The Highest Step

by Gilles Messier

THE WORLD was at his feet. Through the thin glass circle, the full curve of the globe swept across his vision, his entire universe at a glance. How frail it looked from here: a ball of blown glass, glowing ethereal blue from within. And between the majestic arc and the darkness he saw the the faint band of blue haze; so faint, it seemed, that a brush of the hand would sweep it away. All that stood between the planet and a harsh universe. The Jumper glanced at the gossamer envelope towering over the gondola. He sailed as a ship at sea, skimming the spray on an ocean of thin air. The entire atmosphere lay below him: the spring rains, the summer breezes, the tempests and typhoons.

Laying his hand on the gondola wall, the Jumper pondered the cold vacuum just beyond the thin aluminium shell. Once free of this spherical cocoon, his armor would be frailer still: a few layers of cloth, rubber and plastic would shield him from the void. His fate, and that of countless meteors that had dared brave the planet’s deceptively ephemeral defenses, would be separated by a thin billowing shroud.

These things he knew as fact, just as he knew his altitude: thirty-six kilometres, high above the mightiest mountains. Yet this was mere data; he felt nothing. This was a world beyond instinct. Beyond a certain height - he could not say when - the mind lost all sense of scale. Hundreds or thousands of metres meters more made no difference; he might have been sitting still on the ground, television screens for portholes. The world seemed to come to him through a numbing block of lead; only once outside would he truly sense the alien realm into which he had ventured. He shuddered at the plight of his predecessor all those years ago, crouching alone in an open gondola on his voyage to the edge of space.

It was time. The Jumper donned his helmet, the hiss of the oxygen ringing in his ears. Oh, to venture out unclothed, he thought, to immerse himself in this world above the sky. But this was no world of men, and such a journey would have been his last. His own atmosphere, a miniature earth, would accompany his long fall home.

The jumper was ready. He twisted a valve to depressurize the gondola. Tapping his hand against the metal hull, he listened as the sound faded away. This was a silent world, a dead world. He unbolted the hatch, the last barrier between him and the unknown. The portal swung aside, and he came face to face with the planet.

The clouds stretched in great rippling furrows below him, shimmering a dazzling, blinding white. The sun glinted off an airliner skimming over the pearlescent dunes, as far below the Jumper as it flew above the ground. Sudden trepidation washed over the Jumper. The planet seemed to recede from him, falling at a terrifying rate. But he did not hesitate. Granting fear no purchase, he launched himself into the void. Something was wrong. He must have become snagged, gotten caught on the gondola. He was not falling. He was still, weightless, suspended in space. The Jumper glanced up and gasped. The balloon was flying away from him, rocketing into the sky. But there was no air left to rise through; it was he who fell. No wind ruffled his suit, no lace or strap stirred; there was no air to mark his fall, only the balloon - a faint white dot soon lost in the inky sky.

Outside the bubble of the jumper's helmet, the world was spinning. His body tumbled like, whirling through the silent sky as fingers of thickening clawed at him. The jumper flexed and strained against the stiff joints of his suit, struggling in vain to correct his wild gyrations. Why had his drogue not deployed? Without it he would spin out, blood thrown lethally to his head. He would greet the earth as a lifeless mass, wrapped in his own shroud. The drogue should have deployed within ten seconds, but had fallen for many minutes. As the horizon smeared dizzyingly to a blue pastel blur, the jumper clawed frantically at his chest for the manual release. He was mired in quicksand, every movement heavy and ponderous. His heart blazed to a deafening whir, hammering in his ear. A cold sweat flashed through his suit. Was this it? Was he to end here, dashed across the sky?

He felt the faint click near his shoulders, and a moment later he was was wrenched upward. He snapped from his violent spin, the hazy blue blur resolving to the crystal sphere. The winded Jumper fought for his his breath, mind reeling. What had happened? What had gone wrong. He glanced at the altimeter on his wrist. Nothing had gone wrong. The drogue had deployed exactly on schedule. But the bombardment of new sensations had stretched seconds into an eternity.

Gliding high over the glowing vista, he took in the magnificent sight the Jumper pictured a great cobbler or tailor, scattering swatches across the earth: the brilliant pearls and rhinestones of Greenland and the Arctic Archipelago, the dark, lush felt of the northern boreal forests and South American jungles. The burlap and sable of the Great Plains blending into the rusty leather and shagreen of fiery, sun-baked deserts. Across the broad, shimmering opal of the Atlantic, the craggy, herringbone shoreline of Norway could be seen, arcing down to the mottled green twill of mainland Europe. At the limits of the jumper's vision, the green-and-tan batik scarf of Africa disappeared behind the bowed horizon. He saw no borders, no signs of his fellow species. Only in darkness, he mused, would the electric blaze reveal them. From here, all life seemed but a thin film, clinging like lichen on a great stone.

The jumper's suit began to ruffle and billow. The air had returned. The ripples of cloud swelled into vast mountains, towering around him. The jumper stretched his arms and legs behind him, diving headfirst as the massive white folds swallowed him. He was enveloped in grey haze, millions of ice crystals hissing against his helmet. He sliced through the clouds in seconds, such was his tremendous velocity, and he once again entered the world of sound. The wind roared as it beat furiously upon his body. He was a meteor, shuddering and buffeting as he careened earthward at the speed of sound. The continents and oceans opened beneath him, speckled and streaked with whorls of clouds to rival the finest Van Gogh. The sun blazed upon the waters. With another click an jerk, the primary chute deployed, unfurling like some monstrous jellyfish above him. His body snapped upright, and he gently glided past the last wisps of cloud. With gloved hand, he clumsily wiped the condensation from his visor.

The snow-flecked peaks of the Sierras had sprung up in sharp relief beneath him. The crusted lichen of the Great Salt Lake and Bonneville Flats sprawled over sun-baked deserts, and the rusty centipede of the Grand Canyon scurried away to the south. The scars and of the ancient earth grew sharper, and the shimmering tendrils of cities and highways sprawled all about him. The Jumper felt his heart rise to his throat as the canopy detached once more, sending him plummeting. His last life-preserving shroud spilled open, and he floated silently on a high desert breeze. The curve of the earth had vanished; the desert floor stretched over every horizon. The Jumper braced as the ground swept up to meet him, his knees crumpling on impact. He tumbled onto his back, reunited with the good earth. The Jumper pulled off his helmet, breathed the dry desert air. He felt the warm, dusty wind against his skin. The sunburst stretched its fiery arms across the sapphire blue through which he had fallen.

Some would call him an astronaut. After all, a sailor high in the rigging might well imagine himself in the realm of the gulls wheeling around him. The Jumper had seen the infinite sky. He had glimpsed the new frontier, the greatest adventure known to man.

This and many other stories can be found in my first collection, Our Own Devices