Teen SF Writing Contest 1st Place: The Tower

The Tower

by Joshua Hay

 

Werner’s footsteps clacked on the cold, alien stone. He was so accustomed to the dull thuds of the floors of the structures here that the sound was almost musical to him in its reverberation. In memories that he struggled to fully recollect was a movie he watched long ago in which the floor was musical. The shoes clattered against the ground in perfectly choreographed rhythm as the performers sang. Was the floor musical, or the shoes? He needed to watch it again, but couldn’t remember its name.

He tapped a rhythm, off-beat, onto the stone floor and then walked forward to the reason he was here. The staircase seemed to stretch upward forever. It began with a slow and steady spiraling incline of stone steps. Each one’s surface was overgrown with moss and wet with condensation. As it reached further and further upward, its steps became steeper and steeper until near the top, barely visible by human eyes, Werner could see that only a narrow ledge was left before each next step.

He had heard the rumors of what was up there. The exit pad for the planet that meant they would no longer be stranded so long as someone could reach it. Or was it ancient tablets, said to hold eons of advice on thriving in the now-inhospitable areas of this planet? Still yet, could it be, a corpse of one of the last known natives of this world, said to have been placed there in a ritual self-sacrifice? He considered each of these, and noted how it seemed each rumor revealed more of those who told it than those it was about.

Werner wasn’t supposed to be here. Of course there was the small matter of legality. It was strictly off-limits. If he were discovered, he could very well face a lengthy stay in the makeshift prison of the colony. And while his mother was never a stickler for the rules, and not a particularly religious woman, the air of mysticism and superstition that surrounded the tower gave even her pause. Much worse than the law, was mom.

Still, his greatest source of guilt came from the fact that he was likely to miss the time he had set to meet up with his friend Reggie. While the adventures they had gone on into the unexplored lands of the planet had formed some of his favorite memories, Werner felt a sense of destiny to be here now, and believed it wholeheartedly.

He pulled out his PlanetVoice, a once-popular little cell phone originally meant for interplanetary phone calls. They became most famous however, for their ability to prank galactic communications channels. The devices became so controversial that nearly every retailer stopped selling them. Werner and Reggie had hidden theirs in drawers and held onto them ever since.

“Yello,” came the voice on the other end.

“Hey, Reggie,” said Werner.

“I’m not even out of bed so this better be good,” he said in a tone where Werner could perfectly imagine his wry smile, “and not require getting up.”

“Well, it should be fine then. I just think we’ll have to postpone our meetup time.” Werner pulled the device away from his ear so he could read its time display. “Maybe 1630?”

“Sounds good,” yawned Reggie. “I’m getting back to sleep.” Werner’s PlanetVoice beeped to end the conversation and he pocketed it again.

He stared up at the tower. He lifted his right foot, brought it forward, and thunked it down against the first step. The moss painted the sides of his shoes green. He stopped. This act alone terrified him. He took a deep breath. This was as far as he had ever gone, despite his frequent visits. He lifted his left foot, brought it upward and forward, and thunked it down on the next step. He stopped and took a deep breath. Was he really doing this? He had taken one step, and now two. He had taken two steps, and now four. Each exponential milestone was another conquest.

He thought back to his time on the ship, before the landing. Every morning he woke up, left his family’s chambers, and walked to the cafeteria. There a banner hung, with the motto of the program: ONE SMALL STEP FOR MAN, ONE GIANT LEAP FOR MANKIND.

He had boarded a spaceship, been sling-shotted across the galaxy, and landed on a once-inhabited alien planet. But of all the times he felt as though the motto applied, it was now.

One small step for man...

He slipped. His arm collided with the stairs as he tried to grasp them. His body tumbled. Thud. He lay on the ground. Blood, pooling from a split in his forehead, mixed with his sweat drawn out by the heat.

He picked himself back up and limped out of the cold tower to the warm open air. His sense of destiny gone. He held his hand against the open wound on his head, and with his other hand scooped up some mud and rubbed it in. His right leg bent in pain, and he limped his way back home.

# # #

 Werner stepped onto the packed-down dirt floor of his tent home. Tarp walls were pinned up to create entryways from cramped room to cramped room. He had to duck slightly to walk anywhere in here. “Werner!?” his mother called out from the living room as she heard him walk into the kitchen.

“Yes, mom,” he replied.

"Where have you been?”

“That cave, mom, with Reggie,” he said with an exasperation that bordered on a verbal eyeroll. Gosh, mom, wasn’t that obvious? He had thought it would be more convincing, but immediately hoped he hadn't overplayed his hand.

“Tell me when you’re going to these places, Werner!” Mom yelled back.

Werner turned on the sink and splashed the water against his face. “Hey, mom?” he called into the other room.

“What?”

“What was that movie - back on Earth, the singing and the dancing?”

"Lots of movies have singing and dancing!”

“Yeah, but this one - this one had tap-dancing? This one was special.”

“Singin’ in the Rain?”

“That’s it!” Werner cried out, as he ran back to his room.

The stash of discs that his family had saved had ended up thrown to the back of his closet. The technology was ancient and it was often hard to find anything to run them. He thanked the heavens for his father’s obsession with preservation that made disposing of any sort of media tantamount to a sin within his house. Werner pushed back his shirts to see a pile of movies and began rapidly grabbing and flinging them, searching. His memory of the movie flooded back now that he knew the title. Then he saw the cover and vivid images raced through his head: Streetlamps, Debbie Reynolds, yellow umbrellas...

He bolted to his parent’s room. The dust-covered, finicky DVD player that was barely holding on to the last threads of its functionality sat there. After several minutes of fighting with the disc insert tray, Werner sat down to watch the movie.

When Gene Kelly began to dance on the rainy street, around the streetlamps, Werners mind flooded with memories.

Himself. No more than 3 years old. His hands pressed up against a TV, his face aglow with the dark light of the scene, his feet tapping and flailing back and forth. He had even had his own rain jacket on, hadn’t he? He loved it. Every Saturday morning he’d turn it on and dance to this song. He recalled the time his dad and mom both joined him. He remembered when his sister was born and he waved her arms and legs for her. He couldn’t remember the last time he did it - he never would have planned for it to be the last. Of course this movie was special to him; it was his first memory.

He picked up his PlanetVoice and set it to record. He wanted to carry this memory with him.

As the credits rolled on the film, a thought dawned; he should have met Reggie by now. The movie had made him lose track of time. Werner hurried out of his room and then the tent while being silent enough to evade the detection of his mother.

# # #

 

New tents spread like wildfire. What had started as tiny homes and utilities were now expansive stores and oversized residences. The tarp over the rough sandy ground was so trampled on that it now seemed to be a natural flooring, as rooted into the earth as the oldest tree. The small reserves of energy packed on the starship helped to power a system of streetlights. Bent sheets of metal - the starship scrapped - acted as tubes and bowls for an elaborate citywide sewage system. Being stranded on a desert planet could not stop the slow march of industrialization. The populace slinked slowly beneath the endless rows of beige tarp buildings and roads, silver pipes, and glowing lamps. The colony survived, but did not thrive.

Werner relished any time he had outside of the monochromatic colony. He stepped down off the end of the main tarp road onto the first worn-down packing of sand that formed a makeshift road. He kept walking until he reached a precipice that overlooked a view of several dunes, each a different, bright color of alien sand. Sheets of blue, orange, and green cascaded down from their tops when soft gusts of wind hit them. This, he thought, was the best feeling in the world.

Barely coming up in second place was continuing until the colony was a dot in the distance, and the soft colorful sand became a speckled floor of solid rock. Outcrops of rock rose up in clusters. New formations were there to discover behind each one. Bugs, or something close to bugs except the size of a human head and, so far, docile, buzzed around and above Werner. They flew upwards until they rested on the highest peak of the rock towers.

Werner walked until he reached the clearing that Reggie and he had established as a base. Reggie lay on the left of it, on his back, staring up at the sky.  Werner walked to the right, and laid down in the same position. He ran his arms back and forth, like a child making a snow angel. All the rock here felt polished. For minutes, the two lay there in silence.

“Where the hell have you been?” Reggie asked.

“Uh, watching a movie.”

You set the time and you’re half an hour late.”

“And I’m sorry about that.”

“I’ll just have to catch up on my beauty sleep tonight.”

Anyway, off to the cave?”

Reggie grumbled, but ultimately stood and grabbed Werner’s hand to help him up.

If the tower was the most rumored about and feared area of the planet, the cave came in a close second. Few had been anywhere as near to it as Werner and Reggie had. Rather, most of them had heard the dulled sounds that emanated from it, over the colony and onward. They’d seen its wide open maw from a length that allowed them enough of a view to be scared and distance enough to feel safe.

The two friends had already explored most of the area around the opening. From what they could observe, it was similar to most of the caves on Earth - a long hole in the ground. The pair had been temporarily discouraged when they reached a bottleneck that didn’t allow either of them to fit through, but long days and nights and more than a few things stolen from the colony’s tool supply had opened it wide enough that they could continue. Today was the first day that they would.

It was cold and dark. That was all Werner could figure out about the cramped curves of the cave as they continued onward. Small headlamps - once used by engineers in the deeper crevices of the spaceship - lit their way forward. 500 feet later, 1000 feet later - it was cold and dark. The only thing to break up the monotony of the dank atmosphere was the accompaniment of Reggie, who whistled loudly. Every now and then he would stop to point out what a rock formation reminded him of, like a child watching clouds. A loud, gurgling moan occasionally resonated from below. These were unmistakably the sounds that rang out over the colony. Each one was a warning that the duo ignored in their search for adventure.

After what seemed to be a mile, they had reached a sort of door, covered in vines. On their side, darkness. On the other, light seemed to flow out in soft, yellow pulses. The duo looked at each other, and back at the opening. The light pulsed forth with its greatest glow yet. The faint shimmer became a vibrant beckoning beam, like the Sun in small-scale. “We have to go in,” said Reggie.

“We’ve been so far already...” said Werner, his voice trailing.

“Exactly! We’ve been so far, and we’re not going to check out the first interesting thing we find?”

“My mom will notice I’m gone. And Dad’ll be home soon.”

“Who cares?” Reggie pleaded.

Werner went to the opening and yanked on the vines. They wouldn’t budge. He looked back at Reggie. “Try this,” said Reggie, handing Werner a pocket knife.

After some hacking, Werner was able to make enough of an opening to get through. He pocketed the knife and stepped in.  Reggie followed right behind. Werner’s vision flooded with light, so that for several seconds all he could see was a bright whiteness. His eyes adjusted.

“Whoa,” said Werner.

“Yeah... whoa...”

Reggie and Werner stood on a precipice that hung over what seemed to be an ocean of the clearest water that could be found anywhere. Its expanse went beyond the horizon of their vision. In it floated fish of nearly every size, their stomachs glowing with perfect yellow light. Their luminescence floated into the air, where it bounced off of walls and onto their faces. The light undulated. The air was crisp and chill.

“We could give the whole colony water with this. We could feed the entire colony for years.” Werner’s voice was wavering, getting faster and faster as it tried to make sense despite his overwhelming excitement.

“More like generations,” said Reggie, his voice as calm as ever. “And it’s a heck of a view.”

Werner thought back to his time on the spaceship, seeing stars burst and asteroids come streaming by, infinity before him. That couldn’t compare to this. Could anything? It was pure. It was contained. It was not infinite, yet it held more. Reggie walked over and sat down on the edge of the cliff, as if he was sitting on a poolside. Werner followed after.

In Werner’s mind, delirious with the thrill of discovery, he imagined it as a scene in his favorite movie. The deep lake became the inch of manufactured rain in a glossy sheet over a Hollywood studio’s road. The bright yellow fish and their rhythmic pulses, sweeping paths, became the tightly choreographed dance of three people in yellow raincoats with yellow umbrellas.

“Y’know the first thing I can remember in my life?” asked Werner.

“No,” answered Reggie.

“I used to watch Singin’ in the Rain. And when the main song came on, I’d always get in front of the TV and dance,” said Werner. “This reminds me of it.”

“Sure...” said Reggie.

“What?” asked Werner.

“All I remember is how bored I was when you made me watch that thing.”

“It’s not my fault you can’t appreciate the classics.”

“Please, get back to me when you’ve seen a single Iron Man movie. Those are classics.”

“The best action series was definitely James Bond.”

“I haven’t seen any, but since you like them they must be either colorless, confusing, or French. I’ll pass.”

Werner laughed; guilty as charged. His attention turned back to the sea in front of them, the image still as captivating as before. “Singin’ in the Rain might not actually be the best movie ever, but it is for me.”

“I get it,” Reggie said. “You know my first memory?”

“No.”

“I broke the child safety lock on this cabinet my parents stashed candy in. Used that knife I handed you to do it.”

Werner laughed. “Sounds exactly like you.”

Reggie chuckled. “And look where we are now. Guess I haven’t stopped going where I’m not supposed to.”

“I hope you never do.”

The cave’s distinctive moan sounded, and bubbles rose up in the lake.

“So that’s what that noise is,” said Werner.

“Gas pains,” said Reggie.

# # #

 

Werner lost track of how long they sat there staring at the lake and the creatures swimming in it. Half an hour? An hour? After long enough he checked his PlanetVoice and balked at the time. “I gotta get home before dinner,” he explained to Reggie. He pushed himself to his feet and walked towards the gap that led to the rest of the cave.

“I think I’ll stay a bit,” Reggie said, “Heaven knows my parents won’t notice anyway."     

No longer rushed to go further and faster by Reggie, Werner took the time to look at the details of the caves on the reverse trip. One chamber’s surface was pebbled with tiny stalagmites, almost massaging his feet as he walked over them. The stalactites of another room were arranged so that they looked like a frozen waterfall. As he approached the mouth, anthodites grew from every angle, making the cave look like a crystalline hallway.

The gurgling roar from the deep of the cave sounded again. Werner imitated it to himself and laughed.

 A thunderous crash behind Werner made the ground shake.

He flung himself around and ran back. He flew past those formations and chambers he had so carefully explored. The entrance to the once-glowing opening where Reggie had stayed was shut by a pile of dislodged rock. Werner ran to it and began to claw at the rocks.

“Reggie! Reggie!” he cried. Nothing. Was he too far away? Hot tears streamed from Werner’s face and washed a line of loose sediment off the rocks as they flowed towards the floor.

After frantically scraping and kicking the rocks, Werner took a moment to figure out what to do. Help, he needed help. He screamed at the direction of the cave entrance. It was futile. He grabbed his PlanetVoice from where he’d left it. He checked his contact list, before remembering no one else still had one of these. The rest of the colony relied on haphazard radios made from scrap. He’d have to try and call through those.

He went into the settings menus searching desperately for any hint of how to override communications pathways. Tidbits he remembered from news story about the phenomenon as a child guided him. He went through the options in a flurry. Wallpapers? No. Passwords? No. Channels? Maybe...

Options filled the screen. JohnsonHotSpot, CAFEPlace, ShipVOICE. All remnants of places Werner had been and useless now. He pressed the Settings option at the top. Allow WiFi? Enable Roaming? None of these options had meant anything in years. At the end of his long scrolling, he found the first promising button: Advanced Settings. It popped up a bright red Warning alert that he pressed.

The cave grumbled and Werner could hear more rocks falling behind the wall that separated him from Reggie.

Werner finally unearthed what he needed: Allow Alternate Sources. Back on the main Options page, a jumbled mix of letters and numbers popped up. He connected to it and began to scream into it desperately:

“Hello! Hello! This is Werner! There’s an emergency! This is Werner! There’s an emergency! Reggie is trapped! Reggie is trapped in a cave! Hello? Hello?”

The other end crackled. There was no time to wait for a response. Werner gripped the PlanetVoice tight in his hand and ran towards the exit of the cave, continuing his periodic pleas into the device. He passed through the cave mouth and ran, struggling to keep steady on the slick polished rock of the surface.

When he ran onto the sandy plain, he tripped. His PlanetVoice went flying out of his hands, landing in the side of a dune ahead of him. He scrambled to it. The sand in his eyes started up another round of tears. His hands dug into the sand to unearth the device.

“Werner?” Werner looked up from his phone and saw his father standing before him. “We couldn’t respond through the rad-”

“Dad!” Werner said as he stood up as fast he could. He grabbed the arm of his father and began to run back in the direction of the cave.

“What were you guys doing in this cave?” asked his father, stumbling as he tried to keep up.

“Reggie’s trapped!” Werner shouted back as he increased his speed. The three others struggled to keep pace behind him.

After making it back into the cave, the crew of four went to work trying to clear the rubble that Werner was unable to budge on his own. They each leaned onto the largest of the fallen rocks and counted down. 1, 2, 3, heave. Again. And again. Finally it gave way, and a crack opened that led into the chamber with the lake.

The view through that small window told the whole story. A rust-scarlet pool dried underneath Reggie’s head. A nearby rock was stained with the blood. No, he hadn’t been too far away to hear - it had never mattered.

Werner stood in shock as the rest of the group continued to work on clearing the rubble. “I’m sorry,” was all his father could muster to say as he heaved a rock out of place.

 “We’ll recover his body,” said one of the coworkers, “he’ll have a beautiful funeral.” The sentiment didn’t help.

The group dislodged one final rock and they could finally step through to the other side. Everyone stared at Reggie’s corpse. Werner walked over and knelt down beside it, sobbing into Reggie’s chest. His father walked over and patted him softly on the back. Werner shrugged him off.

After a long silence, one of the coworkers spoke up. “Hey, you guys see this?” He nudged the others to look up.

“Wow,” said the other coworker.

“Did you know about this Werner?” asked his father.

Werner stood up and joined the rest of the group in facing towards the lake. He nodded. “Yeah.”

 “You know this could sustain the colony for,” Werner’s father paused to estimate, “years, right?”

“Generations, yeah. I know.” Werner sniffled and choked back more tears. “You can thank Reggie.”

Werner’s father put his hands into his pockets. “We’ll make sure he’s recognized for his contribution, Werner.”

 

# # #

 

The vibrating steps of his feet against the stone floor recalled a time too distant now. Werner looked up from the middle of the floor, to the spiraling staircase, ever steeper as it reached towards the sky.

He took one step, then two. Two steps, then four. He paid careful attention to his footing. He reached steps so steep that he could not walk them normally. He took the knife still in his pocket out. Werner smiled at the thought of the child safety lock this had destroyed.

He flicked the blade of the knife out and held the grip tight in a fist. He stuck the knife into a small crack in the next stair. It provided just enough leverage for him to climb onward. He continued on this way until he had reached the last stair, and a small opening towards the ceiling awaited him.

He stopped and took a deep breath. He crawled up through the crack, his eyes closed.

He opened them. In front of him sat...

A PlanetVoice. The breath he had been holding in expelled in a moment of deflation. A PlanetVoice? It was held inside a small metal cube. He went up close to it so that he could hear the message it was broadcasting into the galaxy.

A series of beeps. Werner recognized it instantly. When their ship had been running low on fuel, this was the message on the airwaves that gave them a sign of nearby civilization. Of a refuge to search for. This was why the colony was here.

He listened longer, and another wave of recognition hit him. The colony had recently decoded the language this was in - the language of the planet’s previous inhabitants. He took a scrap of paper and a pencil out of his backpack and scribbled furiously.       

Beware the cave creature.

It was a warning. Werner hated warnings. He ripped the PlanetVoice off its base and threw it over the side of the tower. In its place, he attached his own.

Singin’ in the Rain flew to the far reaches of the galaxy.

Werner danced with abandon.

 The End

About the Author:

Joshua Hay is 18 and lives in Owensboro, Kentucky. He recently graduated from Apollo High School and will attend Centre College. Someday he hopes to become a screenwriter. His favorite authors are Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut. His favorite book is Breakfast of Champions. Joshua wishes to thank Frank Ward for encouraging him to write.

Be sure to read all winning stories from the Teen SF writing contest:

1st Place: The Tower
2nd Place: Hidden Beauty
3rd Place (Tied): Twilight Promenade 
3rd Place (Tied):  Wildest Dreams Ruined