Chapter 9: The East Chamber

Back to square one or, to be more precise, back to sphere one. Eric was back in the home chamber, comforted only by the chalk on the floor. The four side portals were open but above and below remained closed. There was only one thing left to try. The east chamber.

He moved into the last immediate unexplored option that was available to him, and waited for the pressure cycle to complete. As soon as the upper portal opened, he felt a rise in temperature. It was going to be hot outside. The light in the chamber had taken on a wavy mesmerising pattern, slowly swirling about with bands of light and dark intensity in a seemingly random sequence. It had a pale bluish hue.

Looking up at the portal, Eric could not determine what was outside. The only thing he could say for sure is that it was light, which meant that he was outside and it was day time, or that the light was artificial. There was no way to tell which, since the intensity was constantly changing, making it impossible to focus. It was like looking at sunlight from under water.

He ascended and put his head through the portal. Almost immediately he withdrew it back into the chamber, after choking on a mouthful of warm salty water. His hair and face were wet and there were a few splashes on the floor where they had spilled, but other than that, the portal seemed to be holding the water at bay. Eric wondered how much of it was above him. Should he risk holding his breath and breaking for the surface? What would happen if the portal closed behind him and he was too deep? He stood on the chamber's lighting fixture and tried to decide whether to retreat fully, or to rink drowning and go outside.

As he looked up at the shimmering watery light, a small shadow came briefly into view before vanishing again. He could distinctly see ripples radiating outwards in circles, as if something small like an insect had momentarily landed on the water's surface and then flown off again. If he could see the surface that easily, then he should have no problem reaching it. He almost launched himself upwards through the portal, but checked himself at the last second.

There was another problem, he realised. He did not know how far from land he would be when he reached the surface. Eric was a good swimmer, but for all he knew it might be kilometres, or even hundreds to the nearest land. That would do him no good, especially if the blasted portal closed behind him. Then he thought about it some more. Flies had to eat, and what was there to eat far out at sea? There must be land nearby, otherwise where had the fly come from? Eric didn't think a fly would venture more than a kilometre or two from the shore. He decided to take the risk.

He removed his trainers and tied them to his climbing belt by their laces. He did not know what to expect if or when he reached dry land, but whatever it was he did not fancy facing it with bare feet. Next he closed his eyes, took a deep breath, held it, and pushed himself upwards through the hatch. The water was wonderfully warm and there was no current. He swam upwards with easy strokes, as he realised that he had rather too much equipment still attached to his climbing belt. The chalk bag would be turned to mush. He was thankful that most of his gear had been used up on the climb of Star Mountain, otherwise it might have been too much weight and dragged him down.

As it was, he seemed to be taking a longer time to get to the surface than he'd expected. He opened his eyes to see if he could tell how far below he was. He had time to gain a blurry impression of the sunlight, perhaps two metres above him, before he was forced to close his eyes again. The warm water felt incredibly salty and stung his eyes painfully. He wondered which sea he was in. Perhaps the dead sea as the salt levels seemed extreme. His nostrils were hurting from its salinity.

He broke the surface and opened his eyes, which started to smart immediately again. He blinked rapidly to clear them as he turned his head to look around him. Dead ahead was a rocky inlet with a small black beach. Black because the sand on it seemed to be that colour. The water temperature got warmer and warmer as he swam towards it. By the time he reached the beach, it was almost unbearably hot. Now his exposed skin was stinging from the heated salty sea. He emerged and walked up the beach, enjoying the relative coolness of the dark, course sand on the soles of his feet.

When he reached the edge of the beach, he came across some sharp looking dark grey rocks. Time to put his trainers back on to protect his feet from their razor edges, and from the fact that the rocks were very hot to the touch. Wherever he was, it was stifling hot. The sea, the land and even the air were baking. Eric's whole body was covered with sweat and his lightweight clothes were soaked from his swim, clinging to him.

He began to wander further inland, picking his way carefully around the sharp formations. He had not an inkling of an idea where he was, as there were nothing recognisable in view apart from rocks and the sea. He decided that he would keep his cove in view at all times. It would not do to get lost here. He was already worried about finding his way back to the labyrinth, as he would have to search for the entrance under water.

Or would he? Thinking back to when he was in Berlin, he had not re-entered the labyrinth the same was as he'd exited from the south chamber. Or perhaps he had, but via a different trans-dimensional pathway. It was all very confusing. If it was possible to get back to the labyrinth using a different route, then Eric had no idea how to find that route. In Berlin it was almost as if the system had found him, rather than the other way around.

He simultaneously felt and heard the rumbling of the train in the distance. A relatively short duration, suggesting an underground train moving through a tunnel, rather than on the surface. Eric smiled to himself. Trains meant civilisation. Civilisation meant people, so perhaps he could find someone to help him get out of the bizarre trap he'd been in for most of the day. He unhooked the sodden chalk bag from his belt, grabbed a handful of the gooey sludge it now contained, and liberally plastered a tall rock formation. After marking his way, he set off in the direction of the train he'd heard. Towards a col between two small hills.

There were no signs of civilisation above ground, but as he slowly progressed he faintly heard and felt the rumblings of the underground trains. Once he thought he saw a plume of steam rising up in the distance, so he figured that there was a steam powered railway system somewhere below him. Either he'd gone back in time, or it was some kind of working artefact from the past. A steam railway museum perhaps.

He seemed to be taking a frustratingly long time to reach the col, making heavy work of he seemingly gentle incline. It must be the heat, not to mention the humidity. The saddle point was getting perceptibly nearer though and, as he approached, the rock formations became less sharp and twisted but smoother and flatter. Much easier to walk on. In fact, the hard rock seemed to be giving way to a firm but pliant grey mud.

Another plume of steam. Nearer this time, rising rapidly from an unseen aperture off to his right, before fading into nothing. He could not hear of feel the train this time. Time to go and investigate. Carefully. He turned his direction to approximately where the steam had come from. Ah, now the rumbling came one again and the steam rose in a narrow inverted cone just a few paces further on.

Eric froze to the spot, as the terrible realisation finally awoke in his mind. The steam was continuous now, as was the rumbling and shaking of the ground. The heat and humidity had become tremendous. The soft ground had split, revealing glowing red and orange embers below, either side of a slow-moving ooze of yellow and white lava. He actually felt the rock he was standing on move, as the lava slowly began to emerge from the crack. The steam ceased abruptly. He hadn't realised how loud the noise had been, until it stopped. Then the earthquake began.

The tremors were relatively small to begin with, and their rate of increase was slow, but perceptible and sustained. Soon though, Eric was barely able to stand. He was actually more stable if he kept moving, so he began to descend back towards the sea. He didn't think it was possible for a mere sound to knock him off his feet, but the heart-stopping crack of thunder did just that. He found himself on all fours, in a world that had gone very dark very quickly.

He rapidly stood up again, as the hot ground burned his skin. He started running again. Fast. He was terrified, as he saw that the supposedly solid rock he was on was actually an island, floating on a sea of lava. His jump easily cleared the small glowing stream, but that did not reduce his fear at all. After all, he was half running, half dancing on a volcano!

Sweat was flowing from him and every part of his body felt hot. He could even smell the plastic of his shoes as it began to soften and melt, leaving gooey, chewing gum like strands behind as he desperately headed for the beach. There was no sign of the sharp rock formations any more. They had been softened and flattened by the heat. The black beach was in sight. He was going to make it. Just.

When he got there, the dark sand was mercifully still free from the volcanic heat, though it had warmed up significantly since he'd last been there. He sat down, panting, starved of oxygen and his vision blurred. What the hell was he going to do now? How on Earth was he going to find the portal? In any case, the sea was probably near boiling by now. Looking over his shoulder, he realised that he was going to have to make a decision very soon. A river of lava was descending, following the path he had taken. It would arrive at the beach in minutes.

Eric turned around to face the sea, intending to go and test its temperature. He'd got no more than a few steps when his way was suddenly blocked by a huge plume of steam and sand that shot high up into the air. He could feel the heat on his face and eyes, but then he was cooled as droplets of surprisingly cold water and grains of sand rained down upon him. The steam was short-lived and it left behind a one metre hole in the beach. Eric peered down into it and was relieved to see a familiar silver sphere with a black circular entrance. He wasted no time dropping in feet first.