For a moment, he just looked up at the young woman standing above him, offering her hand. He couldn’t hold back from asking.
“Are you real?”
She just shrugged. “Are you?” she replied.
There was no way of her knowing, he realized. Even if she was a projection of his mind, she would act this way. He was too suspicious to get any answers, even from himself.
He took the proffered hand, and she hauled him up to his feet.
For a moment, as he caught his breath on his unsteady feet, the two of them gazed around. Up here, the dust was even thicker; it felt as though no one had stood here for centuries, maybe longer.
That might be true, he reminded himself. No one knew how high the Tower went. No one really knew anything about the Tower, not even where it truly stood. The gates opened to it, once every three years, and all citizens, of the Lowers and Heights both, came pouring in.
To not try in the Tower was to drop to the bottom. Only those who climbed could ascend in life.
But as far as he knew, no one had ever reached the top.
The girl was standing next to him. She was waiting for him, he realized with a start. When he turned to her, he could still see a faint spark of wariness in her eyes, but she still waited.
When he turned to her, they didn’t need to speak. To speak was to waste breath.
Instead, they climbed.
The stairs now spiraled around the inside of the room, ascending higher and higher in a spiral that slowly tightened. They paced each other, trying not to watch each other’s steps for weakness, trying not to judge how much energy the other still possessed. They climbed, until the hole in the middle of the room had shrunk to nothing as the stairs closed in.
Eventually, long after they had both lost count of the number of stairs they’d climbed, they reached a door.
And on the other side, in a small room, they found the man.
The man sat on a throne, a massive monstrosity covered in wires, tubes, glowing lights, and many things that were completely unrecognizable. He looked thin, wasted away, with long and stringy hair that seemed dirty and ill-kempt. His eyes gazed forward, and a thin crown of silver metal sat on his temples. A closer look revealed that the crown seemed to be attached to the rest of the chair via a thin wire.
As they approached, the man suddenly straightened up, life flowing back into his face to make his eyes faintly gleam. “No,” he gasped, staring up at them. “You can’t be real. Please be real.”
He exchanged a look with the girl. She stepped forward; she’d always been the more trusting. “Who are you?” she asked, moving closer. The old man didn’t seem like a threat.
“Please,” he gasped, looking up at the pair of them. “It has been so long. I want it to stop.”
This didn’t feel right. “We shouldn’t,” he spoke, but even as the words passed his lips, the girl was already moving forward. She tugged the crown free of the old man’s head, and he listed forward, half-falling out of the throne.
As the old man left the throne, however, an alarm sounded, and his eyes widened. “It cannot be empty,” the man hissed, waving weak fingers at the seat. “Someone must guide it!”
The girl exchanged a look with him. He ignored the alarm, however, focusing on the old man. “Is this the top?” he demanded, glaring down at the wretched figure.
The old man stared up at him. “You cannot go higher without a guide,” came the faint words, gesturing towards the empty throne. “I…”
He leaned closer, listening.
“I could not,” the old man gasped out. “I was alone. The Tower needed a guide, so it brought me here. No one else came.”
When he looked up at the girl, she was peering closer to the mechanical throne. “I think… I think that this controls the Tower,” she said in hushed tones. “I think that this is the center for everything.”
He said nothing, but he looked up. There was no other door leading out of this room, but he could feel more of the Tower above them.
The girl was waiting for him to say something, but eventually she spoke. “One of us has to stay here, sit in the throne,” she said, speaking slowly as she thought through the idea. “The other can’t ascend unless someone controls the Tower.”
She stared at him for a long minute. When she glanced down at the old man at their feet, neither of them was surprised to see that his labored breathing had ceased. “It’s going to be me, isn’t it,” she said, the words not a question.
Without waiting for him to answer, she sighed, lowered herself into the seat. “Before you go,” she said, looking up at him, holding the crown in her hands. “I have to know.”
“Will it ever be enough?” Her eyes were beseeching, more vulnerable than he could remember seeing them. “You’re so driven to climb. More than anyone else, more than me. I could never keep up, even now.
“Is it ever going to be enough?”
He didn’t have an answer.
After a long silence, stretching on for an eternity, she sighed. “I should have known better than to expect an answer,” she said, lowering the crown onto her head. “Especially from you.”
As the crown reached her temples, she jerked, her muscles going rigid for an instant before she settled back into the chair. Her eyes opened again, but they were unfocused, as though she was looking at a different landscape.
“Go now,” she said, her voice deeper, flatter. “Climb, fool. May you never reach what you seek.”
Behind the throne, he saw a door in the wall. It had always been there, but at the same time had not existed until this moment. He didn’t wait, running for it. The door handle was icy cold, but it turned in his hand.
On the other side, he saw more steps, leading up into the darkness.
“It will never be enough,” the girl called after him in her flat voice, the voice of the Tower, as he left the control room behind.
Her words echoed after him, and he ran.