Chapter Seven

That week may have been one of the most physically stressful of my life. The only things that compared were my first day here, starving and thirsty and tired beyond belief, and the time I had dislocated my elbow in gymnastics and had to have it reset.

But that week, that first week with my lovely, and I mean that honestly lovely, company was a test of endurance. It was a marathon on my mortal, human, hungry body, and I mean marathon. Not those easy five laps around the track in track and field, not those fifteen or thirty kilometer, and not even the Iron Man or Woman challenge. This was longer. Harder. And much less fueled.

Josh, however, kept up to his word -- that he would ease me into it. I didn't fully appreciate or even believe that he had until afterward -- when it got much harder.

And, despite how hard it was, I kept up to my word, and pulled as much weight as I could of my own and I most certainly didn't try stepping on anyone else's tasks.

My first day of helping to 'take over the world' (which really was what we were trying to do- survive and become on top of the cruel surroundings that we had been placed in; so far, I think Josh and his followers could claim royalty) consisted of learning the ropes of my environment. Josh showed me his great map of the 'day's walk area.' He had gone farther, and did have that mapped out, but I didn't intend to go there and I don't think they intended to let me. When I was done being another mouth to feed, I would become another hunter to catch the food, and I think they saw my potential in that area and so wanted me around, despite Chris' sarcasm.

The map was actually, surprisingly, a piece of paper written upon with pencil. It was Infinity Inc. stationary, although it looked very old. Jessica pointed to where I had come out, and Josh made a mark. I saw similar ones- like a triangle with one leg as a curve, or the 'angle' diagram in mathematics- marked elsewhere on the page. I also some wispy, triangular shapes all over the paper, and guessed by looking down our corridor that those were pine trees. A shaded rectangle showed the openings in the maze that were blocked off by pine branch barricades, and a black square represented the privy. As there were other striped squares, I guessed those were areas that had been privys in the past and were needed to be recorded.

"We've tried to start farming," Jessica explained. "We tried to plant some parts of the life bushes, using some different methods, but nothing has really worked."

"Have you thought of recording when new ones pop up?" I asked. "Maybe then you could transplant the seedlings and watch how they germinate, or just pick one and observe it each day."

"Do you mean ...keep a record of how the plant progresses?" Chris said, seemingly without criticism.

"Yes," I answered. "Kind of like in first grade or whatever, in elementary school, where you measure how much the plant grows over time. Only in this case, notice any differences -- especially in new leaves and buds, that way you can find the seeds. If you check on it every day and look carefully, you will probably be able to see either where the seeds come from on the plant, if you don't already know, or how it starts growing when it does."

"That sounds like a good idea," Josh said wisely. "Chris, come talk with me about this, and Jessica, would you see about getting some food for today? Take Liz here with you, now."

"Sure thing. Anywhere in particular?"

"Hmm..." He looked down at the map. "You may want to try something east, maybe southeast of here -- but that's doubtful. The animals tend to stray from fire, and the wind hasn't carried the smell in that direction."

"No problem," Jessica said, but Josh halted our progress another moment.

"Liz -- take your purse, and the things inside it. You never know what may come in handy. You may want to take a leather bag as well Jess."

"Already got it," she said, as the old man's gaze was on the map. He looked up with a smile.

"Blessed be your way then," Josh said with a bit of sarcasm, shooing us off with his hand. "And try to be back before Zenith. Noon. Whatever."

And so, despite my lovely idea on the farming of life bushes, I pulled my weight in the other areas per planned, much to the despair of my oxygen intake. Jessica said that I would eventually need to be able to jog from place to place, to make things quicker since we had no quick means of communication. I agreed. My legs didn't.

She, too, took it easy on me. Again, I did not know it or appreciate it at the time. As we scanned the areas east by southeast of the fire pit (with me not knowing where in the world I was headed except by gaging the sun's position), she had me sprint after songbirds on the opposite ends of the corridors. Then she would have me sprint back to me.

After the third time, I asked her through huffs of breath, "Isn't the point of this... adventure... to catch some food?"

"Did Chris and I not tell you that there is hardly any meat on those birds, not to mention hard as hell to get a hold of, let alone kill? And did I not tell you I was going to condition you for running?"

"Jogging," I corrected, shifting from foot to foot with my hands on my hips.

"It amounts to the same when I train you," she answered nonchalantly with a shrug. Hardly, I thought.

I did it several more times, only she made me run more times up and down the length of one corridor, then she would walk with me around the corner. Now, in my non-maze, free, safe, easy world back home, in my dimension, I went to the gym on the weekends and when I had time during the week. But none of that was nearly as grueling as jogging in place, on a shrunken stomach, touching knees to chest under Jessica's orders while she climbed a pine tree to look for eggs. I didn't try to cheat it -- try to slack when she wasn't looking. She certainly did not need the conditioning -- she was doing it for me. Like a personal trainer.

At least we found some eggs.

Jessica let me walk it out as she uprooted a life bush, and when she was done with hers, she ordered me to do the same to another one and take the bush part up with me. In the meantime, she secured the eggs in nest within the confines of my purse.

We headed back, finding another life bush easily and scouring the region for just one more to use for food. I think Jessica was keeping her eye out for mole burrows as we made our way back to the home corridor, but we didn't see any – a pity.

Still, there were the eggs.

But that was only the first day.

On day two, there were no eggs. And there were still no more moles, although plenty of small birds flitted about mockingly. My stomach until that day had been relatively satisfied, or as satisfied as one in such a prison could be, so Jessica increased the level of activity we did. She made me sprint around corners -- much harder to do than when sprinting in a straight line -- and still to each end of the corridor and back again. When looking for eggs, my personal trainer from hell made me hang upside down from a lower branch and curl myself up, and when she went to the next tree over, I was instructed to lift my body up with my arm strength as best I could.

I couldn't.

And by the end of that week, I still could not. But I came a lot farther.

My belly and that of the others suffered that day, when all we could find were a few life bushes. Those we boiled and ate, making plans to find some little birds the next day to substitute the lack of protein from that day. When we had been gone, Chris and Josh had been making plans on the farming. They had found a mid-sized and young life bush, marked as a star on the map, that they intended to check upon each day for signs of how it germinated.

Silently, Chris gave me some more acceptance.

Of course, Jessica pressed me harder and harder still, which would have been fine in our home dimension, where Infinity Inc. was just a communications corporation, Daniel had betrayed me, and my best friend Valerie was probably insane with worry over where I was. Except, in that world, I had never gone this scarce on food or cool water. By the end of that week I knew I had lost more weight than was acceptable or healthy, and I didn't think it was exactly attractive. I didn't look into my compact mirror often -- after the first few times it was just … too hard.

Even so. I blossomed in other ways.

I kept track of the days with my pencil on a long, somewhat flat board of pine wood stripped of bark. By my eighth day in the maze, I was able to run for about twenty minutes at a time without being crippled with exhaustion- after all, I was doing it with hardly any food in my system and no constant water supply to keep me hydrated during the activity. I sweated. A lot. But I lived. I had caught myself a few songbirds by laying out grubs we had found and then dropping a net made of fresh pine boughs on top of them. I hadn't thought it would work, but although we did not catch all of the birds eating the bugs, we caught some.

And I ate some of the insects. Chris had been right. They were not half as disgusting as one thinks they might be.

But in the face of all this accomplishment, it was on my ninth day in the place that I saw why Jessica, Chris, and Josh felt there was no way out of this place, aside from into the elevator.

"It's time you stood on top of the wall," Josh told me that morning, after we had eaten a small breakfast of life bush roots stewed with an egg and some grub bodies. Jessica and Chris were at the water hole, rinsing off their wooden bowls and spoons. I just stared at Josh.

"So ... you've been atop the wall?" I asked. I had been wondering.

"Yes," he said, sending me with the cap of the thermos to refill it for boiling. Once I brought it back, he continued. "It was a while ago, back when those two were relatively new here. I suppose it's a sort of prisoner's tradition," he said with a grim smile. "Come on." Jessica and Chris returned, setting the bowls out to dry on the steel bricks. They reached up to the top of the lean-to from either side and lifted up a very rough looking ladder made of pine branches strapped together with mostly bits of leather and what had once been strips of white cloth -- now turned a dirty cream color. I hadn't even noticed that it could separate from the 'roof' of the lean-to in such a fashion. In fact, I hadn't even noticed that it was a ladder at all. I had just thought it was an attached part of the shelter.

They pulled it away horizontally, carting it easily back towards the pine tree at the opposite end of the corridor. Then, they tilted it up, with me feeling next to useless, and I saw that it was much longer than it had first looked. For some reason, Josh, Jessica, and Chris were tilting it backwards a few meters, and then swinging it forward, the top of the ladder flush with the top of the maze wall. Then I saw two small rocks on a length of leather swing over and drop as counterweights on the other side. Smart. Just in case the ladder tried tipping back.

"I'll go up first," Jessica said, then pointed to the pine tree very close by. "I will help steady you, and you must be careful, but if the worst comes to occur, fall on this side, towards the tree. It may not sound pleasant, but having the branches break your fall after dropping only ten or so feet is a lot better than the ground catching you after a drop of fifty." She was right, and I nodded to show that I thought so.

Folding my arms, I watched as she climbed up the ladder. It definitely did not look very stable -- moving with her weight and with each step up she made. The rungs were spaced farther apart than were most modern ladders, and so I saw that it took some effort to climb up.

"When you go up," Chris began to tell me, "keep one hand on the side, in case a rung brakes, but also try to keep one on a rung as well, because its easier to lose grip with your hands placed on the side." I breathed deeply, heart beating wildly and nerves jumping even as I saw Jessica safely crawl onto the top of the wall, which was only two bricks thick.

"Now you go," Josh said, gripping my shoulder tightly. "Take your time and consider each move before making it. It's like checking your mirrors on all sides when you drive. Take the time to check your placement with each action and you should be fine."

Should be.

And yet.... I was. It was hard to go more than a step up, especially when it bowed so much under my weight. I was not heavy -- it was just so light! I continued, just as Josh and Chris had suggested as they held the ladder firmly. Above me, I had seen Jessica doing the same as best she could from her position. I didn't envy it, even though I was headed towards it. The pine ladder held me, although with each new rung I grabbed strongly, I was afraid that my nervous hands would release or that the strappings would give. Neither did.

"Here you are," Jessica said, instructing me lift one leg over the top of the wall so that I could straddle it as she was. Then I felt her hand steadying me at my back, lowering me some. My gaze was on the steel bricks beneath my body. "Don't stand up and stay as close to this wall as you can. But look up and around you."

I did. At first, I felt wonder and amazement. For as far as the eye could see, there were the tops of steel walls, gleaming in the morning light. It looked like a puzzle of dominoes, placed together just so, or like a number of ribbons tossed into a pile, their silken lengths twisting, cutting, and curving around the earth. It was just like gazing out into one of those great big gardens, with the tall hedges rising like privacy curtains above the ground.

Then, slowly, it hit me. They weren't curtains of privacy. They were the hard, steel walls of my prison -- our prison -- stretching endlessly before me. I could see no open space longer wider than a few hundred feet, mere inches to my sight. There was nothing but those walls, those cursed, cursing walls that kept us here, kept us fighting with our environment to live to the next day.

"Oh... oh god...," I said, raising my head up, but conscious of Jessica's hand on my spine.

"Steady there," she said in a soft voice. "I know."

I wondered who had built this. Who had the resources? Who had the time, or energy? Who would ever want to? They had to have known what it was, what it would have been used for! And one thing was for certain.

It could not exist in my home world. It just .... could not.

I wanted to know immediately what my new comrades' theories were on the elevator, the thirteenth story, and Infinity Inc.

"Thank you," I told her, "but I think.... I think I've seen... seen enough. I want to go back down and hear your ideas."

I didn't specify what I meant, but I think that she understood all too well despite that. It was somewhat trickier getting onto the ladder to climb back down, though, as Jessica called out to the men below that we were. I nearly lost my footing, rocking the ladder and nearly, just nearly, toppling it backwards. Then I was jerked around, the ladder replaced flush to the top of the steel wall, almost falling off again but for one handhold on the side and my feet catching on the rungs.

I moved as quickly as I could while maintaining a sense of caution. When my feet touched the ground, my knees felt weak and I felt dizzy, about to fall over.

"You guys need to tell me your theory on the elevator," I said simply, having the strength and manners enough to watch and make sure that Jessica made it safely to the ground before slumping to the dusty earth.

They replaced the ladder, and my thoughts revolved for once in a very long time (a week can seem a very long time) on the fact that I was in a prison – all thanks to Infinity Inc. and my traitorous comrade. I was quite sure I hated them both, although I wasn't sure yet which one I lwanted to stab with some stiletto heels first.

"Elizabeth," Josh said, fetching the thermos with the help of Chris and bringing it to me. I didn't feel like drinking hot water as my nerves still jumped at the barest breeze and sound. I tried to push the tin cap away without spilling it, but Jessica moved my hand aside and I gave in, sipping the warm water, which didn't really calm me any.

"Did you see what we meant?" Chris asked, though there was no bitterness in it -- just him trying to see that I understood, and if not, ready to make sure I did.

"Yes," I said, swallowing thickly. Saliva was sticky in my mouth, and I didn't really feel comfortable speaking with it present as it was.

"We think," Josh began, "that this elevator does follow quantum physics. Of course, none of us have ever really studied the subject at all... but we've all seen the movies, read the books, and have intelligent enough minds to realize that that is really the only solution. That elevator, or that thirteenth story -- or both, in combination with certain events or triggers- can act as a portal crossing the space-time continuum."

It sounded like a bunch of babble...but I still understood. Those had been my own thoughts, after all. "What do you mean by certain events triggering the elevator?"

"And the thirteenth story," he corrected. "Well, for example, Chris was thinking about his colleague- where she might be and why she may have been slacking. We think it may have been that mindset that that the elevator and or thirteenth story locked onto as a sort of....destination, or ....a hint for the destination."

"So, you think that because he wanted to find Jessica, in order to get her working again, the elevator took him to her?"

"Yes, in a sense."

"But, after my first time, I actually tried to go to my first place," I argued. "I was thinking of that destination and I went through the same motions that I had when I did not mean to go there, and all I reached were the stories my fingers pushed for."

"We have considered that, too," Josh said. The other two were sitting, relaxing as we spoke- taking swigs from the tepid water. "I think that one cannot go if one knows how the elevator took them there. There is another theory in quantum physics that things will not act in certain, perhaps impossible, ways if they are being watched. Like someone perfected a certain skill, but whom cannot perform it in front of someone else, even if they try."

"So you're suggesting that this elevator and the thirteenth story have stage fright?" I asked incredulously.

"In a sense," he answered, unsure how to reply. "And you just happened to walk in on them, though they didn't quite notice, if that makes sense."

"Not really."

"Good," Chris spoke. "It doesn't to us either, but I don't think it's supposed to make sense. If it were that easy, we would be back on earth right now."

"So then...isn't the question... how do we get the elevator from the thirteenth floor back to here?"

"Without letting it 'know' that we are watching, yes," Josh affirmed.

"Have you been able to do it?" I asked next.

"Clearly not," he said.

I tried thinking of what my state of mind had been just before I was pushed out of the lift. It couldn't necessarily have been Infinity controlling the lift- otherwise, why take me so far? Why let me be taken from the building to strange worlds twice, running the risk of me telling others, if they could simply send me. No. "They don't have complete control over it," I said.

Chris scoffed. "They don't have any control over that thing," he declared loudly.

Josh held up a finger, and I said what he was thinking. "But they understand it, at least in part."

They shared my thoughts. Josh said, "And knowledge, especially in this case, is power.

So ... if Infinity hadn't necessarily sent me here... then it was me. I triggered the lift and the thirteenth story. Something I did had taken me here. My eyes grew wide -- I knew because I felt the strain on my skin of my forehead. "That means.... that means that... if Infinity... does not control this.... this portal, and I certainly wasn't trying to come here ...if the lift acts that way when unobserved-"

"But remember," Jessica inputted, "The Infinity Inc. employees were watching -- they were the observers."

I think my eyes grew even wider, understanding like my light bulb, shedding light upon the situation at hand. "I triggered it?" I exclaimed. "I imprisoned myself?"

Chris shrugged. "I found Jessica."

"Before they took me here, they stressed me out," Jessica added. "They made me scared as hell that I didn't know where I stood or where I was going. Mentally, of course."

"That I would lose my job," I followed. "I hadn't chosen this but I... I couldn't find a way out."

"In essence," Josh said calmly, "they made your mind a maze, and the thirteenth story, however that part of it works, latched onto that as a destination."

"We see what we want or what we fear to see," Jessica said, agreeing, and later I learned that she had taken some college courses in psychology.

"Then... how... how do we... mm... how do we get out?" I said after a few moments of silence. Then they looked at me.

I felt like sobbing.

"Well," Josh said, standing. "Really, there are only two ways. First, we can hope to find another vortex or portal or wormhole, call it what you like, that damned lift, in this maze here. Then, we can see how to trigger it. Or. We could hope that the portal from the thirteenth story of Infinity Inc. opens yet again onto this place, bearing an opening for us to go back."

"But both of those are..." I trailed off, and Chris, with all the tact of a rabid dog, picked up where I hesitated.

"Practically impossible," he said, blond tufts of hair mingling with beads of sweat. "Which is why we just try to survive. This is our home, and the best we can do aside from that is prepare in case someone else shows up."

"Which," Josh said with a smile, "is not quite as impossible as it used to be, or may become. Chris came here within days of Jessica, and that has been the pattern I have noticed. Someone may come to the thirteenth floor, looking for you. And this is the most likely time frame that they will do it. I give it another month before those chances die down any."

"So... are you suggesting that we... we capitalize on that? I mean, how would we?" I asked.

This was the one part I did not understand. "Don't you remember?" Chris said impatiently. "The triggers. Other people thinking of certain things in the elevator at the thirteenth floor, trying to go somewhere else. If that guy who betrayed you hops into a situation like that, and thinks about how you are gone, there is a possibility he could show up here, right where you are."

I laughed harshly, bitterly. "I highly doubt that would happen."

And he fixed me with a certain look I could not quite describe as any emotion. "You would be surprised by how much 'gray' there really is to gray matter. People don't come in just black and white, nor do their actions and intentions. He might. Or if not him, someone else who hasn't been with you."

"I'll attest to that as much as Chris here would," Josh said firmly. I thought of Valerie, knowing she was probably worried sick about me and had already likely marched up to my workplace. The employees had probably been fed some clever lie by the royalty of the business, though, to pass on to her.

"So I should actually think about the bastard?"

"If it might trigger that, which we think it would, then, yes," Jessica said with a sympathetic expression.

My stomach felt light, empty, and not just due to the lack of proper food. I had put a barrier up in my mind, no matter how weak, against thinking of my traitor, my colleague who had essentially turned me in to my corrupt employers. Strange parts of my mind I was not familiar with wanted to believe what Chris had suggested, that perhaps there were other things in his head at the time, or that I was misunderstanding his situation. But the much stronger, more familiar parts of my brain hated him for breaking the unspoken pact we had had. He hadn't told anyone after the first adventure, and I had been in just as much danger in the second otherworldly place as he had been, if not more so (I had been in a skirt that day, for goodness' sake). Furthermore, it had been just as much his decision to step out of the lift and into danger as it had been mine. The thought that I was in this maze and Daniel was not here with me, even though we had each sustained the previous perilous places, set my blood simmering.

I made a decision.

If the portal was triggered by such things, then perhaps it could cross the great distances, and I would follow their advice, of thinking of Daniel. I would think about how much he deserved to be here, with me, fighting for his life against no particular predator in this maze-like prison.

Mind over matter, right?

And yet, as that day waned on, just in that moment, even, in all my angry determination, my logic held. I still did not expect or think that anyone would show up, nor that any new vortex would open up that could take us home. I went out hunting with Jessica, like the female lions in the wild do, only the only things we found were a nest of eggs to the west, some life bushes, and a small rat, which Jessica chased down and eventually killed with a few well-thrown rocks.

Chris and Josh had been watching the young life bush, which grew with surprising speed. I likened the thing to a hardy fern. That night, they told us their thoughts over dinner. According to their observance, the plant grew small buds, and only a few of them, which opened into tiny, ugly flowers, whose seeds were like tiny black strawberries, and attractive to birds. The birds ate the seeds and released them far from the mother plant in the form of feces. Which meant, really, that we needed to guard the plant, harvested these seeds, and try to plant some. Apparently, in the past, Josh and the others had only tried various methods of cutting and transplanting to reproduce the bush.

My logic remained. I went to sleep that night, thinking of how much better my strength was becoming, how I was no longer dizzy after running for long periods of time and how I could see nearly all my muscles, which were rapidly toning and growing.

In the morning, however, that changed quite abruptly.

Sunlight had just barely lit the morning sky, still a mixture of dark blues turning lighter from purple, and darker still was the lining of the clouds. I had hoped they would mean rain -- a much cleaner source of water. A week here had made me accustomed to drinking warm, muddy water, but it did not mean I would ever like it.

Since being in the maze, sleep had come easier. My body's groans from physical exhaustion made it impossible for my mind to stay up late. I fell asleep easily and I stayed asleep until the time came. That time was usually another hour or two off. But not that day. Laying on the edge of the lean-to's floor of shelter, as I had since the beginning of my stay in the company of Josh and the others, I slowly came around at some sounds I was then too tired to recognize. It had been a long while since I'd been afraid in my sleep, and I woke up to the noises of my human companions and birdsong on a regular enough basis not to panic, not to bolt upright from my slumber.

I rubbed my eyes, blinking gently and stretching out my limbs with the pleasure that a cat must own when they have such lean, comfortable bodies.

Then the noises reached my ears, and I was awake enough to know what they were. Footsteps, running quickly towards me, and someone shouting. "Elizabeth!"

I would know that voice anywhere.

Valerie.