fiction: the halls

This week I am tired and not in a writing mood, so here’s a story I was messing around with earlier this year.

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The man paused and thought to take stock. His body believed it was night; the gloom of reader’s lamps and puffs of light smoke pushed out by wheezing cogs refused identification, but his body believed it was night. He tugged at a chair, sending angry dust sprites skittering up thick data cables and into the vaulted beyond. The chair, matched with its writer/recorder’s desk, was a calming paraclete grey. Together the pair were identical to every other chair and desk lining the kilometer-long hall, except for one of them now having been pulled out at an angle. The man flopped down and started to unlace his boots. They hurt, and he needed to air them. Four hundred desks from door to door, one point five meters long, one meter space between each. From the center aisle, twenty or thirty rows fanned out on either side. Once stuffed full of the insane rattle of typewriters, twenty thousand sets of chattering teeth – a writer/recorder stationed at every desk, pattering away – and hundreds or even thousands of halls stretched across the continent like limbs on a rack. Now silent, old. Dark. A hundred and fifty desks deep. If he had to run, he’d turn back. Two fifty, three seventy five meters. Sprinting distance. The adrenaline would be good for two, maybe three halls if it came down to it. Anything willing to venture that far outside its territory almost deserved to eat him – or wire him into the system, or dismember him for parts for some long-forgotten maintenance subroutine, or whatever else it was inclined to.

The first shoe came off. Dust tickled at his ears, the vengeful sprites feeding him misinformation – faint, gleeful giggling, the blast of a foghorn on a boat. He almost smiled. No boats any more. No more water. Not like that. A sheaf of blank paper fell off his table with a thud. He inhaled (more dust), and left off his other shoe to turn his attention to the remaining papers in front of him. The first few pages were just numbers, no context. They made him think of the binary musicals that had been popular for a time, although as he thumbed through the numbers rose into something resembling base twelve. Could be anything, really. He would have to go back through the workstation’s records to find the initial burst of data for this packet. There he’d find author, year, context of creation, and maybe he could start to figure out what this particular hall had been recording. He could do it, but it wouldn’t do him any good. He turned back to his shoe. Air, rest, and then on.

A particularly pert blast of noise woke him from his nap. Some piece of gunmetal-clad machinery hanging above a station a couple rows down was finally giving up the ghost. Jets of black ink were interspersed with demanding clangs as some displaced internal piston railed against the protective shell. ‘Hello,’ said a sweet voice over his shoulder. The man screamed, loud and high. A gleeful giggle returned – one he’d heard before. His brain started pounding against his skull, bouncing off the interiors like that blasted piston. He wasn’t yet dead. That was either good, or very not good. He turned, slowly and calmly. A round-faced doll-like creature was slung from the servers above. It had wide blue eyes and smiled cherubically at him. ‘You were asleep,’ it said. ‘That’s correct,’ the man averred, mindful to respect its train of thought. It was maybe two or three times his size, sheathed in something that could be skin, or that could be a sort of plastic polymer. Originally some shade of white, it had yellowed dramatically. The man imagined he could see short, stubby black hairs poking out at regular intervals along its length. Data ports? The doll stared at him. The man waited, forcing his breathing back into a regular pattern. Shoes. ‘Now you are awake,’ the doll finally managed. The man nodded. ‘Right again.’ He waited some more, but nothing else seemed to be forthcoming. He’d have to risk it. ‘Do you know any more facts?’ he asked. ‘Plenty!’ burbled the doll, bouncing happily in place. The man pointed to the desk he’d been sitting at. ‘Do you know where this came from?’ he asked. ‘One of the later works of Gustav Nilsson,’ recited the doll, going slightly wall-eyed. ‘Best known for his innovations in merging colour fields and binary opera, this later piece, written for piano, expressed mathematical concepts relating to wave frequencies.’ The man slipped his feet into his boots under the desk. The doll’s bristles shifted slightly, and the doll refocused its gaze on him. ‘Do you know if any of the other workstations were dealing with Nilsson?’ he asked. He lifted his knees up to his chest and started tying his laces. The doll’s smile shrank a couple of molars. The man’s pulse quickened, but he kept his calm facade. ‘I don’t know what the others are doing,’ the doll admitted. ‘That makes me sad.’ It looked up towards the dark cavernous arches, and then flicked back to the man. Its smile grew again. ‘My insides are on the outside,’ it said, giggling. Huge wings, veined like lungs, flared briefly in the darkness.

The man grabbed his pack, exploded out of his seat and back down the hall. The doll was faster, circling through into his path. Its bristles were feeding out of its body like paper from a fax machine, becoming long, vicious needles. It screamed, a carbon copy capture of the man’s own. Without pause, the man spun on his heel and sprinted further into the hall, further into the murk, grimly certain that he wouldn’t make the door before the creature caught him. Another scream, right in his ear – the man fell forwards, and above his head he heard a thunk and a gurgling sound. He looked up, and saw the doll straining to reach him, eyes bulging, bristles still spilling forth at an alarming rate. It had reached the end of its runner. Whatever it was attached to, up above, had limited its movement to a radius of a few dozen desks. The man took a deep breath and rolled to his feet. The bristles were still making progress, so he didn’t linger: he took to a light jog down the hall, heading for the door. He was right about the musicals, he mused. Nilsson. Not a name he was familiar with. The knowledge wasn’t any use to anyone these days, but he felt a flicker of pride that he’d been able to place it. He soon reached the door at the end of the hall, where he paused to tie his laces properly before proceeding into the next.

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