Monday, May 26, 2014

The Steel Edifice

Note: This story is a translation of an original Arabic imagining. Read it here if you know any Arabic and you can read his entire excellent blog, بلوق د. ساعساعينو, which has both Arabic and English writing.

With heavy eyelids he opened his eyes slightly after slumbering for an unknown amount of time. The man lay on his stomach on top of a thin, spongy pillow.

The expression on his face was indicative of how exhausted he still felt, and that his awakening was not of his own volition.
He still hadn't fully opened his eyes; it was an involuntary reaction to the brutality of sunlight that filled his surroundings. The rays woke him up and made his pupils dilate.

The air was frigid.

He took a look at the sky above him. It was clear save for a few scattered clouds. The sun hung away from the middle of the sky, which had him guess that it was early morning judging from the white-like pure shade of yellow it gave out.

He discerned that he had slept in open air.

“Where am I? And what am I doing here?” he asked himself.

He rolled over to lie on his back and attempted to situate himself slowly while battling his exhaustion.

The wind was a little rough.

He only had short, blue boxer-briefs on; they were as blue as a medical intern’s scrubs complete with a white pair of sneakers.

The man appeared to be in his mid-20s with an athletic physique.

He hugged himself trying to maintain some warmth as he looked around.

The spongy pillow he slept on was centered on a square floor that rose above the ground.

It appeared that the floor was made of steel grating not unlike the one used in fire escapes. He estimated the dimensions to be around 65 by 65 feet.

He stood up, took a step outside the perimeter of the pillow and looked down.

A little panic got the best of him, as he wasn’t ready to see that.
He was on top of a building that comprised several floors and each floor was made of steel grating such as the one he stood on.

Because of the transparency of the floors, he could barely see the floor directly below him but none of the ones that followed.

He decided to avoid looking down and to just focus on the grating itself.

Being mysteriously situated at this height for unknown reasons unnerved him somewhat.

He walked towards one of the edges of the building in order to see what lay beneath it.

There were no sounds besides those of his consistent steps over the fence along with cold wind.

He slowed his pace for fear of falling over the edge when he noticed that the building was more than three floors high.

The horizon started appearing to him as he reached the edge. White snow covered the nearby hills for as far as he could see, which only added to the direness of his situation.

He raised his eyebrows even more than they had already been.

He stood about five feet away from the edge. His breathing hastened once the gravity of the situation had sunk in coupled with not knowing what to do or what he was supposed to be doing.

The mighty edifice was somewhere between 300 to 330 feet tall in his estimate.

In feeling scared he took a step back and fell on his buttocks, which hurt as they collided with the cold fence.

He sat on the floor where he began to ponder.

"How did I get here?" he wondered. If he couldn’t remember that, did it mean that someone placed him here? Why couldn’t he recall where he was before he awoke? Why was he put on top of this strange structure?

Following the lack of answers to his questions, he concluded that thinking will not do him any good and that he should try to do something to get out of this mess.

He picked himself up and stood there with a straight back. The blowing win became noisier and he hugged himself again to try to elevate his body temperature.

He walked along the sides of the building clockwise and staying around three feet away from the edge at all times.

There was snow everywhere.

He took steps parallel to two adjacent sides of the square and hadn’t noticed anything new that would provide him with valuable information. As he passed by the third side, he noticed a narrow paved road that could barely fit two cars and it wasn’t covered by pure white.

This place is inhabited.

He walked until he reached the corner connecting the third and fourth sides.

Looking down, he saw a parked SUV sitting at the bottom of the building. The driver’s door was open and its motor seemed to be running; he deduced this owing to the heavy smoke emitting from the exhausts. It was as if the car called on him to drive it away.
Was it a trap? Was it his path to salvation? Was it the mode of transport that brought him here?

He didn’t have a lot of choices. Staying here meant imminent death and thus he needed to find a way down, into the car and out of this place.

Blood pumped through his veins following the formulation of a plan and becoming equipped with the necessary and logical incentive to escape from here. He extended his arms towards the fourth side of the floor of this building that he’s on top of for whatever reason.
Was there a specific reason, though? Was there supposed to be one? Was he entitled to one? Who gave him that entitlement?

None of that mattered now.

He found a metal ladder in the middle of the fourth side linking this floor to the one beneath it and it stopped there.

It would be a grave risk to attempt descending a ladder that clearly held up to no safety standards, he thought.

Should he go down?

He decided to wait for a few minutes on the off-chance that a car would pass by and grab its attention one way or another.

He stood in his place for a couple of minutes. No cars emerged.

The extreme cold sent a shudder running down his spine and he decided to pace along the side facing the road to generate some much-needed heat for his limbs as he waited.

Three minutes passed by. No cars.

He had no choice but to climb down.

With a sigh he summoned his nerves, took a deep breath and stepped towards the ladder.

When he finally reached it and peered over the height he was going up against, his heartbeat intensified.

He never had an above-average fear of heights but what he was in the process of doing was capable of pumping fear into the strongest of hearts. Adding to it the fact that there was nothing to protect him should he trip and fall over.

The young man turned and walked sideways so he would be able to descend the ladder without needing to look down.

Slowly and carefully he bent over and placed his hand on the surface thrusting his fingers through the cold metal.

He positioned his foot on the first step of the cold metal. Right after that the he moved the other to the second step. He climbed down steadily until his hand reached the first step and so on until he passed the midway point.

That’s when the intensity got the best of him. He questioned whether the amount of anxiety he felt was warranted.

After sneaking a peak down to the ground, he couldn’t handle the magnitude of what he saw and sensed his heart fall to his stomach while his breathing quickened as clutched tightly to the ladder.

A harsh wind blew suddenly and he lost his balance. His left hand and both feet went off the ladder and the only thing separating him from assured doom was his right hand, which tightened and had him stuck for a couple of seconds.

All his survival instincts kicked in and adrenaline pushed its way through his veins and he was able to bring back his left hand to the steps. After restoring balance, his feet were back on the ladder, too, despite the merciless winds.

He went down the rest of the steps and set his feet on the floor of the level right below the top one.

When he stood on his feet again he unleashed a barrage of curses and swears in an engorged, booming voice, yet he didn’t know who he aimed it towards. It was frivolous since his screams merely dissipated into the air.

He bowed and panted, taking about a minute to calm down, but he still needed to keep going and put an end to his current conundrum.

After gathering his wits, he lifted his head and looked around to familiarize himself with the surroundings.

There was a column in each corner of the floor, which kept the top level from collapsing. The rays of light dimmed down since the upper floor acted a ceiling.

He took a few steps to look over the side where the car lay, and it was still there. Moving on, he walked away pacing over the fence-floor that was an exact replica of the preceding level. He went on exploring.

A pair of square-shaped holes sat on the floor separated by a few feet and were situated in the exact center of the room.

"Why are there two holes? Do they lead to the same place?” he wondered.

Without hesitation he climbed down the ladder extending down the right hole and down to the next level.

He found a slender metal plate that divided the floor into two separate vicinities making it impossible to see the other side. The three sides surrounding him were open-air.

The metal plate protruded over the edges of the level so that he wouldn’t be able to cross over to the next area easily.

It appeared that the second hole led to the other side of the plate.

“What's the purpose of having two sections?”

He inspected the flooring and sides and found no holes or ladders. Any potential ladders may dwell in that other section, he thought.

Back up he went and then proceeded to climb down the left hole.

This time he found four holes: two of which had ladders and the other two had staircases.

“Is this a maze? What fucked-up joke is this?”

The man felt so much anger and kicked the plate while shouting incessantly. His foot hurt him causing him to scream yet again and to regret the attempt at breaking his own toes.

He decided to not do that again in order to save his strength and focus on fleeing this maze. After taking a few deep breaths, he decided to go down the staircase so he wouldn’t need to touch the “damn cold ladder” as his thought of it to himself.

The path was blocked. He went up and tried the other staircase.

Arriving at the lower level he saw smaller sections separated by metal plates just like the large one he had previously encountered complete with an outward protrusion making it difficult to go around them.

All the other paths with the ladder were blocked, too.

He started thinking.

“There has to be a way down.”

He went back down the first of the four holes, back to the room with the metal plates. In checking the sides of the floor, he found yet another ladder on one of them.

The man cursed and swore at whoever gave him no choice but to go down the latter. He carefully went down to the floor below.

In there he saw yet another open-air level albeit with a single pit in the middle with stairs. He may be on the right track.

Down those stairs were more openings, stairs, ladders and ladders on the sides.

The reason why someone would do this to him kept nagging at him as he tried to get to the bottom of this seemingly frivolous building by any means necessary.

Going down a few more floors, the obstacles became even more convoluted.

In some situations the ladders and stairs leads him two or three floors down before it became evident that there is a hindrance forcing him to go back to where he started and try the other passages.

He counted down 13 floors starting from the top, which places him around the midpoint of the building. The multitude of choices stacked up on him and took a harsh toll.

In that instance he felt tired and a lot less invigorated thinking about his circumstances. The blood-flow to his limbs became slower and he was soon shivering again.

A strategic change was sorely needed.

He was sitting on a small, isolated corner of the side of that floor. The sun had been hidden behind some clouds for the past few minutes. A steel plate was against his back as he bent his knees and covered his face with his palms trying to think.

He glanced at the corner. There was a metal column there, which only now he realized was on a corner of every floor.

His eyes lit up and widened as if it were a “eureka!” type of moment.

Some adrenaline flowed through him and he walked towards the column, took a hold of it and peered down below.

He might be able to make it down if held on to the column and and climbed slowly and carefully. It would certainly save him a lot of time.

There’s a huge gamble in this attempt but trying the other means are risky in and of themselves.

He was determined and clutched onto the cold rod with both hands, hugging it. He turned around so his back faced the outside of the building and began his slow descent.

In a little while he made it past that floor and he wrapped his legs around the rod and continued.

When his hands reached the bottom of that floor he had to let one of his hands go and then hold on again.

He was able to make it to the lower level in peace and in one piece.

The man turned around and looked at the new level. He was in a section that covered a quarter of the space. This floor was linked to the one above it with some stairs that he must have missed. It was also connected to the lower floor with a ladder.

He went down the ladder and found a new level with eight openings in its bottom. After taking a few seconds to look at the holes and then eyeing the column in the corner, he chose to go down one of the pits, which took him to yet another dead end.

“Do I really want to test out the rest of these choices?”

The temperature fell rapidly with the sun missing and the cold threatening his very existence.

He turned an eye to the column again and thought of going down that route.

In the end he settled on trying the column.

This time when he let his right hand go to latch onto the bottom of the floor he couldn’t hold on well because of the cold metal. His hands became numb and he lost balance.

He left hand alone couldn’t keep his upper-body weight from dooming him as his leg muscles started failing him, too, but he kept his legs tightly wrapped around the column.

Gravity pulled him down and he fell parallel to the column. His legs eventually crashed into the floor of the next level. He wasn’t able to absorb the shock and his legs unwrapped. The right hand caved and couldn’t hold him up causing him to topple out of the building.

He lost consciousness before he hit the ground.


It all seemed blurry.

“What’s all this light?” he asked himself.

He lifted his hands to cover his eyes.

Through the tug of a wire, he discovered that his arm was hooked to an intravenous drip and a medical monitoring system.

His head had been shaved and a few wires were connected to the scalp.

He had been sleeping on a hospital bed with an arched back and wearing a gown and wrapped with thin white sheets.

With time his eyes adjusted to the volume of light pouring into his pupils.

He felt the most exhaustion that he’d ever felt in his entire life.

“Where am I? What am I doing here?”

The question was familiar, and it wasn’t a good kind of familiarity.

He shifted his gaze and saw a man in his late 40s with long hair in a white lab coat standing on the other side of the room examining papers that hung on the wall.

The older man took note of the awakening, turned to him and took a few steps.

He wore thick, horn-rimmed glasses and a shaggy beard adorned his face.

“Good morning,” he said in a routine manner.

The young man was in no mood to answer any salutations since he had many questions nagging his being.

“Where am I?”

The “scientist” did not seem to be trying to keep any of the information to himself as he went and answered as if he didn’t care about his ignored attempt at exchanging pleasantries.

“You’re in a a neurology lab dwelling in a basement at the city university ."

That answer did not exactly quench his thirst for the truth and may have only given room for more questions.

“What am I doing here?”

The man continued talking while paying attention to the vitals being given off.

“You are a part of an experiment that aims to enhance our understanding of the physical and mental limits of human capabilities and relate them to data derived from the brain’s formation and the functions of its different subsections.”

The answer stunned him and it took him a few seconds to analyze it.

He felt unable to process the information and put it into the context of the experience that he had just gone through.

“What exactly do you recall?”

“I woke up on top of a metal building in the middle of nowhere and I had to get down one way or the other.”

He stopped talking for a bit as if he had wised up to the fact that his experiences were a mere dream.
“And then what?”

He closed his eyes placing his forefinger and thumb on his nose and knotted his eyebrows trying to conjure the painful memory.

“I tried to make it down using so many ways until I made it to the middle of the building, but I failed in the end and fell off the side.”
The looming man took notes in his file seemingly uncaring about explaining the situation to him any further.

The patient didn’t like how he was being treated and took a harsher tone of voice.

“What is this experiment exactly?”

The response he got was very frighteningly cold as the man kept writing.

“What you went through was not real. In layman’s terms, it was like a dream to you. We developed a system in which we can apply virtual scenarios designed for humans to calculate approximate reactions to real-life situations without actually going through that experience. This systems enables us to perform experiments like the one we’re performing now.”

He turned and looked at the patient.

“Simply, the goal from the experiment you’ve just gone through is to figure out if a person of your mental and physical attributes is capable of solving the maze and make it from the top of the building to the bottom under the given circumstances.”

“Wait! Are you saying you’re the one who put me on top of that metal building?” he asked whilst flaring up in anger.

He tried to situate himself and get up but something was holding him back. His torso and legs were strapped to the bed. He shouted a few times and unhooked the wires from his head and then went after the I.V.
“Don’t try to unhook the wires from your arms. The feeder should keep you stable so you will suffer severe consequences if you do."

He decided it was risky to not trust this man and tried to contain his nerves.

After his scream subsided, the man in the horn-rimmed glasses continued.

“The experiment is also concerned with your ability to analyze and deal with a situation accordingly. The car was there in order to motivate you to escape. If you had made it down there, the experiment would have ended and you wouldn’t have been able to continue it. The maze was to see how your mind reacts to a situation along with analysis and the speed in which you deal with it given the circumstances.”

“Who gave you the right to force me to go though this fucking experiment, you bastard?!” he shouted in a congested voice.

The man picked up a document containing his signature and waved it in front of his face.

“You volunteered to do this for monetary compensation. You answered an ad in the newspaper and we informed you about what will happen to you should you choose to do this experiment. You still consented and signed. If memory hasn’t failed me, you said you really needed he cash to pay off some debts. The straps are just a precaution in case you react the way you did just now.”

He grabbed the paper and read it hurriedly and saw his signature.

“There’s no high risk of you dying. The results of the experiment are dealt with as if it were a dream and the chances of any backfires are lower than 3%, just like any margin of error during surgery. Haven’t you noticed that you fell from a building yet the only harm that came to you was your own irrational reaction?"

The man took the document away and placed back onto his desk. He kept speaking in his provocative manner.
“We cannot see what you see during the experiment, but the sensors on your head allow us to monitor your brain activity and through the active parts of your brain we can predict the results of the experience that is supposed to emulate real life. After that we confirm our deductions verbally with the sample.”

“How did you know that the reactions would be the exact same as those in real life?” he asked feeling defeated but still desperately trying to find holes in his logic.
“The system has been tested many times on other samples and under circumstances much simpler than the ones you had gone through and the results were very satisfactory. We estimated that we’d be able to widen the range of testing and and gain results without risking the lives of the samples while undertaking a study just like this one.”

“Don’t call me a ’sample,’ you prick! Is that all I am to you? Just a sample? A goddamn lab rat?” he shouted again.

“A ’sample’ that had been adequately informed of all the risks associated with this experiment and voluntarily agreed to non-fatal testing, yes.” he said waving a forefinger to his face.

“The experiment has been designed so you wouldn’t be able to know the context of what you’ll go through. You must have noticed that you experienced amnesia during the trial and couldn’t recall the reason why you were in the midst of it. That is because you have no data previously given to you before the experiment and thus you decide to climb down and not stay up. If you remembered why you were there, you wouldn’t be motivated to get out of your situation knowing that there’s no real value in that. After you wake up you remember the trial but not what preceded it. With time, your memory gradually returns.”

He waited for him to say something but he didn’t and so he went on.
“The trial you faced represents a point on a scatter plot in which a curve is drawn to clarify the relationship between physical and mental abilities and their chances of succeeding in solving problems with varying parameters. You represent a certain level of physical and mental faculties compared to other samples and so we’re able to complete the diagram that helps us read the relationship along with other data including brain activity, the size of certain parts of the brain and others.”

“A point? All you got from this experiment was a fucking point?” he said feeling patronized.

“As of now we have 11 dots from 11 experiments. Of those, 10 were successful and you managed to make it to the bottom, and one that failed, which is the one you had just gone through.” he said ignoring the outburst.

“Wait a minute. You mean I-“
“Yes. You went through this trial 11 times with changing circumstances in each one. During your first few trials, the variables were set to the mode with the lowest difficulty. 1) The weather was mild. 2) You had clothes on. 3) The building was shorter. 4) There were no ladders on the side of the building. 5) The sides of the building weren’t open and so your chances of falling were nonexistent and you were able to solve the maze easily and you made it to parked car. After passing each trial, a variable was changed in order to make things harder.”

He was stunned and it was noticeably visible on his face.

“It is also the eleventh time in which I explain things to you in full. You succeed every time except for the last one and your reaction was a lot less explosive in the preceding trials compared to now. The reason for that is clear since you failed and fell off the side of the building.”

“Wait a second. If there were five different variables, then the last trial should’ve been the sixth time. Does it mean that-“ he asked after a moment of thinking.

The man interrupted him as he knew no other way of conversion.

“Each change is replicated to confirm reproducibility. In case two trials have conflicting outcomes, a third one is done to decide whether one can make it through a certain level of difficulty or not. I now need to reattach the wires to your head so we can replicate the trial and confirm your failure.”

He panicked thinking he wouldn’t be able to go through another experiment and began to scream and shake trying to loosen the straps. The other man took a couple of steps back.

“It’s 2 a.m. and no one can hear you. Even if they can, there’s nothing they can do and they’ll more than likely help me do my job. If you don’t allow me to reattach the cables and start the trial, I’m going to have to anesthetize you.”

He continued shouting and cursing.

“I’ll get you, you son of a bitch! I won’t let you do this to me again!”

All of a sudden he felt sleepy marked with heavy eyelids and he was unable to move his hands all the while hearing the man fiddle with the device on which he leaned.

“The I.V. hooked up to your arm dispenses drugs, too. It would’ve been so much easier for the both of us if you’d just let me reattach the wires.”

The heaviness got the best of his eyelids and was only able to curse the man in his sleep.

After going completely under, the man put the cables back on with an eerie calm.

He sat behind his desk on the other side of the room and picked up a sandwich, taking a bite out of it and pressed a few keys on his computer.

Silence filled the room save for the sound of the man chewing and typing coupled with the buzzing of different electronic devices.


With heavy eyelids, he opened his eyes slightly after slumbering for an unknown amount of time.

“Where am I? What am I doing here?” he asked himself.

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