The Real World of Jasper Hunter

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Sunlight seeps out of the edge of the dark sky and leaks across the Black Rock Desert. Everywhere the light touched turns white, the heat of the day taking over the ground. I’ve never watched the sun enter the sky before. It is an astonishing thing to see: colors rise with the sun, blossoming out of its slow ascendance. Oranges, purples, yellows and deep reds. They oscillate out of its orbit slowly, and if I speed it up in my memory, I realize that they are like waves emerging from a rock thrown into deep water. The colors bleeds into the sky, wavering out of the bright circle of light at the center of the horizon. It is the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen. A sunrise: my first one. I wonder if they have anything like this in the Real World®, behind the goggles where Jamie liked to live. I’ve never been online, but she spent most of her life there.

Serenity, the launch vehicle I named for a spacecraft on an old TV show, rests like an immense skyscraper-sized spear on the makeshift launch pad of the Black Rock Desert hardpan. The sight of Serenity fills me with hope, and with unexpected sadness. I am surprised we have arrived so quickly at the culmination of our plan. Jamie had a plan, and I followed her plan precisely. I thought I’d go with her, but instead I was now a rocket launch engineer, the functional ground control supervisor. Not a spaceman after all.

Jamie needs me on the ground: she needs me to do the count-down. That’s the only human task left in the list. The distributed autonomic functions of the drone team Jamie trained was how we can operate such a large endeavor with a skeleton crew. Jamie’s knowledge is distributed here in this huge moving flock of metallic and plastic components, all of them motivated by one single directive – launch the rocket. They will keep focused on that task, even if it burned up half of them at ignition.

Of course, I am trusting a lot – I am trusting in Jamie’s thinking that has been imprinted into every silicon brain that is helping me. What if she is wrong? But these perfect tools of Jamie’s seem to know exactly what they are doing: they move faster than I do, and cover more tasks. Jamie ran through every build and launch scenario with them one hundred and forty-seven times, training them to be more diligent every time. So now I have to trust, I have to let them do their jobs. Despite that knowledge, I keep nervously checking on whether or not we’re on track for the launch window.

Every time I check, we are exactly on target. Launch window: 00:29:42. Stay on target. Stay on target.

Bright LED work lights and the rapidly moving drones encircle Serenity’s position, making minute adjustments. They’ve been working on auto-pilot all night long. Now at dawn, they cluster and buzz, blinking fireflies that fade in the rising light. The enormous bulk of the thing can only be seen in relief, shadow against shadow, the blinking lights illuminating just one panel, and then another. The great work is almost complete, just in time for sunrise. 6:17 a.m. is the launch window target time that Jamie chose many months ago, back when I was in Los Angeles, before we stole this spacecraft from NASA, along with all the components for the launch. 5:47 a.m. is sunrise this time of year here at Black Rock Desert, on the playa. We have exactly half an hour to launch.

Every now and then I turn and peer at the rising sun. Light slides slowly across the desert towards the launch site. I do know that when the sunlight arrives, we’ll be within moments of the launch window. We’re almost ready: the drones and I had been working on this for weeks before Jamie arrived. By the time I went and got her in Arizona, the spacecraft was nearly ready.

Jamie is already loaded in Serenity. Her cockpit looks like a tiny bubble of metal and glass attached to a gigantic edifice of fuel-filled tanks. She’s strapped in securely to her astronaut seat, resting on top of a gigantic fuel-bomb waiting only for a spark. And the companions she has at the top of this great stack of explosive substances is her pocket Jamie-Com and a pair of walking drones. Those little tools can temporarily run the cockpit in case Jamie can’t in her condition. They can take care of things while she’s not conscious, in case there’s a course change or an unexpected event.

The sun is rising higher. The tallest spike on the spacecraft – the tracking navigational antennae – is the first piece to be touched by sunlight. The bright line of light creeps towards us like liquid across the desert floor. The dark spar of the antennae on the spacecraft switches from black shadow into glowing light in a heartbeat. Then the metal of the body of the spacecraft starts reflecting the light. It becomes as bright as a sparkling mirror. Below that glowing spark of antennae, the launch gantry around Serenity remains a colossal darkness against other darkness, the shadow it is beginning to cast reaching all the way out to me, as I move gradually back further to the safe zone beyond the launch site. The sun is still rising, shades wavering out across the sky, an expanding tidal zone of color.

I can’t watch every variation that emerges from the rising sun, and I can’t pay attention to what the spacecraft looks like in the sunlight. I am too busy: I am double-checking the cables attached by the powered drones, and triple-checking the fuel lines, to ensure complete seals on the fuel, and then under my own power, I get a forklift and remove the loading gantry that we used to get Jamie in the ship. Finally, I spend some time moving my dashboard and observation components behind the blast shield, keeping my work safe from the approaching cataclysm. Almost there: 00:16:32

Now sunlight entirely covers Black Rock Desert. It has become a vast pool of brightness: the white desert light fills every pixel I can see. Every color is now burned away by the brilliant sun. This is the moment we’ve been waiting for. I put the dark goggles on, to protect my nearly useless eyes from the bright blast, but also to protect me from the glowing sunlight. I do a final count-down at 00:00:10.

I report the results. There’s no negative response from Jamie. All is well. I run them again, double-check my location, nearly a half-mile back from the launch site. I lift the protective cover over the final connection and press the button. The electronic countdown runs through rapid numbers, blinking down, until it stops. 00:00:00.

Nothing happens for a long breath. My heart thumps terribly. I remember the last rocket that I built with Jamie, the one that blew up at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena and lit the houses on fire. It looked just like this before it blew to smithereens. That was Jamie’s fault, that time. What if this one becomes my mistake?

I can hear the hissing of the fuel through the bulging lines, the continuous rumble of some great breath under the craft, the sullen anger of pressure and expansion. Billows of blazing cloud erupt from underneath its body. I remember that other rocket – how it waited there misshapen, standing tall on its tail of explosion for a long moment just before the fire ruptured in every direction and the cockpit ripped itself apart. The rocket skin became a million shards of torn metal. Everything torn apart.

Ignition. There is a whispering hiss that fills the desert, as if the light itself is speaking. Like ancient words spoke too fast together to understand: a final incantation. The vast sizzle of sound builds a terrible anticipation. Then smoke or steam is blasting out of the bottom of the spacecraft as the compressed liquid bursts into flame. There is a reverberating rumble that feels at first as if it emerged from the distant mountains. The rumbling grows like distant thunder. My teeth chatter from the vibrations of the sound, and now I can see fire growing under the rocket body, white and orange jetting out from a titanic blast furnace.

This rocket hasn’t exploded yet. I can feel my pulse in my temples, in my throat, nearly bursting out of my chest, as I wait again for that terrible explosion. Thump, thump, thump. My heartbeat is in sync with the billowing flames.

Nothing is moving. The rocket does not seem to be moving an inch upward. We have failed once more. This time, the failure will all be on me. Jamie didn’t work on the final preparations, Jamie didn’t do the final check or the final countdown. Thump, thump, thump. And the sound is a distant hiss to me, the hissing out of all my hopes and dreams to leave the online Real World® behind forever.

Between one heartbeat and the next, the ground shakes dreadfully. The world is caving in around me. Like the loudest thunderclap I could ever imagine, rising louder and louder until I throw my hands over the safety ear protection, holding it even tighter to my head, hoping my head won’t burst apart from the terror of the blast. The earth is opening up underneath me, the sky itself splitting apart from the light and the sound. My teeth meet and chatter at the sound, my jaw aching with the continuous booms of the explosions. The cloud is growing higher and brighter.

Then the billows of flame and dust grow immensely larger, obscuring the rocket and the launch vehicle itself, and then I can see the tip of the rocket sticking up above the cloud, and then more of it is showing, and then I realize that the rocket is lifting off the ground, and that’s why I can see more of it now. The dark skyscraper on the launch pad rises into the air on a bright tower of flame.

Suddenly there is a great whooshing sound as the rocket lifts entirely out of the cloud of flaming gas and debris and for a split second, it is almost as if it is resting on top of that cloud, just waiting there, and then almost faster than my eyes can track it, it is farther up in the sky, and then farther up, moving faster and faster, and then it punches through a small white cloud I had not even realized was there, and then I can see it far above me, a faint silver pencil with a jet of flame shooting continuously out of its tail. I blink and stare upwards.
Finally, Jamie is not in anything virtual, finally, she is fully absent. She is gone.

Around me, the entire launch site fills with billows of blowing powder and white smoke. The world is covered in ash and dust, it blows past me, a sandy cloud rushing as hard as a hurricane. I shut my eyes behind the goggles, feeling the grit scrape past my face, impact my coverall with a million tiny projectiles.

And then I realize I need to pay attention to the trajectory, and I run back to my screen and my remote control launch dashboard. At the board, a half mile from the site, the dust has lessened. I can see again. On screen, I can watch the computer plotting the rocket ship’s path as a series of dots and then a line, and it is perfect, exactly perfect. I can also see the image of the rocket from the remote-control telescope I had installed on the side of the mountain across the playa, the lens automatically tracking the ascent of the rocket. I can see it hanging there in mid-air, as if it is still, a svelte silver thing that moves in and out of focus as the telescope attempts to hold onto its image and moves with it. The telescope jerks back and forth, finding the ship in its viewfinder, holding tight to its swerving trajectory.

Yet the rocket is on the right path, it has not deviated from the planned trajectory. It is going to follow its instructions perfectly. And only I know its instruction set.

It is a similar instruction set to that I created when I sent the deer’s body back into the woods. I wrote a series of instructions and variables that could be summarized as “Don’t stop moving until something stops you.” If we achieve upper atmosphere, and then space, this rocket and its payload will not go into orbit around the earth. Instead, this rocket will continue blasting out to the perigee, and then – with any luck – will push past the gravitational pull of the moon. And then Jamie’s ship will blast into the solar system itself, into the solar wind, before it has exhausted all primary rocket fuel.

I stare down at my monitor, my sight dimmed and uncertain, still wavering with the after-image of the glowing tower of flame. The rocket seems to be on a proper trajectory. But when I glance upward, the tiny dot of flame seems to be arching overhead. I stop looking at the black and green lights on my monitor and just stare upward at the departing Serenity. For a long time the rocket remains visible, a star against the faint clouds. It is a bright miniature planet moving across the sky, winking out of sight in the dim early dawn, fading into the interstellar objects that surround it.

“Apogee – earth parking orbit achieved,” comes an automated report from the rocket. The sound echoes in my headset. It is Jamie’s recorded voice, and I know I’ll never hear her voice again. “Releasing first tank, commencing fire for second tank.”

Serenity has achieved first stage. We’ve launched a rocket into orbit. Now Jamie is going to leave the Earth forever. I never thought it would be possible to leave the Real World® behind, but now I’ve helped Jamie finally do that awesome thing. I miss her already, I will miss her voice and her face, and her flowing robes and all that she brought into my life. I didn’t know that missing her would feel like an ache in my mind, a hollow in me that can never be filled. I look up. Jamie is in the stars now. Forever.

Eighteen months ago, I didn’t know that spaceships really existed, or that I’d be stealing one from NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California. Or illegally violating federal boundaries around the Black Rock Desert and setting up a launch site in the middle of the Black Rock playa. Or blasting off from Earth. I didn’t know any of this would happen. Back then, I also didn’t know what would happen to Jamie, and I didn’t know the truth about Jamie. If you’d told me everything then, I wouldn’t have believed you.

Eighteen months ago, I thought the Real World® was the only world worth caring about. But now I know that there’s a whole world out here of living creatures and things to build and books to read and missions to go on. And spaceships to steal.

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