Seth’s steps became cautious as he approached the glade. The culmination of an intense four-day trek through dense forest, living from his backpack and by his wits—and this was the place?
The cabin looked like any other primitive mountain lodge, the sort of structure kids and hikers sheltered in overnight: rough-hewn logs that bisected each other at the corners, wooden shingles, an old-style metal latch…
No windows. Seth’s confidence returned. No picturesque touristy cabin lacked windows.
Was he supposed to meet someone here? Or was this the site of some kind of test of his resourcefulness as he waited indefinitely for further instructions? Was it, perhaps, not a cabin at all, but a cover for a subterranean command station where he would at last be introduced to the inner circle? Or was it—a chill traveled down his spine—an enemy outpost, and only survivors of the trap were received into the Return?
Seth exhaled deeply. The Return was a shadowy group dedicated to returning the faltering nation to the values once held dear before the rise of the current power-hungry regime. The Return had been clear: No recruit made it through the First Step unscathed. And many did not even make it through. Anything could await him in that cabin.
After a long, suspicious pause, Seth drew in a sharp, decisive breath and crossed the short distance between the treeline and the front door. His thumb depressed the latch and he nudged the door open. The windowless interior was completely black. Pulling down his night-vision goggles, Seth nosed the muzzle of his handgun into the room first, then slipped inside. The door quietly rattled shut behind him.
Sudden brightness burst in Seth’s vision. He clawed at his night-vision goggles, his pulse screaming in his ears as he dropped to his knees. For several strangled breaths, his vision still ghosting with light-splashes, he flicked his weapon’s gaze from one object to another. Slowly, reason filtered back into his mind.
Automatic lighting. Reasonable for a cabin with no windows, though a little high-tech for a primitive cabin. Seth glanced toward the door, hesitating. Should he…? No. For all his caution, the latch had made a great deal of rattling when he opened the door. He would hear the entry of a new arrival.
Trembling with relief, Seth surveyed his surroundings. The cabin’s interior was a single room, adorned with the sort of rustic furniture and knick-knacks one would expect from the early 1900s. The only pieces of furniture were a wooden bed-frame with a thin mattress and no pillow, a three-legged stool, a wooden chair, a sturdy oak table with a phonograph and record, and two smaller tables, one supporting a metal washbasin and a pitcher, and the second with an open guest-book and an accompanying metal-tipped pen. On the walls hung a few glass-eyed bucks’ heads and stuffed fish, and several dusty, black-and-white photographs in wooden frames. The wooden floorboards were bare, except for a bear-skin rug parallel to the bed. A metal woodstove stood in one corner, on a platform of stone, with a spherical chimney pipe extending up through the ceiling. Strange. Seth could not recall observing a chimney.
Seth perused the pictures—all gentlemen with extravagant beards and bowler hats—and inspected the guest book. The last person to sign in was a Mr. Craig Underhill, in the year 1921. The record on the phonograph played “Make Believe” by Benny Davis and Jack Shilkret.
Seth perused the room, but his mind raced ahead of his actions. What did they want from him? How would he know?
When he nudged the bearskin rug aside with his toe, a slow grin spread over his face. A trapdoor. Excellent.
He hooked his fingers in the small divot in the floorboards, evidently designed as a handle, and eased the door open cautiously. No enemies lurked beneath, and a wooden ladder descended to a square of hard-packed dirt floor. A single door allowed exit from the wood-walled landing.
This must be it. Seth took a final glance around the room, swung his left leg onto the first rung of the ladder, and descended, pulling the trapdoor shut behind him and switching on his headlamp.
Reaching the bottom of the ladder, he turned to the door, depressed the latch, and nudged it open. Beyond the door was so black that it seemed the darkness swallowed all vision. He didn’t like it. Donning his night vision goggles again, he slipped into the new space.
Light blinded him and he clawed the goggles away. A wheeze of surprise caught in his throat and he stared.
He was in the cabin again, as though he had just come through the front door.
Seth turned and opened the door. No forest. No mountains. Only hard-packed earth and an ascending ladder.
Seth ran to the trapdoor, and swung it open. The ladder led, just as before, to a square landing and another door.
He scrambled back through the front doorway, up the ladder, swung open the trapdoor—and saw the fringe of the bear rug and the legs of the table and chairs. Back down the ladder, across the room, through the trapdoor, down the ladder… And again, the same cabin room.
There was no way out. The cabin was an infinite loop.
It’s some trick. They want to see if I’m resourceful enough to get out.
But get out how? Perhaps he could chop a hole through the wall. Was there, perhaps, a handy axe under the bed or behind a piece of furniture, that he might use for that purpose?
No axe. Seth’s mind spun in another direction, calculating other possibilities, while a sickening swirl of acid knotted his stomach.
He was so absorbed that the realization of what he saw percolated only slowly through his consciousness, nagging at him like a little kid poking his shoulder incessantly and speaking his name. “What?!” his working mind snarled at last. And the invisible nagger pointed.
The pictures. The pictures on the wall. One of the framed faces was… himself. Seth, wearing a bowler hat and an old-style watch-chain draping from a chest pocket. He didn’t remember the picture at all. He was certain that it had not been there before. Or was he?
This is madness. Seth followed the command of his mind to Do Something! and took the loop a few times more, just to be certain. Perhaps the puzzling picture was some clue, his rational mind spoke calmly through the chaos. Seth returned to the picture.
It was not him. Now it was another man, with a distinguished mustache and a half-smile. In fact, he could swear that he remembered this face from his first inspection of the cabin.
What was wrong with him? He turned slowly in a complete circle. Same chair and stool. Same table and guest book and wash basin. Same buck head and stuffed fish and… What was that? A flash of silver snapped his attention back to the wash basin. He crossed the room and stared.
The elaborately-etched silver watch and chain had most certainly not been there before. It was exactly like the watch and chain in the picture of himself. He picked it up, tested its weight in his hand, and inspected it thoroughly. On the inside of the watch’s locket front were etched the letters SK. Seth Korwin. Aside from that, there was nothing remarkable about the watch—except for its mysterious appearance, of course.
Seth shoved it in his pocket, his mind a runaway carousel of thoughts.
Hours ticked by, but though he scrutinized the room from top to bottom—heck, even minutely examined the dust mice—he saw no other noticeable change. Of course, doubt seeded his every inspection. Was this there before? Had he really seen this? Aha, this must be new too!
Eventually, his panicked instinct took over. Do Something! So, when no other ideas came to mind, Seth opened the front door, climbed up the ladder, and emerged from the trap door back into the cabin.
Nothing. Frustrated, Seth began the laborious inspection again: the table, the chair, the washbasin, the pictures, the guest book…
A dark entry at the bottom of the guest book page arrested his attention. There, as fresh as though he had just written it, was his name in black ink and a guest entry in his own handwriting. Trembling, Seth read the words:
Arrived at this rustic cabin after four days’ hike. View from the south window is stunning. Was cold in the evening, so I started a fire. Found a knife with a mother-of-pearl handle in the ashes of the woodstove. Wonder who left such a treasure there?
Seth immediately crossed the room and jerked open the woodstove door. A quick search revealed nothing but ashes and half-burnt logs. Was he missing something? Collecting the wash basin, he began to sift more thoroughly through the ashes, which he transferred from the belly of the stove to the wash basin. Nothing. Nada. Zip.
Seth rose and angry heat flamed through his skin. Why the stupid games? What did they expect from him? For a time, he gave himself up to rage and dark thoughts. When some measure of reason returned, he rapped out thirty push-ups and sixty sit-ups while he considered his next move.
The thought came slowly: He had changed something. The ashes were still scattered across the floor like fine, gray dust, and piled in the basin indiscriminately. Would they still remain if he went through the loop again? If not, he would know that he was not looping through the same cabin, but through a series of rooms that all looked like each other.
Eagerly, he opened the trap door, climbed down the ladder, flung open the door, and stepped in. The light snapped on as before, and he surveyed the cabin.
Seth swallowed an oath. The ashes were exactly as before. Miserably, he stood over the ash-filled washbasin. A glimmer caught his attention and, wondering, he reached in and fumbled for a handhold on a smooth, flat object. A knife. Scarlet bloomed from where he had accidentally slit two fingers open on the blade, but he hardly cared.
Wheels turned in his head, and an idea emerged like a half-formed shadow. If he was right…
Seth opened the front door and took the ladder rungs two by two. Once back in the room—messy ashes and all—he scoured the room for clues. Nothing. He went over more carefully, and this time, he did not neglect the gramophone. The hisses and pops of the vinyl record did not immediately begin with the cheery swinging brass of “Make Believe.” Instead, his own voice spoke.
“Couldn’t sleep last night. Some stupid lump in the bed. Felt like the Princess and the Pea. Took my knife to the mattress this morning, and discovered a lump of smoky quartz right in the down. No wonder my back was all bruises.”
Seth did not even look at the bed. He lifted the gramophone needle and placed it back in the rest position. Then he resolutely opened the front door again, and climbed the ladder. Once the lights snapped on, he shut the trapdoor and, turning to the bed, he slit the mattress with the knife and plunged his hands amongst the down. And there, shining like ash turned into stone, was an irregular lump of quartz. After examining it briefly, he turned, reopened the trap door, descended the ladder, and opened the door at the bottom.
When the lights blazed around him, Seth took a step forward—then sucked in his breath.
“Excellent!” said the well-dressed gentleman who stood before him, framed in the light of the monitors mounted along both lengths of the long, narrow room. “I’m John Stevenson. Nice to meet you, Seth.”
Seth took the hand automatically, but he felt as though the whole world was tipping.
“Questions?” Stevenson asked politely.
“Just one,” Seth replied, still dazed. Then, with sudden energy: “What in the world was that?”
“We call it the Continuum Code. I won’t repeat the names that the new recruits call it. Clever, isn’t it?”
“I don’t understand.”
“It’s the newest form of security. Instead of locks and passcodes, we use a simulation designed to disorient the entrant. The key is to be fully engaged in the environment, to respond to the clues, to notice the differences, to decode the patterns… You figured out how to crack the code. And you did it faster than anyone else so far. Well done.”
Seth found a chair in front of the monitors and sank into it, dimly registering that the image on the screen showed the cabin’s interior, and the ashes sifted on the floor around the washbasin.
“Take your time sorting it out,” he said. “In the meantime, may I be the first to congratulate you?”
“What?” Seth cast him a blank stare. His thoughts were still very much preoccupied.
“On your acceptance. Welcome to the Return.”