Zachary could have almost walked crouched in the air vent as it was sufficiently large to do so but he had decided to crawl on all four to insure that if ever the air vent was to break at some point he could catch himself before falling. But it seemed to be quite solid and didn’t give any sign of weakness as he advanced. He crawled like this for a few long minutes, starting to feel his hands and his knees as the metal path was not especially comfortable. The young man arrived at a point where the air vent divided into two different paths, one to the left and one to his right, neither of them seemed to reach an exit soon and both curved again after a few meters. As he was trying to decide which one would be the wisest course he was distracted by a distant scream. It was a deep and low scream, as if a strange creature was howling at a distance, and it lasted about fifteen seconds. The fact that it seemed a huge animal and either not happy or injured did not encourage Zachary to take the right path , as that is where it seemed to come from.
If there was such a big animal howling around he did not want to meet it and if something was able to hurt it, well let’s say he was even less inclined in going that way. So he decided on the left path which in appearance seemed exactly alike the right one but now was a lot more inviting to the young man than the one on the right. He took to the left and crawled again for about twenty meters before he found that the air vent turned to the left again. Then about thirty meters farther it turned again, this time to the right. It wound like that over and over again turning left and then right and then left again. Zachary was almost beginning to despair ever getting out of the vent when he turned once more to the right. This time he saw a light seemingly coming from the floor about a hundred meters further. He smiled, hoping it was what he thought it was and started crawling faster. As he was about halfway through the distance his vision started to blur. Oh not again! He thought with anger, shaking his head to remain focused.
Then something strange happened. As if all this wasn’t strange enough, thought Zachary sighing heavily. His sight blurred completely and his head started to hurt, it was as if someone was squeezing it in a vice. He thought it was going to explode from the pain. He groaned loudly and fell on the metal floor, gripping his head. As he was lying on the floor, groaning in pain, he heard the deformed voice of the clown. He quickly opened his eyes and saw the blurry face of the clown from earlier on te TV screen.
“You managed to clear the first of you trials. Very good.” It paused and a new wave of searing pain coursed through his head. “Don’t worry, the pain won’t last for long, it’s just a nasty secondary effect… But that is not the point…” Everything went dark for a second and then the light came back as the clown resumed speaking.
“This was only the first hardship on the road, unfortunately for you, not the last… If you want to succeed you have to find the power in you to do it, but remember, alone one can accomplish great things but together we can accomplish so much more. The game has not yet begun, first all the pieces must be in place. Don’t worry though, they will be, very soon…” If the doll had been able to, Zachary was sure it’s smile, which was already quite large, would have become even larger.
“Good luck Zachary, you will need it.” With that everything faded to black once again and when he opened his eyes again the young man didn’t feel any pain in his head anymore and his vision had come back to normal. What was that? He thought. Was I hallucinating? He couldn’t tell, the pain had felt so real… He couldn’t remember everything that the doll had said, just that all this was some sort of game and that it was only the beginning. If this was true it only meant bad news. Alone one can accomplish great things but together we can accomplish so much more, the doll’s words were coming back to him. Why had it said that? What did it mean? Zachary had no idea and he decided to put it aside for the moment, getting up on all four again and starting to crawl again towards the opening in the floor.
As he arrived just over the vent grill he looked through it and saw a large white corridor, seemingly of the same design as the room he had woken up in earlier. No sound came either from the metal tunnel he had been crawling in nor from the corridor below, the building seemed completely silent. Maybe even deserted. Zachary slowly grabbed the grill and proceeded to take it off, he put it aside and this time peeked with his whole head coming out of the vent. The corridor seemed to stretch on a good hundred meters behind him and led to a set of three different doors about twenty meters away in front of him. It seemed to follow the path of the air vent. He got back up and looked towards the other end of the air vent tunnel and hesitated about the course of action he should follow. Dropping down in the corridor would mean that he might have no way to get back up in the vent but continuing along the tunnel meant staying cramped like that for who knows how long, and he really didn’t want anymore of it. He finally decided on a compromise between the two. He crawled up to the next corner and peeked a look, it was another long straight line that went on for a good few hundred meters from his estimations. Not finding any interest to keep on going he went back to the grill and decided to jump down in the corridor. He slowly let his body slip through the large hole and extend itself to its whole length, all the while holding on with both hand to the border of the hole. Even with this he was still about a meter fifty above the ground. He let his hands go and landed softly on the white tiled floor, absorbing the shock of the short fall by letting his legs bend.
When he stood up again Zachary instantly thought about a hospital. He hadn’t noticed earlier but there was a bench and several chairs lined up against the wall, there were beautiful pictures of natural landscapes and the closest door, which was wooden and brown, had a name plate on it.
What am I doing in a hospital? He couldn’t immediately put his finger on what it was exactly that made this place seem strange but there was undoubtedly something strange about it. Then, as he took his first step and it reverberated through the corridor, it struck him. He was alone. He hadn’t crossed the path of any living soul since his arrival. Where is everybody? But then, why was I trapped in a room if this is a hospital?
As he mulled about all this he let his steps guide him through along the white corridor. The second thing he noticed was that there were no visible windows in this corridor and all those he had seen in the room had been completely covered by shutter and he couldn’t open them. As he passed the third room he heard a light beeping sound. It drew his attention off the buzzing of the neon lights, the only source of light around, and he turned towards the door, listening carefully. He heard it again, a regular beeping, like those of the heart monitors. He pushed the handle and the door opened without any resistance. Before him was a large room, filled with half a dozen beds. Each of them was separated by white curtains. The beeping was coming from the farthest bed on the right. Zachary walked over to it and was surprised to see a little girl lying on it. She couldn’t have been older than nine or ten years old, she had long light brown hair coming down to her under her shoulders in ample curls. Her eyes were closed and her face was devoid of wrinkles, she seemed to sleep peacefully. Without a sound, so as not to disturb her or to scare her, he approached the machine she was linked to. It marked her slow and constant heartbeat with a series of ‘beeps’.
What is she doing here? He thought. What is going on? But he couldn’t come up with a solid answer. He hesitated to try to wake her up but decided against it, preferring to let her sleep, and sat on one of the large armchairs facing the bed. Why would a little girl be in a deserted building on her own? What’s more, why was she under machine surveillance? Did that mean that he was not as alone as he had first thought? All those questions remained unanswered, and would stay so until he met someone or she woke up. Zachary sighed. He had absolutely no idea what had happened to him or why he was here but what disturbed him the most was that this whole atmosphere did not seem to faze him or make him panick as he would’ve thought he would.
His stomach growled and he shivered. Suddenly he remembered he hadn’t had anything to eat or drink for hours and his throat suddenly became very dry. He looked at the girl for a second but didn’t hesitate long, deciding that he could go take a look around without her leaving. He stood up and went to open the cupboards to find something to put on. He found a new patient’s blouse and decided it would have to do for the moment. Feeling better he left the room silently and proceeded to walk in the direction he was following before hearing the beeping. After a few minutes of snooping around he noticed the third strange thing about the place. There were no clock, calendars or any way to tell the time. He couldn’t know if it was night outside nor where he was. He found a map near what seemed to be the reception desk of the floor he was on, it was put up on the wall beside the elevators. He found out he was in the eastern aisle on the fifth floor of the St James Hospital and that there was a cafeteria on the western aisle of the floor.
He went around the desk was greatly disappointed when he found out neither the computers nor the phone seemed to work. He cursed when he tried the elevators which also seemed to be out of service. As he took a look at the map again he found that it was harder to focus and knew he had to eat something or he wouldn’t be able to do much before long. Zachary walked along the corridor, trying the window shutters each time with no more success than the first time. As he arrived to the cafeteria he noticed none of the stands were opened, all were sealed shut behind gates. He groaned in frustration and looked around to find something that could help him to open them. He spotted a fire extinguisher and took it off its bracket before slamming it on the lock of the nearest shop. It took him five good hits and a bruised finger to finally manage to break the lock and open the metal gates. Luckily he had chosen the snack bar and smiled as he jumped over the counter. He grabbed a few of the Snickers and Kit-Kats lying around before devouring them.
He opened and almost immediately finished a bag of chips and drunk a whole bottle of water before opening a soda can. He downed a few more of the chocolate snacks before sitting down on one of the chairs and sighing in content, opening his second bag of chips. He hadn’t noticed how hungry he was until he had actually felt cramps in his stomach. After a few minutes where he just enjoyed the calm and the feeling of satiety he stood up and decided to snoop around. he ‘opened’ the two other shops and found out that one was selling souvenirs, gift cards and toys as the other was an information point, selling maps and informing about the local history and monuments. He tried once again to use the few computers, that were placed there to the needs of the visitors, without much hope but none of them worked either. He didn’t gather much info from the maps either as there were at least three different copies for each state, that did not help in finding out where he was.
He sighed and decided to go back and check on the little girl to see if anything had changed, taking a few snacks in a bag in case he was hungry again. He passed along an emergency phone in the corridor and tried it but there wasn’t even any tonality. Damn it! How can every means of communication be down? What happened here? He was frustrated but everything seemed a bit less bothersome now that he had eaten. As he walked around a corner he noticed a door marked locker-room and decided to give it a try to see if he could get anything better to wear than his patient’s blouse and his socks. As a matter of fact he did find a number of clothes from which to choose, unfortunately most of them were dresses and skirts. But he still managed to find a black shirt his size, a pair of red and white sneakers and a brown leather jacket. It wasn’t his usual style but he wasn’t about to be difficult when a few hours ago he was trapped in a locked room with nothing. He walked back to the room, eating another of the chocolate bars he had brought with him and whistling slightly. As he entered the room Zachary was surprised once more. The young girl he had left sleeping was no awake and sitting standing on her bed, looking at him curiously. Before he could react she asked.
“Where am I? And who are you?”