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The last person in the world lay asleep at the top of the tower. She waited not in a bed of silk and roses for the kiss of a destined lover, but huddled at the foot of a steel door in the hope that she wouldn’t have to be the last person for more than a few hours, that if she stayed right where she was, her family would come to their senses and return to her. Her name was Lena. She was nine years old.

In her sleep, she’d wormed under the legs of the ancient suits of armor hanging on the wall so they would encircle her protectively—a guard detail befitting the tower’s bride. With her arms around the nearest pair of boots and her eyes shut, she could pretend the cracked rubber didn’t cave in at her embrace and spit flecks of debris in her face, that she was not alone after all.

But Lena’s dreams knew the truth. They plied her with the wan faces of the penitents and their rare gentle touches, only to sting her with a memory—It is finished, they’d said before they passed through the door. All we have we leave for you. Now the weight is yours. The wheel is yours. Forgive us.

There were two reasons to enter the vestibule and not return. Lena, who knew both, replied in her dream as she had in waking: with silence.

Asleep she might have stayed, had she not been clinging so tightly to the armor. When she shifted, it dropped on her like a hungry ghoul with a dreadfully familiar metallic scream. She woke, ears still ringing, and found her hands were bound.

The chatelaine’s short chain had wound around her wrists while she slept. She’d been holding the keys for so long the metal was warm in her palms.

Lena stared at the chatelaine, astonished. She’d once been whipped for daring to grab it; now the keys hung from her belt—the apologiarch herself had fastened it there before she made her egress. The chatelaine made it real.

This was a day she’d dreamed about. As the only child in her generation, Lena was consecrated at birth for rule of the tower, a truer oblate than any towerborn child before her. Her catechism was concocted to groom her for this moment, and here it was: she was now mistress of the tower, heir to its riches and warden of all who resided within—even if the tower now held only herself and some insects. She was the last scion of the five families who’d settled it generations ago, the apologiarch of their religion and the next spoke in the great wheel of repentance. When the weight of it all dropped on her, little Lena simply lay back and let it crush her. She didn’t know what to do with the titles or the trappings. She was only a child.

Lena was still of an age where she clung to games of pretend and stories that began with once upon a time. Now she regarded them less like a favorite toy and more a light in a blackout. You can’t have left me. I’ve done nothing to deserve it. I’ve only ever tried to be good, so I can’t be alone. You’ll be back, and all I have to do is wait …

She did, even as her legs cramped and her skin clammed. She ignored her gnawing belly and drying mouth. She didn’t scratch when her hair shirt itched. She let the distant electric hum of the generators guide her through fitful dreams and whispered a stairwell rosary whenever she woke. One recitation for each step in the tower’s stairwell consumed hours; it would surely be enough. “The tower is our—my—light and my salvation. Whom shall I fear?” the prayers began. They were admittedly quite dull, but Lena always compensated by finishing with a flourish of, “Forgive me. Forgive me, forgive me ...”

Then, as if in omen, the lights went out. Absolute black crashed down on her like a haunted suit of armor.

The young penitent sat up, startled, but unafraid. She was used to blackouts. They came every month when she was little, every week these days. She knew the routine. Everyone would sit in quiet contemplation until the engineers were done.

In the dark, the girl reconsidered her responsibilities with a preternatural calm that had previously eluded her. She pressed a palm to the cold steel of the door. Beyond lay the vestibule, which was the final room in the tower before the lichgate. And beyond that ... The world above turned to salt and smoke, to ash and dust, said the apologiarch after catching Lena playing here when she was four. It swirls about our stronghold, seeking a way in. The lichgate keeps it all out and us safe underground. Just because the world is dead doesn’t mean it can’t still hurt us. Just think of the Chamber, girl. Then she whipped Lena’s hand raw for playing with the oxygen dial.

Lena had always wondered if the danger was as alive as the stories made it seem; if it could sense her presence even if she’d done nothing but exist at the top of the tower. If it did, she couldn’t tell—the door was far too thick to sense anything, or for anyone on the other side to tell she was there. She waited a while, hoping for a knock.

Then she huffed.

Lena found the flashlight at her waist, switched it on, and went to do her duty.

She gave the vestibule’s oxygen controls—dial cranked to the most frightful VACUUM setting—a wide berth, and stormed past the grimy shower, quarantine cells and long-empty armory with the righteous urgency of an engineer.

The stairwell door was soundly shut. Lena set her flashlight on a chrome countertop, bouncing its light off the black mirror of the wallscreen. Once wallscreens were enchanted. You could ask them nearly anything and they’d light up and eagerly reply, for they held all the knowledge of the world before and lived only to serve. All had broken long before her mother’s generation was born, and no amount of rewiring could resurrect them. They were like the door motion sensors in that way, though unlike the screens, the doors were tricked to respond to buttons when the power worked and to keys when it did not; with the lights, alas, one had to travel through the tower by flicking switches on and off at every doorway. It was quite tedious, and useless in a blackout.

Lena had long ago deduced which keys opened which doors—there was one for every door in the tower, save the lichgate at the very top and the Chamber at the very bottom—but she’d never been allowed to use them herself. She had trouble getting the teeth to slide into the lock, and gasped when the tumblers inside the door rattled. It wasn’t often that she got to do new things.

She left the door open and lights flipped to ON behind her, in case someone came back.

 


 

Once upon a time, the world above was green and lush and living, with billions of people living in shining cities. The Lord of the tower, the story went, was one of the greatest men of his age. When his seers foretold a sign of the end well in advance of its coming, he looked to the example of the pharaohs and emperors, who were his peers, and did as they did: he weighed the billions of the masses against the trillions that belonged only to him, and used his great wealth not to bolster the great towers of Babylon against the fall, but to build his own underground.

Now this kingdom belonged to Lena. And she to it.

The tower-bride ignored the storage vaults, all five floors of them. They once contained a bounty of supplies on shelves stacked ten feet high, meant to feed the families for the years it would take to transition to growing their own food. Now they stored trash.

At the generator floor, Lena rolled up her sleeves and navigated the maze of machinery until she arrived at the correct control panel. She’d been taught to wake the gennies as soon as her hands were dexterous enough to work the controls. It was easy; all the tools she’d need were always kept in reach, and the gennies were made to run themselves, pumping up power from deep within the earth. They were just very old and tended to fall asleep sometimes, the way the elderly penitents did. There was often talk of them never waking, but soon there came a bone-rattling rumble, the room flooded with light, and Lena forgot the superstition. Pleased with her success, she departed.

Lena shivered like a candle flame as she peered over the rusting railing, down a dozen stories to the tower base, then up towards the lazaret. There was no one. Which meant that for the first time, there was no one to tell her what to do.

She’d make the apologiarch’s rounds. Work was prayer, after all. Lena puffed up her chest, folded her hands behind her back, and descended the great dark cylinder of the stairwell.

The former apartments of the Sentry, Doctor, Engineer and Builder were her first stop. She checked the scabby walls for cracks, trickles of pipe-burst water, greenish blooms of mold. She was pleased that there wasn’t anything too bad—no one had lived here in decades. The Lord might have commissioned the Builder to keep the residences of his family and household separate, but his children didn’t share his antipathy. And if blood was truly the issue, well, they’d been all one family for some generations now.

The pumping hall, where the pipes veining the tower converged for purification. Lena wove between them, searching for leaks in the patches. There were always a few. She could fix these too; she had fond memories of the adult penitents teaching her to plug the holes with putty. Since there was no one to tell her she couldn’t, she grabbed one and swung from it so she could dance on her toes.

Lena hated the aquaculture hall. Now that all the fish were dead, the vats were only used for washing clothes. Robes hung from clotheslines strung across the room, stiff and still as ghosts. Looking at them made her chest go cold. Lena lingered only as long as was required, then hurried on.

The hydroponic farm was the opposite. Lena loved the bright bursts of green hanging from the ceiling, the tickle of their roots against her fingers, the kiss of sprinkler mist on her neck. Tending to the last plants in the world was an honor and a joy. She’d made a game of it—pass a shock of bright yellow squash flowers, skip one tile. Step on a fallen beet leaf, surrender your turn. Pick a tomato before its time, go back to the start and try again.

The game ended, as they all do, and she came to the solarium. It held a rectangular pool of brackish water, a ceiling of chipping blue paint, a garden blooming with rampion and columns of beehives—she attended to these tenderly, even when scraping pupae out of their cells for eating—and the sun shrine. Most of the tower’s decorative carvings were defaced when the Lord’s children revolted, but the mosaic of the sun stayed. Its reflective tiles threw yellow light in her eyes as she bowed, replacing the wilted rampion blooms with fresh ones.

When she came to the cenobium, she held her breath. Rooms labeled RECREATION, LIBRARY, GYM, CINEMA—truly a testament to the Lord’s evil, to reserve a whole room in the tower just for sinning—now held the refectory, the looms, the cots, the baths … Lena wondered if everyone had moved here because they thought they’d stand a chance against the creeping dread that lurked in the tower walls if they were together.

But now it was only her. If she listened very hard, she could hear the echoing scrape of her slippers a flight above, still trying to catch up to her.

Madness clawed at her then. She raced down the stairwell, to the gold-veined marble floor at its base. There was only one more level to go—the Lord’s apartments.

She shrank back instinctively, having never come here unsupervised, then turned the key with trembling fingers. She was the authority now, and she said she could enter.

The contents of the Lord’s quarters were repurposed long ago, but the construction betrayed his vanity—his bedroom alone was the size of the Sentry’s apartment. It had vaulted ceilings, gold-painted trim, and a velvet carpet that was peeled back so Lena could scrape the mold growing under it.

There was something else under the carpet—a hatch, built cleverly into the floor, without so much as a keyhole. It was why no one was allowed here alone, for it led to the only room in all the tower that no one, not even the apologiarch, was allowed in anymore. The Chamber contained all the temptations the Lord was most dependent upon. After the great descent, he spent all his hours in there, doing God knew what. A few months after the tower was sealed, he hanged himself in the lazaret. The Chamber was sealed shortly after.

It was only natural that the madness caught her here. It was the very same rage that had infected her ancestors, the children born in the world above and brought here young, who still remembered what was lost. When they came of age, they came into their madness too. It burned so brightly that it incinerated the wool over their eyes. They knew their parents had done evil, or else had chosen to allow evil to be done so long as they were spared its consequences.

Lena’s family must have done evil too. There were only two things the penitents could have been doing in the vestibule. If they’d chosen to leave, then they were breaking the seal that kept the evil of the old world contained—for that was their mission, to keep the old evils entombed so the new world might be born unblemished; to remain and repent, to chant forgive us, forgive us, forgive us until their line came to a natural end—and they were worse than dead. If not … well, there was no coming back from that either.

But if there was a chance they could return … then perhaps, madness would do it.

When not needed for work or prayer, Lena often found herself ignored; she was of little use until she could have children of her own. The one thing that could gain the adults’ attention, she learned, was anger.

As if in rapture, Lena fell to her knees and drove her fists into the hatch. The first children of the tower tore its fineries apart; now the only fine thing to destroy was her. The bones in her knuckles trembled, her dry skin stung and split, and Lena screamed—yes, she was mad, and how beautiful it felt! Her blood hummed; her bones sang; her nerves burned; a roar reverberated in her lungs.

The ceilings caught her cry and reflected it back at her with such ferocity that she froze, suddenly terrified of her own voice. Her strength quickly abandoned her. A pulsing pain surged into her hands, making her fingers twitch like dying spiders.

She couldn’t continue. But surely this was enough. Lena waited until her scream echoed away. She scoured the silence that replaced it for footsteps rumbling down the stairs, indignant shouts, calls for punishment …

Instead, she heard the rusted rattle of a long-neglected lock beginning to turn. Below her knees, the floor clicked.

The hatch had cracked. She had opened the Chamber.

Lena grabbed the chatelaine on impulse, but the keys slid out of her blood-slick palms—

She looked at her split knuckles, the red smears on the door, and understood: a family tree as tangled as hers was bound to yield special fruit. As the culmination of generations of grim, uncelebrated inbreeding, Lena held in her narrow body the genetic material of all the families. The Chamber was built for the Lord, and she was his direct descendant; since this lock hadn’t completely lost its ensorcellment, it recognized her as its rightful opener. Lena lay a stinging palm on the door and pressed down. The hatch rolled sideways into the floor.

The air shifted under her. Its taste lacked the notes of turnip and fungus that permeated the rest of the tower. A ladder led straight down into darkness.

Lena should have been afraid, yet she wasn’t. She had only her restless curiosity to accompany her now, and it was so rare that she got to experience something new …

No. This must be the way to bring the others back. Opening the Chamber isn’t enough. I must enter.

Step by step, Lena descended into the inviting dark.

 


 

The Chamber was long and slender and handsome as a casket. When Lena flicked on the lights, the mahogany paneling seemed to glow with warmth. The shine made her squint, but the sensation was far from painful. Then her eyes adjusted, and she beheld the temptations.

Scores of shelves covered every wall but the one furthest from her, which was concealed by a plush velvet curtain. The shelf behind the ladder was stacked high with cans. Lena gaped at the bright labels—peach, pineapple, pudding … She’d only ever seen these words on crumpled-up pieces of trash. She started at the top, snatching a can called apple, and cracked it open. She yelped as sticky juice flowed over her fingers and dribbled on the floor. Lena plucked a slippery white chunk of plant-meat out of the can, slurped it down, and winced at its tooth-rotting sweetness. She sucked on her fingers and set the can down—now she tried an elegant, long-necked glass bottle sitting on a shelf. It was full of a dark, bitter liquid that killed her appetite.

One of the long walls was taken up by shelves of large discs. Lena wondered what they were for—the holes in their middles made them rather poor plates—but forgot them entirely as soon as she understood the other shelves were full of books.

It took opening one of the books to recognize what it was. Tower books were few and precious, made with rough handmade sheets and honeysoot ink. They contained instructions on machine maintenance, apology prayers, and stories of witches inflicting sharp punishments upon children who broke the tower’s rules. Chamber books were bound in a deep brown material, embellished with gold. They had thin, smooth pages with writing so perfect that a machine must have done it.

Lena dropped it like it bit her. No human hand could have written these texts, so they couldn’t be meant for human minds to read. Forgive me, she thought, looking to the aperture. There was no one.

She looked back at the book. Without thinking, she picked it up and ran a thumb along the glimmering, crisp edges of the pages, so sharp they sliced her finger. Nine years of intense inculcation vanished as she studied the paper cut. Lena had been pierced with the desire to read.

She carried the book to an enormous claw-footed chair facing the curtained wall. It was so high her toes dangled an inch above the floor, and so soft that she understood why the Lord would spend all his time here. Lena sank deep into the cushions, wiggling like a larva.

From behind the curtain, a scream rang out, clear as a bell. A blast of noise followed, like the bellow of a furnace.

Lena stood so quickly the chair screeched. The book slammed into the floor, and a plastic wand covered in buttons clattered beside it. Whatever was behind the curtain gave a cry of surprise, then went suddenly silent.

She stared at the curtain, not afraid, but fascinated. She couldn’t explain the burst of noise, but the voice was uncanny. Lena had never heard another child before, but when she dreamed about it, it sounded like this. Like an echo of her own, only this had sounded more vibrant than any echo.

Heart seizing in her chest, Lena tore the curtain down.

There was no child. No person at all. Only an enormous black wallscreen. In its center floated in unnaturally even lettering, CONTINUE? And below that, YES and NO.

Lena stared at the words. Then past them, to her ashen, angular reflection. Lena regarded herself, graywater-blonde hair wisping out of its tight knot. Her eyes had gone so wide she feared they’d pop out of their sockets.

She’d heard that the big wallscreens showed pictures that moved. These were on every floor once, but they’d been scrapped long ago. They were agents of corruption, transmitting the voices and images of the dead into vulnerable minds; that was surely what had caused the Lord’s unraveling. The child on the other side of the glass, if it could even be called a child at all and not a demon masquerading as one, was one of the last things the Lord would have seen before he died. If Lena brought it to life, if she invited the demon in, it would surely oblige her.

Her hand was already rising, finger extended to prick itself upon the YES.

The wise choice would be to leave the Chamber, seal it up at once, and be done with this temerity. She was the apologiarch. She was the key-keeper, the final carrier of the flame of their mission. She’d wield it like a sword against the darkness of the evils locked in the tower, and prevent them from escaping to ravage the world yet to come.

But I am the apologiarch. I must continue. How can I know if the sword is sharp if I don’t test it? Surely I’m strong enough to see this. That must be why I was left behind. “I must,” she said, voice creaking like an old pipe. Her finger hovered over the glass. “Forgive me.”

She pressed YES, and the room was bathed in an otherworldly sepia glow.

A flicker of movement: a person, clutching a twitchy bundle of rags, navigating a set of strange rooms. Though Lena had never seen another girl before, she knew intuitively that she was looking at one. As the girl approached, so too did Lena, bringing her fingertips to the glass to stroke the girl’s lovely face as well as she could. The static that prickled her fingers only enhanced the illusion. It was like caressing the face of a ghost.

The girl vanished, and all at once, color flooded in. Real color—yellows, blues, greens, and reds, but brighter than any she’d ever seen … Lena drew back, speechless. Wonder bloomed into her like light into leaves.

Lena fell to her knees, ignored the ache in her neck as she tilted her face into the glow, and when the girl returned to her grayscale world an hour later, she was weeping. “Yes,” she said thoughtlessly when the screen asked her if she wished to continue. “Yes, yes, yes …”

So entranced was she that only a blackout could rouse her. When the Chamber went death-dark and the speakers shushed, Lena felt for the chatelaine, gasped like she’d been drenched in the solarium pool and remembered herself.

She slunk out of the Chamber like an exorcised ghost, scurried up to give the gennies a jolt, and after, knelt at the hellish heart of the furnace. It was then that she really felt all the aches in her body. She’d spent too long crouched in front of the wallscreen. Her limbs somehow felt both squishy and stiff. Her hair shirt scrubbed at the sweat gathering in the middle of her back. Her belly whimpered. She had been down there for days without noticing at all.

If the penitents could only see her! The lone vestal tending to the last hearth of humanity, already letting the fire burn out! Was it any wonder that the Chamber was sealed, if this was its effect on the youngest apologiarch in history?

Lena returned to her tasks with her head bowed as she would after a walloping. Work was prayer. She was pious. Of course she was pious. Who said she wasn’t pious?

Still, when she came to offer flowers to the sun shrine, she didn’t bow deeply enough. She’d laid eyes upon the image of the true sun—not a flat yellow disc, but a distant orb of white fire, brighter than any bulb—and its replica here made her want to laugh and cry.

To distract herself, she scrubbed the steps from marble subfloor to lazaret. Then she went to bed without dinner.

Lena lay in the sepulchral quietness of the sleeping quarters with only a candle for company, telling herself I can’t have been corrupted, for I don’t feel wicked; see? I was strong enough to enter the Chamber and look upon its contents, and I’ve emerged with sanity and sureness of purpose ...

When at last she drifted off, the images she’d seen crept out of the coils of her brain like spiders and began weaving their webs.

 


 

There had never in the history of the tower been a child who tried to be good as hard as Lena. She traded crying for contemplation at two. She memorized the penitential prayers by three, though her tendency to confuse her Rs and Ls made her poor at recitation. She took to braiding her own hair shirt for mortification at the age of five. She had abnegation down to an art at seven. And at nine, she was queen of the underworld. She was more than good—she was great. It was her greatness that gave her the strength to leave the Chamber.

And it was her goodness that lured her back to it.

Lena wanted very badly to be a good apologiarch, and good apologiarchs patrolled from summit to sepulcher. Now that the Chamber was open, and therefore vulnerable to rot and ruin, there was one more floor in need of checking. So she returned. She had to return. She couldn’t be blamed for returning.

And while she was there, well, it didn’t hurt to finish her can of apple, now did it? Wasting food was a cardinal sin, punishable by two weeks of dishonorable fasting. And while she was eating, she ought to pick up the book she’d left on the floor when she discovered the wallscreen—tripping hazard, that—and if it happened to fall open to a glorious full-page illustration of the planet Mars, well, would it not be more harmful to let the mystery of Mars eat at her brain during devotions, when she could use the plastic wand on the floor to command the wallscreen to satisfy her curiosity?

So Lena went back. And back again. The more she went, the more she lingered. The more she lingered, the more her reasoning unraveled, though this wasn’t the result of any fatal flaw in the girl’s character, nor even her perfidious bloodline—it was the universal truth that there was and would be no force in the world more stubborn than a child bored out of her mind. Chores were chores for a reason, and all the sermons and devotions offered only a reflection of her bleak little life. The Chamber was a window to the world, and as all children eventually abandon their preoccupation with mirrors for glass they can see through, so it was with Lena. It wasn’t often that she got to learn new things. Now she had an entire world to excavate and no one to tell her she couldn’t. She took to the contents of the Chamber like a British archaeologist to a virgin tomb.

She began with the books. After much initial confusion, she devised a system wherein she’d read a novel or play with a dozen dictionaries and encyclopedias open around her, to be referenced whenever she came upon a concept she didn’t recognize.

For those first weeks, Lena ignored plot and character in favor of sponging up words. Such power they had—as little Lena’s vocabulary expanded, the tower itself seemed to shapeshift. It was like holding a gemstone up to the light and discovering all its hidden facets. Take the former cinema: not for sinning, but for movies, which played on wallscreens and comprised of moving photographs or drawings.

Here was another: without changing in area, the tower was shrinking. It happened after Lena started in on the atlases—the atlases! Never had she imagined that the world above was so expansive. Rivers ran above ground, the earth stretched for miles around and above and beyond the tower, rising and falling in peaks and valleys thousands of times the tower’s height.

And beyond the sky, somewhere unimaginably far from the tower and the planet into which it was built, other worlds floated in the void. One of them was even named by a girl her age. For some reason that fact, tucked away in a footnote, had made Lena cry. She didn’t often find girls in textbooks—they appeared more often in fiction—so she treasured every one she discovered, treating them like enchanted hand mirrors she could see new angles of herself in.

She came back to Earth eventually. It seemed the people of the world above knew far more about their own planet; things like weather—wind, like a blast of air from a vent, but from the sky! Rain, a sprinkler from the clouds, which were also made of water. Snow! Hailstorms and galestorms and heatwaves, oh my!—and animals. Lena had trouble picturing those. She knew only of bees, spiders, earthworms and—in concept—fish. Still images did little to help her visualize how things like birds or horses or fossas moved, so once she learned how to use the plastic wand—remote—the documentaries filled in the gaps. Mostly—she couldn’t find a dragon or unicorn that wasn’t clearly a movie magic trick, which made sense of course, since those creatures were notoriously reclusive, but it was still disappointing.

Babies were her next major discovery. Lena saw her first one on a wallscreen, picked grayish and gore-slick from between the legs of a woman. She hadn’t expected babies to be so wrinkled, so wormlike, so shrill! She clawed at her belly, trying to imagine growing not just the one, but the many that would have been expected of her if not for ...

A pang of relief. Then a guilt so deep Lena shut the wallscreen off and dove into the plastic discs. It was long overdue that she learned how to play them.

Once she figured the victrola out, her world took on an entirely new dimension. Lena already knew music in part—the percussion of feet on flights of stairs, the brass of generators and whistle of air recyclers, the susurrus of sprinklers—but she’d never conceived that noise could be given such deliberate form and glorious purpose. She could hear God speaking in it.

And since God was in it, surely it was okay to drag the victrola out of the oubliette and play music while she worked. When she scrubbed the steps, she even sang along—her voice expanded to fill the silo, unfolding upon itself until it seemed there were many Lenas, all in concert, and she was alone no longer.

Lena liked best the music that accompanied the ballets on the wallscreen. The exquisite costumes, the graceful bodies, those bloodred slippers! She memorized the steps and imitated them on the gold-veined marble floor, throwing balls so exclusive the guest list consisted of one.

Music had a way of ringing like a bell on the inside of her skull when she read. She’d find new things in the books and on the wallscreen as she revisited their contents, unearthing hidden passages that led deep to the core of the pyramid called humanity. Now that she knew the phrases and the planet, she was ready for the people—their wants and worries, triumphs and tragedies, loves and losses, all set to a grand soundtrack.

And the people had a strange effect on her. It was always the people. They slipped their tendrils into Lena’s mind, stinging her at random—the girl who’d named Pluto, the first time she’d danced the pas de deux and realized it wouldn’t work alone, that damned baby …

Most recently, the slow-coming understanding that none of the families in her stories were quite like her own. They had neat, untangled family trees and names for each other like aunt, uncle, cousin, brother, sister—kinship terms long abandoned by the penitents due to the complications inherent to hypogeous reproduction.

That’s fine, she told herself. We’re not like normal people, no, we are closer to divine. We were pharaohs, and pharaohs lay with each other to keep their power concentrated, as gods do …

Here Lena quickly embarked on a study of gods, which made her feel better.

When she lay herself down to sleep, she could still call herself uncorrupted. Sure, she’d stayed up well past her bedtime, but she was only doing her duty as apologiarch, searching diligently for obscenities to destroy. She had found none today, but there was always tomorrow. She’d just have to look closer … “Soon enough,” Lena assured the empty cots around her, wincing at the scrape of her voice, “I’ll be bored of that dreadful place. I will roll a stone over it, and forget it all.”

She was positive that there was nothing in her voice that could betray that every one of her dreams since the Chamber opened had taken place in the world above.

 


 

The grand clock in the cenobium once counted down to that day when the world was meant to have healed enough for them to ascend and seed it. The plan was to wait for it to chime, and then to leave. Lena didn’t know if the clock lived long enough to strike zero. It was broken when the first children took the tower. Its shattered face had watched over her every day of her life.

Lena didn’t understand why it started to bother her, only that one dreadful day she awoke from a nightmare in which it was chiming and wouldn’t stop no matter how hard she beat it. The idea of it watching her as she slept was so horrifying that she ran right down to the Chamber, made a nest of soft things in front of the wallscreen and fell asleep in its soothing glow.

She hadn’t been back to the cenobium since.

So it passed that the girl made her home in the lowest tier of the tower.

Lena still performed her chores, but with concessions. The laundry only had to be done when her robe stank, and with so much clothing lying around, there was really no need for the loom anymore; she just moved her knitting basket to her chair so she could do her mending without having to abandon her serials. She grew to tolerate the daily generator shutdowns, merely rolling away from the wallscreen to read by candlelight, and then go wake the gennies when she found a good stopping place. And with only one mouth to feed, the farm required less attention. It was okay that some of the plants and a lot of the bees were dying.

As her duties spilled into the Chamber, it too seeped up into the tower like a swell of wastewater from some hidden pipe-burst.

Soon, records were scattered across the marble floor like fallen leaves. Books stacked up beside beehives as Lena started reading to the larvae, hoping if she spent a little more time with them, they wouldn’t want to die—selfishly, it was also to keep her voice alive. Her silver screen stars had taught her to speak elegantly, with perfect pronunciation and not a hint of hoarseness—she hoped the bees liked hearing her act out the plays. A few times, she even imagined them learning to talk like some of the animals in the movies, buzzing into her ear to call her … what? Apologiarch was certainly inappropriate, as were mistress and lady and warden.

But Lena didn’t feel right either. It didn’t sit right in her mouth. Her name was longer in truth, but for the life of her, she couldn’t remember what it was. There hadn’t been anyone to call her anything in years.

The penitent puzzled this for some time. She traded an R for an L, an E for an I. She added more syllables and tried the names of a storm, a saint, a silver lady, putting them on and tossing them away when they fit close but not just right.

Then it occurred to her that there was no need for names without anyone to call her by them.

… Which got the girl wondering: perhaps she wasn’t the last person. No, she couldn’t be. If the world was to restart, as was the cornerstone of the penitents’ preachings, then there had to be people to find the right wires and press them together until there was a spark. Therefore, the penitents had it wrong. Lena—she came back to it, if only out of habit—couldn’t be the last person. There had to be someone else out there, maybe even someone like her, a child of the earth. I must keep my name, then. What’ll I be called when they climb into my tower and we meet?

That was a good thought. It helped her stay calm through the other changes. Like the fungus in the darkest corners of the tower, Lena had been growing quietly all this time, and the changes were only now making themselves known. New teeth emerged ruthlessly from her gums, forcing the old ones to dangle on strings of tissue until she could muster the courage to pluck them out. Hair grew where it hadn’t before. Her breasts protruded grotesquely from her torso—much smaller than the ones in the movies but still so revoltingly bulbous to Lena. The meat in her waist ached as her hip bones shifted. Her narrow wrists appeared out of her sleeves one day, then her forearms, so she deduced she was growing taller, and had to start wearing the robes of the adults even though they didn’t fit right. Often she tripped over her train, which was her chief reason for ending the balls. The stumbling, and the graceless spidery limbs, and the unbearable embarrassment that there wasn’t a prince waiting at the foot of the stairs, or a princess dashing in fashionably late, so what was she even doing it for?

Nothing escaped Lena’s storm of adolescent embarrassment. She no longer tried on accents and affects like a child playing in her parents’ wardrobe. She paced like a tigress up and down the stairs and tossed and turned in her sleeping nest. She’d kick Ozma out of her path just to spite the silly girl who’d once loved the book—now Lena’s taste was meatier, meaner. She wanted slippers that didn’t glisten like gemstones, but burned like coals when witch-queens danced in them. She wanted fifth acts that ended in lone survivors sobbing over the bodies of the lovers they’d slain. She wanted a planet of her own to name.

Nothing in the Chamber could satisfy her. After having dog-eared the books and scratched the records and memorized the movies, she was simply bored of them.

And she seldom prayed.

She couldn’t pinpoint the moment her devotion had turned to disaffection. All she knew was that one day, she pulled off her new adult robe for washing to find that her hair shirt wasn’t under it; she’d taken it off, set it down, and couldn’t recall when and where. When she found it a week later, kicked to the back of her sleeping nest, she didn’t put it on again and didn’t even feel bad about it.

Soon she spotted the other lapses: she was offering orisons to the sun shrine every other week. When she prayed, getting the words out required imagining someone had stuck a key in her back and wound her up. And she was certainly not abiding by the fasting calendar anymore, not now that the Chamber cans had run out and she’d started on the wine.

Maybe the problem was her lack of piety. If all the penitents kept their hands on the great wheel and turned it as one, then the tower’s lights would stay on forever, so the teaching went.

It followed, then, that if she was letting go of the tower, it would let go of her.

Now it seemed every time Lena came up from the Chamber, something new had gone wrong—some pipe had burst inside the walls, and the very stone was drooling; another crop had failed, and there were no more tomatoes or potatoes, then no more beans or beets; another generation of honeybee was found rotting in their cells as larvae, half-transformed and mummified in a state of half-imago; sometimes she’d wake in absolute tombal darkness, and have to go all the way up to the tenth floor and back just to see Lucy have her baby again. All the signs stacked up as they had in the days before the apocalypse: the tower had gone terminal.

The dominoes started to fall when the lightbulbs couldn’t be repaired anymore.

Now Lena had only a shrinking supply with which to light her world. She looked at her dear remaining plants, settled for etiolating some over losing everything, and set about collecting the working bulbs from all floors but the ones she deemed absolutely necessary—the power and piping floors, the farm and solarium, and the Chamber.

All the other floors were surrendered to the mold. It came into its kingdom with rapacious glee, painting thunderhead-colored murals on the ceilings, falling in slimy tapestries down the walls, rolling a green carpet down the stairs.

For an indeterminate time, Lena tried to have peace in her shrinking world; she’d recovered from the great abandonment, after all—she could survive this too. She tended to her withered crop, took up fasting again, and outlawed the eating of any bee larvae in the hopes that their population might be inspired to recover. She watched Westerns and wove plant-fiber wicks for her candles and tried very hard to be okay with it all.

Then one terrible day, as Lena climbed the stairs to the lazaret, a blackout came as she slipped on a slime-slick step.

Lena landed hard. She threw her arms up to save her face, and felt bones clang against stone and skin split open …

The last flashlight in the world was irreparably broken beneath her. Its glass was in her arms. Hot blood seeped into the voluminous sleeves of her robe.

She waited for firm hands to catch her under the armpits and jerk her out of the way. For cries of “Here!” “Sitting!” “Safe!” For her favorite people from the wallscreen to step through the portal and finally enter the tower to comfort her. For anyone, anyone at all.

Lena’s breaths shuddered out of her faster and faster. As she spread her palms against the stone, it seemed almost to contract around her. The tower was so small now, damp and disgusting as the stomach of a python. She plugged her nose and tried to slow her breathing; she was being absurd—with only one person, it could take days for the air to run out. By then, she’d have fixed the air recyclers. Her panic receded for a moment.

Then Lena smelled the corroding metal of the steel door and thought of the pharaohs again. From what she’d read, they were marched into their tombs with retinues of servants and slaves to serve them in the afterlife. As had the Lord. She understood the principle; no one wants to be alone in a tomb.

She started to cry. Sucking, spine-wracking sobs, like she’d fallen on the blade of despair itself. After all this time, all this knowledge she’d gained, Lena’s abandonment was still beyond her understanding. What was even the point in pummeling her for years with concepts as heavy as catechism and atonement if she was just going to be alone with the bruises?

In the dark, Lena searched for an explanation.

She started with rage: You knew when the clock would run out, didn’t you? You thought you’d served your time, and that I hadn’t. You were going to rejoin the world, and you thought I was too terrible to be loosed upon it. To hell with you! To hell with you all!

No. No. Not that. She couldn’t bear it. Besides, it was hardly worth damning them. They’d been in hell for years, and there was nothing to distract her from that now.

She tried forgiveness: You knew things would end soon. You left to preserve our resources, that they might last a few more years with me.

No. Forgiveness wasn’t possible. Forgive us, they’d said, but she didn’t. She wouldn’t. She hadn’t even said goodbye, and she still wasn’t sorry. They had a duty, not to the tower, not to the wheel, but to her, and they’d forsaken it.

She ended on some third, unknowable feeling, one matching no definition in any of the Chamber dictionaries: You wanted me to be the natural end of our line, and the only way to guarantee it was to leave. You wanted me to finish our apology to the world. I am the youngest apologiarch. I am heir and warden and mistress. I am the opener of the Chamber, the witness to its contents, the blood of the five, the keeper of the keys, the final carrier of the flame … oh, but why didn’t you tell me I’d have to watch it die and be left in the dark! Why didn’t you tell me I wasn’t the tower’s bride, but its hospice nurse! Any creature raised in the world above could have told her this feeling was the hunger to live, awakening in her at last.

A sound curled up the stairs towards her. Lena held her breath.

It was an echo. The record she’d put on at the bottom of the stairs had stopped, but the acoustics of the tower would make it seem to run a while longer.

Lena’s penitents wouldn’t come. Her silver starlets could never emerge from their world beyond the veil, nor Sisyphus from her books to take the damn weight off her shoulders.

Only I can emerge, she thought, and shuddered at the implication.

She sat up, the penitent in her penitentiary—and somehow after having read the Oxford English Dictionary cover to cover over a dozen times, Lena only truly understood the meaning of the word now.

She spread a bloody palm along the cold concrete wall. It was damp with mold, but the structure was the same as ever. She could find her way to the generators in absolute darkness.

Lena, no longer little, sighed. She picked herself up and set to the work. Then she climbed right back into her casket, as was her problem.

The Chamber was as she’d left it. Books lay open, pillows fluffed, bottles strewn about, the silver glow of the wallscreen frozen in the midst of a journey to another dimension, not only of sight and sound but of mind. CONTINUE? it asked.

Yes, she wanted to say, skimming her hands over her stinging arms. Please, yes. Take me away from this place. Forgive me for trespassing and deliver me from the truth. Let me glimpse it through a reflection and never directly. Let me watch your world from a safe distance and pretend it’s enough again.

The revelation came upon her then. She understood what was so dangerous about the Chamber now, and what had to be done to break the spell.

Lena mustered her madness and began destroying everything. She tore fistfuls of paper from the books. She shattered the wine bottles on the wall, then took a jagged neck and gutted the cushions until their fluffy insides spilled out. She upended the chair, broke off a leg, and beat the wallscreen until her eerie black reflection shattered. Through it all she sobbed and screamed. Then Lena sat back on her cushions and enjoyed the carnage, telling herself that it was good.

 


 

Lena woke with down tickling her nose, scabs scaling her arms, and brownish blood sticking her thighs together, already soaked through the back of her robe.

The blood commanded her attention first—it was difficult to keep track of how old she was now, but going by knowledge from the old anatomy books she’d just ripped into ribbons, she guessed she was about thirteen. It was expected that menarche would arrive about now. Despite knowing it to be a natural process, Lena was still anxious. None of her stories mentioned it. Were it not for the textbooks, she’d never have known it would happen to her. She wasn’t afraid of it exactly, but there was a knotty, trembling feeling in her chest. She wanted someone to sit down, take her hand and tell her what to do.

Well, Lena thought, taking her own hand and picking herself up, I’ll have to go to them.

She looked upon the ruined Chamber again without a hint of confusion or regret. The destruction was intentional and necessary. For lack of anyone else to befriend in the depths of the tower, Lena had no choice but to get to know herself. She knew that unless she eliminated the temptation, she could never emerge. She’d carry on as she had, treating the wallscreen like a window.

How wrong she’d been. Windows were meant to be opened; she knew that from the movies—you were supposed to slouch over the sill, feeling the wind in your hair and the sun on your face and old grime rubbing up against your forearms. You should be able to smell the trees and hear birds singing and people walking by. And if it’s the most wonderful of all days, a rainy one, you should be able to taste it in the air.

She couldn’t do that here. She lived not a true life, but an imitation of one, no more real than in her stories. She could never stay here without longing to be elsewhere. She could only ever press up against the glass, begging to be noticed by everyone outside.

If there was anyone. She had to find out.

Lena’s sweat-slick hands wrapped around the rungs of the ladder. She lost her nerve, let go, and hooked her fingers into her hair. The knot at the nape of her neck was heavy enough to cause a headache. Surely that was the problem.

Lena took the scissors from her toolbelt and let down her hair. It was now so long she could sit on it. She smoothed down the limp strands. Then she screwed her courage to the sticking place and cut it close to the scalp. Her head would fit better in the visor cap this way.

With her hair in one hand and a candle in the other, Lena climbed out of the Chamber for the last time. She didn’t let herself turn around and look. She walked determinedly up the stairs, sparing the records only because touching them would mean deviating from her path. She spurned the clock and its dreadfully smug face, and all the communal rooms that could never be used again.

She stopped in the solarium. She was the apologiarch—she simply had to leave with grace. There were no living flowers to offer, so in their place she left her hair. That was meant to be the end of it, but the girl was struck with an urge to give the grimy mosaic one last kiss.

Lena went to the farm, filled a bag with seeds and what was left of the provisions, bid the few sickly bees left goodbye and then continued her climb. Her progress was slow, as she hadn’t forgotten how treacherous the stairs had become. With each step, she murmured, “I am doing it,” to fight off her doubts. This was natural. This was necessary. The tower had only ever been a chrysalis, and she a pupa. When imago came, she couldn’t spread her wings in a cell.

Thirteen still felt awfully young to assume the mantle of adulthood, but Lena told herself she was thirteen in the way Jeanne d’Arc and Agnes of Rome had been thirteen. A girl younger than her named a planet, another was anointed King of Poland, a third won debates against great scholars in the glistening palatial temples of ancient Alexandria. Ozma and Susan and Dolores and Mona were her age when they found the world or it found them. Certain powers were owed to girls her age. She couldn’t claim them in the tower, let alone use them. And what was the point of power if it could never be used?

Yes, she concluded, thirteen is old enough.

At the lazaret, she shed her robe and donned her armor. The smallest suit fit her best, but it was cracked and discolored with age. As Lena inspected the crocodilian complexion of the rubber through her plastic visor, she fretted. It wouldn’t protect her from any of the dangers that lurked beyond, not salt nor smoke nor ash, and there was already dust inside of it. It was better than nothing, so she kept it.

Lena flipped the oxygen meter dial from VACUUM to FILL. When the dreadful scream of the bell sounded, she turned off the lights behind her and opened the door.

There were two reasons to enter the vestibule and not return. The first was to leave through the lichgate. The second was to forsake one’s duty, by interring oneself alive.

Lena’s suspicions about what the previous penitents had been doing were confirmed when the door hissed open, the smell of mummy dust seeped into the lazaret and her long-lost family came crumbling to her feet.

The girl looked upon them with neither tenderness nor terror. She’d known all this time what would be on the other side of the door. The welter of grief within her was immense, but it couldn’t convince her to turn around.

The girl noted the bloody scratches in the door left by their desperate fingers. The penitents went to their deaths willingly, so devoted to their duty. Yet in their last moments, they’d come to huddle at the door. Were they truly full of regret, or slaves to their animal instincts?

Another question worried her then: If I’d been capable of hearing you through the door, begging to be let in, to be given air, would I have obliged you?

She was very grateful that she’d never know.

For all their talk of holy duty, they were only human in the end. As was she. You can’t begrudge me for leaving. You tried the same, only you went about it all wrong. But though I am the sum of you, I am far greater. I will succeed.

She did not pray for them now, as she hadn’t at the hour of their death. She didn’t bid them goodbye, nor ask for forgiveness. She didn’t bend to untangle their limbs and place them in seats of honorable repose alongside their ancestors. Sharper than a serpent’s tooth, she thought: Let the dead bury the dead. She slung her bag over her shoulder, stepped over the bodies, and approached the lichgate.

The vestibule doubled as an ossuary. The bones of Lena’s ancestors were arranged in artful rows around the lichgate, so unlike the desperate mummified knot her family had tied themselves into. Even without the macabre decoration, the gate would have been imposing. It was built to such a scale that Lena almost believed it was the front door of a giant’s castle. She searched for a keyhole, and then spied the wheel. It was rust-red, protruding like a sore from the cement door at about chest-height. It was exactly the right size for a single person to turn.

Lena closed a gloved hand around the wheel. Through a crack in the rubber, its metallic chill grazed her skin. Her palm didn’t ignite. She didn’t drop dead. The door didn’t open.

She leaned her weight into the wheel and pushed, but it didn’t budge.

Lena touched the chatelaine hanging at her hip, then recalled the chamber door. She unzipped the suit, slid a hand inside, and offered the wheel her menarche.

A mechanism within the door groaned. It sounded like bones creaking and popping under the skin of a very old man. Lena held her breath as the hidden drawbars scraped open and an ancient claxon shrieked. It reverberated in her marrow.

The door was unlocked.

Here was her last chance to turn tail and run. She hadn’t technically committed the most unforgivable sin yet. If she were to stop here, to sit and wait for some survivor beyond to happen upon the tower and discover her, well, she wouldn’t be breaking any rules if she allowed them to sweep her away, now would she? And it would be safer to wait. If someone came to her, then she didn’t have to wonder if the world was habitable.

Lena imagined an eternity spent alone in her shrinking world, piecing together the shredded pages and huddling at the cooling furnace, praying for it to start again. If the world is truly so hostile that there are no people in it, Lena thought, staring at the seam where the lichgate met the wall, then perhaps I shouldn’t be in it either.

Again, the impulse came: turn tail, run, live as the builders of the tower had.

The thought was tempting, but Lena resisted. She might be a bad seed, but she carried good ones in her pockets. She was the sword and key and torch of the tower, and she had so much to give the world. She had been infected by the fever called living, and no force within the tower or without—not dragons or rogues or red bulls, not blights or beasts great and small—could stop her.

She laid a hand on the seam and imagined noxious air hissing in and suffocating her. Opaque dust clouds. Salt stinging her feet. Necropoli as far as the eye could see. Then she pictured a breeze stirring her hair. The sun warming her skin. Grass tickling her toes. Meeting a stranger and coming to love or hate them. Would the air be pure or poisoned? Would she emerge to find herself alone, or the last to arrive at the party? Was there a lady beyond the door, or a tiger? There was no way to know.

Unless, she thought, taking a breath and holding the charnel air in her mouth. It was the last time she’d taste it.

Lena took the rust-rimed wheel and pulled. The hidden gears whirred at her command, and slowly, the rock rolled away. I am coming, she thought. I am coming soon.

 


Editor: Hebe Stanton

First Reader: Hebe Stanton

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors



Elle Engel spent her childhood in central Illinois maxing out her mother's library card on stacks of Nancy Drew and Animorphs books and her teen years watching horror movie marathons during school nights. She currently lives in Chicago, where she writes horror and speculative fiction. She is currently working on her first novel.
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