Escape Attempt

By Stik Mann

The human who looked up from his steak sandwich and fried potatoes was slapped in slow-motion silliness from that slumberous state of consciousness called There. The lack of gravity (or perhaps the inversion of all that was once normal) caused some of the potatoes to loosen from the plate and float upwards before the human's wide eyes. He watched his dinner drift and eventually disappear above.

Off in the distant valley, marble-sized tubers fell like hail from low black clouds, gathering and forming a tumbling vegetable river that poured out into the plains, finally reaching Roger Harmon's rubber-booted feet.

He picked up a potato and it transformed into a rock. He picked up another -- another stone. Only then was he sure he was awake, or partially awake, and that his eyes were probably open.

He opened his mouth and yawned deeply. He could smell the death-like stench of teeth not properly cleaned, mingled with the foul risings from the gastric rumblings of a stomach not properly fed. He scraped his tongue with his teeth and spat out into the blackness.

Bracing his wobbling legs, he rose slowly, being careful not to hit his head on the jagged roof. To his surprise, he stretched his entire length. An investigation on tip-toes with upstretched arms found only more empty darkness. Then he remembered. He had succumbed to the otherworld images and finally to sleep after stumbling upon what must have been one of the main roadways of this long forgotten sector, a tunnel large enough for a truck to drive through.

It was a good sign.

He reached down and slapped at the battery belted to his hip, hoping that this might awaken it to a hint of its previous power. His fingers followed the cord from the battery up to the bulb attached to his hard-hat. He turned a tiny knob and a dim column of light shot out from his forehead, barely illuminating the irregular surface of the gray rock wall.

Wherever his head moved so moved the light. As the light scanned the surface of the tunnel, it reflected glittering hints of the mineral Galena that had escaped the blast of the miner's dynamite and the jagged-toothed scoop of the front-end loader. This Galena - - precursor of iron and steel -- backbone of skyscrapers and ships and locomotives, this glorified rock was the reason Roger Harmon stumbled twenty-odd hundred feet below the footsteps of sun-faring men.

He turned and shined the dying light down the gradual incline from which he had come. Water, cold water, slowly rose and rounded the distant corner, icy and black like death, oily swirls and dry black dust riding atop its surface. It swallowed up rusted pipes and shattered dynamite boxes, obscuring the past, denying him any hope of retreat. The miles of shafts through which he had previously wandered had been made a thing of the watery darkness, with the sureness and blind insensibility of grass creeping over the fresh mound of a grave.

But he could not perish so easily. Surely Providence had something special in store for him. For he was no mere miner or mechanic or driver of trucks. He was an engineer, a geologist, considered a scientist by many. It was he who convinced the unenlig htened many that the Galena-rich stone that separated the above flowing river from the proposed shaft below was certainly thick enough to survive even a major quake of the earth.

But there was no earthquake, although he knew that the survivors (if there were any survivors besides himself) would say that one did occur. The growl they heard and the rumble they felt was the crumbling and quick settling of a massive amount of earth. The ghoulish howl that followed was from the force of the water rushing through the jagged rocks with greater and greater intensity, tossing aside mountain-like boulders and crushed miners until the way was cleared for the rest of the river to come gushing through.

Within minutes, the honeycombed Yellowhead sector, where most of the mine's employees had just started their shift, was promptly filled and suddenly silenced, the deafening drills howling nevermore. \par \par He turned and shined the lamp up the incline. He estimated how long it would take him to reach the distant corner, fifty or sixty yards away. Switching off the lamp to conserve its precious power, he continued his journey through the labyrinthine crypt, wandering blindly through a sector that had been deserted and forgotten since before he was born, not knowing where he was going, and forebodingly considering the possibilities of how it all might end.

As he moved through the darkness with careful and deliberate steps, he saw and then did not see and then saw again a purplish haze that appeared then disappeared then appeared again all along where the walls of the tunnel should be; though he knew that in reality no light - not the light of the sun nor of the spirit - could have possibly penetrated to such a depth. Yet, as he concentrated, and tried desperately to see, and desperately wanted to see, he did indeed see.

Soon, he found that he could even see beyond the immediate surface area, could see the vast network of shafts and drifts and galleries all outlined in the magic purple haze, branching throughout the surrounding body of rock like bloodless veins and alienated organs. With practice, he found that he could locate, capture, and retrieve a distant sector, condense and project it against the darkness before him like a map conceived by geologists, surveyors, metaphysicians. And while his faculties were intact enough to realize the fantastic nature of these visions, considering that t he map seemed to go on endlessly in all directions, he determined to use the images only for the planning of short term travel.

He guessed that he had been pursued by the rising waters for at least three days, maybe four, though that system of time measurement seemed ludicrous here where exists no sun nor phases of the moon, no evidence of the spinning of the earth. And he would probably endure another three days before starvation would take him. But he would not thirst. Throughout the mine, fresh drinkable groundwater dripped everywhere, and in some places flowed.

"My dripping stone kingdom," he said to the darkness, and was surprised by the deep echoing of the words, as if in the cathedral of a high-ranking devil.

He looked up and switched on his lamp and the beam diffused into the darkness. He shouted out - "Hey!" and the parish demon shouted back in Roger Harmon's own voice, echoing, diminishing, echoing...

He looked ahead. A graveyard of ancient trucks and machinery were scattered about the domed grotto in various stages of disassembly and rusted decomposition, the top of their red skeletal remains covered with fine black dust. Three-legged drills and bat tered ore carts, stacks of twisted rail ties and dented metal hard-hats, all of a style not used in decades, lay all about the well-worn stone floor. Along the sides of the cavernous room were grease-darkened work benches, shelves containing tools and enigmatic devices of all sorts, enormous nut and bolts and absurdly huge wrenches to twist those bolts.

Soon, the silence yielded to distant garbled voices of the ghosts of the men who had worked and died there, bristle-bearded characters who cussed and spit and drank black coffee, who tore apart the huge diesel engines and put them back together, who maintained the carts and tracks that carried the crumbled rock up to...

"Up to the surface," he said.

"To the surface," whispered the devil, then whispered it again.

He maneuvered the beam of light around the perimeters of the room. There was no obvious way out, except for the road that took him there, and that would only take him to water. But his knowledge of the mine's history provided him with some hope. He knew that it was unlikely that there would be such a large shop at such a distant location, and at a dead end at that.

He shut off his head lamp and whispered, "Salvation is at hand."

"Ssssh," hushed the devil.

The purple visions returned to him with a delightful intensity, brilliantly outlining the dome that surrounded him. And beyond that, thousands of winding tunnels wormed out in all directions, disappearing and reappearing with the directness of his gaze. Except for one thing: there existed one perfectly straight line, much smaller but much brighter than the rest. It came up at an angle from the depths below, passed within a few feet of the opposite end of the shop, then proceeded upward without end.

He turned the switch on the lamp and nothing happened. He switched it again, then again and again. He took off his hat and used it to beat on the battery. Nothing. It was dead. He removed the belt, the battery and the blinded head lamp and tossed the worthless trio behind him.

They splashed.

He waded through the darkness toward the phantom shaft of light until he ran into what he remembered was a large pile of tires, six or seven feet high,stacked against the wall. With what little strength he had left, he began to move the small mountain, tire by tire. While tugging at one, another fell back to where he thought the wall should have been. There was a deep, gritty, scratching sound that slowly changed pitch as the tire skidded down the shaft, echoing as the source of the sound moved further and further away, followed by a distant hollow splash, then a dribble, then a drip, drip.

He climbed atop the remaining tires and found the access door to the shaft. He stuck his head inside and confirmed with his hands what he clearly saw outlined in purple. It was perhaps four by four feet, just large enough for a train of ore carts to be pulled from the depths up to the surface mill. He ran his hand over the floor of the incline and reasoned that, because of the dust and pebbles that clung to the smooth concrete floor, and the degree of the incline, it would be impossible to crawl upon.

Suddenly his hand slipped out from below him and tumbled headlong down the gritty shaft. Expecting a long and painful slide, he instead plunged into icy water, crashing his head on the hardest of the floating debris. By the time he clawed his way back to the surface, the rising water was pouring out the access door.

He braced himself to prevent being swept back into the shop. The cold was intense. He sucked air in huge gulps yet seemed to exhale none. His body shook violently as if zapped with high voltage.

But the shaking didn't last long. His body from the shoulders down quickly left him. The numbness slowly inched up his neck toward his brain. The purple faded into darkness.

Soon the water level in the shop reached the top of the access door and he immediately began moving upward, faster and faster until it seemed he was rocketing through the darkness at the speed of light. And indeed, soon stars appeared in the distance. W hen his head became accustomed to the Great Vacuum, he began to notice other wonders: comets shooting before him, great ringed planets and multi-colored moons.

But even these celestial objects eventually disappeared as he neared the edges of the universe. Only a solitary light remained. The light was his destination. As it grew larger and brighter he could feel its warmth, and in its warmth he detected a love as he had never known.

The Great Journey soon would end. Evidently his Struggle had absolved his Great Sin. The gods were indeed a forgiving lot.

It was then that he heard a wondrous heavenly buzz and the voices of his angelic host. The head of one of the holy ones appeared in the midst of the light. "I see something," shouted the cherubim. "Look out!"

Suddenly Roger Harmon was spit from the darkness and into the blinding light, landing at the feet of the citizens of the Sacrosanct Domain. Two of the wingless beings pulled his limp body away from the spurting hole and dragged him aside.

Even brighter lights flashed all about like stars exploding. "Are you hurt, Mr. Harmon?" Flash. "Can you understand us?" Flash. Flash. "Do you know you're the only survivor, Mr. Harmon?" Flash. My God, he thought. These angels have cameras.

The encirclement tightened around him. The more boisterous of the beings came up to within inches of his face and snapped the picture that would appear in nearly every newspaper in the land, along with the perplexing caption that was the first utterance of Roger Harmon at the moment of realization.

"I guess I didn't make it," he said.