The story below is a winner from our Fiction Fantastic Young Writers Contest, open to all youth in Lane County. For more information on this contest, including how to enter, visit here. Support this program with a donation.
You can purchase this story in the 2022 Winners Anthology, Tales from the Deep Beyond here.
“Countdown” by Maya Puff, Elmira High School
First Place, High School Level, 2022
By Maya Puff
Elmira High School
Tick tick tick.
“Five seconds remaining.”
The electronic feminine voice buzzes over the creaky speakers, letting me know I’ve failed. Time is out, and then so am I. My vision blurs. I’d gotten so close this time, if only—
“Welcome to room one of the Aeternum. Your time will start when you rise.”
There she is again. By now I’ve memorized the rules. You’re not to hurt yourself. You’re not to try to cheat. You must go through the door. You have two minutes before the room resets, and you go all the way back to the beginning. It is all I know.
My eyes slowly open back in room one. It is, for the most part, empty. With only the faint outline of a door shadowing the wall across from me. A digital clock sits in the middle of a ring of multi-colored chairs, yet to start counting down. The second I get up, it will start. Two minutes to get to the next room.
Sighing, I heave myself up. I’ve been in this room a million times, maybe more. My hands trace the seam of the deep blue chair set against the wall, searching for the small hole in its cushion. My finger hooking on it to tear the chair open before grabbing the key buried in the stuffing. I’ve gotten the routine down to just thirty seconds. Yet my heart still pounds and my hands still shake as I unlock the door. The timer stops, and the door swings open, the computer’s voice coming back over the loudspeaker, “Welcome to room two. Please step forward.”
The door swings shut behind me. Eyes darting around the room. This room’s ceiling and walls are covered with the pocked holes of speakers. Oh god, I hate this room. The premise is simple: you sit in the center of the room and listen for the code, then repeat it out loud. Once answered correctly, you’ll drop to the third room. If only it were that easy. While the code is being repeated, background noise blares. My head aches thinking of it. This room was harder to learn with several different combinations and the words becoming increasingly slurred and more difficult to hear. The slow burn of panic begins to rise in my chest. My feet sluggish as I step forward. I’ve already wasted ten seconds.
Slowly I drop to the center of the room. As I do, the noise starts. At first a soft buzzing with the code chanted behind it. Then the higher screeches becoming louder and louder, my head throbbing trying to decipher the words. All of it sounding like nonsense. The words dance in my brain as they slowly leave my lips. Then the floor disappears beneath me.
“More than half way through. Welcome to room three.”
I’ve only made it here a few times before, though I’ve lost track of how many. I can’t remember much of anything besides the rooms. I am trying to get out for a reason, aren’t I? I try to think back to something bright and wide open, so much bigger than these rooms, but just as quickly as the memory comes it dissipates with the sounds of the timer tick tick tick—a minute twenty-three seconds left.
The room is divided into three, each wall supporting a water tap. I move fast; each one has to be turned just enough to fill the glass beaker below. The weight will trigger the door; too much and I’ll be stuck until the timer runs out. Hands flying across the dials, watching carefully for it to hit the line.
“One minute left.”
Faster faster, the second fills. No problems yet.
“Thirty seconds left.”
Last one. My hands shake, and my lungs feel full of ice water.
“Fifteen seconds left.”
Pushing the hair out of my face, I sit and watch.
“Ten seconds remaining, Player One.”
The water hits the last line and the ticking stops but nothing changes. Why isn’t the door opening? My fingers trace to the right wall, as I sink to the floor. I haven’t done anything wrong. I didn’t cheat. I didn’t hurt myself. The clock stopped. What is wrong? Why am I still here? My legs feel weak, my chest too tight, and skin too cold. Tears stream down my face. Why am I crying? What is wrong with me? My head is spinning as I shut my eyes. Fingernails sinking into my palms. I just need to get up and focus, and that’s when the voice comes back, steady and monotonous as ever.
“My apologies for the delay, player one. Your door will be opening shortly.”
Deep breath. I’m fine. I’m almost out. I’m so close to being free. I don’t know what waits for me on the other side, at least not anymore. I’ve been here for so long. The endless ticking is ingrained in my brain. But I’ll know soon enough. Anything to make the countdown stop. Soon enough, the grind of a heavy metal door fills the room. Time to go; peace only lasts so long. The computer’s voice comes back, welcoming me to room four.
Stumbling into the room as the floor shifts beneath me, my eyes scan around the room taking in what I can in the dim light. The room is made of sliding panels, each one covered in a simple pattern of lines, buzzing with a soft electrical current. To one side of the room there is a thick black wire feeding into the floor. The other, a heavy set door that the wire plugs into. Each panel has to be slid into place so the patterns line up and the current can carry to the door.
“One minute and thirty seconds remaining, Player One.”
Has it already been that long? Dropping to my knees, my hands scramble to push each piece into place. My palms are sweaty and my hands shake. All too often, slipping up, moving them just a bit too far.
“Thirty seconds left, Player One.”
I scramble to get each piece lined up. Halfway through the room, the patterns begin to glow and the ticking gets louder. Pounding into my head, counting down my seconds to freedom. Last two, left right back, no . . . left left back right, the second to last piece slides into place. I spare only a second to check the timer, fifteen seconds left. The last piece is a tangle of mismatched lines. Dread fills my chest, desperation setting in. Ten seconds left; left right up down up right then left. The last piece slides into place and the ticking dies out. The buzz of electricity fills the room, and finally the scraping and rumble of the door, sliding open.
I can’t see what’s on the other side. Just darkness as I step in the room, the door sliding shut behind me.
“Welcome to the fifth room. As this is your final room, you get unlimited time.”
The stopping of the clock relaxes me, despite the fact I’d been in this room only twice before. I know well enough how it works. I’ll get time for my eyes to adjust to the darkness. Time to think. Then the room will flash colored numbers on the walls again and again until I’ve memorized it. You either give up or move on. My time in the darkness is soon up and the incessant ticking begins. My head pounds and my pulse quickens. I feel like I can barely breathe. Muscles tense and sore like I’ve been running through the rooms for hours. Yet it’s been less than ten minutes. My throat feels tight as I gasp for breath. The sound sending me into a frenzy of panic. Then the room lights up. I can barely see, colors flashing and flashing. As I sink down, head on my knees. I just need a minute more. That is all. Though the ticking is barely audible now, it keeps going in my head, ticking away until I need to push away this feeling and collect myself. I am almost free. I need to breathe. I need to focus. Ten, nine, eight, deep breath, six, five, four. I’m fine, I am close, four, three, two, one. Now is not the time to give up, though I stand dangerously near that line.
Focus. Each time the room flashes, I get a better glimpse of what it is. Empty, hardly big enough for me to lie down or stand up. There are no doors besides the one I’d come in. I don’t know how I’ll get out, just how to complete the puzzle. Much like the listening room, the walls and ceiling are covered with tiny holes, though these are for lights. First, memorize the pattern. Then the numbers. I train my eyes on the wall in front me, carefully recounting each flash. Five different colors, each flashing five seconds apart. My eyes are burning and my head spins, a sinking feeling filling my stomach and rising in my throat. The room starts flashing faster. I quickly have to go through the numbers (five, seven), (five, seven, eight), (five, seven, eight, three), (five, seven, eight, three, two). I repeat the numbers aloud. Then the drill of a metallic box rising out of the floor fills the room. I can barely see it, my head is killing me. Crawling forward I hear the ticking again. I flip it open and see a small keypad. My fingers flying across the screen five, seven, eight, three, two. Punching enter as my finger leaves the screen. Pain erupts in my forehead and my vision goes black.
A rustle of leaves and an over-saturated blue sky. The colors here are as bright as they were in the last room. I’ve been lying here for what seems like forever. My thoughts finally quiet, finally able to rest. I am free. The open plain goes on forever. I can go anywhere at any time. No more timers, no more voices. I don’t know where I am or how I’ve gotten here. I can only assume “it” dumped me here. Fingers trace my gaunt face. How long has it been since I was in the normal world? I feel immeasurably empty. I have no idea what I’m going to do. My sole thought, sole purpose has been those rooms for so long.
But that’s when it starts, the sound that torments my every thought counting down to madness. Tick tick tick.
“Peace doesn’t last forever.”