Blackness swallowed the orange light. It pulsed red with his heartbeat. The plane had crashed in a fiery cataclysm, and it had somehow engulfed him. He felt nothing. His muscles refused to respond. He was dead. A ghost. Or some remnant that soon would be.
A moment passed. Another. Feeling came back to him: pressure pushing from every direction, crushing inward. His vision was blurry and stinging. Recovering from the immediate shock that had forced the air from his lungs, he instinctively sucked in a breath and found himself choking.
It came to him, as he struggled for air, that the thunderous pain he had felt was his body hitting the water. The explosion of the plane only happened to coincide. The darkness lightened in faint increments. Christopher wondered how many miles he had plunged beneath the surface of the water.
Like everything else, breaching the surface came as a complete surprise to Christopher. The cold air needled his face. He coughed out an unbelievable amount of water, trying desperately to hold his mouth above the surface. Just as he thought he might have gotten most of it out, he went under again for a moment, sucking in a fresh mouthful that led to another round of gagging and coughing.
He finally managed a few quick, shuddering breaths of freezing air. It felt like breathing electricity. It arced down his limbs, into his fingers and toes. Everywhere it touched, fresh pain blossomed into his body. The pulsing black-redness encroached on his vision again and he had to fight it back.
His thoughts had been sluggish on the plane, even under the terror of his situation. The strange disassociation between body and mind had somehow gotten him this far. Now, with the impact of the water and the cold electricity suffusing him, he was fully awake for the first time.
He could breathe. He could swim. His body hurt all over, but there was an entirely different level of pain shooting up his right leg. With his newfound awareness, he knew that the water and the air were too cold. Though it was ostensibly early autumn, winter had clearly started seeping up into these Alaskan mountain valleys.
Whatever rational part of his brain had been guiding him up to this point, it was gone now. All that was left was the eerie sound of the water lapping all around him. Christopher didn’t need a guiding voice to tell him that he had to find shore as quickly as possible.
He pushed his leaden limbs through the water. It was like swimming through molasses. He was not a strong swimmer — God, how he knew he was not a strong swimmer — but he managed a fumbling breast stroke. Here and there, his hands shattered thin sheets of ice on the surface.
This wasn’t the first time he had found himself frantically swimming toward shore. As a child, he had once gone too far out, not fully understanding the differences between lake and ocean. In that case, he had been rescued. He had been a child, but uninjured. Now, he knew there would be no one bringing him to shore. He was grown, but might very well have broken the bones in his legs.
It took so much concentration to simply keep pushing forward that he didn’t notice the shore until it was close. He looked up, trying to muster the energy to continue, and saw a rocky shoreline. The sheets of millimeter-thin ice were smashed and piled up along the rocks under tufts of scrubby grass. Boulders loomed on the slopes beyond, which rose to a stone shelf some fifteen feet high.
Christopher redoubled his efforts, managing to cover more than half the distance before he had to pause again. Despite the intense exercise, he was shivering uncontrollably. He clenched his teeth to stop them chattering. He let his legs sink under him, stretching his toes and discovering that he could just barely touch the lake bottom. He took a few deep breaths and paddled forward.
His strength gave out with little warning, and he suddenly had trouble holding his head above the surface. As he went under, he scrabbled with his feet and found the bottom once more. It was shallower, enough that he could stand with his head tilted and barely keep his mouth above water.
His right leg was in bad shape. He had to push off the bottom with his left. Even a small amount of pressure on the right was excruciating. He fought the urge to reach down and check for protruding bone. He couldn’t pull his knee up anyway.
Pushing with his leg was faster than swimming, at least until the shallows where he had to stand. He took a moment to confirm that there were no jutting bones and nothing was horribly twisted. He tried to put all his weight on his left leg, but it was still too much strain on his right. He got halfway up before it gave out and he splashed down onto his right hip. The pain was a white sheet that covered him. He couldn’t see or feel anything beyond it. He couldn’t tell how much time passed before he was aware of himself again.
Unable to stand, he crawled through the shallows. This was no sandy beach. The lake bottom was covered in smooth-worn lake rocks, with occasional sharp bits that had tumbled down the slopes more recently. Christopher had little feeling in his fingers and suspected they would be torn up by the time he reached shore.
The final gauntlet the lake placed in front of him was five feet of rough gravel beach caked with razor shards of thin surface ice. He crunched through it painfully.
He looked up from his ground-level drama to find the nearest tree. It was a gnarled pine with clumps of finger-length needles. He set this as his target and continued crawling into the crispy, freeze-dried scrub grass. He was shaking with fatigue and pain now, as well as cold. Harsh wind sucked heat from his wet body. His clothes were already stiffening.
The lowest branches of the tree were five feet up the trunk. Christopher propped himself onto his left knee and grasped the deep crevices between chunks of bark. Finally hauling himself into a standing position, he kept his weight on one leg, hugging the trunk while he caught his breath.
It was incredible that he had survived all of this. The jump from the plane. The swim to the shore. The sort of thing they’d write about in world record books, or at least one of those “Strange, But True” articles. Really a shame then, that he would die of hypothermia after all that.
He thought he felt his shivering subsiding, though the creeping numbness made it difficult to tell. He knew that was the beginning of the end. Shivering meant the body was at least fighting for warmth. When it gave up the fight, you were really in trouble.
Now that he was on his feet, he wondered what good it would do him with one good leg. He probably wasn’t thinking clearly anymore. He probably hadn’t been thinking clearly at any point in this debacle.
He managed to move a few feet with a couple awkward hops, from the gnarled pine to the slanted rock face. He could see a deeper shadow among the rocks, an indentation in the side of the cliff that might offer some small shelter from the wind.
It was a little easier hopping along the wall, his left hand steadying him. The rock had fractured in fist-sized chunks, leaving plenty of handholds. He had to stop to breathe and recover from the pain between hops. Time was something theoretical to him now, not actually felt in any meaningful way. He had never been so exhausted. This, he thought, is what it feels like when all energy leaves the body. This is what it feels like to die.
The alcove in the rock, as it turned out, was deeper than he expected. It was more like a shallow cave. As he hopped inside, he found that he didn’t feel cold anymore. Probably the hypothermia, more than being out of the wind.
The little cave was the size and rough shape of a doorway, but it still came as a surprise to Christopher when he found a door set into the rock a couple feet inside. It was a very sturdy-looking gray metal door with dime-sized rivets around its perimeter. A thin strip of glass was embedded at eye-level, but it was covered with grime and frost. Christopher could see nothing but darkness behind it.
The door had a large handle embedded near the center, clearly intended to rotate. It was not dissimilar to the one Christopher had used to open the airplane door. A perfectly flat strip of rock had been cut away along the right side of the door, and embedded into this was a small box with little metal buttons bearing numbers from zero to nine.
“This must be the hallucination part,” Christopher whispered to himself. He normally made an effort not to talk to himself, but it hardly seemed worth it at this point. He jabbed a finger at the keypad, firmly pressing the “5” key in the middle. It depressed with a satisfying click, a bit like dialing an old pay phone. There was no readout or any other indication of the key he had pressed.
“The password isn’t ‘five’ then,” he muttered.
He was having a hard time keeping his eyes open. Even leaning against the door, he was barely able to stay upright on his one decent leg. Still, it felt right to make at least one attempt at the code before sliding into oblivion.
He decided that the code to his garage keypad was as good a guess as any. It was his birthday.
That was what he decided. Apparently his fingers had different plans. He was wavering. He observed that the code he entered was not the code to his garage keypad. It was not his birthday.
122, he observed.
There was the deep hiss of oiled metal on metal, followed by a surprisingly loud thunk behind the door. Christopher grasped the long handle with both hands and pulled. It held firm.
Good attempt, Christopher thought. “A” for effort.
A thick crust of dirt or ice broke free at the point where the handle connected to its axle, embedded in the door. The resistance gave way, and Christopher’s shoulder slid. The handle groaned, shedding the last of the caked-on gunk, and the handle rotated home, landing at the opposite end of its arc with another solid thump.
The door immediately swung open on huge, silent hinges. Christopher followed it, sliding, then falling. He landed, again, on his injured hip, but the pain was muffled in his fading consciousness. It was happening, but so far away. He rolled to his final resting position, on his back on some sort of smooth, warm floor.
The doorway was embedded a half-step up the wall, so that the door banged fully open, then ponderously swung over him, back the way it came. It blocked the faint light of the stars and moon beyond.
On the floor, in the utter blackness, there was nothing left to do. No more shore to find, no more tree to crawl to, no more strange doors or number pads. Christopher could stop. He could rest. He let go, and sank down, deep into the darkness.
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