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The Real World of Jasper Hunter

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The Real World of Jasper Hunter >>

Sunlight seeps out of the edge of the dark sky and leaks across the Black Rock Desert. Everywhere the light touches turns white, the heat of the day taking over the ground. I’ve never watched the sun enter the sky before, and 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 are oscillating 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 emerge 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. This is a sunrise: my first one. I wonder if they have anything like this in the Real World®, behind the goggles where Jamie spent most of her life.

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. Bright LED work lights and fast-moving drones have circled its position, making minute adjustments all night long. They cluster and buzz around it, blinking fireflies that fade in the dawn 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. We’ve worked through the hours of darkness, and our labor is almost complete, just in time for sunrise. 6:17 a.m. is the launch window target time that Jamie chose those many months ago, back when I was in Los Angeles, before we stole this spacecraft from NASA, along with all the components that will launch it into space. 5:47 a.m. is sunrise this time of year here in northern California. So it’s less than half an hour to launch.

The highest spike on the spacecraft – the tracking navigational antennae – is the first piece to be touched by sunlight on this morning. The bright line of light creeps 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 directing powered drones to double-check cables, ensure complete seals on the craft, remove the loading gantry for Jamie, shield our components from the coming blast. But every now and then I turn and peer at the rising sunlight and see the light sliding 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: I’ve been working on this for weeks before Jamie arrived, and by the time I went and got her in Arizona, the spacecraft was nearly ready.

The sight of Serenity now 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 it precisely. I thought I’d go with her, but that was not to be. I am now a rocket launch engineer, the ground control supervisor. Not a spaceman. I would have been an astronaut, but perhaps there’s another time, in the future, when I can do that. For now, Jamie needs me on the ground: she needs me to do the count-down.

Jamie is already loaded in Serenity. Where she is sitting in 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 eruption waiting only for a spark. And the companions she has at the top of this great stack of explosive fuel is her AI and a pair of powered walking drones, who can temporarily run the cockpit in case of a necessary course change.

Moments later, 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 now to protect me from the glowing sunlight. I run a final count-down. I report the results to the cockpit. There’s no 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. An electronic countdown runs through rapid numbers, blinking down, and nothing happens for a long breath.

Ignition. First, there is a whispering hiss that fills the desert like 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 I see smoke or steam bursting 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 begin to chatter from the vibrations of the sound, and now I can see fire underneath the rocket body, white and orange jetting out as if from a titanic blast furnace.

My heart thumps terribly now, because I remember the last rocket we built, 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. The hissing of the fuel, the rumble of the ignition, the billows of blazing cloud underneath its body. It stood there, on its tail of explosion for a long moment just before the fire shot upward and the cockpit burst apart as the rocket skin became a million shards of blasted metal. That was Jamie’s fault, that time.

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 seems 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 still seems like a distant hiss to me, the hissing out of all my hopes and dreams to leave the Real World® behind forever.

Then just 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. It is as if 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.

But then as I watch, 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.

Around me, the entire launch site fills with billows of blowing powder and white smoke. The world is covered in ashy dusty, 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 control board. Back at the control board, a half mile away from the site, the dust has lessened and I can see again. On the 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, that is tracking the vehicle and the rocket. I can see it there, 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 is unevenly adjusted though, so it jerks back and forth, finding it in its trajectory.

Yet the rocket is on path, it has not deviated from the planned trajectory, even with the small cloud, and even with me not paying attention. It is going to follow its instructions perfect. 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 will blast into the solar system itself, into the solar wind, before it has exhausted all primary rocket fuel. However, I retained some small thruster propellant, so that I can maneuver through the solar system. Because I want this launch vehicle with Jamie in it, to break out of the narrow confines of our solar system, and explore the galaxy. I want it to be free of all our constraints, even the gravity of our sun.

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 like a bright 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 twenty-nine minutes later. 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 we’re going to leave the Earth forever. I never thought it would be possible to leave the Real World® behind, but now Jamie and I have done it.

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