Fractal Myth

THE TOWERS

From a Tower Tall

[Michelle Chapman ©2001]

"Ruth! Special day today is! Shine and rise!"

Ruth groaned and threw a plump cushion at the source of the tinny, insistent voice, but with no effect. Hovering inside the bed-curtains on its glittering plasto-metallic wings, her mech-pet dragon, Draxel, easily avoided the clumsy missile.

"Not nice that is!" it complained, with a peevish whistle. "Good owner you are not, but wake up time this is."

By this time Ruth was sufficiently awake to remember that she herself had programmed Draxel's internal bio-clock several months ago to ensure she would wake early on this day of all days. Draxel's voice chimed in again, the small, metallic-green dragon hovering solicitously close to her face.

"Chosen have you yet?"

This time the cushion was better aimed, and accompanied by the mech-pet's control word "Sleep". The sparkling light in Draxel's jewelled eyes was instantly extinguished as it settled silently into sleep mode in its basket, at the foot of her bed. Ruth sighed in exasperation as she noticed that when the cushion connected, she had badly bent one of the sensitive antennae on Draxel's face. It would be expensive to fix, and now she was eighteen the charge would come to her instead of her parents.

Eighteen!

Ruth sadly surveyed the richly embossed jade velvet curtains which cocooned the soft warm mattress where she lay. It seemed to Ruth as though her whole life so far had been a preparation for this day, and now that it was here, the anticlimax was paralysing her.

Cherished daughter of Roger and Elsbeth Alwyn, high-ranking officials in their local tower bureaucracy, all her life Ruth had been safe and secure, high in the Winter-McMaster tower of area B, in the West sector of the City. Ruth, like most other tower inhabitants, very rarely ventured out, except in carefully secured air-cars, and then only to visit family friends in one or two of the nearby towers. The towers were all very much the same, their exteriors forming the tight dirty grey grid that was the City.

The interiors, however, were a different matter entirely. Isolated from the thick atmosphere outside, they were luxurious and invariably lushly furnished in rich colours and fabrics, with immense attention lavished on every detail as each family strove to excel their neighbours in the magnificence of their personal surroundings.

In this unchanging, practically timeless world, life for Ruth (like everyone else she knew) drifted by in serenely unruffled comfort. Until now. In an attempt to diffuse the natural resentments, tensions and frustrations of teenagers chafing at the sameness of daily life in the towers, The City Committee had long ago established the custom of THE ADVENTURE.

Tradition still held that on their eighteenth birthday, every inhabitant of every tower was entitled - even required - to choose from amongst the large selection of daring escapades sanctioned by the City. On this day most other rules were suspended and almost anything was allowed. The temporary relaxation of the restrictions on the City's youth was intended to reward them for their patience and diligence through childhood and supply their adulthood with at least one extreme memory, so that when the walls began closing in and the stifling dullness of routine became unbearable, people could console themselves with the knowledge that they repressed their dissatisfaction for the greater comfort and stability of the City, but that on the one occasion when they were allowed to rebel, they had tasted life to the full.

The type of adventure one chose was an entirely personal matter, and the rules effectively excluded family and friends from interfering, so that for each individual the adventure was as independent an experience as possible. On this occasion, the eighteen year old finally took complete responsibility for themselves and the rest of their lives.

In many cases, the rest of their life proved extremely short, as often the brashly confident young men and women chose adventures involving danger, risking their safe and certain futures in a bold effort to establish their invulnerability, even if only in their own minds. This was an added if not entirely unforeseen bonus for the City Committee, for every eighteen year old who did not return made room for a new baby to be born, as the never-ending pressure of high population in the towers made rigid social control a necessity. Babies, therefore, were a cherished novelty.

For the most part the population problem regulated itself, as the intensely status-conscious tower inhabitants had formulated elaborate match-making rituals which encouraged romances between different towers, effectively maintaining genetic diversity and sharing the burden of living bodies evenly among the myriad towers.

Ever since the City's inhabitants had moved into the towers, a century and a half ago, the average family size had gradually declined until it came to be considered unusually selfish to have more than one child. The City Committee had encouraged this view until finally it was able to make single-child families the rule, instead of just the norm. Only those whose first child died on an adventure were permitted to become parents for a second time, and then only if they met the City Committee's criteria.

To die on an adventure was also promoted as a mark of extreme honour, raising the bereaved parents several notches on the social scale, for they were then able to regale their neighbours and relations with the story, not only of their own adventures, but of their famous offspring's as well. An adventurous death brought instant fame for the family, for the opportunity was opened for all the tower inhabitants to become involved in the adventure, once the eighteen year old had registered their individual choices.

The entertainment of wagering upon the probable or improbable fate of each adventurer had at first been merely an odd custom, but now it was a socially certified staple of life in the towers. Once the adventurer's choice was posted, all bets were collected together and the imagined outcomes were officially recorded, with the proceeds being shared out after the adventures conclusion, in proportion to the accuracy of the guess and the amount in the pot. Since large amounts of a family's fortune were routinely won and lost on the turn of an adventure, the City Committee strictly enforced the rule making it essential for an eighteen year old to choose their own adventure without any influence from interested parties.

Herein lay Ruth's dilemma.

While she had known almost all her life that this important decision lay ahead of her, and although she had considered carefully each of the various adventures undertaken over the half-century during which the tradition had been established, Ruth's choice remained unmade. She had been told over and over again not to worry - that when the time was right, she would know.

Sulkily, Ruth glared at the glittering hummock in the basket at the end of the bed where Draxel 'slept' with its head curled under its jewelled wing. It was no use to her in this situation, despite being programmed to offer common-sense advice and to act as a sounding-board, helping its owner develop and extend thoughts aloud in a conversational manner, while providing absolute privacy. The last thing Ruth wanted to hear this morning was her own half-formed thoughts and dilemmas rearranged and fed back to her by a creature formed from mixing man-made artifice with fairy-tales and imagination.

Despite her peevish mood, Ruth knew she was being unfair. Draxel had often surprised her with the originality of its comments and it had been her closest, most intimate friend since she had been given it at the age of six. It was commonly believed in the towers that giving a young child a mech-pet helped to instill a sense of responsibility and ownership, while avoiding the now only dimly remembered, legendary problems with real animal pets - the smell, the inconvenience, the expense of providing food and toys, the heartbreak, tears and emotional disruption occasioned by the animal's inevitable mortality.

Much neater and simpler to purchase a mech-pet who would be a faithful friend for life, who was practically indestructible and easily and cheaply repaired, who could communicate sensibly with their owner, and who had the added advantage of being able to access the City's libraries and memory banks at their owner's request, an ability which Ruth had found indispensable while studying for her school exams.

Ruth had heard rumours that several of the most influential and wealthy families actually kept a real live animal as a pet, but if they did they were risking everything, for ever since the crazed animal stampedes that had prompted the City's inhabitants to barricade themselves inside the safety of the towers fifty years ago, the keeping of a real animal inside a tower was punishable by immediate expulsion. Previously, Ruth had laughed at those who risked exile from the towers, especially as the clandestine 'pets' so far discovered had numbered exactly one worm, two ants and a cricket. Hardly tempting companions when compared with her own dazzling, delightful dragon, but ... there was still something missing.

Impatient with her lack of inspiration, Ruth pressed the button which smoothly drew the curtains back from around her bed. This morning, her walls had been set to show a glorious spring day, with golden sunbeams filtering gently through large soft green leaves. Suddenly, looking at the splendour surrounding her on every side, Ruth felt an intense longing to be with something, anything, which was not human or made by humans.

Outside her door she could hear her parents moving surreptitiously around, trying to temper their curiosity and excitement with patience, but with little success. Ruth did not think she could face them yet, especially as she still had no idea what her choice would be.

Moving like a sleepwalker, Ruth strangely found herself kneeling before the chest of drawers set seamlessly into the wall, and searching beneath the old clothes for a box containing something she had hardly thought about since she had hidden it away at the age of eight. Then, she had been more impressed with the cunningly elaborate little box than with its contents, but now she was deaf to the tinkling tune which began as she deftly worked the mechanism to open the tiny case.

Inside, nestled on a layer of crimson velvet, was a dull, scratched shell, a stained creamy yellow, about the size of Ruth's smallest fingernail. Reverently, Ruth carefully lifted the shell, cradling it cautiously in her palm.

She found to her surprise that she remembered every detail of the occasion when her grandfather, her father's father, had warned her that a time might come when she would want something which could not be produced by the massive manufacturing towers in the City's centre. She had laughed, then, thinking the old man's gift eccentric and insignificant next to the glowing lights and bright colours of the toys, clothes and jewelry of her other birthday presents. Her mother had found the shell the next morning, lying unnoticed among the crumpled, shiny gilt wrapping paper, and had soundly scolded Ruth for her thoughtlessness. The shell, safe in its marvellous box, was resentfully thrust into Ruth's bottom drawer, where it remained forgotten for ten years. But now her grandfather's prediction had come true.

Clutching the shell so tightly that an imprint of it appeared in the flesh of her palm, Ruth felt as though she had surrendered her conscious volition to some stronger deeper instinct inside herself. She seemed to be following the familiar routines of her daily life as she moved towards the concealed panel which controlled the scenery for her room, but like the dazzling sunshine around her, the appearance of normality was merely illusion.

For the first time ever in her life, Ruth pressed the button which, instead of offering her a magnificent selection of backgrounds tailored to her mood and tastes, returned the walls to their natural state. With the veneer gone, Ruth was shocked to see how incongruous her fine furniture and belongings looked when seen against the grey, dirty glass and peeling paint of reality.

Normally, the image-makers installed in every wall of every tower were turned off only for maintenance, and then only after the area's residents had been evacuated. Everybody knew that the seamless forests or seascapes or sunsets with which they were surrounded were artificial - each grew up with the notion that at the touch of a button one could alter one's environment, but Ruth could not remember ever hearing that someone had chosen to turn their image-maker off.

Anyone who wanted to look out at the real City went to the top 'observation levels' of the towers, or went out in an air-car, but even here one could not guarantee that one was not an image constructed for one's peace of mind by the City Committee.

From the high decks of her tower, Ruth had developed an impression of the City as an orderly, neat grid of towers, laid out like a game-board as far as the eye could see, while from the bubble windows of a touring air-car on a school excursion, Ruth had learned that on every side the City was bounded by a massive concrete wall. Outside this wall, she remembered seeing only stormy clouds of light brown dust and sand, whirling incessantly around the City's perimeter.

Now, moving closer to the window that she had never known existed, Ruth experienced a shiver of apprehension and rebellion. She knew her family's apartment was roughly half-way up the tower, though she had only ever travelled up to the roof with its air-car launch pads and observation decks, and back down to her own floor, never lower. By convention, the inhabitants of the towers guarded their cherished social status by literally refusing to 'sink beneath their level'.

People socialised with neighbours on their own floor , visited those above them, and received visits from the levels directly below. The only people who willingly travelled down to the base of the tower were those eighteen year old adventurers who chose to try their luck on the 'wild side' - out in the streets. Some of these adventurers returned, fulfilling their own prophecies and earning themselves a fortune for the future. Ruth had listened spellbound with the rest of the tower's children to these raconteurs on their return, but the stories they told were always assumed to be at least half inflated exaggeration.

Rubbing a clear circle on the window pane, Ruth was surprised at the amount of filth on the inside of the glass. She couldn't help wondering what other dirt lay concealed beneath the glossy glowing walls of the tower's interior. Now, however, her attention was caught by something even more expected. She had heard the legends about the enchanted forest which existed somewhere in the City, the focus superstitious and fearful imaginings by the citizens. Many claimed to have seen it from an air-car, but legend had it that no-one had ever dared to venture inside.

Even the bravest and most fool-hardy eighteen year olds had been known to quake at the thought of entering the forest, purported home of witches and other assorted terrifying monsters, and to choose instead the adventure of facing the criminals and desperate vagabonds who inhabited the streets themselves forbidden from entering even the basement levels of the towers. It was occasionally whispered that those who were expelled from the tower community for the treacherous act of introducing a live animal into the towers did not stay on the streets, but immediately sought out the forest into which they vanished and were never seen again.

Ruth impulsively kissed the tiny shell she still clutched compulsively. She felt as though an immense weight were suddenly gone from her shoulders, for the choice that had been plaguing her for so long had been made, the instant she had peered through the grimy glass and seen real leaves and branches indistinctly waving far below her.

Although she realised the futility, Ruth could not resist the temptation. She seized a heavy ornament from the shelf at her side and hurled it with all her strength at the window. It impacted the pane with a muffled thud and bounced spinning back towards the opposite wall, where it landed unharmed on an untidy pile of clothes in the corner.

"Ruth? Is everything OK?" Her mother's voice sounded subdued, even respectful. The novelty of this shook Ruth, and reminded her that from today she was responsible for herself - no longer would her mother send Draxel in to unceremoniously yank the covers off her sleeping form and berate her for her laziness. From now on she was on her own. Especially if she went through with the adventure she had chosen.

The thought of her forthcoming adventure combined with her new responsibility made her shiver. She did not know where to start. Ruefully Ruth eyed the sleeping Draxel's bent antennae. Draxel always knew what to do, but if it was going to come with her (and she could not contemplate leaving it behind forever) it would have to be repaired.

Pensively, Ruth approached the monitor set into the surface of her study desk. By convention, the eighteen year old adventurers were permitted to make any purchases they deemed necessary for their escapade, and the cost was waived until their return. If the adventure was successful, he or she immediately settled the debt from their winnings. If unsuccessful, the amount was deducted from the pot before it was shared amongst those who had guessed closest to the adventurer's fate. With a few touches of her finger on the sensitive screen, Ruth displayed the rules for adventurers on the monitor. She quickly found the passage she was interested in.

"...In the unlikely event that an adventurer chooses as his or her fate that he or she will never return to the towers, and secretly registers this choice with the Adventure Committee, unknown to any other tower inhabitant, regardless of relationship, then this adventurer is deemed to have voluntarily killed himself or herself for the greater benefit of the towers.

"In these circumstances, the Adventure Committee will accept wagers from all interested parties and the proceeds will be pooled in the usual manner.

"After a suitable interval of two weeks, this pot will be released to the adventurer's closest relatives, once all outstanding expenses have been discharged.

"When the pot has been released, the adventurer will be announced to be officially dead, and any attempt on his or her part to re-enter the towers will result in his or her immediate extermination.

"If the adventurer returns before the time-period has expired, he or she may resume his or her place in the society.

"However, all money wagered on the adventurer's fate will be forfeited to the Adventure Committee, and the adventurer will be held completely responsible for any and all expenses.

"If these expenses cannot be met, the penalty is immediate expulsion from the towers for the returned adventurer and his or her closest relatives.

"There are no exceptions."

Ruth smiled and carefully typed in her identification number in the appropriate space. Instantly, the main computer with which she was communicating flashed her record across the screen.

She allowed herself a small moment of pleasure and self-congratulations as in front of her once again she saw displayed her outstandingly high marks gained in the recent compulsory comprehension and competency tests. At the base of the page, under the heading 'Career Options', the text read "This citizen may undertake whatever path in life most appeals to her. She will be a considerable asset to the towers in any field." For some reason this phrase had grated on Ruth's nerves ever since she had first seen her exam report. It seemed to take all her hard work, concentration and diligence for granted, waiting only for her to experience her momentary freedom before slotting her into place for the rest of her life.

It was thus with a great sense of relief that Ruth called up the next page, headed 'Adventure Options' and scrolled through hundreds of possibilities before finding and placing her mark against the 'Enchanted Forest', imagining the ripple of excitement in the public lobby on her floor, where the adventurers' choices were displayed, and where the wagers on each adventurer's fate were made. That is, all wagers except for the adventurer's own, which was always kept a closely guarded secret until the appropriate time, when either the adventurer returned or else was pronounced dead.

Ruth now moved to register her wager and seal her fate. Underneath the long list of possible adventure choices there was a large blank space. Starting with the words "I believe ..." it left ample room for the adventurer to expand at length upon the escapades they hoped to experience. It took Ruth only seconds to complete the sentence. "I believe ... that I will never return to the towers."

She was quite surprised when pressing the button to register her choice resulted in a flashing red message "Are you happy with your choice? Do you wish to change your mind?" but she soon realised the questions were routine and not specifically generated in response to her choices, and then her choices were made and no further alteration was possible.

Having finalised her choice, Ruth could now turn to the question of provisions. It was true that she did not intend to return to the towers, but nor did she intend to lay down and die, as traditional stories assumed of those who chose not to return. Once she entered the enchanted forest she had no idea what would happen to her, but she was determined to be prepared for anything.

First, she needed to fix Draxel, because the small glittering green dragon was the only one she could turn to for advice. This had always been the case, but its companionship seemed even more necessary now that she was prevented from consulting with her parents. (Any hint of impropriety or collusion and the whole family would be disqualified from the adventure game - not only would her parents not receive the money wagered on her fate, but they would also face banishment from the towers and the society they had so faithfully served.)

Secrecy would not be as easy as it sounded, for her parents knew her well and loved her greatly. If she showed any sadness at the thought of leaving them, she was sure they would try and prevent her from taking such a drastic step. It would already be a large enough shock to them to realise she had chosen the Enchanted Forest as her adventure. They would be heartbroken if they suspected that she definitely planned not to return.

Still seated at her desk console, Ruth began the process of printing a hard-copy of the service manual for Dragon Mech-Pets of Draxel's model. Hard-copies were incredibly expensive, but Ruth had considered the usual method of downloading the information into Draxel's own memory, or one of his auxiliary tapes, but she quickly rejected the notion. She was most likely to need the manual most urgently when Draxel was non-functioning and consequently unable to access the information needed to repair him.

Having obtained the manual, it was a relatively simple matter for Ruth to skim through it and determine a catalogue of the spare parts she might need, and soon after a glittering array of rainbow coloured components came spilling through the wall slot into her room. With deft fingers she sorted and packed them neatly into a case that Draxel could carry, retaining only the pieces needed to fix the mech-pet's immediate problem.

With the manual before her, Ruth was astounded by how easy this was. She could hardly believe the mech-pet-vets charged so much and got away with it. Still, it was typical of life in the towers. The worth of anything was judged primarily by how much it cost, rather than its usefulness or the difficulty of its production. If you did not ask an exorbitant price for your services, you were deemed to have no confidence in your abilities, regardless of what you were offering and its likely demand. At the same time, to do something yourself when you could pay someone else to do it was taken as an admission of poverty, or dangerous eccentricity. In either case you would be ostracised by your neighbours until eventually, in desperation, you would flee to a lower level of the towers, though as likely as not your ill-fame would follow you down. It seemed strange to Ruth to remember that only last night she had unquestioningly accepted and taken for granted the values of the City. Now she wanted only to escape from the cloying artificiality around her.

To get started on her quest, Ruth asked the newly repaired Draxel to search the main computer for any references to the outside, natural world. If she was going to survive without the City she was going to need to know as much as possible about its history and the pressures which had forced the citizens to hide inside their thick walls. She had, of course, been taught the official version at school, but one of the advantages of choosing never to return, so Draxel informed her, was apparently unlimited access to the City's archives.

Draxel approached its task with an almost human enthusiasm. The sensitive mech-pet had almost overloaded its circuits when Ruth had reactivated it and it immediately noticed and grasped the implication of the tool kit in her hand. Despite her high marks, Ruth was known affectionately as 'butterfly' to those in her close family, who gently teased her messiness and easily distracted attention. Ruth had only ever seen a butterfly in her grandmother's very old picture-books, but it did not look like a bad thing to be.

"Not dismantling me, are you? I hope!" Draxel's anxiety made Ruth laugh. At least it was proof that her repairs had worked. She was even more amused by its response to the blank grey walls and the bag of tightly packed mech-pet repair kits. For one terrible moment Ruth thought Draxel would be unable to adapt to this disruption of normality, but as she watched, she realised the creature was actually quivering with excitement, if such a thing were possible.

In performing its routine checks on startup, Draxel had accessed the adventure list and discovered Ruth's choice of the Enchanted Forest for her adventure. "Glad am I. Good is your choice. With you come can I?" It was unusual for an adventurer to take his or her mech-pet, but Draxel had already drawn its own conclusions from the evidence before its eyes. Ruth realised that telling even Draxel of her intention not to return could breach the rules of her adventure, but she soon saw that the dragon had been her companion for long enough to see for itself where the signs pointed.

With its jewelled golden eyes glowing, Draxel wordlessly expressed its complete approval of her plan, and immediately set to work busily combing the library archives and filing the snippets of information found under practical headings like 'Surviving Outside - Hints and Tips for Lunatics' and 'Animals and Plants - Myths, Monsters and Make-Believe'. Ruth had always known Draxel possessed a well-developed sense of humour, but she had never before seen it so clearly displayed. The metallic dragon seemed to be emphasising the sanctimonious, small-minded principles on which the society of the City based all its philosophies.

At first, Ruth suspected that Draxel was being deliberately sarcastic, or that perhaps it had not grasped the implications it was making, but on reflection she could see that there was method in its madness, for should she ever be overcome with nostalgia for the high-reaching tower-home of her childhood, with this organisation of the information Draxel would easily be able to remind her of the narrow-minded opinions and superstitious prejudices she had left behind. Having made her choice, Ruth found that with every passing moment she grew increasingly disgusted with the sugar-sweet artificial constructions considered necessary to keep the tower inhabitants complacent and content.

Finally, Ruth and Draxel sat back and surveyed their progress. For the first time in more than a decade, Ruth's room was spotlessly clean, with everything in its place. With a touch of a button, Ruth restored the wall-panels to a cheerful seaside scene which completely concealed the stained grey walls which Ruth now knew had always been there. Also concealed was the new dragon-sized hole Draxel had excavated to the outside world in the corner of the room behind Ruth's bed, where it would not be noticeable, even if the wall-illusions were turned off.

Although she herself did not plan to return, Ruth was not intending to be cut off entirely from all that she was familiar with. Ensuring that Draxel would still have access to her room was one way of maintaining a connection, without endangering her parents. She had already tested the theory, sending the little dragon out on a reconnaissance flight so that once they had irrevocably left the building it would be able to locate both the Enchanted Forest and her own tower.

Ruth had been constantly aware of her parents quietly moving around in the next room. As it was a special day they were not required to be at work, but Ruth could hear through her closed door the muffled tones of two different conversations and presumed they were covering their nervousness with the familiarity of routine, occupying themselves with the daily problems of tower maintenance and tenant dispute resolution. Listening to their calm, gentle voices, Ruth felt a flood of love and sympathy for her parents. Although she would miss them greatly, she knew they would benefit from her departure.

All her life, Ruth had wanted a little brother or sister, but whenever she had broached the subject during her childhood, her parents had carefully and uncomplainingly explained the need for strictly maintaining population control in the towers. Still, Ruth knew her parents, and all their dedicated willingness to subordinate their wishes for the common good could not hide from her the sadness which showed they shared her desire. Now this could be her gift to them. Eighteen years after they gave her the gift of life, she could give it back to them. From the moment she had seen the leaves of the Enchanted Forest waving far below, she had been sure of her choice, especially as she knew that once she was pronounced officially dead her parents would be entitled to conceive again, using her now empty room.

It was for this reason that Ruth had so meticulously cleaned her room. A niggling worry remained that this unusual tidiness would alert her parents that something was wrong, and they would try to dissuade her. Ruth did not think she could go through with her plan if her parents argued against it, but the thought of a lifetime trapped in the towers was even worse. Remembering her parents great trust and pride in her, Ruth persuaded herself that this would naturally lead them to believe she had turned over a new leaf on her eighteenth birthday and intended, on her return, to live responsibly and respectably as she was expected to do until leaving to marry into another tower, or introducing her new husband into her family apartments.

In either case, the young couple would not be permitted to start a family of their own until the elder couple, parents of either bride or groom, had vacated their room to leave space for a new grandchild. Of necessity many of the customs surrounding romance were rooted in the need to maintain a constant population limit.

The most popular solution, and the one chosen by Ruth's parents and grandparents, was for the girl to move into the boy's family rooms, and after a suitable period the boy's parents moved into the room the girl had left vacant in her parent's apartment. Since all the rooms were completely customisable to one's personal taste at the touch of a button, this arrangement usually proved satisfactory to all. The newly-weds had space for a baby, which meant that the grandparents had someone new to coddle and spoil and be interested in, with the added bonus that they could brag to friends and neighbours of the tolerance and self-sacrifice they showed in sharing an apartment with their child's choice of parents-in-law. Serious disputes were rare, but when problems arose which could not be settled by mediators like Ruth's parents, the most disgruntled couple of the pair were encouraged to swap with others on their level who also felt the need for a change of company.

When the tower inhabitants reached old age, they were transferred to the Sunset towers, which were built in a ring around the manufacturing towers in the City centre. Here, all the facilities were geared to the needs of the retired citizens. Each Sunset tower had a full complement of nursing staff constantly on call, and all the residents were of a similar generation and social status, since the residential hierarchy was kept in force when the retirees were transferred. As a group, the Sunset tower inhabitants were encouraged to maintain a healthy interest in the life of the City, considering themselves to be a last line of defence - ready to protect at all costs the manufacturing hub of the City.

Ruth shuddered. She had always been uncomfortable with the idea that her entire existence was planned in advance by forces beyond her control, leaving only the choices of adventure, partner and career to her individual inclination, and then only within tightly controlled parameters. Ruth wanted to rebel, to make her life different, and most of all, to see whether she could survive in a world where all your needs did not drop conveniently from the nearest wall-slot.

Now Ruth took a last sentimental look around her bedroom. She could only just imagine a world that did not have her in it, but went on just the same. A gentle hum from Draxel interrupted her reverie. Ruth started. How long had she been dreaming? But it didn't matter now - it was time to go. She rapidly ran her eye around the room, checking that everything was as it should be, and then opened the door.

Instantly her parents stopped trying to pretend it was just another normal routine day, and came together to hug her tightly between them. Gazing searchingly into her mother's grey eyes, Ruth saw a mixture of tears and sparkling laughter which reassured her - even if she had been able to discuss her choice with her parents she was sure now they would have approved. Then she was enfolded in her father's considerable embrace, and as she relaxed and cuddled into his trusted strength she realised that she had inherited both her parents' courage and love of life, and it was this which made her choice inevitable.

A soft chime sounded from the wall speaker, telling Ruth and her dragon that the time for goodbyes was over and they now had to leave. It took all her self-control to stay bright and cheerful as she shouldered her heavy knapsack and kissed her parents a final farewell. Even Draxel seemed moved by the emotion of the moment, for he hovered solicitously near Ruth's parents.

"Worry don't, please you!" the mech-pet whirred, "Hear from us someday soon you will! Good care of her I will take." Ruth started. What did Draxel think it was doing? But looking at her parents now, Ruth realised she was silly to think they would not guess at least a part of what she intended. However, no-one in authority would suspect a mech-pet might be capable of understanding such a complex situation, so Draxel could communicate to her parents what she could not, without breaching the rules of her adventure.

Her father winked at her, and slipped a tiny beribboned package into the pocket of her jacket. "Open it when you get wherever you are going!" He said, smiling broadly, and pushed her gently towards the door as the second, last-warning chimes sounded. "We know you will do well and make us proud." The lump swelling in Ruth's throat threatened to choke her, and it was all she could do to blurt out "I love you both", before she turned and blindly stumbled through the door that silently slid open before her.

In the long, featureless corridor outside, Ruth stopped for a moment and dried her eyes. "Alright are you?" Draxel enquired, as they moved off past door after door, identical except for the numbers and names on the waist-high wall plaques. The corridor was deserted. The three other adventurers on her floor who shared her birthday had all been eagerly planning to leave at the first chime, when they had last all met together. Only Ruth had expressed uncertainty about her adventure. The others had registered their adventures well in advance and had been bubbling over with the effort of keeping their decisions a secret until the all-important choices were publicly announced.

Draxel persisted, taking her silence as a sign of misgivings. "Sure are you of what you plan?" Ruth smiled up into its glittering eyes. "We will make it!" she said brightly, as they finally arrived at the lift bay. The lifts were all in the exact centre of the tower, while the home Ruth had so recently left was situated on the tower's outer edge. The lift door slid open in front of them, and they stepped into the small padded cubicle with its walls of green-lit buttons.

All the conveniences of the tower were capable of being voice activated, but a general vote had shown that people preferred the traditional tactile approach, especially in public-use areas. Some of the inhabitants of the towers still stubbornly activated everything by voice only, for they refused to completely trust what they called "those new-fangled hygiene whatchamacallits". Ruth's grandfather on her mother's side felt like that. She sent a loving thought in his direction as she felt the slight ticklish tingle of the force-shield that protected all the tower's public buttons from dirt, contamination and vandalism.

Ruth had used the lift many times before, but usually only to go up. In all her life she had never been further than two floors beneath her own. Acting out of habit, she now stood on tiptoe to push the large rectangular button that would take her to the transport stations on the roof, but then she heard Draxel humming gently at her from the floor. Looking down Ruth saw the mech-pet squatting meaningfully beside a tiny black button underneath all the others, marked simply 'Exit'. Stooping, Ruth pressed the button and started the lift falling smoothly into the future.

Draxel was still watching her closely, and Ruth hastened to assure it that her attention was now firmly on the task at hand. She could not help feeling the seriousness of the occasion as she watched button after button light up and then blink off seconds later as the lift sped down the long descent. ... Each of those lights represented a floor like her own, filled with people living closely and comfortably together.

Her choice seemed very lonely all of a sudden, but then her wave of self-sympathy was lost in the shock of realising that the lift had stopped. The light for that floor was somewhere near her knees, about half-way between her home floor and her destination. Ruth had heard lots of gossipping horror tales about the denizens of the lower floors. The snobbery of the towers was such that the further down in a tower you lived, the less human you were assumed to be. As always, Ruth had taken such stories with a grain of salt, but as the door slid open she began to wonder.

The young man who stood in the doorway was huge - tall, broad-shouldered and heavily muscled. Ruth had never seen his equal. The men she knew, including even her father, tended to be lightly built and clean shaven, with thinning hair from a very early age. This young man had bright, thick, ginger hair in a plait as long as her own, while his mouth was hidden by a short curly beard of the same rusty orange. He smiled as he tried to scrunch himself into the lift, exposing a grin of shiny white teeth that reminded Ruth of the wild animals she was soon to face, if the legends about the Enchanted Forest had any truth in them.

She shrank back further into the corner, and spoke the code-word "Homer" that she and Draxel had always used to warn of danger. The mech-pet was hovering protectively near the roof, where it could watch the situation and defend its mistress if it became necessary. "Have I stepped into the Iliad or the Odyssey?" the burly man enquired, grinning down at Ruth. She gasped in surprise. Her mother's mother had given her an ancient copy of Homer's works on her tenth birthday and it had quickly become her most treasured possession, for, unlike her grandfather's neglected shell, the book with its musty paper and strange words had immediately had the power to transport her to a magical world where she could forget herself and all those around her.

Books were rare in the towers, but only because no-one really bothered with them except eccentric historians. Everyone else seemed to find it so much easier to get their entertainment from the vid-soap programs about the 'family next door', and most studying was done while asleep by plugging into the dream-ed net.

Ruth had lost count of the number of times she had been told that sitting with her nose in a book would lead to ruined health and bad eyesight. If she wasn't careful, they had warned her, she would destroy her ability to read the computer screens on which life in the tower depended. Ruth had ignored them and read on regardless, sure in the belief that anything her parents approved of could never be wrong. Other than her parents and grandparents, however, Ruth had very rarely found anyone who had even heard of Homer, which was why she had felt secure using him as her warning signal to Draxel.

She looked again at the young man. He was weirdly dressed, with a rough, coarsely woven undershirt and trousers covered with an antique, heavy, black padded jacket unlike anything Ruth had ever seen. By this time the door to the lift had closed and it was once again plummeting downwards. The stranger put out his hand to steady Ruth as the lift's lurch took her off balance, and instantly Draxel attacked.

Ruth could not have been more surprised by the young man's reaction. In one swift movement he thrust her behind him, and holding one thickly padded arm across his eyes to protect them, he swung at the mech-pet with his other arm. The enforced separation from Ruth only increased Draxel's agitation, and it clawed and beat at the young man's hair in its efforts to protect her.

Faced with two brave defenders battling over her, Ruth burst out laughing. Both Draxel and the young man turned to face her, and the look of astonishment and reproach on their faces was so similar that she went into gales of helpless giggles that took several floors to subside. "Wrong with you what is?" Draxel demanded, at the exact moment the young man exclaimed "What is that thing?". More to the point, Ruth thought, what sort of mysterious young man was this, who was familiar with ancient Homer but could not recognise a common mech-pet? Perhaps the differences between the levels of the tower were greater than even the gossips imagined. Either way, it seemed that it was high time for proper introductions.

"My name is Ruth," she said. "I am an adventurer, going to the Enchanted Forest. This is my mech-pet dragon. Its name is Draxel. I am sorry it hurt you." For the young man was now ruefully rubbing at the scratches on his head as he listened.

"No great harm done. I'll have to be tougher than that to survive out there! My name is Junior. I'm an adventurer too, but I chose a blank screen. I'm not planning to come back, so I didn't see any point in playing their games any longer. They're lucky I waited 'til I was eighteen anyway."

"But what about your family?" Ruth asked. "Don't you want them to get the benefits?"

Junior glared at her, and Ruth involuntarily took a backwards step before she realised his anger was not aimed at her. Her question had simply touched a very raw nerve. "My parents got the chance to move up-level when I was three years old," he said. "I guess they were so excited they forgot to take me with them!"

Ruth immediately felt sympathy for his bitterness and regretted her unthinking assumptions. There were still many levels to go before the lift would reach the bottom, so Ruth decided to try a different topic. "Have you read Homer too?" Once again, the young man's curt answer - "I can't read" - made her feel totally out of her depth.

Her face must have told him of her embarrassed confusion because he seemed to make a visible effort to relax, even bending his knees so Ruth would feel like she was talking to more than his chest. "It's alright," he said, "you weren't to know." She smiled at him, and he thus encouraged, he explained further. "When my family left me I was taken in by a very old man. He had chosen to keep moving lower down the tower rather than be removed to the Sunset towers. He had started out near the very top, and he always said to me 'They have had control of me from the day I was born. I will be damned if they get to choose how and when I die!'. He was determined to die with someone young nearby. Someone who could take what he knew and make it live again. Someone who needed to learn what he could teach, rather than being surrounded by a bunch of old citizens who had never bothered to look beyond their own eyelids."

Ruth felt a thrill of recognition, amazed to find someone who shared her way of looking at life. Having got Junior to open up this far, she now carefully did not say anything in the hope that he would continue. After staring at the row of lights and buttons for a while, he went on. "It was this old man who taught me about Homer. He didn't have any books - he didn't have any possessions except for this old leather jacket." Ruth gasped despite herself. Leather, the actual skin of an animal, was one of the rarest, most expensive materials known in the towers. Junior either ignored or did not hear her interruption. "What he did have was an incredible memory. For thirteen years he looked after me, and he taught me much more than anyone else my age learned at any stupid tower school."

Ruth was inclined to agree with him. He was certainly more intelligent than the boys she knew on her own level. "He never told me his name. He never wanted to be called anything other than 'old man'. He used to sit me on his knee for hours when I was little, telling me over and over again the tales of an ancient world where men were free and roamed both land and sea, fighting for glory and living life to the full.

'That's what men are for', he used to say, 'not this sterile, stifled, artificial existence'. But he couldn't leave the towers. In all his stories the men were superheros, larger than life and capable of anything, whereas he was all too aware of his own aging human frailties. If there were people living outside the towers they would need newcomers who were young and strong and full of future promise. That was why he made me swear I would wait until I was eighteen before I went adventuring, even if he died before then", Junior explained. "He didn't want me to be a burden to the world outside. He thought the towers were too much of a burden for the earth already, but being a product of the towers, at the very least I should maximise every possible advantage I could take from them. So that is who I am, and why I am never coming back. There is nothing here for me."

The lift had continued to fall without interruption while Junior was talking, and now Draxel gave a gentle hum to warn Ruth they were nearing the bottom. In the moments they had left, Ruth told Junior about the Enchanted Forest as she had seen it from her window. When she informed him that Draxel had already been on a reconnaissance flight, he began to look at the mech-pet with increased interest. "That will be a useful gadget to have around", he commented, but was immediately taken back when Ruth came to her dragon's defence with as much fury as it had shown in protecting her.

"It is not a gadget! Draxel is my best friend, and what's more, Draxel knows much more than even your old man. We have been together all my life. If Draxel is a machine, then it is better than almost all the humans I know, and I'll thank you not to insult it!" Junior took a startled step backward in the tight enclosed space of the lift, holding his hands apologetically in front of him. "I never intended to insult you, ... or your friend!" he said, keeping a wary eye on Draxel who was still hovering alertly near the roof.

The whole situation suddenly struck Ruth as totally incongruous. He was almost twice her size, and she had him bailed up in a corner of the tiny lift. She began to laugh, and before long both she and Junior were guffawing hilariously. "I suppose", Ruth managed to gasp out between giggles, "that although we come from the same tower, we still have a lot to learn about each other's culture. That is, if we are going to travel together."

"I was hoping you would suggest that," Junior replied, looking at her sideways. "After all, it's obvious I am going to need someone to protect me." This really tickled Ruth's sense of humour, so that when the lift doors finally opened on the outside world they had been longing to see, neither adventurer was able to fully appreciate the sight. Both were blinded with tears of laughter.

Floating above them with his glowing golden eyes whirling, Draxel shook its metallic head. "Humans!!?!!" it muttered.

The Towers:

Exodus
Romance
Garden of Hope
It's a Beautiful World
~ From a Tower Tall

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