Laúm and Jaúl walked the path to Land’s End where they turned north and walked along the top of the cliff until they reached a solid landing. At its edge, handrails appeared to lead over the precipice. A group of citizens stood by the scanner and waited their turn. The long ladder down to the sea frightened Laúm, but he refused to admit it and did his best not to show it. His father went first. Jaúl encouraged his son to take one step at a time and hang on tightly to the rails. This was advice Laúm neither needed nor wanted. A quick look around assured him no one else his age was near enough to hear his father’s words. He was no child, after all. When they reached the lower landing, below the cliff face, Laúm exhaled. When he looked back up at the dizzying height where they’d begun his head began to spin. At the center of his spinning mind, though, Laúm realized that he was proud of himself. For the first time since his Ascension, he felt a little like a citizen and a little less like a child.
Two smartly uniformed soldiers kept a watchful eye over the lower landing. Sahu had been spotted two days earlier. They were pirates in quickboats looking for easy targets. The Quondans were determined not to give them any.
One by one, the group boarded the boat, and, when all of the passengers had taken their seats, they embarked toward Tiamatu. Small waves lapped at the sides of their boat.
As their launch approached the towers, the tall, thin cylinders seemed to rise higher and higher from the sea. Laúm could not take his eyes off what unfolded before him. From his usual vantage point above the bay on the family’s outdoor perch, the towers had looked large. From the boat they seemed bigger than the mountains themselves. They were gleaming black cylinders, each capped on top with a point.
Spiraling up around each shaft, a series of large openings perforated the perfect surfaces to the very top. These must be windows, Laúm marveled. Real windows. He had seen the openings in the walls when they visited the Forbidden City. He assumed that the openings were where windows must have been all those years ago, but few in the compound had windows anymore. Instead, most citizens preferred holograms of past verdant landscapes or blue seascapes.
When at last they reached Tiamatu, their small craft bobbed in the light choppy waves. Two soldiers secured it to the south tower’s floating ramp.
The tower’s mirror black surface, wet from the sea’s spray, glistened in the morning light. Laúm approached the tower’s walls and ran his hand over its exterior. It was smooth to Laúm’s touch. His fingers caressed the warm surface. It was carbon, harder than the mountains, a triumph of Quondan science, made from the very material that now choked their planet.
Laúm, Jaúl, and the rest of the boat’s passengers walked through an opening at the top of the ramp, and a door hissed closed behind them. Even if he had tried, Laúm could not have stopped staring. Inside as out, this tower of Tiamatu was unlike anything he had ever seen. It was brightly lit, and the chamber that they had entered had a ceiling that seemed to soar higher than ten homes stacked on top of each other. They stood on a walkway suspended above a sprawling floor full of people working at a multitude of tasks. Laúm could not tell what they were doing. Before each worker was a small image that they manipulated with their hands.
“This is the nerve center of the western government,” said Jaúl. “These people keep watch on the Sahu, the water and food supply, and the weather. They monitor energy use, communications, outbreaks of disease—everything.” Through the spiral of high windows in the slightly sloping, continuous wall that encircled the cavernous room, sunlight poured in from the east, lighting the workers below in rectangular swatches of gold.
Laúm recognized the ten plaques of Quondan science that lined the walls. They were the hard won diagrams and formula of a Star Chamber, a device that they hoped would someday help remove the suffocating blanket of carbon poisoning the planet’s ocean’s and atmosphere. Jaúl had been a driving force toward its creation, and Laúm had to admit to himself that working as his father’s assistant didn’t make him feel at least a little bit important. The Star Chamber would provide them with clean energy through nuclear fusion. It was the greatest Quondan achievement in their entire recorded history: concepts handed down over centuries from the fabled Guardians of old.
“I have never seen anything this big, Jaúl,” said Laúm, his eyes affixed to the far wall.
His father put his hand on Laúm’s shoulder. “Before you were born, it would have seemed much bigger. This tower and the rest once rose many measures above the valley that’s now under water. Now we can see only the tops of them. Every few years we lose a floor and have to move up another level. This will continue while the sea continues to rise.”
At the end of the walkway, they broke away from the main group, walked down a stairway to the central floor, and went through a door and into an antechamber. There, Jaúl donned the white robes of an elder. They left the room through another door, and Laúm walked side-by-side with his father rather than behind him, like he would have before his eighteenth birthday. Laúm still was not used to walking next to his father. It felt unnatural. He might have been eighteen and he may have gone through his ascension ceremony, but he didn’t feel much different than he had before he had become an adult. They entered a smaller room, with chairs and a sofa, where they waited for Dnase, the First Citizen.