A/N: Chirality, or "handedness", is the idea of a physical mirroring of two otherwise identical items. If something is chiral, it means that it has two forms to it, with one being a mirror image of the other. For an example of this, look at your own two hands, with the thumbs pointing towards each other. They're both hands, but you can't transpose them over each other and have them both match exactly. That is, they're not exact carbon copies of each other. Many molecules have this property, including many drugs. In fact, sometimes one specific left- or right-oriented form is considered a helpful drug, while the opposite form is a harmful poison! Either way, chirality's an intriguing concept in chemistry and one I've always found very interesting.
However, it can also be a very frightening thought, especially when combined with other ideas. Ideas like worlds that are reflections of ours. Ideas like the concept of said world possibly having a life of its own. Ideas that, if you simply open the right door and walk through it, you'll find a perfect carbon copy reflection of everything you are familiar with… but that does not operate familiarly, and might not even be a world in and of itself. The Fear Mythos has a name for such a thing – the Empty City – a Fear that lends itself quite well to the idea of mirror images of our world and changing realities. Mirrors, after all, only show us reflected images, not real objects, and the human eye is very easily fooled. Is it any wonder, then, that if we were to encounter a world that seemed a perfect facsimile of the one we knew, that we might mistake it for our own – even if that world was not a world, but a being in and of itself?
That is the presupposition behind this tale. It's an Empty City short story first posted in rough draft form on the Fear Mythos forums. This story was inspired by several different things, including the indie horror game "Where Am I?", the Stephen King story "1408", the chemical idea of chirality, and an actual door in an actual bathroom in an actual former workplace (which yes, was an actual laboratory that does food safety and quality assurance). The door was left over from when the building was two separate buildings, and it just never got patched up during construction. I've always found it weird and somewhat spooky that it was just left there when it leads to literally nothing but drywall and wiring, since it literally looked as though you could open it and walk through to another part of the building… It wasn't too much of a stretch from there for me to connect the Empty City to it, and I'm not sure my coworkers ever even knew why I was so weirded out by that door… if they even knew at all.
I hope you guys reading this enjoy it, and to said former coworkers, if by some off chance you are reading this, consider this story dedicated to you guys and especially to my former boss. I enjoyed my short time working with you, and you all taught me a lot about different lab techniques, a lot about working in a professional setting, and ultimately, a lot about myself. Oh, and a big thanks to the folks over at the Fear Mythos forums for giving me feedback on the first rough draft of this short story. You guys are a hell of a great community and I'm glad I joined in on it. Thanks so much for the support, I seriously owe you guys. :)
Drywall and Wiring
"I need to step out, it'll only be a minute."
The lab coordinator, my boss, had merely given a soft, cheery "Okay" and left me to my business, peering through her glasses at the glass pipette she was using to draw up the ammonium hydroxide for her test. As I left, the fume hood hummed softly as it wicked away the ether fumes and the flask sonicator buzzed like a cicada as it cleaned its glassware.
The door shut behind me with a soft click and I continued towards the front office through the rows of delicate instrumentation. An aged Gas Chromatograph whirred as it ran its samples; the steady heartbeat of the HPLC machine pulsed as pressurized liquid ran through its tubing. That's the thing about a laboratory - nobody realizes how noisy it really is, how even voices are contained and echo inside the cream-colored walls. It was what I heard every day at work, what I arrived to every morning and what served as a soundtrack for the samples of milk I tested. To some, these sounds would be annoying, but to me, a young undergraduate chemistry major, they were a familiar and soothing lullaby, present even as I wandered into the hallway leading to the front office.
Not that the walk took very long. Our laboratory was by no means large; it consisted of a single building that was formerly two different ones, and it had just three different departments - microbiology, chemistry, and the specialized milk chemistry laboratory. All of the departments were confined to maybe two or three small rooms each, and the two buildings proper had been connected to one another via a short hallway that had been built long before I arrived here. And in this short hallway, the very hallway I walked down at the moment, were three other doors – one to the right that lead to the lunchroom, and two to the left that lead to adjacent bathrooms. Those latter doors were my current destination.
I knocked on the door of the first bathroom, then, finding it occupied, proceeded to the second. The door shut and locked behind me with a soft click, and I went about my business.
I was about midway through washing my hands when I noticed the other door in the bathroom, sitting innocently opposite the doorway that lead inside. At first, I assumed it was a broom closet, but after a coworker brought up the merging of the two buildings one day, I concluded that it was probably just a holdover from the construction that never fully got fixed.
My curiosity, however, had gotten the better of me today, and I looked the door over. It was aged somewhat, its wooden door frame well-worn and its silver-tinged hinges beginning to rust, but otherwise a fairly average door, with a small metal grating at the bottom for ventilation and a smooth, silver, orb-like handle. I had never opened it, assuming it was glued shut or something, and never asked about it, since I figured it probably just contained drywall and wiring anyway. But as a scientist, (and as a curious person in general), I wasn't satisfied with assumptions. Even if I knew there was probably nothing but a closet behind it, I wanted to see for myself. So, drying my hands with paper towel and shutting off the sink, I walked over to the door, placed my hand on the doorknob, and tried to open it.
My first surprise was that the knob actually turned at all. I'd been sure it was totally unable to move, and yet it swung open just fine.
My second surprise was that the short hallway, the one that lead to the bathrooms in the first place, was standing innocently behind it.
Confusion marred my brow as I peered into the hallway. Wasn't this where I just came from? Was there more to the building I didn't know about, and this hallway simply appeared to mirror the other one? There was more space to the front of the building, after all, space I'd never been inside let alone seen. Maybe this lead to additional storage, although I thought it was pretty weird that someone would put a door leading to it here in the bathroom. And if it was storage, then why hadn't anyone ever asked me to obtain supplies from this area of the building before? It was strange and intriguing… and also a bit unnerving, especially since it seemed to be such a perfect reflection of the other hallway…
Dismissing it as a trick of perception, I threw my reservations aside and wandered into the hallway, the door closing behind me with a soft click. The first thing I noticed, eyes bewildered, was the door to the lunchroom in front of me, still closed, still with a box of doughnuts setting on the table that was visible through the window. As I looked down the hallway to my right, I saw the chemistry lab, and to my left, the front office. But there didn't seem to be a soul in sight, and I couldn't hear anyone talking at all.
I blinked in confusion and looked again. This was the same, exact hallway, only with the position of the labs and front office flipped. But that couldn't be, the hallway to the labs was through the main door in the bathroom! Was this an additional, adjacent laboratory to my own? If so, why wasn't anyone here?
"Rick?" I asked, calling for my coworkers as I wandered down the cream-colored hallway towards the milk lab. "Alicia? Rob? Anyone?" I gained no response, and felt chills creep down my spine. Where was everyone? For that matter, why was it so silent? At the very least, shouldn't I be hearing instrumentation working, or even the simple hum of the fluorescent bulbs above my head? But nothing graced my ears, as if I were walking into the center of a complete vacuum. All was completely, eerily quiet, the kind of quiet that makes one feel very alone, and very watched, all at once.
Creeped out, I entered the chemistry lab and immediately felt as if I'd stepped into a foreign world. The room wasn't oriented the same way at all - the boss' office, normally off to the right, was now off to the left, and the door to the milk lab now resided to my right. It was as if the entire room had been totally flipped. Even the lab benches where the HPLC, Gas Chromatograph, and Karl Fisher Titrators rested were flipped, mirror-image style, as if I had walked into a reflection. And nothing was making any noise, at all, despite everything being plugged in and turned on. This concerned me, because if the instruments weren't running it could mean they'd been turned off, or that we'd had power failure - and both could mean invalidated test results, since none of the instruments had their own backup batteries.
Worried, I quickly checked each instrument, but all of them seemed to be running properly - the HPLC gently pumped its liquid medium, the titrators mixed their fluids, and the Gas Chromatograph silently injected itself with samples as its green prep light blinked. But still no sound came from any of them, nothing but pure, utter silence. I walked back around the bench the way I came, confused and thoroughly unnerved. But as I did, I took one look at the outlets behind it and stopped.
Nothing on the bench was plugged in to an outlet. Not only that, there weren't any cords running from any of the instruments at all. The Gas Chromatograph's green prep light silently continued to blink. And blink. And blink.
I didn't stay much longer after that. Instead, I nervously proceeded to the milk lab, finding once again that the room had been mirrored from the one I knew - the fume hoods now were off to the right, and the counter with the still functioning sonicator on it was to the left. Despite everything being turned on, however, nothing made sound, and nobody was there. My forgotten flasks, left over from the current sample I'd been testing, rested innocently in the fume hood as before, but otherwise it was as if the entire lab had suddenly been abandoned. Was there a chemical leak I hadn't been warned about? Or maybe everyone was in the back? It'd happened before where I thought my coworkers had run off, when instead they were simply in the back by the sample ovens…
I walked through the silent laboratory and towards the back doorway, which I knew lead to the room with our ovens, scales, and NMR instrument. But as I reached the door, I saw that everything inside was pitch black, as if all the lights had been turned off. That was odd, why was it pitch black in broad daylight? There was a window in that room, surely the sunlight would have lit everything up since it was already noon. I tried to open the door, but to no avail - the door was completely stuck shut, and no amount of pulling or pushing was ever going to open it.
Confused, I turned around - and nearly jumped out of my skin. My flasks were now sitting on the countertop, still corked as if waiting for me to shake them. But that was impossible, I'd left them in the fume hood and nobody is supposed to touch anyone else's tests while they were running! Besides that, there was nobody in here but me... so who had moved them?
I began to grow frightened, and decided that it was probably best to find a coworker and try to figure out exactly what in the hell was going on. This was definitely not normal, and definitely not something I wanted to deal with anymore as I left the milk lab, the door shutting noiselessly behind me as I walked down the hallway towards the front office.
Only, there was no front office. In fact, there wasn't a microbiology lab, front office, or even a second bathroom. There was only a dead end, a single cream-colored wall barring off that area - along with the only door out of the building.
I broke into a cold sweat as ice shot down my spine. No. Impossible. Buildings don't seal off themselves! Was this some sort of weird nightmare? I was sure I'd driven here this morning... but was I positive that I was really awake? I pinched myself to be sure, and jolted back instantly... and that was when I began to panic. No, this was real, I realized as I ran my hand along the smooth, cream-colored wall. No dream was ever this real…
And then a sudden thought occurred to me, slowly buffering my mind from the fear that coursed through me like venom.
My boss… if… maybe… if I can find my boss…
I broke into a sprint, closing in on my boss' office in the back of the chemistry lab, and furiously began pounding on the closed door as soon as I reached it. This was my last shot. My last chance to get some help, to show to myself that I wasn't just seeing things, and that I wasn't truly, horribly, utterly alone in here…
"Tracey!" I cried, bewildered and hoping for some answer from my boss. "Tracey, it's me, Jennifer, are you there?" No answer. I tried to open the door, but it was locked. So instead, I pressed my ear to the door to listen for any sign of life, to confirm or deny whether or not my boss was in the room.
But I didn't hear Tracey. I heard something else, something grating and awful, a sound that will haunt me forever. The sound I heard... it... It sounded like tinfoil being crushed and crumpled, and glass being broken. It sounded like concrete and plaster breaking apart and crumbling, and like wiring sparking as it was torn from the walls. It sounded like destruction.
And it was getting louder by the second.
I looked up again in horror at the noise, and barely suppressed a scream as I backed away from the cream-colored wall. There was nothing there anymore. No office. No front door. Nobody, nowhere to go...
I felt fear sink its talons into my chest and squeeze, more and more, tighter and tighter. I was trapped. I didn't know by what, and I didn't know why, but this was clearly not my workplace and I had to get out of here, immediately.
I ran towards the bathroom as if possessed, flinging the door open and shutting it behind me. The crunching noise followed me, I could hear it at my heels, just outside of where the lunchroom door used to be, I could hear it behind me, all around me, smothering me in its awful sound...
The bathroom door slammed noiselessly shut behind me as I ran towards the other door. I had to get out. This was all just a horrible nightmare, this wasn't real, I had to get out!
My hand grabbed the smooth, silver doorknob and turned, the door flinging open. Only, there was nothing behind it. No hallway, nowhere to turn. The only thing behind this door, this door back to the reality I knew, was drywall, interspersed with old wiring.
A cold, disbelieving laugh fell from my lips. The crunching behind me began to sound like grinding, like chewing. I backed against the white wall where the main door had once been, unable to stop the tears flowing down my face as I sunk to the floor and backed into the corner. The walls began to crackle around me and the mirror over the sink shattered. The door slowly began to rot, splintering into sawdust before my eyes, trapping me, ensnaring me. And all my eyes could see, as the room began to implode around me, was a doorway that lead to nothing.
Nothing but drywall and wiring.