by: Chris Thompson
A knock on the door, a billion miles from nowhere, finds one man’s destiny forever changed…
Clement had been obliterated exactly nine thousand, seven hundred and eighty-five times. According to the countdown clock glowing above his head, in less than one minute, he would experience obliteration number nine thousand, seven hundred and eighty-six. It didn’t hurt being obliterated. In fact, the experience was quite painless, akin to getting shocked by a metal doorknob, minus the wave of anxiety that Clement often experienced in the seconds before the countdown clock expired.
“Enjoy your trip,” the jump-technician in the blue, head-to-toe lab coat with a nametag that read “Jose” said to Clement as he left the room. Clement watched as the man locked a pair of thick, glass-walled doors behind him and gave a thumbs up to the camera mounted above the doors. Tilting his head out from behind a row of glowing monitors, Jose gave Clement a wink and a warm wave goodbye.
Clement smiled back nervously and then bit deeper into the soft rubber mouth guard he’d worn for almost every jump. He shifted uncomfortably in his seat and tightened his grip on the chair’s armrests, watching as Jose ascended a flight of stairs and disappeared. The jump-tech had annoyed Clement. He was far too jovial an individual for the seriousness of his job, and for Clement’s current apprehensive mood. He was glad the man was finally gone. Clement liked to jump alone, on his own terms, and he didn’t appreciate the likes of Jose.
The synthetic, leather-like material of the high-backed jump chair made a creaking noise in protest as Clement once-again shifted his weight. A high-pitched whine began to dominate Clement’s hearing, drowning out his train of thought, as the the room’s hidden machines began to charge for his impending jump.
Obliteration was the “key” to seeing the galaxy, the Cortez Company advertisements sang. Their jump technology made traveling enormous distances as simple as closing your eyes in one place and opening them in another. Clement had been all over the Milky Way in this fashion. He’d closed his eyes at an obliteration terminal on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles and opened them in Bradbury City, a shining metropolis spread across the floor of the Moon’s Tycho Crater. He’d closed his eyes lying prone on an obliteration spa bed buried deep under the scorching plains of Mercury and opened them on an icy rock orbiting Saturn well inside its majestic D-ring. He’d watched in wonder as an iridescent angler fish hunted for food amongst the crushing depths at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean’s Mariana Trench, and then an hour later, seen the Horsehead Nebula in the constellation Orion giving birth to stars in all its violent beauty.
Obliteration was an easy, cheap, and effective way to get around, and in Clement’s case, to see the galaxy, but its offer of convenience and speed harbored a dark side to match its effortlessness. Obliteration’s Achilles heel was a truth that few spoke of out loud, but which was universally accepted by all. To be obliterated meant exactly what the word described. In order to transport you insane distances in what effectively felt like no time at all, the jump-tech machines literally ripped your body apart at the atomic level, only for it be reassembled at some far-off point. According to the information pamphlet handed out to each individual considering a jump, the person you were before obliteration was essentially the same as the one you were after, except for the very real fact that the atoms you were comprised of were not the same ones that had made you up before. It was a “splitting of hairs” kind of truth, but to some, its implications were serious and far-reaching.
Opponents to the Cortez Company, and its jump technology, likened the experience to being killed and reborn. Religious detractors, especially the Catholic Church, routinely clashed with proponents of the jump tech, taking an ethical stance that accused the Cortez Company’s machines of killing the people who went into them, and that the person who emerged at the other end of the jump was not the same one who’d entered. Even if genetically, emotionally, mentally, and physically this line of reasoning had been proven, over and over again, to be patently false, jump tech’s detractors still pushed their narrative. It was the Pope’s belief, in concert with his millions of devout followers, that the one thing the world’s scientists couldn’t measure was whether obliteration brought a person’s soul along during the jump. There was only one man who had died and been resurrected, the Catholic Church argued, and that was a man named Jesus. It was a slippery slope when your technology made everyone a god, and they’d be damned if the Cortez Company, and the greater world, forgot that.
Clement counted down in unison with the clock as the final seconds until obliteration ticked away. He was embarking on a trip across the curving length of the Galaxy, his farthest jump yet, and Clement had no intention of coming back. He’d had his fill of the complex, increasingly interconnected societies on Earth and Luna, with their complicated relationships, impossible expectations, seemingly ubiquitous prejudices, and multifaceted rules. Clement had cashed in all of his accumulated JumpMiles, sold off all his belongings, given his pet iguana, Zeke, to his lonely, middle-aged sex-addict neighbor, Tina, and told the agent at his local Jump Tech office that he wanted to get as far away from Earth as possible. The agent had taken his money and miles, entered some parameters into the Cortez Company data stream, and come back with a location on an asteroid with a small, localized, and breathable atmosphere far out on the other side of the Milky Way.
The particulars of the conversation flashed into Clement’s mind as the final seconds of the jump came to pass…
“So, are we all set?” Clement asked impatiently, the fingers of his right hand tapping on the edge of the jump agent’s desk.
“Almost. I just need you to initial here, and here, aaaand here.”
Clement grabbed a Cortez Company pen from a mug on the man’s desk and quickly scrawled his initials on the inch-thick authorization form. He put the pen down and looked up at the agent.
“Is it mine now?” Clement asked, emphasizing the word “mine.”
“Congratulations, sir. You are now the proud owner of asteroid number ninety-three eighty-eight oh-seven dash two, in the farout reaches of the Milky Way’s Sagittarius arm.”
“And the jump?” Clement asked.
“Included free of charge. As a thank you from the Cortez Company for your loyalty.”
“And you are one hundred percent sure the asteroid’s unoccupied?”
“No one’s ever jumped this far before, sir. No person at least. We’ve had robotic scouts placing jump terminals all over the galaxy for decades now. This one’s been ready and waiting for years. According to our records, you’ll be the first, and only one, to pass through its gate.”
“Perfect. That’s exactly what I wanted to hear. And the habitation module? That will precede me on the jump?”
“Yes, we’ll send a small team ahead a few days before you jump and set everything up for you so that when you arrive you’ll find all the comforts of home. We’ll even fluff the pillows for you, free of charge.”
“Excellent. When do I leave?”
“How does a week from tomorrow sound, sir?”
“It sounds perfect, truly perfect. I can’t thank you enough!”
“It’s me who should be thanking you, sir. It’s not everyday I get to process a jump like this. I imagine my commission will be…considerable.”
Clement felt a slight shift, as if the floor had fallen out from under him, and a tingling in his extremities, as the jump technology tore him apart and reassembled him thousands of light years away. When he had finally gained his composure, he found he was standing slightly to the left of the glass and composite-steel habitation module the jump agent had shown him in the brochure back on Earth. It was more beautiful in person than Clement could have imagined, and the techs had gone the extra mile in its preparation, even hanging a “Welcome” sign across his home’s imitation-wood door. Clement breathed deeply of the asteroid’s (his asteroid’s) unique atmosphere, catching hints of galvanized metal and ozone in its essence. Not bad, he thought. Like a hot summer day after its rained. A man could get used to an aroma like this. He slung his travel pack over his shoulder, did a quick hop to get a feel for the gravity on his new home, and made a beeline for the hab’s front door.
Clement wasn’t five steps from reaching his home’s front steps when he noticed a glint out of the corner of his eye. Stopping sharply on the asteroids’ gravelly, pumice-like terrain, he put his hand up to his brow to block the light from the twin purple-red suns circling high above. It looked like another hab on the crest of a nearby hill was reflecting the late-day light, but Clement dismissed that as an impossibility. The jump agent had reassured Clement, repeatedly, that this asteroid was uninhabited, and his alone to enjoy.
Clement closed his eyes for a few seconds and opened them once again, chalking the mirage up to a by-product of the immense distance of his jump. When he opened his eyes, it wasn’t just the glint of light that was attracting his gaze. There was a new shape on the horizon. To Clement, it looked like an old blue pick-up truck with balloon-like tires and a row of lights across its roof was speeding quickly towards him. As Clement watched the vehicle grow bigger and clearer as it approached, he felt his heart jump into his throat. Bowing his head, Clement turned his back on the unfolding scene, climbed the four steps leading to his front door, and walked inside his new home. A pleasant, female voice with a British accent greeted him with a warm “Hello” as he passed into the hab’s foyer.
Before he could sit down to take his boots off, Clement heard a loud knocking on the front door. He rose dejectedly, shuffled to the front door, and opened it, the quiet and secluded future he envisioned for himself evaporating with each passing second. Clement had been sold a lie by the Cortez Company, and now he found himself stuck, penniless, and without options, billions of miles from anywhere, for as many days as he had left to live.
“Howdy, neighbor! Name’s Mike,” Clement’s unexpected guest enthusiastically declared. “They told me this place was uninhabited. Ain’t you a sight for sore eyes!”
“Yes, indeed.” Clement whispered, then promptly closed the door.