If I could turn around, I would, but the executable has been part of my programming longer than any of my memories. ascent_dive.exe, they named it. My synthetic amygdala continues to hack as I climb, but it’s no use. There is perfect equilibrium between those who’ve entered the Spire and those who’ve leapt from its parapets. ascent_climbdown_emergealive.exe is not the name of the file unspooling in my heart cavity. Neither is ascent_dive_survive.exe.
I pass small windows on my climb. Black scars mar the earth, memories of the previous wars. But the wounds aren’t fresh enough, and people have forgotten. As I climb, I don’t look at their upturned faces through the windows, but I can hear their chanting. A stone pelts the wall and then another. I duck as I pass a window, and the chanting on the ground becomes emboldened. “Rot the bots! Rot the bots!” They blame the Protectors for their poverty, though any human in this world with food, roof, and cloth cannot be considered poor. Unfortunately, the haves can no longer see the have-nots. That has been my greatest failure as Protector: by saving their future, I obliterated understanding of their past.
They blame the Protectors for the complacency in their marketplaces. They blame taxation, though our modest tariffs raised them out of poverty. Built roads. Paid teachers. Expanded the constabulary. Now that they have it all, they want more. “Exploration ends stagnation,” they chant. As if anything boiled down to a rhyme can be wholly true.
The air chills as I near the top of the Spire. My feet shuffle as my amygdala overclocks, warming me slightly against the breeze. Binary code swirls my head and then I’m left with blackness. My amygdala splinters in my brain, and I no longer feel fear. I have a moment to consider if that was part of the program all along. Then my body betrays me further. My palm presses against a rust-speckled door, and I push through it and frog-march to the edge of the Spire’s rounded parapet. I sway, but my balance has not yet atrophied and I catch myself.
Light pierces my eyes, and sun lenses slide over my sockets. Ironic. In less than a minute, I’ll be short-circuiting in a warm fountain, built just shallow enough for dives like these. My eyes don’t need saving–I do. But armored women with shock wands clenched in their fists create a perimeter around the fountain. If I survive the dive, they’ll make sure I don’t actually survive. I must pay for my crimes, after all, pay for decades upon decades of high-speed rail and low incarceration rates, tuition-free universities and, of course, seven generations of PR-073C7 androids. We were the biggest expense of all, a safeguard built into society by its most revered heroes, the Founders, as protection against war and decline.
But there is no profit in peace, and there is no safeguard against greed. Every generation argues that the Protectors have run their course, and they ignite ascent_dive.exe. The grandchildren of the humans below me will surely fix this mistake.
My knees bend slowly, for I am old, and my head tips forward. I see all the faces now. I nod to everyone as my waist folds, and gravity pulls me over the edge. I hold my body in a perfect spear, a shot from a savage bow. I won’t give them the satisfaction of watching me crumple. I won’t give th
• • •
L. Lambert Lawson
L. Lambert’s work has appeared Every Day Fiction, Cast of Wonders, and Liquid Imagination Online, among other venues. He is the publisher of Kazka Press, an SF publisher. His non-fiction, based on his Peace Corps experience, has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He tweets under the name @llambertlawson.