The two surviving members of the expedition reached the final corridor a month after they had departed from floor 550. “This is it… The last stretch before the spire entrance.” Stewardson slightly clenched his fists, then glanced at Lawrence, who didn’t seem to fully share his enthusiasm. They stepped through the gate the latter had just opened. “Couldn’t have done it without you, Lawrence. Almost feels like a miracle we came this far.” Lawrence kept silent, and gazed into the long, metallic corridor. It had glass windows on both sides, which revealed nothing but the silver-colored innards of the tower. Big pairs of metal bars ran across them in X-forms, all the way to the end. He sat down on the hard floor, and took his backpack off. After searching through the pack for a while, finding a tool, and moving it to the side pocket of his pants, he finally saw fit to answer. “Doesn’t just feel like one. It is one. Can’t actually believe it, myself.” The words came out flat, and his face betrayed no emotion. “We won’t be able to go back. You know that, right?” As he said it, Lawrence looked at Stewardson for the first time since they had entered this level. “Well… when we left, it was already clear to most that there was a real chance of not being able to go back. I personally had made peace with that little fact before we even left.” “I know.” Stewardson put on a surprised face, which his travel companion ignored. “That chance turned out to be very real for most. Anyway, I’ll scan, before we move on.” He took out his handheld, and connected it to his backpack using a cable. Stewardson turned around, facing the outer wall. The glass was almost fully opaque here, and it was hard to see the outside world. He could make out the horizon and the silhouettes of several other towers, but not much more. He turned back and watched his single remaining team member perform his task. “Lucky that it’s me that survived, of all group members. Probably would’ve gotten stuck otherwise.” Lawrence told his travel mate. “Guess your gambles paid off.” Stewardson clenched his fists again. For the first time during the expedition, he allowed the burning desire to see the insides of the spire to bubble upwards for a few seconds. It almost touched the outside world, and he could barely suppress a smirk. So close… His hands had started itching now.
A few moments later, Lawrence called his companion, who now sat perched on a silver cube next to the gate, over. “Alright, two traps and a barrier in this corridor. Got the locations, so I can disarm them. Will be energy-intensive though, how’s your battery?” “At twelve percent.” Lawrence grumbled. ”Thought we would run into this situation. Also, it seems the air isn’t purified here. We have to keep the suits on, make sure you don’t switch off your filters.” “You mean outside air is coming in?” “So it seems.” “That’s… strange…” “This whole damn tower is strange. We knew that.” “Yeah. Guess we’ve always known that.” Stewardson squinted as he said it. “We can walk about 200 meters, I will disarm the first trap at the marked location here.” He showed his companion the location. “Let’s go.” And so the two men got on with their journey, which had almost come to its end.
“Your battery?” Lawrence asked, without turning towards his partner. “Six.” “Mine’s seven. One of us is going to be left with very little juice if we open this barrier. Maybe go back down, and look for spares?” “We can’t go back down. We barely got off the last level. We won’t survive the trip.” “Hmm, guess you’re right. So what then?” Now, he did turn around, and looked Stewardson straight in the face. “Probably want me to take one for the team, right?” he continued. His companion frowned. “What are you on about? We’ve got to think of something though. And fast, it seems.” “You’ve already thought of it, I’m sure.” Lawrence now took the cutter out. “But how are you going to do it?” He pointed the tool at Stewardson, who took a step back, moving his hand towards his thigh, where his weapon was located. “Take it easy now, bud.“ he said. “I know it’s been a tough journey, and we’ve lost all but ourselves, but there’s no need to let it end in needless tragedy. We’re so close, too.” “Why are you grabbing your weapon?” “Why are you holding your cutter like that?” “Move your arms away from the weapon!” Lawrence’s stance changed to a defensive pose, and he turned the cutter on. A blue flame shot out off the tip. Stewardson pulled out his weapon, pointing it at his travel companion. A rush of adrenalin shot through him. “This is the end!” he yelled, and he pulled the trigger. But nothing happened.
“I disabled it.” said Lawrence, while making sure to keep the cutter between him and his would-be shooter. “Sit down. If I cut your suit open, you’ll die. We’re going to have a conversation.” Stewardson, who was quick to anger, but also prone to making rational decisions when it came to realizing his goals, growled, then sat down. “What’s it gonna be about? You want to wait until we both have no juice left?” he scoffed. Lawrence looked like he was going to sit down as well, hesitated, then took a step back and sat down. He kept the hissing blue flame pointed at the expedition leader. “It’s quite simple. I’m going to ask you three questions. You lie, I cut you. You answer to my satisfaction, I’ll open the door. We won’t be able to go back down anyway. I just hope there’s a way to get some juice behind that magical gate over there.” Stewardson didn’t waste any time. “Let’s start.”
“Question one: what is behind the door?” “No one knows, and you know that. I don’t have any information that you don’t have.” “That’s not a satisfying answer. You’re willing to sacrifice anything to get there. Let me rephrase, and I warn you, I won’t accept another answer like that. What is it that you’re hoping to find behind that door?” “To escape from this cursed tower, what else? We’re trapped, like rats in a cage, you know that.” Lawrence didn’t look like he was content with the new answer either, and Stewardson, who had already noticed this, decided to try a sightly different angle and mix some truth in. ”Alright… Look… We’re living in this shitty cage without knowing how we wound up here, and how to get out of it. This fucking buzz in my head all the time, and the feeling that I’m not in control of my own destiny, of my own actions even, it’s maddening. You die if you go outside. There are no levels ran by sane people. Everyone with some semblance of freedom serves the spire. The conclusion is, the only place that could lead to a way out is the spire itself. Either I find a way to gain the power to at least make this place less of a living hell, I find a way out, or I die. All of these options are better than staying on any of the levels and slowly catching the humming disease. You must agree?” Lawrence smiled. “You’re great at this, I must say. You figured out that was kind of my motivation to join, right? Even though you’re trying to get me on your side again instead of giving me an honest answer, I’ll accept this one. Seems you’re hoping to find something that’ll grant you power. It might just be true. You sure no one provided you with additional information on what’s behind that door?” “Is that your second question?” “No. And we’re not bargaining here, either. You seem to somehow disregard that our fate is now in my… in my hands.” He pointed at the flame, then glanced at his companion’s face, which betrayed no emotion. He continued, a bit less harsh in tone now. “You’re tiresome, man, I’ve noticed this before, during the expedition. If you see an opening you pounce. You don’t get tired of that yourself?” “No, if anything it riles me up.” Lawrence suppressed a smile, caused by this sudden frankness. They were both tired, he realized. “Figures. Anyway, second question. What happened to Tovak, Sens and Overes?” “That’s three questions rolled into one.” “I told you to quit the haggling. Last warning. I’ll just check what’s behind the door myself.” “Alright, just letting you know, our batteries will be dead before we get to moving this way.” “They’ll be fine as long as we’re sitting still. Talk.” “Tovak, he caught something on 560, as you know. At 567, he told me he couldn’t go on anymore, just before those tribesmen attacked us. He elected to stay, and buy us time.” “I heard him coughing and wheezing.” “There’s something bad in the air on 560, that’s why the level is barely populated. You can get sick if you breathe that air for too long. They call it buzz. You start hearing the hum from the spire louder and louder, and it hits the lungs as well.” “You knew we would be at risk when passing through the level then.” Stewardson laughed, loudly. “Come on now. We all knew many levels above us would present many different dangers. We knew there would be tons of crazies demented by the hum, diseases, wildlife, traps, spire agents to put us back into our cages. Everyone signed up knowingly and of their own accord.” “That’s true. So you’re saying there was no way we could have saved Tovak?” “We could have all died together, seeing as we were severely outnumbered. I think we got off good. Tovak was done for anyway, I never heard of a cure for buzz.” Lawrence shuffled a bit backwards, away from his companion. He turned off the cutter. “I’m gonna save some energy here, but don’t get any crazy ideas. Talk about Sens.” He turned the cutter on and off one more time, a warning that felt a bit childish, but necessary. ”Sens’ suit malfunctioned when we went through the pond. The water got in. It was bad water. He was gone before I got him on dry land.” “Or so you claim. These suits are top grade, I personally ran the final checks, and they were in great condition.” “I know, I paid an arm and a leg for those things, remember?” “Curiously, we wouldn’t have had enough energy to handle all obstacles on the last few floors and keep our systems in the green. It was pretty convenient that we could claim his batteries for the last stretch of our journey.” “I’m not sure about team members dying being convenient. We barely made it through the last few floors. Sens was a great fighter and good with the tools. What exactly are you accusing me of?” “I guess I’m at fault myself for not checking out his suit after the incident.” “As if we had time for any sort of investigation. But still, are you accusing me of foul play here?” “Well, I guess we’ll never know. But this makes two peculiar incidents where the only witness was you.” “Ten members died. Is it strange a couple died in my vicinity? You are being quite paranoid. But I get it. The harshness of the journey is getting to you. However, I beg of you, again, let’s not make the end of this story another drama. Don’t let all those lives be lost in vain.” “It doesn’t seem to have really affected you though, all those lives lost.” He wondered why it didn’t seem to affect him much, either, but decided not to dwell on it. He wasn’t even sure why he was digging for answers from Stewardson any more. Had he had a plan? He had been right about him not hesitating to pull his weapon. But what now?
“What about Overes?” “She elected to stay with the AI cult. Tell you the truth, I think she was far gone at that point already.” “She had been behaving strangely, indeed.” “So…” “But she gave you her batteries?” “She did. They were mine in the first place, if you really want to go into it. Are we done?”
Lawrence got up. “Yeah. In the end, you’re a fighter, you don’t yield, so I respect you for that. Furthermore, we are in this together, whatever the case. Let me…” At that moment, his breath stopped. Strange pains shot through his body. He tried to yell at his companion, tried to turn on the cutter and for a moment he hoped to lunge at him. But it was as if parts of his body had started phasing out of- and then back into existence, as if chunks of himself got torn out of him and subsequently reappeared. In shock, he looked down at his body and found that that was more or less exactly what was happening. The outside air! He realized that his suit had been compromised. Lawrence tried desperately to move his arm, to grab the cutter that had dropped to the ground next to him, but his arms, his hands, they were sometimes there and sometimes not. Stewardson leaped at him, and he wasn’t able to react, he seemed to have lost control over his body. He got knocked over by the full weight of his travel mate crashing into him with his shoulder, then lay, in agony, as he felt himself coming apart. “You talk too much.” his assaulter spat at him. “I made an opening in your suit as soon as we entered the level. Well… you know what the outside air does to a human.”
The last things Lawrence consciously experienced were the pain of being torn apart, and his companion’s face. He seemed to be looking at him, but he couldn’t discern any emotion.
Stewardson watched as the barrier disappeared. The blueish glow dissipated to make way for the dull gray glow of the spire entrance. He looked back, gazing into the silent corridor for a few moments. He didn’t really even see the last expedition member that lay a couple of meters away from him, body twitching but not alive. He felt he was about to leave this world of pawns behind, and move into a new place. A new range of possibilities lay before him, he was sure of it. He understood that this place was more strange than even the demented residents of this damned tower could dream up. That information had found its way to him, long ago. The burning drive to get on with his journey flared up again. He turned back to the door. Then, a thought gave him pause. Maybe he had to face another race to the top, another struggle and game of masks to gain access to the power that he craved. He tried to scratch his chin, then smiled, not at the useless gesture but at the thought that had come to him. “One shouldn’t expect to escape hell so easily.” he mumbled to himself. The prospect of more struggle felt more good than bad to him, and this bolstered his pride.
He plugged the cable into the socket next to the door, and then into the handheld he had grabbed out of Lawrence’s bag. He knew the commands for the doors, even though Lawrence might have believed he had been the only one who knew how to open them. A hidden panel on the other side of the door opened, showing a rectangular opening and another socket. He walked back to Lawrence’s body, removed the battery from his suit, walked back, and plugged a cord he pulled from the battery into the socket. From one of his pockets he produced a small, glowing cylinder. “Overes, Overes…” he mumbled, realizing that in this case, fortune had been on his side. The thought was quickly discarded. He had never really believed in the concept of luck. You wait until you get dealt the right cards, then you move in. “This is it.” He couldn’t help but say the words out loud. He inserted the cylinder into the opening and pushed until he felt it click. The doors started to slide open with a loud hiss, and immediately a blinding light gulfed over him, it was almost as if he physically felt it gushing over his body. He took a step back, taking a moment to let his eyes adjust, but before he could really see what lay before him, impatience got the best of him and he stepped through the door.
He almost fell down when his right foot landed on the edge, but he pulled his weight back just in time. Behind the door was just the end of the corridor, the end of a long, arduous path. Below, in front of him, to the right of him, to the left of him, fields, as far as the eye could see. Fields of golden yellow vegetation, slowly waving back and forth underneath a crisp blue sky. He felt confusion, and a slight but sweltering sense of anger. He looked behind him. The corridor was there, and he knew that outside were the green plains and the towers, of which he could see the silhouettes. Then he turned his head back. Endless golden fields. A single, large structure right in front of him just now caught his eye. It was a long pole, sticking up into the blue sky. He traced it from the ground up to its top. There, he noticed something that looked like a giant propeller. Vanes slowly turning. And he could just make out the sound of them flapping against the air among the sound of the vegetation being roused by gentle winds. There was a slightly hypnotizing effect to it all, and he had to force himself out of a growing urge to just lie down. He looked down, searching for some kind of ladder or stairs. But there was none to be found. It didn’t look like he could survive the jump down. A sudden feeling of finality came over him, as if this was truly the end of the road. And another feeling came with it. The feeling that he had done this all before. To his dread, he couldn’t stop himself from taking the notion to the logical next step. Would he be doing this all again? He looked at the propeller again. It turned, and turned, kept turning, like time itself. As if it was pushing time forward all by itself. He suddenly realized he would run out of air soon. And the sounds and lights were mounting another assault on his senses, seemingly trying to lull him into a long sleep. He didn’t think he would ever wake up again if he let them. “FUCK YOU!” he yelled. “I gave EVERYTHING. I sacrificed it ALL! I traversed this cursed tower on willpower ALONE, and THIS is what i get?” He hadn’t really expected a response, but he was still disappointed that none came. His ardor, the anticipation of finding new power, the curiosity for new discoveries, they all had disappeared. There was nothing left to pounce on. He felt blocked. And drowsy. But he would take matters into his own hands, as always. There was one thing he hadn’t sacrificed yet. “He who is not ready to sacrifice it all, is not worthy.” he uttered to himself. He stepped to the edge, and took a deep breath. “Alright. Alright! I WILL DO IT ALL AGAIN! You FUCKERS!” And then he took the plunge.