Footprints in the Dust

She traced her hands along the labyrinth’s walls, feeling the same cold, smooth stone against her fingers, counting the locked doors along the path – she always walked in the same direction, the red carpet beneath her feet soft and pilling, following the same twists and turns through the corridors, the path she had left in the dust. The fluorescent lights hummed overhead.

Sometimes repetition is meaning.

Fine particles of dust rose up with each footstep, like little clouds, swirling around her.

She coughed, and the dust devils danced away, catching the light. Her trail meandered out in front of her, when first she walked these corridors she was in a daze, stumbling. Now she took care to walk in her footsteps, trying not to leave another trail. That could be confusing.

Zala stopped, and watched the doorways ahead of her intently. Her footsteps stopped not far from here, and she knew she was supposed to go on. Usually one would hum open, the lights inside pulsing white-blue-green in invitation. She could wait.

The lights behind her began to switch off, a slow series of thuds, echoing her heartbeat. Thud, thud, thud, thud-thud-thud-thud-thud. “No!” she screamed, and began to run backward, into the dark. No doors slid open, no lights beckoned. Her fingers groped for the doorway that she had come from, the solid silver that had kept her safe and guarded the room where she had woken up, nestled in a cloak of wires and tubes, bathed in dull, orange light.

Her knees gave out from underneath her, and she slowly sunk to the floor. “I’m not ready yet,” she whispered into the blackness. It seemed to understand her, and the low hum of the electric lights echoed again through the labyrinth. A lone light glowed just ahead.

“No,” she said again. “I’m not ready yet.”

But she was. She knew she was.

Eventually she got up, and trudged toward the light. The dust beneath her feet was scattered, and her footprints were no longer visible. The lights hummed on as she approached them, and thudded off behind her. A door slid open to her left. Zala kept walking, each step leaving a fresh imprint in the dust.

“How long?” she asked. No one replied.

She kept walking, until the lights no longer switched on before her, and another door opened to her left. This one pulsed white-blue-green. Stepping through the doorway she devoured the food left for her, and with greasy fingers swiped at the button to close the door. Tomorrow she would ask her questions again, even if she would never get answers. Because sometimes repetition is the meaning.

“How long?” she asked, in the middle of the night.

“How many others?”

There was no reply.

The computer banks hummed beneath the sound of the electric lights, and Zala kept walking, each footstep dislodging new clouds of dust.

Each night a new doorway opened in the walls, always to the left, always to the left.

Each night she asked the same questions.

Each night until she came to a darkened door, open on her right.

She had noticed the footsteps in the dust.

“How many others?”

The doorway yawned, with night behind it. The room it opened onto seemed cavernous, with wire stalactites dripping sparks and smashed glass glittering like diamonds. There were no others, not anymore. The skeleton hung dead-straight in the still air, and she disturbed the dusty footprints as she ran. The computers kept the air free of microbes, and still, still as vacuum.

“You must not enter darkened doorways.” The computer voice leapt out at her through the darkness. It still refused to answer her questions. “I cannot protect you there.”

“How long, dammit? How long?”

The lights went out, and new ones lit up before her.

She left her footprints in the dust.

“Twelve years.” She had lost track of how many days she had been walking, of how long it had been since the computer had closed off the med-bay and sent her on this forced march, this migration. “You were in cryogenic hibernation for twelve years.” It was the only night that stood out in her memories; it was the only one that was different.

“Twelve years,” she replied. “How many others?”

The computer stayed silent, content only to turn off the lights behind her as she passed.

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