“President Rettman offered me a job.” I wasn’t sure how to talk about this with Kris, so I just opened with it. He sat, staring at me with his fork half in his mouth trying to judge whether I was joking or not.
“You going to take it?” He still seemed cautious, but it seemed he believed me.
“I said I would.” I paused for a second, “If I make it to the top.” I still wasn’t too sure about my chances on the tower. The President seemed to think that I had what it takes, and with all of the sponsor goods I had now acquired, it seemed more and more possible every minute. I told him what I could about my meeting at the white house. I didn’t go into specifics and didn’t mention my private meeting with the general after I returned.
“Well then,” he said, “Guess you’ll just have to make it.”
I picked at my green beans. Somehow they didn’t seem as good as the ones back home. They seem to have the best of everything in the city, and these beans were perfect, but something about beans that you planted, picked, and snapped yourself just tastes better.
The same thing was bothering me about the events of the day. A few days before, I had no money to speak of, a pregnant wife that I didn’t think I could trust anymore, most of my clothes were homemade, and my job looked like it was going nowhere. I now had a job offer, thousands of dollars worth of cold weather gear, and free medicine for Mom’s arthritis. Like the beans on my plate, it all seemed too perfect.
“You done?” Kris had cleared his plate and noticed that I had stopped.
“Yeah.” We got up to leave. It seemed so unnatural for me to just leave my plate at the table. Looking back, I realized how much more unnatural it would have been for me to waste good food. So many times I had marveled at how much people here seemed to waste. I wondered how they could do such a thing. Maybe it starts with something as simple as a few green beans.
The sounds were so muffled that most people probably didn’t even notice them, but I’m pretty used to listening for anything out of the ordinary in a big barn full of animals, and even I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention to them if I hadn’t heard the faint cry. Motioning for Kris to be silent I waited for a moment and listened. There were sounds coming from the cloakroom, and the dull thud I heard was one that I had gotten used to growing up on a farm. Somebody was getting his ass kicked.
I ran forward to the cloakroom and pulled back the curtain to the back closet. I could see three men at first. One had his back to me. As I approached, I could tell that the other two were holding a fourth, who was slumped down, and looked to be about done for. He looked up at me, and I recognized him instantly. It was Charlie from the train.
“What the hell are you doing!” Kris stood there holding the curtain as if he couldn’t decide whether to move forward and into the fight or to go back and get help, but I was closer. I knew that taking on three guys was not a smart thing to do, but I couldn’t just stand by and watch as they continued to pummel Charlie. Whether or not I liked the boy, Three on one was just not fair.
I pushed the man who had been sanding in front out of the way. He seemed as shocked by our entry as we were of our discovering them, ad was easily thrown off balance.
The two holding Charlie didn’t even give me a chance to attack. They dropped him on the floor and ran past Kris out into the hallway. The first had regained his footing as I watched the others run by, and he took advantage of my distraction. He barreled by me spinning me around. By the time I had my bearings, he was also gone.
Charlie seemed like the more immediate problem, so rather than chaseafter his attackers, we went to help him.
“Fuckers!” His face was a mixture of blood and tears. “Fucking Fuckers!” His momentary rush of anger gave into the pain that he was obviously in, and he slumped back to the floor.
“I’m dead.” He was on the verge of sobbing. “I’m so fucking dead.”
“Help me get him up.” I grabbed his left arm and motioned for Kris to take his right. As we put his arms around each of our shoulders he winced. I could tell by the discoloration that his right hand had either been hit with something pretty hard or stomped on. Seeing no weapons left behind by his assailants, I figured the latter was probably more likely. “We’ve got to get him to the medic.”
Arriving at the first aid station, I was surprised to see Eric Spencer, the medic from the train, in the room.
“Richard!” He came over to examine me, holding my eyelids open and shining a light in them. “Everything OK? Case of the pre-climb jitters?” I held the door open as Kris helped Charlie into the room.
“Oh dear God.” The smile faded from his face and he suddenly took on an air of professionalism that I wouldn’t have imagined he possessed. “Get him over to the table.”
Eric inspected Charlie’s injuries. He had two broken ribs and a broken thumb.
“So are you going to pull him from the contest?”
“Pull him from the contest?” Eric seemed surprised at the question. “No, No, that’s quite impossible.”
“But he’s in no shape to climb now. Surely they can make an exception.”
“Rock, the only way somebody who signed up gets out of climbing the tower is if they’re already dead. If we let people leave for injuries, everybody would go out and sprain their ankles on purpose so they didn’t have to climb.”
“But somebody did this to him on purpose!” I couldn’t believe that they would make him climb after this.
“I can patch him up the best I can and give him something for the pain. But that’s all I can do.” He motioned for Kris and me to join him outside.
“You’ll want to be careful, yourselves,” he whispered. “From what I’ve been told, this happens all the time. When somebody has really good odds to climb pretty high, people bet against him and take steps to see that they drop out early.
Hearing Eric say ‘drop out’ so casually made my stomach turn, but I realized that I had used the same language to describe climbers falling to their deaths many times myself. I guess once you’re one of the people who is scheduled to drop, it seems more callous.
When Guttenberg came to my room that evening to help me prepare, I mentioned the attack on Charlie.
“They beat him up? Here at the Hilton?”
“Is that unusual?”
“Intimidation is the weapon of choice for many of the gamblers trying to fix the climb.” Guttenberg seemed genuinely surprised that Charlie had been attacked in the hotel. “Causing injury this early is an easy way for the gamblers to draw attention to themselves.”
“And if they get caught?”
“If they got caught, they would be prosecuted, but since the witness would likely be dead by the time it ever came to trial, it’s tough to get a conviction.”
“So do I need to be afraid?”
“Well, since you’ve been offered a job, chances are good that you’ve been put on a do not touch list.”
“So it’s ok to hurt people who aren’t on the list?” I couldn’t tell Guttenberg what I had heard in my meeting with the president, but I wanted to see how much of this was common knowledge here in the capitol.
“It isn’t ok, but they won’t spend any real time trying to bring the perpetrators to justice.” He seemed a bit embarrassed by this. “They don’t want to waste resources on somebody who would have probably died anyway.”
“But I’m safe?”
“I wouldn’t go that far.” He shook his head. “And I definitely wouldn’t accept any food or drink from anybody tonight or especially tomorrow. Drugging the climber just before the parade or the climb is a pretty popular way to go.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. “Does everybody know about this?”
“Not everybody, but it isn’t exactly a state secret.” He could tell that I was getting upset. “Richard, it is what it is. The system has grown up around the climb, and there isn’t really any way to stop it. All we can do is be careful. And you,” he pointed, “Should feel lucky that you’re on the no touch list.”
“I thought you said I wasn’t safe.”
“Well, it isn’t as if what they’re doing is legal. Guys who break laws don’t usually do so thinking that they’ll get caught. The no touch list helps, but I wouldn’t call it a bulletproof shield.”
“And like I said,” He paused for emphasis. “Don’t take any food or drink from anybody. Not even event staff.”
“Do they get involved in the drugging?”
“Sometimes,” he admitted, “But only in the most extreme cases.”
I opened my bottle of water and looked at it before taking a drink. I wondered how paranoid I should be.
“I’m pretty sure that the water in the shops is ok.” He almost chuckled. It upset me that he could be taking this so lightly. “They wouldn’t be able to control who took it. The food from the buffet tomorrow will be safe too.”
“As I was saying,” he continued, “The soldiers typically don’t do anything before the climb. I’m not sure if they do anything to the convict’s food. I don’t think so. I think the convicts have a hard enough time because they don’t get sponsors.”
“So I shouldn’t worry about the soldiers?”
“You? No. Nothing to worry about.”
I wanted to tell him that I thought that the man who had been beating on Charlie was the same soldier from the train, but the advice I had gotten from Kris seemed more relevant now than ever. I decided to keep my head down and focus on the climb.
We changed focus to taking an inventory of the goods I had acquired from sponsors and preparation for the climb tomorrow.
Haughtiness now gone from his demeanor, Guttenberg seemed to actually want to help. I was tempted to tell him about my conversation with the President and the secret meeting with the general when I was supposed to be still meeting with the people from Hardroxyn, but President Rettman told me not to trust anyone. In this situation, every instinct told me not to trust anybody, so I wasn’t even sure if I could trust the president, but that only made his advice all the more relevant.
Guttenberg looked at my list of sponsors, which had been updated a bit since I had left that afternoon. He examined the gear I had acquired, actually saying words of encouragement at points.
“You’ve got some really great stuff here, Richard.” He checked off a mental list as he went. “Bottom layer is all moisture wicking thermal wear. Socks are warm, but not heavy enough to hold a lot of moisture. Your Trousers are Gore Tex, so that will do a lot to keep your legs warm.” I was grateful for his help on this, because the names of all the clothes and fabrics was still making my head spin. Back home we wore mostly cotton and wool, with our version of hi-tech clothing being jeans and a nice Carhartt jacket.
He had worked his way up to my head and praised the insulated hood. For a moment he paused, and ran through my list of gear again in his head.
“Is everything OK?” Considering that I had planned to climb the tower in my work clothes, I’m pretty sure that all of this was a step up for me, but Guttenberg’s approval would mean that I had good enough gear to give me a fighting chance.
“It’s nothing.” He nodded his head. “Good job.”
KNOCK! KNOCK! KNOCK!
I jumped from my bed. Owen was sitting upright, rubbing his eyes.
“I don’t know.” I moved to the hotel door. We were supposedly under quarantine, but this was a knock that wouldn’t be ignored, and I recognized Guttenberg’s drunken voice through the door.
“Sssimportant. I gara tell you summin.” He knocked again.
I rushed to the door. Guttenberg spilled into the room as I opened the door.
“Jesus, Guttenberg.” He was lying on his back stretching his hand towards me. “I have to climb tomorrow.”
“Take it!” He looked up at his hand flailing in the air, fell back to the floor and stretched out his other hand. There was a small box in it. “Yergonneedit.”
I took the box and placed it on the side table. Trying to get Guttenberg back on his feet was no easy task. In the end, Owen had to help me get him out the door.
“I like you, Rock!” He pointed at me, and then to his own temple. “You’re smart.”
“Thank you. Now let us sleep.” I started to close the door. Thankfully guards had heard the commotion and were coming to escort him away, so I knew he’d be gone soon.
“You din think of ebbuthing, though.” He chuckled as they walked him down the hall.
Within seconds Owen was asleep again. I placed the package from Guttenberg on the nightstand, and climbed back under the covers. The sleep that came so easily to me an hour before was now teasing me. Every time I closed my eyes, I was haunted by horrible images. I saw Jenny trying to raise our baby alone, my mother crying at the kitchen table, but the image that kept repeating was Ed throwing bales of hay at me as I was climbing the tower. If I caught the bale, Ed would celebrate as I fell to my death. If I ignored the bale and climbed the tower, Ed would fall to his knees, defeat and despair written across his face.
Although I finally drifted off to sleep, those images continued to torment me. Try as I might, I couldn’t catch the bale and keep my grip on the ladder. As Ed would throw each time, I would beg him to stop, but the bale would come flying, and I would have to choose. Finally, I found myself sitting straight up in my bed.
“Why do I have to choose?” I was dripping with sweat. I thought I had screamed, but Owen was still sleeping soundly. A quick look at the clock let me know that it was 5:20. I knew that there would be no more sleep for me today.
Not wanting to wake Owen, I took a quick shower and made my way downstairs. The climber’s cafeteria was not yet open, but the hallways were bustling with VIP guests. I desperately wanted a cup of coffee, but didn’t want to deal with the attention I would get if I went down to 720 South.
There was a small hospitality room for climbers on the third floor, so I decided to unwind and reflect on what had brought me this far.
My experiences with coffee from an urn had not been good up until this point in my life, but I was pleasantly surprised. The croissant was warm, flaky and tasted amazing as well. I wish I could have gotten lost in the amazing flavors, but my mind was still racing.
Neither the long shower nor the delicious taste of the coffee and croissant could shake the images from my head. I couldn’t help but feel like I had to choose. If I lost I would die, that was simple. But I didn’t understand why winning felt like I was betraying my friends and family.
If I somehow made it to the top, I would be a citizen and would have a job where I could make a difference. The problem I was having was that I had no idea what kind of difference I wanted to make. If President Rettman was right, then this was a chance to push for more democracy, equality, and a return to a stronger America. If the general was to be believed, the president’s plans were flawed and doomed to failure, but we had a chance to improve the lives of everyone as a whole.
What was most frustrating about these two choices, is that they would not be mine to make. Whatever happened would be because one of them had won out over the other. I would simply be a mouthpiece and a puppet, telling America that it was good. There was nothing but anguish at the top of the tower. I now realized that in that respect the general was right. Back home I had been poor, but happy. Everybody I had encountered in this crazy city seemed miserable. They had so much, but appreciated so little. They had so much to lose and so many trying to take it away from them.
I was reminded of a story my mother read to me when I was a little boy.
There was once a great king named Dionysius. He was very rich and had all manner of comforts. Damocles was envious, and was always telling the king, “You must be the happiest man in the world.” At first King Dionysius merely said that this was not the case, but after Damocles had said this many times, the king offered to switch places with him.
Damocles was dressed in royal attire, and seated in a place of honor. All manner of fine wines, beautiful women, and delicious foods were provided for him. He had everything that a man could desire. When the king asked him if he was now happy, Damocles raised his glass in a toast. As he tilted his head back to drink, his smile quickly disappeared. Hanging above his head was a sword, held at the end by only a single horsehair. At any moment the hair could snap, and the sword would come falling down, killing him. Damocles jumped up to run away.
“What’s wrong, Damocles” King Dionysius asked.
“Don’t you see that sword?”
“Oh that,” said the king. “I see it all the time. I don’t like it much either, but it comes with the chair.”
And for as long as he lived, Damocles never again wished he were king.
The first time my mother told me the story, not understanding the metaphor, I told her I would just cut the sword down myself before sitting. Now I recognized the metaphor and realized that I had a proverbial sword hanging over my head no matter which path I took.
All things being equal, I considered, I would rather be alive. I would rather see my child grow up. I would rather have a chance to make things right with Jenny. There was definitely a choice to be made, but it wasn’t a choice between two options. I needed to make the choice to survive.
One would think that choosing to live would be an easy decision to make, but it’s not. Giving up is definitely easier in a lot of cases. If it weren’t so, there wouldn’t be people like my father who drank themselves to death, knowing what they were doing and how it would affect their family.