Read by Cliff Chapman
She was naked, standing on the flat metal plate in her tiny apartment, and all I could see were her eyes. Caitlin. My closed, dead past. Resurrected, and about to disappear again, forever.
It started with a phone call, like always. My number’s in the freesheets, amongst the whores and the scams. I didn’t recognise the voice as I jotted down her address. She still wasn’t sure, she said. Could I come around tomorrow anyway, talk things through?
Of course, I said. No problem. It wasn’t like I could pick and choose.
They’re always unsure. It’s a big decision, and you have to be sure, or at least strong enough to kid yourself that you are. Desperate, usually, as well. How else could you decide to jump ahead to a time and place unknown? If you were going backward, maybe it’d be an easier decision. Everything might seem more familiar. But going back in time is just science fiction. Always will be, according to the scientists. The past is finished, fixed, dead. There’s no way in. No way back . The only way is forward. To one of an infinite number of futures, each one an equally likely reality, until the second hand ticks over, and one of them is chosen, fixed forever, and all the rest disappear. And on, and on, and on, second after second after second. Only forward.
So, you make a call, someone like me comes round, a few formalities, then you’re naked, on a metal plate, any one of a million, billion, trillion futures beckoning you. Only forward, because the past is a dead place, and it won’t let you in. Or at least, that’s what I thought.
Until she answered the door.
After fifteen years, you get a routine. You turn up, you talk as little as possible, you set up the plate, you get the contract signed, and you press the button. I’ve hit that little red circle so many times I can do it while thinking about cooking my tea. Maybe I’m cold. Emotionless. Maybe I’m just bored. Whatever. I’m a Plater. It pays the bills. Just. So when I knocked at her apartment, I wasn’t thinking about anything in particular.
But then Caitlin Deane answered the door.
I would never have imagined Caitlin as a Jumper, but then when this whole thing first started, no one really knew who would want to jump anyway. More than you’d think, it turned out.
The terminally ill, obviously. Think about it. You’ve got cancer. There’s no cure. But who knows? Somewhere, sometime - a time and place unknown - there might be. So there you stand, naked, palms together, on that thin metal plate. Here one second, gone the next. Maybe to somewhere – sometime – where whatever you’ve got doesn’t have to kill you.
So, terminals. Suicides too. If you’re ready to throw yourself out of your tiny apartment’s one-hundred-and-eighty-whatever floor window then stepping onto a humming metal sheet and hoping for the best must seem like the easier option. The time and place unknown might be a little bit more forgiving than a concrete walkway.
So, terminals, suicides. Criminals too, for a while. Until The Chief stopped it. At first it seemed like an easy solution to overcrowded institutions. Prison or the plate, the judge would ask. And most would say plate. Morally questionable, obviously. How can you inflict such a thing on the future? Well, no-one seemed to care. Wave after wave of murderers, rapists, paedophiles and the rest, naked on a metal plate. Here, then gone. Time and place unknown, but no longer our problem. Perfect.
Three years after his sentence, three short years after squatting on the plate, grinning his unrepentant rapist’s grin, three years after disappearing to a time and place unknown, McCabe reappears, still naked, still squatting, still grinning, on a path in a wood in Switzerland. The guy who reported it was walking his dog, said that one second there was just the path and the woods, and the next there was this man... He got on his phone as McCabe fled, and the Forces had him within the hour. He’s still the only one. The only proof – factual rather than theoretical - that this whole thing actually works. Time hasn’t caught up with any of the millions of naked, desperate jumpers who’ve taken the plate in over twenty-five years, apart from McCabe. That tells us two things: One: there’s a lot of time and place out there. Two: It works. They had to stop the crims, though. You can’t bequeath your shit to the future. Because the future might end up being now sooner than you think.
So, terminals, suicides, criminals. Idiots too. There are always idiots. In the early days, it was the most extreme of extreme sports. The adrenaline rush must beat the hell out of bungee jumping. It’s the certainty as well as the uncertainty, I think. You could end up not only anywhere, but also anywhen, and that’s got to be exciting, but it’s the certainty that they don’t really get until the very last moment. That terrible realisation that you’re here one second, gone the next. And you’re not coming back. For a while the young and the stupid dared each other into Plate-Jumping. But only for a while. Once you’ve witnessed a naked friend disappear – no smoke, no flash, nothing, just here, then gone – the reality of the thing hits home. It kills any sense of adventure you might have had. Like all fashions, Plate-Jumping had its time. Here, then gone.
So, terminals, suicides, criminals and idiots. A less lucrative clientele you couldn’t hope to find. And as I put the phone down on my latest caller I didn’t really care which she was. I get few enough calls, and a Jumper’s a Jumper. That’s all there is to it.
But then Caitlin answered her door.
Same black hair – perhaps a little grey. Same nervous smile – perhaps a little more nervous. Same green eyes – perhaps not quite as bright now. But it was her, and she obviously didn’t have a clue who I was any more.
It was the usual small apartment. Clean, and even more heartbreaking for that. The occasional nod to homely – a rug, a couple of glass trinkets - but otherwise, nothing. Bed. Micro. Wallscreen. Nothing else. Just like thousands upon thousands of apartments all over the city, and just like mine.
‘Would you like a drink?’ she said.
I put down the case. ‘No, thanks,’ I said. If my voice was trembling, she didn’t notice. But inside, I was shaking, cold. Disbelieving. But it was her.
‘I’m sure you’ll understand if I have one myself,’ she said, her back to me, already clinking in the cupboards. ‘It might be my last.’
You learn to ignore the chat, the delaying tactics, the attempts to talk themselves out of it. It’s business. You turn up. They sign. You press the button. That’s it. Everything else is just bullshit. The routine. It’s second nature. So while she poured herself a drink I turned my back, knelt, opened the case, set up the plate. Did my job.
Inside I was screaming.
We were eighteen, back then, and we did absolutely nothing any different to most other eighteen-year-old lovers. We laughed. Kissed. Made love. And promised never to leave. Just like everyone else. But the second hand ticks. Those infinite futures disappear - tick, tick, tick - leaving just the one. The one you’re stuck with. We argued. I left. Went abroad – it was a time of freedom, travel, the younger the better, not like now – and by the time I came back, I didn’t know where she was. The city had swallowed her up, like it does with most people, and I let it swallow me too.
Sometimes you don’t realise what you’ve lost, right up until you find it again.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I don’t know your name.’
I turned to her. ‘Mr James,’ I said, and there was not even a flicker of recognition.
‘Well, Mr James, I’ve been thinking since I phoned you.’ She sat down on the tiny couch, swallowed half of her drink in one.
‘And I know I said I wasn’t sure. But I am now. One hundred percent. I want to jump.’
‘There are some formalities to complete...’ I started, but she wouldn’t let me finish.
‘Forgive me, but I know all about it,’ she said, a vague snap of anger hidden beneath her smooth tone. ‘I’ve checked all of the advice sites. The contract. The warnings. The nakedness.’ She smiled. ‘I’ve always wondered about that part. I mean, is it really necessary to be naked?’
‘Symbolic more than necessary,’ I said. ‘Only living tissue can pass through, so you can wear whatever you want, but it’ll be left behind. You’ll arrive naked, so most people choose to leave that way too.’ I had to look away from those eyes to continue. ‘It’s to do with the idea of rebirth, leaving everything from one life behind before passing to the next. It’s a tradition, more than anything.’
‘And I thought it was just so you Platers could get your kicks,’ she said, smiling.
I fished in the case for the contract. ‘The paperwork ...’ I said.
‘I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to offend you.’ She reached across, took the sheet. ‘You need to know I'm very poor. You’re unlikely to get very much for what I leave behind. ‘
‘You’d be surprised,’ I said, trying for a smile. It was true. There were so many rumours about how Platers made their money – that it was a scam, that we sold the bodies, or that the Chief paid cash for each person we fried. Nothing so sinister, though. It’s the apartments. That’s all. The Chief turns a blind eye, and a good Plater always has a queue of desperate people from outside the city ready to pay over the odds for whatever they can get. Even the sprawling, teeming, dying capital is better than the Outlands. Within a week, most of them hate the place, but by then it’s too late.
Cait smiled. ‘If it’s not too much trouble, I’d like to get started,’ she said.
I looked up from the plate. ‘We’re ready,’ I said.
Standing up, she pulled off her jumper, t-shirt, jeans. ‘Seize the day,’ she said, as she slipped out of her panties, her bra. She was older now, and her body was not the same body I’d loved back then. But still, I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
She turned away, clearly embarrassed at my stare. ‘Let’s do it,’ she said, and she stepped onto the plate.
I took the controller in my hand. I took a breath. Then I looked up. ‘Can I ask why?’ I said. ‘I mean, are things that bad?’ It was the first time in fifteen years I had asked a Jumper anything.
Cait looked at me for a long time. Her eyes were dull. Almost dead. Nothing like the eyes I’d fallen in love with back then.
‘Sometimes,’ she said, ‘the light just goes out, you know?’
I smiled. Oh, yes. I knew. ‘It takes five seconds from when I press this button,’ I said.
She nodded, and I pressed.
After one second, I hadn’t decided anything. After two, still nothing.
After three, I said, ‘Goodbye, Cait.’
She looked at me. Realised. Said, ‘Jay?’ then ‘Jay!’
When I saw the light come on in her eyes – and with one second to go – I jumped at the plate.
(c) Jason Jackson, 2012
Jason Jackson recently returned to writing after a four-year hiatus. He hopes to build on the very limited success he had the first time around. Jason keeps a writing progress blog at https://tryingtofindthewords.blogspot.co.uk