Jumpman: A Story by Matt Barton

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Justin sat in the darkest corner of the darkest bar in the space station, shrunk into the shadows like a wet rat in a lightning storm. He was wary for a reason. If anyone guessed who he was or his purpose, his presence here would end his past. He needed answers. He needed courage. But he was scared as hell and fresh out of pencils.

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Where was Hardy? Whole months spent debating with himself, deciding if it were better to die quietly or die trying to live against everything he'd ever lived for. The Academy. The Navy. Honor and duty, glory and the rule of law. All of them, just words now. He was offering up his soul to the devil and the bastard was late.  

The minutes plodded past like prisoners on their way to the guillotine. Had the jumpman gotten suspicious? Had he been tipped off? Was the whole thing a setup? That suited-up man at the bar, with the glass of water and chewed-up cigar, was he an agent? Or was it that doctor—it was so obvious now he'd been lying!

"Sir, can I get you any of our three hundred and four specialty libations tonight? Tonight we have Gelatinous Mindstabbers two-for-one."

Justin recoiled as the server rolled to his table, its chirpy voice scraping like a cheese grater across his skull. On came the list of specials, each one a fancy name for a dollop of colored corn syrup and a thimble full of cut-rate vodka.

“Yeah, get him the cheapest shot you got, and then get him another for the pain.” The speaker was a burly, bearded man, who sat down before him like a father or a cop. The bench settled back with a gentle noise, like a truck rolling to a slow stop in gravel.

No doubt. This was Captain Hardy, the jumpman, at last. “And get me anything you got that ain't on special,” he told the robot, who was busy trying to do a retinal scan of the Captain's right eye. Hardy obligingly turned and held his eye wide open. It jittered crazily in its socket.

“Yes, sir, Mister Hardy,” the server chimed at last, rolling off with a buzz and a beep to fetch the order.

“First lesson. Never let someone else order a drink for you. They might want to help you, they might want to hurt you. Both are bad. And never give anyone a chance to hold anything over you,” said Hardy. “But always take the chance to hold something over somebody. Especially if it's a crowbar.” Justin nodded like an idiot.

Hardy didn't look like his official Galactic Navy photo. He looked tough in the photo, but he hadn't built his muscles pumping iron in an air-conditioned gym. No, that was obvious from the scars on his face and the gaps in his smile where teeth used to be. He was smiling widely now, like he'd just told a joke that wasn't supposed to be funny. It wasn't.

Nobody spoke until the silence began to hurt Justin's ears. “I’m all ready to get under way. Packed, I mean. Everything is squared away.” His voice sounded like a kid at the bottom of an empty swimming pool. He couldn't help but stare at the man's bad eye, which was still squirming like a tadpole in a pot of boiling water.

“It was a laserbeam on Nixel." Hardy tugged his beard and was suddenly wise. “A laser hit it, but at a really bad angle." The smile flashed. "Bad for him, I mean. You see, I had two eyes, but he only had one brain.

"My med-bot fixed me, but maybe I should've fixed it first. Lesson: Always fix the robot before it fixes you."

The drinks arrived, and Hardy grabbed his off the tray and swigged, leaving foam in his beard like detergent in seaweed. "I can still see out of it, but it twitches. Can’t keep it steady. I'm not good with steady anything, really. Good thing the universe never stands still." Hardy smiled, Justin didn't, and they drank.

The liquor was hot and gritty slithering down his throat, but he felt his toes get warm and his butt unclench enough to sit properly. He reached for the next one like it was a life preserver.

“It was enough for them to kick me out of the Navy,” said Hardy. “And then, one year later, I find out a little something else." He shut up and reached for his drink. The server spotted their empty glasses and was already rolling back over, its rotors whirring cheerfully.

Justin shifted in his chair, fidgety as drops of sweat streaked down his back. Did he know more than he let on? Why all this talk about the Galactic Navy? Was he being set up?

“What you got there?” he asked, gesturing at Hardy's smelly, syrupy drink.

“Tomato juice presumably,” Hardy replied quietly. "And vodka hopefully. Can't beat vodka. It'll beat you every time."

Justin scooted forward. “Does that make it easier?”

“I like the taste of it, that's all.” Hardy met Justin’s gaze with his good eye and locked on like a targeting laser. The pleasant drinking conversation was over.

“That was quite a sum you upped for the apprenticeship,” said Hardy. “I don’t do this for people I don’t know, but for the kind of cash you got I'll start.” His voice dropped like a balled-up fist. “So, what are you going to tell me? Why you really want to be a jumpman, or your last words?”

The moment was on him like a leopard. His bowels shifted and his throat tightened, and breathing got hard. Life was cheap, but it was the only thing he had to gamble with. “It’s good money,” he said, sounding like the slow kid in a school play. He thought about bolting then, but his knees would never let him.

But Hardy just sipped his drink, and the tension fell like feathers in a canyon. “So it’s blood money,” he mused. “Well, you pay for it with your blood, sucker." Hardy smiled. "Nah. You're just a fool. But a fool with cash has all the wisdom he can afford."

Justin had no response or anything else. He waited like a good dog.

“If I was an honest man, it’d be worth the money you got for me to break so many of your bones there ain't no way in hell you'd ever pilot a ship, much less a jumper. But something tells me it’s not that easy. You got no choice.” Hardy clapped his hands together. “You're gonna be a jumpman or die trying.”

“Yes, sir.”

"Well, you got guts. That's worth more than cash six days of the week. But today's payday. So pay me."

Justin nodded, and Hardy thrust his arm under the table as he passed him an envelope stuffed with more bills than Justin's life was worth. “Okay. Meet me on Deck Q, bay twelve-D tomorrow at five-hundred.”

“Deck Q, bay twelve-D, five-hundred."

Hardy stood up and sloped towards the exit. "Put it on his tab," he told the robot.

The test was over. Tomorrow he'd find out if he passed.

***

Justin glanced down the hallway as he swiped his keycard at the door of his hotel room. There were dirty-looking men talking in loud voices at the end of the hall, probably pimps or worse. No matter. This was the only hotel he could afford, and it was worth it just to get a locked door between him and the rest of the world.

The first he noticed when he stepped inside was the smell. The odor stabbed into his nostrils like Q-tips smeared with feces. The only surfaces that weren't covered in dust were the bed and round spots on the dresser where bottles had been, and the carpet was so stained he couldn't tell what color it was supposed to be. The place hadn't been cleaned in months, or even years. But the bed was made.

He stood and looked himself over in the finger-stained mirror above a filthy sink. Gingerly, he stuck his pocket comb in his hair and parted it on the right. He leaned forward to look at his face, pushed out his lower lip with his tongue. No sign of Keineffer’s syndrome—not yet. Damn that whore. Damn her and her stupid Youth drug. Justin didn't have much nice to say about his mother. He'd never known anything about her until a few weeks ago. Too bad.

He reached for his razor but stopped mid-grab. If he grew his beard out, like Hardy’s, would anyone be able to notice? He turned away.

He walked back into the bedroom and squatted, flexing his calves. He performed the A-Four Standard exercise routine, thinking all the while of his brilliant military career, cut short by his mother's vanity. He'd worked hard to reach A-Four level, and it was for nothing. He'd been a sergeant and seen his share of combat. Men had respected him. No more. Gehjouth.

Pounding at the door broke his concentration. Irritation switched to fear as he moved towards the door, and his hand paused at the knob. He peeked through the fisheye and saw a tall, bony man standing there, an innocent smile pushing up a stringy red-beard. Justin put on the chain lock and cracked the door.

“Who are you?”

“I’m Randolf Rider,” said the stranger. Justin nodded, his eyes locked on the man’s hands. “Hardy told me about you,” said Rider. "Well, are you too chicken shit to let me in, then?" Justin opened the door.

"Inspection time, maggot." Rider strode past Justin and into the room, then rubbed his finger on the dresser and held it up to show the dust. His sleeve fell past his elbow, and Justin saw all the needle punctures he needed to see. He edged closer to the door. Rider put down his hand. “I came here to talk to you, and see if you still want to go through with it.”

“Of course I do,” said Justin. His muscles were still warm from the exercise, but he couldn't tell how Rider would handle himself in a fight.

“What’s your addiction, buddy?” asked Rider, his mouth twisted in a sneer. His eyes were so intense they could've been seen in the dark. “We’ve all got to shove something up our veins, don’t we?”

“I’m sorry. I guess I’m pretty clean.” Justin eyed his suitcase, just a few feet away. It would take him several seconds to get his pistol. Plenty more to load it. “Is it narcotics you’re talking about? Not my thing, really.”

Rider laughed hysterically. Then, like a puma, he sprang towards him, cutting off his path to the bag and kicking it across the room. Justin shrank against the wall as Rider moved in, putting his face within inches of his own. “I’m a dangerous man.” Justin felt the man’s pointy chin and prickly beard digging into his cheek. “My motto is, just slit his throat. It’s a policy that works even when it don't. A dead traitor is worth two dead maggots any day. Wouldn’t you agree, maggot?”

“Look, what’s the problem here?”

Randolf chuckled and stepped back. “Hardy sees a lot more in you than I do. He's never wrong. Never. But what’s his game?” Rider’s eyes blazed. “What’s your game?”

“I just want to be a jumpman."

“Liar,” said Rider. "Nobody wants to be a jumpman." He moved towards the door, and Justin gladly stepped aside. Just before he left, Rider put a finger on Justin’s cheek and smiled like a jackal in heat. “You want to be a jumpman,” he laughed, dragging his finger down the side of Justin's face. “Pretty boy. You’re not even old enough to hide your shame behind a beard!” The door slammed shut, and Justin breathed again.

Was Rider a friend or a foe? No matter; Justin wanted nothing to do with him. If Hardy had sent him, though—a test of some sort? How many times and in how many ways would Hardy test him, just to make sure he really was as hell-bound as he seemed to be?

 

***

 

The night passed like rough-cut diamonds through a kidney. He hadn't slept, and it showed. As he made his way to Hardy’s bay, his back and legs groaned about the mattress he'd tossed and turned on all night. Justin couldn’t hear them, though. He was thinking about Hardy.

He entered the bay, and the sleek ship docked there greeted him like a mail-order bride from the world of perfect forms. Seeing that ship was like wings bursting out of his back; the galaxy wasn't big enough—not good enough—for her, but it'd do for now. The metal of her hulls gleamed like the teeth of an unconquered people; her cockpit lured him like a warrior-king to his throne of bone. Never had the sight of any one thing touched him more than that ship, and to his dying day the word "love" could only mean that raw emotion that surged within him, bonding him to this ship, never to let go.

“There you are,” Hardy called, rapping his knuckles against the hull, so casually that Justin fought an urge to strike him. He choked back the bitter, confusing words that sprang up in his throat. Hardy seemed to have expected Justin's behavior, and only laughed away the stunned awkwardness. “I call her Gehjouth,” said Hardy, and Justin felt the blood drain from his face. What? Why call her that? Why the name of the Youth drug?

Again Hardy seemed to anticipate Justin's reaction. "I call her that, my friend, because she keeps me young. And she'll keep you young, too, if you take care of her."

Hardy opened a hatch, revealing an intricate electronic panels and cables. He beckoned to Justin, who could appreciate the clean, precise engineering he saw there. Gehjouth's beauty reached far below her shiny surface. “I did these modifications myself.” He gently snapped the hatch shut, wiping a smudge off with his sleeve. “Letting another man fool with your ship is like letting him make love to your woman. You'll never feel the same way inside her again. Do the work yourself. Respect her. Treat her like the queen she is. Be good to her, and she'll stand by you when no one else will--when no one else can."

“She doesn't look anything like a robo-ship,” said Justin as he followed after Hardy into the ship. Justin’s ears popped as he adjusted to the ship’s internal air pressure. Like the outside, everything here was so clean and polished it didn't look a day old. It even had that new ship smell. Hardy was a monk, and the object of his sacred devotion was Gehjouth.

“Robo-ships,” Garret laughed, the raggedy edges of his beard quivering. "I'd tell you what I think of them, but not indoors."

After giving him a tour of Gehjouth, Hardy buckled Justin into her copilot seat. Justin’s anxiety was building, and his heart was knocking in his chest like a basketball in an echo chamber. Was his Keineffer’s syndrome affecting him already?  â€œI’ve never done this before, you know,” Justin stammered, struggling for breath.

Hardy spoke quietly. “No one really comes through it intact. No one really survives it. It kills most men outright. The rest just live on, wondering when. Wondering why. You want a scientific explanation, Justin? Do you want the details?”

“Sure.”

“Ninety of a hundred jumpmen don’t last five minutes. They die, but not instantly. They go brain dead, like somebody just yanked out the plug. They can stay alive for years if somebody feeds them. Six or seven of the rest that make it through the first few minutes—well, they got an hour or so. They're the ones I feel sorry for. They realize what's happening, and the terror comes on them. They see death, and let me tell you something, son, no matter how tough you think you are—no matter how strong, how ready—when you see your death, your manhood flies like the shit into your britches. You see, it's not just a body dying. You lose your arm, you can still feel it. You soul starts tearing off in chunks, and you don't feel nothing, and nothing is the greatest terror there is to a man that breathes.

"The other two or three that make it past that hour? Well, they start having trouble in their heads. Trouble telling when they’re dreaming and when they're hallucinating. If they don't start chewing their fingers off they might survive." Hardy pushed some buttons on the console, his fingers moving smoothly and gracefully, trained by decades of experience. “The stress on your body and mind is too much to handle by yourself. Need a crutch.”

“Drugs?”

“Sure,” said Hardy. “It’s a hazard of the occupation. Shoot up some Pendrolax-522 to add grit to your sanity. But the side effects...You just keep getting crazier, and pretty soon you don't even realize it. Your brain is pickling like an egg in a jar of vinegar, and then one day you come in and swallow it. You take 522 to help you cope with a problem—but you don't know problems until you do. It’s illegal, and the dealers know an addict. They adjust prices accordingly.”

Justin's hands clenched the armrests as Hardy activated the drives. “She takes a little while to warm up,” said Hardy. "Don’t go ripping off without warming her up, first. Like a woman—she's a true lady, and don't forget it. Treat her right, and she'll take care of you." Justin shrugged.

Hardy sighed, a weary sound that spoke of centuries spent being misunderstood. "Do you still want to be a jumpman?"

“You seem to handle it pretty well,” said Justin. "I mean, you don’t rely on drugs, and you seem normal.”

"Normal?" Hardy laughed. “I’ve got secrets." He turned some dials and Justin saw bright, multi-colored LEDs lighting up across the console. "Ever heard of The Sacred Distance?”

"The religion?"

 â€œYeah, and I hope you don’t think it’s bullshit, because, even if it is, it's what lets me act like a real human being when I don't even know what normal is supposed to feel like anymore."

He initiated the dock ejection sequence. “We’ll shoot out of this station pretty fast and head right into this system’s star. Have to do our best to hide the jump.”

“Do you have some kind of arrangement with the station?” asked Justin.

“Are you ready?” Hardy asked, trading one stupid question for another. “Good, then I can tell you there’s another glitch. The jump itself is a drug.” Before Justin could respond, the ship shuddered and whooshed out of the station.

Justin glued his eyes on the thick, black lever under Hardy's hand. It was the one that activated the jump. Justin shouted--"I'm not ready!" He jerked at his buckles, hard enough to cut into his wrists. "I'm not ready!" he shrieked, his voice quavering like wind chimes in a hurricane. The corners of his vision went black.

“No, you're not." Hardy jerked the lever.

 

"Hello?" Justin called out, but the voice was distant, as though coming from a child somewhere in the next room. Other than that pale sound he could hear nothing. He was floating upwards and outwards from his body, into a void where his senses dared not—could not--penetrate. His hands felt large and then impossibly small. He was being pulled underwater, so deep that he would suffocate before he could ever reach the surface. Somehow he was breathing the water.

He could not tell if he were sane or insane, alive or dead. Was this the afterlife? At times he thought he could see colors—hear life—but when he focused on them, the blackness and deafness drew up around him like curtains.

Then he noticed a pinprick of light in the distance, and as he watched, it grew larger. He was at the bottom of a terrible pit, hurtling upwards at breakneck speed. He feared he would burst from the top and fly so high that his bones would snap as he fell back down.

His vision blurred, then cleared, darkened, swirled. He tried moving, but realized that he was paralyzed. Or was he only unaware he had moved? His hearing returned gradually, in stages becoming louder and staying longer. At least he could hear the steady and confident droning of the Gehjouth, and then his own heart in his chest and breath in his lungs. Control returned to his body. His vision cleared, and he was once again in the copilot seat. He felt warm liquid in his lap and realized he had urinated on himself.

Hardy put his hand back on the jump lever. It was up. “You zeroed on that one,” he said, but not without some small hint of satisfaction, as though he'd just earned the right to tell someone he told them so. He flexed his fingers on the lever. “Just six more jumps to go.”

“No, no!” Justin cried, straining his mind and lungs to shout for all his life was worth. Hardy moved the lever back down, throwing the Gehjouth back into hyperspace.

 

***

“We’re here,” Hardy informed him.

Justin breathed deeply, shook his head and blinked repeatedly. He couldn't see straight. He couldn't hear straight. Or maybe he'd just forgotten what it meant to do either.

“I'm disoriented,” he said simply, and suddenly found the word and the very idea hilarious. He began to laugh, hard and violently, and Hardy joined him. His vision still swarmed with odd colors and strange textures, but the nightmarish images of hyperspace were gone. He couldn't stop laughing. "I think I've shit myself," he managed to gasp out, and Hardy's deep, pleasant laughter rang like church bells to a man who knows he's safe.

 He'd never expected the jumps to be so awful—so far beyond what he'd let himself imagine. His soul had separated from his body, and once ripped would never lock tight again. He had floated, naked, above the earth, flaying out his arms and holding his breath. He had paddled, as though swimming, towards his home, knowing he would never last long enough to burn in the atmosphere. But he was not alone. He realized that, now—realized that, during it all, the Gehjouth had borne his weight, holding him up and warming his body against the absolute zero of the man-ending void. The Gehjouth had never doubted him, yet he had doubted her like a fool.

"I want to do it again," said Justin.

Hardy's voice was cold. “What’s your name?” He enunciated his words like a school teacher to a stepchild.

“Justin Keegan."

"What are you doing here, Keegan?"

"I'm learning to be a jumpman."

Hardy took too long to respond. “Good. I thought I’d lost you." He pushed a button, and a tiny viewport opened next to Justin.

“Take a look outside. Do you know how far we’ve come?” Justin shrugged in response, his attention snared by the Gehjouth's thrusters maneuvering them towards a winding station.

An immense orange planet loomed beneath them like the shoulders of a triumphant god. Monstrous clouds the size of continents swirled over the surface in a thousand foreign tapestries, and if they were beautiful, it was only because they reminded Justin dimly of hyperspace. Hardy had been right all along. Right in so many more ways than Justin was ready to admit.

"You’ve got a hell of a lot to learn,” said Hardy.

"If I didn't know that, would I be here?"

The captain’s eye was shaking like a snake rattle. “Could you do that again, and pilot the ship? You can’t just let yourself go like that. You have to ride it out; stay in control.”

“I can't—it's impossible."

"And impossible is just another way to say 'I quit.'" Hardy shrugged and touched the console, righting the ship. In the distance, a silvery speck was growing into a space station. “You talked during the jump,” he said as he switched on the docking computer.

Justin said nothing, but his face did.

“You talked about your mother,” sighed Hardy. “I’ve heard it from every jumpman I ever came across. We don’t like our moms. They're all bitches. And we're all sons of bitches."

“Yeah,” said Justin.

“I’ll make the trade-off by myself,” the captain told him as the ship slid into the docking clamps. He stood and stretched. “Change your pants and meet me in the station's bar. There's only one, but it's great. We’ll have a drink or two and you can tell me all the lies you want—as long as you're buying, that is."

“No problem,” said Justin.

“Just go back through there,” said Hardy, pointing behind them and gesturing to the left. “You’ll find a shower and a couple bunks. Yours is on the bottom. I don't want anything dripping on me, you know." Justin couldn't hear him over the sound of spraying water.

 

***

 

Justin stepped out of the shower after half an hour of scalding and scrubbing. He was redder than a lobster boiled beyond all trace of salmonella. He was just about to go looking for Hardy when he saw a metal lying on the top bunk. He took out his pocketknife, but it was unlocked.

He found nothing but a few plastic tokens and a photo of Hardy. He stared hard at the face in the picture. It looked recent—maybe a month old, if that. He flipped it over and saw where someone had written the date, but gotten the year wrong—fifty years wrong. Or maybe it was a joke he just didn't get. Justin put everything back the way he'd found it, then set out to find the bar.

 

He was halfway through a third gin and nothing when Hardy finally made the scene. “Not a crowded place," said Justin.

Hardy ordered a glass of tomato juice. “It’s quiet,” said Hardy. “That's why I like it. No talking, no insult. No insult, nobody dies. Quiet is good when you got a skull you want to keep in one piece.”

Justin looked up as four men in spacesuits entered the bar. A stench of ammonia rose as they walked by, and Justin wondered where he was. Was he even in the same galaxy? The same universe?

Hardy didn't look up from his juice. “Do you know anything about the business?”

“You said it. There’s a lot I don’t know." Justin put down his drink. “I’ve got a lot of questions. Want to hear them?”

“Sure.” Hardy sipped his juice.

“Well, why would anybody ever need a jumpman? The USGN ships are safer and more dependable—not too mention cheaper.” Justin lowered his voice. “And if I wanted some drugs or guns delivered, there's always the robots owned by the syndicate. It seems like more trouble than it’s worth, hiring a jumpman. Much less being one.”

Hardy chuckled. “Your questions answer mine."

Justin felt the blood rising in his face. Maybe it was the gin. "Look. I'm not paying you for riddles."

"That's exactly what you're paying me for, boy," snapped Hardy, the eye jittering like it was about to pop out. But then his face relaxed, and his tone became like a professor's. “The USGN robot ships have three big things going against them.” Hardy held up a finger with a chipped nail. “One, they’re scanned and they're monitored. They know what they’re hauling and there’s no way around it.” He raised another finger. “Two, they’re slow. They don’t jump, they just shoot straight through. When somebody's life depends on speed, money ain't nothing but more fuel and faster.” Hardy held up a third finger. “Three. You can track them. On the frontier, the robots are like neon letters saying 'take one.' Might as well address your packages to the pirates to make it look intentional. Besides, there are places the USGN won’t go at all.” Hardy paused. “You know that.”

Justin tried to ignore that last question. "What about the syndicate?” The strangers in the suits didn't seem to be paying them any attention. As a matter of fact, they hadn't even bothered to order drinks.

“Expensive, dangerous, and you get blackmailed,” Hardy said like he was reading it. “Once you get involved, you stay involved. Then, there’s the obvious fact.” He smiled under his beard. “They wouldn’t exist without their connections to the establishment."

"Yeah."

Hardy shrugged and took another swig of his juice. "It's obvious. It’s a crooked universe. Nobody is above it. No, if you want privacy, if you want speed and don't want to be blackmailed, you have to rely on us.”

"And jumpmen don't blackmail?"

"If you want to blackmail somebody, they have to think you're gonna live long enough to carry out your threats. The syndicate blackmails you. Jumpmen just die."

“Is it worth it? Jumping, I mean.”

“It’s just taking advantage of physics and suicidal tendencies,” said Hardy. “If you try to take one long jump, like the robots, you’re wasting energy. If you skip, though, each time doubling the distance, you exponentially increase the velocity. The trick is absorbing the energy released by coming out of hyperspace. The surges work for you, instead of against you. It’s a lot to do with intuition—feeling the swells when you’re jumping and the surges when you’re coming down. It’s in the gut, and that’s why the robots can’t do it. It's like putting a toaster on a surfboard and asking it to hang-ten."

Justin finished off his gin and pushed his chair out. “I’m going to rent a room here and do some thinking."  

“All right, but you need to get used to a bunk again,” said Hardy.

"Again? Look, I've never slept in one," said Justin, again feeling the blood getting hot in his face. "When would I have slept in a bunk? You've seen my file."

Hardy dismissed him with a wave. "You call it. Just pop in tomorrow morning at 800 and we’ll make another jump.”

An hour and the rest of his money later, Justin was alone in a dirty room. The ceiling was so low it almost brushed his head. It didn't matter. He needed to be alone, and he'd achieved that.

He gazed at himself in a cracked wall mirror, and suddenly felt his blood get thin. He had a black, splotchy tint all around his mouth, and there was only one reason why. Keineffer’s syndrome had revealed itself at last. He could expect to live another two weeks if he was lucky, and that was self-evidently not the case. The heart palpitations, the loss of muscular control—they'd be calling on him very soon.

Hardy must know. It was probably why he took on Justin. The secrets Hardy taught him would die with him, and the jumpman would have earned himself a fat commission. "Jumpmen just die." How convenient.

 

 

***

Justin's fitful sleep ended with a loud knock on the door. He tried to ignore it, hoping the visitor would go away, but the knocking just got louder and more persistent. Finally, he opened the door to find Hardy--and Randolf Rider.

“How are you, little man? Did you make it all right?” said Rider. His red beard shook with mirth.

“He survived, but he zeroed out,” said Hardy. “Any advice for him? I thought you could help him out.”

“Strap electrodes to his nuts,” laughed Rider. “Zap them every time he drifts. Or maybe he would like that too much?”

Justin's face got hot. He turned to Hardy. “I’ll try harder next time.”

Hardy's face was blank. “Randolf may have something for you.”

Justin recoiled as Randolf pulled a syringe out of his coat pocket. “How about a little 522, kid?” Rider’s tone became kind. “It’s all right. You see, almost every jumper uses it. You won’t have a problem staying in control with some Pendrolax.”

“No, thanks.”

Randolf sat on the edge of the bed and offered him the drug. “Justin. I’m trying to help you. This will make it easy for you. It helped me. It'll help you.”

“No, thanks,” said Justin.

“That’s a decision,” Hardy said, a smile spreading across his face like daises. “Let’s go, Justin.”

 

Back in the Gehjouth's co-pilot chair, Justin sweated and shook. He still remembered his last jump, but only the fear and the emptiness.

Hardy's good cheer hadn't faded. “You did the right thing back there. Believe me, there’s a better way than Pendrolax. You don't need drugs. But I wanted to see you make that decision for yourself.”

“I don’t know what I’m doing,” said Justin, his voice jittery. “I’m here. That’s about it.”

“I mentioned the Sacred Distance before, didn’t I?”

“Yeah, you did.”

“Some take religion to the extremes,” said Hardy. "Fanatics are dangerous to themselves and to their cause. They're so insecure about their own beliefs they need to force other people into agreeing with them, and kill anyone who gives them reason to doubt their monopoly on the truth." Hardy rubbed his hands together. "But let me tell you. Not everybody practicing a religion is a fanatic, and not every believer is a hypocrite. Some of us just know what we know."

Justin shrugged.

“How much do you know about the Sacred Distance? Have you ever meditated?” asked Hardy. He flipped on the ejection sequence. “Our center of consciousness—soul, I guess you could say—well, it exists on another plane than this one. A plane that we can’t see. The fourth dimension.” The captain turned, his eyes on Justin. “We are somehow directly connected; interfaced through our brains. It’s an unconscious, but total connection.”

“Sounds metaphysical."

“That's the thing. It's really not metaphysical at all, Justin. With enough concentration and a catalyst, we can slide backwards and see it from the other way. You can become aware of the connection.” Hardy and Justin leaned back in their seats as Gehjouth hurtled into space. “Well, you wanted to know how I stayed sane and alive.”

“A catalyst?” Justin asked.

“The jump,” said Hardy, pulling down the black lever.

 

Justin floated towards the sun. The heat was almost unbearable on his naked skin, but he preferred it to the icy void he entered when he closed his eyes. He looked down at his body and a wave of terror coursed through him. His whole body was covered in the black splotches of Keineffer's! He was sure the Keineffer’s syndrome had been affected by the jump; catapulted into its fatal stages in just a few seconds.

Justin struggled for control. He fought the hallucinations, dreams, whatever they were—and return to his real body. He heard a voice calling to him from a great distance, calling to him through the vacuum of space. “Your body is a vehicle. You are beyond it, and yet you can control it.”

Justin shivered uncontrollably, even in the blistering heat of the star. The Keineffer’s syndrome was killing him much faster than he'd hoped. First, the black splotches around the lips, followed then by the disruption of his physiological rhythms. The blood in his brain would congeal, or a blood vessel would rupture—there were a thousand ways to die and not one way to live. There was no cure.

Memories fell like drops of colored water on glass. He remembered the USGN doctor who told him about his condition. “It’s not your fault,” said the doctor. “Keineffer’s is only present in the sons of mothers who abused Gehjouth, a narcotic you probably know as the Youth drug. All of its so-called geriatric properties are superficial, of course. The skin softens and tightens, the hair regains its color and texture—the body feels ten, twenty years younger. It’s enough to lure a lot of people. As far as Keineffer’s syndrome goes, well, we don’t have any answers. It’s a genetic mystery. Genetic mutation is a field we don’t claim to fully comprehend. But it can only be spread through physical contact with the blood or via sexual intercourse, despite what you may have heard.”

“I’ve never even met my mother,” said Justin. The bright, warm woman he had always imagined had just become a desperate, depraved addict. He was angry, he was sad. He was, more than anything, just so confused.

“She’s probably dead,” the doctor said without malice. “Gehjouth affects the body’s RNA. Given enough time, well—no one really completely understands. We don’t tend to take a lot of research time studying diseases associated with drug addicts. They chose their path.” The doctor took a deep breath and let it pass slowly. “The original treatment for Keineffer’s syndrome was Pendrolax-522. Then we found the cure was worth than the poison. It’s addictive and unsafe. None is available legally anymore, and my advice is not to seek it."

The doctor checked a few squares on his clipboard. "I’m sorry, Sergeant Keegan, but you have about a month of life left to you. I suggest you make it mean something. Give that month to the USGN. We need it, desperately.” He put his hand on Justin’s shoulder. “Justin, you’ve been recommended for a special project. You must accept it. Everything, everyone depends on it.”

“Why? Why me?”

“You’re dying, Justin. But your death doesn’t have to be a waste. You're a good soldier and you've fought bravely in the war. But what you may not know—what no one but a very few people know—is that we're losing this war. In a few months, everything that ever mattered to you will be destroyed by the enemy. Unless you succeed. Unless you become a jumpman. And we have reasons to think you may be the right man for the job.”

"I won't let you down, sir." said Justin, and he meant it, just like always.

 

***

 

“Justin,” said Hardy.

“Captain Hardy,” answered Justin, dazed. He was back in the ship, but the cabin was swirling with weird colors and textures. He shook his head and rubbed his eyes, but the images remained. He looked at the captain’s hand. The lever was still down.

“We’re in the middle of the last jump,” said Hardy slowly. Colorful gas wafted from the captain’s mouth, filtering through his beard. “You can hear me, then?”

“I can hear you,” Justin said. A pleasurable tingling spread over him. His blood was warming up, comforting him. The sensation increased to the point of exhilaration. He felt partially separated from his body, in a state of total peace and power, far away from worry and fear. The colors, which once terrified, now fascinated him like a baby staring up a mobile. Pain and fear were just words in a story, a story only he had the power to write.

“With meditation, you learn to control the distance, Justin,” Hardy explained. “You wanted a secret. That’s it. Back up from your body and externalize your mind. Remote control of your body. Are you with me? Push into the fourth dimension. You can't rationalize it. But you can do it.”

When Hardy pushed up the lever, Justin felt himself snap back into his body and the confines of his brain. He shivered when he felt his heart beat become irregular. He knew his Keineffer’s syndrome was getting bad. “There’s something I have to tell you,” he told Hardy.

“I know, I know,” Hardy snapped. “Hang on, I’m taking us out of it.”

 

After docking smoothly in a massive space station, Hardy shut down the drives and took a deep breath. “I was wondering when we'd finally get around to this. Took long enough, so let’s hear it.”

Justin explained his mission. The USGN had set up the apprenticeship, gave him the necessary funds, and they expected a report. 

“They used you,” said Hardy. “They booted me out for this,” he said, pointing a finger at his eye. “I guess things would have been different if they had known I was dying. I didn’t find out about that part until later.”

"What part?"

 Hardy smiled. “Everyone has their secrets, Justin."

“They sent me here to see how it was done,” said Justin. “We need to know. The situation is…desperate.”

“Really?” said Hardy. "Funny how I'm not touched."

“The aliens can jump,” said Justin. “A new alien race, modified somehow. They've wiped out our garrisons on the frontier worlds, and we can't catch them. They're in and out before our guys know what's happening. So far, we’ve managed to keep it secret—morale is bad enough. But we’re no match for them. The USGN thinks an invasion is imminent. I know there's nothing that can be done to save my life. But I want to save what lives I can before I die."

Hardy shrugged, then bowed his head in thought. “You're a good man, Justin. A man with ideals he doesn't set down when they get too heavy. You've earned my respect, but I'll never forgive the USGN for what they did to me. I knew they sent you, Justin. But I didn't know the man they'd sent was so much like me. Like a son."

"Then help me out. Tell me what I need to know, so I can finish my mission and die in peace. How have you survived so many jumps?"

"I try to keep myself healthy,” said Hardy. “I exercise regularly, I eat healthy. But I’d be afraid to see my medical scan. Jumping screws you up inside in ways no doctor could understand. Systems go berserk. You have to forget about what’s normal and just try to adapt. Like flies to a light, Justin. You do it once and you can’t stop, even though you’re burning up. But you always seem to last one more time. And then one more time. You make a habit out of not dying.”

“A lot of USGN pilots have died trying it,” said Justin. “They don’t last five minutes. What's different about you and me?"

The captain’s bad eye squiggled in its socket. “The Sacred Distance, Justin. It gets shorter the longer you jump. If you jump too high, it snaps. You have to work it like elastic. Stretch it out gradually.”

“That can't be all there is to it,” said Justin. "I don’t understand it."

“You think I do?” Hardy sighed. “Who could? I don’t, and I’ve--I’ve had lots of experience. But you don’t have to know how gravity works to bust your ass, or how momentum works to punch a guy out. Justin, you might as well play it straight it with me.” Hardy lowered his eyebrows.

Suddenly, Hardy pounded his fist on the console. "Damn it. Look, Justin, you, me, Randolf--we have more in common than you think. Haven't you figured it out yet?”

“What is it? Can't you just tell me? This is important!”

“We can’t sit here all day,” said Hardy, stopping the conversation like an air brake. “A few more jumps and we'll be at Cynex Station. We'll fuel up there. Inspect the ship. Remember what I told you?” He scratched his beard. “Jumping can do some weird things to machinery, just like it does to bodies. I take her into the shop every couple of jumps. You live longer that way.”

 

***

 

 Justin found himself the cause of a commotion as he and Hardy disembarked from the Gehjouth.

“He’s black-lipped!” screeched a technician, pointing frantically at Justin. Justin ducked behind the captain. The Keineffer's was in its final stages, now. Nobody could miss it.

“It’s not contagious, you idiot,” Hardy snapped, tugging his beard. His tone became sly. “or maybe it is. I think I'm coming down with it, too. My piss has been green for a week.” Hardy motioned at the Gehjouth.

"Get the hell out of my bay!" shrieked the technician, who was now being joined by some of the other mechanics and engineers. One of them was wielding a torch.

Hardy didn't seem to notice. “I seem to recall you guys helping me make some, mostly legal modifications to my drive. I still have the receipts. Maybe the governor of this station should see them?”

By now, the chief engineer had arrived, just in time to catch Hardy's threat. “There's no need for that, Hardy. You can't blame my boys for being careful. That' what makes them such good at engineering. You go on and do what needs to be done, you can do it yourself as good as any of us can."

"We’d do it for you under any other circumstance," said the technician. "He can hold it over our heads about those modifications, but you know we’d help him under ordinary conditions. But, not with the black face. We got wives and children.”

“I don’t believe it,” said Hardy. His bad eye looked as though it might bounce out of its socket.

The chief engineer sighed. “Enough. Hardy, use whatever you need, but you and your friend stay away from the boys. We'll just charge you for the time and the parts. Good enough?"

"It's a pleasure doing business," said Hardy.

 

After a few hours of hard but enlightening work on the Gehjouth, Justin was lying in his bunk and pondering the future. He was fading fast. He had another day, maybe two. His heartbeat fluctuated randomly; at times it beat hard and quick, at other times, hardly at all. His head ached. He was having trouble keeping up with time. Reality itself was falling apart.

He would have to make his report soon, but he knew the USGN wouldn't be happy with his story about the Sacred Distance and just sheer luck. They'd go after other jumpmen, try to trap people like Randolf Rider and interrogate them the hard way. Rider probably wouldn’t even mention meditation, but only tell them about Pendrolax.

There was still something missing from the puzzle, and maybe if he could just clear his mind for a few moments he might find it. But he'd run out of time. Hardy didn't seem to realize just how fast Justin was fading. All that stuff about being like his son—he had to help!  

He thought back to the cool, clean-shaven lieutenant who had briefed him on his mission: “His name is Garret Hardy, a known jumpman. Used to be one of ours, until he got in a brawl on Nixel and became a casualty. According to our sources, he’s been out there jumping ever since, longer than any jumpman ever has. We need to know how he does it. Your job is to find out his secret, Sergeant. But be careful. Who knows how that much hyperspace exposure has warped him?”

Precious few survived even one jump, and the ones that did were changed forever. He was learning many secrets, but not one that could save him or his people. His mother had been an addict, and passed on the side effects. She'd given him life, but she'd also taken it away.

 

The captain had insisted that they jump again that day, and Justin didn't argue. Die today or die tomorrow; what difference did it make? He knew he was getting closer to understanding Hardy’s secret—soon he'd master the technique and become a true jumpman. Somehow, he had to hold out.

“Breathe in,” said Hardy. “Separate yourself. Back up the coil, that’s right. Adjust your seat of consciousness. Imagine your brain attached to your soul, somewhere, distant. I think of it as a thin, golden coil.”

“I'm starting to see it," said Justin. Colors and textures swished around the cabin. He saw a spool of cord unwinding, the end moving towards him. Then it disintegrated into a pool of sounds and colors, smells and pressures. "It's nonsense."

“It’s not nonsense!” snapped Hardy. “Do as I say or die like a fool!” Justin tried again, desperate this time. His heart pounded, missing beats like a young kid on a bass drum, and black crept into the corners of his vision. He felt the grip of death on his throat. The Keineffer’s syndrome was about to claim him. “I’m concentrating,” he insisted to Hardy, forcing his mind to visualize the spool. It appeared again, and the end of that shining coil unraveled and extended towards him. “I'm almost there.”

“I’m jumping higher this time,” said Hardy, pulling back the lever. Justin felt reality rolling askew. Hardy pulled the lever back even further, to the very limit. “It's now or never, Justin!” he shouted, turning towards him. Both of his eyes were cool and steady.

Justin's hands closed around the end of the coil, and he felt himself being pulled away from his body and all consciousness.  Yet, he could each muscle in his body and every synapse firing in his brain. He'd never had so much control over his body. He was able to steady his heart and ease his tension. He'd done it! How it had happened he could not say; but he knew he was a jumpman.

 

***

Justin closed his eyes and sighed softly. They were docking. The captain glanced at him, the smile on his face like a father's at his firstborn. “Congratulations, jumpman.”

“I’ve never felt that way, it was fantastic!” Justin declared with enthusiasm. “I was in complete control! I could control everything, my heart, my blood pressure, everything!”

Hardy chuckled, then tapped his head. “I take it you've got the secret now?"

“A connection?” blurted Justin. “The Sacred Distance? Meditation.”

“Deeper,” said Hardy, steering Gehjouth towards a station. “You haven’t figured out why the rest all died? Why most people can’t survive more than a couple of jumps?”

“I don’t know,” Justin shrugged.

“Rigid. They were too rigid. They were separated too far from their soul,” Hardy’s eyes narrowed. “Or, if you want to be less poetic, blame it all on their stable physiology. Justin, you had the same advantage that I had, that Randolf had, and every other jumpman!”

Justin racked his brain for the key. He spoke uncertainly. No. It couldn't be. But? “Not, Keineffer’s?”

“Exactly!” said Hardy as Gehjouth slid into the bay. “It’s all about flexibility, varying the distance between your conscious and your body. It’s about a lot of things. Concentration. You and I are the only jumpers who manipulate the distance. Others, like Randolf, rely on Pendrolax.”

“But they don’t last long,” Just said, confused. “No pilot lives long after he starts jumping. A few months at most, is that right?”

“That’s right. Randolf was as down to earth as you and me four months ago. He's lasted a long time, but he's withered. I’d give him another few weeks before the Pendrolax finishes him. The drug can help you keep in control during a jump, but the stress is too much. No, the only way is to roll with it. That’s why a certain disease makes it possible to survive the jump. It relaxes the rhythms just enough to bend instead of being broken by it. But men like Randolf try to fight it—it’s either that or lose themselves entirely. Randolf is a good man. He was my apprentice, too, Justin. A friend. But he gave up on me and took the easy way out.”

“Keineffer’s,” Justin gasped. “Pendrolax was originally a treatment! But it was too addictive. It was outlawed.”

“Pendrolax is one way,” Hardy shrugged.

Justin shook his head, reeling in the surge of new information. “Where’s your black ring?” Justin squinted at the captain’s bearded mouth.

“I don’t shave,” Hardy said simply.

“You mean that—all this time—you knew? You knew all along? Didn’t you?” Justin stammered out several more realizations, much to the delight of Hardy, who clapped his hands and laughted at each one. “Then it’s possible to live with Keineffer’s syndrome! But for how long?”

“A pretty good while,” said Hardy.

“But—how old are you?” Justin asked suddenly, remembering the photo and the date he'd assumed was incorrect.

“Ah, I think you’ve got it now. You’re starting to get it. The Youth drug did have geriatric properties,” said Hardy. He tugged at his beard. “But it doesn’t work the way anyone would suspect. It’s not passive. With the right mix of concentration and the catalyst, though,” Hardy let his voice drift off. “Justin, to answer your question, I’m ninety-five years old.”

Comments

Mark Vergeer
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Come on people, let us hear

Come on people, let us hear what you think of this piece of prose!

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Mark Vergeer - Editor / Pixelator
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davyK
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I like sci-fi short stories.

I like sci-fi short stories. Always have.

This is pretty good. A nice idea and the story is told very well. I like the sequence in which it unrolls.

The only criticism is maybe Matt tried too hard with the similes at the start of the story. For example, things like : "Memories fell like drops of colored water on glass." and "The odor stabbed into his nostrils like Q-tips smeared with feces. " appear a wee bit too often too close together. I've no problem with them being there, or with the quality of them - just the amount and rhythm of them. This tends to not be a problem later in the story - maybe Matt's enthusiasm at the start?

An excellent effort though. Certainly better than anything I have ever tried to produce in the past. I have read a lot of sci-fi short stories and if the small problem I mentioned was watered down, it would not be out of place in anthologies I have read.

Matt Barton
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Yes, I think that's probably

Yes, I think that's probably worthy criticism. I was having too much with similes! I promise, once you get started with them, it's hard to stop! I must admit, though, I am rather partial to that Q-Tip one. You have to admit, that makes for a vivid image. Or should I say smell? ;-P

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Mark Vergeer
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Sordid humor I say, those

Sordid humor I say, those clean almost clinical q-tips smeared with feaeces. As an MD and Shrink (90% there) it brought a smile to my face. But then again I might still be caught up in the 'anal developmental phase' ;)

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Mark Vergeer - Editor / Pixelator
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Matt Barton
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So what did folks think of

So what did folks think of the story and the characters? Are you interested at all in learning what happens to Justin and Hardy after this startling revelation? Mind you, I don't mind some worthy criticism, but I'd like to know if anyone's interested in seeing more of my fiction here at AA!

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Rowdy Rob
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Jumpman: my thoughts
Matt Barton wrote:

So what did folks think of the story and the characters? Are you interested at all in learning what happens to Justin and Hardy after this startling revelation? Mind you, I don't mind some worthy criticism, but I'd like to know if anyone's interested in seeing more of my fiction here at AA!

Matt, it's way past my bedtime, but I took the time to read your short story (or first chapter?). Here are my thoughts, both praise and criticism. The criticisms might be harsh, so I hope you have a thick skin.

The good:

The two main characters had intriguing and well-defined personalities. I especially enjoyed the banter and interplay between them. The character work was strong in this story.

The story itself was very intriguing, with a great level of imagination describing the "jump." The layering of mysteries was very good, and really kept my interest. What is a "jumpman?" Why is Justin doing this? How is Hardy surviving all this? And there were several other levels of intrigue going on at once, but to mention them might spoil the fun for those who haven't taken the time to read the story yet.

Needless to say, the character personalities and the strong, mysterious story kept me very intrigued and interested, keeping me glued to the monitor until the end. I really want to emphasize the intrigue; it was definitely the strongest suit of the story, with mystery piling on mystery. Each "reveal" lead to a new Pandora's Box of mysteries. "Jumpman" stands on its own very well as a short story, but your comments above imply that there might be a bigger story at hand. If so, I hope you keep the "layering of mysteries" angle for the rest of the story. You do that very well!

The criticisms (brace yourself):

The similes! There are WAY too many similes in your prose. I'm not opposed to similes at all, but you overused them to the extent that it was a noticable distraction. That is by far my main criticism. DavyK mentioned this also, but I noticed the same thing independently before reading his comments. Perhaps you were going for a "hard-boiled" nior style?

I would have also liked to see more descriptive prose in the story. The story is very light on setting the scene or describing places and objects. For example, the ship "Gehjouth" is described as sleek and shiny. and it had a hatch. That's it. How big was it? Was it as big as a bus, a yacht, a cruise ship, or what? What was its shape? Did it have wings, did it have massive thrusters? What color was it?

Also, where did the beginning of the story take place? A space station, I know, but where? Was it orbiting a planet, floating near a distant nebula, in the cold blackness between galaxies, or what?

I'm not saying you should strive for Tolkien-level scenery-setting, but the vagueness of the descriptions makes it hard to spark the readers' imagination and get immersed in the setting. The exception to your lack of descriptions was of the "jumps" themselves, with the surreal effects (and possible spiritual implications) excellently and enjoyably described. It is here that your story hits "the next level," where your imagination really shines and your readers are really taken for a journey!

If you traded out most (not necessarily ALL) of your similes for some scene-setting descriptions, I think you would have a stronger (and certainly marketable!) story. The basic storyline itself was definitely at least as intriguing as some of the best sci-fi short stories I've read (and I used to read the Omni and Asimov's short story mags, so I've read a lot of short stories).

Overall, the STORY was very imaginative and intriguing, with the mysteries and strong characters overcoming the criticisms I described above. Let me emphasize that the STORY was great, up there (and even surpassing) some of the short stories I've read by some of the big names (like Orson Scott Card and... heck, my mind's running on empty now, need sleep). Sorry for the criticisms, but those were my opinions.

qoj hpmoj o+ 6uo73q 3Jv 3svq jnoh 77V

Anonymous (not verified)
to long

to long

Matt Barton
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Oh, the pain, the pain.

Oh, the pain, the pain.

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Matt Barton
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Thanks for the comments,

Thanks for the comments, Rob. It's been awhile since I wrote this story, so wasn't sure who had seen it or not. I agree about the rampant similes; the original draft had been criticized for being too plain, so I think I overcompensated in the revision. D'oh! It's funny how reading over these old drafts can give you the itch to write fiction again. It's been my lifelong dream to write novels, but that's about as unrealistic as a college freshman dreaming of a life as a professional actor (or poet, ouch!)

I have a horror story here as well (in the vein of Lovecraft), but I've hesitated making it public. It's a deeply psychological tale told from the eyes of a madman. It's called "The Portcullis of Love." :) It might be a bit too dark for most of AA, though.

I need to dig up my old story "Metal Monk." I thought it was one of my best, though I need to polish it up.

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