Trap in a Steel Dawn

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Still grey. In the whisper-quiet of a steely dawn a man with a stubbly beard comes whistling ever so softly as he sets a trap.

The trap is vicious. Its teeth horrid. Its jaws gaping, but there is no bait. He places the trap on a partly sandy, partly grassy mound, not far from a semi-ruined house, then turns and vanishes into the soft grey mist.

Is it real or does his ghost chuckle quietly at the aspect of a tired young man leaning against the rubble-remains of a pillar? He is a strange young man. His clothes are of an indeterminate age. His hair is neither long nor short. He seems extremely exhausted.

The young man sighs. A deep-winded, gasping, gusty, sigh. He leans against the pillar. Sways. Steadies himself as a wave of nausea shakes his body. He leans forward. Dry-retches and falls into an abyss — empty blackness, illuminated by sharp electric gashes of pain. And then nothing. Black. White. Grey. Nothing.

He is recovering consciousness behind closed eyes. Very slowly, he peeps under lowered eyelids, and then flaps them wide open in surprise.

Where is he? Where is the landscape? The ruin? Why is he supine and in a bed? Was that a dream? Or is this a dream? Carefully, with immense caution he looks around allowing his eyes the luxury of focussing on each object.

He is in a bed. In a single large room. The windows are closed. From where he lies he can see a table. It is a solid almost square wooden table. On it there is a bowl with some fruit — apples and pears, hard pears, the kind that don’t go soft easily. There seem to be some books at the far end. He can’t see too well so he sits up. The room swims, he holds his head in his hands and lies down again.

Gradually the room stops swaying and his own breathing settles.  Under the sheets he fidgets in his trouser pocket and discovers the pill he vaguely remembers should be there. Still supine he swallows it dry. A little difficult, but manageable.

A few minutes tick by as he gathers his thoughts – he remembers a strangely peaceful, deserted landscape, there is something faintly sinister about it and yet all at once he feels the strongest yearning to be there again, so strong that the emotion almost reaches the realms of panic. He controls it.

Very deliberately he rises from the horizontal to the vertical position. This time all is well. The room stays still. His legs seem steady. He climbs gingerly out of bed. Good. All continues to be well. He walks around on a tour of discovery.

There isn’t much in the room. The table. A chair. A bookcase with some books in it. He parts the curtains at the window, but can’t see outside, the windows are thick with dust and dirt. He tries to open the window. It is jammed and will not move. He sees a door. It is locked and there’s no key in it. He bends down and puts his lips to the keyhole. A thin whisper of moist air slips like a wraith across the tip of his tongue. And then the longing to get out blossoms into full blown hysteria. He must get out. HE MUST GET OUT. HE  MUST  GET  OUT.

The door. He rattles it. It won’t open.

The window. He shakes it. It won’t open. Break a pane. BREAK A PANE. B R E A K…

Off with his shoe. SMASH!!! And again he is falling into an empty blackness, illuminated by sharp electric gashes of pain. Then nothing. Black. White. Grey nothing.

He comes to slowly behind closed eyes…He is back in the room. Back on his back in the bed.  He knows he is going to relive the nausea.  Relive the confusion. At least he is gaining a memory, the memory of all that went before. And, be it a dream or a fact, it is too immediate and real to be forgotten or ignored.

This time he will play it differently. Slowly the room comes into focus. Everything is as it was before.

He doesn’t rise immediately, instead he fidgets in his pocket, finds the pill, swallows it dry and waits until he feels better.

He rises slowly, quite sure this time that his legs won’t give way again and again he briefly reconnoiters the room.

It is the same. Closed, jammed, dirty windows. Locked door, no key. He goes to the table. Ah! A jug of water and a glass. He doesn’t remember that, some dates along with the fruit. A bonus for good behaviour? He drinks some water. Eats a date. Notices that on the floor, slightly to one side of the table is a potted plant.

He looks at his watch. Shakes it. The time is frozen. It is then that he notices, almost hidden by the books on the far side of the table a softly pulsating light emanating from the flat square screen of a monitor attached to a keyboard, attached to a computer. The computer? Perhaps it holds the secret key to the door which will let him out.

He goes to the computer. Pulls up the single high back chair in the room sits on it and looks at the screen, in bold letters he reads: “You are in a room, with a bed, a table on which there is a computer. There is a chair in the room, a bedside table. On the large table there is a bowl of fruit, dates, a jug of water, a glass. The windows are jammed. The door is locked. There is a plant in the room. You must find a way to freedom or perish.”

“So tell me something I don’t know,” he mutters. He looks at the screen and the keyboard. One-fingered, he types in, “How do I get out?” The sentence appears on the monitor, cold and unfeeling. The computer, not very sophisticated, grates for a second or two, then flashes onto the screen: “I do not understand ‘Get out.’

The man rubs his chin. He thinks. Keys in a sentence, partly to check out the accuracy of the computer and partly to assess its ability. “What will happen if I break the window?”

The computer flashes back: “A poison gas will enter the room and you will perish, or start again.”

“I know that only too well,” he says half aloud. He keys in: “What will happen if I break the door?”

Computer: “A poison gas will enter the room and you will perish or start again.”

The man is a little worried. More quickly this time and two-handed he keys in: “Is there any source of oxygen in the room?”

Computer: “I do not understand any source

The man again rapidly types in: “Does the plant produce oxygen?”

Computer: Yes.”

He sighs.

Again he keys in, “How much time do I have before I perish?”

The computer, unfeeling, uncaring, impassive, cold letters flashing on a black screen replies, “Syntax error.” and shuts itself off.

The man is at first perplexed, then goes wild with anger. He tries to hit the keyboard. A force field prevents his hands from getting close. He tries hitting the screen; the same thing happens. He gets up walks around. Sits on the chair. Pounds his fist into his hand. Then goes up to the window — wanting to smash it, intending to smash it, then he shakes his head and holds his hands to stay them from an impetuosity that would lead to a relived despair. The effort is too much, he whirls around and flings himself onto the bed in frustration. An enormous sob of utter desolation works its way almost slowly up from his belly to his chest and through his lips, which he bites, trying to contain the mindless fear that he can sense, building up inside him. The sob breaks loose. But, he steadies his fear and calms down with great effort. Fine beads of perspiration gather on his upper lip. And then he notices that the soft light on the computer has flashed on again.

He runs to it, a long lost friend, gabbling with relief, his fingers fumbling he keys in,” I want out.”

The computer, impassive as ever, “I do not understand ‘Want out’.

The man  is getting the better of his fear. Calmly, though with mild irritation and immense sarcasm he keys in, “Want means, to need or desire.” He puts the full stop in with a flourish.

The computer stoically replies, “I do not understand to need or desire.”

The man raises his fists in frustration. Stops himself mid-air. Flexes his fingers with considerable effort and slowly, deliberately keys in, “Which is the way to freedom?”

The computer flashes on, “I am the way.”

At last! A response! Perhaps the man can reach out to this bunch of wires, energy and cicuitry. He keys in “Lead me to freedom.”

Computer: “Follow me.”

Man: “How do I follow you?”

Computer: “By the true path.”

Man: “What is the true path?”

Computer: “I am the true path.”

Man: “How do I follow the true path?” At this point he believes that he will follow, he will believe.

Computer: “Follow me.”

He is annoyed, his patience is wearing thin. He keys in: “Answer me properly, dammit!”

Computer: “Temper, temper.” And shuts itself off.

This is more than he can bear. He puts his head in his arms, and for a few moments succumbs to the despair that he’s been staving off and weeps. Slowly his crying turns to deep racking sobs and his body shudders with his gasps.

Softly the screen, of its own accord, flashes on again. The man looks at it through his tears, although disheartened, he is still curious. He blinks his eyes, rubs them, he cannot believe what he sees on the screen. “You are making a sound I do not understand.”

His fingers trembling, his crying abruptly over, his eyes still misty with tears, the man almost hysterical, keys in: “Can you detect sound?”

Computer: “My sensors can detect sound.”

The man keys in: “Can you talk?”

Computer: “Can you read?

A short barking laugh escapes his lips, and then he bursts into tears again.

The computer, implacable, flashes on again, “You are making a sound I do not understand.”

The man exasperated, types very deliberately, as though addressing an immature mind. “I am crying.”

Computer: “What is crying?”

“It is an involuntary sound made from despair.”

Computer: “What is despair?”

The man thinks for a while and then enters: “Despair is when I have no hope.”

Computer: “I do not understand ‘no hope’.”

The man enters, “Hope is,” he pauses, thinks again, then continues,”the high probability factor of finding the way to freedom. The probability factor at this moment is very low. If I do not find the way to freedom I will perish. If I perish it is negative. When the negative probability is higher than the positive probability that leads to despair.”

The computer uncharacteristically displays curiosity and flashes on: “Why do you want to find freedom?”

The man, in exasperation again gets sarcastic and types, “I thought computers were intelligent.”

Computer: “Humans are intelligent, computers are logical. Why do you want to find freedom?”

Man: “If I do not find freedom, I will stay here. If I stay here I will perish.”

The computer, replies, “Eventually you will perish.”

The man unconscious of the change in pattern types in, as though continuing a conversation, “Eventually, but not just now.”

Computer: “You will not perish just now.”

He pauses, then types, “Is there a way to freedom?”

Computer: “Yes.”

The man is somewhat relieved for only the second time during this entire exercise. Then, hoping that he has dodged around the computer, “Where is the key to freedom?”

Computer: “I am the key to freedom.”

Man, in annoyance types in: “Don’t start that again!”

The computer responds strangely. Its letters expand and the message it displays grows larger and larger, “Start that again.”

He sits back, looks at the screen, he is tense, he has seen something, he has sensed something. There is no logic in what follows.

He keys in: “Start that again.”

Computer: “I am the key to freedom, start that again.”

The man is  excited. He sits and stares at the screen for a while. There is something here he cannot yet fathom. The idea of it is a blur on the edge of his mind. He is agitated. He gets up. Sits down. Faces the computer and for no reason whatever presses the space bar.

Computer:  “I am the key to freedom. Start that again. Ready run.”

The man is extremely excited. Nervous. He has to make an act of blind faith. No logic. No reason. No guarantee that it would even work. And if it worked whether it had really worked, he would never know.

He goes to the top of the bed. Stands on it. It is steady. He tests to see if it will take his weight. And then full pelt he rushes towards the monitor, the screen, beckoning him to freedom.

Everything around him goes black, punctuated with sharp electric lights zig-zagging madly, painfully through the air in the room. Through it all he is conscious, aware of his body, his self, his eyes — burning. His skin ripping.

A vision of a steel trap with its jagged jaws appears from nowhere, it springs open, so wide, so wide…

The man is outside the room, exhausted with his efforts, leaning against the rubble remains of a pillar. He is free, free at last.

This time instead of a quiet wicked chuckle, a ghostly wail of horrid fear rustles like a breeze in the grass. And the man grows smaller, smaller, smaller. He is a tiny figure in the monitor’s screen.

A rasping sound of steel teeth meeting steel teeth fills the air.

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