Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Climbing the Needle Tower

Well, I couldn't very well stay in Sconth and not climb the Needle Tower. When am I ever going to have another chance to climb three miles above the ground using only my feet?

The Needle Tower is one of the oldest buildings in Sconth. It's by far the tallest building anywhere in Hamjamser. The foundation is stone, twenty feet thick to support the immense weight on top of it; the tower gets gradually thinner from there. The top floors are barely ten feet from one wall to the other, made of aluminum bars and silk rope.

So far, the fastest person ever to climb the tower - a cliff squirrel gymnast by the name of Tatrika - took eight hours to get to the top and collapsed from exhaustion when she got there. Most people prefer to take the elevators. There are two of them, one on either side of a massive loop of rope hung from an even more massive pulley partway up the tower. A system of gears in one of the tower's basements connects a matching pulley at the other end of the loop to a waterwheel in the river Kastel (yes, the Samrath Kazi coins were named after the river - its main tributary runs through where the village used to be). A large clockwork mechanism, like the escapement of a clock, switches the direction of the elevators (after a pause for boarding) when one reaches the top and the other the bottom.

Unfortunately, the elevators don't go even halfway up the tower; any rope, even the foot-thick rope the elevators use, would snap under its own weight if it were any longer than that. You have to walk the rest of the way.

Fortunately, I'm used to walking, so it only took me ten hours and fifteen rest breaks to reach the top. I was barely able to breathe by the time I got there - partly from the exertion, partly because the air up there is so thin. The wind is freezing. It comes straight through the top room, which is really little more than an aluminum platform with a railing and a pointed roof. It's there mostly for the few anyway. You can see the curve of the horizon from there. The city was spread out beneath my feet like a very small postage stamp, perched on top of the tiny little bump that is the Plateau of Sconth. The clouds hid it from view occasionally. Off to the left, I could see the great metal hulk of the Cormilack Earthmover, gleaming like a tarnished silver toy in the sunset; to the right, the perfectly conical peak of Mount Moler was just visible, deep in the heart of the Railway Regions. There was a thin line of gold on the horizon that just might have been the Golden Desert.

It took me a few minutes to realize that I could see the entire Mountainous Plains. The edges were visible in every direction.

The core of the tower is a single straight rod of hypersteel three miles long - and that's just the part above the ground. It's driven deep into the bedrock beneath the city for stability. Even in the strongest winds, the tower doesn't even wobble. Hypersteel is not flexible. The only sign that the wind touches it at all is a low, metallic humming as the core vibrates in its stone sheath. It's almost too low to hear at all.

All anyone knows about the core is that it was dug up hundreds of years ago and stood on end in a hole dug through the stone (no one knows how anyone managed to lift the whole thing); the tower was then built around it. Like all hypersteel, it's a leftover from the Hill Builders' civilization, and therefore thousands of years old. No one knows how to make the stuff anymore.

The tip of the core is visible in the top room of the tower, protruding five feet above the floor. It's easily the oldest thing in Sconth. Its surface still has the same mirror-smooth shine it probably did when it was made. You can see your face in it.

It's hard to see all of the core's tip, though; draped in a reptilian curl over the top of it is an ancient salamander larger than most true dragons. Its mane of spines is large enough by now to rival the Sun Dragon's, and it fills the entire room with the light and heat of a bonfire. It's been there longer than anyone in the city can remember. No one is quite sure whether it was put there deliberately, possibly to warn airships and floating cities of the tower (yes, it's that tall), or whether it just found its way up there accidentally and decided to stay. It's the perfect place for a salamander that size. The core is the biggest lightning rod on the planet. Entire storms can strike nothing but the tower, if they're high enough, and almost all that electricity goes straight through the old salamander. A smaller one would be vaporized; this one simply drinks it all in. There probably isn't a better source of energy anywhere outside the salamanders' native volcanoes.

Whether or not its light was meant to be a beacon, it works. It's possible to see the light of the Needle Tower even when the rest of Sconth is well below the horizon.

I've been sitting up here so long, looking at the view and writing, that it's gotten dark. I got on the elevator before dawn; it was already sunset when I reached the top. Fortunately, the salamander provides more than enough light for writing. I'm sending this by a postbird who conveniently happens to be resting on top of the tower. I'll climb down again tomorrow.

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