Tarl Kudrick is the founder, co-publisher, and chief editor of On The Premises magazine. He has had about a dozen short stories published in various markets, including professional rate markets, and has had two stories accepted for publication by markets that went under before the stories could be printed. He isn’t writing much anymore, but he might start again at some point.
[Editor’s note: This story was originally sold to and published in Chiaroscuro magazine, also known as Chizine. Chizine doesn’t publish short stories anymore, and almost none of the short stories it did publish can be found on the web. Tarl didn’t want this story to vanish from the world, and it fits the “darkness” premise quite well, so he put it here.]
In Case of Doubt
by Tarl Kudrick
The smell of eggs, toasted flatbread, and ham woke the man, and his first thought upon waking was that he could no longer remember his name.
He’d fallen asleep fully clothed, in a brown suit and tie, in a hard wooden chair behind a large wooden desk in a room he somehow knew was exactly eighteen by twenty feet. The room had steel walls, a concrete ceiling and floor, and no windows. He couldn’t remember how old he was, where he’d been born, where he was now, or why he was there. As he looked around, his eyes settled on a glass panel embedded in the steel wall to the right of the desk, not far from a toilet and circular shower stall. Behind the glass panel, a gold-colored computer disc sat on a plastic stand. Above the glass, a wooden sign with white, hand-painted letters hung from two iron hooks soldered into the wall. The sign said: IN CASE OF DOUBT BREAK GLASS. Below the sign, a small hammer lay across two more hooks.
The man stood in front of the glass panel, which shined in the light of the three two-hundred-watt bulbs screwed into sockets bolted to the ceiling. The man scratched his neck. He should have been far more frightened than he was, waking in a place so strange and unfamiliar. Except it wasn’t unfamiliar. He knew the toilet wouldn’t flush unless you reached into the septic tank and pulled the flush valve directly because the chain connecting the flush valve to the handle kept falling off. He knew the shower’s hot water knob couldn’t be turned too far or it would stick. Without looking, he knew that along with his breakfast, there would be a large white pill and a tall glass of water. He looked, and was both gratified and disturbed to be right.
He returned to his desk and searched for memories within his thick, foggy mind. He ate the egg and nibbled the ham. The desktop was empty save for breakfast, the pill, a telephone, and a laptop computer. The telephone had a wire that came out of its back and snaked down through a thin hole in the desk. So did the laptop.
The phone rang with an old-fashioned br-rr-rr-ring sound. The man wondered how he knew that sound was old-fashioned. The phone’s two large pieces, a receiver and a base, were connected by a curly black cord. Hadn’t phones once been so small they could fit in a pocket?
He answered the phone. A mechanical voice said, “Goat. Yellow. Pittsburgh. I don’t like milk.”
He slapped the space bar on the laptop’s keyboard. A white cursor appeared on its screen. He typed in what the mechanical voice had said and pressed “enter.” Something whirred. The words 315 Market Street no yes bring a gun appeared. Acting on instinct, he spoke those words into the phone and hung up.
The man had no idea what time it was. Hadn’t computers once had clocks in them? The laptop didn’t. It did, however, have a thin slit in the right-hand side with a button next to it. He pushed the button and a gold-colored computer disc slid out. He knew the desk’s large drawer contained such discs, all in transparent plastic cases. He opened the drawer and counted forty cases, thirty-nine with discs in them.
The computer sat, quiet and still. The man sat, just as quiet, but no longer still. He tapped the desk with his fingers to fight the room’s silence. He stared at the glass panel and at the translucent reflection of his face. He looked about fifty. He thought about the large white pill still sitting on the tarnished, dull silver tray, next to the plate of eggs, toasted flatbread, and ham.
He flushed the pill down the toilet, walked over to the glass panel, smashed it with the hammer, and fed the IN CASE OF DOUBT disc into the laptop.
A recorded image of a man who looked almost exactly like him appeared. This man was a bit younger, less bald, and scowling. “So,” this man said. “You want answers, right?”
The man who couldn’t remember his life leaned closer.
“You don’t want answers. I’m quoting you—me—when I say, ‘Answers don’t answer anything.’ You have no idea how lucky you are. So quit whining and do your damn job.”
The man’s stomach tightened.
“Oh, and those white pills?” the recorded version of him said. “You’d better not be flushing them down the toilet again. They’re keeping you alive, dumbass. Which reminds me. Breaking that panel triggered a sensor. Someone’s going to bring you a drink soon. It’ll smell like a piss milkshake and taste worse. Drink it.”
The man said, “But—”
“No buts! You begged for a way to redeem yourself. Now you’ve got it, you lucky son of a bitch.”
The screen blanked. The man who suddenly remembered he was forty-eight years old shook so hard he had to grip the sides of his chair.
He looked around the room. A curved, brass handle he hadn’t noticed before stuck out from the farthest wall.
He crossed the room. The handle felt cold and solid. He turned it. With a click, a portion of the steel wall slid open like half of an elevator door.
The man looked into a hallway lit by one weak bulb. The hallway stretched farther than the light.
He entered it, feeling his way as he left the light behind. The hallway turned, then turned again. Now total darkness surrounded him. A few slow, careful steps later, he felt another steel wall in front of him. He felt for, found, and twisted another handle. The wall opened.
He stepped into a room a hundred times larger than the one he’d come from. This room was lit by bulbs scattered across the ceiling like stars. Vast sections of the room were dark. He couldn’t see any more door handles in the steel walls.
A woman asked, “Did you deliver his breakfast?”
The man turned. A woman sat at an old wooden desk with a large black phone and a laptop. She wore a gray dress as plain as the walls. Stringy, possibly unwashed hair hung stiffly from her head. Her dull eyes stared.
“Yes,” the man said, to see what would happen.
“Good. There’s been an alarm.” She headed straight for him. He backed up instinctively. Her low heels clopped unevenly as she walked, and she bumped into him as if drunk. Moments later, she said, “Excuse me.”
He followed her into a dark area. He heard a click. Another hallway appeared. She stepped into it and he slipped through the door just before it closed.
This hallway was also lit by one bulb that didn’t reach far enough. He walked behind her and was soon in such utter blackness that he reached for, and grasped, the woman’s shoulder so he wouldn’t lose her. She didn’t react to his grip.
He tried to map, in his mind, how far they went in every direction and how often they turned, but the unlit maze defeated his soft, slow mind. Twice, he asked her name and got no answer. Finally she stopped and opened another door.
The room they entered was small and so alive with electric light, he winced. It had a table, two chairs, four cabinets, a wooden counter with a marble top, and a cast iron stove whose stovepipe went right into the concrete ceiling. A pale young kid, maybe seventeen, was feeding wood into a brick oven embedded in the steel wall next to the stove.
“Hi, Darrell,” the woman said.
The kid nodded. “Eliza.”
The man took his hand off Eliza’s shoulder and stared at the brick oven. He’d seen ovens like it in restaurants, a long time ago. The memory of restaurants thrilled him.
Eliza said, “Excuse me,” and headed for a wooden door in the opposite wall. She opened it and stepped into a pantry. She shuffled cans on a shelf.
Darrell slid closer to the man and whispered, “I heard Jeremy didn’t really die.”
Darrell lowered his voice even more. “I heard he went to the other side. I always thought he was a traitor.” Then he looked at the man harder. “Wait. Are you a spy?”
The man had no idea.
Darrell grabbed his arm. “Eliza, I’ve caught a spy!”
She came out of the pantry with a can of diced tomatoes. “He’s with me, Darrell. He’s one of us.”
“But I’ve never seen him before!”
“He delivered Dr. Nivek’s breakfast.” She stared at Darrell for a while, then turned and bumped into the stove. She went back into the pantry, then said, “Excuse me.”
Nivek, the man thought. He knew that name.
A faint whistling caught his attention. He looked up and saw a hairline-thin rectangle in the ceiling. “Is that a door?”
Darrell lit a fire in the stove. “Sure. The farm’s up there.”
“Sure. Where the eggs come from?” Darrell drew in a shocked breath and raced into the pantry. “Eliza, I think that guy’s a spy.”
“He’s not a spy,” Eliza said.
“Oh.” Darrell came out again.
Eliza exited the pantry with the same can of tomatoes she’d held before. “Please excuse him.” She pointed to her own head. “He was wounded.”
“I’m lucky to be alive,” Darrell said.
The man who was beginning to think his name was Nivek nodded. “I’d like to see the farm.”
“You can’t,” Eliza said. “That door only opens from the outside.” The tomato can slipped from her hand and banged against the concrete floor. She bent down, picked it up, and said, “Excuse me.” She gave the can to Darrell and re-entered the dark hallway.
The man knew he’d never find his way without her. “Eliza, wait!”
The darkness absorbed her. From some distance he heard, “Excuse me.”
The man gripped what was left of his hair in frustration. “Darrell, do you know how to get back to that big room?”
“Which big room?”
“How many…” No, that could wait. “Eliza’s. Where she sits at her desk.”
Darrell remained by the stove as if chained to it. “I have to stay here.”
The man looked at the door in the ceiling again. “Have you ever met Dr. Nivek?”
“Sure. Lots of times.”
Doubt filled the man again. Maybe he wasn’t Nivek. “Can you tell me about him?”
“Sure. I heard he built this place when the other side got everybody. This was his retreat, but he lets us stay because he’s really nice. Also, he needs our help.”
“Sure. He’s a lousy cook.” Darrell gave him that distrusting look again. “Are you some kind of spy?”
“I work for Dr. Nivek.”
Darrell nodded. “Well, go get Eliza, will you? I need more tomatoes.”
The man who thought he could easily still be Dr. Nivek stepped into the hallway. He remembered something called the “right-hand rule.” Any maze could be navigated by sticking close to the right-hand wall and following every turn it made. He put both his hands against that wall and sidestepped through the darkness.
He entered an area that smelled like decaying corpses. He pressed himself against the wall and stepped away from it one slow, sideways step at a time.
Two turns and two long corridors later, he found a door handle. He opened the wall and entered a room diffused with a different kind of light—light not from bulbs, but windows.
The room was about the size of a standard corporate office. He no longer wondered how he knew what that was. Windows in the wall opposite him were higher than usual; he could have rested his chin on the windowsills. The windows were dirty and scratched on the outside, at least two feet thick, and were sunk directly into the steel walls. Through them he saw dense mist up close, and mountains far away.
Wherever he was, he was high up. He might have been looking out the side of a mountain.
The room’s only other distinctive feature was a seven-story bookcase. Each shelf held at least two hundred computer discs, each in a thin, transparent case. The cases had deep notches carved into their hinged side. He ran his fingers over the notches. They felt familiar.
He heard a phone ring. The room had no phone. He could just barely hear someone talking.
A few moments later the wall between the windows and the bookshelf slid apart. A black man wearing a blue suit, white shirt, and blue tie stepped forward. Behind the black man was a desk with a telephone and a laptop computer. A red and gold rug lay in front of the desk.
The black man smiled at him. “That didn’t take long.”
The door to the dark hallway opened again and Eliza stepped through. “Wallace,” she said to the black man, “Dr. Nivek isn’t in his room. He ate his breakfast but—”
“I’m aware of the situation,” Wallace told her. His voice was as soft as a pillow. “Everything is under control.”
Embarrassment flickered in Eliza’s flat face. She retreated into the hallway. She said “Excuse me” from a distance down the corridor.
The man who thought he could still be Nivek stared into Wallace’s accepting eyes. “Look. I left myself a message saying I didn’t want answers, but I do. Everybody here seems to have some kind of—I don’t know, mental problem or something, and—”
“Really?” Wallace asked.
Was Wallace taking him seriously? “Yes, and all this business about the farm, and what’s outside, and—”
“You can see what’s outside.” Wallace gestured to the windows.
“I don’t see much out there.”
“There’s very little left to see. I can show you more, if you want—”
“—but I have work to do first. I have a very important message to deliver. It’s vital to our survival.”
Wallace went to the bookcase, studied it carefully, and pulled out four cases, each from a different shelf. Then he went back to his office.
The man followed. Wallace slid one of the computer discs into his laptop. Some kind of list appeared on the screen—titles, it seemed like. “Disc B-166, eleventh book, fiftieth page, fortieth word,” Wallace said, navigating through the menu of titles, then through the pages of a scanned book that filled the screen. Wallace counted the words on page 50. “Lighthouse,” he said. He ejected that disc and put the next one in.
The man looked around Wallace’s office. Like him, Wallace had a toilet, shower, a closet, and a clothing rack full of suits. Dark blue suits.
“Splendid,” Wallace said as he ejected the second disc.
“Why, the eighth word on page 102 of book five on disc A-16.”
The man nodded and stared at the windows in the other room. “Wallace, where do you get your instructions about what words to look up?”
“Why, over the phone, of course.”
“Do you know who calls you?”
“No, and it’s best that I don’t.” He tapped keys and the pages of another scanned book spun by. “Anyone who captures me will learn nothing useful.” A few moments passed, then Wallace said, “I have faith in the plan.”
Wallace chuckled. “That’s the fifteenth sentence on—”
“I get it.” Irritated, he jammed his hands into his pockets.
Wallace put in one more disk, said “elephant,” then put the last disc back in its case. “I don’t wish to be rude, but I must deliver this message. Our side is depending on it, you know. I’ll be back in a few minutes. Please wait here.” He walked through the room with the windows and entered the dark hallway.
The man looked at Wallace’s desk. It had only one drawer. He opened it and found a large yellow envelope with “To banish doubt” written on it in red marker.
He pulled a gold disc out of that envelope and put it in Wallace’s computer. A recorded image of Wallace, perhaps four or five years younger and with brighter eyes, appeared. “I see the bad thoughts have returned,” the recording said. “My friend, you simply must trust yourself—you are performing a great service that will save all who remain from a terrible enemy. If I say more, both you and your vital mission will be endangered. But look behind me. Do you see anyone holding a gun to my head? Do I seem brainwashed? I record this of my own free will because I know that I… you… will occasionally succumb to weakness.” The recorded Wallace sighed and spoke as if pleading. “Dr. Nivek says people cannot be happy unless their lives have purpose. You have a purpose, Wallace Hundy. When the phone rings, answer it, and look up the right words. You know how. You put the notches in the cases. The future of humanity depends on you.”
The man gripped the desk as his legs weakened. He remembered a video camera in a small room somewhere, and a line of people waiting to use it. He remembered standing in that line.
“And the white pills,” the recorded Wallace added. “There is a terrible sickness in the air. You must swallow a white pill every day, or you will die, and your mission will fail.” The recorded smile was brighter than the computer screen. “Someone will bring you a thick yellow drink soon. It will be truly distasteful, but drink it anyway. It will give you the strength your mission requires.”
After a few moments in which the world seemed utterly empty and he could not feel himself breathe, the man put Wallace’s disc back into its envelope and the envelope back into the drawer.
He walked over to the bookshelf of discs. The feeling that something had gone disastrously wrong would not leave him. The messages. The phone calls. Who was sending Wallace orders? When he relayed his own messages, who was listening?
Someone had put him here, drugged him, and made him work the phones. He remembered a group of them, maybe ten in all, walking through the underground bunkers. He remembered more than one bunker. He remembered having a choice, once.
He needed to contact the outside world. The messages he received and gave made no sense to him, but someone—someone outside this place—understood them. He wondered what would happen if the messages stopped making sense, even to whoever needed them.
He pulled a disc case off the shelf. The disc itself had no markings on it. He put it back and examined another. It was the same. There was no way to tell the discs apart by looking at them, just at their cases. Relying on the cases alone was a foolish indexing system, but maybe there hadn’t been time for anything better. And it gave him the perfect way to catch the attention of whoever eventually got all their messages.
He grabbed cases at random and switched their discs without changing the cases’ layout. Wallace’s next message wouldn’t just sound like nonsense, it would be nonsense. Whoever received such a message would have no choice but to come out here and see what was going on. Grinning, the man swapped disc after disc.
He’d mixed up over a hundred of them before hearing footsteps in the hall. He slapped two final cases shut, put them back, and stepped away from the bookshelf.
Wallace came in, carrying a glass of yellow, milky liquid. “This will calm your soul and energize your mind.”
The man took the glass. “I’ll drink this if you answer some questions. I suspect you’ve been given this liquid, too. Who gave it to you?”
Wallace tilted his head. “Maybe someone did. I recall the smell… but it was a long time ago, I think.” His plastic smile returned. “I don’t remember.”
The man steadied himself. “Wallace, am I Dr. Nivek?”
Wallace’s surprise sank his heart. “Of course not!” Wallace looked down the dark hallway behind him, then lowered his voice. “Eliza is Dr. Nivek. Please don’t tell her. She’s confused enough already. She’s been… injured.”
The man who once again knew nothing about his life felt the glass in his hand grow heavy and cold. The phone in Wallace’s office rang its old-fashioned ring. Wallace walked towards it.
“Wait!” He grabbed Wallace’s wrist. “The other side. Who are we fighting?”
Wallace yanked his wrist away, ran to his desk, answered the phone, listened, wrote notes on a small pad, then hung up.
Wallace’s voice was tense. “Never interrupt my work again. It’s vital.” He went to the bookshelf and selected four cases.
Wallace relaxed and held the four cases to his chest. “We fight madness, my friend. Humanity is fighting to remain on the correct side of sanity. Drink your medicine.”
Wallace went back into his office and shut the door.
The man turned back to the thick, long windows. Sunlight had burned away the fog outside. He stared down into an open, desolate valley that looked as if steamrollers had crushed everything in it. Tiny, unmoving dots spilled over the land. They might have been tree trunks. He might have been looking at a felled forest.
Something was moving down there. Two vague masses on the ground.
He thought he heard a shrieking wind.
The two vague shapes crashed into each other and scattered into pieces, like debris from an explosion. They seemed smaller than insects, and that was what made him realize he was looking at people, two mobs of people, slicing into each other. By the dozens, the little pieces stopped moving. The vague shapes thrashed and wobbled, then—little by little—settled.
Now the landscape had even more of those tiny, unmoving dots that were not tree stumps after all.
The man heard giggling from the other side of Wallace’s door.
The man who knew almost nothing felt condensation form on the glass in his hand. He had another memory, a faint one, of previously ransacking the bookshelf behind him, switching dozens of discs around just like he’d done a few minutes ago. He remembered a time before that when he’d switched every single one. Always hoping to get someone’s attention. To make someone come and fix things.
He wondered how much pain he felt when no one ever came.
The glass pressed against his lips. The yellow liquid touched his tongue. He stared out the window, at all those little dots. The liquid smelled like a piss milkshake and tasted worse. He drank every drop.
Copyright 2012, 2016 by Tarl Kudrick