12 Days of Christmas #8: The Drop

You hear a lot about writers who put their dreams to paper. For some, it defines the job. For me… I have no idea what dreams mean. This story sort of helped me think about it, I think. What do you think?

The Drop

 

Early on in my life I attempted the Drop.

There is a rule: no one is allowed to deny any person willing to Drop, no matter how old, no matter what their calling or Layer or personal quirks. If you want to make the Drop, there is always someone to barter you passage.

How it works is, first you find a Steed. Of overwhelming importance in the success of the Drop is a proper Steed. Lots of people, they don’t find a good Steed, even late in life, and they never attempt to Drop. Lacks point, you see; even with the perfect angle, the perfect aerodynamics, all expenses paid for a top of the line Steed, not everyone is guaranteed to make it. Little guys tend to do well, or those who spend their whole lives working on one Steed to make one epic Drop. Wealthy people often never make the attempt- too much holding them here, you see.

Sometimes a Steed finds you. Maybe you could be going about your work, shoveling coal, building the tramway, cutting the meat of the damned for the supper tables of the wealthy, you slide your screen door open to go to the bathroom and the damn thing is sitting there waiting for you. They say you shouldn’t ask any questions, just get on and go.

How it worked for me was, the second I saw the glimmer of red, the swooping lines, those two perfect black rings just kissing the granite surface of the garden, I fell in love. My hand fell from the rice paper of the door, my full bladder forgotten. My ears fell deaf to the callings of my client. His door flew open, of course, as did his robe, all propriety forgotten in the unthinkable possibility of disobedience. Once he saw the Steed in the garden, the way its luminescent sides reflected my eager look, his face fell and I was free. I got on and went.  

The thing was a piece of offal. I won’t lie about it, never lie about it. Her gears took turns being slippery and crunchy, sticking and stalling whenever I stopped. Those perfect black tires were perfectly bald. No tread left in them for a decent-sized ant to shelter in. Her paint was scuffed in long white marks where some poor soul dropped her on her right side- her swing-arm side, the poor dear. A regular drop, mind, a tumble on the road, not a proper Drop. Thinking about the road rash makes me wince, images of grit buried like tiny little ticks in a sandpapered map of raw flesh. I try not to think about it. The first time around, I didn’t even know about things like that.

Forty-two pence was all it took to barter passage, but it took everything I owned to make the trip. It was tradition, you see, nothing was to be left behind. Hell, I doubted I took forty-two minutes to arrange things with my domicile owner.

Do you really want to go?

Yes, please stop asking.

You’ve never spoken of it. You’ve always said you had a comfortable life, looked down on those Drop addicts for being stupid and self-destructive.

Yes, I realize, but now I know why they do it. Leave me alone, I need a ship to take me to the Drop. You can keep all my stuff.

My Steed barely made the three day ride to the docks, her rickety dry suspension pummeling my buttocks over the plank boards of my Layer. I hate to think what might have happened if one of those boards had given way, slipped out from under her tire, accelerated me head-first to the Layer below, and the Layer below that, families and shops and every Strata of humanity passing by until the debris took enough of me to stop my life. The Layers never stopped. That’s what people said. But you don’t get on a Steed because you think it will fail you, you get on because it is unable to.

On the docks, the Strata thin out, all manner of humanity strewn across a vast coastline of jutting beams, scaffolds and makeshift platforms. Steeds parked at the edge are nesting birds at the face of an interminable cliff, reaching from horizon to horizon. The Layers are… unfathomably deep. Nobody has ever seen the end, and I don’t believe they do. Above, they disappear into the clouds, stacked one atop the other until even the most recessed are invisible, hidden from my own Layer by the floor of the next. The docks jut far enough out to see the different Layers, ships docked like busy bees at the honeycomb of the boundary. Here, a person might jump from Layer to Layer, riding the sloping pathways to find a ship to carry him the last lengths to the Drop.

Despite my better judgment, I do have anxieties about this place. Perhaps the clouds and Mist are only buttercream separating the cake Layers from each other, and the Strata go on forever, in all directions, enough to drive men insane if they could only see it all at once. Of course, such things are impossible. I don’t even know what cake tastes like. Everything must end.The only thing that is assured is the Drop into the huge channel that punches through every Layer, and then… well, nobody knows where it goes. We only know that we must go. 

I boarded the fastest, most direct piece of junk I could find that would take my forty-two pence. The bucket was falling apart, barely able to float above the Mist, destined to fall. When we came to the maelstrom of the Drop, the four crewmen took turns riding off the plank, one after another. I was left alone, with my Steed, and I gunned it, only to have the piece of crap boat fall to pieces around me. Those incompetents hadn’t even nailed the keel together properly. My last sight was of the violence of the Drop, its rim not even within a stone’s throw, before my Steed and I tumbled back into the Layers.

They found me a couple days later, my Steed reduced to her frame, every bit of fairing ripped off her. I wasn’t in much better shape, having broken four bones and pierced a lung. It took me months to recover, but I was keen to try again, earning my forty-two pence through working for the salvage family who had saved me.

My second attempt was with a ship called the Carrion. Her captain was a joker by the name of Pentas, a salt-and-pepper pervert who loved his triple-master only an iota less than his bone-white Steed. Sailors are the biggest Droppers, keen on keeping one stable just for themselves in the keels of their ships. The Carrion carried sixteen marks at her figurehead for the sixteen Captains she had seen, one jagged scratch each across the wooden harpy’s breasts.

You’ll pay your forty-two pence, but you’ll do the work too, aye, he told me. No telling when you decide to Drop yourself, and I could use a nimble lad at the ropes.

Once upon a time, long before memory, ships sailed across something called an ocean, a vast, uninterrupted body of water. Sailors went for gold, for glory, sentenced for crimes committed in their homelands. This much we know, from the storytellers, bards, and steam pictures with their funny calliope tinkling; now, we all sail for the Drop, across the Mist between the Layers.

Long ago, women were considered unlucky sailors; now, it is considered commonplace to find a crow’s nest full of far-sighted girls, ruthlessly whip-cracking woman captains, or ships’ closets entirely filled with fancy dresses. Chauvanism and sexism no longer matter, nor do physical wealth, out here in the clouds. True, the ships do run goods from Layer to Layer, but as not one Captain has found an end, the only thing worth fighting over, planning for, sailing for is the Drop.

On the first day, I rolled my Steed aboard the Carrion to the sound of unanimous, raucous laughter.

That piece of junk will never make it! They said.

Best you quit now!

Aye, but there be good parts in the hold, and the Captain has a penchant for the young ‘uns.

Today, I know it is akin to gallows humor; every sailor has had his first day, felt the rope burn, seen the Mists part on the Layers below. Everyone has docked at the islets and mountains of Layers that rise through the opaque perspiration. Droppers are all too familiar with having a Steed as a mistress. The Carrion’s keel was full of them, gleaming candy apple, mustard yellow, starry black. Turnover was high, after all.

That first day, I was not yet familiar with the weight of my Steed. Her scoured red flank slipped into the stall and immediately tipped against another, one with an impossible sheen not quite sapphire, and not quite emerald.

Oy! I’ll have your head for that nick!

Sherry was ebon-haired, paler than the Mists, with eyes like two pocket-watch movements studded with gems. I knew right away she was a Dropper. Not for the trouncing she proceeded to dole out, nor the care and attention she paid her Steed’s knackered flank. But for the look in those brilliantly flecked eyes, so keenly set on inevitability.

Obviously, it was love.

First weeks aboard the Carrion were… rough. Work toughens, hazings are routine, but there is a sense of inevitability that takes the cream out of everything. Sailors will ask what you did before, where you got your Steed, but the conversation inevitably returns to the same question: How many? How many times have you Dropped? How many times have you failed?

For me, the answer was of course, none. I had crashed and burned, but not made it into the maelstrom of the Drop. Some of these guys, they had Dropped four or five times before, and had the scars to prove it. The Steeds were patchwork and welding, pieced together from what wreckage could be salvaged from the rim of the Drop. What surprised me was, when the question came round to Sherry, she walked out of the room. Nobody thought much of it; there seemed to be an unsaid consensus.

Some days later, I was in the crow’s nest, gazing out on the endless mists, when a cry came from below. Sherry had been scheduled to relieve me, and I saw she had slipped just below, on the netting, clinging to the rope by one tangled ankle. Another moment and she would have fallen, tumbling through to the Layers below, certain to die.

Before I knew it, my feet were through the trap, followed by the rest of me. One hand clung to the edge of the flooring. The way the ship was tipped, in another second my hand wouldn’t have reached. But it did. My rough, calloused palm latched onto smooth ankle, and then I was hauling us both up, scrabbling for a hold on the splintery wood and coarse rope. By the time we were safe in a breathless, gasping heap, we were barely able to fend off the heckling below. I was in the middle of a legendary string of profanity when a soft voice interrupted.

It will be my first Drop.

Ah. The mystery is solved.

We became inseparable, arranging chores together, playing cards together, maintaining our Steeds with the fastidiousness of the only two first-timers aboard. With Sherry’s help, I bartered for parts with the crew and at our trading stops, getting better tires, changing the oil, purging the brake line. My Steed’s new fairing was a deep ruby, like blood flecked with diamonds. The Carrion kept a short, clear track round her keel, on which crewmembers made regular passes on their Steeds. The path rode over the infamous Drop chute, a square box at the bow. Traps kept the front barred from the open air on the other side. Sherry and I stayed clear of the forward chute.

Aboard the Carrion, there was always something to do, but between the moving of cargo that no longer represented anything of value, the binges of grog and the Steed tuning, there was only one thing to do. Since the Carrion only passed by the Drop once a year, most Droppers spent their time planning and practicing for it. Some trained their bodies, others studied accounts of previous Droppers, some chose to meditate with rosaries, with prayer wheels, with laps round the keel. Almost everyone tried the bars.

Punched through the bottommost part of the keel was a perfectly round hole. Most days, bilge Mist would pool at the bottom, but some days it would part, leaving a perfectly clear portal onto the Layers below. Ships and people hundreds of meters underneath seemed like tiny shadows of our former lives. Nailed to the rafters above the hole were two iron bars.

What you did was, you grasped the first set of bars as if pulling yourself up. The bars were offset, so you had to let go of the first bar and swing out over the hole to reach the second. Suspended over the hole in the ship, with nothing between yourself and the infinite fall to the Layers below, was said to be the closest we could come to the Drop.

Sherry did the bars late one night, her long, graceful limbs tracing an arc through the air and thudding into the iron solidly. She beckoned from the other side, her black hair gleaming with her exertions, her face flushed, completely alive. I wanted to be on the other side with her, and so I grasped the bar and hauled my feet off the short step. A maw opened up beneath me; at the last second, I hesitated. My fingertips grasped instinctively, slowing me the critical microsecond. I hung there over the lip, and I did not have the momentum to reach the second bar.

My hands barely made the lip of the hole.

Sherry made the Drop a few weeks later. Everyone on board gathered around the chute, the five Steeds and Droppers lined up at the Drop chute. Each Steed rolled atop the chute, and Captain Pentas pulled the lever himself, tipping the ramp so the Steed rolled through the trap. Nobody could look on the Drop long, not the whirling Mists at the edges of the funnel, not the shattered Layers of those who had built too close.

All I could look at were Sherry’s eyes, those multi-faceted gems glinting off her matching Steed. Wind from the Drop whipped through the cracks of the ship, teasing her hair out over her face, but up until the moment Captain Pentas yanked on the old wooden lever, her pale face, those eyes blurred by tears, locked onto my dull brown ones. Her lovely face stayed in my vision, and seared in my memory.

What had Sherry wanted to tell me? Had she known, since the bars, I would not try to Drop with her? Did she think I was afraid? Was she disappointed in me? I do not know. Her Steed rolled off the lip of the chute, and she fell into the Drop.

Custom dictated we wait one week, no more, no less, to retrieve our mates. Of the five, we retrieved three. One died on the way back to the Carrion. Our first mate and Sherry were the only ones who made it; the other three were found cast on the lower Layers, likely inches away from the Drop, a distance that might as well have been a light-year. Their looks of rapture, despite the broken bones and pierced limbs, said it all.

Captain Pentas Dropped two years later. For those of us who had been on the ship long enough, most longer than I had, it was a moment of enigma; up until he toppled over the edge, the wheels on his white Steed stirring up a storm, he never told anyone why he had waited so long. Even those lads he took to his bed, and the occasional wide-shouldered woman, had no idea what went on in his grizzled skull. Steely eyes met whirling Mist, and the harpy got her seventeenth scratch.

It was up to us, those who had served under old Pentas, to decide on the next Captain. Turnover had been high, after all; either you made the Drop or you got too old to survive the attempt. Darius, the first mate, had no head for numbers, but he pushed me, who did, and suddenly I was Captain. It didn’t really matter who took the job- Drop addicts don’t care to mutiny, nor did they pull less than their share. We were united by a common purpose, and we had the good arm to turn back anyone in the Strata who disagreed.

I took to the title of Captain with no less gumption than any of my crew, but perhaps with fervor they had never seen. I lost myself in the work; there was always a shipment of one thing headed for some place, somebody headed for somewhere else. Nobody had ever told me the Layers ended.

However hard I tried, however many ledgers or bottles or port ladies I buried myself in, even if I was out for the count in some strange bed, I would find myself back at the Carrion each night. Each night, I would climb out of the brothel, or my cabin, or the drunken pile of Droppers at the forecastle, and I would climb down. My feet knew the way; they knew splinter after splinter, rusted nail after rotted board. I passed Steed after Steed in the stables, the rum cellars, the Mist bilge flooding the keel, and I would step up to the bars. My fingers would rest on the cold iron, and all my weight would be behind it, right on the edge. I might pull myself up on it, a few times. I would look into the hole. I would try to see a glint of something not quite sapphire, not quite emerald.

Last night, I did it. I swung out on the bars. The night had fallen a deep navy, letting the lights of the Strata twinkle through a rare break in the Mist. Brisk air bubbled through the keel-hole, enough to clear off any amount of spirits. I stood there, basking in it, when all of a sudden the unbidden memory of Sherry flooded my mind, a vision no less powerful diluted in the stock of years. Suddenly I was pulling back, kicking off the step, and then I was in the air, as if I had flown out, leaped from the harpy figurehead and into the emptiness. In that moment I felt the weight of all those years without her, the lightness of shedding them, and that first moment I had opened the door of the garden and found my crimson Steed waiting for me.

It was only after I lay in a pile on the other side, laughing and sweating and crying, did I look back and realize the wood around the first bar had rotten. It had come away with the force of my leap, after I had let go, and hooked on the lip of the hole. As I watched, the bit of metal clattered and fell the rest of the way.

Today, I am attempting the Drop. It is still hard to look on it, but my Steed gleams ruby, every part oiled and ready, every piston tuned for maximum performance. It makes me feel better, but even with the perfect angle, the perfect aerodynamics, all expenses paid for a top of the line Steed, not everyone is guaranteed to make it. Little guys do well, those crew who spend ages polishing every nut and bolt, watching their fellows Drop one after another until everyone who had come before were gone. The wealthy never do; too much holding them here, you see, too much draw in the rum, in the cargo from every part of the Strata exactly the same.

For the real sentiment of your Steed, the final knack and trick of it is, while you know it can take you over the Drop, you never quite know when.

I will make it.

I will Drop.

I will penetrate the funnel of Mist.

I will see Sherry again. I know now it was not disappointment that moved her to tears, not the night I tried the bars, and not when she rode astride her magnificent Steed, disappearing from my life forever. It had been hope, and trust, and vigor. She had wanted to say:

See you on the other side.

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