“Towers” is a short Story by Brian Lelas. It is previously unreleased.
I know that I shouldn’t have done it. It was a stupid thing to do. But it was
what it was. I was stuck now, going through the long underground tunnel
that would lead to the Complex. It didn’t matter what you did, everyone
walked the same long path through the damp, concrete tube, chained
around the waist to the man in front and the man behind. It didn’t matter if
you were a murderer, a fraudster or like me, a thief. You were just another
link on the chain.
The Complex was something that you heard about from a very early age.
If you don’t eat up all of your dinner, the man from the Complex might hear
about it. If you didn’t get a good grade in Biology, the van driving by the
house could well contain someone from the Complex to check why this was
the case. Parents used these stories about the Complex as a kind of balance
for Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. If you were a good little boy or girl, the
good guys would be informed and you’d probably get what you wanted. If
not, well, the darkness would scare you out of it.
It was common enough to hear about people being taken off and
sentenced, delivered to the Complex. Relocation was common afterwards,
apparently. The Authority claimed that convicts would want to forget their
time in the Towers so badly that they would gratefully accept new identities
and move on to new lives. As I shuffled through the tunnel, I thought about
what my new life would be like. Nobody went in expecting to want a new
life, they said, but everyone changed their mind at some point in their
sentence. I hadn’t much to leave behind. My father, now living in a home,
was the only family I had left, and he probably wouldn’t recognise me if I
visited him every day of the week. He wouldn’t miss me.
The only advice that my counsel had for me once I was proven guilty was
this: Time is not what you should measure while you’re in the Towers.
You’re not in a hurry. Just climb when you’re told and you will emerge when
the time is right.
I asked him to explain what he meant. Surely there was a timeframe to
my stay. A year? Two? He insisted that there wasn’t. Mainly, he said,
because nobody keeps track of it inside the Complex. Time. It doesn’t
matter within the walls. Apparently I’d be out when I was out.
We walked for a long time, almost half an hour, before we emerged via a
twisting ramp, like an inverted slide, into an ante-room with black walls, no
windows and one massive, three-storey tall cast-iron gate. Dim lighting on
the high ceiling made the place seem like a void, an expanse that was so
wide that it could go on forever. When the seven of us on the chain were all
inside, a hatch was closed over the ramp and locked. The lead guard pointed
at the man at the front of the chain with his automatic rifle and then at the
gate. The shuffling of the metal as we walked in unison echoed quietly from
all around. The massive gate creaked ahead of us and slid open. A light crash
faded as quickly as it sounded when it opened fully. A gateway to the
They took the shackles from my wrists and for a moment I felt cold. The
chain was unlocked and the steel brace around my waist dropped over my
feet. Nobody made any sudden moves, just turned heads or stretched legs. I
wrung my wrists like wet dishcloths, trying to get the blood flowing to my
fingers again. The huge gate had closed much more softly than it opened.
We were now in a room with gates that led to a much larger area, like an
amphitheatre. There were hundreds of people, wearing the brown overalls
to match my own, bustling and talking. I hadn’t heard the gate slam shut
because I hadn’t noticed the noise of voices, of crowds. It was one big open
pit, just for us. The Complex. It was just one big room… How do they
maintain order? How do they protect the convicts from each other? How
will I find somewhere safe? The questions raced one another around my
mind. There were people in here who were much, much more dangerous
than anyone I’d ever met. This was where the wicked went. For me, this was
about to be hell.
“Step through to processing,” a guard said.
My eyes never left the mass of people beyond and below as they led me
to a cubicle, as dimly lit as the ante-room before. I was searched,
thoroughly, despite having been searched before arrival, and was sat down
on a chair, with my chest facing the backrest. My head was pushed forward
so I could just see the tips of my feet below. Then there was a snap at the
back of my head, sharp and sudden. I yelped, but couldn’t move. My body
shook once, violently and they rolled me carefully onto my side on a cot
beside the chair. I could feel blood trickle from the back of my head, just at
the top of my neck. I tried to put a hand there, but someone took it carefully
away, presumably the woman who had just shot me, or poked me, or
whatever it was she’d done.
I heard another snap, from behind the wall of my cubicle and asked, with
a shivering voice, “What have you done to us?”
“We’ve inserted your identification Plate,” she said. She held up a long
metal tube with a spike at the top. It was as long as my index finger. She
turned to profile and held the tube behind her own head and pointed the
spike upwards, at the top of the neck at an angle that went right up into the
centre of her head. “It goes in at this angle, straight into your skull,” she said
casually, as if it was the most normal thing in the world. “You will have this
Plate inside your head for the duration of your sentence.”
“You put a spike into my brain…”
“And if you remove it, you’ll die instantly.”
“Right,” I said with a gulp. “Why?”
“It’s for your own good. Any convict who is thought to be misbehaving,
shall we say, is given one of these little warnings,” she pressed a button on
what I thought was a watch on her wrist.
A wave of pain originated in my head, shot down my spine and caused
the muscles all along my body to seize up. I bit down hard with my teeth and
nipped my tongue. I could taste blood, but the sensation, like a cramp that
was exacerbated by fire, eased off after what felt like forever.
“That was a mild warning, simply an example.”
“Mild…” I could still barely breathe from the shock and pain of it.
“The Plate also confirms your identity when it is time for you to climb the
“You need to climb until you emerge to your freedom.”
“Ah. So I stay here for a while, then eventually I’ve just got to climb out?”
“Something like that. There are many levels to the Towers,” the woman
explained. “You’ll see in due course…”
“No, please, tell me more.”
She frowned, then looked down at me mournfully. “Depending on your
crime, you will have a certain number of levels to your Tower.”
“I stole some money…”
“I don’t need to know what you did.”
“Some crimes require a long climb, longer than you will likely need.
Some are short. Most, though long while you are here, will feel too short
when you emerge.”
“Is everything in here about being stabbed with metal spikes and given
shocks if you put a foot wrong?”
“No. There is much more to the Complex than your processing. This is
only the beginning.” She looked wearily down at me. “You will want a new
life when you emerge.”
“What makes you say that?”
“We’ll see. Is there some kind of schedule in here?” I finally had the
strength to sit up. “Meal times? Lights out?”
“Somewhat. You will have a bunk that is linked to your Plate. Nobody
else can access it. The bunks are on the other perimeter of the main
“The room you see beyond. Everyone starts in the courtyard, until there
is room in your Tower.”
“When I am climbing?”
“You will see. Now, I need to put this Plate into another convict’s skull. If
you’ll be so kind…” She ushered me out of the cubicle, and I was led by the
hand, like a lost child, through the gates of the entrance into a massive
room, again, windowless and dim like before.
“What time is it? On the outside?” A thin, scrawny man, with eyes too
large for their sockets asked.
“The time. Do you know? We can’t keep track of it here. Only way to
know is from the new blood.”
“It’s mid-afternoon, I think.” This huge courtyard was in a perpetual state
of night, it seemed. I knew that it was mid-afternoon, because we’d driven
to the tunnel entrance in the late morning, but it could have been any time
according to these surroundings. It had to be deliberate. This man was
grateful when I shared the information.
“They don’t feed us at regular intervals,” he said. “It gets hard to tell if
it’s lunch or dinner sometimes. There’s a lot of confusion at first,” he tapped
at his temple as he walked off. “You’ll get used to it, but the time. You won’t
get used to the darkness or the time.”
“I’m sure I’ll manage.”
“See you around, mid-afternoon.”
Right. Two steps through the gate and already I’d either met the first
crazy, or had been given a pretty valuable lesson to keep stored in the back
of my head for later. Just like the Plate that they’d put in there. The bleeding
had stopped, but when I turned my head, I was sure I could feel it in there. It
felt like it should rattle.
They hadn’t given me any indication of where I should go for food or
sleep, or more urgently, where the bathroom was. I needed to pee pretty
badly almost as soon as I realised I didn’t know where the toilet was. Just
like an itch. You think about an itch on your leg or your nose and there it
was, nagging you to scratch it.
“Excuse me,” I said to a man who was sitting alone on the floor. I looked
around. There were benches, seats, steps and lower levels, inclines and
divisions about the place, but no features. The whole circular wall looked
the same, except for the small grate of gates that I’d come from. There were
doorways spread around the perimeter, heavy iron, securely locked. They
were the only noticeable sight other than the people. I could just about see
a kind of trench around the perimeter floor as well. That was where the
sleeping quarters were, it seemed.
“You look lost, new blood.”
I’d forgotten I’d said anything before. “Sorry, yes.”
“Move along. I don’t want to hear it,” the man said. He was chewing
some kind of root. It looked like straw, but thicker.
“I just… I was wondering where the toilet was…”
“You’ve got a spot in your bunk, just like the rest.”
“How do I find my bunk?”
“You’ll find it.”
Very helpful, I thought. Why did I happen across the impossible kind? “If
you would be so kind…”
“Nothing kind about me, killer,” he said.
“I didn’t kill anybody,” I objected.
“No? You’re in here, aren’t you?”
“Not for murder.”
“Not for murder, he says,” the man finally looked up at me. He had
tattered grey stubble, too old for his face, which was youthful, no older than
thirty. “Everybody in here is a killer of some form. Just you see.”
I decided to move on. I wandered towards the centre at first, trying to
take in the courtyard itself, dancing slightly on the spot if ever I stopped,
hoping that I wouldn’t piss my pants. That would be… a disaster. I looked up
at the high roof, maybe five or six storeys above, beamed and with only the
wiring for the numerous spotlights held there. It was not bright, not by a
longshot. It felt like the dead of night under streetlights, a kind of false
illumination that only eroded perception further. The lack of windows was
already starting to bother me. The air was not thick or humid, so there must
be decent ventilation, but it felt more than confining, more than the prison
it was. It felt like a trap.
When the thought struck me, it came with the arrival of some tough
looking guys who appeared to want to greet me. Four of them, one of whom
stood forward, taller than anyone nearby, maybe approaching seven feet
tall, put a hand out to touch the top of my head. I didn’t dare pull away from
him, but rather stood still as a rock. It was harder than ever to hold my pee.
“Watch yourself, new blood.” He walked on past me and disappeared
into the crowds who were lining up near some kind of chute on the far side
of the courtyard. It was a tiny thing, no wonder I hadn’t seen it before, but it
was obviously important. Maybe I’d get in line once I’d found a toilet. My
bunk, he’d said. Right.
I climbed down into the trench that went along the perimeter of the
courtyard and noted immediately that there were identical sleeping
quarters one after the other all the way around. There were no doors, nor
walls, simply an alcove with a bed, a small chair by its side and there, in the
corner opposite, a small pot over what looked like a drain. I decided to
wander into one while nobody was looking and relieve myself. That was
when my Plate decided to give me another shock. It jarred me, sending me
away from the inside of the alcove, back out to the trench, and to my
horror, made a small trickle run down my leg. I held on dearly to the rest of
it as if it was precious and begged my bladder to hold. What was I supposed
to do? I needed to go so bad… I should just go right here, on the ground,
there was nobody… No. I’d probably regret that. I imagine they’d see me, or
shock me again, harder no doubt, for an offense so quickly.
I wandered around the trench in a clockwise fashion, ambling more to
keep my mind distracted and to see if there was any kind of identification or
name on any of the bunk areas that I passed. Not one of them looked in any
way different or appeared allocated to anyone in particular. I noticed, too,
that they were all currently empty. A man walked past me with a box, which
I could smell had some food inside. I was starving… That was what they were
waiting in line for. It was lunchtime. They were getting food from that chute.
I wandered on somewhat until I found myself stopping. There was a tingling
sensation in the back of my head, again, likely the Plate, and I turned my
head. There, in the sleeping quarters just beside me, was a folded sheet,
blanket and pillow sitting on an unmade bed. I took one step inside the
alcove and the tingling stopped.
Aha. This was home. I immediately dropped to the floor and sat for a
moment. I shuffled over to the toilet hole and let my pee run. It felt like it
was never going to stop. So, this was home. The ceiling was flat, grey and
just like the rest of the Complex, dim. There was a single light, but it was
weak and emitted only what light it seemed was the absolute minimum to
Food. It was irregular, according to that man at the gate, so I should get
some. I got up, walked out of the alcove and found the nearest steps out of
the trench. The line was starting to thin out now as people all around sat
with their little compact boxes of what looked like lasagne, chatting with
tiny plastic forks in hand.
When I had mine, I took care to sit up on one of the banks, so I could see
if anyone was coming to make my acquaintance without me expecting it. I
noticed that two of the iron doorways were open, but nobody was paying
them any mind. They must have been set to make the Plate give a nasty
shock to anyone who tried to go through. But then, to my surprise, a group
of about ten men walked proudly towards one, with a small, tired looking
man in his fifties leading the way. He shook hands with each of his
comrades, walked up to the doorway and stepped through. The door closed
moments later and he was gone. The climb, I realised. It was his time to
move to his Tower. I wondered how long he had been in the courtyard up to
I spent the rest of that day, or however long it was, in my alcove.
Although it seemed perfectly safe, thanks to the fact that all convicts had a
Plate in their heads, I couldn’t shake the shiver that had gone up my spine
when that tall, intimidating man had put his hand on my head. If one could
touch me, they could hurt me just as fast. That much was true. Sure, they
would get a shock, but that wouldn’t help me if I was shanked for looking at
someone the wrong way. I made my bed, which turned out to be quite hard,
but not uncomfortable. My back was thankful when I lay straight. My eyes
were sunken in my head before long and staring at the miscoloured, grey
ceiling only kept my attention for so long. I fell asleep.
My first week had been much like that first day. Random souls wandered as
aimlessly as I did, but I dared not ask them how long they had been here. I
got into a rhythm. It wasn’t a regular one, but it involved waking, dressing
for the day – if it could be called as such under the blanket of dim
nothingness that was the atmosphere we lived in – then walking about,
always avoiding groups of people and eye contact at all costs. I’d queue for
food when others did and I explored. There was nothing to find at first,
being one large stadium sized oval room, but the courtyard had its secrets,
as it turned out. One on the small sets of steps near the centre was used by
groups to play a game called “Coins” which I understood very quickly while
watching from afar. Participants had small flat stones that resembled old
coins, and would toss them at one of the steps. They would need to make
sure that their coin then fell to the step directly beneath, in the same
motion, and if it did, others would need to imitate this move. If a coin fell
more than one step, or stayed on the original one, that player was
eliminated. If more than one player achieved the unlikely challenge,
whoever’s coin was closest to the original step was the winner.
It was a game of skill, and having been there for a few days, it was no
surprise that someone had come up with something like it. With no other
way to occupy their time, like sport or games, one man had taken it upon
himself to create a pastime with nothing as elaborate as a flat stone and the
steps that led to the lower level. The human mind, when faced with long
periods of boredom, could create all kinds of distraction. I found the game
interesting myself after a few passing hours, and could understand how it
would become something to take part in or watch while the rest of the
courtyard simply passed itself by.
It wasn’t until the fourth day of that long first week that I realised that
there actually were showers in the Complex. They were not easy to find if
you didn’t know where to go, as they were under the central platform and
only opened for an hour at a time, again at random intervals. A door, much
like the ones that led to the Towers, would open, hidden from the view of
the main square, and would let a certain number of Plates through before it
closed again. I was lucky to find it open and took the chance to wash, but to
my disappointment, but not to my surprise, the water was cold. It was
better to be cold for a few minutes though, than smell as bad as some of my
neighbours did in the alcoves.
My routine became more metronomic as I got to my second week. At
least, I think it was my second week... I gradually gathered enough courage
to stand in line for a toss at Coins, which proved far more difficult than it
looked. My first attempt resulted in the stone crashing off the top step, the
rolling on its side all the way to the bottom. The laughs were hysterical, as if
they’d never seen someone fuck it up so bad at Coins before. Maybe they
hadn’t. Maybe I was the worst Coins player in the whole Complex. Maybe
“That was fucking atrocious!” mocked a short man, a little older than me,
with a thick beard.
“Well, I can only get better from here,” I added.
“Where are you then?” the man asked. “I assume you’re new?”
“New enough. I’m over that way,” I said. It had been the first answer I’d
given since my first day.
“Over by Autumn. I’m down in Spring, sixty four from Winter.”
“Jesus, you are new. Spring,” he pointed ahead. “Summer,” he pointed
to the right. “Autumn,” around clockwise again. “Winter.”
It took me a moment or two to realise that he was in fact pointing at the
trenches where we all had our sleeping alcoves. Someone must have given
each quarter of the courtyard names that matched the seasons… “Right. I
didn’t know we had names for the different parts. Why the seasons?”
“Well, Winter is fucking freezing, and Summer,” he pointed again, “is
near the guards’ entrance, so it’s warmer. Everything in between, well
they’re just like Spring and Autumn, aren’t they?”
It made a funny kind of sense, I suppose. Like the Coins game, someone
must have decided on this someday and it had caught on. “Right,” I finally
said as my thoughts returned to where I stood. Others had ushered us to
one side so that they could throw their stones again. There were cheers as
someone’s stone skidded to the edge of a step and tipped gently over to the
one below. “Good shot,” I found myself saying.
“Aye. Jim, by the way.”
“Mal it is then,” Jim said.
“I’ll call you James if you start that.”
“Nice to meet you, Malcolm,” he smiled. “I can see that you’re not in
here for something as stupid as rape or murder. You’re a fraudulent type, if
you don’t mind my inquisition?”
“Not at all, and I’ll take that as a compliment. Fraud, I guess that’s an
embellishment of sorts, but yeah, close enough.”
“We don’t usually ask in here, you know,” Jim said. “Most take offense to
“Oh. Why did you, then?”
“New people aren’t most. Sometimes curiosity claws at you and you
need to ask someone why they’re in here and well, I tend to ask the ones
who don’t look like they’d knife me later for doing so.”
“What did you do then?” I asked.
“Looking to get knifed?” Jim asked, seriously.
“Not by you, by the looks of things,” I mocked.
“Brave and stupid,” he smiled. “I like you, Malcolm. You’re going to fit in
nicely around here. If you must know,” he said, hushing his voice. “I sold
hard stuff on the streets. Had an addict tackle me when he couldn’t pay for
his fix. I ended up here. He ended up… Well, not so here.”
“Right,” I got it. “Self defence?”
“Something like that. Anyway, that’s neither here nor there. Come on, I’ll
show you a few things around the Complex. You new people miss the
showers for a while, so I should show you those first.”
“I’ve actually figured those out already.”
“Hah,” he chuckled and put an arm around my neck. He pointed up into
the black above our heads. “I knew you’d go far, the moment I spotted you.
Found the showers on your own and all. Fucking hell, we have a clever one.”
Naturally, Jim became my ambassador to the Complex. He explained to me
some pieces of wisdom that were priceless, and all I had to do in turn was
listen to him. He was not well liked, it seemed, because he talked a lot. I
could get a word in with him, but I could see why many would fail. For me, it
was wonderful to be able to have a conversation. I was uncomfortable with
the idea of socialising with a drug dealer, and as it appeared, a killer. That
discomfort didn’t last long, however, when I realised where I was.
“How long have you been down here?” I asked the next morning as we
rendezvoused by the chute, awaiting food. I assumed it was morning, as I’d
woken up only half an hour before, but in reality, it could be the afternoon
or, if I’d slept more than I realised, any time at all.
“Well as you know, the main form of torture they impose on us Complex
folk is the darkness here,” he pointed up at the ceiling, so far above. “I
reckon I’ve been here about a month or so, not a hell of a lot longer than
you really. Few people are in the courtyard for more than three months,
which is an educated guess, of course.” He waved his hands vaguely towards
the darkness again. “Everyone climbs. Everyone. Eventually.”
“How do you know when your time comes?” I asked.
“Just like how you end up finding your bunk. The Plate in your head leads
you to the door at the right time. I assume it’s all programmed by the guards
A man nearby, in the queue for the other chute, had suddenly started
shaking where he stood, then fell over.
“Shit,” Jim said.
“What happened?” I asked as two others in the same line picked him up
and carried him, unconscious, to a clear space.
“Got caught for something. Who knows what? Guards must have seen
him do something he shouldn’t have. Either that or they’re bored out of
their brains with us being obedient little pets. There are some folk in here
who are convinced they just randomly fuck with the Plates sometimes for
fun. Sadistic bastards.”
“Why would anyone do that?” I asked, finally at the head of the chute. A
neat little folded cardboard box appeared from above. It was warm today.
Maybe it wasn’t morning so… Or maybe it was. Either way, warm food was
Jim never bothered to answer me as he was too busy shovelling
whatever it was from inside his food box into his mouth with two fingers. I
picked at mine, some kind of fusilli pasta swirls in a dark red sauce. It was
fine, certainly much better than the chunky soup I’d had yesterday, which
was cold and miserable.
It was five sleeps later that I couldn’t find Jim anywhere. We’d come to
some kind of unspoken agreement that we would meet up at some point
after waking by the Coins steps, watch a round or two, maybe toss a stone
ourselves and ramble about to keep active. I did a couple of laps of the
higher ground around the trenches, looking down to see if he was about,
but there was no sign of him. The showers were closed off, there was no
food signal, so no queues at the chute, no sign of him in his alcove. He was
nowhere to be seen. I sat down by the Coins game, unable to muster the
enthusiasm to get excited like the rest of the gang around me.
“Son,” an elderly convict said as he tapped me on the shoulder.
“Yeah?” I responded grumpily.
“Your pal, the little guy.” He pointed at one of the clean metal doors to
the Spring side. “Saw him begin his climb earlier. He seemed in a hurry.”
“Oh. I was worried that he’d gotten a shock or something from his
“Nah,” the man said, coughing into his hand as he sat down beside me.
“Lucky to be on his way, that’s all. We all climb.”
“We all climb,” I agreed.
I picked up a few names over the next ten or eleven days, or sleeps, as was
the common name for time’s passing in the courtyard. None of the guys had
the same enthusiasm for the sound of their own voice like Jim, but they
were amiable enough. One was a cold-blooded murder, by the name of
Alexander, but he was just about the softest spoken, most normal man in
the whole place. The older man who’d told me about Jim’s climb was
George, and as it turned out he’d been born in South Africa. A long, long
way he came to end up in the Complex. As Jim had warned, nobody asked
why I was here, nor did they want to share their own stories. I’d finally
gotten used to the slop they called soup when I lifted up the cold box from
the chute, only to get a vibrating tingling in the back of my head. The box
dropped to the floor and splattered all over the ground. I winced, expecting
a shock for my mess, but there was none. Only that faint buzzing in my skull.
It intensified as I looked around, and came to a soft resonance when I
spotted an open door on the Spring side.
“My climb,” I said aloud. I heard nothing, just the hum in my head that
drew my feet into motion. There was nothing to take, nothing to pack, just
to begin my climb. I’d been in the courtyard only a couple of weeks, perhaps
three at the most. It was fast. It didn’t feel fast, but when I saw George nod
to me from the steps, I realised that it was probably like lightning to some of
I was able to pass through the door without any feeling of sensation. The
whirring shudder of the Plate in my head stopped immediately as the door
slammed down shut from above, behind me. The dark room beyond was lit
only ever so minutely by light from above. A ladder led upwards, about fifty
steps in total, maybe more, and I didn’t hesitate to begin climbing. “My
climb,” I repeated.
At the top of the ladder I was panting, out of breath. I think it was more
from the exhilaration of being one step closer to freedom, literally. How
many more of these ladders would there be? If it was a Tower, that would
mean more. You could hardly have a Tower with only one level, could you?
As I got to the landing, I noted that the light had been coming from a
window, an actual, real glass window. It was tiny, and in the upper far
corner of the ladder room, but even that minuscule square of glass, cloudy
and opaque, not revealing much more than an impression of the sky. It was
daytime, at least I knew that much. It appeared to be raining, as there were
drops of water streaming down it. I so desperately wanted to reach out and
touch it, to be that bit closer to the outside… But I would never reach. I
could feel the tingling sensation from the Plate once again in my head,
getting stronger, like a warning. I turned and there was another door, open
and ajar. I pushed it forward and stepped into a room as dim as the
The door slammed shut by itself and my head stopped spinning. I gauged
my surroundings. There were a dozen or so men scattered about the large
room, which I guessed was about ten by ten metres in a square. There were
bunk beds lining two opposing walls, three sets in a line on each. Twelve,
exactly, and as I counted bodies, it was clear that there were now thirteen of
us. I was the new guy. Therefore, I gathered, I had no bed.
“Hello,” I said bravely.
I recognised one or two faces from the courtyard, but they were not
people I’d spoken to before. Jim was not among us, that was obvious. There
was no answer from anyone, just twenty-four eyes on me as I stepped into
the centre of the room.
“Your spot is over there,” said a tough looking guy around my age. His
English was forced, as if not his mother tongue, but he looked like he could
be from around here.
I looked over at a spot on the floor that was by the wall, but had nothing
other than a thin sheet to show that it was somewhere to sleep. There was
no pillow, no blanket, nothing. Just the cold wooden floor. “Fine,” I said. I
felt suddenly defiant. “Why is that, exactly?”
“Because you’re the new climber,” spat another from the far corner of
the room. He had wild, long hair and was scrawny. He stood. “All new
climbers start at the bottom.”
“I’ve been through the bottom,” I said, angrily, “and even the bottom
has beds to sleep on for everyone.”
“So what are you going to do about it then?” the original speaker, the
tough foreigner, said.
I wanted to be aggressive, but I got the impression that he did too. There
was every chance that I’d be mobbed by the whole lot of them if I came into
their quarters causing trouble. I didn’t want to make enemies, and more
importantly, I didn’t want any more shocks from the Plate in my head.
Instead I let my shoulders relax and had my arms fall to my sides. “I guess I’ll
just have to hope I get a bed soon then.”
“Soon. There is no such thing as soon in here, boy,” an older man, easily
beyond sixty, said. “The only way you move to a bed is if a bed becomes
available. The door,” he pointed at the large metal one by the far wall, not
the small wooden one I’d come through, “It only opens when there is room
above. There is only room above when there is room above that. And so it
goes. That is how it is here. We wait, not for time, but for freedom. Not
ours, but someone else’s, to take one more step to our own eventuality.”
“How do you know this?” I asked.
“It is how things are, here.” This was the tough guy.
“We had a returnee,” the scrawny one said. “Last week it was.”
“Returnee?” I asked. I was getting confused now.
“Someone from above. He’d climbed to the level above us when it was
his turn. But he figured out that it was too long for him, the climb. He
decided to push past one of our brothers who passed through the door and
he jumped down the ladder shaft by choice.”
“He jumped…” I tried to say. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “He
“He dropped, but did not die immediately.” The old man shook his head.
“We heard him wailing in his pain. Then he started shouting, talking about
the climb being too long. We asked him what he meant, and he explained it
to us. You need to wait your turn. You needed other people above you to
move up. To be free. It was taking too long. He couldn’t wait, he said.”
“The cries, they lasted hours,” the scrawny one said.
“Then it was time for one of us to replace him, to take his place. The
door opened, and sure enough, his broken body was sprawled at the foot of
the ladder. He was dead. Mackel, the one who had been chosen to climb, he
had to step over the man’s body to reach the ladder. He was shaking as he
went, but he climbed all the same.”
“That’s horrible,” I said. “Did they take his body away?”
“It wasn’t there for the next climber.”
“But we didn’t hear a damn thing,” the old man said.
“Now,” the foreigner said, pointing at my spot on the floor. “You take
that place. Then wait.”
I put the aggravated atmosphere down to trauma. The men here, I gathered
from observation and scant chatter, were no threat. They were like me,
dangerous to society in a very sneaky way, but not violent. There were no
murderers in this group, no killers. It seemed logical now, when I thought
about it, that the Towers, as there were clearly many of them, were
separated by the crime committed, or the severity of it. I was in what I
imagined to be the thieves’ tower, the fraud tower. It was a much more
desirable place to be in than the murderers’ tower or, worse. I was sure
there was worse. I just didn’t want to think about it. I picked up the names
of everyone after a couple of days. The tough foreigner was Machai, and he
came from Eastern Europe, someone said. He didn’t talk about himself
much, so nobody knew exactly where. The older man who had spoken when
I arrived was Johnny, the scrawny soul was Berkley, which was probably his
surname, but what did that matter in here?
Food came less often too in the Tower. Either that or my perception of
time was out of whack. What was better though, was that there was more
variety. We celebrated the arrival of some chicken Chow Mein, an absolute
luxury by the Complex’s standards, to which one of the other lads, Graham,
claimed it must have been a special occasion, or Christmas or something. I
remembered entering the Complex in October, so he could well have been
right if time had passed more quickly than I realised. But who knew?
The door opened for the first time since my arrival while everyone was
sleeping. It shot up into the ceiling and made a loud crash. Everyone jumped
awake and it was scrawny little Berkley whose Plate was ringing. He shook
everyone’s hands, even mine, before stepping through. I looked through the
door as he went, trying to see if there was anything different about it, but
no, just a ladder to the next level, like before. There was no broken body, no
bloodstains, at least as far as I could see in the dull light. The door slammed
I took Berkley’s bed immediately, sat on it as if it was the most precious
thing in the world. My back would be thankful the next time I woke up. It
was only a few minutes before a new arrival appeared, out of breath like I
had been. It was someone I definitely had not seen in the courtyard, a boy.
He could have been no older than seventeen or eighteen. He was terrified. It
was late, nobody felt like talking, and this kid looked like a cornered rat.
Machai came to his side, much like he had with me, and pointed at the spot
on the floor with the sheet. My old spot.
The kid didn’t say a word. He just curled up on the floor, hid under the
sheet and made himself invisible. We had no argument for that. Everyone
was tired. We all slept.
The very next morning, the door was open again, and nobody could feel
their Plate ringing. There was something strange going on. Normally there
was no confusion.
“Who is it?” Machai shouted after the confusion reached panic. All of us
were standing, looking at the back of one another’s heads to make sure, as
absurd as it seemed, that nobody’s Plate had come loose or gone missing. Of
course, they were all still accounted for. “Who is it?” Machai shouted, now
visibly frustrated, pacing the room.
I noticed, out of the corner of my eye that the sheet on the floor was
moving. The boy, the brand new addition to the Tower, was shaking. “Look,”
Machai frowned, saw what I was pointing at and gripped the sheet. He
threw it off the boy and let it go flying across the room. “Boy!” he shouted.
The kid snapped out of whatever dream he was having and his eyes
locked to Machai’s. “What? What is it?” he whimpered.
“Do you feel it? In your head?”
“It… it’s there, it’s ringing again.”
“Him!?” someone asked from behind.
“Him!?” the word was repeated over and over.
“Go on. Get going,” I said. “Hurry up!” I helped the boy up and almost
shoved him through the door.
“Please!” he said, as he touched the first rung of the ladder. The door
slammed shut and all I could hear from beyond was crying. He was scared.
“How the fuck does someone just come in and skip the whole queue like
that?” Graham wanted to know.
“He’s just a boy,” I said.
“I don’t give two fucks if he’s a puppy on a leash or a girl with pigtails!
That little runt has kept us all in here for that much longer!”
There was general agreement there. Nobody liked the idea of their place
being taken, but there was nothing they could do about it.
As the next weeks passed, or maybe it was months, Machai climbed, as did a
whole host of others, until there were more new faces than regulars on
what had become known to all of us as Platform 1. The name, as
unimaginative as it was, had been chosen when a long, tedious debate
began among us as to what we should call the place, how we should refer to
the next stage of our climb and beyond. Naming it, even something as
clinically practical as Platform 1, had made the square room feel that little
bit closer to being a home. It was our Platform 1 now and when Graham said
his goodbyes on his way to what we referred to as Platform 2, we knew that
he would spread our terminology with him with as much determination as
we could continue the tradition here. As the elder statesman of my home
now, standing longest in this section of the Tower, I was waiting with an
outstretched hand for the newest arrival, and said, “Welcome to Platform
1.” This had made things a lot less stressful for everyone in the room when
compared to Machai’s insistent floor pointing and aggressive sense of
I felt like I’d started something good. Even if it was just a kind word.
That kind word, as if by magic, had greeted me some six sleeps later
when I climbed to the next level. Graham was there by the door with his
arms outstretched and he said, much to my delight, “Welcome to Platform
Platform 2 was smaller and only had seven people in it. The other six
were all faces I knew from below, and there was a sense of familiarity now,
which went one step further to making the place feel homely. Everyone had
a bed, which was slightly bigger, slightly softer and warmer than below, and
there was no space on the floor for new climbers. Food came regularly, and
although it felt as if days were passing by like weeks, even among friends,
there was a lot to be grateful for.
The door opened for Machai before Berkley, who it seemed had been
skipped over by numerous people, thus confirming to us that it was not a
regular pattern as to who would climb, and only when Berkley climbed some
days later did I realise that the young boy who had caused such a ruckus was
not here either, meaning his ascent must have been swift.
“Do you feel like you need a new identity? A new life?” Graham asked me
over lunch one day.
“How do you mean?” I flicked a pea out of the gravy tub in my box into
the mashed potatoes and scooped some into my mouth.
“They kept saying it to me all the way along. Everyone wants a new life,
everyone wants a new life.” He paused and frowned. “I don’t want a new
life. Do you?”
“Well, we’re not at the end yet, are we? We’re still climbing. That’s the
detail you’re forgetting. They always said that everyone wants a new life at
“Must be a choice they give you? A new life or back down we go, to
climb again? Something like that?” he pondered.
“I don’t know who I’d be with a new life.”
“How could you be anyone else?” Graham said and stood to dump his
food box in the trash.
It felt like longer, but the door opened for me after what could only have
been a few weeks. There was no real ceremony. It was just another door,
another ladder and a climb to Platform 3. To my surprise, Graham, who had
climbed not long before me, had already climbed on past Machai and
Berkley, much to my delight, it must be said, as I felt that he deserved the
chance to climb faster than most. He’d climbed twice in succession, much
like the young boy had, who might well have finished his climb by now.
There were only five of us in Platform 3 and although I knew all of the
faces, time had begun to change them all. It was becoming a competition
now for all of us. Who would be next? Who would be free? Who would want
a new life before anyone else?
As a result, Platform 3 was the loneliest of my stages of the climb.
Weariness collected me and the boredom of the small square box, the walls
that were grey and badly lit, the lack of reading, the lack of games, the lack
of any form of distraction other than the repeated conversations with the
same lost souls day in, day out… It grated at me. Time, as impossible as it
was to gauge, was not on my side. Nor Machai’s. Nor Berkley’s. It halted.
Nobody climbed for what felt like months.
When the door finally opened, it was at the end of a long stretch of
quiet, wordless abandon that had gone on for far too long with nobody
ready to speak the first word. Berkley stood up, clearly with the ringing in his
Plate, and put one hand up in a wave. He dared not even speak to say
Machai, frustrated with this and the prospect of waiting as long again for
another opening, had lost his patience. He stood, walked up to Berkley and
pushed him back down on his bed. “No fucking way!” he said. “It’s not your
turn. It has to be mine. It has to be!”
Berkley, as small as he was, a bag of bones and little more, rushed
Machai in return and knocked him right over the small table that kept our
room segregated. Chairs crashed over and the noise terrified the life of the
rest of us, who had grown accustomed to the silence of Platform 3.
Berkley and Machai then both began to wail in agony as they shook
uncontrollably. They were being shocked by their Plates. That much was
certain, but it was going on far too long. The rest of us, now unsure what to
do, tried to approach them, but as I went to touch Berkley’s arm as if to
calm him, I felt a slight shock of my own, tiny in comparison, but a stark
Then they stopped. Machai rolled about in pain, banging into the wall, an
overturned chair and finally crashed into the side of one of the beds and lay
flat. Berkley, however, never moved again. The shock had been too much
for him. I checked his pulse, checked his breathing, tried CPR, as best as I
could with no knowledge of it, but no… He was gone. Dead. “Fuck,” I said.
Machai stirred, moments later. “Berkley, you…” he stopped his sentence
in its tracks. “I feel it…” he said. He looked down at me, desperate and sullen
on the floor beside the body and realisation dawned on him. “It’s my turn,”
is all he could say. He walked up to the door, backing away from the body of
the man who had been his friend, and to my surprise, walked through,
unharmed and touched the ladder as the door slammed between us.
Nobody came for Berkley’s body, unfortunately. We wrapped him up in a
blanket and left him in the corner furthest from the beds, but that did not
give us much time before it got very unpleasant in the room. Two new
arrivals had come almost one after another to replace the dead Berkley and
climbing Machai, and the one who had come through first, a new face to
me, had been smart enough to drag the body back out to the ladder when
the second arrival climbed.
We never heard anyone take Berkley away from beyond the door by the
ladder, but we knew that it was gone. Our noses knew. There was no
denying that it was gone.
I dreaded Platform 4. If Machai was there, the chances were that he
would not be happy to see me or any of the others who had witnessed his
That thought haunted me, and to my despair, I woke that very night to
the ringing in my skull. My Plate was urging me up, out of bed, to the door.
To Platform 4. I walked through in silence and climbed slowly, almost
wishing to go backwards.
When I got to the top, I carefully peered through the door to what was
an empty room with one bed and little more. There was another metal door
opposite me and as I carefully examined the room, I barely had the chance
to think before the door I’d come through slammed so loudly and suddenly
that I almost collapsed on the spot. “He’s not here,” I said aloud. I lay down
on the bed and stared at the ceiling. I was relieved.
Platform 4 was not somewhere I expected to stay in long. Surely there was
only one place that I could go from here, and that was out. Freedom
awaited, that much was as sure in my mind as anything. The door opened,
almost as if I willed it so, and I sat up slowly to approach. My Plate whirred
and buzzed as it did before and I stepped slowly through, to the last ladder. I
looked up at the sky above my head and climbed frantically onwards. It
hadn’t been so bad. It wasn’t so long. I thought these thoughts quickly as
fast as my hands and feet would take me on my climb. I almost slipped, I
was so excited.
I emerged onto what I knew would be the top of the Tower. As I stood
up, a trapdoor slammed behind me where the ladder had been and I took in
my bearings. Finally, there was wind on my face. I felt cold, but it was a
welcome fresh air that didn’t chill my bones but rather invigorated them. I
slowly lowered my head from the clouds and looked around me. I had a
space of about two metres squared to stand on, barely more than the
trapdoor itself, and realised that there was nobody with me. There was no
guard, no lawyer, no official of any kind, just me. I looked around for a
bridge, a ladder, anything. A helicopter? I thought…
No. Just me. I could see other Towers, all around, dozens of them, most
of which were far higher, far thicker and more impressive than the one I’d
climbed. I wondered how long the convicts in those parts of the Complex
would take to climb to the top. Then I thought about what I could see
beyond. It was far from the city, very far. So far, in fact, that I couldn’t tell
where it was, nor where anything was. Flat land raced on to the horizon in
I got down to my knees and carefully looked over the edge of the tower.
What I saw made me shake on the spot. It was not the Plate, it was not a
shock in my head. It was just the realisation that there were bodies below,
scattered on the ground, waiting to be buried. There were bloodstains, so
many of which collected to make the stone pavement below appear like
Everyone wants a new life in the end, I remembered. I pounded on the
trapdoor, scraped at it with my nails and cursed, kicked and cried at it, but
there was no way that it would ever move. I felt the Plate in my head begin
to buzz, one last time, urging me over the edge, leading me to my freedom. I
wanted a new life, a new chance. This was why there is no crime witnessed,
so little known of punishment or sentence. So little meaning placed on time
within the Complex. Everyone climbs, just so that they may fall to their
I closed my eyes, and leapt.