Warner Bros. cartoons would have you believe otherwise, but you don't hear a thing falling. There's no descending slide whistle note, slowly increasing in volume, any more than there's a shadow beneath the thing which steadily grows beneath your feet. You hear nothing coming, and the shadow of the thing hits you just as violently and unexpectedly as the thing itself, if it hits you at all.
Fernt doesn't immediately realise that something fell into the trash heap. It doesn't fall on him directly; then he'd know immediately, of course. There's a loud bang and a clatter of parts being scattered. Nails and tiny unidentifiable pieces of junk splash around the place. It's a while before whatever it is stops sliding through the junk.
Fernt scrambles over to the other side of the nearest heap. There's a long, dark gouge in the pile on that side. And a cursing coming from the bottom of the chasm. Did someone slip and fall? Fernt is a stocky, well-built teenager, with a mass of brown hair cultivated with some kind of animal product into intimidating spikes. He wears weird shoes, with big wide feet which spread his weight, so that he can walk on the wreckage without slipping into it and drowning. As a result, he moves across the heap with a kind of awkward wading motion, as if he were wearing an oversized costume or pressure suit.
He steps carefully up to the chasm, avoiding stepping on one of the sides, avoiding causing junk to fall into the gap and cover whoever is at the bottom.
"Buddy?" Fernt calls. "I didn't hear anybody else on this hill. You paying your dues? You're out of your zone."
"Indeed," the woman at the bottom of the chasm coughs. "About as far out of one's zone as it's possible to get."
"Curious mode of speech," Fernt says. "You've got an overseer's tone. You an overseer?"
"I'd be delighted to discuss it," the woman groans. "However, I... appear to have some kind of green fluid leaking onto me. I think... battery fluid? Normally I wouldn't make a fuss, but I tore open a fairly serious hole in my thigh and abdomen when I landed. And whether this is battery fluid or not, I'm certain it shouldn't be dripping into a wound."
The woman laughs weakly. "Yes. Let's discuss it once you fish me out, shall we? I believe... augh. I may have lost the use of at least one leg. Are you able to help me? Should we call for help?"
Fernt is a kilometre across the garbage field from the nearest other scrap scavenger. He has no way of calling anybody for help. Like his ungainly shoes, he wears big, ungainly, paddle-like gauntlets, for scooping through the trash. He scoops large handfuls of the junk out, avoiding letting more junk fall on the half-buried woman, preserving the temporary ravine's integrity as best he can.
After another few minutes of careful digging, and several long moments spent carefully examining the precarious structure of the remaining wreckage, Fernt is able to uncover the woman's body and legs. At a first glance, it looked like she had landed up to her neck in metalwork, but in fact she is clad from the neck down in some kind of armour. Advanced, modern-looking stuff. A sixth or seventh cousin of the suit Fernt wears for scavenging. Her leg looks bad, bent along with the armour. The hole in her side is about as bad as Fernt guessed. There's a significant amount of blood on show. It doesn't look good.
"That's lith oil," he says, of the substance dripping down from the woman's shoulder towards the ripped hole. "Don't let it touch your bare skin."
"I'm endeavouring not to," the woman says. She is cupping her armoured forearm around herself, redirecting the viscous drips of lith oil down the other side of her hip, but it's difficult work.
"Can you move your other leg?" Fernt pushes a control on his suit, unlocking a momentary burst of hydraulic power. He positions himself carefully and levers the largest piece of junk off the woman. She doesn't seem to be able to move her other leg either, but manages to scramble out of the hole arm-over-arm, using upper body strength alone.
Fernt lets the junk fall. The woman sits up, wiping the last of the lith oil away.
Fernt can't get a solid impression of the woman. She doesn't look like any overseer; her armour looks unlike any he's seen before, and he's seen a lot of it; he's been fascinated by all the different overseer armours, since he was very small. She talks, however, something like the Regent does. He's heard that people around the Regent intentionally adopt a similar accent to the Regent in order to ingratiate themselves and separate themselves from others, "common folk" with "baser" modes of speech. He can, with a little care, tell the difference between someone genuinely born with a high-born Regent's accent, and someone affecting it for social gain.
This woman, however, makes even the Regent, in his vocalised pronouncements, sound phony. As if he were imitating her.
"What's your name?" Fernt asks.
The woman takes a second to form a response. Unknown to Fernt, she has several quite complex names, for different contexts. Under normal circumstances it would be instantly clear to her which name to introduce herself by, but this is a wholly new context for her.
She says, "Abri. And yours?"
"Ferndt with a D, or Fernt without?"
"Charmed," the woman says.
"Where'd you come from? You snuck up on me? If you were clad in wool, maybe I'd believe it. But on the heap, I can hear metal like this coming."
The woman says, "What are night and day like, here, Fernt? How much does... whoever runs this level... pay for their environmentals?"
"Night and day?"
The woman points at the sky plate, hexagonal and kilometres wide, which currently is a pure, baby blue verging on white, just slightly too bright to look at directly. "This. When night comes, what happens? A slow descent through yellow, orange, red and purple into black?"
Fernt laughs. "What? Depends how slow you're talking." He struggles out of one of his paddle gauntlets so he can snap a bare finger and thumb. "Goes dark like that. There might be colours in the mix but I've never noticed. Nor spoken to anyone who did notice. Our sky has two colours. On and off. Don't see what the Regent has to do with it."
"Indeed. And how long until night?"
"A long while, yet. Not reached the middle of the day, yet."
"Fernt, would you believe I come from a place where... we pay for a better sky? At night, do you have anything in your sky, or just blackness?"
"What would there be in our sky of a night? Did you fall from somewhere? In the sky?"
"...I did. I was cast down, under highly complex circumstances. There is a level above yours. Above your sky plate. There is another ground. Another country, as big as yours. Your Regent knows of it. With a differently-configured sky, and different people and different overseers... overseers with whom I had a somewhat literal falling-out. A certain degree of heresy was involved. Ach! Enough talk. Fernt, have you anything to bandage me? A clean cloth would be something. You must injure yourself enough in this profession."
Abri is correct. Fernt and Abri scrape as much blood away from her injured abdomen as they can, then Fernt produces a little canister of antiseptic ointment. They use all of it up. And then, another canister, this one of a kind of gel which sets in the wound. They use all of that up, too.
"That'll get you to my cart," Fernt says. "Ready?" With Abri's assistance, he slings her over her shoulder.
He puts her on the cart, instead of any junk, and carts her home.
The home is a smallish cottage, wood and metal and mud, scraps of old tent.
Fernt finds it difficult to understand what he's being told by his father. Fernt says, "The lady needs help!"
"We can't offer her help! We don't have anything can help her! You brought home another mouth to feed, instead of saleable scrap. Are you planning to head out again?"
Abri is recuperating on a low bed in one corner. She is a tall woman, and her feet hang off the end of it. "He's free to. I need rest. This is a heavy level and it may be some time before I can walk again. If you have such a thing as a doctor who could examine my side, I'd be obliged. I may require some bone work. It's hard to say."
"She looks like an overseer," Fernt's father says. "I don't trust overseers."
"Nor do I," Abri says. "Fernt... and Fernt the elder... how long have you existed here? You and your family. How far back does your village's memory go?"
"I can't say what you're asking," Fernt's father says.
"Do you remember a time before your Regent?"
Fernt looks at his father, who shakes his head.
Abri says, "You live in a cosmology of levels. You have lived all your lives on this level. With this one sky plate. Flicking on and off. From end to end, your society is two days' walk, or thereabouts? Mostly agrarian? And encircling your country, rising all the way up to the sky, impenetrable walls? My country is much the same. Our sky plate is configured differently, of course, but we have something like a Regent. And something like distrusted overseers. That's where I fell from. Through a... hole in our ground, and in our ceiling, a hole in the sky plate itself. Congratulations are due all around, congratulations at our final discovery of class mobility."
"Is there a level above yours?" Fernt asks. "Or below ours? We cannot dig. Below the bedrock, it's said there's the same impenetrable stuff as the walls."
Abri laughs, then winces, clutching her side. "An astute one! Fernt... Fernt. Yours is the lowest of all the levels. But above mine... can you count?"
Fernt frowns. "Naturally."
"Can you multiply? Multiply by ten? How many times?"
"Enough," Fernt says, crossing his arms. He's a little put out, but in truth his numbers are not his strongest attribute.
"Young Fernt, above mine, there is a level which is as wealthy compared to mine as mine is compared to yours. And above that, another. And above that... there are thousands of levels. Perhaps tens of thousands. Each a unique country. Each served by the ones below and serving the ones above. Some warring, some unified. And..." Abri waits.
Fernt asks, "At the top?"
"At the top," Abri says, nodding at Fernt's timely prompt, "there is God. Whom we must kill."