“A bit on the nose, isn’t it?” Arthur could not help but comment, cocking his head to the side as he surveyed the building. “Or do they have a sense of irony?”
“They?” Uswah said, having come up by his side. The Malay woman’s tanned skin had grown a little lighter, though it would never truly lose all its lustre. Not like his own. If he kept getting any fairer, he could star in a Chinese drama about lazy young masters.
“The tower builders.” Arthur waved at the four-storey tower that stood before them, the entire circular building reminding him a little of the Tower of Pisa. He swore he could almost see the twisting staircase in the center of the building between the open gaps. “A tower within a tower? Ironic, maybe.”
“That’s not ironic,” Sharmila said. “It might be literal, but it’s not ironic.”
“Whatever.” Arthur waved his hand, dismissing the pedantry. “That where we have to go?”
“I believe so.” Sharmila gestured to the right, where the remnants of a camp could be seen. The abandoned tents, old firepit, and the tossed and destroyed dining table and chairs were indications of old use—and a potential battle. “We should check if it’s theirs first.”
“Then?” Arthur said, though he knew the answer.
Sharmila did not bother to answer him, already striding over to one of the tents. Jan and the remainder of the team followed her, leaving him alone with Uswah.
“Then we go into the tower, eh,” she said.
“Of course. I knew that.”
Rather than join the group at the derelict campsite, he chose to take a walk around the tower. Uswah followed, causing him to cock his head to the side. Still, he chose not to ask and she chose not to tell, so the pair just walked around, surveying the tower and the clearing it stood in.
“Perfectly circular,” Arthur said, pointing at the edge of the clearing. They had chosen to enter about halfway, so that they had view of both the tower itself and the forest that surrounded it. “The grass is short too. No lalang growing here, or anything.”
“Magic landscaping.” Uswah could not help but sound amused.
Arthur grinned a little at that too. “Cepat rich, eh? Take outside and use.”
He slowed down a little, bending down to try to figure out why the grass was the way it was. No markings near the base of the tower to indicate a magical laser or anything like that. In fact, no external markings that he could see around the tower.
“I don’t know magic much, but . . .”
“Not magic. Not this,” Uswah said, her eyes growing dark as she gave the tower a second look.
Unbending, Arthur kept walking around the tower, noting at least two more well-used deer trails into the building and a pair of older, less used trails. By the time he circled fully around the building, the other girls were done with their perusal of the camp.
“Where did you go?” Jan said angrily.
“Looking around, lah.” Arthur jerked a thumb in Uswah’s direction. “She came along too.”
“Don’t go wandering like that, idiot,” Jan snapped.
“And you don’t talk to me like that. I’m not your dog,” Arthur snapped back. “Got it?”
“Jan!” Sharmila broke in, making the other woman shut her mouth instantly. Arthur smirked, only for Sharmila to turn on him. “She’s right, though. We don’t split the party without a reason.”
“Gamer?” Arthur said, raising an eyebrow.
“Ah hell. Never mind.” Arthur shrugged, realizing she had no idea of the meme. Not that he was much of a gamer himself, but not everyone in his martial arts center had been as obsessed with training as him. Some of them had a life, and they had dragged him to a few VR gaming sessions. Full-body impact suits, bulky head coverings, moving grounds—it all was worth the day’s pay to have fun sometimes.
“Idiot,” Jan muttered under her breath.
“So now what?” Arthur said, ignoring the woman. “Up the tower? Or we camping?”
He tilted his head upward, eyeing the sky. It was getting late in the day after all, and entering a new building for the first time was concerning.
Sharmila visibly hesitated, looking between Jan and Uswah. The trio passed a series of silent communication between one another.
“Let’s . . . camp here,” Shar said finally, waving at the tents. “We’ll put theirs aside, recover what we can. Clean out the campfire and get prepped. We go in tomorrow morning.”
Jan looked a little unhappy at the decision, but Uswah was nodding. Decision made, the group broke up, processing the various tents while Arthur grabbed a shovel, choosing to clean out the campground and campfire.
If nothing else, he was going to make sure he ate well tonight. After all, there was no guarantee they’d get a chance to eat anything after that.
“Really good kuih!” Arthur muttered around the mouthful of the green and white dessert.
This particular kuih was a Malaysian Nyonya delicacy, made of coconut and mung bean. The recipe itself was simple, but the amount of time processing and baking made it a delicacy that had yet to travel far outside of Southeast Asia. The fact that it required a certain level of skill to bake made it one of those national delicacies that stayed local, despite an explosion of diversity in kuih as people got creative.
“There’s an amah in the camps who used to run a shop. Once we got her access and a budget, she’s been making this for us. One of our exports,” Sharmila said around her own mouthful.
Like all good Malaysians, they each had brought some delicacy with them on the expedition from their storage space back at the village. Space might be a premium there, but food—good food—was a necessity. Everyone had contributed except Arthur, who decided to forage for some edible plants. The fact that Jan hovered as he did so was more annoying than anything else.
“And this nasi lemak?” He pointed at the bowl of coconut-milk rice and sambal chili paste. “Who brought that?”
A shy hand was raised, one of the other women. Arthur made sure to thank her profusely. He noted that his own series of fire-charred vegetables were barely touched. Well, he couldn’t blame them. He didn’t even have salt.
The meal itself was a success, the group seeming to have come to the same conclusion as him: they brought out items they had been reserving. Sharmila surprised them all by extracting a bottle of whisky from her own pack, pouring shots for everyone.
The meal grew louder and louder, conversations turning to friends left at the camp, old instances of hilarity and grievances. As the level in the whisky bottle dropped, though, the conversation turned to the world outside and those they left behind.
“My brother wanted me out. They said I was taking up space they could use for their own children. They kept hinting about me marrying one of their friends,” Sharmila said. “Eventually, they arranged a marriage.”
“To Laksh who lacked down there!” Uswah said, with a twinkle in her eye.
“How did . . . ?” Arthur began tentatively.
“What, you think I’m pure?” Sharmila said with a leering smirk. “Of course I checked. Laksh, who lacked, and who was twenty pounds overweight and was hairier than a bear.”
The girls shuddered.
“Really, why won’t men take proper care of themselves?” The formerly shy girl said. She leaned over, poking Arthur. “Do you?”
“Do I what?”
“Landscape!” Uswah said, laughing.
Arthur stared at the girls, who all laughed as he turned red at the question.
“"Oi. Sharmila," Jan said. "At least someone want to marry you. Me? That puda never said he already married. Then his wife found out and I got fired!”
“Good job too, no?” Shar said.
“Ya lah! I was an accountant! Jan shook her small cup of whisky belligerently. "After machines check the books, I verify.” She grimaced and said more quietly, “I liked my job, you know. But now got machines. So they said, 'We going to stop hiring accountants anyway' . . . Stupid machines.”
“Stupid machines.” The group echoed her words, raising their cups and swallowing the burning liquid. Arthur copied their motions, but he made sure not to quaff his drink like the others. He was still on his first, unlike most of the women.
“I hated living outside,” Uswah offered, her voice low. “It was so boring! There’s no more magic in the world. Not outside . . .”
Fewer nods, though Arthur could not help but echo her sentiments in his heart. Automation had taken away so many jobs, and while some creatives still did well, even the magical items that came out of the Tower were barely enough for the rich, nevermind the general populace. Everything from magical combs to weapons or machines created to use the stones they all refined needed Tower climbers to run.
The world had changed, but one thing still stayed the same.
The powerful took all, and everyone else was left to scrabble for the remnants.