He spent weeks in the shadows, running from the enemies who had finally caught up with him. He begged his confederates for help, only to be turned away. At last, the pursuers cornered him in the basement of an abandoned building. There was a muzzle flash and a deafening report.
Some time later, he awakes. He is in the same moldering basement. It’s pitch black. He can’t see anything. He stumbles around in the dark, tripping over broken pipes and chunks of concrete.
He finds the stairwell and ascends to the ground floor. But something is wrong. It’s another basement, windowless and lightless. Instead of an empty room, it’s a labyrinth of stone walls.
He hears the sound of breathing. Then the sound of footsteps. Then a voice. “You didn’t think you’d run into me again, did you?”
He knows that voice. It’s the clerk of a store he frequented as a kid, until his petty shoplifting graduated to armed robbery. It was his first murder. But it wasn’t his last.
Hands reach out of the dark and fasten around his neck. They are cold, dead, but inhumanly strong. He tries to pry the hands loose, but his air has been cut off. He blacks out. He wakes up, and realizes that he’s back where he started.
This time, he finds a metal pipe and fights off the attacker. He ascends the stair to the next level. It’s another basement and another labyrinth, inhabited by the vengeful revenant of the second person he ever murdered. This one was a colleague, a fellow thug, knifed in the heat of an argument.
There were many of them over the years, too many to count. He knows it’s well over two hundred, either by his own hand, or by his orders. He had a long and prolific career.
As he ascends through the levels, it becomes increasingly difficult to fight off or evade the attackers. But he has plenty of time to learn.
If he stays too long in one spot, the revenants will come to find him. There is no rest, no peace, no light.
Every eight levels, he is consumed by a raging hunger. It must be satisfied, or his movements will slow and finally stop. He forces himself to chew the decaying flesh, forces his stomach to keep it down, until only the bones are left. It never gets any easier.
Gradually, he comes to realize that he’s in Hell. He accepts this fact with resignation. Every action that brought him to this place was foredoomed by an uncaring universe. So he was taught, as he grew from a remorseless child into a brutal man. Religion was something you put around your neck to ward off bullets. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.
On rare occasions, a distant voice speaks to him. It’s being conducted by the pipes, possibly from another building entirely. There are two hundred and fifty-six levels, says the voice.
The labyrinth has an end. It doesn’t go on forever. There is a way out. That’s what he tells himself, as he ascends the levels, over and over.
When the levels reach triple digits, they become fiendishly difficult. The attackers become faster and more vicious. It takes hundreds of attempts, starting at the bottom each time, to master each new level.
By the time he reaches the two hundredth level, he has been in this place for centuries. His brief time on Earth is just a memory. In time, even the memory fades. There is only the labyrinth; there was never anything else. But the voice is there to remind him. There are two hundred and fifty-six levels.
On level 228, he thinks he catches a glimmer of light, coming from somewhere far above him. On each new level, the light grows stronger. His eyes, disused for centuries, begin to pick out shadows, then objects, then colors.
There is something wrong with the structure of reality on the upper levels. Sometimes, the attackers are frozen, and the walls move and pulsate. There are gaps in the walls and floor. When he crosses the gaps, parts of his body flicker out of existence and back again. He can see his bones, outlined in traceries of green light. Even his senses are fractured. His eyes tell him one thing, while his hands tell him something else. The sequence of actions needed to reach the stairwell becomes increasingly random.
There comes a day when he acends the stair to the final level. He has been in this place for thousands of years. He has forgotten his own name.
There is a vast and howling wind, and the cold light of distant stars. The labyrinth leaps across impossible dimensions. The walls are half-complete, and the gaps are filled with cryptic symbols. The revenants merge and separate, circling around each other in an endless dance.
He takes a step, then another. He pauses between each step, while the light flays him with the taste of iron, and the square root of 256 screams its hatred of the number four. A stairway hangs in the sky at an impossible angle. With each step, it flickers out and reappears at a different location.
The revenants seem unaware of his presence, spellbound in their whirling dance. He has all the time in the world. He studies the pattern of the labyrinth, being careful to avoid the gaps where equations glow in neon colors. By trial and error, he maps out the path to the shifting stairway. It takes all his powers of memory and visualization.
The stair looms closer, beckoning him upward. He turns left at the acrid stench of sub-millimeter wavelengths, upward at the sound of molecular bonds whispering in a dead language, and across strange angles that double back on themselves. He reaches the final section of the labyrinth. It is blocked by a stone wall, but he knows it isn’t really there. He steps through it.
Something is wrong. He isn’t moving forward. He tries to move left, right, backward. He cannot.
With mounting terror, he realizes that he is trapped inside the wall. His muscles no longer obey his commands. He is immobilized, but conscious. His eyes remain fixed on the stair that he will never reach. In the periphery of his vision, the revenants continue their whirling dance, and the numbers stream across the void in underwater shades of neon.
Whoever built this place left the final level unfinished. He was never intended to reach it. But he was driven onward by his determination, his monomania, and his utter incapacity for any thought but kill or be killed.
His thoughts settle into an infinite loop, as the stars unwind like clockwork in a pattern that repeats every two hundred and fifty-six billion years.