I was never a model of mental health. I haven't been, since… they took him. But this place does no favors. Ironically, here, in this place, connected to the minds of every living being on earth, I feel more alone than ever. I thought that would change when I found survivors, wandering the Headspace, just the same as me. The reality of the situation is this place simply made me more of what I am: a predator, inhuman.

Jonathan Mantell took a cautious glance around a corner. The aesthetic of the rooms had changed. Office space gave way to urban causeways, wallpaper exchanged for pipes and wires. He was grateful for the change, but it gave way to new issues. A new portion of the maze to commit to memory, new obstacles, and… from what he could tell, new predators. He glanced back at the entryway to this locale change, wondering if it was a mistake to leave behind… the children.

The Monarch program is the first step in proving my life's work successful. After they… took him, I poured my efforts into what I could remember of his work, hoping that it would lead me to answers. In the end, all I got were more questions, and permanent reminders of a man who looks like me but isn't. They're a part of me, but also a part of him. They're also the only proof of my success, and I can't lose them to the infinite mindscape before I find a way out.

There, that was what he needed. He spotted his prize down a corridor: a backpack. He'd been finding them everywhere, down in this new space and in the old one. Sometimes they were empty, sometimes they were mostly destroyed, or rotted, or stuck halfway through a wall. But some of them held prizes, and this one looked stuffed full. Eyes darting from side to side, he scampered like a wild animal down the tunnel and snatched the bag. His hands ran over the surface, feeling for a zipper, and—


Jonathan looked up from the bag. The voice had come from his left, but he looked directly up and stared in front of him, wondering for a moment if it had finally happened, if he'd finally succumbed to isolation-induced schizophrenia. "Put my bag down, dude!" Jonathan turned his head slowly to look towards the source of the voice.

For the first time in three months, he looked into the eyes of someone who didn't look like him.

"Yo? Oh, shit… you're a new guy, aren't you?" Jonathan simply stared, setting the bag back on the floor and taking a single step away. "No, no. I'm not a creature. I'm a… well I don't think you're familiar with that. I'm a human, just like you. How long have you been down he-?"

"Three months, two weeks, 5 days, 16 hours, 27 minutes."

There was a moment of silence as the explorer took a second to process. "Oh… kay? That's… a while. Are you injured? Do you need any assistance?"

"Hungry." Jonathan looked back down at the pack, considering his options.

"… Uh, right. Sure. There's some canned meat in there, if you need it. I just need you not to take my notes; they're important." With his permission, Mantell retrieved the sack from the floor and rummaged through it, feeling around for cans. The smooth feel of paper stuck to metal graces his fingertips, and he pulled out the can of Spummy. He ripped open the tab and used the sharp edges of the lid to dig into the meat, scooping it in globs directly into his mouth. "What's your name, man?"

"Se-… Jonathan." He continued eating in between words.

"Right, Jonathan. I'm Luis, Luis Flores. I'm… we're both survivors down here, in the Backrooms. Do you know how you got here?"

"No, I just… I woke up here. No cause or anything," he lied. No use disseminating classified documents if he didn't need to.

"You probably clipped in your sleep. That's… it means your physical body lost collision with the ground, and you fell through, into… this place. The Backrooms." Interesting name. It did look like this may have been the maintenance area for some place outside the Headspace, but beyond that, it may not have been entirely accurate. "Is this your first time seeing anyone else down here?"

In a way, he was right. The Monarchs didn't count, not really. They'd all been intended to be someone else, but in the end, they were just the same as me. They have the same fingerprints, same birthmarks, same disposition and appetites. There was more to my other half than just a mirrored image. A soul, perhaps.

"Alright, you should come with me. I know some people who can help you." Luis took a few steps away, and then took a look back as if to make sure Jonathan was following him. He scarfed down the last few remaining chunks of Spummy and ignored the sounds coming from his stomach.

Therein followed a trek of lengths Mantell had never undergone in the Headspace before. He tried not to leave the Monarchs alone for too long, but in truth, they didn't really take much maintenance. They didn't know to be hungry, or cold, or lonely, and therefore didn't really have many needs to take care of. In fact, Jonathan's attempts to teach them to do so had largely been unsuccessful up to this point. Most of his time down here had been dedicated to this, outside of hunting around where he'd fallen into the Headspace for scraps of fabric to clothe them and food to eat. That is, outside of the night.

He couldn't be sure, but he thought there must be a nighttime here. The tone of the walls changes slightly, the lights taking on a different hue. Subtle, but not unnoticeable. The more obvious of the changes was what he'd taken to calling The Creature, as unoriginal as it'd been. He'd never seen it, nor had the Monarchs. He could hear it though: some heavy force thundering down the hallways. Alongside these thumps, guttural, indescribable noises. It didn't come every night, but the very first thing the Monarchs had to be taught was "Quiet."

"We're here. Take a look." Jonathan blinked a few times. This area wasn't particularly different from the surrounding ones, but he could see it had become less of a set of winding tunnels and more of a cohesive area with moderately intentional functionality. In fact, a completely normal maintenance room with walls and a door stood nearby, the entrance propped open by a rubber doorstop. A large mass of trash lay inside, and a man walked out before knocking away the doorstop and closing the door.

He waved his hand in front of his face. "Phew! That trash room is starting to get full; we'll have to find a new one soon."

Luis waved. "Hey, David! How many more hours are you on shift for?"

"Just two, but I may be able to cut out early if there are more people recycling today."

"I owe you a beer. See you on 654 in a few?"

David laughed. "If I can find my way there. Last time I tried to walk out that way, I got trapped in a dead end by Hounds for 40 minutes."

They both made a final set of hand gestures that Jonathan assumes are native to the Headspace citizens, and they went their separate ways. "Not so bad around here. Here, check it out." Jonathan and Luis turn a corner, and their vision opens up to a wide concord. Here, a ramshackle shanty town lies, constructed from various accouterments of the environment. Wires run across the ground, coupled and recoupled, many different shops and homes and terraces and spaces all vying for the limited outlets strewn vaguely at random throughout the plaza. Some doors seem to lead into buildings claimed as entire areas, whereas other structures are built of scrap metal and fences. "It's not much, but it's something. Welcome to the M.E.G."

"The M.E.G.?"

Luis pointed at a sign, reading it aloud. "Major Explorers Group. We're a neutral party of refugees, all the people that got sent down here. There are a couple of other groups, but they're not spectacularly important. You'll find out more shortly. Come on, I'll show you around."

It was a rather quiet journey. Every once in a while someone offered to sell them something, or a child ran screaming and alone through the village, but more than otherwise, everyone keeps to themselves, keeping chatter to a dull roar. "We try to keep quiet the best we can, noise attracts entities." It seemed Jonathan may have been right to keep silent his Monarchs. "Over there is the Administration section, that's where the Overseers convene. Down that hall is the Archives, where they catalog information. That stretches on for a while, lots of offices, even wraps back into Level 0."

Jonathan stared blankly.

"Right, uh… the space you started is Level 0. Now we're in Level 1, the Habitable Zone."

"But we haven't changed elevation."

Luis smirked. "Now we have your wheels spinning, huh? There's more than one way to move up and down the levels. The easiest is clipping."

Jonathan squinted at him. "Clipping?"

Both of them were interrupted by a loud yell. "Luis Flores!"

Luis turns to look. "Oh shit."

"You are twenty-five minutes late for briefing. Admin, now." The man turned tail and walked back to the building Luis indicated as 'Administration'.

"Man…" Luis said, rubbing the back of his head. "Oh, uh… that's Reed. He leads the team that does exploration. Uh, my team. I have to go, but uh…" he said, looking around for a moment. "You should head down in there." He pointed to an open room, and Jonathan can see people doing something akin to yoga, or perhaps tai chi. "They'll teach you about clipping in there. Be right back, 15 minutes tops!" Jogging slowly away, Luis waves earnestly before accidentally running into a concrete pillar in the middle of the hallway. He stumbles but keeps going, ducking into the Administration building.

Jonathan is alone once again.

It seems that even beyond the boundaries of our dimension, humanity persists. This is, in no doubt, due to reliance on others. In the space where I'd found no one else, I'd been able to persist for myself and then some, all by alone. Here, humanity festered like rodents, scurrying around one another. Instead of evolving to overcome, it had become reliant on itself again, even here. This was clearly not a permanent solution to the problem at hand.

He poked an eye into the room. It was a little hard to make out what everyone was doing, because the room was marked out periodically with square pillars, roughly a foot wide. However, most people had set up roughly on the same side of each of them, with a few unattended. A man at the front demonstrated a technique, and everyone followed suit.

"You must understand that the fabric of the Backrooms is fundamentally different than that of the Frontrooms. Once you do, things begin to fall into place, and you can create a superposition of your own body and the surfaces of things. Like so." The man brought his hand to the edge of his demonstration pillar swiftly but gently and precisely, and Jonathan watched as his hand seemed to interact strangely with the corner, before passing right into it. It swallowed his arm in a lurch, not unlike a hungry beast. The man wrenched his arm loose in a fluid motion, and then showed it was fine. "Now you try."

Jonathan walked to a pillar to join the class. Without following the actions, he peered at his would-be peers and observed them. Many of them simply collided with the pillar, hands bouncing off. Two or three were managing glancing blows. That was when the scene turned rather chaotic. One of the people up front had perfectly performed the move, but when he tried to pull his arm back out, he found it stuck. Panicking, the young man, who couldn't be older than 20, screamed for help from others. The two students to either side tried pulling on his shoulder, but it didn't seem to be doing anything.

The person teaching this… class, seminar, whatever, stepped down from his podium. Gently, he placed his own hand inside the pillar of the young man and pulled his arm out. The student sighed in relief.

"Careful now, Jared. Do that again without someone present and you may lose that arm." The class laughed, but Jonathan had returned his attention to the post. Time passed in the class as he attempted to match the hits, but he couldn't quite get the idea. He did have his arm pass through the pillar once or twice, but he could feel there wasn't quite a right way to do it with every vertice of the pillar. There had to be something more to it.

He was distracted by the view of another student. There was a woman a row in front and to the side of him who seemed more or less fully grasping the concept. She passed her hand through one side of the pillar and out of the other, sometimes in a straight line, sometimes sweeping, but always deliberate. The instructor, who'd now come down to inspect work, turned a watchful eye on her. "Diana, your ability to do that is remarkable, but your form is all off. You must tighten your core."

She turned her gaze to him with a sarcastic look on her face. "If I'm doing it well, what does my form matter anyway? I've already done a full clip; I don't know why you won't certify me at this point."

The man shook his head. "You may have a special talent for clipping, but if you aren't careful your actions can rip your whole body apart. You must be able to hold yourself together under stress." He looks around to see most people have given up or have sat down to rest. "We can call it for today, folks. I'll see you in two days for your certification tests."

One by one, each person left. Jonathan watched the more proficient woman walk out, to a "Good work today, Diana," from the instructor. Once the class had emptied out, the man noticed Jonathan. "Is there something I can help you with, er…"

"Jonathan. There is."

"Well, go on. I haven't all day."

"You teach clipping."

The instructor raised his eyebrow. "No, I'm here for the free coffee."

"Don't play games with me, old man," Jonathan scowled.

"Then get to your point."

"I was told by… a friend that clipping can get you between different… 'levels', is that right?"

The Instructor sat. "That's the primary purpose, yes. You can reach into other levels doing it, through the Blue Channel, and the intention of the clipper-"

"Yes, all that. But I have another question."

"Yes, yes. The one everyone asks, 'Can I clip out of the Backrooms and into the Frontrooms again, I want to see my family again, oh please, et cetera, et cetera'. The short answer is no."

"And the long one?"

"I haven't enough time."

"Indulge me."

The Instructor sighed. "It's a one-way ticket. There's a… let's say, a semipermeable membrane. Osmosis, if you will. Clip in, no clip out. You probably did it accidentally, and most people down here are likely to be doing so, so it's likely that people go their entire lives without entering the Backrooms simply because they're not prone to it. There are no easy take-backsies."

"But you're… you know more than other people."

"What are you suggesting?"

Jonathan leaned against the pillar Jared had used earlier. "You mentioned to a student that certain clips could be dangerous."

"And you're insinuating there is a way to do it, but it's so dangerous I wouldn't tell anyone about it?"

Jonathan nodded.

"Well now… I'm afraid you're simply wrong. Even if that were true, I certainly wouldn't be telling someone who just attended his first class today; that would be irresponsible. I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to leave while I clean up."

Pursing his lips, Mantell stood from his lean and walked towards the door. The Instructor, taking this as a sign of defeat, began rolling up some mats laid on the floor. However, upon having arrived at the door, Mantell kicked a doorstop out, and let the metal door swing shut, and then engaged the deadbolt lock.

The Instructor drew a deep breath and let it out from his kneeling position. "So, this is how you want to play it?"

Mantell drew a small knife, six inches in length, made of a discarded piece of metal and some twine wrapped around to form a handle. "I'm not leaving this room until you tell me how I'm getting out of these so-called Backrooms."

"So be it," replied the Instructor, while standing to his full height. He dropped to the floor what Jonathan had initially interpreted as some sort of karate gi but was clearly a bathrobe from a hotel called "Yu-Utsu". Stretching out the length of his pajama pants (complete with small pink pony accents), he settled into a low-back stance. He noticed a large gash circling his shoulder, a set of stretch marks extending from the upper bicep to under his biceps.

Having no formal training, Jonathan loosely held his hands in front of his face, not unlike a boxer. "How'd you dislocate your arm?" he asked.

The Instructor tilted his head, not quite understanding exactly how his would-be student knew precisely what happened to him. "It's really none of your bui—"

He was interrupted by Jonathan's punch at full range of motion. Kicking with his opposite foot, he moved in with a clean right hook to close the gap created by the Instructor's back-stance. The move caught him off guard long enough for Jonathan to come in with the stabbing instrument in his left. Recovering quickly, the Instructor deflected the reverse-grip thrust from Jonathan by blocking Jonathan's wrist just below the weapon. Unfortunately for Jonathan, the reverse grip gave the instructor the dull side of the blade to leverage it out of his hand, and it went spinning across the room. Where it would typically embed in the wall, it became entangled for a moment and then clipped right through, his weapon lost.

While Jonathan watched the weapon spin helplessly away, The Instructor placed a firm, open palm on Jonathan's solar plexus and shoved, pushing Jonathan several yards back and off his balance. After steadying himself, Mantell hopped back and forth between his feet, rolling his head on his shoulders. The Instructor sat unmoved from his position the whole time, only opting to crack his neck once. "Enjoying yourself?" Jonathan asked.

"Might as well." The instructor moved into a calculated half-sprint, half-shuffle, closing the gap between the two fighters to engage with a couple of quick elevated kicks, aimed at the side of Jonathan's head, only dodged by a rather clumsy stumble backward. He might have even fallen over if he hadn't backed up against a wall. Knowing this would put him in a perilous position, Jonathan decided the best option would be to try and put his opponent on the defensive. Bracing against the back wall of the dojo-like room, he pushed off into a full-tilt charge, bull-rushing the Instructor and pinning him against the forward wall with a slam that knocked the wind out of both parties.

"I bet that dislocation is because you tried a risky clip. Looks pretty recent, all things considered. Why don't you tell me a little about it?" The Instructor didn't respond. Instead, he matched Jonathan's tight embrace and walked himself backward up the wall. Jonathan could just barely make out his feet partially sliding into the wall, as if for leverage. At the apex of the climb, the Instructor pushed off from the wall and fell with his full weight on Jonathan, crushing him into the carpet and pinning him to the floor.

"I don't want to hurt you. Yield." Jonathan responded to this with a few weak and panicked punches to the side of The Instructor's head. "Yield!"

Jonathan flailed his arms wildly, trying to grab for something, anything that would help him. He clipped his hand into a nearby pillar to see if he could leverage his way out of the current situation, and when he's grasping around, he connected with something square and heavy: a book. He yanked, pulling it free from the wall. In the same motion, he slammed it upside the head of the Instructor, temporarily stunning him. Getting to his feet while the owner of the dojo is still reeling, he took a look at the object. The cover read “On the Subject of Proper Tea Preparation - Blanche”. He tossed the book to the side, and it clipped back through the same wall.

Jonathan looked to his opponent, ready to kick him while he’s down, but there is no downtime. In the moment he’d looked away, the Instructor was already back on his feet, quickly recovering from the reeling blow. He raised his upright hands, linked together, to just under his heart, pulling in a deep breath, before forming a triangle with them and pushing out to exhale. He linked his hands, and then launched into a quick series of hand gestures. They’re too fast to make out, but each one is accompanied by a glowing sigil, and when he was done, a burst of wind blew in all directions; less an attack and more the result of some powerful force flowing over the man. There was a faint halo to him, hard to describe. Not quite an afterimage, nor a glow. He’s simply more… present than before.

Before Mantell could react, the man full-on sprinted at him, with a stride so long he covered the 20-foot gap in 3 bounds. He knocked into Jonathan, and both of them careened through the wall, clipping in the process. They fell through the air, and it takes both of them a moment to realize there’s nothing under them. The blue sky was all around, with no ground in sight. It only took them that long because both of them were doing their best to beat the ever-living shit out of one another. No longer was there a pretense of formality; both of them were out for blood.

Mantell couldn't seem to connect with the Instructor anymore. Every punch just slid right through where he would have smacked, but the man seemed to have no such problem himself. Mantell takes hit after hit. Something changed about him when he performed those hand motions, he seemed to be in some sort of super-tangible state. They played this dance, legs locked together or leverage, for a solid few seconds, before they passed through a cloud. In an instant, the locale changes; another clip! Jonathan quickly attempted to reorient in the air, but only managed to level out to the point that they both landed next to one another, instead of landing on top of him like he’d tried to do. A rough stone floor greeted them, the interior of what looks like a natural cave. After several seconds of falling, both of them suffered some pretty bad injuries. Jonathan figured he might have even cracked a rib. Both parties tried to crawl towards the other for a moment, and the Instructor nearly scrambled to his feet before a rumble in the cave stopped him.

They looked to the source of the noise. An enormous, serpent-like creature loomed out of the dark, and there was a subtle ‘hissssss…’ emanating from somewhere deeper in the cave. Nearly in sync, Jonathan and the Instructor let out a guttural, primal scream, the kind of yell that only stems from true terror. Experienced as he might be compared to Mantell, the Master of the Backrooms Arts still didn't want to be in the same space as that thing. As fast as his injuries allowed, he moved to the cave wall, managing to pass partially through it, but Jonathan was just able to catch his foot. He could feel his opponent try to shake him free, but just as the elder male Wrangler lunged in for the attack, the foot pulled him through the wall entirely.

They slipped back into a room that looks inhabited. The walls didn’t match Level 0, but they definitely weren't ‘falsely populated’… several features aren’t simply replications, there are people who’ve lived here. Several shelves lined the walls, with objects bearing labels and tags. Some of them read M.E.G., some of them read S.A.D., and some of them just bear a description of the item. The Instructor picked up a small stone hat, hurling it at Jonathan but missing. It cracked into pieces on the floor, with a gem rolling away under a desk. He took off down the hall of shelves, exiting through a nearby door. Mantell quickly looked around, picked up a few choice items without entirely understanding their purpose, and then followed him. Through the door now, he chased the Instructor. They passed a surprisingly well-kept gentleman, who for a few moments stood in total shock. Even as they left him behind, the man shouted after them: “Hey, you can’t be in here! This is a restricted area, only members of-” he managed before Mantell dove into a still rippling wall, where the Instructor had passed through moments before.

On the other side in a level resembling a suburban street in the middle of the night, Mantell hurled one of the things he’d picked up, a small glass jar filled with both clear glass marbles and an amber liquid. It shattered, spilling the marbles across the ground, which the Instructor tripped on for a few seconds before clipping through a nearby light pole. Mantell is barely keeping up with him at this point, hurling a briefcase at his escaping quarry, but it hits the tree he’d clipped through a moment before. A neatly packed homemade lunch fell out, and Jonathan followed shortly after. Finally, it seemed the instructor had a moment to properly plan his clip, as they found themselves in the very room they’d left from: the Dojo in Level 1.

Panting, the instructor stopped in place, holding out a hand. Jonathan halted: not because he was feeling particularly nice, but just because it seemed the ‘correct’ thing to do. The instructor panted a couple of times, before adjusting his stance. He raised a hand, beckoning Mantell to fight once more. He’s done running. Jonathan took a few ragged breaths, and then yelled, charging the Instructor. He unleashed a flurry of wild, uncoordinated blows. Most of them are blocked, but a few passed clean through the martial arts guru, even when they should have landed, and hard. The man drew in his breath and pulled his knee to his chest, and kicked with such force that it sent Jonathan spinning across the room, falling to the floor.

“You know… I really did think you were a smart one. No matter how fast you punch, you can’t do it with enough speed that I’ll be tangible, not in this state. You… can’t… beat me.”

It was then that Mantell pulled the third and final object he’d grabbed from the S.A.D. storage room: a polished 1911 handgun that had been sitting on a rack. The feeding ramp bore an engraving: “TO ROB FROM ANNA HAPPY 5TH ANNIVERSARY”. He pointed the gun at his adversary, and before the Instructor could say a word in response, Mantell put the nail in the coffin.

“Clip through this.”

He pulled the trigger five times. His first two shots missed, and the last two shots resulted in a resounding 'click'; the magazine only had 3 bullets left in it, but he’d not had time to check ahead. Thankfully for him, that 3rd shot hit home, punching an inch-wide hole in his naked chest. He doubled over, coughing. A spurt of blood escaped his lips and the wound every time his slowly stopping heart beat.

“You… shot me…” he finally managed to say.

“Don’t be a baby. Now, you have minutes, maybe seconds to live. Tell me the secret. Tell me before you can’t tell anyone ever again.”

“You… will never… accomplish this…”

“Why? Why can’t I clip back out? Speak, quickly!”

“No… you’ll get out… one way or another…”


“I’m trying to say… you will… never win. The secret… is belief…”

“Belief? Belief in what?”

“You must believe… in yourself.”

Jonathan looked at the man for a moment, before cracking up. His laughter broke the silence, echoing in the nearly empty room.

“Belief is everything… here, in this place. You already believe greatly…”

“But I’ve got to get better? Really?”

“No. But… there is another. One who… believes more strongly… in themselves. And they will be… your downfall.”

“Great. A dying sage is giving me a prophecy. You really want to make your last words a grasp at predicting the future?”

“Only because… it will be hilarious… to see your face… when it’s proven right…” The Instructor smiled one last time. His body went limp, and he could no longer collide with either Jonathan’s arms nor the floor. Mantell watched as he sank below the carpet, not unlike a Viking sinking beneath the waves on his way to Valhalla. Mantell simply stood, breathing in until it pained him, and stumbled to the door. He unlatched it and looked back at the room one more time.

Then he’s gone.

rating: +12+x
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