Sunlight seared the pavement. The fallen monuments of Man’s former achievements wavered in the evening sun, burnt white from long exposure. Freeways and city streets lay in useless slabs, piled on top of each other in haphazard hills. The Scavengers bravely navigated the cracked and jagged surfaces for the last traces of useful hardware as another day crept into the lazy maw of another darkless night.
In the shadows of the Last Tower, the people gathered to watch the ghostly Scavengers. Speaking quietly amongst themselves, the spectators passed around bags of seeds or other sparse snacks, reaffirming bonds as they watched in passive fear and curiosity; no one walked in the sunlight anymore, not since everything started to Fade. Onlookers shaded their eyes with swaddled hands, squinting across the landscape to those bold or foolhardy enough to tempt fate. The Scavengers picked their way through the rubble at the edge of a section of collapsed freeway that had once stood proudly upon cement pillars like an altar. In their white bindings and shrouds, said to provide some relief from the sun, they became all but invisible against the sun-bleached backdrop of whites, oranges, and grays hardy enough to survive constant exposure. They looked for remnants of the time before that might keep the Tower alive just a little bit longer.
Like the others, he sat watching the Scavengers from the relative cool of the Tower’s shadow; only two had ventured out today that he could see. He figured it was a wise plan, really, when more and more they had to travel further and further to find anything of use; the fewer sent out to do so, the better. A group of five used to travel, but that was when the Wild Things still hid in the holes and crevices where good parts were found. Since the Fading happened more frequently now, those on the Sixtieth Floor decided that it would be wise to send out only three at a time, and now only two; volunteers were harder to come by, anymore, and the Wild Things Faded away like everything else so sending only two wasn’t as risky as it would have been before.
He looked to the sky, cloudless and all but colorless. It hurt to stare at it too long, but there wasn’t much else to do. He remembered the tunnels, where the macabre remains of great people-movers decayed. They used to offer protection from the sun and regular work for those old enough, and strong enough, to survive the trip below. These days, though, they provided nothing useful. No relief – not of boredom, not of heat, not of anything. A cave-in had killed many of their friends ages back, and the Sixtieth Floor had said no more work would be done inside the tunnels ever again. Too unstable, they said, and so everyone had come to the Tower, to sit and to watch.
It used to be, people from other places came by with stories and questions to trade, sometimes with food. They came from far off places, places where water once flowed, where grasses once grew. They came to ask the Sixtieth Floor if anything had changed, if anything would change, but the Sixtieth Floor was always silent. They only spoke through a crackling speaker on the Tower’s main floor when they had an announcement, like the tunnels being off-limits, otherwise it was nothing but silence. Always silence.
Silence was what the world beyond the Tower’s shadow offered these days, as well. No one had come from outside in a long time, since before the tunnels caved-in, even. He didn’t know how long that was, but he’d been only as tall as a man’s hip at the time, so he imagined that it must have been very long ago. It felt like forever. The people as small as he was when he’d seen the last travelers weren’t allowed to come outside, now. They stayed on the third floor, where the windows still had shields to pull down and where the air stayed cool. At least, they did when there were Smalls.
He squinted up, counting the layers of windows. The blinding sky and hot glare made him lose focus around thirty-four, but he knew how many there were. Everyone knew. On a clear day, when the sun didn’t glare quite so angrily, he could count all the way up to fifty-three, but the only time he had made it that high he had fallen into a deep, deep sleep and hadn’t woken up for a very long time. He had been asleep so long the older people had been afraid the Fading would take him. The thought always sent a chill down his spine when he recalled the singular sensation that had haunted him while he slept. He had dreamed over and over again of rushing toward some great precipice, over which he knew he must fall, but every time he approached the edge he was sent back to find it again. He wondered if that’s what the others had dreamed when they Faded, only nothing had stopped them from falling. For awakening from the strange half-dreams that lurked somewhere between the burning shadows and empty light, they called him the Champ. He had made a full recovery. He was famous.
He kicked at a piece of the wall on which he sat, and watched as it crumbled away. The arms of the Last Tower’s courtyard were made of fractured and fallen bits of other things that had once been huge, but which now had been positioned in two arcs that came to a point across from the Tower’s main entrance. It was like the neck of a bottle, he had been told, where there was only one way in and one way out. The Sixtieth Floor called it protection, and everyone felt safe, so he figured there must be truth to what they said. Sitting on the wall made him feel like he was helping to keep everyone safe, too, even if there wasn’t anything to protect against, now. Their Champ, survivor and protector, would always make sure that was true.
He looked out across the broken fields of asphalt and concrete, but couldn’t see the Scavengers anymore. Glancing over the people assembled, he saw no one who looked alarmed, so he assumed they must have found a crack to hide in and look around, and who knew how long they’d be hidden while they rummaged. He didn’t feel too much like tempting fate by lingering where the sun might find him, so he decided there wasn’t really anything left to do but hide from the heat. Rising from his seat, he brushed the dust from his pants and gave a final squinting glance at the last place he’d seen the Scavengers before making his way to the Tower’s dark entrance.
The shadows inside the main floor were cooler than those outside. A couple of Guardians stood behind a reception desk off to the left, one of which looked up and waved him over as he came in. Wandering through the crowd of milling Others, he offered a smile to the Guardian; Guardians didn’t talk to people very often when they were on duty, so it was kind of an honor to be flagged down. Then again, the Tower’s only Champ received many honors.
Approaching the crescent-shaped desk, he saw the Guardian beam, his smile almost as bright as the sun-white glare withering the world beyond the Tower walls.
“You’re going up, son,” the Guardian said with all the ceremony and pride of bestowing an award.
“Up,” he asked, clearly confused. “How far?” Smalls stayed on the third floor, and the people who knew how to make things grow were on the fourth, where the windows were dark enough to keep them safe, but where plants could get the kind of sun they needed. Floor five had the people who were Fading and needed care. Other than that, no floor was safe. Either the windows were too clear and broken out, or the floors were falling apart, or the ceilings were crumbling in. There was no other “up”. That is, there was no other “up” unless he meant . . . .
“All the way,” the Guardian said, still grinning.
“All the way,” he repeated in a reverent whisper, his body tingling as he let the Guardian’s words sink in. A sense of awe and wonder washed over him as he slowly turned toward the single functioning elevator occupying the back wall. Without responding, without words with which to respond, he made his way to the smooth steel doors and braced his palm against their cool surface. This was one of the only working relics in the Tower. The Scavengers found things to keep it running since most of the stairwells were filled with debris, and in the past had shattered completely away when used. The elevator was the only viable way left to get to the other floors.
He pressed the little button that pointed up and marveled at its pale, orange glow; he hadn’t seen it since he was small enough to stay on the third floor. The doors slid open a moment later with a whisper, spilling cold air all over him. That’s right, he recalled. The upper floors have air-conditioning. The main floor couldn’t hold onto the cool air since the front was mostly missing, but locked away above, the air could stay nice and cool. Being wrapped in it now was like a dream.
His hand shook as he sought the button for the Sixtieth Floor. Everyone knew what it looked like, the sixty. A serpentine symbol of holy mystery, its gentle curves invited his touch. The button clicked softly beneath his fingers, a tiny light in the center glowing orange before the carriage rocked to life and slowly rose up the Tower’s central shaft. His heart raced as he watched the symbols above him change color, one glowing dimly after another.
Numbers. They must have been what his counting looked like.
No one knew how to write anymore, which was just as well as they had no books, and no paper, and no one to fix that. Since the numbers never went away, though, they could still learn how to read them. As each symbol lit up, he counted off in his head each of the floors, imagining the building from outside and how many layers of windows up he must be. Thar thought alone, though, was enough to make him dizzy, so he forced himself to focus on not losing track of the count, all the while trying to memorize each symbol as it matched up.
After what seemed like forever, a strange, sad little bell announced his arrival at the Sixtieth Floor, and the doors whispered open once more.
Nervously, he stepped out of the elevator and into the quiet expanse of the Tower’s final floor. Immediately, he felt numb as his brain struggled to process what his eyes were trying to tell him.
The room yawned before him in three tiered levels, which opened down and away from the empty alcove where he stood. Most of the space beyond was filled with things he didn’t even have names for, long stretches of things that looked like the desk on the main floor, but with angled faces, covered with switches and buttons and black, lifeless windows. They stood both left and right of him on the first level down with a little path in between. Even more of them lined the lower part of the wall on the bottom level, and mostly all of them looked broken.
The weird objects and their mysteries only occupied a small fraction of his attention, though, for opposite him, occupying the entire wall on the bottom level, was a sequence of windows so tightly fit together that he couldn’t see a seam between them. He’d seen walls made all of windows before, but they were so big here, stretching almost from floor to ceiling, and the ceiling was unbelievably high. They curved around the room instead of making four corners so that he saw almost everything that could ever be seen outside the Tower. Distantly, it struck him as eerie how, despite windows being everywhere, almost no sunlight made it through the glass. It was all shadows and shade in the room on the Sixtieth Floor, and not even a tiny bit of glare made it in. His eyes hadn’t felt so relaxed since he had been a Small.
His eyes refocused from the impossible vista at the end of the room to follow the length of a low, decorative wooden rail that grew from the elevator alcove’s corner. Two of them stuck out, like little arms on either side, directing him toward the first level down, where a woman sat at the mid-point of one of the counters to his left. The whatever-it-was had lights that worked, some blinking, some not. Occasionally the woman pushed at glowing buttons, causing images to move across the little window in front of her. Before he could marvel at what he saw in the woman’s tiny window, though, he noticed the room’s other occupant. Toward the right side of the first level was a man in a suit. It wasn’t immediately apparent why, but there was something very dignified in how he stood, silent as the Fade. Maybe it was how he held his hands, which were clasped before him with an air of attentive ease, but he seemed even more like a guardian than the Guardians he knew so far below by the Tower’s only entrance.
Neither of the Sixtieth Floor’s residents spoke to him as he lingered, trying to take it all in. The flickering shadows in the woman’s window; the quiet man in his crisp, dark suit; and once again, the impossible wall with its unfathomable horizons. In a state of awe, like that which he had felt in his dreams when he’d been so close to the Fade, he slowly stepped forward, walking to the edge of the alcove’s level and then down. The man in the suit watched him, he could tell, but the woman didn’t look up even once. He imagined he felt something gentle and nurturing about her, even though she didn’t say anything, and paused to look at her from closer up. A little thrill of surprise shivered through his heart as he realized she was young. Very young. Looking over to the man in the suit, he saw the same story, the both of them several ages younger than he was. He had always imagined that the Sixtieth Floor held some Ancients filled with wisdom of the ancestors, and watching over everyone like gods, not a young woman pushing things with an equally young man looking at her. He wondered, vaguely, how someone was chosen to be on the Sixtieth Floor, but as his gaze shifted between the two of them, he felt the quiet wonder of the wall of windows beckoning him forward.
Stepping down to the deserted level, with its imposing view and bank of broken history, he felt his heart leap with excitement and fear; beyond the glass, the landscape spread before him endlessly. Everything lay upon everything else, with segments of road jutting up here and there where they’d collapsed who knew how long ago. To the left of his view, he could just make out the impression of movement, and, squinting, he saw two tiny white figures moving across an arm of fallen freeway. The Scavengers. He watched as they shifted furtively in the light in a way that suggested they were discussing the potential of some new-found item.
Tickling in the back of his mind a quiet sort of realization was roused from its slumber, a dormant knowledge that was part of everything around him, yet no one acknowledged it for what it was. He moved closer to the windows, revealing to his eager eyes bits and pieces of more familiar territory; the broken-down, scattered chunks of the life he had always known. The angle from above showed them in a different way than they appeared from ground level, but he knew them just the same.
He felt the floor beneath him lean toward the horizon as he continued toward the windows, but revelation was too close upon him now for the shift to register properly. The sheer scale of sun-parched eternity gaping before him commanded his full attention. Pale and bleached, the once-great land of Man stretched endlessly, like the skeleton of some unimaginable beast long abandoned, and alone. Surely, he thought, the Last Tower was all that had survived, and those within its shadows the last who hadn’t Faded. He stood with his toes at the tipping point of a great understanding, his heart racing to the beat of a nameless truth he somehow felt he had always known.
The Tower groaned.
He reached out for the window, now only inches away, as the Tower began to lean. He pressed his hand to the glass – cooler to the touch than he’d expected – , and watched the Tower’s shadow slither across the remains of its brethren below. Behind him he could hear the woman still at work, pushing her buttons while the man in the suit held his stoic watch, neither of them giving any indication that they were aware of how the Tower pitched dangerously forward, shaking and shuddering as lower levels began to buckle under the imbalance.
The terrifying excitement of seeking the revelation just out of reach melted into a strange inner peace as he watched the ground rush beneath him, his whole world trembling, listing, falling. The calm he felt was shared by his companions. None of them panicked, even as the Tower bellowed and cracked in its destructive descent, as if they had known all along that this very moment would come. As inner peace and outer chaos swirled around and through him, he knew that they had known, all of them, and that the Sixtieth Floor had called him up for this very moment. He knew what the others below would never be able to understand, because no one else had been so close to Fading as he had. He alone could share the moment of understanding that the last of Man would need in his heart when he faced the end.
He knew, as the toppled spine of another tower raced to meet them head on: In the end, everything Fades.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Adalind Monroe grew up in the sub-Saharan wilds with a knife in her teeth, and a story in her heart. She spends her time in more temperate zones, now, writing out dreams and fantasies for anyone who needs a little escape. Adalind lives with four cats, two dogs, two other dogs, and a lizard named Obi-Wan.
The lizard is definitely a Jedi.