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Friday, May 11, 2018

Microstory 840: Low Man on the Ladder

The Ladder. It is the single greatest challenge and honor. If chosen to ascend this monumental feat of engineering, it means your life is complete, that you gave accomplished everything you possibly can. Or so we’re told. Of course, as it is a challenge, just because you’re selected to attempt it, doesn’t mean you’ll succeed. Hundreds over the years have tried, and no one has heard of a winner. Perhaps that is the point, they say. They believe it to be one final lesson, that no matter how you lived, you die like everyone else. Which I guess is true, but that doesn’t make things any easier when most of the people are living in squalor, and the few rich want for nothing. Others think the point is to not climb, but to fall off, and meet The Abyss smile first. It is true that roughly three-fourths of selectees choose this route, and let go after working up enough courage. Many, however, still attempt to make the full climb. Few are given the privilege to watch—ritualizers, administrators, guards—and what little information on the truth of the event that leaks out suggests that everybody eventually falls. The rungs are far apart and slippery. The wind is fierce and unyielding. It would take a massive amount of physical strength to make it all the way to the top, if such a place even exists. The ladder rises above the clouds, so no one has seen the top. People have spent their whole lives training for it, only to find themselves never being picked. It would seem that the more you want it, the less of a chance you have in getting it. And I swear there’s a negative correlation between the amount of wealth you possess, and your chances of being chosen.

I never wanted it at all. I had no interest in trying to reach the top, nor in learning the reality behind it. I was always totally content just keeping my head down, and being me. So naturally, I was selected two days after my twenty-fourth birthday. “Any advice?” I ask the attendant as she’s preparing me for my journey. A few people have tried to run, and escape their fate, but none of them has ever made it, so what chance would I have? All I can do is hope for a quick death, because honestly, I don’t think there’s anything up there. I think our leaders just kill people. The attendant smiles at me shyly, and points to a patch of fungus in the corner of the cave. I kneel down to inspect it. “Powdernose. For traction. Perfect, thanks.” I tear some of off the ground, and rub it into my hands, as well as all up my arms, just for good measure. She directs me to the cave exit, where I can see the Ladder cross from bottom to top. The guards don’t look at me, nor do the ritualizers, whose chorus of speeches I ignore. They’re not saying anything that will help me through this. It’s all just a bunch of spiritualistic nonsense designed to make them feel better about what they’re doing. I wonder how committed they would be to their beliefs if they were ever chosen. I bet they’re exempt. My attendant leads me to the edge, and motions for me to begin my climb. With no choice, I hold onto the nearest rung, and swing around to face the mountain. She’s not smiling anymore. I reach up to the next rung, but the ladder begins to sink, which I wasn’t ready for, so I lose my grip and fall right off.

As I’m plummeting to my death, I’m imagining all those people up there, rolling their eyes, and joking with each other about how quick I lost. Maybe they’re paying one of them money, having bet on how long I would last. I can’t give them the satisfaction. I’m determined to catch the ladder once more, and at least climb far enough back up to see their faces again. I stick my arm back towards the Ladder, and grab onto the rung, holding on for dear life, knowing that my action will start it sinking once more. I don’t know how I manage, but I don’t break my arm. I scramble to get my feet back on, so I can restart. I have to get up there before most of them leave. The Ladderwatchers are literally always looking at the Ladder, but I want everyone to see before they go home for the week. I want to prove that I’m better than they think. Oh no, it was the adrenaline, which is wearing off now. I did break my arm, and it’s killing me. My God, I thought I knew what pain was. All I can do is cling to the wood, letting myself drift further and farther toward the darkness. As I draw nearer, I begin to hear incredibly frightening sounds. They’re cries of agony, and monstrous howls. Whatever is down there, I do not want to see it, but I’m too tired, and too hurt. Again, I just have to hope it ends quickly. But then the darkness passes, and I see ground below me. The Ladder continues to sink and be swallowed by the soil. I see bodies too; some fresh, some just bones. Once I’m only a few feet above the surface, I hop off, and take a look around. An old man comes out of the shadows with a huge grin. “You’ve figured out the secret. Come, friend. We built a better society here than we ever had on the mountain. We are all equal.”

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