Okay... let's have a "shut up and just play your guitar" moment...
By David Brin
A stand-alone chapter from EXISTENCE (2012)
Cameras stared across forbidden desert, monitoring disputed territory in a conflict so bitter, antagonists couldn’t agree what to call it.
One side named the struggle righteous war, with countless innocent lives in peril.
Their opponents claimed there were no victims, at all.
And so, suspicious cameras panned, alert for encroachment. Camouflaged atop hills or under highway culverts or innocuous stones, they probed for a hated adversary. And for some months the guardians succeeded, staving off incursions. Protecting sandy desolation.
Then, technology shifted advantages again.
The enemy’s first move? Take out those guarding eyes.
* * *
Infiltrators came at dawn, out of the rising sun—several hundred little machines, skimming low on whispering gusts. Each one, resembling a native hummingbird, followed a carefully scouted path toward its target, landing behind some camera or sensor, in its blind spot. It then unfolded wings that transformed into holo-displays, depicting perfect false images of the same desert scene to the guardian lens, without even a suspicious flicker. Other spy-machines sniffed out camouflaged seismic sensors and embraced them gently—cushioning to mask approaching tremors.
The robotic attack covered a hundred square kilometers. In eight minutes, the desert lay unwatched, undefended.
Now, from over the horizon, large vehicles converged along multiple roadways toward the same open area—seventeen hybrid-electric rigs, disguised as commercial cargo transports, complete with company hologos. But when their paths intersected, crews in dun-colored jumpsuits leaped to unlash cargoes. Generators roared and the air swirled with exotic stench as pungent volatiles gushed from storage tanks to fill pressurized vessels. Consoles sprang to life. Hinged panels fell away, revealing long, tapered cylinders on slanted ramps.
Ponderously, each cigar shape raised its nose skyward while fins popped open at the tail. Shouts grew tense as tightly coordinated countdowns commenced. Soon the enemy—sophisticated and wary—would pick up enough clues. They would realize … and act.
When every missile was aimed, targets acquired, all they lacked were payloads.
A dozen figures emerged from an air-conditioned van, wearing snug suits of shimmering material and garishly painted helmets. Each carried a satchel that hummed and whirred to keep them cool. Several moved with a gait that seemed rubbery with anxious excitement. One skipped a little caper, about every fourth step.
A dour-looking woman awaited them, with badge and uniform. Holding up a databoard, she confronted the first vacuum-suited figure.
“Name and scan,” she demanded. “Then affirm your intent.”
The helmet visor, decorated with gilt swirls, swiveled back, revealing heavily tanned features, about thirty years old, with eyes the color of a cold sea—till the official’s instrument cast a questioning ray. Then, briefly, one pupil flared retinal red.
“Hacker Sander,” the tall man said, in a voice both taut and restrained. “I affirm that I’m doing this of my own free will, according to documents on record.”
His clarity of purpose must have satisfied the ai-clipboard, which uttered an approving beep. The inspector nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Sander. Have a safe trip. Next?”
She indicated another would-be rocketeer, who carried his helmet in the crook of one arm, bearing a motif of flames surrounding a screaming mouth.
“What rubbish,” the blond youth snarled, elbowing Hacker as he tried to loom over the bureaucrat. “Do you have any idea who we are? Who I am?”
“Yes, Lord Smit. Though whether I care or not doesn’t matter.” She held up the scanner. “This matters. It can prevent you from being lasered into tiny fragments by the USSF, while you’re passing through controlled airspace.”
“Is that a threat? Why you little … government … pissant. You had better not be trying to—”
“Government and guild,” Hacker Sander interrupted, suppressing his own hot anger over that elbow in the ribs. “Come on, Smitty. We’re on a tight schedule.”
The baron whirled on him, tension cracking the normally smooth aristocratic accent. “I warned you about nicknames, Sander, you third-generation poser. I had to put up with your seniority during pilot training. But just wait until we get back. I’ll take you apart!”
“Why wait?” Hacker kept eye contact while reaching up to unlatch his air hose. A quick punch ought to lay this blue-blood out, letting the rest of them get on with it. There were good reasons to hurry. Other forces, more formidable than mere government, were converging right now, eager to prevent what was planned here.
Besides, nobody called a Sander a “poser.”
The other rocket jockeys intervened before he could use his fist—probably a good thing, at that—grabbing the two men and separating them. Pushed to the end of the queue, Smits stewed and cast deadly looks toward Hacker. But when his turn came again, the nobleman went through ID check with composure, as cold and brittle as some glacier.
“Your permits are in order,” the functionary concluded, unhurriedly addressing Hacker, because he was most experienced. “Your liability bonds and Rocket Racing League waivers have been accepted. The government won’t stand in your way.”
Hacker shrugged, as if the statement was both expected and irrelevant. He flung his visor back down and gave a sign to the other suited figures, who rushed to the ladders that launch personnel braced against each rocket, clambering awkwardly, then squirming into cramped couches and strapping in. Even the novices had practiced countless times.
Hatches slammed, hissing as they sealed. Muffled shouts told of final preparations. Then came a distant chant, familiar, yet always thrilling, counting backward at a steady cadence. A rhythm more than a century old.
Is it really that long, since Robert Goddard came to this same desert? Hacker pondered. To experiment with the first controllable rockets? Would he be surprised at what we’ve done with the thing he started? Turning them into weapons of war … then giant exploration vessels … and finally playthings of the superrich?
Oh, there were alternatives, like commercial space tourism. One Japanese orbital hotel and another under construction. Hacker owned stock. There were even multipassenger suborbital jaunts, available to the merely well-off. For the price of maybe twenty college educations.
Hacker felt no shame or regret. If it weren’t for us, there’d be almost nothing left of the dream.
Countdown approached zero for the first missile.
“Yeeeee-haw!” Hacker Sander shouted …
… before a violent kick flattened him against the airbed. A mammoth hand seemed to plant itself on his chest and shoved, expelling half the contents of his lungs in a moan of sweet agony. Like every other time, the sudden shock brought physical surprise and visceral dread—followed by a sheer ecstatic rush, like nothing else on Earth.
Hell … he wasn’t even part of the Earth! For a little while, at least.
Seconds passed amid brutal shaking as the rocket clawed its way skyward. Friction heat and ionization licked the transparent nose cone only centimeters from his face. Shooting toward heaven at Mach ten, he felt pinned, helplessly immobile …
… and completely omnipotent.
I’m a freaking god!
At Mach fifteen somehow he drew enough breath for another cry—this time a shout of elated greeting as black space spread before the missile’s bubble nose, flecked by a million glittering stars.
* * *
Back on the ground, cleanup efforts were even more frenetic than setup. With all rockets away, men and women sprinted across the scorched desert, packing to depart before the enemy arrived. Warning posts had already spotted flying machines, racing this way at high speed.
But the government official moved languidly, tallying damage to vegetation, erodible soils, and tiny animals—all of it localized, without appreciable effect on endangered species. A commercial reconditioning service had already been summoned. Atmospheric pollution was easier to calculate, of course. Harder to ameliorate.
She knew these people had plenty to spend. And nowadays, soaking up excess accumulated wealth was as important as any other process of recycling. Her ai-board printed a bill, which she handed over as the last team member revved his engine, impatient to be off.
“Aw, man!” he complained, reading the total. “Our club will barely break even on this launch!”
“Then pick a less expensive hobby,” she replied, and stepped back as the driver gunned his truck, roaring away in clouds of dust, incidentally crushing one more barrel cactus en route to the highway. Her vigilant clipboard noted this, adjusting the final tally.
Sitting on the hood of her jeep, she waited for another “club” whose members were as passionate as the rocketeers. Equally skilled and dedicated, though both groups despised each other. Sensors showed them coming fast, from the west—radical environmentalists. The official knew what to expect when they arrived. Frustrated to find their opponents gone and two acres of desert singed, they’d give her a tongue-lashing for being “evenhanded” in a situation where—obviously—you could only choose sides.
Well, she thought. It takes a thick skin to work in government nowadays. No one thinks you matter much.
Overhead the contrails were starting to shear, ripped by stratospheric winds, a sight that always tugged the heart. And while her intellectual sympathies lay closer to the eco-activists, not the spoiled rocket jockeys …
… a part of her still thrilled, whenever she witnessed a launch. So ecstatic—almost orgiastic.
“Go!” she whispered with a touch of secret envy toward those distant glitters, already arcing toward the pinnacle of their brief climb, before starting their long plummet to the Gulf of Mexico.
See the vivid, 3-minute video trailer! (Images by Patrick Farley.)