“This tower, patched unevenly with black ivy, arose like a mutilated finger from among the fists of knuckled masonry and pointed blasphemously at heaven. At night the owls made of it an echoing throat; by day it stood voiceless and cast its long shadow.”
― Mervyn Peake, Titus Groan
Dean4217 was at the base of the tower, picking up a load of concrete and it was time for a Gathering. He was excited to see it in person. At the present height it took him a week to reach the top and another to come back down. Usually, he watched the Gathering speech on the tablet in his cab; so seeing it live would be a rare treat.
He was shocked and frightened by the size of the crowd. He had worked on the tower itself his entire life and he didn’t realize how much support was needed on the ground – several times the people working at the top or along the sides. The speech itself was familiar – they never seemed to change – a dry recitation of feet gained, tons hauled, how many accidents, people injured (Only fifteen killed this quarter!) and so forth. Then, at the end, the usual exhortations – how his Broadway tower compared to the other two hundred-odd towers going up all over the world (as always – somewhere in the middle) and how important it was to keep climbing.
The Leader looked so small surrounded by the vast crowd, even flanked by the giant video screens. Dean4217 though how much better he could see and hear on his tablet and vowed not to waste the time if he found himself on ground level during another Gathering.
His truck was loaded when he reached it after the Gathering had ended and he saw the mechanics had checked out and green-tagged (it no good to break down on the way up) everything so he followed the leader’s advice not to waste and time – starting the engine and heading right for the entrance ramp.
There was always something about entering that ramp – to a driver like Dean4217 it represented the entire enormous project. Yet it was so nondescript, only a wide concrete ramp arching out of the end of the huge staging lot up against the south wall of the tower. Looking up, you could see how it rose and rose until it became a barely visible ribbon and then turned around the southwest corner to continue on up the west side. Another, similar ribbon, the downward ramp was visible above it, a diagonal slash that Dean4217 knew ended on the opposite side. That ramp too was nondescript – and to Dean4217 it represented relief, a job well done, just as this ramp meant the excitement of a new trip.
He took out a sharp saw blade and cut another notch along the metal edge of his dash as he entered the ramp. He had to reach far over to find fresh steel and had stopped counting many years before.
The first few days of the climb were always the easiest. At the lower altitudes the wind wasn’t that much of a problem and the thick atmosphere meant he could drive without his oxygen mask. Still well below the usual cloud level he could look out and enjoy the view. It changed constantly as he drove around the tower, rising with each circuit. Twice a day he would stop at a corner station for fuel, food, and a bit of a rest. These high stops would serve both the ascending and descending ramps and would give him a chance to catch up on the news and gossip from the higher sections of the tower.
On the third day he had risen to the point where he could see the Samsara tower to the east. This was the nearest tower to the Broadway, the only other one that was visible. He wasn’t sure how far away it was – one day some of them had tried to calculate the distance, using the height that it became visible at. Dean4217 didn’t believe it however, the distance seemed too far away. It looked so solid, so close, even though the curvature of the earth caused the Samsara to appear to tip away from the Broadway as it climbed.
He couldn’t help but look at it out his side window, trying to imagine a concrete driver crawling up that vast expanse, like a microscopic ant, looking over at him in similar wonder. It always bothered him that he had never seen the Broadway tower from a distance and had no idea what it looked like, although he assumed it was a twin to the Samsara over there. A dirt hauler in front of him had to stop to tighten a break line and Dean4217 reached across out his left side window to touch the vast concrete wall, trying to make some sort of connection with the overwhelming size of the thing he had spent his whole life helping to build.
At the first refuel stop on the fourth day, Dean4217 stealthily slipped the attendant a credit coupon to get him out of the station quicker than was his turn. One of the water drivers stared at him in frustration, but Dean4217 didn’t care. He needed to get to that night’s stop on time.
His girlfriend Jenny5309 was a rebar driver and she was on the way back down. They had worked out by tablet message that they could get to the same overnight stop on the same evening, if Dean4217 wasn’t delayed. It was always tough trying to arrange a meeting – the rebar trucks took a lot longer to load and it would throw everything out of kilter.
But this time it worked and Dean4217 had barely had time to secure his truck in its spot and get the safety straps down (he was at a height where wind storms could come up without warning) and he heard a knock on his door.
Dean4217 and Jenny5309 slipped their oxygen masks off for a quick kiss, and then then crawled back into the sleeper compartment. He had spent the previous night’s rest period cleaning it out and straightening everything up and had spent extra credits on oxygen bottles so he could charge the whole cube.
“So we don’t have to wear our masks,” he said.
“That’s so thoughtful,” she replied while hanging her mask and bottle on a hook he had provided. “Are you sure you can afford it?”
“Of course, what else am I going to spend my credits on?”
They both had a little laugh at this, then settled back to talk about what had happened since they had last met. Dean4217 thought about how nice it was to hear a familiar human voice. Each had read most of the stories they told each other – Dean4217 and Jenny5309 sent tablet messages to each other constantly. But they didn’t mind the repetition – hearing each other speak live was such a treat. Dean4217 always laughed at her little jokes, even though he had heard them all before and always sighed when she spoke of delays or problems getting her loads up the tower and he empty truck back down.
“You are so lucky, hauling concrete,” she said. “A few minutes of pumping in and you’re off. At the top, all you have to do is dump into the mixer. It takes so long to get all the rebar loaded and tied down.”
“You get a little more rest time.”
“Rest? I have to watch those loaders like a hawk. They don’t care it won’t be their ass if something blows off near the top of the tower.”
They both giggled at that, even though neither was really sure what was funny about it.
The next morning, as she was getting ready to leave, Jenny5309 suddenly became serious. Dean4217 thought it looked like a cloud had passed over her face.
“Dean4217,” she asked, “Why do you think we do this?”
“Why? I’m a concrete hauler and you bring rebar. Without us… and the dirt haulers and the water haulers, and the supplies, and… well, you know, everybody, the tower couldn’t go up.”
“I know that, dummy. But what I mean is that I don’t know why we build the tower. What it is for?”
Dean4217 paused. His father had worked on the tower all his life. He was a dirt hauler. Dean4217 was born in a rest area. At the time it had seemed like it was very high, though now it was barely a tenth of the way up the tower. His father was so proud when Dean4217 had saved enough money working as a steel bender to buy his own truck and start hauling concrete. It was all he had ever known.
“What do you mean why? What else would we do? Where else would all this concrete, steel, water, and dirt go?”
“I know, but I wonder some times. I wonder too, when will it be done?”
“Done? What do you mean done?”
“I mean finished.”
“It will never be finished. The point of a tower is to grow. It can always go taller. There is no end to up.”
“I know what the Leader says at the Gatherings. I’ve heard it all my life, just like you. But I was thinking, surely, someday we will reach an end. Someday… maybe not in our lives, or in our children’s, but someday the tower won’t be able to go any higher.”
Dean4217 had never thought of that. He sat there silent, staring at Jenny5309.
“What will we do then.”
Dean4217 thought of looking across the vast space at the Samsara tower and remembered thinking of the tiny ant, just like him, working his way up.
“I guess we could build another one.”
“I guess you’re right.”
It was always difficult to continue driving on the day after he had met up with Jenny5309. He thought of her on the down ramp, getting farther and farther away from him every second as he climbed. This time was worse; he was bothered by her questions. He was bothered by the fact he had never thought about them before.
At a rest, instead of using his tablet to contact Jenny5309 he called up all the stored speeches of the Leader and searched them for what he was looking for. He found nothing. The Leader had never talked about the purpose of the tower, if there was one, or what they would do if the tower couldn’t go any higher. It was only the usual platitudes: “There is no end to up” or “We must improve our standing in the universe of towers” or “The tower must grow and the faster the better.”
Dean4217 assumed these bothersome thoughts would leave his head as he climbed, day after day. As he neared the top of the tower, the work began to grow more difficult. The air was thinner and he sometimes he had trouble keeping his head clear even with the oxygen. The wind was now a constant howl and keeping the truck on the ramp was a chore, especially rounding a corner and getting used to the gale which would now be swirling from a different direction.
He couldn’t look while he was driving, but he found himself staring outward at every rest station instead of talking to the other drivers. He was now well above the tops of the cloud layer and looking out all he saw was a vast blanket of white, interrupted by the gray mass of the distant Samsara tower. He found he could not take his eyes off it – it was tough to tear them away when it was time for him to head out.
He had to wait behind two other concrete haulers at the top. Everything had to be strapped down across the flat top of the tower because of the incredible force of the winds. He watched the water trucks loading into the mixer and the bundled workers struggling to unload, bend, and place the rebar off of a steel truck.
When it was finally his turn to dump, he hooked up his safety line and carefully inched out of his cab and down to the surface. First he bent down and felt the top of the tower in the same way he had the wall at the bottom, over a week ago. It felt the same. It was, after all, part of the same structure.
Dean4217 fought his was over to where the mixer operator was tied to a steel chair, manipulating levers to add concrete and water to the rolling tank, and then pump it over to where the rebar benders had finished a section. The operator paused, surprised to see a driver out of his truck under these conditions.
“Hey,” Dean4217 said, “I’m Dean4217.”
“I’m… uhh, I’m Willard3309.” There was a pause, as if the operator had to think for a minute to remember his name. The air was very thin.
“Listen, I’ve been thinking,” said Dean4217, “How much farther do you think we can go? The air’s getting pretty thin.”
“Well, there’s no end to up.” Willard3309 repeated the mantra. “And there’s been some engineers up here already. They’re working on pressurized cabs, helmets, and armored worksuits. I don’t think there’s any stopping us once they get all that figured out.”
“I see.” Dean4217 stared at the mixer operator for a long time, trying to decide if he should say what he was about to say. He realized he had no choice.
“Why do you think we are building it?” he said.
“What do you mean why?”
Dean4217 started moving his mouth, as if he was chewing, trying to figure out what to say next, when both men noticed an excitement among all the iron workers. It was strange they were silent in the constant roar of the wind, but they were all unhooking their straps, adding safety lines, and moving off toward the edge of the tower. Dean4217 realized he didn’t know for sure which edge it was, but the crowd began to grow, everyone looking out and gesturing wildly.
Dean4217 and Willard3309 hooked their safety lines together and Willard3309 began to move them toward the gathering crowd. They moved quickly, Willard3309 was very used to the top of the tower and knew all the handy clip rings and tie-off points.
At the edge, they put their heads up against another and found out what the excitement was about.
“Another Tower! We’re high enough, we can see it!”
Looking out over the edge, Dean4217 could make out a tiny sliver of light gray against the dark purplish blue sky.
“We think it’s the Wildsmith. The engineers have said it would grow into our view sometime soon. We need to wait until nightfall, we should be able to see their lights.”
Dean4217 was filled with excitement. Another tower! Imagine!
His heart was beating so hard he could barely stand. He stood and stared, though he wanted to get back to his cab and tablet so he could tell Jenny5309 about what he saw.
He remembered that he had a question that was bothering him, but in the excitement, he completely forgot what it was.