This week Chuck Wendig gave us a Flash Fiction Challenge composed of five AI produced images with a theme of “doorways.” I put a picture of all five of them up and let it simmer. This afternoon during a Zoom call, my muse politely gave me the scene and the story. Despite being exhausted and my first thought being that there was no way I had the energy or time to write this tonight, adrenaline and the first paragraph kicked in, the muse went to the whip (“Hurt me, hurt me, make me write bad fiction!”) and it’s at least presentable.
The biggest problem from that point on is that she kept spewing details while I was typing. Not so much of a “1,000 word short story” as “the opening scene of the opening chapter of a 120,000 word novel that’s the first of a series,” from here I can see who’s doing what, what the questions are, who the other folks are, the quest to figure out what’s happened, the big “why” it’s happened, who caused it, their motivation and desparation, the fight to overthrow the powers that be, the big decision at the end questioning everything that we know so far…
Somehow I figured out a way to stick an actual ending that I like onto this scene and wrestle it into a somewhat story-shaped entity. Maybe later it can be the next great science fiction series of our time. For now, here’s my picture and slightly bloated story. I hope it leaves you wanting to know more.
What did they teach us the first day of journalism school? The five Ws. Every story has to answer all five in order to be complete. It’s drilled into you from Day One.
Then the Universe does a hard right turn into “WTF just happened?” and you can’t answer a single one. You just hope to survive. I don’t know how many people couldn’t, didn’t, or just weren’t quick enough on their feet to even try.
The Door in front of me this time is already partially open, carved wooden panels on either side cracked apart, folding in the middle like an accordion. Through the crack I could see nothing but a black void, as always. A white mist was seeping around the edge, a streamer of fog falling down from the arch overhead. No sound or smell came from beyond that portal, although I could hear my heartbeat pounding in my ears and smell my sudden sweat despite the cold.
Let’s hope there was someplace to take a shower on the other side.
Without any other options and the air getting stale, I pushed the door panels aside and stepped through.
I came out in a hallway, cramped and filled with boxes, some on wooden shelving, some just stacked floor to ceiling. It was hot, steamy, and muggy so I immediately took off the coat I had been wearing. It looked like I wasn’t going to be needing it any time soon, but I sure wasn’t giving it up either. As of about two seconds ago it was all I had in the world.
To my right came the sounds of activity, voices and clattering, metallic. A kitchen, perhaps? I went to the left instead where there was a bit more light, emerging into what was obviously a restaurant. To get my bearings I stepped to the side, my back against the wall.
The Five Ws. Where was I? When was it? What was going on? Who had summoned me? Not an answer in sight and I knew how dangerous it could be to not have answers ASAP to at least those four questions. As for the fifth question, “WHY does this keep happening?” I knew better than to start screaming that one out loud. I didn’t have the time or energy to face those consequences a second time.
Standing quietly and listening, I could hear several voices, but I didn’t yet recognize the language. The room was filled with booths along the walls and open tables in the middle, maybe a dozen people in sight. All appeared human. In the oppressive heat, most were wearing robes of some sort. The light in the room came from the bright sun outside but I could see some fixtures hanging down from the ceiling that might be electric. Or not. Fans turned slowly under the ceiling, moving the air a bit, each powered by a belt attached to the next, the final belt heading outside. No help there in judging the local technological level.
Looking out through the open windows I could see a town plaza in front and a narrow alley running along the side of the building. A few folks walked along, mostly slowly, but given the heat that wasn’t surprising. No sign of any cars or trucks, not even a bicycle, but no grazing sheep or other livestock either. That was promising.
I breathed in deeply, listening to the voices in the room. Slowly, their conversation started to make sense. Bit by bit I began to understand, the lettering on a menu board suddenly snapping into focus in my brain. I could read and understand the local language now.
How? Well, that was the sixth W, wasn’t it? I didn’t have an answer to that either.
There was the ultimate “W.” It simply Was.
I headed for the door, hoping that no one would stop me to pay the bill for a meal I hadn’t eaten or start to ask embarrassing questions about my attire. The first fifteen minutes were always the most exciting.
“Hey, stranger. Over here, please.”
From experience my feet knew to keep walking and not look toward the speaker. Act like I hadn’t heard. Pretend I wasn’t paying attention. Maybe I was wearing headphones. Maybe I was deaf. Maybe I could make it to the door. Be quick, but don’t hurry as Coach used to say.
“Okay, but you’ll regret it.”
Wait, that was English!
I might not have left skid marks on the floor, but I did stop and turn. In a booth along the wall with a view out onto the alley sat a woman in a light blue robe. She was smiling, and as I turned, she gestured to the chair opposite her. I hesitated and looked back to the door, judging the distance to escape, while she calmly picked up a pitcher on the table and filled an empty mug. Setting the pitcher back down, she gestured again at the chair.
It had been more than ten extremely hectic, chaotic, and guanopsychotic years since I had heard a word of English. Almost endless days of confusion and danger, lost, adrift, cut off from my past, and not sure of my sanity from one day to the next. Years since I had been taken, kidnapped, from my comfortable life and firm grip on reality, forced through Door after Door, clueless, just trying to survive on the other side of each one, waiting to be trapped again sooner or later with no way out but to open the Door in front of me.
Where would I end up on the other side? No way of knowing except to step through.
What was the purpose or meaning to any of it? No clues had ever been given, no pattern or plan to be deduced.
When was it ever going to end? That one I thought about a lot, without any data to go on. Would I end up back at home and then stay there? Would I just someday find myself to be old and simply to have never been trapped by another Door, having spent the rest of my life in whatever world I happened to have been in at that moment? Or would one of these Doors just lead me to oblivion or a quick death on the other side? Had I merely been lucky so far and one day my luck would run out?
Who had done this to me? Was it bigger than me? Was I the only one or were there others? Dozens? Thousands? Millions? Did this happen to everyone back on Earth and scatter us throughout some unimaginably huge and bizarre multiverse?
From all of these thoughts came madness. I had learned over that surreal ten years to not think, not questions just keep going and survive. Rather than figure it out, it was far easier to just assume that I had gone insane and all of this was just a psychotic delusion in my rotting and defective brain as I lay strapped into a straightjacket in a rubber room in Poughkeepsie.
“So many questions, I’m sure. I have answers,” she said, rudely interrupting my nervous breakdown.
She still had her arm out, offering the empty chair and full mug to me. Her eyes were locked on me, but there was no madness or threat in them.
Like a drowning man desperate for a life preserver, I walked over and sat down with her.