“Hush,” I whispered as I pulled the helmet straps tight about my daughter’s head. She’d been understandably fractious since we’d begun climbing the staircase that morning. It’s a long climb, and she’d started it with reasonable enthusiasm, given that each step is two thirds my height, and very far from mere steps to her diminutive size. So while it was genuinely hard work for me to first lift her up onto the next step and then haul myself up and over, she was mostly being bored as she waited for me. The previous day we had made good time and she’d accepted the relative tedium of the activity, even going so far as to read her book for most of the day, interrupted only by my heaving her up over the next lip. We’d camped out in the shelter of a step, getting some protection from the wind on that side. The sheer terror of climbing giant steps that have no banisters, rails or visible support structure had faded surprisingly quickly, both for her and me. At night I held her close and prayed that neither of us rolled around in her sleep.
The steps were old – ancient, presumably – and they ran from the base of the sea cliff which lay a hundred miles from the town of Yearwood, and up into the sky. The deep stone shelves just vanished up through the clouds. The stories we told were endless, nonsensical and useless. No giants had ever emerged, and no magic beans had been tossed off a cliff. They were as much a geological feature as the cliffs from which at least some of the rock had been quarried, or carried, or however they’d come to be. They certainly pre-dated the existence of Yearwood, the first major settlement on the landmass, which had been carefully established a sensible distance from the incomprehensible architecture. Attempts had been made to climb it, but reports of terrible vertigo, an increasing sense of dread and sheer exhaustion had turned adventurers back after mere hundreds of steps. We were into the thousands, and I’d forced us both into that persistent fear that seemed to emanate from the very stones. My daughter was far less affected than I, which made me wonder if anyone had been foolish enough to attempt this with children before. Probably not, especially if you had some foolish notion that there might be people-eating giants up there. Still, I took some confidence in her casual dismissal of the threat and her boredom with the venture was quite bolstering. It certainly eased my concerns about her, and if she could gaze off the staircase at the cliffs a dizzying distance below, I could too.
Together we’d already gone further than anyone else, and I was profoundly hoping that I was correct in my conjecture that they led to a place of safety, of hope. There was no other way these stairs could end. I woke from a nightmare on the third day in which I’d dreamt that we reached the top and the stairs simply descended on the other side. It was unreasonably terrifying. The constant lift, grab, haul and drag of the journey was wearing me out. My heart pounded after ten or twenty of the steps, and the dizzy sensation in my head led us to pause more often than I’d like. While my daughter stared frankly at the view around us, I was scanning for signs of pursuit. We were high enough that the smoke rising from Yearwood was easily visible, even though the town itself was just a smear of colour that far away.
We’d fled Yearwood on the night of the comet. There had been some excitement about the rare astronomical phenomenon, a spot of light cynical speculation and storytelling silliness about the end of days, but in general most people were beyond such things. When the comet altered course and plunged directly towards Yearwood, people felt differently. The comet – plainly no longer a comet – split into a hundred segments with a puff of fire, all of which spiralled down to encircle the town. Panic came, shortly followed by chaos. Each of those segments popped open to reveal an articulated creature of metal and glass. I’d accompanied one of the research teams that went out to take a look, but I started running away even as the glass lid of the segment began to open. There was nothing good about to happen. I don’t consider myself a coward, or overly given to fear, but with Saliyn at home, alone except for the girl who watched her when I was away (herself only a few years older than my daughter), when that thing opened my options and choices narrowed instantly down to one.
I’d flung things into bags, roused my daughter, sent the other girl home to her parents with an urgent warning to flee if they could. In less than an hour we were on the road, she sleepy and clinging to my back; I panicking, sweating and desperate. More comets were falling from the sky. I’d taken an autotrike from the research garage and thrashed it for all it was worth to put distance between us and the besieged town. There was nowhere to go: Yearwood isn’t the only settlement but it’s by far the largest. The nearest lay in the same direction that yet further comets were heading towards. No community of men was going to save my daughter and I. So… the staircase. I may not have been entirely rational when I made that choice, but it was that or meandering around the countryside until something else happened. I despise inaction, and the agony of prevarication that not taking action can drown one in. So we climbed.
That first night I watched more comets streaking across the sky instead of going to sleep. By the second I was too tired to do anything other than fall into a dead rest. This world is coming to an end, and even if the hope of saving myself and my daughter is just a distant one, it’s worth taking. We’re high enough now that the air is damp and we’re getting inside the cloud layer. Climbing is harder – I rest more, breathe heavier, and Saliyn is ever-more impatient. She knows it’s all gone bad out there, but waiting for me to heave her up is wearing both of us down. Looking out over the edges of the steps feels like falling. Everything is so hopelessly far away now, it all looks so small. Even if I wanted to, I’m not sure I could get us back down. Saliyn’s given up on the helmet – if either of us falls there’s no hope, so I suppose she’s right to ditch it. Plus it’s itchy, apparently.
Deep inside the cloud layer, the air is thin but wet and we haven’t run out of staircase yet. For the first time we can hear something that isn’t the sound of wind rushing past. It’s a deep throbbing, and I can feel it through the stone. At night it lulls us into deeper sleep and waking the next day is hard. Whether that’s due to the air, or something in the sound I don’t know. It continues throughout the day, it’s like an external heartbeat, driving me onwards and ever-upwards. My daughter feels lighter, and so do I. Hope is rising in my chest, and I’m sure – really sure now – that there’s something up here. Through the clouds, a shadow. A darkness above, a huge shape looming through the wisps of moisture-rich air, reaching down to us… is that a… hand?