This is a short story I wrote for a contest in August.
It happened suddenly, without a single sign or warning. One minute Ash looked up in annoyance at the harsh florescent lights of the college science lab, the sun shining invitingly through the row of windows in the room. The next minute, the room had plunged into darkness. It wasn’t just the school’s lights either; even the sun had ceased shining. The world was pitch-black in an instant, the lights extinguished as if they had never even shone at all. Hoping to satisfy her curiosity, Ash quietly made her way out the door.
Pulling out a thin datapad from inside her bag, Ash quickly flipped the switch to turn it on. It took her a moment to realize that something was wrong, that something was keeping it from starting up. As she fiddled with the switch, trying to make it work, she felt something heavy bump into her. Her heart leapt into her throat. Biting down hard on her tongue, she tried not to scream, the coppery taste of blood filling her mouth.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to scare you.” A boy’s voice apologized.
Letting out a deep sigh of relief, her heart slowed its frantic beating as she recognized her younger brother’s voice. “Oh, Will! It’s just you.”
“Ash?” He exclaimed in surprise.
“Perfect! Now you can help me figure out what’s going on!” She told him.
She could hear the silly grin on his face as he replied, “Well, my guess would be that all the lights had gone out.”
“This is serious!” Ash snapped. “What do you think made the lights go out?”
“How should I know? You’re the smart one.” He replied teasingly.
She rolled her eyes. “Come on –let’s go find the circuit box and see if we can’t at least get the school lights back on.” She turned around slowly, fumbling her way down the corridor in the dark.
The lack of light gave the familiar hallways an ominous feel. A muffled quiet had settled on the school, the professors trying to maintain peace and calm until someone could get the lights back on. The seconds seemed to stretch into hours as they walked quietly, the sound of their shoes squeaking softly against the floor echoing loudly in their ears. Finally they rounded the corner of the hallway and tiptoed down the stairs to the basement.
“There isn’t anything wrong with the circuit box,” A bored voice told them as Ash pushed the door open, “I already checked. But if you feel like wasting your time, go right ahead and check again.”
“What makes you an expert?” Will questioned bluntly.
“Because I’m a genius.” She declared without hesitation.
“And modest too!” He shot back.
“Say whatever you like –it doesn’t make it any less true. Not that it would take a genius to puzzle out that if all of the lights, including the sun, moon, and stars, have gone out, the problem couldn’t be fixed at a circuit box of a single building. I’m Jane by the way.” She said.
“What are you doing here if you knew you couldn’t fix it here?” He pointed out argumentatively.
“Because,” She explained as if it were the most obvious thing in the world, “I’m not exactly planning on heading down to the CORE systems, underground, in the dark, without first ruling out any other possibilities.”
“You think the problem is with the CORE?” Ash asked in surprise. “But I thought nothing ever went wrong with the CORE.”
“We also haven’t ever had blackouts on this massive of a scale before either.” Jane replied.
“Fair enough,” Ash conceded. “But what about the natural lights? Why would they have gone out?”
“A freak eclipse or something?” Jane suggested with a shrug. “It’s probably just a coincidence.”
“But you think we can fix the CORE?” Will prompted.
She scoffed. “There isn’t any ‘we’ about it. I know I can fix the CORE, but there’s no point in you two tagging along. You’d only get in my way.”
“And just how are you expecting to make your way through the tunnel networks by yourself? Even if you could open the giant metal trapdoor, the tunnels are designed for teams of two workers. All of the doors and even parts of the CORE itself are built so that you have to have two people pulling levers at the same time or pushing switches simultaneously.” Ash told Jane. “Genius or not, you wouldn’t be able to make it through the tunnels on your own.”
“Why would I have to be able to open the trapdoor by myself?” Jane asked uneasily.
Ash grinned, proud to know something the other girl didn’t. “Because it’s not just the lights that aren’t working; none of the datapads or computers are working either. Anything that the computers did before the lights went out, such as opening the trapdoor to the tunnels, will have to be done by hand.”
“Alright, so maybe I need someone else to come with me; but that’s only one extra person, not two.” She replied more confidently.
“Have you seen the trapdoor?” Ash asked. “I’m still wondering if the three of us can get it open, much less just two of us.”
“Can we go now instead of sitting here doing nothing?” Will asked wearily, grabbing her hand and tugging her back toward the door. “We aren’t accomplishing anything here arguing.”
Jane sighed, but found and grasped Ash’s hand with her petite one. “Fine –lead the way.”
This time the trip seemed even worse. Ash shrunk back from the walls as the oddest sensation overcame her. Though she couldn’t see anything, she began to feel as if the walls were slowly shrinking around them, crushing them into nothingness as they walked along the silent corridor. Taking a few deep breaths, she focused on Will and Jane’s hands holding hers, trying to stay in control of her fear. It seemed childish to need the reassurance of being able to feel someone else’s hand in hers to be able to face the darkness, but at the moment she really didn’t care.
“Do you know how much further it is?” She whispered to Will, finally losing the battle to hold her tongue as she tried not to betray her fear.
“It should be just around this corner.” Will replied.
“Who’s there?” A deep voice called brashly from the darkness up ahead.
The three froze in their tracks.
“Who wants to know?” Will called back suspiciously.
“I’m Brian.” The young man replied easily.
“I’m Ash, and this is Jane, and my brother Will.” Ash told him.
“What are you doing out here in the hallway?” Will questioned.
“I would imagine I’m doing the same thing you’re doing.” Brian said with a laugh. “You can’t exactly learn anything new sitting in a classroom doing nothing.”
“Well, that shows how much you know.” Jane said belittlingly. “We aren’t just trying to find out what’s going on –we’re going to the CORE to fix the lights.”
“Oh,” Brian replied softly, the easy confidence of his voice faltering, “I guess it may be a stupid question then, but how are you guys planning on doing that?”
“It shouldn’t take me too long to figure out what’s wrong.” Jane explained. “These two are just tagging along to help me get through the tunnels. They’re built for teams of two you know.”
“And how are you going to get through the trapdoor?” Brain questioned.
“All of the electronic equipment is down,” Ash told him, “All we have to do is open it by hand.”
“Not that I couldn’t have opened it myself if the power were on.” Jane pointed out self-importantly.
“Would you like some help?” Brian asked, sounding hesitant. “I mean, I’m not too good with computers, but that door is made out of some seriously thick metal. I’m sure I could help you guys open it.”
“We’d love an extra set of hands!” Will answered enthusiastically. “It’s not too far –you should be standing right next to it.”
There was a shuffling sound as Brian tried to feel his way over to the room in question. Finally after a few long seconds his hands hit the wooden door gently, and they heard the soft click of the handle as the door swung open.
“It’s a few feet ahead of you I think.” Brian called. “Just keep walking toward my voice—”
“We know how to walk forward in a straight line.” Jane told him condescendingly as she brushed past him and stalked into the room.
“We really do appreciate the help.” Ash whispered to Brian as she walked past him. “Thank you.”
“Of course!” He answered, his voice brightening considerably. “I’m glad to help.”
“I can feel a handle on this side.” Will said, his voice coming from close to the ground.
There was a sigh from Jane’s direction. “Of course there’s a handle. Don’t you guys know anything?” She asked reproachfully.
“I’m sorry we don’t all have a brain full of limitless knowledge to access whenever we wish,” Will teased, “We’ve somehow managed up to this point alright.”
“I can’t imagine how.” Jane muttered.
“Can we please just open the door?” Ash asked, starting to get impatient.
“Alright,” Brian grunted, bending over to get a grip on the handle, “One, two, pull!”
They pulled on his signal, struggling to lift the heavy metal trapdoor. Raising it inch by inch, their muscles screaming, they managed to slowly hoist it up. Finally it reached its peak and they gave it one last shove to send it plummeting to the floor on the other side of the opening. The clang echoed loudly as the four fell to the ground, panting for breath.
“Come on,” Jane said breathily after a moment, “We’re wasting time sitting here.”
“Oh, but I was looking forward to a nice spot of tea while we sat here!” Will said in a horrible British accent. “Brian, would you like one lump or two?”
“Stop playing around and come on!” Jane replied angrily, stamping her foot. She huffed impatiently before carefully starting down the ladder on her own, the muted sound of shoe on metal ladder rung echoing back up again.
“I guess the tea party’s over.” Will grumbled, feeling around the ground for the edge of the trapdoor to follow her down.
Ash waited until the other three had climbed down the ladder before she made her way down as well. The darkness was almost paralyzing now that her three companions had quit talking, turning their attention instead to getting safely to the bottom of the tunnel shaft. She began to hum, trying to fill the empty space the darkness seemed to create. The tune echoed eerily off the sides of the circular shaft, and as she struggled to focus on anything but the dark, she wasn’t careful to make sure she had planted her foot solidly on the rung underneath her. Before she even knew what had happened, her foot slipped and she was falling.
She screamed, grabbing for the ladder rungs. Her arm was nearly wrenched out of its socket as her hand closed around metal and her free fall came to a sudden stop.
“Ash! Hang on!” Brian called from a few rungs below her.
He scrabbled up the ladder as the tears began to stream down her face from a mixture of pain and terror. Her breath came in gasps now as she fought to find some sense of control. Stifling another scream that rose in her throat as Brain wrapped a sturdy arm around her waist, taking the stress off of her arm, she squeezed her eyes shut in an attempt to blot out the darkness that surrounded her. After a moment she slowly moved her other hand out and felt along the ladder for a second hand hold.
When she finally felt the comforting solidity of the ladder to hold onto once more, she sat there for at least a minute, simply shaking as adrenaline coursed through her body. Despite the knowledge that the darkness she could see with her eyes closed was the same darkness she saw with her eyes open, she was still terrified to open her eyes again, or even continue down the ladder. Instead she just stood there, clinging to the cold metal of the ladder rungs, frozen to the spot.
“Ash,” Brian called up from near her feet, “You don’t have to go down very quickly, but if you don’t start moving now, you’ll be stuck up here for a long time. All you have to do is put one foot down on the rung underneath it.”
Brian’s words forced her to begin moving again, cautiously picking up her right foot from the rung she was standing on and gently placing it back down on the rung underneath. After she had forced herself down a few more feet she said, “Okay, I think I can do this.” She still clung to the rungs as she crawled down the rest of the ladder.
“Are you okay?” Her brother asked worriedly as she made it to the bottom, reaching over to wrap her up in a reassuring hug.
“Yeah, I’m fine,” Ash told him, her voice shaking as she tried to slow her breathing. “Just a little shaken up I guess.”
“You do realize the ladder is there to keep you from falling, right?” He asked mischievously.
“Can we get going now? We aren’t getting any younger standing here talking.” Jane said disinterestedly.
“Jane, you wouldn’t happen to have a stethoscope on you, would you?” Will asked, turning toward her.
“No,” She replied sharply, “Why?”
“Just curious to see if you have a heart in there, that’s all.” He explained.
The two continued their bickering up the tunnel, but Ash quickly reached out to where she thought Brian was, waving her arm around for a moment before her hand landed on his shoulder. “Wait.”
“Yeah?” He asked curiously, standing and waiting patiently for her to continue.
“I wanted to say thank you.” She told him sincerely.
“Don’t mention it.” He replied, dismissing it out of hand. “It’s no big deal. I’m glad I was useful for something.”
He started to walk away but stopped to listen as she added, “You know you can’t listen to people like Jane, right? Just because she thinks everyone else is useless doesn’t make it true.”
“I guess,” He admitted, the smile on his face evident in his tone of voice.
“Where are you guys?” Will shouted down the tunnel.
“We’re right behind you.” Brian called back.
“Is the whole world incompetent?” Jane asked disparagingly as Brian and Ash walked up behind her.
“Would you give it a rest Jane?” Ash replied with a sigh. “We’ll try to keep up.”
“You had better. I don’t want to be down here in these dank old tunnels for any longer than I have to.” Jane grumbled before changing the subject. “It feels like the door is rigged to open when two people pull the levers on either side of the doorway.”
“I’ll get the left one,” Will said quickly, shuffling over to the left side of the door.
“On three,” Jane began, “One, two, three!”
They pulled the levers in unison. The door slide open swiftly, the sudden movement sending a wave of stale air wafting in their direction. The sounds around them changed suddenly, their every movement echoing oddly. Jane’s small, slow footsteps reverberated and continued on into what sounded like a cavern in front of them.
“Jane!” Ash yelled desperately, leaping forward as she heard Jane’s foot slip.
Jane gave a short scream, her hands scrambling for a handhold as she fell into the pit. Dirt and rocks flew into the air, and Ash could feel the rocks scraping up her exposed skin. Miraculously she managed to grab one of Jane’s hands before she fell too far, though she couldn’t get a strong grip. With the other hand holding onto the ledge, she knew she wouldn’t be able to support both of their weight for much longer.
“Grab my legs!” Ash yelled over her shoulder to the two boys.
Taking a deep breath, she let go of the wall and grabbed Jane’s hand just as it slipped out of her grip. For one brief, terrifying moment they both began to slide toward the edge, their combined weight dragging them toward the pit. Then strong hands grabbed her ankles, pulling them back toward the door.
“I’m so sorry.” Jane sobbed. “I know that if I wasn’t so worried about being the smartest person in the room I would have been more careful.” She admitted shakily. Suddenly she paused, as if something had suddenly struck her. When she spoke again, in was in a voice barely above a whisper. “You saved my life. I’ve been awful to you, to all of you, this whole time, but you risked your life to save mine. Why did you do that?”
Ash sighed, thinking through her answer carefully before she spoke. “Because I’d want someone to do the same for me,” She answered finally. Getting to her feet, she put her hand in Jane’s, helping her to her feet as well. “Come on. We had better get going.”
From then on they didn’t have any more problems getting through the tunnels. Once Brian realized there was a third lever on the outside of the door to make a bridge for them to cross the chasm, they cautiously approached each doorway –and walked through each doorway with even more care. It was a long, dark walk, though now that Jane had decided that she didn’t have to prove herself to the other three every second of the trip they all got along much better. Their laughter scared off any rats or other vermin that they might have otherwise encountered as they walked.
Suddenly the earth began to tremble beneath them, the vibrations sending them stumbling into the walls of the tunnel.
“Earthquake!” Will called out, taking off in a desperate sprint up the hallway. “Hurry!”
The tunnel thundered behind them as the ceiling started to collapse, sending showers of dirt and rocks falling on top of them. In the dark, unable to see where they were running, all four of them ran straight into a wall, sliding down to the ground. As they lay on the floor, dazed, the rumbling stopped just as suddenly as it had begun.
When she had managed to shake off most of the pain from running as fast as she could into a solid rock wall, Ash stood up slowly, inspecting the walls for a way out. “We’re stuck.” She announced, running her hands over the rough surface of the rock walls. “I can’t feel another door, or a lever, or anything! It’s a dead end.”
“We must have missed a turnoff or something when we were running,” Jane replied, “And the earthquake closed up the tunnel behind us.”
“We can’t be stuck here!” Will joked. “I’m too young to die!”
Ash spun around, his levity at such a desperate situation wearing her patience thin. “Can’t you take something seriously for once in your life?” She exclaimed in frustration. “Aren’t you scared?”
“Of course I’m scared!” He shot back. “Who wouldn’t be?”
“Then why does everything always have to be a joke for you?” Ash questioned angrily.
“Hey!” Brian yelled over both of them, standing in between the brother and sister. “Can we please save the therapy session for another time? We’ve got more important things to do right now!”
“Fine.” Ash growled, turning back to the walls to try to find a way out.
“Guys, I think I see a light coming from the ceiling!” Jane said suddenly. “Brain, let me stand on your shoulders.” After a couple of seconds of grunting as Brian lifted her up onto his shoulders, Jane exclaimed, “There’s a ladder not too far above our heads!”
Soon all four of them were on a ladder again, climbing up this time instead of down. It was not long before Jane called down, “I made it up! I can see the CORE!”
With the sudden burst of energy brought on by the sight of the finish line, the remaining three were soon emerging from the tunnel shaft into the light cast by the CORE.
Jane had already set to work trying to fix the lights, flipping her black hair over her shoulder out of the way as she typed furiously, studying the computer screen intently. The massive setup of screens and wires that dominated the center of the room seemed to make the young woman look even smaller than she was. Suddenly she gasped, stumbling backwards a few steps.
“What is it?” Will asked worriedly, moving to catch her.
She looked up at him, her eyes wide. “The CORE is failing. That’s why all the lights have gone out. It’s not a giant blackout or a freak eclipse. It’s the CORE.” The earth rumbled again, sending dust falling from the ceiling. “And that’s what’s causing the earthquakes too.”
“But,” Brian cut in, his brow furrowed in confusion, “Why would a computer failing affect all of that too?”
“Because this isn’t the real world,” Jane explained softly, a note of horror in her voice. “It’s a computer generated virtual reality and the computer that is generating it is failing. Our world –this world—is collapsing around us.”
“That’s ridiculous!” Ash exclaimed, shaking her head incredulously. “People would know if we weren’t living in ‘the real world’. We would—”
“I don’t have time to explain it all now.” Jane said desperately. “You’re just going to have to trust me!”
“How do we shut it down?” Will asked hastily, cutting off Ash’s response.
“There should be an override around here somewhere.” Jane replied, feverishly searching the console. She ducked her head as another tremor shook the ground again. “We have to hurry; the ceiling could collapse on us at any second!”
Ash stood and watched as the two boys moved to help Jane search, exploring every nook and cranny of the room. Finally she sighed, taking a few steps toward the console to search as well. As she studied the console, looking for a something that stood out, a blinking light underneath the computer caught her eye.
Crouching down to look at the lever, Ash called over her shoulder, “What does it look like?”
Jane paused for a brief second to answer, “It should be some kind of lever,” before returning to her frantic search.
Ash considered the lever underneath the console, wondering if all the things Jane had said were true. It seemed almost impossible to believe –how could the world they lived in not be real? And even if it was all true, what made the ‘real world’ any different from the one they lived in now?
“Watch out!” Jane shrieked as large chunks of rock began to fall from the ceiling.
Without a second’s more hesitation, Ash slammed her hand down on the button.
Ash jolted awake, sitting up straight in bed. Around her she could see other people sit up as well, some she recognized and some she did not.
“Ash?” Jane’s voice asked from a few beds away.
Ash nodded slowly, turning toward the other girl. She caught sight of Will and Brian waking up as well, the boys rubbing the sleep from their eyes.
“We made it.” Jane said, a broad smile lighting up her face. “Welcome to reality.”