Be very careful where you tread!
A starburst of globubbles signalled the start of the annual contest in Snoak Citys westernmost district of Whissit Fields. In the warm dusk the bright globes hung like a slowly expanding cluster of floating jewels, casting a network of overlapping colours over this years untested challenge that was Foroquonts maze.
High above the mazes central core, an invisibly tethered pod, its underside a non-reflective black, beamed images of the selected contestants as they each made their way through the four separate entrance locks. Spim Foroquont had incorporated a range of unexpected design features into the fabric of the maze. Although substantially organic, in the ancient tradition of impenetrable hedges, some sections contained traps for the unwary, such as soft mirrors, opaque cloud-curtains, sensor-triggered barriers and disorienting white noise areas.
At the northern entrance Garsel Vence had already followed the narrow spiral path for thirty metres before suddenly faltering in front of a solid block of hedge. He retraced a dozen steps. Out of the corner of his eye he was almost sure he had belatedly registered something different about the texture of the hedge on his right. He ran a gloved hand along the smoothly-trimmed, densely textured leaves. Nothing. The light from the globubbles confused his colour perception, but was bright enough to obviate the use of his torch. He removed the glove, closed his eyes, and moved his fingertips across the same section. Ah, there! Although the leaves appeared to be identical, here their texture was subtly different, slightly drier, artificial. Pulling on the glove again he used both hands to apply pressure systematically to this section, and was rewarded when it responded by pivoting like a revolving door, allowing him access to a parallel path.
Almost a thousand metres to the south, Taera Cassorian was making faster progress, having avoided two cul-de-sacs and a right-hand fork which would have returned her to her starting point. However, she was now confronted by a choice of two open leftward-curving paths and a disconcertingly dark patch of roiling fog. Unclipping the torch from her belt, she aimed the powerful beam directly into the obstructive cloud. It failed to penetrate far enough to give any indication of its depth. She shrugged her shoulders, took a deep breath, and plunged through. After a few steps she ran blindly straight into another hedge. The shock almost caused her to turn back, but she forced herself to stay calm, got down on hands and knees and felt her way down the hedge to its foot. There was a gap at the base, which was just large enough for her to slide through to the other side, where an unobstructed path again presented her with a choice of whether to turn right or left. She chose left, which led her to a series of sharp turns in both directions. After ten minutes she realised she had lost her torch.
Jaunx Rimhill stood for a moment at the eastern entrance staring up at the globubbles. He was grateful for their multicoloured brightness, which he knew would persist for eight hours or more, but they could not be relied upon for orientation. Although the air was relatively still, every slight current changed their configuration, and already a few of the outermost had drifted out of sight above the hedge-tops. Once inside the maze his normally acute sense of direction soon deserted him. A dead end obliged him to retreat through a gap on his left that he had been reluctant to take, and within a few minutes he was uncomfortably convinced that he was going the wrong way. At every turn the view was frustratingly similar, and as he peered ahead he began to worry whether his vision was beginning to play tricks. In the distance he saw a figure approaching him, which he knew was highly improbable, as none of the other three could possibly have covered that amount of ground in so short a time. Who the hell could it be? No-one else was allowed in the maze except in emergencies. They both reached for their torches simultaneously. As the two beams met with a fierce glare, Jaunx laughed with relief at his own image. There was no other detectable opening, so he stepped through the soft mirror, and had to put his hands to his ears at the hissing roar that assaulted him from every side. The silvered nanogel sealed silently behind him.
When she was a little younger, Eris Sipsel sometimes used to play chase-the-lizard with her elder sisters. She couldnt have known then that the game would be invaluable training for a potential maze contestant. Her agile manoeuvres through the early stages were spectacular. She was fast, confident, graceful, seemingly undaunted by the difficulty of the task. The aerial view from the pod revealed that in less than ten minutes Eris had successfully negotiated the five outer concentric passages before encountering any of Foroquonts concealed traps. Underfoot the paths were composed throughout of a stiff but resilient water-repellent aerofoam material. In natural light it was a pale greyish-green, but the globubbles mottled its surface with rainbow patches and shadows. Eris was enjoying the ease with which the springy surface allowed her to run until one incautious step triggered the two devices which suddenly blocked both her forward progress and the chance to retreat. Above her two globubbles, amber and emerald, hung in a square of darkness, roofing the claustrophobic space from which there seemed to be no escape.
Garsel Vence was wondering whether a primitive magnetic compass would have been of any help. It would certainly have kept him heading roughly south, despite the many diversions, but would have offered no guarantee of reaching the path that led to the vital centre. As it was, their equipment was strictly limited to flexisuits, gloves, torch, waterflask, nutritabs, basic first-aid dressings and the small cylindrical emergency alarm which contained a static flare; no tools or navigational instruments, not even a watch. Basically, it was a question of trying to stay alert, avoiding obvious pitfalls, and trusting largely to luck. Knowing only that the diameter of the maze was about one kilometre, and judging from the apparent thickness of the hedge and the uniform width of the paths, he had tried to estimate the number of concentric paths he would have to cross before hopefully reaching the centre. The discouraging total amounted to more than three hundred. So far he had managed only seventeen, recording the tally with some difficulty by making marks with a thumbnail on the side of his waterflask. His initial enthusiasm had already worn off, but determination was among his strongest assets.
Taera Cassorian tried hard not to panic on discovering the loss of her torch, cursing her stupidity for not having clipped it on securely. At least she could still see, although she knew that in time the globubbles would dissipate She had to decide whether she could risk going on without it, or waste valuable time looking for it. On balance, she realised it was too useful to be without, and unwillingly turned back, struggling to remember where exactly were the turns she had made since she had crawled away from the fog. It took her almost an hour to find the small area of blackness at the foot of the hedge, where she groped cautiously until her fingers finally encountered the familiar shape. She almost cried with relief at her minor triumph, feeling momentarily as if she had performed a successful conjurers trick. In her minds ear she heard the accompanying drum-roll and clash of cymbals. Allowing herself a nutritab and a sip of water she set off again with a sense of renewed energy.
Jaunx found himself sitting on the path with his back resting against the hedge. There was a faint buzzing in his head, and he felt slightly giddy. Far away he thought he could hear a low muttering. He noticed his torch on the ground beside him, and automatically clipped it back on, idly wondering why he was sitting down. Gradually his head cleared and some memories returned: the approaching figure, glaring light, entering the mirror He frowned, unsure of what had happened next, or which way he had been heading. Getting to his feet he glanced behind him, and without unclipping the torch he swept its beam along the hedge. No sign of a mirror, just the parallel curving of the high dark walls. He shook his head and turned right, searching for the next gap.
Eris fought back tears of frustration. She had examined everything she could reach, peering and prodding at the surrounding hedge walls and hopping on every point of the square she was confined to in an attempt to locate a trigger spot. She growled with irritation, and fancied she heard a deeper echoing growl in the far distance. She began to have an irrational fear that the mechanism might have jammed in the locked position, which meant that she would have to use her alarm flare. Defeatist thinking. She considered the alternatives. Either her examination had been too hasty, and she had overlooked something, or Or what? She couldnt think of anything else. She had been stuck here for so long that the emerald globubble was no longer visible. Whith a cry of exasperation she reached for her torch and began her meticulous examination for the third time. Abruptly, with a rush of air and a scattering of tiny leaves, there occurred the alternative she had not considered; the release mechanism was time-delayed, and she was free to move on.
Thousands of Snoak City viewers, and many more further afield were watching the contest live, prepared as ever to match the contestants endurance with their own less demanding variety. A team of commentators was on hand to supply background details on the selection process, statistics from past contests, Spim Foroquonts credentials, the contestants occupations, achievements and interests. In the event of prolonged inactivity or an unforeseen hiatus there was readily available back-up material in the form of recorded interviews with their friends and relatives, teachers and former participants. Bets were permitted to be placed on the likely winner for the first three hours only, with all proceeds to the Snoak City Outdoor Festival Fund. Inevitably, odds kept shifting until the last allowable moment. Only after the three-hour period was an overview of the entire maze screened, so that it was now possible to compare in real time the four contestants actual progress. From time to time the focus shifted to give a slow panoramic view over Snoak City, from the dimly lit suburbs, across the weaving trails of traffic and the changing geometries of light from tall office blocks, the illuminated fountain in Sparagulan College Square, the dark expanse of parkland, the necklaces of light across the river, to the flickering clouds looming distantly above the sea.
All the contestants had noticed the unexpected change in the movement of the globubbles; they were being carried higher and faster, all in the same direction. There was no appreciable change in temperature, but the sky had become darker, now requiring their total dependence on torches. In confirmation of the increase in wind speed, small gusts began to buffet the hedges, channelling their energy through the narrow passageways. There was a distinct intermittent rumbling.
From above the sensitive cameras in the pod showed that Garsel Vence was now clearly in the lead, having traversed more than half the distance to the centre, but those watching could see the difficulty that lay ahead of him. Garsel had abandoned the discipline of making tally-marks on his waterflask when he had reached a hundred. He reasoned that it was time-consuming, and that in any case he could trust his memory, which told him that the path on which he had just emerged was the two hundred and sixth from the perimeter. His torch revealed an obstruction to his left which a practiced test suggested was not going to budge. Moving to his right the torch beam whitened, encountering light-scattering particles where the air was steadily being thickened; the increasing gusts had disrupted a cloud-curtain, which was spreading its opacity well beyond its source. With the globubbles gone, and the torch barely of use, the next part of his course was going to depend almost entirely on touch. For an instant, the sky lightened, revealing a possible gap just beyond the swirling mist. Seconds later there was a reverberating boom.
Taera was now obsessively protective about her torch, and kept touching her belt to ensure it was still secured, using it sparingly while there was still ambient light. She had no idea how far she had progressed, but had chosen to bypass a soft mirror, thereby avoiding a trap, and had gained time by slipping diagonally through two successive concealed openings before the last globubbles drifted away. She became aware that fitful eddies of wind were sweeping between the hedges, and pulled the hood of her flexisuit over her head to stop hair getting in her eyes. Luckily this action afforded some protection against the barrage of white noise which suddenly assailed her in what had seemed an innocuous clearing around a central pillar of hedge. It was obviously from this pillar that the deafening noise was emanating. Defensively, Taera flung herself to the ground, and the noise abated. Clutching her torch, she inched forward awkwardly until she had passed the pillar, and tentatively propped herself up, then slowly rose to her feet. Thankfully, the sound had stopped. She awarded herself a nutritab, and had taken only a few more steps when a bright flash lit the sky, soon followed by an air-trembling roar.
Thunder didnt bother Jaunx Rimhill. He had spent two years logging on the slopes of Mount Kyren, where for a whole season the constantly rising cumulus was riven by jagged sparks whose sharp cracks rebounded for hours across the valley. Admittedly, it was the last thing he expected here in Whissit Fields, especially during the contest, but the sound had the effect of spurring him on, despite the growing tiredness in his legs. He turned another corner, aligning his sight along the torch beam, watching out for any sign that might betray another of Foroquonts nasty surprises. Sure enough, some five metres in front of him the air looked dangerously smoky, and he knew he would have to trace the source before being able to advance.
The co-ordinator, Pedrek Ens was becoming seriously concerned. He had been assured by the forecasters at Central that although there could be some precipitation tomorrow, the chances of local rain were extremely slight for the duration of the contest. He knew that meteorology was not an exact science, but dammit, this approaching storm could ruin the event. For the previous eighteen years globubbles had always dutifully stayed more or less in place, and Mazes had remained wind-free and dry. He didnt need this uncontrollable element of drama in what was supposed to be a straightforward elimination contest, although the media people seemed to be revelling in it. The pitch of the commentators voices was rising unhealthily, and he was tempted to tell them all to calm down. Nevertheless he made sure his technicians were monitoring their grids, ready to alert the emergency rescue service if necessary.
Anyone close enough to hear what Eris Sipsel was chanting under her breath as she jogged and sprang between hedges might have been forgiven for thinking her grip on reality was slipping. Her subvocal refrain was "Chase the lizard! Chase the lizard!". It seemed to be boosting her morale. The truth was, she had never quite overcome a childhood aversion to thunder, and was trying to obliterate the fear with happier memories. The last dazzling flash and nerve-jangling clap had been practically overhead, heralding a few heavy drops followed by a hard vertical torrent from which the hedges offered no shelter. Eris pulled the hood down over her eyes, and struggled on.
It had now been more than five hours since the contestants had first entered the maze, and their exhaustion was apparent, even from the aerial overview. All of them were well past the half-way point when the storm broke, but it was obvious that their progress was now severely impeded. At ground level the heavy rain bounced off the paths and filtered through the hedges, to form rivulets which would have threatened the integrity of their root system, had not Foroquonts engineers installed effective drainage, anticipating the contingency of extreme weather conditions. Even so, Garsel, Taera, Jaunx and Eris were all moving with difficulty. Along with the viewing public and the media team, Pedrek Ens waited anxiously for the first emergency flare to be fired.
At the centre of the maze there was no gaudy extravagance, no welcoming committee of local dignitaries for the competitors all that was irrelevant; it was the satisfaction of completing the event that counted. The selection procedure eliminated those interested only in material gain. There was a simple softly-lit circular construction with a translucent domed roof and an unlocked door. Its principal contents were toilet facilities, a changing room with fresh clothing, comfortable seats, a cabinet stocked with light refreshments, and a table with an illuminated button for the winner to press.
The storm passed, and above, outlining the dark mass of the pod, a few stars became visible, lending their glimmering assistance to the final push for the centre. With compassionate restraint, Foroquont had chosen not to incorporate traps other than dead-ends in the last dozen concentric paths. Now that the wind and rain had ceased, the only sounds to be heard in the maze were those made by the contestants themselves. Elsewhere, throughout Snoak City and beyond, in the studio and the co-ordination room, there were noisy shouts of encouragement and a degree of tension and mounting excitement which the contest had not generated for many years. All four contestants had justifed their success in the pre-maze tests, and proved their own extraordinary stamina by reaching the last section within minutes of each other. Garsel was quite sure he had heard footsteps behind him on the adjoining path. Both Taera and Jaunx heard somewhere nearby echoes of their own panting breath, and knew they must be close to their goal. Only Eris was unaware of the others proximity, as she was still chanting
up to the point where the hedge abruptly ended, and miraculously, there was a door, and inside, a table,
and on it, as she stumbled joyfully forward, stretching out her hand, hoping her legs wouldnt give way, a glowing button.
© L J Sklaroff 2012 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 18:25 Wed 22 Aug 2012
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