A puzzle, of sorts by Joe Baxter

The vehicle moved away behind him. He turned briefly and watched it over his shoulder before turning back to the lobby.

It was not what he had expected. There was no receptionist. In fact there was no one, and nothing, at all: no people, no desk, no decoration of any kind. Just the elevator shaft. At least he assumed it was an elevator shaft, could not imagine what else it could be. He walked slowly towards it. The steel doors met in the middle with almost seamless efficiency. There was no floor indicator displayed above. The buttons, arranged into an exact square, were all identical – shiny stainless steel; no numbers, letters, or any other feature to distinguish one from another. Marcus smiled to himself. This was how it should be: a puzzle of some sort. Of what sort he had no idea, but isn’t that always the way? One never knows the nature of the puzzle until it is solved.

Light flooded the lobby, filtering through the glass wall behind him. Too bright, too dazzling; he felt the urge to sneeze. Looking up for the first time Marcus noted that the glass stretched over above him, extending the wall to form a transparent canopy; the lobby sat in front of, rather than as a true part of, the building. So he had not really entered yet at all. He smiled again at this minor revelation. As if it would have been so easy!

Being as there was no indicator attached to the elevator, it was unclear whether the thing was active, whether at this moment it ferried unknown characters to and fro between unfathomable stories, whether it rested a while at some high vantage point, or indeed whether it sat here inert before him, awaiting his very call. Marcus stepped forward through the anodyne lobby, reached out a hand, pushed the top-left button. He fancied for a moment he heard the whirr of distant motors, the burr of tremulous wires, but no – nothing more than wishful thinking. He turned, feeling foolish, looked for hidden cameras or figures joining him through the revolving door, but thankfully there were none. He scuffed his loafers back and forth across the travertine floor in a rhythmic motion, impossible to tell whether as an aid to thought or a nervous gesture.

The wall into which the door was set seemed also to be formed of stainless steel, so that the almost seamless join between the doors themselves was echoed by that between the doors and walls.  Marcus having ceased scuffing his shoes, and standing now completely still, there was no sound, not even the illusion of sound he had heard after pressing the button. The revolving door had long ceased to revolve. It was cold in here, far too chilly to be natural, but even the air conditioning could not be heard, its pipes and vents hidden somewhere beneath the seamless, impenetrable facade of the interior. He began scuffing his shoes again just to peeve the silence.

Marcus turned one more time, revolving on the spot just as the door was not; took in the wall of glass, the bleak expanse beyond, the interior walls of dull white, the wall of steel. The shaft itself. There had to be a way in. He had tried the top-left: that was the natural button, was the first whichever way you looked at it. But it had not worked, had given no response. The worst kind of failure, giving no guide as to how he should now proceed. His finger, that first finger which was longer than his middle, hesitated over the next button. Next button? Next across or next down? He flitted between the two: across, down, across, down, across, down. Just as he was about to settle – we will never know on which one – a thought occurred to him. Always, he had done what he thought he was supposed to do. In the order he thought he was supposed to do it. And he had never been let in.

He closed his eyes and stabbed his finger into the darkness. The first time it missed completely, came up against smooth steel, but he tried again. This time it touched a raised square, an unintelligible symbol, illegible Braille. He kept his eyes closed and waited.

There was a whirr of motors, a creaking of cables and cogs – definitely real this time – and finally a low hiss, much closer too.

Marcus opened his eyes. The doors were open . The seamless seal was broken. He stepped in.

Within, the elevator was a pure mirror bent across four walls. Marcus gazed at himself, properly took in his own appearance, for he had no choice. The lank hair, mottled skin, ogreish nose – these he could do little about. His clothing was clean – in fact immaculate – newly washed, ironed, tie pinned, cuffs linked. He had done all he could, worked with what he had, played by all the rules. There were no buttons on the interior of the elevator, but that was natural – he had made his decision, such as it was, on the outside.

The elevator began to ascend with a speed that shocked him, as sudden and dramatic as falling. Really the direction made little difference, it was the uprooting, the pulling of one from one’s position of rest, the movement of the subject with reference to the objective – that was the wrench.

Marcus gazed straight ahead, eye to eye with himself. He kept his face absolutely calm, showed no trace of fear, made the utmost effort to appear natural. For that at least he was grateful to the mirrors; they allowed him to more accurately internalise his misgivings. A single bead of sweat broke onto his brow; he wavered between leaving it or wiping it away, unsure which action was the less incriminating. In the end he left it; it would surely evaporate soon enough.

Marcus blinked. What had that been? Something reflected that was not him, that should not have been there. Something within that could only have been without. A sudden fleeting image, like a subliminal advert, of something other – a floor full of people, locked in some meaningful endeavour, a spirit of camaraderie joining their diverse figures into a human whole. But it was gone.

Marcus shook his head, watched himself doing so in the mirror. Gone. But –

Again. Another image; this time he saw it less fleetingly, the mirrored surface before him turned temporarily transparent: another group, sitting around a large oval table, clearly discussing something of the utmost importance, a single figure at the front gesticulating at a board of white… but then again it was gone.

Onwards, upwards, his motion now of constant velocity. It was only in these fleeting glimpses of something external that Marcus regained any sense of motion at all. Speaking of which –

There it was again, another passing image, a world moving downwards as he moved upwards: a blonde woman this time, dressed in a trouser suit, carrying a slipcase of soft brown leather, walking with a man, joking amiably about something. Then gone –

And another. Then gone –

And another. Then gone –

The intervals between these visions were no longer long enough for Marcus to regain his composure. He began to speak, first a low mutter but soon rising to a shout: stop, let me out, hey, I’m in here, I want to stop now, you people, I want to get out now, make it stop, please, let me out, this is far enough. Please.

But nobody heard him. The elevator ploughed on, undaunted, for none of these were the floors that Marcus had chosen.