I fell. My hands desperately grabbed for the ledge, but it was too late. I was painfully aware that I was not connected to any lifeline and that nothing would prevent my fall. Addyson 4th shrieked out in panic as she tried to grab me, but missed. Gravity called and I obliged, following it to my certain death.

As I toppled over I took in the view. "Strange," I thought. "Why is this looking so different now?" Of course I saw the skylines every day. Huge buildings extended from the eternally shifting clouds below, higher and higher into the dark blue of the sky. There was the East Star Tower, twinkling with lights during the night. Next to it was the Dragon Spike, it’s green scales glistening in the sun. A bit further away was the Mirror, reflecting everything around it. There was the Lava Wall, the Wire and all the other towers farther away at the horizon, visible from the south side of the world. They all looked beautiful in the rising sun of the new day.

Window after Window of the world rushed by as I fell. The sound of the rushing wind roared in my ears. I extended my arms and legs to keep me from spinning and to slow my fall a bit. Not that it mattered, I had reached terminal velocity already and I knew that somewhere below the clouds, hell awaited me.

My dad sometimes speaks about hell. As a windower himself he had lost friends to its calling. He never talks about the incidents, but always starts his day with prayers to the heavens, even after his duty had ended with retirement. When we were little he was always very cautious, teaching me and my sister the basic balancing and safety routines. He was furious when he caught me too close to the ledge when I was 6 years old. Early on it was clear that my sister Lea 3rd would be a windower. She showed absolutely no signs of vertical sickness, had lighting quick reflexes and above average upper body strength. While I also didn’t show any reaction to the world drop, I wasn’t as quick nor flexible. But I was calm and had a good eye for details, so I was happy to be assigned as a spotter, supporting the windowers during their missions. The point is, I should have known what I was doing. And I should have not been that stupid.

Some say your life rushes past you as you fall. I can confirm this somewhat. There is an overwhelming feeling of terror, helplessness and sadness. You are aware of your situation and the futility of it and I guess your brain desperately wants to distract you from the fact you are going to die. Hence me thinking of my dad, my childhood and my family. Oh boy, Lea 3rd had a task about two floors below me and some way east today. If she was already over the ledge, she must have seen me fall. With a quick motion I spun on my back, looked upwards along the world and then around again. Good, nobody else had gone after me. A lot of accidents can happen when you try to save someone from a fall, costing more lives than necessary. There was also the case of people jumping after fallen ones, out of despair or some other stupid reason. I was happy that I didn’t see anyone else falling. This was my mistake and nobody else should die because of it.

My windower today was Addyson 4th. She was tasked with fixing the rail motors at -3, 35 east. That means 35 windows east ways and 3 floors down. Rail motors drive the metal window protectors and are tricky to fix as you have to remove the upper window shell to get to them and then you have precious little space inside the roller cage. Windows do clean themselves and some maintenance work can be done by spider drones, controlled by technician windowers, but not everything can be repaired remotely. That’s why we exist, to keep the world together. To keep the tower from deteriorating.

We left our tribe camp and counted to 35 east. With each windows 4m in width, we went around the curve of the world to the east side. Three down wasn’t so bad. The wind wouldn’t affect Addyson 4th much and we only needed one stabilization line. Teams can go down 30 or 40 stories, but these are usually larger groups with multiple windowers and even more spotters. Tasks further down would be assigned to the tribe living below us. We knew them of course. Tribes above and below are almost part of your own family. Stories were exchanged, best practices were traded and sometimes even goods. And of course partnerships and marriages.

Addyson 4th sang the connection ritual above the strong winds as she attached herself to the lifelines. As spotter I was checking the equipment as I handed it to her. She finished the song with the traditional "And my spotter, do you agree?" I loudly confirmed: "Indeed my windower, you are safe". We gave each other the thumbs up as she turned and ducked under the handrail. We had done this dozens of times together already. She was hovering on the ledge over the drop of the world, ready to release the holding lines. Just then I realized that one hook on her suit seemed fringed at its seams. Faulty equipment sends shivers through every spotters spine. We are trained to have strong reactions to it as it is our purpose to keep windowers safe and alive. I quickly reached down and grabbed her under the rail to hold her back just as she clicked open the release. Three stupid mistakes at once. You never reach down below the handrail because you could slip under it. You never grab faulty equipment because you could make it worse. And you always reach for another lifeline first before you help somebody to additionally secure them and yourself. The seam shattered from her suit and she slipped until another lifeline held her. Of course she was secured with multiple spares. I had none. The momentum dragged me down and for a moment I hovered next to her and we looked at each other. Well, that was 20 seconds and about 160 stories ago.

I hit the clouds. I didn’t expect an impact of course, however it was a shock nonetheless as everything around me turned white. I could barely see the world next to me rushing by. Before I could get used to it, I was below them. When my eyes adjusted, I saw hell. I had never seen through the clouds. Allegedly every couple of years they thin out enough so you can see straight through them, even from home, but I have never seen it myself. Now I was way closer than I ever thought I would get. I saw a solid horizontal wall, extending to the horizon in each direction, much like the clouds. However this wall was dark and gray and seemed to consist of thousands and thousands of tiny little towers. The other towers I knew were also there, extending through the clouds, just like from above.

The ones that have seen below the clouds say that it is a desert of small towers. They would share their observations during breakfast or dinner in the tribe hall, when the families gathered. A windower in hell would be forced to repair an endless sea of towers, they said. Those that have seen hell at night say it is a carpet of moving lights, one tower after another, shoulder to shoulder, crushing the unlucky windowers stuck between them.
As I still marveled at this view, I was suddenly jerked up. I was flipped to my left side and felt another blow from below that pushed the air from my lungs. Then I felt a pulling sensation, was rolled on my back and I lost all sense of direction. As I came to again, it felt like I was hovering. Or lying on a training mat? I extended my arms. Well, I certainly wasn’t falling anymore. I felt around. It seemed like I was in something like a net. I raised my head and looked around.

It was indeed a net and a huge one at that. It seems like it was attached to the world. It extended from the tower on two long rods. The net was around 20m wide and I was maybe 100m away from the world. I noticed that it slowly rotated around the tower. The world also came closer. It seemed like the rods would retract into the glass walls. I was still confused, looking down at the absurd hellscape and then up to the bottom of the clouds. "The clouds are not white from below?" was my first thought. Then it hit me: "I am not going to die? Or am I already dead? Did I die going though the clouds? Is this how hell grabs you?" I also noted that there was no wind. Well, there was wind, but not as strong as at home. If I would have hung on a net like this up there, I might have been blown away be a gust of wind. Here it was only a gentle breeze. I looked down. The gray horizontal wall was maybe 200 stories below me. All around me were small towers. There also was a lot of movement down there. Was this wall solid? It certainly didn’t move like clouds.

I heard a noise behind me. The net had stopped rotating, but was still retracting into the world. I saw an open floor, much like home, with people running alongside. Some of them were at the ledge and wearing similar high visibility gear as me. They shouted and waved at me. I gave them a thumbs up to indicate that everything was fine with me. They signaled back that they understood. Maybe they were windowers or spotters, too? They signaled I should attach my hook to the net, which I did. The figures visibly relaxed. The net was slowly pulled into the open floor and it took a good minute or so until I was maybe 5m away. The net stopped. The figures threw me a line and signaled to connect to it and release the net. They were three, clothed in the rugged Kevlar-like clothes of window workers. As one turned its back to me I saw the familiar sign of the spotters guild. They were indeed of my profession, which made sense. Spotters are supposed to support windowers on their expeditions. Only windowers are supposed to be over the ledge, which certainly applied to me at the moment.

I attached myself to the lifeline, disconnected from the net and then slowly crawled towards the figures. It was harder than it looked. It was a wide mesh and my hands would fall through if I missed. Slowly I made my way over while they slowly but firmly pulled in the lifeline. I was looking down at hell at first, but suddenly started shaking. I stopped, closed my eyes and took a deep breath. Vertical sickness? Now? I opened my eyes again and forced myself to concentrate on the ledge and figures in front of me. That helped.

As I reached the ledge the figures were all over me. I heard multiple hooks attaching to me and I was dragged forcibly from the ledge to safety. Not that I wasn’t safe while attached to the line, but I know the protocol. If a windower got the vertical shakes you pull them away as fast as you can. Get them to ground and then some. The less sky and ledge they can see the better. I didn’t mind getting dragged along the floor. With the protective gear it didn’t hurt and my legs were shaking so much they wouldn’t have worked anyway. In fact, I’m not ashamed to say that I curled into a little ball and started crying.

I was vaguely aware that I was lifted onto a stretcher and carried inside the floor. Something was put over my mouth and nose and I was breathing more easily. I hadn’t even noticed I was hyperventilating. I suddenly also felt very heavy and sleepy. I tried to concentrate on the people around me, but it was just too hard. I gave in and closed my eyes.

When I came around again everything felt muffled, like through thick bedsheets. It also felt like the ground was rocking back and forth. After a moment I realized that I was rocking. And that everything was subdued because somebody was hugging me very, very tightly. I struggled and tried to push them away, whoever it was. As it turns out it was my dad. He was kneeling beside me, holding me in his arms, crying but smiling, saying my name over and over again. I then noticed a crowd around us. I gently pushed dad away and looked at him. I was more confused than anything. How did I get here? How did he get here? Did I really fall? What happened? Just then a voice cut right through my confusion. "Edward 2nd!" someone bellowed my name. I recognized the voice as every spotter would. It was Flinn 1st, the head spotter.

She was flanked by the head windower and the tribe eldest. All of them stared at me. "Come with me," she said and they all turned. My dad and I were gently pulled up and at this point it hit me that I was indeed home again. I recognized the big tribe hall, the center of our floor with the supply room behind me. I was gently pushed along while some others tended to my father. I saw my sister. I saw Addyson 4th, white as a cloud, crying. I followed the headmaster into the small office of the eldest. With us four in there, he closed the door behind us and then sat behind his small, metal desk. We also sat down, me in the middle, flanked by both head masters, who were staring at me.

"Edward 2nd," the eldest addressed me, "please tell us, what happened on your shift with Allyson 4th?" His voice was soft and soothing. But I could feel the tension in the room. I told them everything, us leaving home, the preparation rituals, my mistake, the fall. During my report, I expected both head masters to comment at various points, or at least showing some form of reaction to my disregard of safety protocols, but both stayed silent, listening intently. I continued talking about being caught right out of the air, the other spotters, the tribe floor in hell and that I had no idea how I got back here. The head masters and the eldest exchanged long glances. There was a silent conversation going on between them, but I had no idea what this was all about. Finally Flinn 1st looked at me and said: "Your fall was two days ago. We mourned your loss. And then you were found in the supply room this morning, together with the usual rations and equipment."

I was speechless. The supply room was a tiny space behind multiple sliding doors. It was usually empty, except every morning it opened for a while to reveal food and equipment, sometimes medicine. Nobody knew how this really worked. The doors wouldn’t close if somebody was in the room or if any technology was left in it. The sliding doors also would not open throughout the day, no matter how hard you tried to pry them open. Sometimes you would hear sliding and grinding noises behind the door, but that was just how it was. It closed empty and opened full. There was an exception, though. In case of a bad accident or life threatening illnesses, the tribe eldest could perform the ritual of cleansing. The injured or sick would be put to sleep and placed in the supply room. The doors would close and open again empty. Most of the time they would appear with the morning rations a couple of days later. Rarely, they would not come back. It was the first time I heard of a fallen coming back.

“I.. I don’t have an explanation for that" I finally said. I was still struggling with the entire situation. From my point of view only minutes had past since my fall. But I also felt rested like after a long, deep sleep. Two days of sleep it seemed. Everybody was silent for a while. Then Flinn 1st said: "Well, maybe sometimes we don’t need to understand everything. Somebody in hell thought you were not meant to be there. At least not yet. Let’s not mourn the fact that you are still among us and instead celebrate." The tribe eldest nodded. "Indeed we should. Could you both please see to that? Let’s undo the premature funeral with a celebration of birth. A rebirth." Both stood up, ready to leave. As I wanted to follow them, the eldest raised his hand and pointed his finger at me. "Not you, Edward 2nd. I have another question for you."

He waited until we were alone and continued to stared at me for a while. "Hell," he said after a while, "what exactly did you see down there?"

I told him. And bust into tears. Sobbing, I told him about the thousands and thousands of lost souls I saw. Maybe millions, wandering on the grey, horizontal desert wall of hell, never experiencing the blessing of mother sun.

Living in Berlin / Germany, working at Microsoft, loving technology, society, good food, well designed games and this world in general. Views are mine, k?