The Loop Test, Part 1
(Author’s Note: This story won an Honorable Mention from the Writers of the Future Contest about two years ago. Since then I’ve tried to get it published in various periodicals, but it never got picked up and I’ve pretty much run out of paying markets to send it to. So, I’m putting it here–probably in 4 parts, since it’s pretty long. I hope you enjoy it.)
The trogs were closing in. Draminicus could hear their harsh barks echoing down the drainage pipe and feel their heavy legs powering through the knee-deep water somewhere behind him.
Gasping foul air into his burning lungs, Draminicus kept running, noting various gratings and side-passages as he went. Each one had a distant, instinctual familiarity for him. It wasn’t anything he could dissect logically, but he felt his subconscious plumbing up images from the depths of some unimaginable mental abyss and splashing them across his eyes: The grating in the ceiling made him see himself boiling to death from radiation and heat exposure on the surface; the passage on the left and covered in slime was a dead end, and he vividly remembered (remembered?) himself being torn open like a plastic bag by the barbed fist of a trog; the second passage on the right turned down at a slick angle, and he felt himself drowning in radioactive sludge and soot-black water.
He blinked, shook his head, kept running—he had to stay in the present reality, stay focused, solve his problems. He fumbled again with the phoenix rod in his hand, hoping to get some reaction. Nothing happened. How creatures as abysmally stupid as trogs could manage to use these weapons was totally beyond him. He hoped the yard-long shaft of white metal would at least make a decent club, but a half-remembered image of the rod breaking over a trog’s steel-rimmed head guaranteed that particular plan was a last resort.
Draminicus’ foot fell on nothing but air as the drainage pipe emptied abruptly into a massive, underground cistern. He tumbled, head first, towards the yawning abyss below. Flailing his arms, he managed to catch a piece of steel piping dangling from some distant, unseen ceiling. His feet dangled over nothing and his hands, still wet from the sewer water of the pipe, began to slip ever closer to the end of the smooth metal.
There was very little light, and Draminicus could only barely make out the drainage pipe just above him. The roar of the water as it fell past him drowned out all but the most piercing of the trogs’ rough shouts and roars. They couldn’t be far now. This was it—in a few moments, a trog would ram its fat, pyramidal head through the mouth of that pipe and, probably with a laugh, find some awful way to kill him.
Still, Draminicus felt an odd sense of triumph. The feeling he’d been having—that looming, instinctual certainty of the circumstances of his death—was very much absent, which made his situation strangely encouraging. As his hands slipped lower and lower on the pipe, he felt the adrenaline surging through him. He might live! There were no images of his impending fate—no horrible fall through the darkness, no foul murder at the hands of a trog. He certainly could imagine these things, but the fact remained that they seemed removed from his present circumstances—they were possibilities, not certainties.
Draminicus lifted his legs and waved them around in the darkness, praying for a foothold—nothing. He squeezed the pipe for all he was worth, but his weight was too much. From above there came a howl of delight, and, looking up, Draminicus saw a pair of glowing, yellow eyes set inside a head made of equal parts horn, scales, flesh, and steel. The trog opened its wide mouth, showing a jigsaw puzzle of fangs and tusks. All hope died right then. He knew he had only a split second to decide between the trog and the drop, and he made it with time to spare.
Draminicus let go.
The wind blew past his face, ruffling his long hair and deafening him with the roar. He closed his eyes as the bottom rushed up to meet him, pushing out everything—all feeling, all sight, all sound. In one instant he was a ragged, pathetic soul in torn, muddy clothes who was falling to his doom, and in the next he was nothing. With a skill that could no more be practiced than learned, Draminicus erased from his perception everything that he was or would be experiencing. He did not feel his body strike the jagged steel rubble sticking up from the cistern at the bottom, he did not hear his blood spurting from his wounds, or his heart slowing. He did not see the hulking form of the trog, far above, as it turned away. He was aware of none of these things, for none of these things happened, nor could they. The world in which Draminicus had recently been tenant did not exist.
There was emptiness, paralyzing and complete. He could perceive nothing, as there was nothing to perceive. He had become a pure consciousness, alone and absolute in the void. Methodically, Draminicus summoned up from some recess of his own mind a new set of images: A smoky, cluttered room under a thatched roof; a stone fireplace over which boiled a half dozen copper pots; the smell of old paper and mildew; the scratch of a fountain pen on a writing desk.
Draminicus then brought himself into the picture. His eyes were closed, and he was lying in a heap on the floor. Beneath him was a hand-woven wool rug. He had no shoes. A cat rubbed up against his face, her purrs rumbling in her throat like dice in a tumbler. He took a breath—the air was warm and filled with smoke. He opened his eyes.
Behind the writing desk, peering through his kaleidoscope spectacles, perched a wizened old man with long, delicate hands and a thick, bushy beard that seemed to run in all directions. Elements of this beard spread throughout the tiny, one-room house, each pursuing its own agenda. Some parts stirred the pots over the fire, some dusted isolated corners, some flipped through books, and others seemed intent upon ruining the good work the others were doing by tipping over bowls, scattering papers, or otherwise making a nuisance of themselves.
As Draminicus watched these things happen, remembering them as familiar, the old man looked up from his writing. “Well? How did it go?”
“You died again, didn’t you.” The old man said and went back to writing.
Draminicus sat up. “Where am I?”
The old man didn’t look up. “Stupid question.”
Standing up, Draminicus found a stool. When he tried to sit on it, a piece of beard pulled it out from under him, and he fell on the floor.
The old man looked up again. “Be more careful, will you please?”
“Who are you?”
“I will not answer stupid questions.”
“It is not a stupid question!”
“What is the definition of a stupid question?” The old man asked. As he turned away from the writing desk, a piece of beard took over the pen while another wisp removed his strange, kaleidoscopic spectacles. His eyes were pure, electric blue.
Draminicus frowned, “A question to which you should already know the answer.”
“Very well then—what is my name?”
“Wollow.” Draminicus answered without hesitation.
“And you are where?”
“In your house.”
Wollow nodded. “There, see? You remember.”
Strictly speaking, Draminicus did not remember. The feelings and impressions he received in Wollow’s strange cottage were familiar, yes, but still distant and somewhat foreign. It was like paging through a favorite childhood book for the first time as an adult—images that were at once so well remembered, and yet nothing like what they were.
Wollow’s beard had brought each of them a bowl of broth, and Draminicus took it and drank deeply. The liquid was hot and finely spiced, and its exotic vapors made his nostrils curl and cleared his head somewhat. “Good, you’re feeling better.” Wollow said.
Draminicus licked his lips. “What was that place? Was it a dream?”
“Are you still confused? I’m going over this with you so many times, you’d think you’d catch on.” Wollow set down his broth, at which point a wisp of beard started to splash in it.
Though foggy in his mind, Draminicus still felt as though the horrible place he had just escaped, with the trogs and the dark pipe, was floating there, just beyond his vision. He had only to close his eyes and it would come creeping back. “It’s called Ogga, it’s a world destroyed. I was there.”
“I’d be careful with your tenses, Draminicus. You weren’t there in the past exclusively; you are there now, and you will be going back soon.”
“I don’t want to go back. It was a horrible place—I think I died.”
Wollow nodded. “Of course you died. If you hadn’t, you wouldn’t be here now. You still haven’t passed my test.”
The question ‘what test’ was almost to Draminicus’ lips before he stopped himself. Taking a deep breath, he let Wollow’s statement—“You still haven’t passed my test.”—wash over him. He knew what Wollow was talking about—he had to. He knew Wollow’s name, he knew the wasteland-world was called Ogga, so it stood to reason he knew about the test. This was an assumed fact, he had only to accept it as true and truth would follow.
Wollow, watching Draminicus closely, smiled. “You are remembering my teaching—good. You must know, boy, that slipping from reality to reality is not easy on the finite mind. Should you pass my test and leave my tutelage, you will find that you will be confused more often than not, but confusion is…”
“…evidence of an overworked mind.” Draminicus cut in. “A sentient being need only accept what he is assumed to know, and knowledge will follow.”
Wollow nodded. “You quote me very well. Understanding is not a requisite of knowledge, nor is it wholly achievable, and when you are slipping between planes of existence, you will find that there is almost no common precepts or explanations upon which you can rely.”
“This has nothing to do with Ogga or the trogs.”
“It does and does not.” Wollow’s beard replaced his spectacles and he returned to his book.
“I can’t defeat them, Wollow. Every time I try, I fail.” The words tripped off Draminicus’ tongue without prompting. It was an admission he knew to be both true and mysterious. Defeat them? Why?
Wollow snorted, causing his kaleidoscope spectacles to slip down his nose. “That claim is self-evidently untrue; in an infinite universe, all things are possible.”
Draminicus considered this as he nursed his broth. The trogs and Ogga were a test, the final step in his training. He was training to become something…something powerful. Something without limits, almost godlike. Or, at least, he thought so. The enormity of his experience was overwhelming to his mind; it felt too small to fit it all in. How had this begun? Try as he might, Draminicus had trouble remembering anything beyond the interior of the warm, smoky cottage. The memories were floating there—a string of vivid images that stretched back and out into the depths of his own personal history—but they were behind him somewhere. When he turned his head to see them or closed his eyes to summon them up, they moved away, shyly lurking in the periphery of his vision.
“Stop thinking about all that!” Wollow slapped a hand on his desk. “You must focus on the reality at hand, or you will slip out of it. Your mind is not yet disciplined enough to entertain two states of being simultaneously. You’ll lose yourself!”
“But I need to understand. With context…”
Wollow snorted again. “With context one becomes enslaved to the assumptions of others. It is not to be relied upon for understanding.”
Draminicus sighed. “Perhaps if I stay for a while…”
“You’ll be going back soon.” Wollow announced, peering at a twelve-handed cuckoo clock that ticked and rattled quietly in a dark corner of the cottage.
“I’m not ready.”
Draminicus stood up. He could feel his mind’s grasp on Wollow’s cottage slipping, as though he might blink and find it gone. “What if I fail?”
As Wollow spoke, his voice grew indistinct and incoherent along with the rest of the cottage, like a dream that was drifting to a close. Draminicus struggled to hear what Wollow said. “In an infinite universe, all things are. You have failed. You will fail. You are failing. Good-bye now.”
Posted on November 2, 2011, in Fiction, The Rubric of All Things and tagged Draminicus, fantasy, interdimensional travel, parallel worlds, The Rubric of All Things, time loop, Writers of the Future. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a Comment.