This time, it seemed normal to have the voice in his collar steer him down the hall, although Des was glad when the stairway appeared lit. The white-marble stairs curled upwards in a narrow spiral that would have been challenging to navigate in the dark; even in the light, the narrow treads were tricky.
Sun poured in through narrow windows, all of them either frosted, bubbly, or blue enough that they allowed no sight of the outside world. Desmond was a bit turned around, but he was fairly certain he was in the back of the Central Office; it was possible the windows would have looked at the Potentate’s Palace, which was forbidden, of course, or they could have simply overlooked an alley or a sewer, which would have been unpleasant.
(that is, assuming sewers were allowed near the Potentate’s Palace. They might not be. Des had heard Stories of that place — everyone had heard them. They were up there with Beyond the Edge of the Ocean fairy-tales and I Crossed the Mountains myths — and, of course, rumors about the Potentate. But presumably even the Potentate shat.)
He climbed stairs. The first floor was interesting; he studied the patterns of the windows and tried to imagine how they would look from the outside, if anyone was there to see them. The second floor was do-able, although the treads grew narrower and the windows were spaced further apart. The third and fourth floors were difficult. Des was not out of practice with exercise, but nowhere else in the city were there this many stairs. The windows were slits now, barely wide enough to let in any light.
::Here is the issue.:: The collar sounded, inasmuch as it had a tone of voice, a little subdued. ::You can stop at any time. Once you get to the fourth floor, you won’t be sent home. The further up you go, the harder it will be. Go up high enough, and it might kill you. Us. It might kill us.::
“You can be killed?” There was so much about what he’d just heard that Des wanted to question, but he started with that.
::I can be… ended. And I will be, if you die.::
“Does it hurt?”
::Dying? It hurts quite a lot, sometimes. Sometimes it doesn’t hurt at all.::
“Being ended, I mean. For you?” Did collars feel pain?
::Ah.:: The collar was quiet for a while. ::I do not know. Nobody has ever asked a collar what it feels like to be ended, or, if they have, I don’t have that information.::
“I’m sorry.” He slowed his pace for a few steps, focusing on exactly where his feet went. He hadn’t stopped yet; he was afraid if he did, that would be it. “You said I could stop any time.” The stairs were only wide enough now to hold his toes and the balls of his feet. The railing was slippery and, in some places, missing altogether.
::You can stop any time. But the further you climb, the better chances you have. We have.::
“Chances? Of?” There was a door on a very narrow landing. Even getting it open without knocking himself down the stairs would be tricky, and it had no handle. “Do the doors get harder, too?”
::The doors are… I believe they vary.:: The collar was quiet for a moment. Des contemplated the stairs in front of him. “Better chances?” he asked again.
::better chances.:: The collar seemed to be thinking, or maybe it was just being particularly cryptic. Des took a couple steps. The stairs had a slant to them, making it hard to keep his balance. He sighted up the stairs until he found the next landing and jogged it in one quick go.
The landing was slanted, too, but he could spread his feet and catch his breath. “Better… chances?” he panted.
::You – we – will be placed somewhere. That’s a given, once you’ve been called. But there are a lot of places we can be placed. Some of them are pleasant. Some of them offer opportunities for advancement. Some of them are pits.::
“Pits.” He studied the next stairway section. It looked normal. He didn’t trust that one bit. “Can you…. hrrm. Can you help me at all?”
::I can help, but you have to direct the help.::
“Okay, can you make pressure in mid air? Like the way that you fought back those blasts?”
::You fought those blasts; I merely directed it.::
“Okay, okay. So can you direct me?”
::Where do you want the pressure?::
“Behind me. At the small of my back.”
::All right. Put your hands behind your back, flat-palmed, and think about the force you want.::
Des spread his stance a little bit, trying to keep balance, and did as he was told. Slowly, he felt a warm pressure build up behind him. “Good. Thank you. Can I move my hands?”
“Slowly I can do.” He shifted his hands carefully back up in front of him and started up the next set of stairs. The moment he put his foot on the step, it shifted under him, twisting towards the center of the stairway and towards the next step.
That wasn’t so bad, but he had no faith that the next one wouldn’t go the other way and dump him backwards. He leaned a little bit on the pressure behind him, felt where it was, made sure he had his wind back, and ran.
The stairs shifted as he touched them, or sometimes before, left, right, up, down. Once he missed a step and had to lunge forward, scrabbling with both feet and both hands to stay on the stairs.
That showed him that the stairs he had his ::hands:: on did not move, which meant he took the rest of that flight on all fours, his hands giving him a stable base even if his feet were skidding.
::Clever:: It sounded as if his collar approved. ::How far do you want to go?::
“How far do you want me to go?” he countered. The stairs had moved from spirals to short flights, back and forth, back and forth. He couldn’t see any further ahead — maybe ten steps, and then a short landing — and the stairs in front of him looked shiny.
::As far as we can safely go. But I don’t know how far that is.::
“Well, then.” Desmond took a breath. “We go till I fall down, really fall, and then we finish that flight and take the next door.”
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