The Corridor was open every day but Wednesday. On that day, at 10 Am sharp, the huge steel doors closed, moving on tracks recessed into the ceiling and coming, in the center, to a rubber cushioned stop creating a loud, resonant boom.
When the doors were open you could see the length of the Corridor, perhaps five hundred feet long, fifty feet wide, cut through hard rock. The floor was covered with dust and dirt but the walls and ceiling were rock and glittered with sparks of metal and silica. The opening at the other end showed sky and only sky. No plant, no bush, no rock, jutted into the rectangular aperture, only sky; sometimes clear, sometimes cloudy, sometimes dark with rain, or white with fluffy, falling snowflakes. No Observers, as far as Horten knew, had ever entered the Corridor let alone walked its length to see what could be seen through the opening on the other side. All he knew for sure was that there was an opening and it had a set of doors, seemingly, seen in the distance, the same as the doors on his side. Before his doors fully closed you could see the far doors closing, operated, apparently, by the same mechanism or at least sharing the same timer. When the doors closed they remained so for twelve hours exactly, reopening at 10 PM Wednesday evening.
An inquisitive man, Horten had for some years spent some of his off time, considerable, for Observer tours were six months on, six months off with the addition of a sabbatical year every five years, traveling in search of anyone who had knowledge of the Corridor. Some of the men and women he met and spoke with were still active, some retired. Some were Observers, others soldiers and construction technicians. After many hundreds of interviews, many in far off places at the edges of the Empire, for such workers were often recruited from the fringes, he had collected many rumors, suspicions, hypothesis, theories and suppositions but very few facts and the facts he collected he knew before he began seaching for them. They were: a) The Corridor was there near the top of one of the southern mountains. b) Going back as far as human memory could go teams of three Observers had kept watch over it twenty-four hours a day, year round. c) The doors of The Corridor closed every Wednesday at 10 AM and reopened at 10 PM and d) The Corridor led nowhere and seemed to serve no purpose whatsoever.
In addition, many of those he consulted told him that they felt the Corridor to be in some way malignant. Some even used the word evil. A few described it as weird, strange, haunted. One woman, in a farming village in the northeast, called it ‘a hole where wicked emptiness sometimes comes’, a translation into the official language of the tribal word ‘zlygul’. Although he learned little from his travels and his consultations, Horten did not regret them for he was a restless man never happier than when he was on the move meeting new people or sitting on the side of a dusty road looking over a view which he had never seen before.
Then one day, when he had just arrived in the small town where he kept an apartment, an hour’s travel from the capital, he received a phone call. The voice at the other end would not give their name but it did give him the name and address of an army officer who, many years ago, after long years of service, had retired to his place of origin, a tribal region in the far northwest. The voice told him to write the man for he had information he might find useful. All this was expressed in vague, abstracted language. It did not mention the Corridor and from some caution instilled in him by the use of this vague, abstracted language, Horten did not mention it either. When the phone conversation ended he sat down and wrote a brief note explaining that he was interested in information on the Corridor and really nothing else. If the officer had some he would be delighted to correspond with him and possibly even to come and see him in person. Experience had taught him that retired army people were often lonely men given to drink and long, meandering conversations consisting mainly of personal reminiscences. He did not want to waste his time on another dead end. When he finished the note he went out right away and mailed it.
A reply came three weeks later. The man was away from his home visiting relatives in a regional city at the foot of the mountains. Yes, indeed, he had information about the type of tribal dwellings Horten was interested in and if Horten would be patient and wait for a month or so while he made inquiries, he would write him as soon as they were successfully concluded. There was no need for him to write back in the meantime. Horten’s letter had become mixed up with paper used to light the fire and destroyed but fortunately Tonsen, as he called himself, had remembered the address. In such affairs as traditional dwelling designs Tribal Elders could be quite sensitive and it was best to proceed cautiously. Horten came to the conclusion that the man was a paranoid, the kind who derives pleasure from weaving mysterious, nonsensical webs, the productions of a diseased mind, having nothing to do with the actual world. He put the letter in the files and expected to hear no more of it.
After a month of reading, working out at the gym and the occasional date with old girl friends, Horten grew restless and began to plan an excursion. He then received a second phone call. A woman asked to meet him for lunch in a cafeteria around the corner from his apartment.
The woman was middle aged and, although clearly from the Tribal Regions of the north, she wore the clothing of a middle rank bureaucrat. She smiled easily and was very gracious in her speech as the Tribal Regions people often are. At first she spoke of general topics – the weather, topical political events, operas playing at the big theaters in the capital, but when they were finished their meal she suddenly changed her tone, saying, “ Tonsen has information about the Corridor which he has been collecting for many years. He knows something of its purpose. He has gathered evidence from among his own people who have served in the army, as construction workers and even Observers over a period of many years. It is traditional among his people to pass on the knowledge of disturbing events one has participated in or even heard of to a member of one’s clan before dying as a preparation for the journey into the afterlife. Tonsen himself is over one hundred but the memories accumulated in his person go back many, many hundreds of years. So far this has been kept among his people but he thinks that now may be the time to change that. He feels that if this knowledge were introduced slowly into official culture it might eventually lead to the ending of certain cruel abuses. He would like you to come see him. It is better for such matters to be dealt with face to face.”
“It is a very long journey to where he lives,” replied Horten, “and to be truthful I am not interested in making it if I am not convinced that it will be worth my while. I have spent a lot of time and money in the last few years traveling to people who had little or nothing to tell me. Can you tell me something substantial, something factual, which would make me change my mind? The last thing I need is another wild goose chase.”
“There is death involved. There are ruins on the mountain connected with deaths in the past. Within the next year an installation will be made on the mountain which will be connected to other deaths, soon to occur. This is verbatim from Tonsen. Please don’t ask me to explain any of it. I am competent only to repeat his words.”
“Then please tell him I will be there as soon as possible. Before I leave I’ll write him a note telling him the day of my arrival.”
“Thank you,” said the woman. “The old man will be pleased.” Then, without another word, she got up from her place and left the cafeteria.
Tonsen’s home was far off the beaten track. After a two thousand kilometer journey to where the railway ended at the foot of the mountains in a little trading town, Horten traveled north by mule with a group of traders. They followed a trail, or series of trails, which wound their way through small valleys and across sharp, spiny ridges until, five days later, they entered a village. The village was remarkably tidy, composed of stone houses laid out in a circular pattern and surrounded by gardens and fields divided by low stone walls, very neat and well cared for. A rock bottom river, perhaps ninety or one hundred feet across, divided the village in half. Connecting the banks was a wide stone bridge.
A visitor from the official culture was unusual in the mountains. Four Elders came out from their houses and met him at the end of the bridge as he was crossing with the traders. They invited him to eat a meal in the lovely stone courtyard of one of the Elder’s houses. There he was told that Tonsen lived a day’s walk west, a little higher up on the shoulder of the mountain. He would need a guide. An Elder sent off a young man who returned half an hour later with a skinny boy perhaps twelve years of age. The boy could not speak the official language but the Elder told Horton this would be unnecessary as it was a simple matter of letting the boy go on ahead and following along behind. Horten slept that night on a straw pallet in a marvelously cool room in the Elder’s house and he and the boy left at first light the next morning. They traveled on foot. “Even the most nimble footed mule needs some kind of a path,” the Elder said.
Mid afternoon, after a grueling climb during which Horten was forced to take more and more frequent rests while the boy bounded along like a mountain goat, seemingly tireless, they came to a surprisingly large stone house sprawling across a section of rough, rocky ground on the banks of a stream. After the boy had spoken for some time to a group of women sitting on a bench in the yard, some shelling beans, some making leather sandals and one sewing clothes for a small child, an old woman rose and approached him. She was about eighty, face wrinkled, skin overlain with the tiny lace like patterns created by long years of sun and wind, but, nonetheless, giving off a radiation of healthy vitality which was remarkable. She motioned him to follow and they went into the house. The day was just past its warmest with a clear sky. When they entered the house and started down a longish corridor the temperature dropped ten degrees. Horten could feel the sweat deliciously cooling on his overheated skin. The old woman walked slowly and he had to restrain himself to keep pace behind her. When she brought him into the room where the old man was laying on his bed, she turned and left immediately, saying nothing to either him or the old man.
When he saw who it was, Tonsen sat up, saying, “That is my fifth wife, thirty years younger than myself.” The old man gazed at him cheerfully through a pair of bright blue eyes.
“What age would that make you, sir?” Asked Horten.
“I’m not sure exactly but about one hundred and ten. The official records show one hundred and thirteen but I lied about my age to get into the army early when I was a young boy. In those days my people didn’t keep accurate records as they do now.”
“A venerable age.”
“Quite old, I admit but venerable is a quality of character, not age.”
“Did they give you water?”
“Wasn’t it delicious? The stream gives the sweetest water in the world. Whenever I leave I long for it terribly.”
“It was very tasty.”
“You must have traveled a lot to learn to talk like that. Most outlanders would never refer to water as tasty.”
“This is my first time here but I have spent a lot of time in the mountains in the northeast.”
“Some of my people refer to the people in the northeast as terrible barbarians. As far as I can make out that is because some time long ago we had a war with them. As for myself, I met and made friends with many of them when I was in the army. I found them much like us. My wife will return soon with a platter of food. She is a wonderful cook and a good natured woman but very shy with strangers. Mountain women, especially with someone from outside, are like that. She will get used to you eventually.”
A few minutes later Tonsen’s wife reentered with a platter of food she placed on the table between them. Tonsen said something to her in their language and she laughed and shook her head. He said something else in a kindly, teasing tone and she approached Horten.
“Rise, Mr Horten, place you hands in hers and bow. That’s how it is done here.”
Horten rose, took the old woman’s hands in his own and they bowed each to the other. During this performance she was very self possessed and grave but the moment it was over she left. They ate. At Tonsen’s request Horten told him in detail about his journey. Judging by the amount the old man ate he was not in bed for reasons having to do with appetite. When the platter was empty a young girl entered the room and took it away. Tonsen rose from his bed and walked to the far corner of the room. There he bent over a pottery bowl and washed himself. He was naked excepting a loose undergarment about his waist. When he was done washing he dried himself with a bright blue towel and slipped a light cotton robe over his head. The robe reached down below his knees. He tied the waist with a piece of cotton rope. When he came back to the table he sat on the edge of the bed.
“I am still quite active but I am an old man and have a nap in the afternoon, especially on a hot day like today. Isn’t it wonderfully cool in here?”
“I have granddaughters, great granddaughters, great great granddaughters and even great great great granddaughters. Did you notice that young girl who took away the tray?”
“She is a great great great. Beautiful, yes?”
“Are you in the market for a wife, Mr Horten?”
“Well, not really, sir.”
“Call me Elgi.”
“Elgi then. You can call me Will if you like.”
“Will. I have heard it before, of course, many times when I was in the army. It always sounded to me like a mountain name.”
“Yes, I think you are right. It does sound like a mountain name.”
They sat in silence for some time. Horten examined the scroll painting on the wall above the head of the bed. The subject was an event in the life of one of the holy men or saints. The treatment was stylized but it was very well done. The holy man was sitting crosslegged. Around his head swirled a plethora of figures which Horten assumed to be gods and goddesses or perhaps saints from the past. When he brought his eyes back to the old man his eyes were closed. Horten wondered if he were falling asleep but without opening his eyes Elgi said, “I fear for you, Will.”
“I have things I must tell you which will cause pain. I asked you to come here so I could tell them to you but now I hesitate. I have what in the official culture would be called a conundrum, a seemingly unsolvable problem. In some way I have been called to pass on this knowledge but there is no one here to whom it would be of the slightest interest. This is why, after hearing of your own investigations through old friends I had you contacted by phone and later had someone visit you. In the weeks since I heard you were coming I spent a lot of time in meditation. I spoke to some of the monks in the next valley over who, by the way, are not the holy prudes most outsiders think but rather wise in the ways of human beings. After all this I have decided but I am afraid you will be unhappy with my decision as it may force you to do something which you would not do if left to your own devices.”
“And what would that be, Elgi?”
“Marry one of my granddaughters or, if they do not please you, one of the women from here around.”
Horten stared at the old man with his mouth opened.
“Please do not think me a greedy old man seeking your salary and pension for my clan. I have more than enough and my clan is well established, lacking nothing. Rather I ask you to do this for your sake. I cannot bring myself to tell you what I have to tell you without your being grounded in the world of human beings and earth. I fear, as you are, the information would unbalance and eventually destroy you. I do not want to be responsible for your death or the marring diminishment of your life.”
Horten was shocked by this proposal but even more shocked when he realized he understood exactly what the old man was saying. In the grip of an icy vice of objectivity he found the old man’s logic utterly compelling. He stared at Elgi for a long time but Elgi did not stare back for he had kept his eyes closed during this speech and after.
Finally he replied, “I will have to consider.”
“Of course,” said Elgi, “all you like.”
For three days Horten didn’t see Elgi at all. One of his sons, a man in his seventies, who had been in the army himself, told him the old man had traveled further up the mountain to buy yearling sheep. On the fourth day he arrived back as Horten was helping his son repair a stone wall in the front yard. They went inside to a sitting room where Horten gave his answer.
Two weeks later he was married by a laughing, jolly priest to a great great granddaughter, a widow of thirty two. “I don’t want a young woman. I’m thirty-five myself,” he told Elgi. “Well, yes,” replied Elgi, “young women can be tempestuous but then so can the older ones.”
Hemi, Elgi’s wife, in the absence of Horten’s own mother or female relative, did the negotiating on his behalf with the prospective bride’s mother. It was a very pragmatic process. There were two children already. The wife wanted only one more. Her dead husband’s farm, where they would live, would remain in her name and revert to her children if she died before fifty. If after it would go to him to make his own division when the time came. Neither she or her children would have any legal rights to his salary or pension other than widow pension rights if he died before her. No second wife. No mistresses, excepting, in the case of her growing disinterested in sex in middle age, she would then withdraw her objection. They were married in a small ceremony, close family only. The big celebration would occur when he arrived back on his next leave. He lived with his wife for three weeks before he left. He was very happy with her and her children, two girls aged four and eight and she was happy with him. The day before he left Elgi summoned him to his bedroom early in the morning. He stayed until noon. Elgi told him everything.
After spending the night with his wife and a tearful farewell at the front gate in the morning, Horten and the young boy, who after a long absence, had mysteriously reappeared, began the climb down to the village. When he reappeared Horten asked him what he would like in payment for his services. At first the boy protested that he wanted nothing but after some delicate arm twisting he said he would like a lamb. After speaking with Elgi, Horten bought him two - on the generous side thought Elgi but Horten preferred to be generous. The boy was ecstatic and his smile of happiness was truly something to behold. They had to carry the lambs over the more treacherous parts of the downhill climb.
Two weeks later he was back on another tour at the Corridor.
“Who built the Corridor? What purpose does it serve? And what is on the other side?” Horten addressed these questions to Folger, in the lunch room, five months into the tour. Folger looked up from his book and smiled. He was an affable, easy-going man who spent most of his time reading large, leather bound volumes of ancient history. All Observers had an interest or hobby which occupied a great deal of their time. Their duties were light and if they did not have something concentrated to do in their idle hours, they would go mad.
“Nobody knows. Certainly not me,” said Folger.
“Why are there no histories I wonder?”
“There are histories on everything else.”
“Mostly, thank God,” said Folger, pointing to his book.
“Don’t you think it’s because somebody doesn’t want people to know?”
“I think I do.”
Folger eyes narrowed. He looked at Horten very sharply and then picked up his book. “Best you keep it to yourself, Horten. I know there are things which happen that are very, very unpleasant. I don’t really want to know about them.” He rose and left the room. Horten didn’t fault him. He was almost sixty and wanted to retire in peace. He didn’t want to have to drag a heavy stone after him.
A week later Janet, his other tour partner, came up to where he was checking the cameras at the mouth of the Corridor. “Why, in all these years, has no one ever gone to the other end of the Corridor? Do you have an answer for that, Will?”
“Yes. They are terrified the doors will close on them.”
“But the doors only close on Wednesdays, at a very specific time.”
“Yes but they are terrified that stepping into the corridor might change things.”
Janet thought about this for a bit and then said, “You are probably right. There is something conscious about the Corridor, don’t you think? Folger thinks it’s evil. He won’t even come close enough to check the cameras.”
“But you do.”
“Do you think it’s evil?”
“No, but I think it is used for evil.”
“Used for evil? How?”
Horten looked at her. She was a chubby cheeked young women of twenty-eight. Most would not consider her a great beauty but Horten found her very attractive. Some years ago they had an affair. Five months ago when they got in the truck for the trip up the mountain he had showed her pictures of his new wife and children.
“Thanks for showing me, Willi. I get the message,” she had said.
She laughed. “Willi, you are so serious. I was joking, silly. Truly I am happy that you told me. You are a very sweet, considerate man.” She kissed him on the forehead and he blushed. Imagine that. An old campaigner in the love wars like himself and here he was blushing.
After looking off down the mountain for a while Horten said, “Janet, you don’t want to know.”
“O yes I do.”
“Janet, it is truly terrible.”
“Does it have to do with killing and stuff?”
“I’ve heard rumors.”
“It would be best to leave it at that.”
Horton finished checking the cameras and they walked back to the lunchroom.
Five weeks before their tour was to end a unit of army engineers came up the road and camped on the plateau two hundred feet down from the lunchroom. Folger, the senior Observer, went down to see what they were up to. They were erecting a steel and concrete building. When Folger arrived they were already pouring footings. There were long flatbed trailers carrying steel, Euclids full of sand and gravel and a great assortment of other trucks loaded with plumbing, electrical and other kinds of building material. “What are you building?” Folger asked the Captain who came over when he saw him coming down the road.
“A hotel,” the Captain replied.
The Captain shrugged and said, “Those are my orders.” Then he turned on his heel and walked away.
“A hotel,” Folger told Janet and Horten when he came back to the lunchroom. “Can you imagine? Whoever ordered this must be crazy!”
“Did he say anything else?” Asked Janet.
“No. He told me they were building a hotel and then walked away. Rather rude I would say.”
Horten was translating a text of tribal history. Around him on the table where he was working were three dictionaries and a grammer. During this tour his translating ability had improved dramatically. Improving his spoken language would have to wait until he got home. He didn’t look up from his work when Janet and Folger were talking. They both turned to look at him until, finally, feeling their eyes upon him, he raised his own.
“You know, don’t you?” Janet said.
“I know some things. As I told you before it would be best if you didn’t.”
Folger, the rude Captain having changed his mind, and Janet, argued with him for some time. Horten cursed himself silently. He should have said nothing. From the very beginning he should have kept his mouth shut. Finally he agreed to tell them. What else could he do? How could you refuse people with whom you lived together months on end as brother and sister?
“The Corridor has been here a long time. Much longer than anyone thinks or would believe.”
“How long?” Folger asked.
“Way back into history. Perhaps many thousands of years but at least three or four.”
“How do you know?” Folger asked.
“I have a reliable informant,” Horten replied.
Folger and Janet took a few moments to digest this. Then Janet asked, “Who…?”
“No,” Horten said.
They took even longer to digest this.
When they were done Folger asked, “OK. It goes way back into history. So what? What does that have to do with the army erecting a hotel?”
“Two hundred and fifty years ago another hotel was erected. And two hundred and fifty before that another and another and another and so on. At least twelve cycles my informant tells me but possibly many more.”
“How does your informant know this?”
“He knows it in the only way it is possible to know it - person to person transfer, oral tradition. It is the only way which cannot be controlled or suppressed. In all other ways of knowing, there is no record of it at all.”
“OK then,” said Janet, “let’s say there is something to this knowledge of his. So every so many years they erect a hotel. What happens after that?”
“First,” said Horten, “take a look at these.” He walked over to the filing cabinet, opened a drawer and extracted a file. He laid it on the table between Folger and Janet. It contained twenty photographs. Folger and Janet removed them from the file folder and spread them out on the table. They were pictures of ruins – decayed buildings, the outline of buildings, filled with rubble.
“What are these?” asked Janet.
“A mile down the road there is a trail which runs off the east end of a switchback. From the road it is barely discernable but if you walk along the side of the road, and are attentive, it is easy to find. There is a thick alder run there, twenty feet tall. The trail leads through the alders for thirty feet and then comes out onto a plateau much like the one they are now building the hotel on. From examining the ruins I would say there are at least four ages of buildings there. Enough for one thousand years if my informant is correct. He says there are other sites but would not tell me where they are. He showed me photographs. The site I found he didn’t know about. I sent him my information digitally. After you look at them I will destroy these prints.”
“”Did you send them on the official computer?” Janet asked.
“No. On a laptop.”
“There are ways to trace that,” said Folger.
“Yes there is. But there are also ways around it. And the laptop was bought on the black market and is now in a thousand pieces spread over a ravine five miles from the road.”
“So why?” asked Folger. “Why would someone want to construct a hotel every two hundred and fifty years out here in the boondocks?”
“That is the hard part,” said Horten, “the part you will regret hearing if I tell you.”
Folger and Janet looked at one another. “We’ve come too far now to go back. Tell us,”
“When the hotel is complete the observers are sent away. Nobody replaces them for six months. When the Observers and construction people are gone some kind of special medical unit comes up the mountain and takes over the hotel. They wear a strangely colored uniform bearing no insignia. They bring with them trucks filled with medical equipment and two enormous trailers. After they have settled in, on the next Wednesday morning, buses arrive carrying people.”
“People?” asked Folger. “What kind of people?”
“My informant’s information on that is patchy. He does know that some have been from minority cultures. Others have been prisoners of some sort. But not just men. There are women and children as well.”
“When the people arrive they are herded to the wide section of road in front of the Corridor door. Here their keepers allow them to sit on the ground and bring them food and water. During the last leg of the journey, lasting eight hours, they were allowed none. The food and water makes them happy. They drink and eat greedily. Then they begin to laugh and talk among themselves. At ten minutes to ten they are ordered to their feet and herded into the Corridor. They enter with some trepidation but they are far from terrified. For those who have never seen the doors closed, their butt ends and casings are far from obvious. The herders tell them they are going to a camp on the other side of the mountain. Some of the keepers even enter with the end of the line but after fifty feet or so they begin to back off. When the herders are clear and the head of the line is perhaps one hundred feet from the far end of the Corridor, the doors close and they are entombed.”
“How many?” asked Janet.
“Five hundred or so says my informant. When the doors are opened in the evening all those sent in that morning are dead. But they have been killed in a certain way. In some fashion they are drugged so that their central nervous systems are paralyzed, and then the major organs are removed.”
“They are alive when this is done?” asked Janet.
“Yes. The heart and lungs are left to the last. When the doors open there are five hundred cadavers with the major organ removed. ”
“Even the children?” asked Janet.
“Especially the children,” said Folger in a most bitter tone of voice.
“Even the children,” said Horten. “Two days later one of the trucks drives down the mountain and doesn’t return until the next Tuesday. More buses arrive the next morning. This goes on for ten weeks or so, according to my informant.”
“And the cadavers?”
“Dehydrated in drying ovens, ground into fertilizer and trucked down the mountain.”
“God!” said Janet.
“More like the devil,” said Folger.
Horten said nothing.
The hotel was finished in four weeks. The Observers were informed they were to accompany the engineering unit down the mountain.
“Will they kill us?” asked Folger.
“No,” said Horten. “The Engineers are witnesses as well. They would have to kill them too. Besides what are we witnesses to? Someone built a building on a mountain? Nothing terribly unusual.”
When the army van came to get them they stowed their luggage into the compartment in the back. All three climbed into the back seat, Horten in the middle, and the driver pulled away.
When they passed the hotel Janet and Horten watched it go by. Folger, on the other side of the van, turned his head away and looked out the far window.
“Why two hundred and fifty years?” asked Janet.
“Because the supply lasts that long, I suppose.”
“That’s what I thought too.” said Janet.
By the time they arrived at the foot of the mountain, off the switchbacks and onto the straight road, Folger had fallen asleep. Janet looked into the rear view mirror at the driver’s face. A young, bland, cheerful face. She turned toward Horten and said, “I suppose there is nothing we can do.”
Horten didn’t answer for so long Janet began to think he didn’t hear the question. Then he turned his mouth toward her ear and said softly, so softly she could barely make out the words, “No, there isn’t. At least not now anyway.”