Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

To Jump Is to Fall

The ceiling for a jump without oxygen is fourteen thousand feet, give or take a football field or two.

I step out of the plane at closer to eighteen, with the idea I can hold my breath for four thousand feet of terminal velocity. At ten seconds for the first thousand feet and about five seconds for each thousand feet after that, that should mean no more than half a minute of anoxia.

It should be a snap, except for the neural disinhibitor misting through the dendritic space of every thought I’m trying to have—every half a thought. Every sliver or glimmer of a wisp of a thought.

The disinhibitor is great, don’t get me wrong. All the shackles fall away, the mind can finally overclock like it’s probably been wanting to do since humanity stepped out onto the savanna. The image I got during orientation was a coked-up hamster on a wheel, going faster and faster until the blood from its paws is a spray, striping the woodchip floor then back wall then clear ceiling then front wall of its habitat.

That hamster is in my head now.

It doesn’t make me smarter—I wish—but the latent telepathy we’re all born with and never have access to except to call it ‘instinct,’ it manifests, it unspools, it reaches out for whoever it can hook into, meaning that, for the whole climb up, the pilot’s skull was, to me, glass. Reading minds isn’t like watching words appear in glowing letters on a board, either. There’s no scroll, no crawl, no subtitles. I don’t think mind-to-mind really needs language, even. It’s more like rubbing a dry sponge against a wet one.

What I sponged in from the pilot, it was . . . not exactly the song blasting in his earbuds—music, I’d been told, would keep his mind too busy for me to crack into—but what that song was carving up from his memory: a concert he’d been to when he was fifteen. And not just that: there was another kid in the mosh pit, too far off to ever jam into with a shoulder, but the pilot hadn’t wanted to, didn’t know what would happen if he did. That sweaty, bare-chested kid jumping and slamming and losing himself in the music, his mouth and lips locked in a constant mute roar, it was the pilot, which made me knee-jerk think this was a memory, maybe. But from whose point of view, right? Or was the pilot’s angle back on himself a kind of condensation of the whole experience? Did he have this kind of angle and distance because he was half a life older already, always receding more and more from the punk kid he’d been?

I’d been warned not to believe everything I read from somebody’s head, to ignore everything but the data, the information, but still, right? The way the pilot had been dwelling on this, it was . . . he was flying the plane at the same time he was losing his sense of self in that mosh pit, but he’d been losing himself in that mosh pit at fifteen as well. And I wasn’t sure he ever really left that moment, that wrongness of seeing himself across all the craziness, through the haze of whatever he’d been on. The way software has a kernel? This mosh pit was my pilot’s kernel.

It made me wonder what mine might be.

Trying not to think like that, I turned my head to the side, my left ear to the roar of the wind, and, even though I knew not to, I nearly tried to gulp some air in. No: some cold.

Would my lungs frost on the inside, shatter in my chest?

I straightened back up, leaned into the dive—be a bullet, not a sail—trying to relish what I’d never known to be so pleasant before: the solitude of my own, and only my own, thoughts.

Fifteen-hundred-plus jumps and I’m just figuring that out, yeah. Probably six hundred of those on the military’s dime, but the rest on my own, after I was processed out. My middle initial is “P,” and, whenever I can work it in, I claim that it’s for ‘Plummet.’ Meaning I was born for this.

It’s really ‘Peter,’ after my dad, but who cares.

For all intents and purposes, this is my first jump where my mind is billowing out well before the silk does.

It’s like falling into myself, like I’m in a tunnel, in an impossibly tall silo with a giant fan at the bottom, the blades whirring so fast they’re pushing me up, up, up, giving me seconds, drying my mouth out, my eyes crying in my goggles not from the wind, but the pleasure.

They’re paying me to get doped up and do this, but I’d have paid to do it.

Never mind that the facility I’m divebombing is federal.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m no terrorist, and I don’t hold some grudge about the missions I can’t talk about—I don’t even care about politics. It’s just . . . how there’s ski bums, trading bunny slope work for a lift ticket for the day? How there’s climbers living in their cars at the base of the rock face, just so what they love can be closer?

I’m that way with the sky. I’m that way with falling through it at two hundred miles per hour, my air brakes just a rip cord away.

And all I’ve got to do for an infinite jump pass, now, for a lifetime of air below me, is nab one network key when this federal facility comes into my telepathic range, which is supposed to be about a quarter-mile, though nothing’s exact here.

There’s more working parts to this heist than just me, too.

On the ground, at the facility, minutes before I jumped, while the pilot was still climbing us higher and higher, his head bobbing with the song piping into ears, a sarin gas alarm lit up on some control panel. The result was a fire drill: everybody out.

The sarin gas is only for the alarm, of course—enough to register, but gone before it can do any harm. It’s just how my check signers are clearing the facility of the mental chatter associated with too many people in one place.

In the case of biological weapons dispersal at a federal facility, same as everywhere probably, you run away, everybody scatters . . . except, in the case of this facility in particular, there’s always five administrators in the tower, five administrators whose rooms lock down, cycling air in from tanks—no sarin gas can make it in there.

One of those five is supposed to be the head honcho of the IT department, who’s the only one with today’s network key cycling through the back of his mind.

The way to get it to the front of his mind is simple: a phone call on his private line, asking him straight out, “Um, hey, you do have that network key, don’t you?” He hangs up, looks around suspiciously, but all the same, he’s now thinking of exactly the string of numbers and letters and symbols we need. To get everything synced up perfect, this pre-recorded call isn’t even triggered until my altimeter broadcasts that I’m within range.

As for why I don’t just mill around in the parking lot, try to grab the key from his head that way?

Number one, the neural disinhibitor agent is making me bleed from the gums and nose and ears and eyes and the lining of my esophagus. The neural agent is not FDA-approved, will never be mass-produced, but, all the same, since it came from this facility I’m hurtling towards, they’ve got the ground fenced off for three miles in all directions, and the guards shoot first, ask questions never.

The number two reason I’m falling from the sky instead of skulking around the parking lot is that there’s a device all high-level personnel wear clipped to their belts that can transmit a blocking frequency against temporary telepaths like me, but those buzzers only go active when, and if, there’s ever any unauthorized access. Not just in the building, but on the grounds.

So, say I somehow magically breached the fences and sensors and rifles, am milling around in the parking lot with the rest of these fire-drill evacuees, just generally bleeding from the head and causing a stir, no ID badge clipped to my shirt. What happens as soon as somebody clocks me as the danger I most definitely am is that every person in the facility with important data committed to memory feels a certain telltale hum at their waistline, and, like that, I’m firewalled out, collecting zero pay.

And, this pay?

One jump and I’m set for life, medical included. Any injuries I incur from a late pull, any lingering effects of the neural disinhibitor, they’re all paid for, even if they go chronic. Even if they’re psychological or emotional.

My parachute here is seriously golden, yes.

And this isn’t even morally compromising work, not really. As they explained it to me—nothing committed to paper, all of it piped into the room I’d been invited into—this network key isn’t for nuclear codes or intelligence officer names, nothing like that. It’s just the key that unlocks the location of a certain black facility, one of those off-the-maps-dark, wetworky kind of places, those detention and torture centers with incinerators down the hall—those places the Geneva Convention will never know about, that the whole world should know about.

I’m not political, no, there’s no politics at four thousand feet and falling, but I do have a basic sense of right and wrong.

And, one minute of work for a lifetime of freedom?

Who wouldn’t say yes to that?

All I had to do was swallow a pill under supervision of a medical team, and then do what I’m always doing anyway: jump out of a perfectly good plane.

As for my training, there weren’t any ripcords or tethers or how-to videos, and the training didn’t involve conditioning my dormant telepathic capabilities—as I understand, there’s no working out those muscles. All my training involved, at first, was a deck of cards and playing some blackjack for Halloween-size candy bars.

For four days I memorized where the ten was, what the jack was doing, my heart jittery with sugar.

After that I graduated to flashcards facedown on the table, which I could look at for, at first, five seconds, then four, on down to just a glimpse. Initially the number was two digits, then more, then some letters and symbols mixed in, and, this last night, an impossible sixteen-digit-and-character jumble, gone almost before I even saw it.

The team didn’t expect me to remember each number and letter and symbol individually, they assured me, but did want me to focus on the shape of the whole string, the contours, the rises and falls, the dips and drops, the sharp walls and fast valleys, and how wide those valleys were, or weren’t, and whether their floor was flat or bumpy, which could be the difference in an e and an n, an a and a u.

As they explained it, there wouldn’t be time, falling out of the sky, the ground less than a quarter-mile from my face and coming fast, for me to build anything as fancy as some memory palace—which they also had to explain to me. But I would be able to take a mental snapshot. I could get the shape of the network key before that IT admin’s belt hummed on. And, working within the general confines of that shape, there would be exponentially fewer combinations of numbers and letters and symbols that would fit. If they were lucky, they could use that shape to crack the key before the clock reset it, and stop all manner of human rights violations from revving up.

Easy as that. I get paid whether they’re successful or not, and I don’t have to take the disinhibitor again, only see my team again at whatever local medical facility I get delivered to—all of which they have stuffed with their operatives—so I can sketch the shape of the network key all secret under my order for Jell-O or ibuprofen or whatever.

Like I say, who wouldn’t sign on this dotted line?

Technically now, falling—three thousand feet, twenty-five hundred—I’m not even working, am just commuting to work. The job part of this doesn’t even start until I get close enough to the tower to soak up the general shape of sixteen digits, numerals, and symbols.

Cake all the way down, man.

Because it’s so easy is why, I guess, I’m halfway paying attention to what’s going on in the bleary edges of my peripherals. I’m not worried about counter-insurgent ordnance, nothing fancy and over-the-top like that. I’m just, you know, drifting, looking at all the pretty stuff, like, say . . . my drop-plane puttering off into the horizon.

I lift my hand to wave bye to the pilot, thank him for the lift—it’s a stupid gesture, but who’s watching?—and that’s when the plane, framed between my thumb and index finger, explodes. It was already trailing smoke, which was supposed to look all in distress, that was why I’d “had” to emergency-jump into restricted airspace. But the pilot had his story for when he landed, wherever he landed. I’d heard him being put through the paces of it until he had it down.

Meaning?

No way did he know there was an explosive under his seat. No way did he know his concert was coming to such an abrupt end.

I spread my arms and legs to slow my descent, maybe think this whole thing through again.

So . . . so they’ll cash in a plane for this network key. Got it. And—and they’ll snuff out a human being just the same?

How long are they going to need me after I trace the shape of that network key, right?

And that’s if I even survive the fall. Deploying a chute as close to the ground as I’m about to, well, first, it isn’t a standard chute, not even close. Chutes are designed to open slowly, so as not to rip their harness up through the body of the jumper, they’re not designed to jet up and out on invisible struts of compressed CO2.

At four hundred yards from the big splat, I won’t have the luxury of a soft whoosh.

My chute might be colorful and pretty, but that’s just so that, when it’s on the ground in disarray, nobody will question it.

It’s designed to stop me nearly instantly, though. Nothing soft about it. It’s going to be only minimally better than hitting the ground, I know, and have been warned about it. Never mind the custom harness, the extra padding, all the body armor and braces on under my jumpsuit.

When I rip my cord, I’m going to get stopped hard enough mid-fall that no way am I conscious for touchdown. All part of the plan, of course: Get the knocked-out, bleeding, off-course skydiver to the hospital, stat!

Never mind what I’m smuggling out in my short-term memory.

And then the alarm in my helmet chimes, the same chime that was always coming on at random times during all my blackjack games of the last few days. Pavlov’s dog that I am, my mind opens like a hungry flower.

As designed, the IT admin is the first mind I slurp in.

His name doesn’t matter. Just what he’s trying and trying not to think about.

It’s not—it’s not a network key.

Surprise, I say to myself, with zero surprise.

What’s at the front of his mind is a girl, seven, maybe eight. She’s in the front yard of a bland suburban home, just doing nothing, but then everything goes pale around her. The house and trees and sky all wash out. Everything except the street name on its green sign, and the number painted on the curb, in what I now realize is the same font on that deck of cards.

His daughter. His hidden-by-the-government estranged daughter, hidden so she can’t be used against him, can’t make him reveal secrets.

My check signers don’t want the key, they want the guy who has the new key every day.

And now they’ll have him.

When his belt device hums on with my aerial intrusion, the frozen image of his daughter turns to static, then snow, and like that she’s gone, sucked back into his head.

But not fast enough.

I have maybe a tenth of a second, here. A hundredth. A sliver of a slice.

I can pull the cord, black out, wake a rich man.

Or—

I’m not a good person. I’ve never claimed to be.

But, and I can see it now, I think this is why I dive, why I jump, why I fall: I still remember my estranged father tossing me up into the tiny sky of our backyard, tossing me higher and higher then standing on the grass below me, his hands open to catch me.

If this girl, this daughter, if she hadn’t been sitting on that same grass, then maybe I pull my ripcord, let my canopy snap open.

But she was where she was, and I am who I am, and—her father was trying so hard not to think of her, wasn’t he? Just, the harder he tried, the more she came into mental focus for me.

The whole climb up, my pilot’s skull was glass.

Mine isn’t, is just bone, but, just to be sure it shatters like it needs to, instead of pulling my ripcord, what I pull is my helmet’s chinstrap, so that when I hit, my short-term goes-with it, splashes all around.

It was a good jump, though.

And, to be honest, I kind of always wondered what it might be like if my chute didn’t open.

I’m coming home, Dad.

Catch me, please?

Stephen Graham Jones

Stephen Graham Jones is the NYT bestselling author of nearly thirty novels and collections, and there’s some novellas and comic books in there as well. Most recent are My Heart is a Chainsaw and Memorial Ride. Stephen lives and teaches in Boulder, Colorado.