Zetyn came to, and rubbed his head. He was wearing most of his clothes but had lost all his gear and, oddly, his shoes. His bare feet felt cold on the hard metal floor.
He was sitting in the centre of a small crossroads. It was dark in there but not too dark to see, and as he looked around he saw that everything - the floor, the ceiling, every wall - was made of equal size metal panels. The wall panels had inset windows made of thick, glasslike material that rang out dully when Zetyn reached up and knocked on it.
Faint fluorescent lights shone out between the edges of the panels, giving the space a dusky luminescence. The corridors were wide enough for a man to barely touch them with arms outstretched, but the ceiling was low and oppressive.
There were four ways he could go, but each way was a tiny cul-de-sac, terminating in another metal panel. Zetyn had no idea how he had even got in here.
He went to his hands and knees again, feeling too unsteady to walk. His head still throbbed, so he crawled all the way to the end of one corridor. He reached the end not even intending to put his weight on the wall but simply to touch his forehead there, against the cool wall. As he did there was a crackle, a feeling like a million little needles all jabbed into his head, and he was thrown backwards with a scream.
He lay on the floor, quivering and breathing rapidly. He felt his forehead but there didn't seem to be any bleeding, though he was now sweating so much that it was hard to tell in the gloom.
A voice spoke, "That was stupid."
He looked up. There was no one there.
The voice spoke again. "Try the other doors."
Zetyn dragged himself to his feet, being careful not to touch anything around him. He focused inward, pushing his panic down, reaching back to all those times he had been surrounded by blood and despair and yet had kept his head. His body finally stopped trembling, and he started looking around, wondering who it was that was watching him.
The watcher apparently misunderstood his intent, for the voice said, "Oh, the side walls are perfectly safe to touch."
Zetyn didn't trust him. "Who are you?" he asked.
"I'm the one who put you here."
"Why? What's this all about?"
"Not dying," the voice said, with an emphasis that implied this would be the last it would speak for now.
Zetyn gingerly made his way to another end of the crossroads. On the way there he peered out the windows but saw nothing on the other side. There were perhaps the faintest outlines of other windows beyond them, but Zetyn was not sure if it was really that or just a reflection of his own corridor.
He stood in front of another door - the ends of the corridors looked exactly the same as the rest, but the voice had called it a door and Zetyn was now starting to do the same - and took a deep breath. He reached out a hand and paused, listening intently for anything - the crackle of static, the faint whisper of a laugh, anything - but there was total silence.
He pulled his hand back a little, then punched it forward, smacking his entire palm against the panel.
Nothing happened. His jaw began to ache, and he realized he was gritting his teeth.
The voice piped up again and said, "Well done." The panel he'd touched slid aside, revealing another crossroads beyond that looked exactly the same as the one he was in.
Zetyn stood there for a while, not crossing over, beginning to realize the kind of predicament he was in. He wondered whether to try for flattery, then decided it was too early and he might as well test his warden's ego before getting hit even harder. "I'm not sure I trust this thing. You made it?"
"Yes," the voice said, with no discernible pride.
"How do you know it won't just kill me outright?"
"That depends on the choices you make. But it'll work like I say it works."
So. He was convinced of his abilities, at least, Zetyn thought. He stepped over the boundary and into the new crossroads. Behind him, the new panel slid noiselessly back into place.
"Is there a single exit here as well?" Zetyn asked.
The voice said, "Possibly."
"And anything that's not an exit..."
"Will be a circuit closer. The floor's electrified, but you're fine so long as you don't touch the wrong exit. I might be a little more lenient if you can tell me anything juicy about your friends"
Zetyn rubbed his eyes. "I dunno what you're talking about. Is that the reason? Did your own people put you up to it? Why are you doing this?"
"Well, the setup itself is a little experiment of mine, one I've always wanted to do. Behavioral therapy and biofeedback research. And yeah, I wouldn't mind knowing more about the people you travel with. But really, this whole thing ... with all the stress and annoyance you've put us through in the whole hunt, I wanted to set the world right again, and find a quiet little corner in it for myself. So I guess you could say I'm putting you through this just because I can."
And that was that. It was, Zetyn had to admit, the most honest answer he could possibly have received to the question.
He stalked to the opposite end of the crossroads and put his hand on the panel with determination and vigor, both of which disappeared the instant his flesh touched the metal. There was a crackle, and Zetyn screamed and dropped to his knees, clutching his hand.
Above and around him, the voice casually stated, "You know, as a hint, there's only one way out of this particular section. All you need do is find it."
Zetyn got back to his feet, stumbled to another part of the crossroads, tried to empty his mind before he touched it, and was immediately thrown back from the force of the shock."
"There you go," the voice said. "Only one possibility now."
Zetyn was on the floor, breathing rapidly, tears of shock running down his face. The panic rose and he couldn't hold it down, so he let it grow, let it erupt, and let the anger take over. He rolled to his hands and feet, sprang up and ran screaming at the fourth and final door, slamming into it with all his might. His shoulder hit first and the impact numbed him down to the fingertips, jarring his entire frame, and left him in a heap, on his knees, his head hanging down.
In front of him, the door slid open.
"I admire your verve, if not your intelligence," the voice said. "I hope you can keep it up, little nestling."
"What..." Zetyn tried to speak, but had to catch his breath. "What kind of place is this?"
The voice, sounding happy to be asked, immediately replied, "The panels aren't that special, least not the base design. They're electricity-based, more than you realize, and can be programmed to do any number of things, from electric fences to vidcasting. This place has an insane amount of them, probably mean to construct a training grounds."
As Zetyn half-crawled into the next chamber, the voice continued, "They're set on tiny rails that slide under their own power and can be made to continually reposition the panels, so that you've got a self-adaptive, semi-autonomous scaffolding. It doesn't even have to be big; the one you're in is only a few rooms back and forth, constantly sliding and adjusting. I give the system a few parameters and it does the rest."
"And what were your parameters?" Zetyn asked in a hoarse voice.
"Make a deadly maze," the voice said shortly, then returned to talking about the hardware. "Regular panels can't have their electricity set too high, but that's easily fixed if you know what you're doing. The first versions were far more potent but got outlawed shortly after, when people started getting seriously hurt. They were called skinners, and the name stuck."
Zetyn really didn't want to know, but he asked nonetheless. "Skinners?"
"From how they could skin the flesh off your bones if you weren't careful."
Zetyn sighed. He sat with his back up against a wall, eyes closed, head hanging down.
The voice said, "Look up."
He didn't look up.
The voice said, "If you look up, little nestling, I'll tell you which door is the right choice."
Without letting the damning, spiteful thoughts of his own cowardice surface in his mind, he looked up.
There, behind a glass pane, stood a man. He was a Caldari, rather thin, with a silly haircut and a pale face. He had a stare that Zetyn recognized; it was the gaze of a man who no longer saw the life around him, or felt part of it. Zetyn had seen it in dying people, and in those who'd caused their deaths.
"I'll be your guide," the man said, and his voice suffused the chamber.
Zetyn stood up and walked to the window. He stared at his tormentor for a while, then snarled and slammed his palm hard on the glass. The man didn't even blink. It was stupid, Zetyn knew, and wouldn't do anything to help him get out of there, but he couldn't help it. He composed himself and said, "What is your name?"
"Krezek," the man said. "What is yours?"
"Glad to meet you, Zetyn. Take the first door on the left."
"How long do you intend to keep me here?"
"As long as you need."
"Need for what?"
"To get out. The parameters for the skinner rails generate a code-based maze. If you figure it out, you can go free without so much as a scratch. If not, well, you won't."
Zetyn said, "I was never good at maths."
"That's a shame. Especially since the code is self-modifying based on operational feedback. Make too many mistakes and the patterns will start to change, and you'll need to start all over again."
"And you're going to stand there, to watch."
"For people like you, I've got all the time in the world," Krezek said.
"People like us?"
"Nitwits who think they can change the world, make it unstable. I wonder where your friends are."
Zetyn looked around the empty metal maze. "I wonder that myself. In fact, I wonder if I know them at all."
"You're not with them, I take it. You just got pulled along for the ride. A victim," Krezek said.
"No more victim as anyone else, I suppose," Zetyn said, "but at this time, in this place, I have no friends. Guess I should get better at making them."
Krezek, leaning in a little closer, said, "I suggest you also get better at maths, real quick, and stay away from the electric skinners. Eventually the shocks will wear out your heart, and you'll start to get palpitations. They can be quite unpleasant, I hear. Fatal, even."
Zetyn stared at him, then walked away silently and headed for the first door on the left.
His flesh felt like it was going to tear itself off his body, and he didn't care. He'd stopped crying; had left behind those gasping sobs of sorrow and hope, and moved beyond them, into a place of darkness and acceptance. His hands wouldn't stop trembling, but he viewed them outside himself. He was a machine now; his sole purpose to keep moving, keep looking, keep being shocked and keep opening doors, until he could finally find the one that would end this.
At one point he'd pressed a lucky door and suffered no shock, but the floor panel itself had slid aside, dropping him so far that when he landed and his head hit the ground, he'd heard the crunch on the inside of his skull.
Sometimes the panel overhead would open, and he'd be forced to climb up, his entire body shaking with the effort. The first time this had happened he hadn't noticed, and had screamed with frustration, thinking this was the end and all he could do now was roam around until he finally died.
Krezek had followed along; sometimes voicing support or commentary, sometimes appearing in windows. He had, he said, programmed the skinner complex so as to always afford him a parallel route to Zetyn's gauntlet, so that he could follow along and peer in on his subject whenever he wished.
And so it might have gone till infinity and oblivion, but Zetyn heard a whisper. It said, "Right turn, and watch the floor."
Zetyn looked up. On the other side of a glass panel stood Krezek, as usual, with his composed, aloof expression. The whisper had not been his voice; it was full and resonating while Krezek's voice, with which he'd spoken at full volume the entire time, was a pinched and whiny thing, like a winged insect trying to escape from under a thumb. Krezek didn't appear to have noticed it.
Zetyn wondered momentarily if this were a trick, but discounted the notion. His torturer's mind games were mechanical, not interpersonal.
He hauled himself over to the right-hand door and stood in front of it. He told himself he was weighing his options, but in truth, he was trying to savor the moment, to enjoy the budding little seed of hope that could blossom into the assurance of deliverance. The instant he would touch the door, he'd know.
Then he remembered what the voice had said about the floor, and he turned on the spot, putting his back against one side of the corridor and pressing his legs against the other end. It hurt like blazes, but the pain felt good, and he used it to push harder, until he was reasonably sure that he wouldn't tumble down if the floor gave out.
"What are you doing?" Krezek said from behind the glass prison walls.
"Changing the game," Zetyn muttered, not truly caring whether his tormentor heard him. Keeping himself clamped up against the walls, he reached out one hand and gingerly touched the door. If this failed, he knew, he would die; the last ember of hope would be extinguished and he'd fall down like a pile of dead ashes.
His finger brushed the door. There was no current, no arc, no crackle. The floor panel beneath him merely slid open in silence, and Zetyn let himself slide down slowly as well, trying his hardest not to hope.
He hadn't been on the new floor for five seconds when the whisper was heard again. "Opposite door." He got up, walked over and pressed its panel. It opened.
He walked through, and the whisper said, "Left turn." Through a glass panel he saw Krezek show up, running along. Krezek's face registered surprise, the first expression he'd shown so far.
Zetyn turned left, rushed through that door, and waited for further instructions. There were none, and for a moment he thought his benefactor had abandoned him. Then Krezek showed up on the other side of a nearby glass partition, and Zetyn understood. The whisperer wanted to make itself known.
"The next one is going to be left, then straight, left again, right and the ceiling, and straight," the stranger said. It was no longer a whisper but a full-fledged voice, and while there was an odd tonality to it, Zetyn immediately recognized its owner. It was coming from Nale.
"Who is that? Who's there?" Krezek demanded. He put his face up against the glass and goggled at the room, his head moving back and forth. When he saw no one but Zetyn, he seemed to settle down a bit, and even flashed a brief smile.
Nale spoke up again, "Actually, you think you can memorize a longer sequence?"
Over Krezek's outraged screams, Zetyn grinned and nodded.
"All right. Take the ones I told you, then left, left, straight, left and floor, right and floor, straight, right and ceiling, left. Got it?"
"Got it," Zetyn said and set off, Krezek yelling at him all the way. It occurred to Zetyn that his upset wasn't perhaps from fear of his own life from the intruder, but from frustration that this little world he'd created was being upended. In his rush of hope and relief, he couldn't help but feel amused.
Nale kept giving him directions, and Krezek kept yelling. There were bangs and hammerings on the panels, which Zetyn imagined were from Krezek either taking out his frustrations or scampering around trying to find Nale. If Krezek's description of the maze had been right, Nale would have had to have been incredibly inventive to hide from the man, but he'd apparently succeeded so far. Zetyn himself had discovered new reserves of energy and was now rushing through the maze at high speed, slowed only by the time it took the doors to open.
And eventually, they got to the end. Zetyn stepped through yet another open door, and the corridor he entered was lit up with a green light. It was small and faint, but in the endless gray gloom Zetyn had suffered it felt like a blazing torch was shining into his eyes. He stumbled towards the light, feeling with his hands, and found that it was a panel set in the door on the opposite side of the crossroads. The panel was about the size of Zetyn's chest and had no borders. Its black surface had a green hue about it and was overlaid with a grey rectangular grid. When Zetyn touched the surface his finger left green ripples, as if he'd dipped it into water, and the grid realigned itself into concentric circles. He touched it again, and it changed to a series of digits. Another touch, another ripple, and the grid changed color to a bright turquoise and reverted back to squares.
"Good luck with that," Krezek said. He was standing on the other side of a glass panel right by Zetyn's side. Their faces were half an arm's length apart, and at that moment Zetyn wished more than anything he had in his life that he could punch through the glass and tear Krezek's throat out.
"The lock is adaptive. It will adjust to everything you touch and realign its key accordingly," Krezek said.
"You're such a delightful human being," Zetyn said, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice. He was so close to getting out, he could feel it in his bones.
"The adaptation formula is based half on the one that modified the maze you just got through. So with your little drone helper hovering around somewhere, and believe me, I will catch him eventually, you shouldn't have any problems."
Zetyn thought about that sentence, and the quiet satisfaction it seemed to exude. He said, "What's the other half?"
"A code only I know."
"You can find it, mind you. As soon as you'd left the first room, I dropped in a note in there with the code. All you need to do is backtrack to the start. Shouldn't be hard. Oh, and the currents in everything but that black panel are now lethal."
"You do enjoy this," Zetyn said, trying to keep calm and desperately hoping Nale had something up his sleeve.
"Damn straight I do. And while you're been working your way through my maze, I've been readjusting the panel controls. I know exactly where your little angel is going to be this time around, and even if I can't get to him, all I need to do is electrify every panel in his room, and he'll be gone."
"We better get it right the first time around, then," Nale said, appearing behind the glass on Zetyn's other side. "Do as I say at all times. First touch the upper right corner of the panel to reset it."
Zetyn did so. Both of his people, angel and demon, watched the scene closely.
"Now, don't touch the panel. Instead, slowly hover your finger over its top left corner and drag it to the right, as if you're tracing a straight line. When you get to the end, bring the finger back to the left, just below where you started, and do the same. Push the panel only when I say."
"What are you doing?" Krezek said.
"Getting him out," Nale said. "Do it."
Zetyn started, slowly tracing his finger a fraction over the panel's surface. He hadn't made more than three passes when Nale suddenly said, "Push and repeat."
Zetyn obeyed, touching the screen, then starting again. It took a few more passes this time, and he was almost down to the bottom of the screen when Nale gave the command. Each time he pushed, the screen would realign itself into new types of grids and colors.
And there came a point where Nale told him to stop, and said, "This one will be the last. Once you touch it, and once the door opens, run and don't look back."
Krezek, who'd fallen sullenly silent, exploded. "You couldn't possibly have done that! There is no way you could have backtracked to the first room, gotten in, and gotten back out without altering the skinning order. How the hell have you been doing this?!"
"Faith," Nale said, which shut him up.
Zetyn pushed the panel. It made ripples that spread continuously outwards to its edge, so that the panel was still rippling by the time the door slid open.
Zetyn ran through, into a long corridor with a light at the end, and did not even hesitate as he went through the light and was in the air, flying and running, and even after he fell into the safety net below, his feet were still moving. He scrambled out of the net, not sparing even one glance upward, and made it down to the ground proper, where he managed all of ten steps before the adrenaline ran out and his legs gave way. He crawled on all fours until he made it to a wall, and noticed with an ugly grimace that he instinctively shied from touching it. He made himself lean up against it, and turned around, looking at his old prison.
The maze was a strange thing when seen from the outside. It was like a facsimile of a piece of pollen; a roundish creation from which protruded countless metal bars and jutting panels. Its metal gleamed in the lights from the ceiling. Every now and then a panel would be retracted and another pushed out instead. Clearly, the maze was still reconfiguring itself. He wondered if Nale and Krezek were still in there. If Krezek were to emerge as the winner, Zetyn didn't even know if he could find the energy to scamper away. He kept an eye peeled on the one exit in the maze, the one he'd come out through.
The panels stopped moving. There was silence, then a few bangs, then nothing. Zetyn held his breath.
There was a whirring sound. A panel slid over the exit, and the maze was sealed.
Zetyn exhaled, and kept exhaling until his vision darkened, his eyes rolled back in his head and his consciousness faded away to blissful oblivion.
A noise awoke him with a start. It came from around him, but his first instinct was to look up at the maze, and he saw that it was open again.
He scrambled to his feet, unsteadily. It felt as if he'd been sleeping for days. He didn't know whether Krezek might be around somewhere.
There were steps to his right. His heart did double beats.
Out of the shadows, Nale appeared. He walked close to Zetyn but remained out of arm's reach. "Rest easy," he said. "I am still with you."
Something in his manner made Zetyn's flesh crawl, but he attributed it to the horror of the maze. "Krezek?" he asked.
"Krezek is gone," he said.
Zetyn felt awash with relief. He started to crawl towards him but Nale backed away slightly. "I have work to do now," he said.
"What do I do? Are you going to get Monas?"
"Monas is gone, too," Nale said. "I could only save you."
Zetyn covered his face and tried to keep his breathing steady. After he felt he could speak again, he said, "So what now?"
"You go by yourself. Get to our ship. Leave."
"And go where?"
"Back to our people. Tell them what happened." Nale turned and started to walk away, but hesitated and said, "Well ... leave out the ugly parts, though."
"What are you going to do?"
"Find salvation," he said, and resumed walking away.
Zetyn watched him recede, and realized that he might never get another chance to ask a question that had been burning into his mind. "Nale?"
"How did you manage it? In the maze."
Nale smiled faintly. "I listened to the rails, the way they slide together. I didn't conceptualize Krezek's mathematical formula, whatever it was. I simply saw everything as it was, and acted accordingly."
"And the code?"
"I watched Krezek as your hand hovered over the panel. His eyes told me when to press."
Zetyn stared at him. Finally he said, "Nale?"
"Don't take this as any kind of judgment, please, but I don't even think I know who you are anymore. I love you, man, I truly do, but you've gone through the wall of craziness and out the other side. Whatever you are, I doubt it's human."
Nale's smile turned into a grin. "We're all just limbs of the same body. Good luck, my friend." And he was gone.
After a while, Zetyn got to his feet, and started making his way back to the ship.