Aphelion Issue 234, Volume 22
November 2018
 
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Labyrinth

by Martin Lochman




The day didn’t start well. It was still pitch black outside when I was brutally awakened by the sounds of heavy machinery and construction robots coming from the building next door. Apparently, the asshole developer thought that it was a good idea to begin work at this hour. After failing to fall back to sleep I got up to make myself a good cup of coffee only to discover that the coffee maker had decided to go on strike.

The journey to work took ninety minutes which was still a bit less than I had expected considering the heightened security measures. These included three checkpoints equipped with military grade scanners that had been scrambled at the beginning of last week after some religious nutjob had almost managed to cook the entire city block with a small homemade fusion bomb. The experts had estimated that had he been successful with setting off the device, over two thousand people would have been instantly vaporized--yet this would still not qualify as the worst attack in the past decade.

When I finally arrived it quickly became clear that today wasn’t going to be just another day at the office. I barely had time to take my jacket off before my boss called me and a couple of my colleagues into the meeting room.

It appeared that there had been an incident last night in the Van Hooven’s Leisure Center. The Centre had been built five years ago by one of the richest entrepreneurs of the century, Mr Robert Van Hooven, as an attempt to give the oversaturated entertainment industry something new and exciting. The truth was that the vast majority of attractions it featured couldn’t really be considered that new or original--you had your run-of-the-mill VR simulators, live action shooters, games of chance, 5D cinemas and things of that nature. On the other hand there were also a few that had a potential of piquing the interest of even the most bored-out-of-their-mind customers. It wasn’t because they utilized state-of-the-art IT technology or advanced robotics--on the contrary: they seemed almost archaic in comparison with the rest.

One of them, Labyrinth, was a gigantic underground complex occupying an area of nearly ten square kilometers. The main idea behind the attraction was ridiculously simple: find a way out. Van Hooven himself had revealed in an interview a while back that when creating the Labyrinth he had been inspired by the Greek mythology and the legendary craftsman and artist Daedalus.

In the tales, the center of the maze was occupied by a deadly monster called Minotaur. Luckily for the visitors, its real-life counterpart didn’t feature any man-eating animals--until today that is. As my boss went on to explain an unknown animal had broken out of its confinement in the Land of Beasts--the other unconventional attraction that had been very loosely based on the historical zoological gardens. As such it housed two different types of animals: a decent number of carnivores including (but not limited to) lions, tigers, crocodiles and snakes and--just in case these were not spectacular enough for an average visitor--a fair share of genetically engineered creatures. It was one of the specimens belonging to the latter group that had viciously attacked and mauled the caretaker and during its escape had somehow found its way to the entrance to the Labyrinth where it had taken a chunk out of some poor sap of a guard who had been unlucky enough to get in its way before disappearing inside.

Fortunately for the general public (and Van Hooven’s PR team), all of this had gone down shortly after midnight when the entire Leisure Center was closed so there were no more casualties. Unfortunately for me and my colleagues, we were now supposed to go clean up this mess as quickly and quietly as possible.

"So what’s the objective?" Ryan asked once boss finished giving us the basics. "Find, sedate and haul it back to the zoo?"

Boss shook his head. "Find and terminate. That’s it. Van Hooven will be sending his own people to deal with the carcass."

Why can’t they kill it themselves as well? I thought bitterly. Even though it was a part of my job description I never liked putting an animal down, no matter how dangerous it was deemed to be. The sad reality was that the percentage of cases when we had to do just that had been growing steadily year after year. Thanks to the huge advancements in the fields of biological engineering and genetic editing it had become much more convenient (and cheaper) for owners--down to your average cat lady--to put down problematic animals and replace them with identical clones. Did your dog bite the neighbour’s kid? No problem, just get rid of him and get a new copy with improved, custom made personality traits.

As far as the bioengineering was concerned this still wasn’t the worst part. Not only was it common to design pets according to preferred physical and psychological specifications but people literally took bits and pieces from different species and molded them into a brand new animal. It had started with cags, hybrids combining the best features from cats and dogs--I mean who wouldn’t want a pet that was loyal, friendly and affectionate and at the same time fairly independent, capable of shitting in a litter box and cleaning itself--and over time gradually moved towards creations so complex that they would make Mother Nature itself cry.

There was one single upside to this craze: the scientists were able to resurrect some of the species that had gone extinct because of mankind such as the white rhinoceros, the blue whale or the snow leopard. In my opinion, it still hardly made up for messing around with the natural order of things.

Further pondering about the state of the world we all lived in had to wait until later since the meeting was over and it was time to grab the necessary equipment and get going. Boss had decided that a three man team should suffice to handle the task at hand which meant that me, Ryan and Peter were in for an interesting morning.

Apparently, Van Hooven wanted to reopen the Leisure Center in the early afternoon. That didn’t give us a lot of time to locate the escaped creature and kill it, especially when considering the size of the Labyrinth. The greedy bastard had at least arranged for a fast transport so within half an hour after the meeting we were already standing at the entrance of the attraction.

"So, how does it all work here?" Ryan asked shortly after the heavy one-way door had closed behind us and he slowly swung his pulse rifle around in a wide arc to indicate what he meant.

"What do you mean?" Peter said. "There is one entrance and one exit. You get in, try your luck. If you manage, good for you! If you don’t, you can use one of these..."--he pointed at the wrist computer that one of Van Hooven’s guys had given him outside--"...to retrace your steps and get out."

Unlike the computers that the visitors were regularly given, Peter’s device actually contained the complete plans of the Labyrinth--not just the app that tracked your movement and automatically generated a map based on it--so we could theoretically find the exit pretty fast. Not that there was any reason for it.

"That’s it?" Ryan looked baffled. "You just run around empty metal corridors for hours on end and hope for the best? How is that even remotely exciting?"

"People are bored, I guess," Peter shrugged. "Internet, virtual reality, digital gambling...it’s all too conventional, too accessible. It doesn’t have anything new to offer. That’s why they do all sorts of crazy and dangerous shit and why they go for something as stupid as this."

"Still, just how stupid do you have to be to...?"

"Guys!" I decided to step in because I felt that the conversation wasn’t going to lead anywhere and I didn’t want it to cloud their focus. "Let’s leave this for later, all right?"

Not waiting for their agreement I continued: "Are you picking up anything?"

I was referring to the tracker that Ryan was carrying. It was a small handheld device that could detect the faintest traces of biochemical compounds left behind by an animal and in doing so help pursue it with uncanny precision. It was ten times more effective and reliable than the best trained hound which made it a perfect tool in a variety of different settings including airport security and police field work.

Normally we wouldn’t even need to use the tracker since the creature--just like every single animal in the Land of Beasts--had a subcutaneous GPS implant. The Labyrinth, however, was shielded from satellites and the cellular network coverage by design, to prevent the visitors from cheating.

"Yup, strong and steady--we are definitely on the right track," Ryan nodded. "And based on these readings Labbie shouldn’t be far."

Peter and I shot a perplexed glance at him. "Labbie?"

"Yeah, why not? It’s not like they gave us its name...or the name of its species for that matter."

Peter rolled his eyes. "You do realize that this animal actually killed two people? It’s not your neighbor’s labradoodle!"

I was going to add that it was also quite cynical to give cute names to a creature we were going to put down but then my ears picked up a distant rhythmic thumping noise. It was coming from the corridor ahead, slowly gaining on intensity.

"Guys," I said but my colleagues were already aware of it.

"Looks like it’s going to be over quicker than we thought," Peter remarked and switched off the safety on his rifle.

I followed his example.

A few long seconds had passed. The sound was getting louder, getting closer and then it occurred to me that it was maybe a little too loud.

"Isn’t it supposed to be about as big as an adult lion?" Ryan asked, a hint of nervousness in his voice.

I quickly recalled the details of the meeting earlier. Labbie was said to be 2,1 meters in length and 1,5 meters in height, weighing slightly over 200 kilograms. The creature that was now coming in our direction sounded way bigger and heavier than that.

In fact, what bursted out from around the corner was approximately the size of a rhinoceros but moved with surprising speed and agility. We took a couple of shots at it but the energy charges didn’t even slow it down. Ryan and I managed to jump to the side but Peter wasn’t so lucky. Labbie snatched him like a ragdoll and swiftly disappeared in one of the corridors.

"Holy shit!" I gasped and then the full realization of what had just happened hit me like a freight train.

Peter was dead--there was very little doubt in my mind about that--and we were way in over our head. We had never dealt with an animal this big and vicious before so every strategy and procedure we knew went straight out of the window. There was only one thing to do: get the hell out of here before Labbie kills the rest of us. I was just going to suggest it to Ryan (even though I was sure that he was fully aware of it as well) but he whispered: "It’s coming back."

He was right. The telltale noise was once again getting closer.

"Run!" I said.

So we ran.

It turns out that we both had different opinions on sticking together to increase our chances of getting out of here in one piece--considering the fact that Peter had been the only one with the map of this place. As we were passing through one of the countless junctions Ryan suddenly took a different turn even though he had been following closely behind the entire time. With Labbie literally breathing down our necks, there was no time for me to run back and follow him so I just kept on heading my own direction.

I was running for what seemed like an eternity. When I finally stopped in a narrow passageway that seemed to stretch to infinity, my legs unable to continue, I found out, to my surprise, that my pursuer was nowhere to be seen or heard.

Even though I had just escaped a certain death I was painfully aware that my problems were only starting.


*****



According to my watch it was exactly two hours and twenty seven minutes since I had last seen Ryan. Wandering through the maze of gray metal corridors that all looked exactly the same began wearing me out but I couldn’t let myself stop and rest. I had no idea how much distance I had covered or in which direction relative to the entrance I was actually heading. I might have been walking in circles for all I knew. My mind was wholly preoccupied with recounting today’s events starting with the meeting at work and encountering Van Hooven’s people at the entrance to the Labyrinth, trying to recall everything that had been said in order to find something that would explain the discrepancy in Labbie’s size. Engaging my brain this way also somewhat helped me to avoid thinking about Peter’s untimely demise and how I was inevitably going to end up just like him.

I was so preoccupied with this intrapersonal battle that I didn’t even notice a rather sizable inanimate object lying on the floor up until the moment when my foot made contact with it and caused me to fall forward. I landed painfully on all fours and lost grip of my pulse rifle which skidded across the floor and hit the wall with a dull, resonating clank.

In the absolute silence the sound seemed unbelievably loud. I scrambled to my feet, grabbed the hold of the rifle and turned around to investigate what I had just tripped over. At the first glance the object appeared almost alien but then I realized that I was staring at a corpse. A closer look revealed that it wasn’t even a complete corpse but rather just a torso. A bundle of intestines were sticking out from the lower end whilst the chewed up tissue of the neck at the top suggested that the head had been separated in a very violent manner. All that remained of the left arm was the shoulder with a little piece of bone. Surprisingly though, the entire left arm was intact.

I had seen plenty of dead bodies over the course of my "career"--the vast majority of them had belonged to animals but there had been human remains in a couple of instances as well--but it was knowing that this one belonged to my colleague and friend that caused me to fight the rising urge to throw up.

I leaned against the wall and took a few deep breaths, willing the contents of my stomach to retreat back down from my esophagus. Once the sick feeling passed, I swallowed hard and forced myself to look at the remains again. There was no doubt that they belonged to Peter--the gray shirt, black jacket and the wrist computer confirmed this with absolute certainty.

The computer!

I knelt down and pressed one of the small buttons on the side to switch on the screen. Nothing happened. I pressed again but with the same result.

Damn it! The delicate circuitry of the computer had to have been damaged in the attack which meant that the detailed map on it was as good as lost and I was right back at square one.

Only now I noticed that Peter’s hand was still gripping the handle of the pulse rifle. Without even thinking about it I pried open his fingers to retrieve the weapon. The curious cynic in me noted that they were still quite warm--contrary to what one would expect.

I checked the power cell--it was showing 85 percent of the full capacity.

I stood up and briefly contemplated how I would effectively carry both rifles since they were not equipped with slings. I wasn’t willing to leave one of them behind because a part of me--the overly hopeful, optimistic and illogical part--was utterly convinced that with two weapons I somehow stood more chance. Before I could reach any reasonable conclusion, I heard the all too familiar thumping sound approaching my position. Few seconds later, an enormous shadow appeared at the end of the corridor ahead.

A thought flashed through my head that I should make my stand here and now. Then my inner skeptic reminded me that against what was currently heading in my direction the pulse rifle would be about as effective as a glass of water in a forest fire.

"Screw it!" I said and ran.


*****



I was crouching in a ventilation shaft, trying to catch my breath. My head was spinning and legs felt like they were filled with lead but at least for the time being I was out of reach of Labbie’s clawed extremities.

The creature itself, however, was not exactly far. It was lurking just outside of the opening of the shaft, emitting a low growling sound that seemed to make the air, the walls and every cell in my body to vibrate. For the first few seconds after I had kicked in the cover and crawled into the vent Labbie was trying to pull me out with his enormous paw--sort of like a cat attempting to get a piece of dry food from underneath a wardrobe. I had squeezed out a couple of shots but save for the burn marks on its thick skin they didn’t appear to cause any significant damage whereas the monster’s claws were leaving half centimeter indentations in the metal walls. Once Labbie understood that this particular prey got away it roared angrily and decided to play the long game.

Even though my situation just got a whole lot worse, knowing that I had survived not one, but two close encounters actually made me feel a little bit better.

My heart rate returning to normal, I turned around and started crawling deeper into the ventilation system. My hopes at finding an alternative way out were abruptly extinguished when I came around the corner and discovered that the shaft ended with a filter and a huge fan spinning rapidly behind it. Attempting to break through it with the rifle would take ages and a lot more ammunition than I had at my disposal.

"God dammit!" I yelled out of frustration and sent a couple of shots out into the hallway.

The growling stopped.

I held my breath, trying to pick up the slightest noise. I made out a soft thump and click, followed by another and then by another and I recognized that Labbie was in fact moving away.

What the hell is it doing, I thought and as silently as humanly possible began crawling back towards the opening of the shaft. I stopped where I was sure the creature would not be able to reach me with one of its limbs.

By now, the sound indicating Labbie’s movement dissipated into silence. For a few moments, I was immersed in almost absolute quiet. Then I heard footsteps.

I immediately understood why the monster retreated so suddenly. I also realized that those footsteps could belong to only one person.

"Ryan, run!" I yelled at the top of my lungs.

Unfortunately, by the time those two words left my lips it was already too late. I heard the characteristic hiss of the stun rifle, followed by a blood-curdling scream that sent chills running down my spine.

A desperate idea popped up in my head. Considering that it was entirely based on what I remembered from Chemistry in elementary school it was assuredly right in the category of the dumbest things that my brain had ever produced, but in light of current events it was also the only one that gave me a fighting chance.

I flipped open the small compartment on the underside of one of the rifles and took out the power cell. It was a five centimeters long and one centimeter thick cylinder that contained raw meonium--a synthetic chemical element commonly used to produce clean energy. Exposed to air and higher temperatures, it was highly unstable which was why the military utilized it to create explosives with an immense destructive potential.

I put the power cell on the floor. Now came the riskiest part of the plan--I had to compromise the protective shell but only to a small extent. I took a deep breath and hit the cell with the butt of the rifle.

The first two impacts did not produce any noticeable results. Upon the third, a barely visible crack appeared on the side of the cylinder. For a fraction of a second I considered hitting it again but then I thought that this would suffice.

I quickly took off my jacket and tore off one of the sleeves. I wrapped the power cell in the cloth and took out an electric lighter from my side pocket. Never in a million years would I have thought that my filthy habit could one day become useful.

I crawled to the opening of the shaft and peeked out. I couldn’t see Labbie but based on the loud crunching noises I knew that he was somewhere close. I set the cloth on fire and carefully placed it on the floor in the middle of the hallway.

It took only a few seconds for the entire fabric to burst into flames. I had absolutely no clue how long I had before the meonium reached critical temperature or how powerful the explosion would be (which made the whole plan seem even more idiotic) so I initiated a hasty retreat into what I assumed was a safe distance.

Now for the hard part!

"Hey, Labbie!" I yelled. "Come get some dessert!" The crunching stopped and a gargantuan head glanced from around the corner. As if hesitantly, Labbie slowly emerged and I noted that it looked a bit different than on the photographs and video that I had been shown earlier.

The creature was a quadruped and to a limited extent resembled an oversized gecko. It had a short but thick tail, powerful hind legs that hinted at its ability to move quickly and long forelegs with four clawed fingers. The whole body with the exception of the abdomen was covered with thick dark green scales. The conical head and jaws filled with serrated teeth reminded me of a shark but at the tip of its snout there were long thin appendages that protruded into space and looked like--whiskers?

How many different strands of DNA had they used when they were creating it? Despite everything that happened, despite the fact that it viciously killed Peter and Ryan and it was going to kill me too I couldn’t help but to feel sorry for it.

Labbie was staring intently right back at me, crimson red blood dripping down from its teeth. It was sitting perfectly still on its hind legs and nothing suggested that he would be launching an attack.

"Come on!" I shouted again.

Nothing. It did not move an inch.

What is going on?!

Then I realized that Labbie was not watching me but rather my improvised explosive device burning on the floor. If the circumstances were any different, I would have probably bursted out laughing. Much like most animals the creature was actually scared--or at the very least apprehensive--of fire!

Something popped and crackled in the flames and Labbie moved back. That was not good because I needed him as close to the detonation as possible. Not knowing what else to do I switched off the safety of the rifle, aimed and fired.

The shot hit the beast squarely in the snout. It roared, shook its head and charged.

As if in slow motion I watched it gallop towards me, the horrifying jaw wide open. It was probably five meters away when the meonium exploded.

I found myself flying through the air, immersed in a feeling of sudden weightlessness. Then the back of my head smashed against the cold metal and everything went black.


*****



A high-pitched wheezing sound ripped me out of the merciful depths of unconsciousness and threw me back into the cruel reality. It took a moment before the feeling to returned to all parts of my body and I could start enjoying a colorful collection of different aches and pains.

My head felt as if someone was hitting it with a hammer and I couldn’t move my legs. I slowly opened my eyes and when everything came into focus I discovered that I was lying on my back next to a wall, about thirty meters away from the place where my primitive explosive went off. There was now a huge steaming crater in the floor and the walls and the ceiling were charred by fire.

I looked down and experienced an immediate rush of adrenaline. It turned out that my legs were trapped under Labbie’s massive body. Driven by panic and a healthy dose of self-preservation, I began thrashing and twisting around, ignoring the throbbing pain in my skull that was gaining on intensity. After a little while I managed to free myself and I sprang to my feet only to have a million little stars explode before my eyes. I promptly collapsed back to the floor.

As soon as the pain subsided to a manageable level and I could think straight again, I slowly got up. The creature was lying on its side, a huge gaping wound stretching across most of its underbelly. Overall, it looked positively dead.

Before I could breathe out a sigh of relief, however, it became clear to me that the annoying wheezing sound was in fact coming from the enormous body. I carefully walked up to Labbie’s head and to my absolute horror saw that its eyes were wide open and staring at me. The sound was coming from the jaws that were quivering ever so slightly.

Then I noticed that skin and the underlying tissue on the edges of the wound were growing back at an unnaturally fast rate.

"You gotta be kidding me!" I groaned when one of the hind legs twitched.

I was tired and in pain but after all I had been through in this godforsaken place I would not admit defeat. So I picked up the rifle and did the one thing that had proven to be the most successful so far--I ran.


*****



After several hundred meters I stopped dead in my tracks. It wasn’t because I couldn’t run anymore--on the contrary; despite my current state I could probably go on for at least two more minutes--but rather due to a sudden change in my surroundings.

The cold, unwelcoming gray metal was replaced by polished wood, there were ornamental lamps hanging from the ceiling every five meters and the floor was covered by a red carpet. A small sign featuring a bright green arrow pointing somewhere ahead hung on the wall. The corridor itself was a bit narrower and curved to the left.

It took a while for my brain to fully process what I was seeing and then a little longer to jump to the only possible conclusion--that somehow I managed to stumble upon an exit.

I was overwhelmed with joy. Just five minutes ago I had thought that I was surely going to share the same fate as Ryan and Peter. Fueled by the barrage of positive thoughts I jogged forward. At the end of the corridor was a wooden door equipped with an old fashioned handle. Not waiting for anything I opened it...

...and stepped into a small round alcove with no visible windows or doors.

My heart skipped a beat.

I started tapping and knocking on the walls in a desperate attempt to locate any hollow spaces, hidden buttons or anything that would suggest that there was a way out of here. As my panic grew, I was putting more and more power into each knock until I was hitting the wall with my fists.

Then suddenly something clicked and a hologram of a man materialized in front of me. There was something very familiar about him but before I could realize who it was, a prerecorded message started playing.

"Hello, brave visitor. I hope you are enjoying your time in the Labyrinth. I am quite impressed by your adventurous spirit but I am afraid you will have to try harder to find the real exit. Good luck!"

The hologram disappeared. In utter disbelief I stared into the empty space and then--recognizing the absurdity of it all and recalling what Ryan had said earlier about the Labyrinth not being exciting enough--I began laughing.

I stopped when I heard the characteristic low growl and steady thumping of four heavy feet coming from the corridor. I checked the power cell of the rifle and saw that there was enough meonium for one, maybe two shots.

There was nowhere for me to go, nowhere to hide, not anymore. This was the end of the line.

I pointed the weapon into space in front of me. It wouldn’t be long before the hideous snout appeared and then...

I would go down swinging.



THE END


2018 Martin Lochman

Bio: I am a Czech emerging author currently living in Malta and working as a University librarian. My flash fiction and short stories appeared in Ikarie, a former Czech SF magazine, Theme of Absence, Aphelion, AntipodeanSF, 365tomorrows and in a bunch of Czech anthologies. You can find me at https://martinlochmanauthor.wordpress.com/.

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