For a moment the fear of what was behind him was forgotten while he turned to face the horror of what was before him. All he could hear was a loud, low rumbling that seemed to start at the centre of the earth and concluded with the deafening guarantee of something solid and large just around the dark corner that he had to travel in the next 10 seconds.
Tony didn’t know what to do, but he had to do something.
So, while swallowing what felt like his last breath, with hardly any saliva in his mouth because all the moisture in his body was either in cold bullets on his forehead or running, to his own embarrassment, down his legs, he lifted his feet, heavy with dread and took the necessary step forward.
It was only a second later that the sound repeated and enclosed him again in its hugeness.
The reality of what he saw was more than he could ever have imagined, his eyes involuntarily sank deeply into their sockets and his tongue was suddenly too big for his mouth; but he was not the only one seeing something new in his view. Tony could feel eyes all over him. He wished he was smaller, even invisible but there was no point in wishing now, there was nothing to do but move. Quickly, without giving the thought a chance to form properly, he started to run. He ran with such speed that his heart, that he momentarily thought had stopped, pounded with the ferocity of a hungry lion against his rib cage.
His sudden movements startled both himself and his watchers.
The eyes that were once watching him with a confidence that had given Tony the impetus for action, blinked in an unnerving sign of unison and the mass of associated flesh followed his rapid, flailing movements across the damp, dark, cold feeding ground. Never before had they seen their food behave in such a cavalier manner. Amusement and shock could have been found in their eyes if Tony had the inclination to stop and look around him. Stopping was not an idea that could have entered Tony’s cerebrum in that minute, which was passing as slowly as the last hour in an exam room when you can’t think of anything to write and you still have three essays to tackle.
Tony felt his heart stop as his balance left him and he started to fall forwards into the slimy flooring of his death room. His 23 seconds of running felt to him like he had been in the gym for 4 hours on the treadmill. He’d got nowhere. He was exhausted. His clothes were heavy with all of his expended bodily moisture. Panic hit him before he hit the ground and he straightened up in a last desperate attempt to stay alive, in one piece and with a touch of sanity in his grasp.
Tony willed himself forward in a semi-upright stance, he dared not contemplate what his watchers were doing, he didn’t have the time or energy to focus on anything but himself. Propelled by the intense desire to live and the fear of an unknown but promisingly terrifying end, he threw himself – calling on all his deep reserves of strength, across a gaping hole that stood between him and a life of freedom.
He seemed to hang in the air for eternity.
‘I must look into the aspects of time perception and circumstances when I’m next in the lab.’ he thought to himself, willing himself to have a future.
His thoughts seemed to interrupt his movement through space and he dropped on the edge of the hole. He started to scramble up, pulling frantically at anything he could grasp above him with his fingers and making footholds with his knees, elbows and hips in the falling unsafe sandy mire. Tony wasn’t sure whether he could feel his blood dripping into the sand, leaving a track behind him or whether he was supposed to be without skin on his knuckles and knees. He couldn’t remember looking at his exposed bones and muscles like this before. Why did these things concern him now? Confused and frightened and continuing his fight against the call from gravity, he cursed Newton and, dismissing exhaustion as another unwelcomed intruder into his life, he commanded the muscles that remained intact in his body into motion. He moved. Another miracle! He repeated the manoeuvre. He moved again.
‘Perhaps there is a God,’ he mused. A prayer to this previously unacknowledged Presence emitted from every remaining blood vessel in his body. ‘Save me,’ they screamed like a gospel choir reaching for that high elusive note.
A blinding light hit him. Was this his deliverance? Did he just open his eyes or was it always there, had he been running without seeing? The questions tumbled around him like the disappearing ground. Whatever had happened he now knew that he had to get to the source of the light. Was this an answer to his hurriedly created prayer? It was only 7 seconds since he had fallen on the edge of the hole and the owners of the eyes had acknowledged that their food was trying to escape. The noise of their eyes opening and closing sounded like bat wings flying in ever decreasing circles around his head. There was the heat as well. Behind him, getting closer, getting hotter. The heat started to singe the hairs on his legs.
Ahead of him the light grew brighter, he had to force his tired arms upwards to shield his eyes, the heat grew hotter behind him, he felt like he was on fire. The old Bible story of the three Hebrew boys in the fiery furnace flashed into his head as the flames licked his back. Something brushed against his legs, tugging at his tattered clothes. He knew it wasn’t the fire, this was something else. He couldn’t bear to look. Once again the anxiety of the moment choked him and his heart seemed to stop. His breathing, now so desperate and shallow, spluttered. He heard a scream at the same moment as the tugging intensified. It was ear splitting. He dared to look around for a brief second, saw no one, saw the eyes closer than he could bear, and realised that the scream, still resounding, was coming from him. He turned his head back ahead of him and as he closed his eyes the light still shone burning holes into his eyelids, he could feel the tears streaming down his face.
Absolute statements sprang to the front of his mind. He was afraid. He was in danger. He was going to die. Why had he been so stupid? Why had he taken the risk? Would any of his questions ever get an answer? Tony cried for his mother. At 26 years old, 6 feet 4 inches and 15 stones in weight, he cried like a baby.
That’s just how they found him.
Curled up in the foetal position on his bed with his thumb planted firmly in his mouth. Sobbing and shaking.
He never spoke again.
He had a phobia about eyes, he couldn’t stand to have eyes watching him. He also refused to be kept warm, the heat appeared to unsettle him even more. His colleagues refused to speculate, in public, about what could have happened, they just came and erased his computer disks when he was finally given his new lockable white coat and taken to a padded secure room.
Nobody ever explained how he got those scars on his hands and knees and the burns on the backs of his legs. He hadn’t been out of his house for three days before they found him. The weekend had passed and his presentation and demonstration of virtual reality before the Swiss delegation was due on that Monday morning. They had been looking forward to the ground breaking news that had been systematically leaked over the previous months. Now, the project had been shelved, the other scientists were reluctant to talk about ‘Project Isaw’. They took turns to visit Tony, sharing their responsibility, each wearing dark glasses when in his presence.
All copies of the programmes had been destroyed.
Except the one that Chrissy kept.
Four years later, after the discovery of Tony that Leap Year’s morning, she switched on her computer, selected the programmes and started on the journey to her own unknown reality. What would she discover? Would she be able to share what she learned?
“Press enter,” prompted the screen. There was no hesitation in her fingers, she had planned and prepared for this. The screen in her head displayed “Welcome to Reality …” she heard the computer disk whirling before her and then … the system failed.
“System overload,” flashed brightly and then disappeared. The screen went blank. The power had failed. ‘Damn!’ she thought. With frustration in mind Chrissy tried to take off the visor, but it wasn’t there, she wasn’t there. She wasn’t sat at her computer, she was here in reality. Automatically, as if she had rehearsed it, she moved, she turned around. The shock arrived without warning like a falling two ton breeze block, there was nowhere to turn back to.
It was at that moment, with a weird sense of strange familiarity, that she knew . . .
( Monday’s Leap is early fiction writing from the 1990s – included in Life in the Cracks, a collection of 29 short stories
by Marjorie H Morgan)