It’s Syriah’s turn to fall, but she hasn’t gone yet. I made it just in time.
The cold wind rips at me when I exit the labour elevator at the top floor, and I feel my balls shrivel into my body. It’s not just the chill. The top floor of the Meridian-Yamagawa Arcology is unfinished, a work in progress. It’s all beams and scaffolding, and precious few walls. A sobering thought at 1,257 metres in the air.
But it’s a hell of a view.
The smog clouds of the city are below us, glowing neon green and pink from all the pleb lights that poison the air. And above us? The impossible vastness of the naked blackscape. I see real stars, like humans in caveman times saw. Back when everyone owned the sky, before only the richest of the rich could afford it. The richest, and me.
Everyone else is already here. The driving bass and jagged synths of some nextec track is blasting and I can feel it jelly my bones. Every beat promises a party. There’s other kids dancing between the support columns. Some from my school, though the ones I’m on a first name basis with I can count on one hand. Many, I’ve only seen at fallnachts.
As usual, someone’s set up a bunch of giant monitors which show stats on the fallers, and recaps. There’s doughboy in the lead. There’s Lisa and Laura Mercredi. There’s Tony with his signature board. And there, up next: Syriah. In her photo she’s giving the peace sign and sticking her tongue out. The light catches her soft skin and the swath of freckles bridging her nose. I swallow hard.
Syriah Parekh-McIntyre. Living goddess. She’s seventeen; one year, three months and fifteen days older than me. Her middle name’s Hephaesta, and that’s a secret because she hates it. I’ve never shared it with anyone and I never will. I know all this because I founded the Singapore chapter of her fan club. She has everything. She’s gorgeous, she’s trendsetting, and as the heiress of PM Megastructures she’s richer than most countries. But I know she’s so much more than that. The odds of a pleb like me ever having met her were virtually null, but when we did meet, she remembered my name. She’s the greatest person in the world, and tonight I’m going to win her heart.
“Well, as I live and breathe,” someone calls out. “Is that Alberto Condori?” I turn and see Will Carver approaching me. He’s in my grade, and one of the few people in this world I can call friend. He’s pretty down to earth, for a kid whose parents are c-levels at United Dairy.
“Hey mate!” I say. I’m surprised I don’t throw up, I’m so nervous.
“Wait–” he says, raising his designer green nightshades. He steps up to me and pats my clothes, my one-piece, full body fallsuit. He gasps, running a streamer through his fingers. “What is this? Are you… are you just fanboying? Or…?”
“I’m up tonight.”
“Oh!” He claps his hands, his eyes wide. “No way! Are you truth?”
“I am,” I say, nodding, mostly to hide how much I’m shaking. “I got to. I’m going to do it, and Syriah’s going to see me. She’s going to know I’m truth.”
“Ho ho!” he laughs, covering his mouth. His feet find the nextec beats and he does half a spin. “Oh man! You got a big pair, brash! You are truth. I’m so jealous. But, like, also kind of not.” He giggles. “I’d be scared shitless.”
“I am scared shitless.”
We both laugh, and I see how much my hands are trembling. “Hey, Will, I’m flipping here. Can you spot me a hit of veg?”
“You got it.” Will’s grooving to the beats now. As he does a wave he passes me a little container filled with the green pills that smooth out all of life’s rough edges. I pop one, then another because I’m doing a fall tonight, and a moment later I feel a rainbow explode in my guts. Sunshine noodles through all my various arms and legs, star-smiles rain on my skin, and I start hearing the music between the beats. And the shaking stops.
I hand back the little container. There’s enough veg in there to buy a house beneath the clouds, but it’s pocket change to a crat like Will. All these kids are crats. They all come from impossible money. My folks ground the dirt their entire lives, and managed to earn a Basic +2 compensation schedule. They couldn’t even dream of looking at an arcology, much less living in one. But they pushed me. Oh yes, they pushed me hard. And it paid off.
I first met Syriah when I was four, through the kids channels online, only then she was known as Princess Parmigiana, hostess of Parmigiana’s Learning Hour. That show was my childhood, and her reruns kept me company when I nearly died from flu. When she got older she got into music, headlining the New Paris Youth Ensemble, and then starring in Casey Winters’ Weird Cases for three criminally short seasons. And on the side, she founded the Syriah Education Endowment. It was a chance – infinitesimally small – for a mere pleb to make something of his life, to get out of the muck, and when I heard of it I gave it my all. And I won one of the twenty spots.
I barely remember the award show or the banquet. All that’s burned in my mind is when Syriah walked up to me and personally congratulated me. I think she was tired, and this was just before she disappeared for a few months – and the manky media shaded on her about burnout and drugs – but when she smiled at me it was real. “I look forward to studying with you!” she said. And when I told her my name, she remembered it.
She remembered it when I moved into my boarding apartment at the arcology. An apartment that was easily worth fifty times my parents’ humble home. She remembered it when I started going to her high school, on floor 116. She even remembered it when we ran into each other in the halls, and all the other crat-brats sneered at me because I was a pleb, but she smiled and meant it.
“You sure about this?” Will says.
“Yeah, I got to. You know I do.”
Will sniffs. “You’re braver than me. You really like her, eh?”
“I love her, Will. More than anyone, more than anything. C’mon, I need to sign in.”
We walk over to Command, which is just the name for the dance platform that gets set up about as far away from the edges of the drop as possible. That’s where most of the fall monitors go, and where everyone congregates, including the scorekeepers. I approach one of them, a guy by the name of Ace. He’s older, and I think he’s an artist or something. His arms are covered in ink, and he’s sporting a last-generation cybernetic eye. A gunmetal thing with a pinpoint blue iris.
“Brash, brash,” he says, eying me up and down with a whistle. “Look at your little costume.”
“Sign me up, Ace.”
“What?” His grin falters. “You actually want in? I don’t know if you can–”
“–I can handle it.”
Ace crosses his arms, scrunches his nose. “You got a code?”
I don’t. Codes are expensive – far beyond what my bursary provides. They’re the stolen IDs we need to fool the drones. If you can’t fool a drone, you can’t fall. I take an uneasy breath and hope this works.
“Spot me,” I say.
“Fuck no.” His chuckle is hollow.
I step in close and grab him by the arm – probably a mistake, as he tenses – but damn it, “I need this, Ace! I’ll owe you.”
“No shit.” He pushes me and I stumble. “But I know you, kid. You’re a pleb. How could you ever hope to repay me?” He shakes his head, frowns. “No, I’m doing you a favour. Walk away.”
“I’ll work for you!”
He grunts. “I don’t work with children. What could you possibly do for me?”
“Like you just said,” I whisper. “I’m a pleb. A nobody. I have people on the street.” I feel a flash of heat in my face. I have family on the street, not people. I can’t get them involved in this. But, Ace is listening, and I’ve gone too far to back out now. “I’m invisible, Ace. I can run for you.”
He’s quiet for a couple seconds. Then he grabs me by the back of the head and pulls me in close. “If you screw me over, Alberto, they won’t find your body. Do you get me?”
I swallow, but I don’t flinch, I don’t blink. “I do.”
He breaks our huddle. “There. Just emailed a code to you. And the number in the subject? That’s… let’s call it your tab.”
I check my watch and there’s a new notification. A new ID, for someone named Yolanda Weiß, a junior site manager. And the email’s subject contains a number that eclipses even a year of Basic +5. I swallow. That’s a problem for another day – I have my code now.
There’s a sudden cheer and people start chanting, “Syriah! Syriah!” My eyes snap up and I feverishly scan the crowd.
There, a second elevator just opened, and she’s stepped out with her entourage. And for just a moment, the cold wind is gone, the noisy crowd is gone, and all I can feel is Syriah. She waves to me as she walks, grinning brightly. There’s yellow and orange paint lines on her cheeks, and yellow and orange ribbons in her long black braids. Her fallsuit matches. It’s a modification of the high school’s cheerleading uniform, but colour coded to yellow and orange. Her heels and bangles give off a golden glow.
The crowd roars when she gives us peace and sticks out her tongue, like her photo, though in real life her eyes are more dilated. Probably veg.
And then there’s Dyson. I can’t tell you how much I hate this asshole. I don’t want to see him but I can’t help noticing his huge body. He’s her boyfriend, except he’s some nasty old man. I heard some say he’s in his thirties. The guy scares most people shitless, but he and his goons are the main source of veg and other things. I wish I could just drop him, but… rumour says he’s got a record, or that he’s even ex-military.
She’s way too good for him.
It’s Syriah’s turn to fall. I move away from Command and head with a smaller crowd to her berth. Some of the AV guys check her equipment and a moment later we see her selfie cam on all the monitors. People cheer when she gives another peace. Then the over-the-shoulder cam is wired up and tested. Next comes the drone check. Syriah triggers distress with her watch and Ace confirms that drones are responding. She turns off the distress for now.
Of course they respond. It’s her father that designed the things. They helped revolutionize fast, safe, mega-scale construction. They’re what allowed governments to shift construction work from a Basic +3 to a Basic +1 payment schedule, since danger pay was no longer required. Governments loved it. Workers, less so.
The trick isn’t really in getting the drones to respond. It’s in getting them to not respond until you want them.
Dyson leans in and kisses Syriah, and the whole ugly thing is caught on camera. People cheer but I shudder.
Then the noise dies down and the music is halved.
“Hey friends!” Syriah says. Her voice is caught by her mics and comes out clearly through all the speakers and my headphones. “It’s time for fall number twenty-three!” Another cheer. “Wish me luck!” More cheering.
She steps onto a girder sticking out into the void, looks down, and then looks directly into the front cam. She blows us all a kiss, and then she jumps.
There’s always a deep, gut-clenching gasp when a faller first jumps. We all turn our complete attention to the monitors which show us the feeds from her cameras. The judges are already tabulating scores.
She pirouettes in the air. She does an ollie, then a trio of switch kicks into a walking man. A flawless saskatchewan. All the while the wind rips at her skirt and hair and the glass windows of the arcology blur past her. When she’s about to hit the neon cloud separating us from plebville, she does a hurdle, sticks out her tongue, and gives us the finger with each hand. We cheer.
She spirals through the cloud, sidescooping with her hands and feet. Then she breaks through and we see the city below in her over-the-shoulder cam. It’s a mess of bright noise and smudge buildings, with arteries clogged by cars. Syriah delights us with her aerial ballet and her score keeps climbing as she nails moves.
Suddenly I feel cold again. She’s barely gone half way down and it already feels like she’s been falling for an eternity. How can I possibly follow her? I feel my head spin as I see the city below her. How can anyone do this without passing out?
But I don’t have a choice. I have to go next. It’s not just my debt to Ace that’s eating at me. I want her to see me. Even if I make an ass of myself. I think I probably will, since most first timers do.
And I have to fall, because Dyson never would.
By the time she’s nearing the redline, her score has just knocked doughboy from the first spot. She cartwheels in celebration, adding just a few more style points, and then she triggers distress with her watch. In just a moment, the drones will swoop in on her and lift her to safety, as they would any worker that accidentally fell from a construction site.
Yes, technically this is an abuse of the system. The drones are there for safety in critical situations, and not for recreational extreme sports. Fallnachts aren’t in any way legal. But then again, we who live in the clouds are above the laws. Yes, we. Tonight I earn my place among the crats. I think… I hope my parents would be proud.
I wonder what it’s like to have a drone catch you. Many fallers say it’s nearly as fun as the fall itself, since you get to kind of fly over the city, but there have been a couple newbies that passed out. I hope I don’t, but I suppose it doesn’t matter. You could shit yourself on the way down and you’d still have clout just for going.
I’ll find out soon enough. In a moment they’ll grab her and then I’ll be up.
Only, they haven’t. Syriah’s still falling.
“Fuck,” I hear Ace say, as he slaps his tablet. “Why aren’t they responding!?”
Syriah taps her watch again, glances over her shoulder at the rapidly approaching ground. When she looks at us in the front cam again, her face has paled. Her smile is gone. Ace swears. Syriah screams. The ground grows bigger.
The feed dies.
It’s total silence on the top floor of the Meridian-Yamagawa Arcology. All of our eyes are wide, and nobody even dares to breathe. My heart beats strangely, juddering. What did I just see?
I look at the monitors again, hoping it was just a hallucination, hoping I just vegged out. The monitor logs Syriah’s final score, and her image changes to mine.
It’s my turn to fall.
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Holy moley Michał, what a story! You amaze me, crafting a whole new world into a short story like that! And that ending, wasn’t expecting that! Was thinking it was a metaphor for ‘falling for someone’ quite literally!! Totally engaging story from start to finish, another fantastic story from you! Well done!
Thanks, Seán! I'm glad you enjoyed it! It's both fun and frustrating crafting worlds like this :) I have a pile of harebrained notes about the background here, which needed to be ruthlessly filtered to only what was needed. I appreciate the feedback!
Great story! did you do some quantum mechanics to get that much plot and world building into 3000 words? I suspect a wormhole- I appreciate the intro, set up the premise and the timeline of the story succinctly. First person worked really well bringing me into the messiness of teenage thinking. I love the open ended conclusion too, good one!
Heh, thanks Marty :) Glad the story worked for you. Trying to keep sci-fi from bogging down is something I'm always mindful of, so it's great to hear when the effort pays off. I appreciate the feedback!
Awesome story! I hope you win! :)
Thank you! I appreciate it :)
Well with all the other comments, I'd say they covered pretty much everything, haha. But I just wanted to let you know that during the entire falling scene, my body was consumed in chills! You know it's good when you get the chills. I generally only get that when I'm watching a really good movie scene :) Anyway, great job on the visuals!
Thanks, Jerusalem! That's great to hear! It's good to know when suspense writing works out, and this has made my day :) I appreciate the feedback.
Awe, I'm glad! And you are so welcome :)
I like your description of the lights poisoning the air.
Thanks! I'm glad you enjoyed it :)
Interesting! The more I read, the more I began to understand the world you have created here, which was actually quite refreshing, rather than all the information being dumped on the reader at once. I like the futuristic sci-fi element of it, too. I don't know if it was intentional, but I realised the use of "it's Syriah's turn to fall" seemed to have two meanings - the literal side, with the extreme sport, and the metaphorical side, with Alberto's hopes to cause her to fall in love with him. Intended or not, it was a nice touch. A cool t...
Thanks, Zoë! I'm glad it was an interesting story:) Yeah, I like doubling up meaning in lines, though it's not always easy to do. That was my intent with the last line too. The monitors literally indicate its Alberto's turn to fall next, but he's also "falling" because his life just fell apart. I appreciate the feedback!
Exhilarating ride of a story! I thought the paragraph that describes Syriah in the eyes of the narrator ("Syriah Parekh-McIntyre. Living goddess...") is just so good and really sets the stage for the whole thing.
Thanks, Francois! Yeah, I think that one really drives home why the narrator is here. I'm glad you enjoyed it :)
Wow Michał, what a read! The suspense tag fits perfectly! I like your world building, in that you don't immediately explain everything about what's going on and why, but tell us as it becomes necessary. I really enjoyed reading the slangy dialogue between Alberto and Will. It adds an element of realism. The description of Syriah's fall is so vivid, right up to "The feed dies". I can see that Alberto desperately wants to be seen by his idol as someone impressive and important. I think his desire for Syriah's greater recognition is twined...
Thanks so much for the feedback! I've made some adjustments based on your findings. That "parent's" slipped by me a number of times :) I think you got exactly what I was going for. We often feel a need to belong, but is it ever stronger than at that high school age? When everything is changing anyway, and hormones are firing, and we're suddenly, keenly aware of a nebulous future looming on the horizon. And perhaps all the moreso for an outsider like Alberto. Feeling invincible, taking crazy risks -- really, just feeling out the world and h...
The world-building here is just spectacular. You make this crazy, socially stratified future come to life via the worldview of a slightly obsessed teen fan. And you do it with such a vibrant and vivid set of descriptions that I can almost feel the death-defying rave-like vibes through computer speakers ("The driving bass and jagged synths of some nextec track is blasting and I can feel it jelly my bones. Every beat promises a party.")
Thanks, L.M! I'm glad to hear the setting came through vividly :) That's always a risk with sci-fi, but I guess it's a little easier with "near future" than something more alien. I appreciate the feedback!
Michal, How did you manage to meld together sci-fi (a whole new world), high school ( dig the lingo) , metaphors for characters (truth, Syriah!!). All in what, 2-3 days? Impressive. Hope this painstaking world building makes way to a sequel. Tbh, this is not as rib tickling or smooth flowing as your usual entries. I suspect you wanted it to be so. This one tackles more serious issues like class and race divide, and the relentlessness of a world that implements it. It sure demands a sombre tenor. I think this is your most ambitious outing in...
Thanks Suma! In truth, I've had this scene bouncing around my head for a few years, so that took some of the workload off. As such, it may well get expanded on, as part of a longer story. And yeah, you're right, this isn't as light-hearted as most other stories (of mine). I think the seed for it was meditations on what universal basic income might look like on an international scale, and in a world where autonomous machines increasingly take over all kinds of labour. Maybe that leads to an egalitarian leisure paradise, but I have my doub...
Holy worldbuilding, Batman! What a way to cram an entire universe and class system into less than 3k words. Very impressive. Also, thanks for reminding me why I don't write SciFi. Think you got all three genres just right. Obviously, this is Science Fiction, but the Suspense of that last scene was well-captured, and the High School feel of the characters going to such extremes just to win the heart of a 17-year-old seems in-line with the mentality of people that age. Extreme freefall (to your death?) in order to get a girl to notice you? Sc...
Heh, first off, thanks for catching that typo. I was *just* reading about the difference between paid and payed, and of course the first story I write afterwards I step in it :) As for your constructive criticism: damn! I think you're right. I was focused on a character who actively wanted, who would be willing to take risks for that want, but it looks like the bulk of those decisions/risks are off-screen. I've moved some things around. Alberto no longer has a debt, he now acquires one after negotiating with Ace. It's a small chang...
I'm reading the updated version so I don't know how different it is from what Zack read. But I do like the ending. You've left it to the reader to imagine what Alberto will do. Or if this is a longer story, you will definitely keep the reader reading to find out. And if the next chapter is fifteen years later, then don't say what happened in the next chapter. Save that answer for later as a lingering question. I can see him jumping out of peer pressure and not getting the recognition he'd hoped for or running away and regretting it. But I ab...
Thanks, Craig! Always good to hear when something works. In my mind, considering the wealth and the dangerous nature of the sport, I kind of pictured that youthful sense of immortality at play, which naturally gets disrupted at the end. I appreciate your take!
Wow. That left me hanging off the edge of my seat. I could actually feel my heart beating loud from inside my chest. Just like you have said, Anne Marie, this story is very suspenseful. Very, very creative, yet again Michal. Good luck with this competition!
Thanks, Charlie! It makes me happy to hear that :) I was aiming for suspense, so it's good to know it worked out. Good luck to you too!
Very creative approach to this prompt! You brought us right into your world, and it was very entertaining and suspenseful!
Thanks, Anne Marie! I'm glad it was immersive and suspenseful :) I appreciate the feedback.