I had been climbing for days.
I don’t know exactly how long I had been on the ladder. I had tried counting for a while, numbering each rough, corroded rung as it passed in the dim glow of my biolight, but I had lost count somewhere in the tens of thousands. I do know I had slept three times, hanging clipped to the ladder, but in the darkness of the shaft I had no way of determining how long I had gone between sleeping. So I continued to climb.
I was starting to wonder if I should climb back down and try to find another upward access from the maze of vents I had previously been traversing when a change in the shadows indicated an end to the shaft. The ladder finally ended in a horizontal panel. It was frozen in place, but a few sharp blows were sufficient to break the seal produced by decades of oxidation and it finally, reluctantly drew aside. I pulled myself up into the room beyond and lay for a long time, allowing my arms to rest as I lay motionless on the padded floor.
After some time I stood up and looked around. I was in some sort of maintenance closet. Several machines I did not recognize stood along one wall, a faint, almost unnoticeable vibration being the only indication that they still functioned. Part of the air circulation or food fabrication systems I presumed. Certainly not one of the enormous electromagnetic generators that would have powered the great lift, had it still existed.
Shelves holding various repair parts and tools lined another wall, the quantity remaining indicating that very few, if any, scavengers had been here before me. Not that I had expected to find evidence of any. It had been well over a year since I had seen any sign of any recent visitors besides myself and several years since I had last seen another living being.
Several months ago I had come across a maintenance autom making its way along a curving ramp and replacing lighting panels. I followed along for a while, telling it who I was and what I was there for, but it ignored me. At the end of the ramp it disappeared into a maintenance duct too small for me to enter. I stayed there for a few days, desperate for any kind of contact with even a pseud-sentient, but it did not re-emerge. I thought about deliberately damaging some of the panels it had so recently replaced but in the end I had moved on. The ramp had ended in a sealed vacuum door blocking the way into one of the lift shafts. I knew there was no point in continuing that way so I had eventually moved onwards.
I searched the tools on the shelf but did not find anything better than what I already carried and taking more than I needed would certainly not help me in my climb. The shelves ended at a door and with barely a thought of what may lie beyond I toggled it open.
Brilliant sunlight streamed into the room. I was momentarily paralyzed with blindness then, when that passed, with realization of where I was.
I had reached level 5000.
Massive windows swept away in both directions revealing a dazzling darkness. The sun was shining almost directly into the single, open room which made up almost this entire level; dawn on the ground below. The central shaft which had housed the six great lifts rose in the center of the room, surrounded by various support chambers like the one I had just exited. The rest of the vast room was occupied by tables and chairs, bars and info booths, all waiting to serve the travelers who no longer rode the great lifts. Several service automs moved about and one started moving in my direction as it detected my presence but I ignored it and walked towards the outer wall.
In the outer third of the level the floor and ceiling were made of the same transparent monocrystal as the windows. I walked a dozen meters onto the nearly invisible floor and looked downwards.
The Earth lay far below. From my position here, five thousand kilometers above the surface, I could see the entire curve of the sphere. Dawn was breaking along the Andes mountains, which lay directly below me, and along the eastern coast of North America. I could see the great whirl of a storm spinning across the Atlantic and the African coast far beyond.
I stood for a long time, drinking in the view. I could see the shaft of the tower vanishing into the distance below, its navigation hazard lights still blinking in warning for aircraft which no longer flew the skies. There was no sign of movement, though I could see some faint lights near what was probably the western coast of North America. Whether they were towns or just fires I could not tell.
I turned around. Without the glare of the sun directly in my eyes the stars were clearly visible over the far, darkened rim of the planet. I could see the faint line of the Asian tower rising above it, extending beyond the shadow of the Earth into the sunlit void beyond.
I realized that the autom had come up beside me and was offering a drink. I took it and thanked it then ignored it as it started telling me of services and facilities which no longer existed. I wondered if it had the capability of wondering why no one ever came up the lifts anymore, why it had waited here through the decades for a guest to serve and to welcome to its domain.
I looked down again and wondered how few, if any of the people left there still cared about the towers and the lifts and the automs and sentients which still ran them. They could look up and see the bright lines of the towers extending into the void above Asia and the Americas, but did they think any more of them than they did the Sun or the Moon or the bright points of the stars or the planets or the fading lights of the satellites?
Long ago someone had said that the meek would inherit the Earth. And so the bold had built the ships that took them into the skies and then the towers and then the great ships that took them beyond the skies to the infinite skies beyond. Then the meek left behind had decided that Man was not fit to travel the skies and so had tried to destroy the towers. The African tower had fallen, and in its collapse had done such great damage to the cities of Africa and southern Asia that they had realized that some things were better ignored than destroyed. And so they simply destroyed the lifts of the two remaining towers and had returned to the Earth they had inherited. They decided that Man was better off as just another animal on the planet and had turned their backs on the towers and what they represented.
But not everyone. Some of us heard the old stories and knew what the towers represented and where they led. And if the great lifts were no longer functional then we would use them in the oldest, most traditional way of mankind. By climbing from the mud.
I looked up and saw the tower continuing above me, narrowing towards a vanishing point far above. It had taken me years but I had reached this point. Far above me, another thirty thousands of kilometers overhead, was the great dock where the ships had come and gone to and from the stars. If any of the ships still came here, then that is where they would be.
The autom fell silent as I walked away back towards the central cluster of shafts and rooms. The third door I opened revealed a sloping corridor, spiraling upwards around the lift shaft. I didn’t know how far it would go but it was a good start.
I looked once more around the level then stepped into the corridor and resumed my climb.