“Cendol! Best cendol in the city!”
It was always like this. Give Malaysians a big enough space in an event and, sooner or later, roadside hawkers would appear. A lot might have changed ever since the advent of the Towers, but the Malaysian love for food had not altered one iota. Even with the pagoda-like Tower looming over Merdeka Square, the hawkers were all out, offering easy-to-consume and all-too-tasty foodstuff.
Merdeka Square itself—once a giant square of concrete and grass with “the second tallest flagpole in the word!” its singular claim to fame—had changed significantly since the appearance of the Tower. Now, a wall blocked off access to the Tower itself, bisecting the square. Numerous guards with assault rifles stood on the wall and the guard towers, which were built to safeguard from within and without.
Ringing the walled-off Tower were the hawkers, who sold food to tourists, gawkers and Tower-climbing groupies, all of them doing a brisk business. The one-man hawker stalls were often backed up by additional moving vans which resupplied the busy carts, as they dispensed a variety of foods. In the small circle around Arthur Chua, he could spot cendol, fresh fruit, kuih, and goreng pisang sold as quick snacks and a char kway teow man further away with small tables and chairs set up for his customers.
The presence of so many people and food stalls made the air redolent with scents. Sweat, the smell of unwashed humanity, the omnipresent humidity, and the overwhelming heat pressed down upon everyone as sunshine warmed the concrete floor.
Arthur drew another breath, enjoying the smells—even the acrid burnt smell of electric vehicles passing by on too-hot rubber tires—and listened to the conversations that washed over him. The constant honking of electric motorcycles and self-driven cars driven to the extremes of their software combating the careless nature of Malaysian drivers . . . It was all a reminder of what he was about to leave behind and he wanted to enjoy it, just for a few seconds more.
“Aiyah! I tell you, my cendol is the best. Better than that Sungai Besi fella!”
Then the moment was over, as the hawker bickered with one of his customers. Arthur briefly considered eating, just to see—the Sungai Besi cendol-maker was very good—and then his stomach twisted in knots further, reminding him why he was here.
Food . . . later. He had packed his favorites anyway, since once you entered the Tower, you couldn’t leave. Not until it was cleared. If you cleared it.
Nevermind what it did to your appetite and your hunger…
And that led him to the final group of watchers. The ones that no one wanted to notice, to remember. The ones that everyone ignored. The hopeful, the desperate, the abandoned. Parents, brothers and sisters, wives and children; all staring at the Tower gates, hoping that it’d open and their loved ones would exit.
Occasionally, someone would; but rarely would it be a happy reunion, a figure from those who were waiting and watching. Those who came by every day had little hope left, but what little they had, they clung to with all their might. No one knew how long it would take to clear the Tower. It could be weeks, it could be years. Just the other day, a climber finally exited after 20 years.
And so the crowd hoped, watched, and waited.
No one watched them for long, not even Arthur. They were a stark reminder that all the riches, the promised strength and opportunities within the Tower, came at a price. One that took nearly nine in ten of those that went in.
But still, people got in line just like Arthur, shuffling forward to be inspected at the gates. What else could you do, when the world was as it was and the rich held all the power and most of the well-paying jobs. Everything else, well, the robots did it and you had to survive with whatever odd jobs were available, however dangerous, disgusting or humiliating.
Especially in a country like Malaysia.
Sure, some of the Western countries had concepts like a universal basic income or a daily living stipend. Malaysia was not that rich, not since it had wrecked all its chances with foolish policies and driven the smart, the ambitious, the connected away. Not when tower technology and enchantments drove so much of the world now, when magic replaced a fifth of the world’s technology and updated technology from the towers sent whole industries into tail spins.
“Nama?” The guard standing before the gate barked at Arthur in Malay, forcing his attention back to him. “IC?”
“Arthur Chua.” Arthur handed over his Identification Card, watching as it was scanned. The guard eyed Arthur, verifying it was him, then looked him over with a considering gaze. Arthur made himself stand up a little straighter, his five-foot-ten frame putting him on the taller side for a Chinese Malaysian.
He was, he knew, well proportioned too; though many of the hopefuls were the same. One of the secrets that had been revealed early on was that whatever body you brought into the Tower was the base you began with.
Everyone who could, tried to improve that very base, long before they entered.
“That your only weapon?” the guard asked, still speaking Malay. Even if English was the official language, the Malays who made up the majority of the population and occupied most government positions rarely deigned to speak it. Not when they could afford to shove it in the face of someone like Arthur.
“Ya.” Arthur nodded in acknowledgement, hefting the simple wooden staff. There were others in line with real weapons, like the biracial man behind Arthur who carried a spear and sword—though the man, a mix of Malay and Chinese was Arthur’s guess, was juggling the weapons as if he was not used to them. Probably another rich Dato’ who could afford the bribes for proper weapon permissions.
Theoretically, you didn’t need to bribe for permits, so long as you put in the right forms. And show that you were going to be joining the Tower. However, Arthur’s first two applications had mysteriously been lost, before he gave a sufficiently large bribe to ensure that the paperwork did not just disappear. But they still hadn’t approved his permit. He was left hanging, no matter how often he went to check at the office. So here he was, carrying one of the approved weapons for general use by the populace, even if he was fully trained in a variety of melee weapons.
“Okay. Go. Faster.” The guard waved at Arthur, sending him in after returning his IC. Arthur walked past the looming walls, glancing backwards at the long line of hopefuls, many of them dressed and armed just like he was, though a few stood out with their real weapons.
He could even see a couple of people with bodyguards, who were carrying guns. Rifles, pistols, and even bows worked in the Tower. But getting a gun license in Malaysia required the prime minister himself to sign off on it, and that kind of clout only the richest had.
It mattered not once they started in the Tower. In the end, you could only rely on yourself, and whatever advantages these people bought by being born to the right parents would be ground away.
Arthur believed that. He had to. Otherwise, there was no reason to keep going on. And hope, no matter how thin, had arrived along with the Towers.