You wake up stiff and cramped, curled into a ball on the grey, hard sand. The sun is already high in the sky. This morning, as every morning, there are flat, featureless plains spread in every direction, save for the faint shimmer of some low mountains many miles to the south-east.
You walk over, as always, to examine the hole. There is an iron ring clasped around your ankle, which is attached to a heavy iron chain with links as big as your thumb and finger circled. The chain meanders across the ground and disappears into the hole. It is manhole-sized, a two foot diameter. The rim is edged with sheet metal that continues down the walls of the shaft as far as you can see — about four metres. When you bang on the walls they feel solid. There is no echo.
You sit down on the earth and drink some water and eat some breakfast. Every morning when you wake up there is a bottle of water and a bag of dried fruit and grain beside you. If you do not go to sleep, there will be no food the next morning.
You do not know for how many days you have been here. You think it has been… many days.
There is around forty metres of chain left. In those early, cautious days, as you tested the boundaries of your new existence, you pulled upon the chain with both hands, drawing arm over arm with legs braced. The chain trailed out of the hole with almost no resistance. As soon as you paused for breath, however, it quickly and silently reeled your gain back into the darkness, and then some. You nearly died with fright first time it happened. With slow experimentation, you found that the hole reclaimed exactly twice what you drew from it, every time. One step forwards, two steps back.
The only other feature in this empty terrain is a small, ornate Georgian desk sitting in the middle distance. On the desk sits a telephone, one of the old models with a rotary dial. You don’t know if the phone is connected to anything for sure, but you have to assume that it is. You have to assume this because beside the phone there sits a table lamp, and the table lamp is switched on. It shines brightly in the desert darkness, sealing the desk and phone in a bubble of warm light.
The other reason you must assume that the telephone is connected to something is that it rings each evening as the sun is setting. It rings for seventeen rings and then stops. You cannot answer it; the desk is some ninety metres away from the hole.
The days pass by with relatively ease now. You have attained a sort of trance-like state for the most part. You have managed to stop thinking. You have managed to stop asking questions. The nights are not so easy.
The thing that keeps you awake at night, lying there and possibly losing out on food, is that in those first days, before you wasted so much length on experimentation and panic, you probably could have reached the desk without drawing on the chain at all. And even later, you would have been able to get to the phone without risking everything. At least once. But those easy chances have been lost, squandered on ignorance. And so you stand every evening in the darkening desert, anchored and immobile and waiting for the ringing to stop.