Shadows deepened as the fluorescent lights began to flicker on around the university campus, and the warmer lights shown down from the dormitory windows above. A soft November rain began to fall as students and visitors headed indoors. A lone campus security guard walked briskly down the sidewalk, jingling keys and a heavy flashlight hanging from his belt and a radio gripped in his hand. Suddenly, a young man raced by, nearly knocking the guard off his feet. The runner barely paused, then bolted towards the eastern edge of the university campus. Before the guard could make pursuit, he tripped over a hidden sprinkler head. The young man was already fading into the dusk. The radio lay shattered and quiet along the path. David Lightholler ran like he had never run before. She was his first love, and now she was utterly gone. He put out a burst of speed, but slid on some moss and nearly lost his balance. Her blond locks of hair on porcelain skin were like a raging fire in his mind that refused to be extinguished. He raced across Nickerson, almost hoping to be struck and killed by a speeding truck. Unfortunately, traffic was light. Only one Honda’s brakes squealed, and he barely noticed the blaring horn and the driver’s gestures. The math and science building lay just ahead. Why did Laura do it? Why did she take those pills, and why did it take all day for her parents to call him—like his feelings didn’t matter? He would never stroke her hair or kiss those warm lips again, and he could barely remember the scent of the sweet perfume she had worn on their last date to Golden Gardens. Her laugh, oh, how he ached for the sound of her laugh! David’s legs lost it, and he hit the pavement, nose striking the sidewalk. A rivulet of blood streamed out and mixed with a tear, as he stifled a sob. His head ached almost as badly as his heart. Someone was locking the doors to the science building up ahead. It was Dr. Jenkins, his astronomy professor. David fished a handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed at his bleeding nose as raced towards the double doors.“Dr. Jenkins!” David called, running towards the professor.“David!” Dr. Jenkins exclaimed. “You look awful, son. What happened to you?”“I had a bike accident by the canal,” David lied. “I just need to use the restroom and wash up, if you don’t mind.”“I’ll call Campus Security for you,” the professor offered as he withdrew his cell phone from his jacket pocket. “They’ll be here in no time.”“No, please don’t do that. I’ll be fine--really. Could I just borrow your keycard, and I’ll return it tomorrow in class? I already know the access code from the lab project.”Dr. Jenkins glanced uneasily at his watch before making a reply. “My wife wants to take the kids to a movie tonight, and I have to make it Mercer Island in half an hour. Make sure you lock up and arm the system before you leave. There may be one other faculty member still working.”“No problem,” David said. “And thank you.”“That’s fine. You might want the nurse to take a look at that gash on your forehead. It’s still bleeding. You may need stitches, you know.” With the front doors locked, he entered the welcoming darkness of the hallway. Under the green light of an exit sign above, he dropped to his knees on the carpet and buried his face in his cut hands. The sobs that racked his body had very little to do with his cuts and scrapes, but the pain began to dull slightly after crying there on the floor for some minutes. The clicking sound of a door closing somewhere caught his attention, and he leapt to his feet. He didn’t want anyone to catch him in this condition. It was bad enough that his roommate had an inkling of what was going on; no one else needed to know. He quietly climbed the stairs to the deserted second floor of the science building. As far as the exact reason for his visit, David wasn’t even sure himself. He often felt more at ease with math and science than he did with questioning people. It just seemed like the right place to be, a place where he could lose himself in the research and leave the people behind for a while. It was a retreat from reality, or depending upon your perspective, a return to reality. The current experiment was based upon the Bose-Einstein condensate, but David’s English major roommate just referred to it as the Absolute Zero Project. This inaccurate description somewhat annoyed David, but he admitted that it did sound a little better. It was sometimes a little unnerving to be working around some of the coldest particles in the galaxy, but it was exciting to be involved in cutting edge research all the same. From what David understood the last time he was in class, some elements of the experiment weren’t going quite as planned, but he was just intending a cursory examination as a lab assistant. He didn’t feel like doing anything more involved. It was comforting returning to a place where he could shut things out for a while. He didn’t even need to switch on any lights as he retraced familiar steps towards the lab. Withdrawing the keycard from his pocket, the door to lab 3A buzzed open. The main box-like apparatus containing the laser and the rest of the equipment was situated in the center of the reinforced table. An odd hissing noise immediately caught his attention, but the pipes running up from the table seemed to be in good condition. He noticed a nearly empty glass soda bottle sitting precariously on the table’s edge. It was an odd thing for someone to leave behind in this particular lab. As he studied it, the contents seemed to glow slightly. He rubbed his eyes and looked a second time, but the glowing was definitely there, and it was growing stronger. As his eyes adjusted to the low light of the lab, he noticed an area of blackness extending out like a pool from the machine towards the bottle. While David, an underclassman, didn’t understand precisely how everything worked with regards to the Absolute Zero Project, something was clearly going wrong. As he watched, the bottle was suddenly full to the brim of a pulsing fluorescent red liquid. Points of light, like stars, shone with a fierce brightness throughout, gliding this way and that within the confines of the glass. Bewildering lights and shadows played over the walls of the room. Strangely, the reddish light seemed to pass clean through some objects in the lab, but not others. David extended a shaking hand directly in front of one of the lights on the wall, but there was neither any shadow of a hand showing on the wall nor any faint light caught in his palm—only a sense of coldness. David was too mesmerized by the lights to even notice the strange scent of roses and pine emanating from the lit bottle. He stared transfixed at a single point of light while taking a tentative step towards where he thought the clipboard should be. He failed to notice the backpack left carelessly on the floor. He found himself falling straight towards the glass bottle. He stuck out his arm to brace himself, then realized that he was extending one hand towards the bottle and another into the blackness. Something was terribly wrong. In a flash of realization, David understood he was no longer in the lab at all. The familiar walls were replaced with an inky blackness, deeper than the darkest night he could imagine. There was a feeling of movement or falling, although it was hard to define the exact sensation at first. David stretched his arms out again, hoping to feel the walls or floor of the lab, but there was absolutely nothing there. He reached down in the dark to grope beneath his feet, but the floor was gone. The sensation of falling continued, but there was still nothing that could be seen. He tried scream, but no sound reached his ears. The sense of noiselessly rushing downward through the endless night continued. Nothing made any sense. With a start, David remembered his key chain. If he could find his keys, there was a small flashlight attached to the ring. As he brought his arms in towards his body, the speed of his plummeting fall seemed to increase slightly, and this feeling was combined with the sense of spinning as he shot downwards. He tried to ignore it as he began fumbling through his pockets with trembling hands. His groping fingers felt it, but the key ring was caught on a thread. He yanked it free, spilling change, a matchbook, and other pocket contents into the dark void around him. Where was the switch? The sense of rocketing downward was nearly overwhelming his senses as his fingers tried to activate the light. Then, with a noiseless click, the light was on, forcing the darkness to retreat a step. For a moment, it seemed to create a warm ball of comforting light around him. But the sense of warmth was lost when he caught sight of the swirling black wall through which he was falling. As the wall raced upwards on either side while he continued to spiral downwards, he glimpsed shapes and forms moving within the wall, or barrier. It reminded him of different shades of swirling smoke, except there was a sense within him that something very old and malevolent resided there, and that an unfathomable hatred existed just beyond the black veil. For a terrifying second, David thought he recognized a familiar face staring blankly from out of the darkness. The eyes were empty sockets. It looked like a mockery of Laura, a lifeless mask barely resembling her face; the spirit gone or hidden. For the second time, he screamed into the darkness. His light abruptly wavered, and it began to tip and fall over, like running water, as it raced downward, a waterfall of light. The width of the light stream grew narrower and narrower as the falling continued. Soon, it was a thin trickle of light rushing down like a shooting star. David felt pressure building and pushing him in from all sides. His mind began to go entirely blank. He almost welcomed it. Before he lost consciousness entirely, new and disturbing noises entered his mind. The last thought that slipped through his wavering mind was that ‘This place is called Fear.’ He continued to fall through the endless night. He jerked awake to find himself lying on his back on something soft and staring up at an empty sky, a void without visible stars, moon, or sun. He didn’t even notice the contents of his pockets strewn around him. As he turned on his side, knocking a tattered matchbook onto the ground, he gasped. The landscape about him resembled nothing like he had ever seen before. He lay on a spongy surface that reminded him of grass, but it was violet with swirling patterns of iridescent blue. In the distance, he saw towering monstrosities of outlandish colors—shaped like five-pointed stars. Whatever they were, the colors appeared the most vivid towards their tops and faded away as he gazed downwards. At least, that’s what David thought—until he stared harder. A chill went down his spine as he began to grasp his altitude. He carefully inched his way to the side of his bewildering mountaintop and peered over its precipitous edge. Even without anything on which to clearly gauge the height of his perch, the sense was that he was impossibly high. He could only barely make out a patchwork quilt of reds, greens, and blues far, far below. Then, David caught sight of movement atop one of the neighboring shapes. In frustration, he waved his arms in the air and let out an anguished scream. The shadow cruelly mimicked his movements. Somehow, the distant figure was his own reflection, or worse. He buried his face in the violet surface, and it took him. His consciousness seemed to drain away like blood flowing from a deep wound. He slipped into another place and somehow joined with all of the colors and shapes surrounding him. The brilliant colors and geometric patterns, like a sheen of oil atop a puddle, grew more intense as he slipped beneath their spell. Mental images of the world shot through his brain. He moved his fingers, and he felt the cold stillness of the sky. Bewildering alien landscapes passed in and out of view. Then, he recognized what the landscapes were: insane fractals. It was a world somehow constructed or rooted upon the fractal form. As he gazed through his mind’s eye, there was movement far off. The images changed to pictures of people—more like silhouettes at dusk than clear people, but he felt with certainty that they had been like him once. There was a mysterious quality of waiting about them, but he didn’t understand what precisely held their attention. David watched as they milled about and then disappeared into a bright mist. He could just catch the sound of a licking fire and questioning voices, but only a single word came to mind: purifying; none of it made any sense. Then, there was a gentle yet stern voice that simply said, “No!” The sound of that single voice echoed in his thoughts. As if caught up in a surging current, David felt himself pushed upwards towards the surface, and the disturbing images and sounds faded away. Once his eyes opened again, he could not contain his own panic. Flailing wildly, he tumbled over the edge of the alien peak. The shooting speed of his fall downward was incredible. Wind whistled in his ears as the swirling landscape below drew nearer and nearer. He screamed up into the darkness. An explosion of thunder suddenly reverberated all around him, making his ears ring and his head ache violently. His arms throbbed in pain. Without thinking, he drew them close to his sides. The speed of his fall should have increased, but, to his astonishment, his rate of descent slowed significantly. He tried bringing his legs tightly together next, and, again, the sensation of falling became much reduced. The fall began to resemble a dream that he recalled having as a child, or perhaps it was a dream of a dream. Something struck his face hard, then disappeared. He spit out a red fluorescent feather that tasted something like cinnamon and honey and tried to right himself in a position that was perpendicular to the ground below. He could make out figures on the surface now, their heads turned up to gaze at this peculiar shooting star. David brought his legs together again and pointed his toes downward—as if he were trying a new high diving technique. The fall slowed to a crawl, and he alighted gently on the glassy blue surface. As his tattered shoes pressed into the ground, the blue became darker around the outline of his feet. It reminded him of walking in a shallow pond, or pressing a finger too hard on a liquid crystal display. Looking up, he gazed at the star-shaped mountains towering up into the mist above. Intricate fractal patterns played out over the mountain walls, and all around him the landscape extended out in impossible directions and swirling shapes of blue and red. It was more than his brain could accept, and he fell to his knees on the spongy ground. He refused to be afraid. Shaking his head, David slowly rose to his feet and continued on. With each step, he felt a growing assurance that he was simply experiencing some kind of altered mental state--perhaps even food poisoning. He walked along a gently sloping spiral of a green and ocean blue fractal, lost in his own thoughts. His eyes were downcast as the slope began to level. David’s mind focused on the loss of Laura, and his anger began to grow as he nurtured it. What made her do it? What right did she have? Faint singing and the scent of pine and roses wafted to him from somewhere, but they only distracted him for a moment. David quickened his pace as the path leveled, but he was startled out of his thoughts by a questioning voice. A tall man faced him, and there was a distinct quality about the stranger that made David recognize instantly that this was no ordinary man. This also was clearly not a figment of David’s imagination. It would be more likely that David himself did not exist. The man simply stared at him expectantly, awaiting a reply. The light around his face was brighter. He stood at least several feet above David’s height. “What?” David stammered.“What’s wrong?” the stranger inquired a second time. “I lost my best friend,” David confessed. “She killed herself. Are you happy? On top of that, I don’t have any damn idea where I am.” David paused a moment, “how did you know that something was wrong, and who the hell are you?”“Hell has nothing to do with this place. My name is Metanoya. Why don’t you close your eyes and see the truth of why you are here?” Before David even had given it any thought, he was shutting his eyes. There was only a darkness at first, but he seemed to be in a familiar place. The darkness lightened and shapes took form. In a terrifying instant, he realized that he was looking at Laura alone in her dormitory room. It was as if he was there in the room with her. Distant city lights twinkled outside her window. Except for the lamp on her desk, the room was dark and quiet. David wondered if he was in a nightmare. He tried to yell out to her, but he couldn’t make a sound. She looked disheveled and her eyes were puffy, like she had been crying. David suddenly caught a change in her face as she reached down and picked up a bottle of prescription pills. Her distraught features seemed to disappear altogether as they were replaced for an instant by the face of a strange man. David could make out the man’s smile for only an instant. There was no mistaking that it was an unfriendly smile, a look of absolute hatred and malevolence. David wanted to scream, to do anything to stop what was happening, what had happened, but he could not say a word to his friend. She put the pills back down, and David hoped with every fiber of his being that something would change. She would be back in his arms again, and everything would be the way it was supposed to be. Laura stared out the window for a time, watching the city lights and listening to the sounds of the night. With a sudden determination that shocked and horrified David, she picked the prescription bottle up again and hurriedly opened it with shaking fingers. David tried to scream, to slam his fists into the wall--anything--but he couldn’t move or make a sound. She turned and looked in his direction. Her disheveled blond hair hid her features for only an instant. Then, David saw him again. The mask utterly concealed her features. His leering face of ageless madness and hate stared hauntingly back at him. For a moment, David thought that he, or it, glimpsed him standing there. It glared mockingly at him, displaying only the smallest hint of surprise...and something else. Was it fear? David began to shake and silently cry, as he watched Laura tilt her head back and choke down the pills. It was not her face that turned to gaze directly at him with a look of triumphant hate. A smell like rotten meat made him turn away. Buzzing flies sounded in his ears. David opened his eyes, and a tear slid down his cheek. Metanoya was there again. “Purifying fire and the gate to another land is the purpose of this place. Strive to remember that hope through prayer is justified.” The stranger paused a moment before continuing. “Now, the time has come. You don’t belong here, and you must return.”“I want to go back more than anything, but I don’t know how. I’m lost.”“Yes, you are lost. David, take your finger and place it in the soil. Make a cross there in the earth, and you will find yourself where you need to be. We will talk again someday.” He was going to ask why Laura had done it, but something told him to do simply do what he had been told. David knelt down and hesitantly extended a finger into the warm and moist ground. Like a breeze whispering through a stand of poplars, the words “John 14:14” gently filled his mind as the iridescent blue of the soil slowly changed to a milky red. Taking a last glance up at the tall figure above, David obeyed. While making the cross he mouthed the words, although he had never before considered himself religious. The moment it was finished and the word “Spirit” had escaped his lips, he was instantly gone. He blinked and found himself sitting on a bench along the ship canal—just a block north of the science building. A police boat was just passing, swinging its spotlight lazily back and forth along the shoreline, and the lights of the Freemont Bridge sparkled in the distance. Besides the usual traffic noise in the background, the familiar rumblings of the demolition work from the neighboring shipyards made him sigh in relief; he was indeed back in Seattle. A light mist began to fall as if to confirm this. The thought that it had just been a dream passed through his mind, but he glanced at his hand. A glowing bluish green substance was caught under one fingernail—the nail with which he had drawn the cross. Bringing his hand to his forehead in stunned disbelief, he caught the feel of something long and hard caught in his hair. He removed it and was only somewhat startled at seeing a red fluorescent feather in his hand. The November mist was turning to rain as David rose from the bench and started to walk back towards the university campus. It was good to be in familiar territory again, and somehow he didn’t feel quite so alone anymore either. He had hope that he would be reunited with Laura some day in a place where every tear will be wiped away and where death itself would finally be destroyed forever.Copyright held by Karl Bjorn Erickson, 2008.