes-widen moments, when we realized that we thought the same way about things. Like how we both thought that when people sometimes feel frustrated because they are certain they have solved a problem in their dreams, but can’t remember the solution, it’s because they really did solve the problem. Their minds, stretching past the brain into the dream world, solved the problem quite easily. But when it had to contract back into the brain, it had to lose knowledge to do so. And it lost everything about the solution, except a vague memory of its existence. We also believed that stories about extraordinary mental abilities—telekinesis, telepathy, astral projection—all had their basis in some unique conditions that allowed the rare individual’s mind to reach past the limits of that individual’s physical brain.
Our undergrad project was a success. We both finished school. And we spoke of starting our own company together. A research company (ah, the fantasies of youth). We wanted to explore the mind from all angles. We joked about employing psychics next to psychologists, witch doctors next to medical doctors, engineers, architects, artists. All of them focused on exploring the human mind. But we had to start somewhere. And we decided on dreams.
We read everything there was to read, sought interviews with whoever would speak to a couple of kids in their early twenties, seeking to advance a field that humanity had been studying since the dawn of our species. We did the practical business stuff too, writing proposals, filing papers, looking at facilities, seeking funding. We’d gotten far, and yet we hadn’t even started. We’d had plenty of fights and plenty of civil disagreements (that eventually turned into fights). And we had walked away from each other in a huff plenty of times, each deciding that enough was enough.
But we always walked back toward each other in the end.
Until one day, we didn’t.
Our company never happened.
But Tae’s company did.
And my company did.
And we competed. For the same grants, the same investors, the same facilities. Even after our focuses shifted, we kept an eye on each other. Publications, magazine profiles. News from the grapevine of friends that we still shared.
So I knew, at least in general, what Tae had been up to the past several years.
And I had read the hastily written but thorough brief that Tae’s people had provided me. But I listened as Joe reviewed it for me again.
“To test this version of his construct, he built several puzzles, of increasing difficulty,” Joe said. “Various different games, from treasure hunts to scavengers hunts to escape rooms. Then he started building complex mazes and challenging himself to get out. The next step was going to be having a few of our team members build mazes for him. But we never got there. This last maze he built must have been too difficult for him. He hasn’t come out of the simulation, and the technicians were unable to rouse him using the typical methods.”
“And what are those methods? What have you tried?”
“In the past, we’ve sent in holographic projections of a team member to tell him to emerge, we’ve shocked him into realizing he’s not in reality, or we’ve communicated through a real-world analog—like a telephone. But now…we’ve lost track of him. That is, we can see him, but we don’t know where he is, if that makes sense.”
I shook my head.
“He means that we have a map of the maze,” Allie shouted over. “And he’s not on that map. And he’s not responding to our attempts at communication, which means either he can’t hear us, or we can’t hear him, or both. But we are still receiving some information about what he’s experiencing. We can tell that he’s tired for one thing.”
I walked over to her terminal, Joe trailing behind me.
“I don’t understand why he can’t get himself out of a maze that he built.”
Beside me, Joe sighed. “I warned him against making increasingly complex mazes.”
I frowned. “Tae Percival is not one to take half-measures, not with research, not with safety—his or anyone else’s. Unless something has changed?”
No one answered.
I watched the network of pathways forming on Allie’s screen. “So if we can’t see him,” Allie said, “we can’t send in holographic projections to tell him he needs to emerge from the simulation.”
“And I take it you can’t make changes to his environment for the same reason?”
Allie nodded as she typed and swiped. “Yes, but even if we could, it might not make a difference. See, at first, when the simulation was closer to our world—the so-called real world—then we could do something like turn the sky red, and Tae would be shocked into realizing that he was not in reality. He would snap out of it. But the more the simulation diverged from reality, and the more his mind became accustomed to perceiving things that in our world would be impossible, the less effective those types of shocks became.”
“Got it. So, what are you able to tell me about what I’ll face when I get in there?”
“Your mind might be attuned to your technology, Doctor—uh, Jumari, but it hasn’t acclimated to our simulation. Have you ever done lucid dreaming?”
“Right, so that might help. But…well, you’ll know at first that you’re in a simulation, but the longer you stay, the longer your mind will get used to it, and kind of forget that you’re not in our world.”
“The so-called real world,” I said. Allie turned her head to glance up at me, and I grinned.
“Would it help if I tied a piece of ribbon to my finger?”
“No, but I have another idea. You could leave bread crumbs along the way. And when you find Tae, you can follow the crumbs back out.”
I nodded, and an idea struck me. “I think I know what to use for the bread crumbs. Something my subconscious primal self should respond to even if my conscious mind doesn’t get it.”
“Sounds perfect,” Allie said, still clacking away.
“But your conscious mind will need to lay the bread crumbs in the first place,” Joe said. “What if you stop doing that long before you find Doctor Percival?”
“My conscious mind won’t do it. My subconscious mind will. We need to program that into the map. Like a leaky canteen that drips water every few feet without my noticing it.”
“I don’t know how to do that,” Allie said.
I nodded, searching the nearby terminals for an open chair. “I can help with that.”
By the time we were ready to send me into the simulation, seventy-five hours had passed. When he started, Tae had had a few leads attached to his temples, and a couple on his chest to monitor his vital signs. Now he was hooked up to multiple instruments. His finger in a clamp, an IV drip in one arm, a blood pressure cuff on the other, wires trailing from a wide belt that was wrapped around his waist. I didn’t know what most of it was.
When I lay down, all they placed on me was what Tae had started with.
My heart was beating fast. The medical technician monitoring me said that my blood pressure was high. But then he looked at my face and smiled a soft and comforting smile. And he told me he didn’t need to guess why. He had information on what my baseline was. I’d had that information sent over to Tae’s medical team. And I’d put my prototype in the hands of his team. And I told myself that was why I was so anxious. Because I’d shared so much that was private with my rival.
I took a few deep breaths.
But all I could think of was what I’d overheard Joe say when I was on the threshold of walking into the break room for a glass of water.
According to Joe, Tae had found out about my map, and about the patents I’d filed, through a corporate spy that Joe bragged about knowing. That knowledge drove Tae to be reckless in getting his own invention tested and ready to announce.
I’d been there before. I’d learned about something Tae was doing, and I’d reacted with a blind drive to get whatever I was doing done and out in the world already.
I hoped it wasn’t true. But whether it was or not wouldn’t matter if I could get Tae out.
And it also wouldn’t matter, if I couldn’t.
I closed my eyes.
The walls were rough, but not hard. They were alive, but not moving.
I blinked and looked straight ahead. I was in a hallway, or a corridor, so long that I could see the walls angling toward each other and meeting on the horizon. On either side of me was a tall hedge.
I reached up and tapped the earpiece in my right ear. “It’s a literal maze,” I said.
There was no answer, but I kept talking as I walked along. Everyone few yards, I felt a tickle at the back of my mind, as if I were forgetting to do something before leaving the house. There wasn’t much to describe. But no one ever answered me. I tried resetting the earbuds, but they wouldn’t work. We had expected as much. So I didn’t panic. Yet.
I reached into my pocket and pulled out the little silver compass that I had built.
I flipped open the cover.
This compass was a virtual simulation representing my mapping prototype. It wasn’t a static map that had to be manually updated. It was adaptive. Instead of the cardinal directions, it was leading me to Tae (the true north in that simulation). I rolled my eyes at the image of Tae’s face where North would have been on a traditional compass. Allie had programmed that bit.
Allie and her team had warned me to treat everything in the simulation as if it were real. I may not suffer an actual scratch from passing too close to a thorny branch, but I would suffer a “mental scratch.” If I amassed too many such mental injuries, I would be thrown out of the simulation at best, or I would suffer some kind of break, at worst. Psychosis. A coma. The doctors didn’t know.
So I crept along the maze, letting my compass lead me. I had a little notebook and a pen. I kept track of the turns I was making, so I could find my way back again. The sky turned from blue to green, to pastel orange. And the foliage of the hedge likewise changed color. I saw a bug that looked like a leaf. It was strange, but I was sure that was something that existed in the real world.
I heard the sound of loons in the distance, and of glass shattering once. I prepared myself for whoever or whatever I might come across each time I turned a corner. But while I heard all kinds of weird and creepy sounds, I never came across anything or anyone.
It started getting dark, and I found that I had a small lantern in a small pack that was strapped across my shoulder. But I didn’t want to turn the lantern on. I was worried about attracting attention.
At one point, I turned a corner and found myself in a well-lit but empty room. The windows showed utter blackness. I crossed the room and opened the door on the opposite side. That door opened up into a corridor of the maze. I glanced around the room before I left, looking for evidence that Tae had been there. But it seemed empty and untouched.
I left and kept trudging through the maze, following the compass.
Eventually I turned a corner, and found myself in a crowded bazaar.
I gasped at first at the sudden burst of movement and sound. Before I could consciously think, my foot stepped into the bazaar. My other foot followed. And when I spun around, the hedge corridor was gone.
The bazaar was bustling with sellers and buyers of pears and mangoes, kabobs, bolts of silk, precious jewels, smart devices, fresh brown eggs, umbrellas—my eyes couldn’t track it all as I kept walking onward.
I dodged the people as best as I could, and kept the compass in my hand, in case of pickpockets. I debated asking someone if they’d seen Tae. But as I approached one of the stalls and caught the gaze of the sellers, I changed my mind. Her gaze was unsettling for some reason.
Uncanny valley, I thought.
As I walked along, I caught glimpses of the city, or the town, through gaps in the rows of sellers’ stalls. Most of the gaps were uninteresting views of alleyways, paved with round stones that were slick with what appeared to be a recent rain. The air, between wafts of warm food aromas, smelled like rain.
But one alley was paved with dry stones, and even before I glanced down at my compass and saw the needle pointing to the alley, I started walking toward it.
Please don’t let there be any thieves or ruffians, I thought. If there were, and if I could see them before entering the alley, then I would simply turn around and find some muscle-for-hire. Surely, Tae had built his maze to contain resources against whatever dangers he’d put in.
I saw no one, and as soon as I stepped fully into the alley, everything went silent. I turned around, unsurprised to find that the bazaar was gone. Behind me now was more alley. I walked onward, checking the compass. Every few yards, I still felt that tickle of an unremembered memory in the back of my mind. I’d have to figure that out eventually. But first, I had to find Tae.
The paved stone gave way to bare earth, and then earth overgrown with grass. And the stone walls of the alley gave way to wooden walls and then just a wood, a neatly trimmed wood. A hedge, in other words.
I turned right at the first juncture, according to the compass, and there, I met a dead end.
And Tae, sitting on a boulder, sharpening a long blade that sat across his lap.
He glanced up at me as I approached, and he smiled. I locked gazes with him to be sure it was him.
“It’s about time,” he said, rising to meet me, unsurprised to see me. “I’ve been here for…days, right? Or is it weeks? Months?”
It’s him, I thought. I took a breath, then hesitated. I sighed heavily. “I don’t know how to tell you this, Tae…”
His eyes widened. “Years?”
As my lip began to creep up into a smile, he frowned and tipped his head.
Then he straightened his head and pressed his lips together. “I’m glad you’re here, J.R.”
I pointed to his right hand. “Why do you have a sword?”
An answer came, but not from Tae.
A dry, earthy roar rippled through the air. The hedges shivered in response.
“He’s getting closer,” Tae said in a low and quiet voice.
We stepped closer to each other by instinct.
“Who?” I said. “What the hell was that?”
I raised my brows. “The what now?”
“It’s a creature from myth. Half-bull, half—“
I held up my hands. “I know what a minotaur is,” I said. “But what is it doing in here?”
Tae gestured to the walls. “It’s a maze. Mazes are kind of the minotaur’s thing, I think?”
I furrowed my brows as something occurred to me. “Tae, it hasn’t been years, but you’re still not in great shape. You said the minotaur is getting closer. Maybe it’s a part of your mind. Maybe your mind knows that your body is suffering. It’s trying to drive you out of the maze. We need to get out of here now.”
“I wish I could help, but I’m lost.”
“Yeah, how did that happen anyway?” I asked, flipping my compass around. I had made a plan for how to get out. I know I had. Logically, that plan would have something to do with the compass. Now that I had found Tae, I could probably recalibrate it, or reassign a new North.
“I designed the maze to shift and change,” Tae said, “not at random, but in response to my own actions and decisions. That way I wouldn’t be able to just walk through. I’d have to pay attention, to the maze, and to myself. To my mind.”
I nodded, trying to figure out how to open the compass’s casing.
“I thought I’d reached the end,” Tae said. “But the maze…it cheated. It gave me another corridor, and when I went down it, I became lost. Curiosity, huh? At some point, I started hearing the minotaur. I saw its shadow once. That’s how I know what it is. I got away from it. But I’ve been hearing it get closer. I debated what to do. If I stayed put, you guys were more likely to find me. But…so was the minotaur.”
I glanced up at him. “So you got yourself a sword?”
He twisted his mouth to one side. “Honestly, I can’t remember how I got this.”
“Maybe you bought it at the bazaar.”
“Maybe we’re not in the maze anymore,” I suggested.
“What are you doing? And what do you mean?”
I told him briefly about the compass.
“That corridor you went down,” I said. “Maybe you left the simulation, and entered something far more complex. Your own mind, expanding into the simulation.” I waved a hand across one of the hedge walls. “We could be in your mind.”
Tae set down the sword and bent over the compass with me. “What a treat for you,” he said.
“Oh, you joke, but I’m going to remember everything I see in here—all your secretiest of secrets—and take copious notes when we wake up.”
“Well, that’s fine. I’ll provide you with writing implements after the mandatory forty-eight hour acclimation period has passed. Hopefully you won’t forget all the juicy details of my incredible mind by then.”
Another roar sounded. The hedge maze shivered. And I felt the vibrations through the soles of my shoes.
I shook my head and put the compass away. I pulled out the little notebook, where I’d taken notes of the directions I’d gone. “We’ll just follow this back.”
“Are you sure that will work?”
“No, but I’m hoping we can at least find out way back to that busy bazaar. It seemed like a safe haven. Then maybe we can sit on a stoop and figure out the compass while we eat a juicy pear.”
Tae made a face, as if he’d just tasted something bitter. “Speak for yourself.”
That’s right, I thought. Tae doesn’t like pears. He likes…mangoes. I recalled the one seller who was selling both fruits. My favorite. And Tae’s.
I wondered what it meant.
We walked for the better part of an hour—or what seemed that amount of time in the simulation. I hoped it was shorter in real time, for Tae’s sake.
Tae was getting tired, and I was afraid that meant that his body was further deteriorating. And I was just wasting time.
I stopped walking. “The maze has shifted. This is no use. I’m sorry.”
Tae sat down. “You’re sorry? You came in here to rescue me, and you’re sorry?”
“Well, I’ve failed, so far. But I’ll think of something—we’ll think of something.” I smirked. “Don’t worry, you won’t have to spend the rest of this reality with me.”
“There are worse people I could spend the rest of reality with.” Sitting with his back against the hedge wall, and his legs stretched out before him, Tae looked a bit like a little kid.
“You mean…we don’t despise each other anymore?”
He sighed out an exhale and looked down at his lap. “Did we ever?”
We were silent for a moment. But not too long. Neither of us wanted the silence to be broken by that blood-chilling roar.
“So, we’ll find a way out,” I said. “We will. But this simulation, Tae. This is so real. Even subtle things, like how the hedge wall started smelling dewy when it got darker and the condensation formed on it. So real. So how will we know if we’ve made it out?”
Tae rose and we started walking, not following any compass or map now, but just wanting to move, away from the minotaur, we hoped.
“Well, with both our minds here,” Tae said, “we should be able to anchor each other in reality. So I think if we encounter anything that shouldn’t exist in the real world, that will be a dead giveaway that we’re still in the simulation.” He smiled. “Just look for evidence of fairies.”
I gulped. “I’ve got news for you, my friend. Fairies are real.” I tossed my thumb back over my shoulder. “That minotaur is probably real. Or it used to be, in the ancient world.”
He glanced sideways at me as we kept walking. “What do you know?”
“What do you know?” I tossed back.
Again we were silent. But the grass beneath our feet was dry, and the rhythmic crunching sound was comforting.
But not comforting enough. The maze was claustrophobically monotonous. I kept thinking about that bazaar, wondering what part of the maze—or what part of Tae’s mind, if I was right about that—the bazaar represented. An area densely packed with resources.
I felt a tickle in the back of my mind, as we carefully turned a corner onto another empty hedge corridor.
Suddenly something—someone appeared before us, flickering into view, gray, and ghastly, and screaming through a gaping mouth.
I reached out for Tae to push him back in the direction we’d come. He stepped forward with a cry. He raised his sword and swiped at the figure.
The blade passed right through the floating figure of a young woman with a gaping mouth, sunken pits for eyes, and an axe attached to the bloody stump of her left arm. A memory bloomed from the back of my mind.
Tae was trying to pull the sword out of the hedge. The blade had gotten wedged into a thick branch.
“Leave it!” I said. I grabbed his arm and pulled. “Run!”
Tae released the hilt and we ran back down the corridor, all the way to the junction. We stopped and glanced in the direction we’d just left the ghost, the ghost that I recognized.
“What the hell was that!” Tae said.
“It’s her, remember?” I said, catching my breath. “Axey. Well, Axe Mary, but you know, we all called her Axey.” I shook my head at Tae’s blank expression. “That movie we saw. You don’t remember? You laughed the whole time. But it scared the crap out of me. I still get nightmares…”
“What is she doing here?” Tae said. “She’s not like the minotaur. My mind doesn’t remember her. I didn’t put her in the maze.”
“Maybe your conscious mind doesn’t remember, but your—“ I stopped.
“But you remember her,” Tae said. “Did you bring her? Is this like the pear thing? Your mind is manifesting things in the simulation. Why can’t our minds manifest puppies or…our celebrity crushes?”
“My subconscious mind…” I muttered, just as a low, quiet earthy roar sounded behind us.
We heard something slicing through the hedges.
We turned away from the sound, and toward the floating specter of Axe Mary.
“You go,” Tae said. “I’ll distract them.”
“Follow her,” I said.
“We have to follow her.” I stepped toward Axey. Tae reached out and grabbed my shoulder. I turned toward him. “She’s the string. We follow her.”
“In the myth, a young woman enters the maze, the maze called Labyrinth, unrolling a spool of thread so that when she found who she was looking for, they could follow the string back the way they came.”
Tae frowned at the floating specter, even as she flickered away and re-manifested further down the corridor. “Are you sure?”
“Yes, it was never the compass. This is the string. The…wait, the bread crumbs. I remember. Well, either way. Follow her.”
We started jogging toward Axe Mary. Something crashed into the space where we’d been standing, and with a roar began to chase us. I felt the thudding of the ground with each of its strides. We ran faster.
“Don’t look back!” Tae said.
We ran. We ran toward the terrifying ghost with an axe for a hand.
I woke with a jolt of anxiety. I blinked, and a tear rolled down from the corner of one eye. I tried to sit up, but someone held a hand over my chest and told me to lie still.
“Tae…” I said.
I heard, through a fog, someone saying, “We have to sedate you now.”
When next I woke, I was in a small room, on a cot. Sitting next to me, reading on her tablet, with the stub of a pencil tucked behind her ear, was Allie. She took me to see Tae. I had to stand outside his room and look through the window. He was still under sedation. His body had begun to behave as if he were fighting off an infection, even though blood tests showed no pathogens in his system. His mind had been in the simulation far, far longer than it should have been. It would take him longer to re-acclimate to the so-called real world, as Allie would say.
I decided to and was allowed to stay onsite until Tae had recovered. I had a few strange episodes myself, where I found myself frozen in the middle of a corridor, lost in thought, but so deep in thought that I had to be roused, as if I were deep asleep.
The effects faded after a week. And all the while, I helped Allie and her team analyzed all the readings and data they had gathered while Tae and I were in the simulation.
The simulation room itself sat darkened and sealed. It would stay that way, for a long while, I imagined.
After another week, the doctors allowed me to visit Tae during one of his brief wake cycles.
When he was awake, he was really awake. Lucid, normal…normal for Tae anyway.
“They tell me you are recovering well,” I said. He sat up higher as I took a seat beside him. “As long as you don’t try to rush it, you should be back on your feet in a few.”
“Years?” he said, smiling.
“Months, I think. But I’m no doctor.”
“Maybe I should take years.” He closed his eyes and took a breath. He opened his eyes. “Now’s my chance to finally thank you. I never did when we were inside. Thank you, J.R.”
I glanced down. There were conflicting thoughts running through my mind, but I didn’t need to bother Tae with any of it.
“It’s not your fault, if that’s what you heard,” Tae said. “And I wasn’t rushing a damned thing, if that’s what you heard. Something unexpected just happened.”
I glanced up and smiled. He had figured out my thoughts on his own.
“You took so many risks…for me,” he said. “Not just with your mind. But with your invention, your prototype! Integrated the whole thing into my simulation. The hard, the soft, the vaporous. Algorithms, circuits, nodes, synthetic neurons.”
“We had to,” I said. “It wouldn’t have worked otherwise.”
Even after a couple of weeks, it hadn’t sunk in yet. How I had just given away my life’s work.
Well, I thought. I probably still have enough life left in me to start another “life’s work.”
I nodded. “I guess you have both inventions now.”
“No,” he said, frowning in confusion. “We have both.”
I grinned, and reached for the pudding on his dinner tray. “We do.”
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel