He looked out at this tower often, set out on one of the arms of the city. It was distant from the center, unlike the other towers that were clustered together. He'd found Atlantis oddly asymmetrical, inexplicable in its arrangement of rooms and corridors, towers and piers. It was unlike the majority of Ancient architecture, not conforming to the geometric style seen in most of their structures, despite the decorative windows that spread their orderly patterns across the floors in sunlit arrays.
It was a whim that brought him here, seeking the entrance to the lonely tower. He felt the need to get away from the others, crowded as they were into one small section of the vast city. Sometimes it was comforting to know that everyone was clustered together. Other times – like this one – he began to feel claustrophobic, hemmed in, and the emptiness around him beckoned with silent, dim hallways where no feet had walked for centuries.
There was no transporter at the base of the tower, no furniture or signs to indicate its use. Only a set of steps twisting up, on and on, against the inner wall. There was no handrail, no windows to look out on the rest of the city. He almost turned back, daunte by the prospect of those endless steps. But the challenge, the lure of the unknown, drew him to take the first step...and once he'd started, how could he stop? Up and up and up...around and around, hugging the wall after the first few turns as the floor dropped away below him. He counted the steps in his mind, the first few unconsciously, then out loud, his voice whispering and lost inside the huge empty space. The farther he went, the less he wanted to continue, but he couldn't seem to make himself stop. This, he thought dimly, must be what it was like to be obsessive/compulsive: to want to stop, to need to stop, to understand how foolish and unnecessary it was to continue...and to be completely unable to stop.
The numbers he chanted under his breath got bigger and bigger, harder to keep track of. His thighs were burning, his knees aching with every step, and still he couldn't stop.
He had to keep his eyes on the steps under his feet so he wouldn't see the yawning chasm beyond the steps, so it was a complete surprise when suddenly it ended at a total of 1,847 steps. He lifted his eyes to find himself at the edge of a small, bare platform at the very top of the tower, a small window directly in front of him. The ceiling was only a few feet overhead.
He approached the window almost reluctantly, unwilling to face such a prosaic reward for his efforts. Why would the Ancients build this lofty spire, with no transporter to whisk you to the top, only to crown it with this empty, pointless little landing and window? Expecting to see the city from high above, he was startled by the landscape that filled the vista beyond the window: A broad, flat field lay just a few feet below the window. A few stunted, twisted trees shivered as if a strong wind blew against them, but the dark, thick grass didn't move at all. The sky was filled with a swirling riot of low red and beige clouds that moved sluggishly in odd masses, unlike clouds at all. A few hundred yards away, what appeared to be a split-rail fence meandered across the field.
He stood there, mesmerized by the truly alien landscape, unable to form any coherent thoughts. Then one of the trees turned, twisted, bent its writhing branches like no tree ever could, and moved toward the window. As it neared, he had the growing conviction that it was alive – that it could see him, that it was sentient and knew perfectly well what he was and what he was doing there. It was precisely the kind of alien he'd expected to find, coming to a different galaxy. It was what he'd wanted to find, what he'd been disappointed not to find. And it was the most awful thing he'd ever seen in his life.
He stumbled away from the window, unwilling to turn away, seeing the thing that wasn't a tree get nearer and nearer. He had to turn sideways to start down the steps, to keep the window in view. He didn't look away until he'd gone far enough around the turn to lose sight of the window, and even then he turned back, looked up, frequently, counting the steps again automatically. He didn't start to relax until he'd reached five hundred steps.
It wasn't until he'd counted nine hundred more that he really began to feel safe again. He leaned carefully out to see the bottom of the tower, but it was still shrouded in shadows.
When he'd counted three hundred more steps, he looked again.
Still only darkness.
Even if he'd miscounted, he should be able to see the bottom.
Another hundred steps. Surely he hadn't lost count that badly.
Down another two hundred steps, and he still couldn't see anything but darkness. He looked up, but the top of the tower was lost to sight as well.
He put a shaking hand on the wall, took several deep breaths, and pushed the panic out of his mind, deliberately not thinking about anything but the number of steps. After a moment, he continued walking down. Two thousand and one hundred steps. Two thousand and two hundred steps. Two thousand and three hundred steps. Two thousand and four hundred steps.
Twenty-five hundred steps...