I ran in and slammed the door behind me…
Two immediate thoughts went through my head as I leaned back on the closed door, panting. The first was of relief. I had made it. I was finally behind the door, and whatever crazy nonsense was going on, could now be brought to a stop. The second was the realization, that there was no whistle. That sharp, shrill, maddening sound which always followed Clough’s question did not come. Maybe I had actually done it! Maybe the door-knob was the switch!
A fluorescent light above me flickered. I looked up, suddenly realizing that the room was unnaturally dark for this time in the morning. Then I looked ahead and found no windows.
The room wasn’t too large. To my left, along the wall, three or four large filing cabinets had been placed in a neat row. Beyond them, was a small white-board attached to the wall, and a table and a chair lying opposite. It was too dark to see what was written on the board. To my right was a bare wall, which led to an even smaller inner cabin. The cabin door was closed. There was a plate on the door, but again, it was too dark to read. The only source of light was a dull, flickering fluorescent light above me. I turned to the filing cabinets beside me. They seemed to be stamped with some sort of categorization code. I froze when I read it:
Obviously, I was in some sort of a control room for the loop. As I looked around, my curiosity got the better of my fear, and I moved away from the door. I squinted at the board. Nothing written there was legible. It was what seemed to be the squiggles of an angry, frustrated person – they started small and grew larger as they moved down the board’s length growing consistently in size but remaining completely illegible throughout. At the opposite end of the board, as if the scribbler’s temper had left him were vicious circular scrawls. At the far corner of the room were some burn marks. The edge of the table facing the board was burnt too.
I turned and moved towards the cabin. The plate on the door read, Christian T. Videl, Controller ID 6/66. I nudged the door, and it opened with a terrifying creak. Inside, was a small office. Immediately in front of me was what seemed to be a large control panel. Buttons, dials, and knobs were spread across its length and breadth. Above the panel was a screen beside which a red light flashed, indicating an emergency. On the screen, the following text blinked continuously:
Critical System Error
Reboot for death!!!
I stared. Beside the control panel was a desk on which a thin, lanky man, presumably Christian T. Videl, was seated. His head was in his arms, and he seemed to be asleep. Only, he wasn’t. His arm twitched nervously, and he shook his head ever so slightly, as if disappointed.
“Hello,” I ventured, and immediately the fluorescent in the outer room flickered and gave out. The room was now barely lit, bathed in the dull red from the emergency light which had suddenly stopped flashing.
Christian T. Videl looked up, and spoke in a deep unsettling tone – it was like three men with extremely deep, gravelly voices speaking together. “I messed up,” he looked at me, and then chuckled, “Hahaha. I messed up!” he repeated. With a jolt I realized, that his eyes had no pupils at all. They glowed – white, shiny, seemingly bloodless.
“I MESSED UP!” He shouted as he rose from his seat. I backed until I hit the cabin’s wall, terrified. For an instant as he had shouted, there had been fire in his eyes. His face was contorted in a grimace. His hands were closed in fists. He towered over me and shouted again, “IT WASN’T SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN LIKE THIS!” Flames curled from his nostrils and mouth as he raged. The standard-issue janitorial overalls he was wearing burst into flames momentarily and charred at various places. I looked on, frozen like a deer in headlights.
He looked down, to where I was cowering, and the flames in his eyes retreated. He took a couple of steps back, picked up, and returned the desk, which had toppled over, to its place. I had never noticed it fall. I hadn’t noticed it burn. I hadn’t even noticed, that the cabin had started smelling distinctly of sulphur.
“Oh, but you don’t know me,” he said, in what some would say was a sweet tone. His voice had changed completely. It was now the voice of a pleasant middle-aged insurance salesman, “Please allow me to introduce myself. I am a man of much wealth, and taste,” he sniggered.
“Wh… What?” I managed.
“Oh, haven’t you heard? The Rolling Stones? Sympathy for the Devil? Ah! The late, 60s! Such a beautiful time they were! Vietnam, yes? The Tet Offensive? Ah! And Jagger, that rebellious kid, that swine! He wrote this song, and he told everyone everything! Ah! How I await his death, so I can feast on him. I will tear him to shreds. I will drink his blood. I will suck all the marrow out of his old dying bones, yes? I shall kill him again! After his death!” He laughed.
I looked at the cabin door. It was still open.
“Oh, but don’t run!” he said like a little girl throwing a tantrum. He was taunting me! “I hate runners. I don’t like you much, but I hate runners! Stick around, you piece of filth! Stick around, and I will tell you how you have ruined…” his voice switched to the deep gravelly one, “… EVERYTHING!”
I did not speak. I could not. I just stared at him, uncomprehending.
“I was tired, you see. I am tired. Your world is difficult,” he winked.
“It was easy in the beginning. They used to fight in the name of their Gods. The idiots. Some still do, but not enough. There was a time when the word of your God was war. They spilled blood for the Holy Land. The Crusades, yes? It took me half-an-hour to make them. Just half-an-hour.
“Then you graduated; you became smarter. Do you think you fought for conquest? You just killed in my name. I gave you industry. The power to make weapons, codes, food, clothes. I gave it to you, so you could take the others’ industry away; so you could claim it your own, and kill in its name. I gave it to you so you could feed me.
“And then, Nuclear Power! Ah! What a great feast it was! Thousands dead, to feed me. Thousands, yes? But you outgrew that. You stopped fighting for material things. You wanted ideals. And I gave you those ideals. Ideals that made you interfere and divide, ideals that decreed murder as legal.
“And when that wasn’t enough, I gave you science. I sat and feasted as you destroyed your own wealth. I sat and watched as they committed suicides and died of hunger in the poorer nations, and as the distribution of your wealth skewed terribly. I made you addicts – the prisoners of your own inventions, so dependent on them, that when the shutdown came, you submitted to madness. It was me. I did it all.
“But now. Now I am tired. I am spent. I am done making you engineer your own grisly fates. So I made these loops.”
“Endless loops! Hundreds of them, thousands of them! All manned by me. Me alone, yes? And in all of them people despair, and burn, and die, and kill. Only to live again, and repeat. Just like Prometheus, yes? Except I am Zeus’s eagle. Ah! I feed on those who shall die and kill, again and again, eternally! These loops. This is how I retire, yes?
“And today, I feared you almost…” the deep voice “… RUINED IT!”
When someone feels fear, the structure in their brain called the amygdala starts buzzing with immediate activity. It releases four key hormones into one’s system – adrenaline, epinephrine, norepinephrine, and cortisol. Together, these four hormones make you a temporary superhuman – your air passages and blood vessels dilate, your heart rate shoots up, your body releases glucose from its energy stores, your blood szugar and calcium peaks. All this eventually pushes your limbic system into action, and the result, is what we commonly call the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. There was something terribly wrong with my amygdala, however. Because there I stood, paralyzed, my head spinning, failing completely to either fight or flee, as the Devil himself planned my departure. Instead, questions popped in my head. The Devil was planning to retire? Would this free the world of ‘evil’? And why?
“BECAUSE I AM TIRED! TIRED, YES!” he roared, and then immediately softened, “I cannot engineer humanity’s pitfalls anymore. This is much easier. I put you weaklings in a loop, I give you your quirks, and I play the whistle and make you act them. And when one round of madness is over, you just go back to the start, un-mindful of your fate. Hundreds of death in each sector, thousands of sectors! Misery, madness, torture, death! Permanent! Engineered to iterate flawlessly. Except today. Today, yes? I messed up. You know now, that you’re in a loop. You weren’t supposed to know! YOU WEREN’T SUPPOSED TO KNOW!
“And I will put you in your right place, yes? I will make you do what you were supposed to be doing. That explosion is necessary. Necessary, yes!”
I did not speak. I did not move, either. But that was only until Christian T. Videl burst into flames.
His form changed as the flames engulfed him. Now he was just the dark silhouette of a lanky man, engulfed in an inferno that charred the ceiling. Flaming horns sprouted on the silhouette’s head. A pointed tail jutted out from behind, made of flame. He levitated even as he screamed, and as he screamed I saw a forked tongue, red as blood behind the flames on his face. A whip materialized in his hand, black as death. As he lashed it on the ground in fury, the floor cracked on impact. The mere sound of the whip lashing sent a shockwave through the tiny cabin.
The thunderous crack finally broke my paralysis. I ran out into the room, towards the door, as he followed.
“Don’t RUN!” he shouted from behind me, and I turned around still in motion. The whip was raised. “I HATE RUNNERS! Didn’t I tell you that?”
With another thunderous crack, the whip came down. I ducked to my left, and hit the wall just as it struck the door. There was a small explosion as the door flew out and the filing cabinets right by the door were thrown back. They toppled, one over the other like dominoes, and the last one landed on Videl’s feet. He roared and the cabinet burst into flames. Seeing an opportunity in the confusion I crawled to the door and ran outside.
As I ran down the corridor, I could hear him follow, slowly by surely. He was right behind me. His footsteps, curdled my blood – they thudded down on the ground with each move, and then sizzled, like hot coals landing on a wet surface.
“I will show you your place, yes! I will SHOW IT TO YOU! I messed up, but I will correct it! Ah! You must die, you swine! I will get someone else for the explosion. For this loop! And I will burn you. Fry you to a crisp. Boil you like a vegetable until your skin peels off! STOP RUNNING!”
As I rounded the corner, and ran towards the opposite wing, I realized that I was praying for the explosion. As the whip cracked behind me and Videl’s footsteps sizzled, I prayed for the cycle to complete. Oh, God please! The explosion was the only thing that could save me. And even as I turned back to see Videl closing in on me, I heard the rumble. The ground shook beneath my feet as the rumble grew, and the fire engulfed the building’s pillar beneath me. Behind me Videl shrieked. “NOOO! DON’T RUN! DON’T RUN, FILTH. AH! BUT YOU MUST DIE!”
And just as the shockwave took me, realization dawned on me. It was simple. I could stop the loop. I could stop this horror! It was as simple as avoiding a…
Tenth time, but I had to move fast. There was no time to waste. I had to trigger the whistle. I didn’t wait for Brad to make the remark about his keys. I moved swiftly towards Clough’s room, asking him to catch up. As I knocked on the door and complained about Clough and his roommates needing to move it, I snatched a glance at the opposite wing. There was no red door there. No Christian T. Videl with his flaming body and explosive whip coming to get me.
Not yet, at least.
But I had to act fast. Brad was walking towards the room just as Clough opened it. “C’mon Clough, we are getting late,” I said, just as he stepped out. Mikael had just about started commenting on the brown stain. Before he could deliver his punch-line, however, I had to trigger the whistle.
“Wow, where is everybody?” I asked my gaze fixed at Clough. Clough looked around, and then to my immense relief, he said, “Yeah! Why is this place so fucking empty?”
And immediately, the whistle started. Confirming my suspicions and assuring me that the tenth time was the charm.
You see, when I prayed for the explosion the last time and it came, I realized that I was the one who had caused it. I was a trigger.
Christian T. Videl, Satan, the Devil, whoever he was, had created a truly ingenious system. If he directly interfered and caused our madness, it wouldn’t be right. He had to be the indirect cause. The engineer, not the wheel. We were the wheels. Me, Brad, Clough… everyone. Just as the warriors in the Crusades. Just like Adolf Hitler when he massacred Jews, and like Lee Harvey Oswald when he shot Kennedy. Just like the heads of those investment banks when they caused the markets to collapse. When Clough spoke those words, he triggered a whistle that drove people mad. When I saw the madness take the people around me, driving them to kill; when I particularly saw Brad die a vicious, bloody death, it triggered my desperation. And in my desperation, I triggered the explosion. The only catch was, that Clough’s trigger was natural. Something could cause him to say the words, or he would say the words automatically after a while. Mine was an effect. I had to be desperate to trigger the explosion.
When I ran away, on the eighth iteration, I believe Videl sensed it, and he triggered my desperation by pre-empting Clough’s words. The ninth time, I surprised him. He almost succeeded again, but my exhilaration at having made it to the door prevented the explosion until much later, when I caused it as I was running away from him. This time, however, there would be no explosion. Videl was right, when he said he had messed up. Somehow, I knew I was stuck in this loop – because he made a mistake. Had I not known all this, had I been as oblivious as Brad and Clough, there was no way of figuring any of this out.
I ran away from the scene of the impending violence, my fingers in my ears, running as fast as I could until I reached a maintenance entry, opened it, and hid under the whirring machinery of the generator. There, I stayed for the next nearly forty minutes.
When I came out, the world seemed to have grown faint. The colours around me seemed to be fading – the sky was a paler blue, the grass in the gardens below, a paler green. My own hands seemed pale, almost anaemic. And sure enough, two floors below in the opposite wing was an unlocked door painted in the faintest shade of red. I climbed down the stairs and made my way to the door carefully. There were burn marks everywhere. The smell of sulphur lingered in the air. The door seemed to have been thrown open – the wood was chipped, burnt and charred in many places. As I entered, I saw the file cabinets on the floor. Some drawers were open. Files and papers were strewn on the floor, some burnt, and some torn to shreds. The door to the cabin was open as well, but there was no plate. I looked around searching for the categorization stamp on one of the cabinets, but couldn’t find it.
The emergency light in the cabin was blinking, but it was a pale orange. The screen had cracked with a wide fissure across its breadth. On the control panel, sparks flew out of levers. A few buttons and levers had popped out. The whole cabin was a smelly and charred mess.
There was no sign of Christian T. Videl, Controller ID 6/66. I had guessed as much. Without the explosion, the loop would never complete. Without the loop, he wasn’t needed. He was mostly a flunky. One of the thousands of ‘images’ of the ‘main guy’ put in charge of this junction – junction 11 in sector 16. And now he was gone. Because he messed up. I smiled. My brain seemed to have come up with this theory automatically, but I wasn’t sure I was completely convinced.
As the world around me paled to a seamless blinding expanse of white, taking me with it, I thought, To err is the Devil, and smiled again.
I saw myself open the door and my heart dropped into my stomach. But as I stepped out, I saw people. Others. People going about their morning bustle. The corridor was crowded, in fact.
“What’s that big smile on your face for?” Brad asked, instead of mentioning his forgotten keys.
I merely shrugged. I did not tell him that Junction-11 was now finally free of its loop.