This story revolves around a rather strange idea I got when a friend used the phrase “freedom jaunt”. The words somehow suggested a very interesting scifi universe in my mind, and this story is what eventuated. In writing this story, I drew inspiration from memories of a book (The Homeward Bounders, by the inestimable Dianna Wynne Jones) I read quite some time ago with a fascinating concept at its center. Warning: it turned out rather dark!
Another blasted landscape. Another endless plain of withered trees and toxic clouds, clinging tightly to soil long devoid of nourishment. Just one more empty, poisoned world to wander, seeking danger and adventure (in that order) as the old explorers always dreamed they’d do: with a glint in your eye and the wanderlust in your heart. With their cavalier attitude, they’d conquered worlds beyond counting; indomitable, fearless, and dead.
I wondered how I would die this time.
I surveyed the alien landscape with a critical eye, flipping through likely hazards in my head. Toxic gas, unique carnivorous flora, aggressive natives with novel means of execution. The atmosphere seemed remarkably poisonous, but that was no help; suffocation had claimed me at Death 17, back in the early days of jaunting when I hadn’t yet exhausted such conventional means. I tugged out my Death Log and scanned the first few entries with a morbid fondness.
Death 3 (world EL117, instantaneous): run over by a car travelling at 60 km/h.
Death 15 (world EH550, prolonged): mauled by wild Bengal tiger.
Death 24 (world EH494, prolonged): drowned in shallow tidal pool.
Not the most original deaths, I grant you, but every Jaunter’s Death Log started off like that, with a string of fairly obvious, easy deaths. It wasn’t normally until you reached the sixties or seventies that people began struggling for ideas, but I’d once met a Jaunter back on a high-risk Earth-like who was deadlocked at only fifty-three! It’s pathetic, really, that there are people out there who lack the imagination required for successful jaunting, but I guess it’s like they say: some people just don’t deserve to die.
Allow me to introduce myself. I’m Jaunter A4404, but you can call me Mel, since Melanie was my name back before Death 0. I’m 22 years old and I’ve died over 370 times. Currently, I’m working my way through a string of high-risk Barrens – BH in the lingo – and not having too difficult a time with it, thanks to my flair for creative expiration. I’ve met Jaunters who complain about Barrens all the time, but they’re full of hazards for the clever to exploit, and hey, they’re better than a low-risk Empty. I shuddered. Anything is better than a low-risk Empty. A single (-)L entry in a Death Log is a mark of huge respect among us, but I’ve heard stories of legendary Jaunters like A113 and B8 who have death counts in the thousands and entire pages of (-)L entries in their Death Logs. A chain of Empties is every Jaunter’s greatest fear.
Well, no use sitting around until I die of old age – I’d been saving that one as a contingency for nearly 400 deaths now, and I wasn’t about to waste it on a BH, of all places. I knelt down on the disconcertingly spongy ground and opened up my backpack to check the three items the Others had seen fit to give me for this death, on the off chance that one might actually be useful. I sighed as I spread the meager offerings on the ground: a highlighter, a rusted bed spring, and a tiny ball of lint that was carried off by a gust of hot, fetid air as soon as I let go. Absolutely worthless – the Others certainly had a strange sense of humor where Jaunters were concerned.
Oh, well. I stuffed the highlighter and bed spring back into the pack, abandoning the lint ball to its fate. I stood up, picked the most unappealing direction I could, and set off into the unknown, whistling tunelessly. Despite my air of unconcern, I walked with caution, viewing every shrivelled shrub and miasmic cloud as potential threats. It wasn’t that I was afraid of dying – that was, after all, my goal – but breaking a leg or suffering a debilitating injury would be a major inconvenience, and could even lead to possible deadlock. After a cringe-worthy experience on EH213 (the less about which is said, the better), I was warier than ever of non-lethal injuries, or wounds that were lethal but already Logged. I had no desire to try and drag myself around on this spongy ground with a shattered spine.
As I wandered across the Barren, I stopped frequently to inspect promising wildlife and start getting a sense of the world I’d found myself on, just in case I ended up being stuck here for an extended period of time. Consciously mapping out a new world is a habit all successful Jaunters get into very quickly; starvation and dehydration might have been Logged hundreds of deaths ago, but that didn’t stop them weakening you to the point of exhaustion. It appeared to be late afternoon on this world, and I took note of the twin setting suns on the horizon that would no doubt bake the surface dry during the day. Not too far from where I’d awoken, I found a geyser spouting boiling water everywhere that might serve as an emergency drinking station, and a curious shrub with purple-tinged leaves that seemed edible, in a pinch.
Soon, my wanderings took me past a bare patch of ground upon which rested a curious rock with an oddly fuzzy outline. Upon closer inspection, I realized that its wavering form was caused by the motion of thousands of tiny spiders crawling and skittering across its stony surface; evidently they’d made their nest beneath it. Leaning in extremely close, I could see that each spider had angry red markings all along their backs, giving the impression of nothing more than a roiling tide of blood washing across the rock’s surface. Though I knew that death by spider bite had been Logged many, many deaths ago, this was nonetheless an exciting development, and a chance to test the theory I’d been formulating for quite some worlds now.
You see, the Others are very particular about the rules of death while Freedom Jaunting – often, it’s not the actual cause of death that matters so much as the circumstances. For example, let’s say a Jaunter has Logged falling down a pit and being impaled by a spike on two separate worlds. Now say the same Jaunter falls into a pit lined with spikes at the bottom – one might assume this would be a repeat of one of the earlier two deaths, and the Jaunter would survive; impaled, but alive. Well, no; in whatever warped rulebook the Others use, this is a distinct death and it would be Logged accordingly. The peculiarities of the system I’d found myself trapped in were something that could only be worked out through self-destructive trial and error, and the proper application of the scientific method.
So I tried out my idea. I went hunting around on the ground nearby until I found a rock (this one not swarming with spiders) with a suitably jagged spur for what I had in mind, and then returned to the swarming nest.
“Sorry, you little monsters,” I said, addressing the mindlessly scuttling spiders. “Science demands its sacrifices.” I hefted my own rock in one hand, judging its weight, then began banging the makeshift bludgeon wildly against the surface of the other rock, feeling the bodies of minute arachnids smoosh beneath my frenzied blows. After a few more blind strikes, I paused, pulling away my improvised weapon to inspect the damage I’d wrought.
The surfaces of both rocks were smeared with tiny carcasses and a reddish-purple goop that was (I hoped) a toxic mixture of spider blood and venom. Humming tunelessly to myself once more, I reversed the rock in my hands, rubbing the pointed tip in the foul-smelling goop until it was coated in the stuff. Now for the hard part. Shaking the rock to dislodge a few leftover spider corpses, I gritted my teeth and dug its sharp tip into my upturned arm, aiming for one of the pale blue veins that spider-webbed the surface. Luckily, the tip was sharp enough that it slid in fairly easily, and I repeated the process a few more times, just to make sure.
Task finished, I dropped the rock carelessly and walked a little distance away, lying spread-eagled on a patch of spongy ground free from the noxious fumes that plagued the landscape. After a brief while, I became aware of a curious tingling sensation up and down the arm where I’d jabbed myself. As I lay there, the numbness spread rapidly through my arm, until I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore and my shoulder had begun to get pins and needles. Here we go, I thought, as beads of sweat began to push through my pores to dot my forehead.
There was no doubt that the venom of the small red spiders I’d heartlessly crushed and then injected was extremely dangerous; the only question that remained was whether it would prove fatal or not. I would know soon enough when the venom made its way into my heart chamber in sufficient quantities to paralyze the muscles that kept the old pump beating. At that stage, I would either die quickly from oxygen deprivation to my brain, or linger on, paralyzed but kept alive by the curse the Others had placed upon me until the toxins had worked their way through my system. Either way, I was in for an unpleasant time.
In the interests of decency, I’ll spare you the details of the next few hours spent in acute discomfort on that spongy ground. All I’ll say is that at some point I lost consciousness, and woke up in a different place altogether. It wasn’t gradual, this awakening, but then it never was; one moment I was flat on the ground, writhing in the grip of an alien poison coursing through my veins, and the next I was standing in a grassy field in warm sunshine. Lush green stalks of buffalo grass danced and swayed by my ankles, riffled by a cool, pleasant breeze sweeping through. I just blinked, jarred by the abrupt transition, and raised my miraculously healed and fully-functioning arm to shade my eyes from the bright sunlight flooding the field.
So. My plan had worked, and from the idyllic landscape I was in some variety of Earth-like, probably low- or medium-risk, and through that string of blasted Barrens at last. I sank to my knees on the grass, shrugging off my ever-present backpack and burying my face in the soft, springy stems, inhaling the rich smell of earthy soil. It had been a long, long time since I’d found myself in such peaceful surroundings, and I relished the opportunity to just sit for a while and catch my breath – heck, it had been so long since I’d been on a world that even had a breathable atmosphere that I had forgotten the simple joy of inhalation.
As I knelt there, reacquainting myself with the pleasures of breathing, my dreamy reverie was shattered by the piercing cry of a bird above. And not just any bird: a swallow-tailed kite, the cry of which I’d recognize anywhere. It was a species that was native only to a very few regions of Terra One (what we Jaunters called the old Earth), one of which was where I lived – had lived – before Death 0. I felt that familiar shoot of hope blossom forth inside me, that irrepressible shred of optimism that hadn’t yet given up on finding my way home. I closed my eyes, trying to sense if anything was different, if the curse of the Others had been lifted, but I felt the same as ever.
You see, I didn’t know how it was meant to be if I did make it back to Terra One, my morbid sojourn through the endless worlds complete at last. There were no stories about it among the Jaunters, not a single one; I had never heard of anybody who’d made it back, found their way to the goal we all sought but never dared think to find. For if anybody had returned, how would those of us still doomed to wander and relive the moment of our death over and over again ever know?
Unbidden, the disconnected images and sensations of my first death came to me. A cacophony of random noise, panicked shouts from all around, the unseen clatter of gunfire, a promising young life cut short in an unthinking instant. But the Others had caught me, trapping my essence in whatever arcane mechanism they’d constructed, plucking my soul from the stream of the departed. And they had brought me back.
Freedom Jaunting, it was called. What a cruel joke. On every world, my 22-year-old body born anew, given a new lease on life only to cut it brutally short as I sought inventive ways to off myself, presumably for the perverse pleasure of the Others. What purpose did it serve? Why should we obey the whims of these alien creatures, mere presences which we would never meet? Just one thing.
That one hope that drove us desperately onwards, dangled before us like a carrot on a stick: that if we managed to avoid deadlock, to kill ourselves enough times to fulfil whatever inscrutable goal the Others had constructed, we would be allowed to reclaim our mortality and resume our severed lives. After so many worlds and so many deaths, I was surprised to find that tenacious flame still burning on, somehow, kindled by some primal instinct buried in the depths of my soul. Lips parted, the mantra bursting forth.
We are the Jaunters
We are the wanderers seeking freedom
Freedom from the life behind
Freedom in the destination but never in the journey
Freedom at the end of all things