The Man Who Sold The Moon
By Cory Doctorow
This novella (reading time: 2 hours) is from the collection Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer. It is nominated for a Locus award and a Sturgeon Award.
Here’s a thing I didn’t know: there are some cancers that can only be diagnosed after a week’s worth of lab work. I didn’t know that. Then I went to the doctor to ask her about my pesky achy knee that had flared up and didn’t go away like it always had, just getting steadily worse. I’d figured it was something torn in there, or maybe I was getting the arthritis my grandparents had suffered from. But she was one of those doctors who hadn’t gotten the memo from the American health-care system that says that you should only listen to a patient for three minutes, tops, before writing him a referral and/or a prescription and firing him out the door just as the next patient was being fired in. She listened to me, she took my history, she wrote down the names of the anti-inflammatories I’d tried, everything from steroids to a climbing buddy’s heavy-duty prescription NSAIDs, and gave my knee a few cautious prods.
“You’re insured, right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Good thing, too. I read that knee replacement’s going for seventy-five thousand dollars. That’s a little out of my price range.”
“I don’t think you need a knee replacement, Greg. I just want to send you for some tests.”
“No.” She looked me straight in the eyes. “A biopsy.”
I’m a forty-year-old, middle-class Angeleno. My social mortality curve was a perfectly formed standard distribution—a few sparse and rare deaths before I was ten, slightly more through my teens, and then more in my twenties. By the time I was thirty-five, I had an actual funeral suit I kept in a dry-cleaning bag in the closet. It hadn’t started as a funeral suit, but once I’d worn it to three funerals in a row, I couldn’t wear it anywhere else without feeling an unnamable and free-floating sorrow. I was forty. My curve was ramping up, and now every big gathering of friends had at least one knot of somber people standing together and remembering someone who went too early. Someone in my little circle of forty-year-olds was bound to get a letter from the big C. There wasn’t any reason for it to be me. But there wasn’t any reason for it not to be either.
Bone cancer can take a week to diagnose. A week! During that week, I spent a lot of time trying to visualize the slow-moving medical processes: acid dissolving the trace of bone, the slow catalysis of some obscure reagent, some process by which a stain darkened to yellow and then orange and then, days later, to red. Or not. That was the thing. Maybe it wasn’t cancer. That’s why I was getting the test, instead of treatment. Because no one knew. not until those stubborn molecules in some lab did their thing, not until some medical robot removed a test tube from a stainless steel rack and drew out its contents and took their picture or identified their chemical composition and alerted some lab tech that Dr. Robot had reached his conclusion and would the stupid human please sanity-check the results and call the other stupid human and tell him whether he’s won the cancer lottery (grand prize: cancer)?
That was a long week. The word cancer was like the tick of a metronome. Eyes open. Cancer. Need a pee. Cancer. Turn on the coffee machine. Cancer. Grind the beans. Cancer. Cancer. Cancer.
On day seven, I got out of the house and went to Minus, which is our local hackerspace. Technically, its name is “Untitled-1,” because no one could think of a better name ten years ago, when it had been located in a dirt-cheap former car-parts warehouse in Echo Park. When Echo Park gentrified, Untitled-1 moved downtown, to a former furniture store near Skid Row, which promptly began its own gentrification swing. Now we were in the top two floors of what had once been a downscale dentist’s office on Ventura near Tarzana. The dentist had reinforced the floors for the big chairs and brought in 60 amp service for the X-ray machines, which made it perfect for our machine shop and the pew-pew room full of lasers. We even kept the fume hoods.
I have a personal tub at Minus, filled with half-finished projects: various parts for a 3D-printed chess-playing automata; a cup and saucer I was painstakingly covering with electroconductive paint and components; a stripped-down location sensor I’d been playing with for the Minus’s space program.
Minus’s space program was your standard hackerspace extraterrestrial project: sending balloons into the upper stratosphere, photographing the earth’s curvature, making air-quality and climate observations; sometimes lofting an ironic action figure in 3D-printed astronaut drag. Hacker Dojo, north of San Jose, had come up with a little powered guidance system, but they’d been whipped by navigation. Adding a stock GPS with its associated batteries made the thing too heavy, so they’d tried to fake it with dead-reckoning and it had been largely unsuccessful. I’d thought I might be able to make everything a lot lighter, including the battery, by borrowing some techniques I’d seen on a performance bike-racing site.
I put the GPS on a workbench with my computer and opened up my file of notes and stared at them with glazed eyes. Cancer. Cancer. Cancer.
Forget it. I put it all away again and headed up to the roof to clear my head and to get some company. The roof at Minus was not like most roofs. Rather than being an empty gravel expanse dotted with exhaust fans, our roof was one of the busiest parts of the space. Depending on the day and time, you could find any or all of the above on Minus’s roof: stargazing, smoking, BASE jumping, solar experiments, drone dogfighting, automated graffiti robots, sensor-driven high-intensity gardening, pigeon-breeding, sneaky sex, parkour, psychedelic wandering, Wi-Fi sniffing, mobile-phone tampering, ham radio broadcasts, and, of course, people who were stuck and frustrated and needed a break from their workbenches.
I threaded my way through the experiments and discussions and build-projects, slipped past the pigeon coops, and fetched up watching a guy who was trying, unsuccessfully, to learn how to do a run up a wall and do a complete flip. He was being taught by a young woman, sixteen or seventeen, evidently his daughter (“Daaad!”), and her patience was wearing thin as he collapsed to the gym mats they’d spread out. I stared spacily at them until they both stopped arguing with each other and glared at me, a guy in his forties and a kind of miniature, female version of him, both sweaty in their sweats. “Do you mind?” she asked.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, and moved off. I didn’t add, I don’t mean to be rude, just worried about cancer.
I got three steps away when my phone buzzed. I nearly fumbled it when I yanked it out of my tight jeans pocket, hands shaking. I answered
It and clapped it to my ear.
“Please hold for doctor Ficsor.” a click.
A click. “Greg?”
“That’s me,” I said. I’d signed the waiver that let us skip the pointless date-of-birth/mother’s maiden name “security” protocol.
“Is this a good time to talk?”
“Yes,” I said. One syllable, clipped and tight in my ears. I may have shouted it.
“Well, I’d like you to come in for some confirming tests, but we’ve done two analyses and they are both negative for elevated alkaline phosphatase and lactate dehydrogenase.”
I’d obsessively read a hundred web pages describing the blood tests. I knew what this meant. But I had to be sure. “It’s not cancer, right?”
“These are negative indicators for cancer,” the doctor said.
The tension that whoofed out of me like a gutpunch left behind a kind of howling vacuum of relief, but not joy. The joy might come later. At the moment, it was more like the head-bees feeling of three more cups of espresso than was sensible. “Doctor,” I said, “can I try a hypothetical with you?”
“I’ll do my best.”
“Let’s say you were worried that you, personally, had bone cancer. If you got the same lab results as me, would you consider yourself to be at risk for bone cancer?”
“You’re very good at that,” she said. I liked her, but she had the speech habits of someone who went to a liability insurance seminar twice a year. “Okay, in that hypothetical, I’d say that I would consider myself to be provisionally not at risk of bone cancer, though I would want to confirm it with another round of tests, just to be very, very sure.”
“I see,” I said. “I’m away from my computer right now. Can I call your secretary later to set that up?”
“Sure,” she said. “Greg?”
“Congratulations,” she said. “Sleep easy, okay?”
“I will try,” I said. “I could use it.”
“I figured,” she said. “I like giving people good news.”
I thought her insurance adjuster would not approve of that wording, but I was glad she’d said it. I squeezed the phone back into my pocket and looked at the blue, blue sky, cloudless save for the scummy film of L.A. haze that hovered around the horizon. It was the same sky I’d been standing under five minutes ago. It was the same roof. The same building. The same assemblage of attention-snagging interesting weirdos doing what they did. But I was not the same.
I was seized by a sudden, perverse urge to go and take some risks: speed down the highway, BASE jump from minus’s roof, try out some really inadvisable parkour moves. Some part of me that sought out patterns in the nonsense of daily randomness was sure that I was on a lucky streak and wanted me to push it. I told that part to shut up and pushed it down best as I could. But I was filled with an inescapable buoyancy, like I might float right off the roof. I knew that if I’d had a hard time concentrating before, I was in for an even harder time getting down to business now. It was a small price to pay.
“Hey,” someone said behind me. “Hey, dude?”
It occurred to me that I was the dude in question, and that this person had been calling out to me for some time, with a kind of mellow intensity— not angry, but insistent nonetheless. I turned around and found myself staring down at a surfer-looking guy half my age, sun-bleached ponytail and wraparound shades, ragged shorts and a grease-stained long-sleeved jersey and bare feet, crouched down like a Thai fisherman on his haunches, calf muscles springing out like wires, fingertips resting lightly on a gadget.
Minus was full of gadgets, half built, sanded to fit, painted to cover, with lots of exposed wiring, bare boards, blobs of hot glue and adhesive polymer clinging on for dear life against the forces of shear and torque and entropy. But even by those standards, surfer-guy’s gadget was pretty spectacular. It was the lens—big and round and polished, with the look of a precision-engineered artifact out of a real manufacturer’s shop—not something hacked together in a hack lab.
“Hey,” I said.
“Dude,” he said. “Shadow.”
I was casting a shadow over the lens. I stepped smartly to one side and the pitiless L.A. sun pierced it, focused by it down to a pinprick of white on a kind of bed beneath the lens. The surfer guy gave me an absentminded thumbs-up and started to squint at his laptop’s screen.
“What’s the story with this thing?” I said.
“Oh,” he said. “Solar sinterer. 3D printing with the sun.” the bed started to jerk and move with the characteristic stepper-motor dance of a 3D printer. The beam of light sizzled on the bed like the tip of a soldering iron, sending up a wisp of smoke like a shimmer in the sun’s glare. There was a sweet smell from it, and I instinctively turned upwind of it, not wanting to be sucking down whatever aromatic volatiles were boiling off the print medium.
“That is way, way cool,” I said. “Does it work?”
He smiled. “Oh yeah, it works. This is the part I’m interested in.” he typed some more commands and the entire thing lifted up on recessed wheels and inched forward with the slow grace of a tortoise.
“Yeah. the idea is, you leave it in the desert and come back in a couple of months and it’s converted the sand that blows over its in-hopper into prefab panels you can snap together to make a shelter.”
“Ah,” I said. “What about sand on the solar panel?” I was thinking of the Mars rovers, which had had a tendency to go offline when too much Martian dust blew over their photovoltaics.
“Working on that. I can make the lens and photovoltaic turn sideways and shake themselves.” he pointed at a couple of little motors. “But that’s a lot of moving parts. Want it to run unattended for months at a time.”
“Huh,” I said. “This wouldn’t happen to be a Burning Man thing, would it?”
He smiled ruefully. “That obvious?”
Honestly, it was. Half of Minus were burners, and they all had a bit of his look of delightful otherworldly weirdness. “Just a lucky guess,” I said, because no one wants to be reminded that they’re of a certain type— especially if that type is nonconformist.
He straightened up and extended his hand. He was missing the tip of his index finger, and the rest of his fingernails were black with grease. I shook, and his grip was warm, firm and dry, and rough with callus. You could have put it in a museum and labeled it “Hardware hacker hand (typical).”
“I’m Pug,” he said.
“So the plan is, bring it out to the desert for Fourth of Juplaya, let it run all summer, come back for Burning Man, and snap the pieces together.”
“What’s Fourth of Jup-whatever?”
“Fourth of Juplaya. It’s a July Fourth party in Black Rock. A lot like Burning Man used to be like, when ‘Safety third’ was the guiding light and not just a joke. Much smaller and rougher, less locked down. More guns. More weird. Intense.”
His gadget grunted and jammed. He looked down at it and nudged one of the stepper motors with his thumb, and it grunted again. “ ’Scuse me,” he said, and hunkered down next to it. I watched him tinker for a while, then walked away, forgotten in his creative fog.
I went back down into minus, put away my stuff, and chatted with some people I sort of knew about inconsequentialities, in a cloud of unreality. It was the hangover from my week of anxiety and its sudden release, and I couldn’t tell you for the life of me what we talked about. After an hour or two of this, I suddenly realized that I was profoundly beat, I mean beat down and smashed flat. I said goodbye—or maybe I didn’t, I wouldn’t swear to it—and went out to look for my car. I was wandering around the parking lot, mashing the alarm button on my key chain, when I ran into Pug. He was (barely) carrying a huge box, shuffling and peering over the top. I was so tired, but it would have been rude not to help.
“Need a hand?”
“Dude,” he said, which I took for an affirmative. I grabbed a corner and walked backward. The box was heavy, but it was mostly just huge, and when we reached his beat-up minivan, he kicked the tailgate release and then laid it down like a bomb-disposal specialist putting a touchy IED to sleep. He smacked his hands on his jeans and said, “Thanks, man. That lens, you wouldn’t believe what it’s worth.” now that I could see over the top of the box, I realized it was mostly padding, layers of lint-free cloth and bubblewrap with the lens in the center of it all, the gadget beneath it. “Minus is pretty safe, you know, but I don’t want to tempt fate. I trust
99.9 percent of ’em not to rip it off or use it for a frisbee, but even a one-in-a-thousand risk is too steep for me.” he pulled some elasticated webbing over it and anchored it down with cleats bolted inside the oily trunk.
“Fair enough,” I said.
“Greg, buddy, can I ask you a personal question?”
“Are you okay? I mean, you kind of look like you’ve been hit upside the head with a brick. Are you planning on driving somewhere?”
“Uh,” I said. “Truly? I’m not really okay. Should be, though.” and I spilled it all out—the wait, the diagnosis.
“Well, hell, no wonder. Congratulations, man, you’re going to live! But not if you crash your car on the way home. How about if I give you a ride?”
“It’s okay, really—”
He held up a hand. “Greg, I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but you’ve got no more business driving now than you would if you’d just slammed a couple tequila shots. So I can give you a ride or call you a cab, but if you try and get into your car, I will argue with you until I bore you into submission. So what is it? Ride? Taxi?”
He was absolutely, totally right. I hated that. I put my keys back into my pocket. “You win,” I said. “I’ll take that ride.”
“Great,” he said, and gave me a Buddha smile of pure SoCal serenity. “Where do you live?”
“Irvine,” I said.
He groaned. “Seriously?” Irvine was a good three-hour drive in traffic.
“Not seriously,” I said. “Just Burbank. Wanted to teach you a lesson about being too free with your generosity.”
“Lesson learned. I’ll never be generous again.” but he was smiling.
I slid into the passenger seat. The car smelled like sweat and machines. The floor mats were indistinct gray and crunchy with maker detritus: dead batteries, coffee cups, multidriver bits, USB cables, and cigarette-lightercharger adapters. I put my head back on the headrest and looked out the grimy windows through slitted eyes as he got into the driver’s side and started the engine, then killed the podcast that started blasting from the speakers.
“Yeah,” I said. There were invisible weights on my chest, wrists, and ankles. I was very glad I wasn’t behind the wheel. We swung out onto Ventura Boulevard and inched through the traffic toward the freeway.
“Are you going to be all right on your own?”
“Tonight? Yeah, sure. Seriously, that’s really nice of you, but it’s just, whatever, aftermath. I mean, it’s not like I’m dying. It’s the opposite of that, right?”
“Fair enough. You just seem like you’re in rough shape.”
I closed my eyes and then I felt us accelerate as we hit the freeway and weaved over to the HOV lanes. He put down the hammer and the engine skipped into higher gear.
“You’re not a burner, are you?”
I suppressed a groan. Burners are the Jehovah’s witnesses of the counterculture. “Nope,” I said. Then I said what I always said. “Just seemed like a lot of work.”
He snorted. “You think Burning Man sounds like a lot of work, you should try Fourth of Juplaya. No rules, no rangers. A lot of guns. A lot of serious blowing shit up. Casual sex. No coffee shop. No sparkleponies. Fistfuls of drugs. High winds. Burning sun. Non-freaking-stop. It’s like pure distilled essence of playa.”
I remembered that feeling, like I wanted to BASE jump off the roof. “I have to admit, that sounds totally amazeballs,” I said. “And demented.”
“Both, yup. You going to come?”
I opened my eyes wide. “What?”
“Well, I need some help with the printer. I looked you up on the Minus database. You do robotics, right?”
“A little,” I said.
“And you’ve built a couple repraps, it says?”
“Two working ones,” I said. Building your own 3D printer that was capable of printing out nearly all the parts to build a copy of itself was a notoriously tricky rite of passage for hackerspace enthusiasts. “About four that never worked, too.”
“You’re hired,” he said. “First assistant engineer. You can have half my van, I’ll bring the cooler and the BBQ and pork shoulder on dry ice, a keg of beer, and some spare goggles.”
“That’s very nice of you,” I said.
“Yeah,” he said. “It is. Listen, Greg, I’m a good guy, ask around. I don’t normally invite people out to the Fourth, it’s a private thing. But I really do need some help, and I think you do, too. A week with a near-death experience demands a fitting commemoration. If you let big stuff like this pass by without marking it, it just, you know, builds up. Like arterial plaque. Gotta shake it off.”
You see, this is the thing about burners. It’s like a religion for them. Gotta get everyone saved.
“I’ll think about it,” I said.
“Greg, don’t be offended?”
“Right. Just that, you’re the kind of guy, I bet, spends a lot of time ‘thinking about it.’ ”
I swallowed the snappish reply and said nothing.
“And now you’re stewing. Dude, you are so buttoned down. Tell you what, keep swallowing your emotions and you will end up dying of something fast and nasty. You can do whatever you want, but what I’m offering you is something that tons of people would kill for. Four days of forgetting who you are, being whoever you want to be. Stars, dust, screwing, dope, explosions, and gunfire. You’re not going to get a lot of offers like that, is what I’m saying.”
“And I said I’d think about it.”
He blatted out a raspberry and said, “Yeah, fine, that’s cool.” he drove on in silence. The 101 degenerated into a sclerotic blockage. He tapped at the old phone velcroed to the dashboard and got a traffic overlay that showed red for ten miles.
“Dude, I do not want to sit in this car for the next forty-five minutes listening to you not say anything. How about a truce? I won’t mention the Fourth, you pretend you don’t think I’m a crazy hippie, and we’ll start over, ’kay?”
The thing that surprised me most was how emotionally mature the offer was. I never knew how to climb down from stupid fights, which is why I was forty and single. “Deal,” I said.
Just like that, he dropped it. We ended up talking about a related subject—selective solar laser-sintering—and some of the funky things he was having to cope with in the project. “Plenty of people have done it with sand, but I want to melt gypsum. In theory, I only have to attain about 85 percent of the heat to fuse it, but there’s a lot of impurities in it that I can’t account for or predict.”
“What if you sift it or something first?”
“Well, if I want it to run unattended, I figure I don’t want to have to include a centrifuge. Playa dust is nanofine, and it gets into everything. I mean, I’ve seen art cars with sealed bearings that are supposed to perform in space go gunky and funky after a couple of years.”
I chewed on the problem. “you could maybe try a settling tray, something that uses wind for agitation through graduated screens, but you’d need to unclog it somehow.” more thinking. “Of course, you could just melt the crap out of it when you’re not sure, just blaze it into submission.”
But he was already shaking his head. “Doesn’t work—too hot and I can’t get the set time right, goes all runny.”
“What about a sensor?” I said. “Try to characterize how runny it is, adjust the next pass accordingly?”
“Thought of that,” he said. “Too many ways it could go wrong is what I’m thinking. Remember, this thing has to run where no one can tend it. I want to drop it in July and move into the house it builds me by September. It has to fail very, very safe.”
I took his point, but I wasn’t sure I agreed. Optical sensors were pretty solved, as was the software to interpret what they saw. I was about to get my laptop out and find a video I remembered seeing when he slammed on the brakes and made an explosive noise. I felt the brakes’ ABS shudder as the minivan fishtailed a little and heard a horn blare from behind us. I had one tiny instant with which to contemplate the looming bumper of the gardener’s pickup truck ahead of us before we rear-ended him. I was slammed back into my seat by the airbag a second before the subcompact behind us crashed into us, its low nose sliding under the rear bumper and raising the back end off the ground as it plowed beneath us, wedging tight just before its windshield would have passed through our rear bumper, thus saving the driver from a radical facial rearrangement and possible decapitation.
Sound took on a kind of underwater quality as it filtered through the airbag, but as I punched my way clear of it, everything came back. Beside me, Pug was making aggrieved noises and trying to turn around. He was caught in the remains of his own airbag, and his left arm looked like it might be broken—unbroken arms don’t hang with that kind of limp and sickening slackness. “Christ, the lens—”
I looked back instinctively, saw that the rear end was intact, albeit several feet higher than it should have been, and said, “Its fine, Pug. Car behind us slid under us. Hold still, though. Your arm’s messed up.”
He looked down and saw it and his face went slack. “That is not good,” he said. His pupils were enormous, his face so pale it was almost green.
“You’re in shock,” I said.
“Yes,” he said, distantly.
I did a quick personal inventory, moving all my limbs and experimentally swiveling my head this way and that. Concluding that I was in one piece, I did a fast assessment of the car and its environs. Traffic in the adjacent lane had stopped, too—looking over my shoulder, I could see a little fender bender a couple car lengths back that had doubtless been caused by our own wreck. The guy ahead of us had gotten out of his pickup and was headed our way slowly, which suggested that he was unharmed and also not getting ready to shoot us for rear-ending him, so I turned my attention back to Pug. “Stay put,” I said, and pushed his airbag aside and unbuckled his seat belt, carefully feeding it back into its spool without allowing it to jostle his arm. That done, I gave him a quick once-over, lightly running my hands over his legs, chest, and head. He didn’t object—or shout in pain— and I finished up without blood on my hands, so that was good.
“I think it’s just your arm,” I said. His eyes locked on my face for a moment, then his gaze wandered off.
“The lens,” he said, blearily.
“It’s okay,” I said.
“The lens,” he said, again, and tried once more to twist around in his seat. This time, he noticed his limp arm and gave out a mild, “Ow.” he tried again. “Ow.”
“Pug,” I said, taking his chin and turning his face to mine. His skin was clammy and cold. “Dude. You are in shock and have a broken arm. You need to stay still until the ambulance gets here. You might have a spinal injury or a concussion. I need you to stay still.”
“But the lens,” he said. “Can’t afford another one.”
“If I go check on the lens, will you stay still?” it felt like I was bargaining with a difficult drunk for his car keys. “Yes,” he said. “Stay there.” the pickup truck’s owner helped me out of the car. “You okay?” he asked. He had a Russian accent and rough gardener’s hands and a farm-
“Yeah,” I said. “You?”
“I guess so. My truck’s pretty messed up, though.”
Pug’s minivan had merged catastrophically with the rear end of the pickup, deforming it around the van’s crumple-zone. I was keenly aware that this was probably his livelihood.
“My friend’s got a broken arm,” I said. “Shock, too. I’m sure you guys’ll be able to exchange insurance once the paramedics get here. Did you call them?”
“My buddy’s on it,” he said, pointing back at the truck. There was someone in the passenger seat with a phone clamped to his head, beneath the brim of a cowboy hat.
“The lens,” Pug said.
I leaned down and opened the door. “Chill out, I’m on it.” I shrugged at the guy from the truck and went around back. The entire rear end was lifted clean off the road, the rear wheels still spinning lazily. To a first approximation, we were unscathed. The same couldn’t be said for the low-slung hybrid that had rear-ended us, which had been considerably flattened by its harrowing scrape beneath us, to the extent that one of its tires had blown. The driver had climbed out of the car and was leaning unsteadily on it. She gave me a little half wave and a little half smile, which I returned. I popped the hatch and checked that the box was in one piece. It wasn’t even dented. “The lens is fine,” I called. Pug gave no sign of having heard.
I started to get a little anxious feeling. I jogged around the back of the subcompact and then ran up the driver’s side and yanked open Pug’s door. He was unconscious, and that gray sheen had gone even whiter. His breath was coming in little shallow pants and his head lolled back in the seat. Panic crept up my throat and I swallowed it down. I looked up quickly and shouted at the pickup driver. “You called an ambulance, right?” the guy must’ve heard something in my voice because an instant later he was next to me.
“Shock,” he said.
“It’s been years since I did first aid.”
“Recovery position,” he said. “Loosen his clothes, give him a blanket.”
“What about his arm?” I pointed.
He winced. “We’re going to have to be careful,” he said. “Shit,” he added. The traffic beyond the car was at a near standstill. Even the motorcycles were having trouble lane-splitting between the close-crammed cars.
He shrugged. “on its way, I guess.” he put his ear close to Pug’s mouth, listened to his breathing, put a couple fingers to his throat and felt around. “I think we’d better lay him out.”
The lady driving the subcompact had a blanket in her trunk, which we spread out on the weedy ground alongside the median, which glittered with old broken glass. She—young, Latina, wearing workout clothes— held Pug’s arm while the gardener guy and I got him at both ends and stretched him out. The other guy from the pickup truck found some flares in a toolkit under the truck’s seat and set them on the road behind us. We worked with a minimum of talk, and for me, the sounds of the highway and my weird postanxiety haze both faded away into barely discernible background noise. We turned Pug on his side, and I rolled up my jacket to support his arm. He groaned. The gardener guy checked his pulse again, then rolled up his own jacket and used it to prop up Pug’s feet.
“Good work,” he said.
“Craziest thing,” the gardener said.
“Uh-huh,” I said. I fussed awkwardly with Pug’s hair. His ponytail had come loose and it was hanging in his face. It felt wiry and dry, like he spent a lot of time in the sun.
“Did you see it?”
He shook his head. “Craziest thing. It crashed right in front of us.” he spoke in rapid Russian—maybe it was Bulgarian?—to his friend, who crunched over to us. The guy held something out for me to see. I looked at it, trying to make sense of what I was seeing. It was a tangle of wrecked plastic and metal and a second later, I had it worked out—it was a little UAV, some kind of copter. Four rotors—no, six. A couple of cameras. I’d built a few like it, and I’d even lost control of a few in my day. I could easily see how someone like me, trying out a little drone built from a kit or bought fully assembled, could simply lose track of the battery or just fly too close to a rising updraft from the blacktop and crash. It was technically illegal to fly one except over your own private property, but that was nearly impossible to enforce. They were all over the place.
“Craziest thing,” I agreed. I could hear the sirens.
The EMTs liked our work and told us so, and let me ride with them in the ambulance, though that might have been on the assumption that I could help with whatever insurance paperwork needed filling out. They looked disappointed when I told them that I’d only met Pug that day and I didn’t even know his last name and was pretty sure that “Pug” wasn’t his first name. It wasn’t. They got the whole thing off his driver’s license: Scott Zrubek. “Zrubek” was a cool name. If I’d been called “Zrubek,” I’d have used “Zee” as my nickname, or maybe “Zed.”
By the time they’d x-rayed Pug and put his arm in a sling and an air cast, he was awake and rational again and I meant to ask him why he wasn’t going by oz, but we never got around to it. As it turned out, I ended up giving him a lift home in a cab, then getting it to take me home, too. it was two in the morning by then, and maybe the lateness of the hour explains how I ended up promising Pug that I’d be his arm and hand on the playa-dust printer and that I’d come with him to Fourth of Juplaya in order to oversee the installation of the device. I also agreed to help him think of a name for it.
That is how I came to be riding in a big white rental van on the Thursday before July Fourth weekend, departing L.A. at zero-dark-hundred with Pug in the driver’s seat and classic G-funk playing loud enough to make me wince in the passenger seat as we headed for Nevada.
Pug had a cooler between us, full of energy beverages and electrolyte drink, jerky, and seed bars. We stopped in mono lake and bought bags of oranges from old guys on the side of the road wearing cowboy hats, and later on we stopped at a farm stall and bought fresh grapefruit juice that stung with tartness and was so cold that the little bits of pulp were little frost-bombs that melted on our tongues.
Behind us, in the van’s cargo area, was everything we needed for a long weekend of hard-core radical self-reliance—water cans to fill in Reno, solar showers, tents, tarps, rebar stakes, booze, bikes, sunscreen, first-aid k its, a shotgun, an air cannon, a flamethrower, various explosives, crates of fireworks, and more booze. all stored and locked away in accordance with the laws of both Nevada and California, as verified through careful reference to a printout sheathed in a plastic paper-saver that got velcroed to the inside of the van’s back door when we were done.
In the center of all this gear, swaddled in bubblewrap and secured in place with multiple tie-downs, was the gadget, which we had given a capital letter to in our e-mails and messages: the Gadget. I’d talked Pug out of some of his aversion to moving parts, because the Gadget was going to end up drowning in its own output if we didn’t. The key was the realization that it didn’t matter where the Gadget went, so long as it went somewhere, which is how we ended up in Strandbeest territory.
The Strandbeest is an ingenious wind-powered walker that looks like a blind, mechanical millipede. Its creator, a Dutch artist called Theo Jansen, designed it to survive harsh elements and to be randomly propelled by wind.
Ours had a broad back where the Gadget’s business end perched, and as the yurt panels were completed, they’d slide off to land at its feet, gradually hemming it with rising piles of interlocking, precision-printed pieces. To keep it from going too far afield, I’d tether it to a piece of rebar driven deep into the playa, giving it a wide circle through which the harsh winds of the Black Rock desert could blow it.
Once I was done, Pug had to admit I’d been right. It wasn’t just a better design, it was a cooler one, and the Gadget had taken on the aspect of a centaur, with the printer serving as rising torso and head. We’d even equipped it with a set of purely ornamental goggles and a filter mask, just to make it fit in with its neighbors on the Playa. They were a very accepting lot, but you never knew when antirobot prejudice would show its ugly head, and so anything we could do to anthropomorphize the Gadget would only help our cause.
Pug’s busted arm was healed enough to drive to the Nevada line, but by the time we stopped for gas, he was rubbing at his shoulder and wincing, and I took over the driving, and he popped some painkillers and within moments he was fast asleep. I tried not to envy him. He’d been a bundle of nerves in the run-up to the Fourth, despite several successful trial runs in his backyard and a great demo on the roof of Minus. He kept muttering about how nothing ever worked properly in the desert, predicting dire all-nighters filled with cursing and scrounging for tools and missing the ability to grab tech support online. It was a side of him I hadn’t seen up to that point—he was normally so composed—but it gave me a chance to be the grown-up for a change. It helped once I realized that he was mostly worried about looking like an idiot in front of his once-a-year friends, the edgiest and weirdest people in his set. It also hadn’t escaped my notice that he, like me, was a single guy who spent an awful lot of time wondering what this said about him. In other words: he didn’t want to look like a dork in front of the eligible women who showed up.
“I’m guessing two more hours to Reno, then we’ll get some last-minute supplies and head out. Unless you want to play the slots and catch a Liza Minnelli impersonator.”
“No, I want to get out there and get set up.”
“Good.” Suddenly he gorilla-beat his chest with his good fist and let out a rebel yell. “Man, I just can’t wait.”
I smiled. This was the voluble Pug I knew.
He pointed a finger at me. “Oh, I see you smiling. You think you know what’s going to happen. You think you’re going to go drink some beers, eat some pills, blow stuff up, and maybe get lucky. What you don’t know is how life-changing this can all be. You get out of your head, literally. It’s like—” he waved his hands, smacked the dashboard a couple times, cracked and swigged an energy beverage.
“Okay, this is the thing. We spend all our time doing, you know, stuff. Maintenance. Ninety-eight percent of the day, all you’re doing is thinking about what you’re going to be doing to go on doing what you’re doing. Worrying about whether you’ve got enough socked away to see you through your old age without ending up eating cat food. Worrying about whether you’re getting enough fiber or eating too many carbs. It’s being alive, but it’s hardly living.
“You ever been in a bad quake? No? Here’s the weird secret of a big quake: it’s actually pretty great, afterward. I mean, assuming you’re not caught in the rubble, of course. After a big one, there’s this moment, a kind of silence. Like you were living with this huge old refrigerator compressor humming so loud in the back of your mind that you’ve never been able to think properly, not once since about the time you turned, you know, eleven or twelve, maybe younger. Never been present and in the moment. And then that humming refrigerator just stops and there’s a ringing, amazing, all-powerful silence and for the first time you can hear yourself think. there’s that moment, after the earth stops shaking, when you realize that there’s you and there’s everyone else and the point of it all is for all of you to figure out how to get along together as best as you can.
“They say that after a big one, people start looting, raping, eating each other, whatever. But you know what I saw the last time it hit, back in 2019? People figuring it out. Firing up their barbecues and cooking dinner for the neighborhood with everything in the freezer, before it spoils anyway. Kids being looked after by everyone, everyone going around and saying, ‘what can I do for you? Do you have a bed? Water? Food? You okay? Need someone to talk to? need a ride?’ in the movies, they always show everyone running around looting as soon as the lights go out, but I can’t say as I’ve ever seen that. I mean, that’s not what I’d do, would you?”
I shook my head.
“ ’Course not. No one we know would. Because we’re on the same side. The human race’s side. But when the fridge is humming away, you can lose track of that, start to feel like its zero sum, a race to see who can squirrel away the most nuts before the winter comes. When a big shaker hits, though, you remember that you aren’t the kind of squirrel who could live in your tree with all your nuts while all the other squirrels starved and froze out there.
“The Playa is like a disaster without the disaster—it’s a chance to switch off the fridge and hear the silence. A chance to see that people are, you know, basically awesome. Mostly. It’s the one place where you actually confront reality, instead of all the noise and illusion.”
“So you’re basically saying that it’s like Buddhism with recreational drugs and explosions?”
We rode awhile longer. The signs for Reno were coming more often now, and the traffic was getting thicker, requiring more attention.
“If only,” he said. “If only there was some way to feel that way all the time.”
“You couldn’t,” I said, without thinking. “Regression to the mean. The extraordinary always ends up feeling ordinary. Do it for long enough and it’d just be noise.”
“You may be right. But I hope you’re not. Somewhere out there, there’s a thing so amazing that you can devote your life to it and never forget how special it is.”
We crawled the last thirty miles, driving through Indian country, over cattle gratings and washed-out gullies. “The local cops are fine, they’re practically burners themselves. Everyone around here grew up with Burning Man, and it’s been the only real source of income since the gypsum mine closed. But the feds and the cops from over the state line, they’re bad news. Lot of jack Mormons over in Pershing County, don’t like this at all. And since the whole route to the Playa, apart from the last quarter mile, is in Washoe County, and since no one is supposed to buy or sell anything once you get to the Playa, all the money stays in Washoe County, and Pershing gets none of it. All they get are freaks who offend them to their very souls. So basically, you want to drive slow and keep your nose clean around here, because you never know who’s waiting behind a bush to hand you a giant ticket and search your car down to the floor mats.”
i slowed down even more. We stopped for Indian tacos—fried flat-bread smothered in ground beef and fried veggies—that sat in my stomach in an undigestable, salty lump. Pug grew progressively more manic as we approached the turnoff for Black Rock desert and was practically drumming on the dashboard by the time we hit the dusty, rutted side road. He played with the stereo, put on some loud electronic dance music that made me feel old and out of it, and fished around under the seat for a dust mask and a pair of goggles.
I’d seen lots of photos of Burning Man, the tents and shade structures and RVs and “mutant vehicles” stretching off in all directions, and even though I knew the Fourth was a much smaller event, I’d still been picturing that in my mind’s eye. but instead, what we saw was a seemingly endless and empty desert, edges shrouded in blowing dust clouds with the hints of mountains peeking through, and no sign at all of human habitation.
“Now where?” I said.
He got out his phone and fired up a GPS app, clicked on one of his waypoints, waiting a moment, and pointed into the heart of the dust. “That way.”
We rumbled into the dust cloud and were soon in a near-total white-out. I slowed the car to walking pace, and then slower than walking pace. “Pug, we should just stop for a while,” I said. “There’s no roads. Cars could come from any direction.”
“All the more reason to get to the campsite,” he said. “We’re sitting ducks out here for anyone else arriving.”
“That’s not really logic,” I said. “If we’re moving and they’re moving, we’ve got a much better chance of getting into a fender bender than if we’re staying still.”
The air in the van tasted dusty and alkali. I put it in park and put on the mask, noticed my eyes were starting to sting, added goggles—big, bug-eyed Soviet-era MIG goggles.
“Drive,” he said. “We’re almost there.”
I was starting to catch some of his enthusiasm. I put it back into drive and rode the brakes as we inched through the dust. He peered at his GPS, calling out, “left,” then “straight,” then “right” and back again. A few times I was sure I saw a car bumper or a human looming out of the dust before us and slammed on the brakes, only to discover that it had been a trick of the light and my brain’s overactive, nerve-racked pattern-matching systems.
When I finally did run something over, I was stretched out so tight that I actually let out a scream. In my defense, the thing we hit was a tent peg made out of rebar—the next five days gave the chance to become endlessly acquainted with rebar tent pegs, which didn’t scar the playa and were cheap and rugged—pushing it through the front driver’s-side tire, which exploded with a noise like a gunshot. I turned off the engine and tried to control my breathing.
Pug gave me a moment, then said, “We’re here!”
“Sorry about the tire.”
“Pfft. we’re going to wreck stuff that’s a lot harder to fix than a flat tire. You think we can get to the spare without unpacking?”
“Then we’ll have to unpack. Come on, buddy.”
The instant he opened the door, a haze of white dust followed him, motes sparkling in the air. I shrugged and opened my door and stepped out into the dust.
There were people in the dust, but they were ciphers—masked, goggled, indistinct. I had a job to do—clearing out the van’s cargo and getting it moved to our site, which was weirdly precise—a set of four corners defined as GPS coordinates that ran to the tenth of a second—and at the same time, such a farcically huge tract of land that it really amounted to “Oh, anywhere over there’s fine.”
The shadowy figures came out of the dust and formed a bucket brigade, into which I vanished. I love a good bucket brigade, but they’re surprisingly hard to find. A good bucket brigade is where you accept your load, rotate 180 degrees and walk until you reach the next person, load that person, do another volte-face, and walk until someone loads you. A good bucket brigade isn’t just passing things from person to person. It’s a dynamic system in which autonomous units bunch and debunch as is optimal given the load and the speed and energy levels of each participant. A good bucket brigade is a thing of beauty, something whose smooth coordination arises from a bunch of disjointed parts who don’t need to know anything about the system’s whole state in order to help optimize it. in a good bucket brigade, the mere act of walking at the speed you feel comfortable with and carrying no more than you can safely lift and working at your own pace produces a perfectly balanced system in which the people faster than you can work faster, and the people slower than you can work slower. It is the opposite of an assembly line, where one person’s slowness is the whole line’s problem. A good bucket brigade allows everyone to contribute at their own pace, and the more contributors you get, the better it works.
I love bucket brigades. It’s like proof that we can be more together than we are on our own, and without having to take orders from a leader. It wasn’t until the van was empty and I pulled a lounger off our pile of gear and set it up and sank down into it that I realized that an hour had slipped by and I was both weary and energized. Pug handed me a flask and I sniffed at it, got a noseful of dust and whiskey fumes, and then sipped at it. It was Kentucky bourbon, and it cut through the dust in my mouth and throat like oven cleaner.
Pug sprawled in the dust beside me, his blond hair splayed around his head like a halo. “Now the work begins,” he said. “How you holding up?”
“Ready and willing, Cap’n,” I said, speaking with my eyes closed and my head flung back.
“Look at you two,” an amused female voice said. Fingers plucked the flask out of my hands. I opened my eyes. Standing over us was a tall, broad-shouldered woman whose blue Mohawk was braided in a long rope that hung over her shoulder. “You just got here and you’re already pooped. You’re an embarrassment to the uniform.”
“Hi, Blight,” Pug said, not stirring. “Blight, this is Greg. He’s never been to the Playa before.”
“A virgin!” she said. “My stars and garters.” She drank more whiskey. She was wearing overalls with the sleeves ripped off, showing her long, thick, muscled arms, which had been painted with stripes of zinc, like a barber pole. it was hard to guess her age—the haircut suggested mid-twenties, but the way she held herself and talked made me think she might be more my age. I tried not to consider the possibilities of a romantic entanglement. As much of a hormone-fest as the Playa was supposed to be, it wasn’t summer camp. “We’ll be gentle,” she said.
“Don’t worry about me,” I said. “I’m just gathering my strength before leaping into action. Can I have the whiskey back, please?”
She drank another mouthful and passed it back. “Here you go. That’s good stuff, by the way.”
“Fighting Cock,” Pug said. “I bought it for the name, stayed for the booze.” he got to his feet and he and Blight shared a long hug. His feet left the ground briefly.
“Missed you, Pug.”
“Missed you, too. You should come visit, sometime.”
They chatted a little like old friends, and I gathered that she lived in Salt Lake City and ran a Goth/alternative dance club that sounded familiar. There wasn’t much by way of freak culture out in SLC, so whatever there was quickly became legendary. I’d worked with a guy from Provo, a gay guy who’d never fit in with his Mormon family, who’d spent a few years in SLC before coming to L.A. I was pretty sure he’d talked about it. A kind of way station for Utah’s underground bohemian railway.
Then Pug held out his hand to me and pulled me to my feet and announced we’d be setting up camp. this involved erecting a giant shade structure, stringing up hammocks, laying out the heavy black rubber solar-shower bladders on the van’s roof to absorb the day’s heat, setting out the grill and the bags of lump charcoal, and hammering hundreds of lengths of bent-over rebar into the unyielding desert floor. Conveniently, Pug’s injured arm wasn’t up to the task, leaving me to do most of the work, though some of the others pitched in at the beginning, until some more campers arrived and needed help unloading.
Finally, it was time to set up the Gadget.
I’d been worried about it, especially as we’d bashed over some of the deeper ruts after the turnoff onto route 34, but Pug had been awfully generous with the bubblewrap. I ended up having to scrounge a heavy ammo box full of shotgun shells to hold down the layer after layer of plastic and keep it from blowing away. I drew a little crowd as I worked—now they weren’t too busy!—and Blight stepped in and helped toward the end, bundling up armloads of plastic sheeting and putting it under the ammo box. Finally, the many-legged Gadget was fully revealed. There was a long considering silence that broke when a breeze blew over it and it began, very slowly, to walk, as each of the legs’ sails caught the wind. It clittered along on its delicate feet, and then, as the wind gusted harder, lurched forward suddenly, scattering the onlookers. I grabbed the leash I’d clipped to its rear and held on as best as I could, nearly falling on my face before I reoriented my body to lean away from it. It was like playing one-sided tug-of-war. I whooped and then there were more hands on the leash with mine, including Blight’s, and we steadied it.
“Guess I should have driven a spike for the tether before I started,” I said.
“Where are you going to spike it?” Blight asked.
I shrugged as best as I could while still holding the strong nylon cable. “I don’t know—close enough to the shade structure that we can keep tools and gear there while we’re working on it, but far enough away that it can really get around without bashing into anything.”
“Stay there,” she said, and let go, jogging off toward the back forty of our generous plot. She came back and grabbed our sledgehammer and one of the longest pieces of rebar, and I heard the ringing of a mallet on steel— sure, rhythmic strokes. She’d done this a lot more than me. She jogged back a moment later, her goggles pushed up on her forehead, revealing dark brown eyes, wide set, with thick eyebrows and fine crow’s-feet. The part of me that wasn’t thinking about the Gadget was thinking about how pretty she was and wondering if she was single, and wondering if she was with Pug, and wondering if she was into guys at all, anyway.
“Let’s get it tied off,” she said. We played out the rope and let it drag us toward the rebar she’d driven nearly all the way into the hardpack, the bent double tips both buried deep, forming a staple. I threaded the rope’s end through and tied a sailor’s knot I’d learned in the one week I’d attended Scouts when I was nine, the only knot I knew. It had never come loose. If it came loose this time, there was a chance the Gadget would sail all the way to Reno over the coming months, leaving behind a trail of interlocking panels that could be formed into a yurt.
The sun was starting to set, and though I really wanted to go through my maintenance check list for the Gadget, there was dance music playing (dubstep—I’d been warned by Pug in advance and had steeled myself to learning to love the wub-wub-wub), there were people milling about, there was the smell of barbecue. The sun was a huge, bloody red ball on the horizon and the heat of the day was giving way to a perfectly cool night. Laser light played through the air. Drones flew overhead, strobing with persistence-of-vision LED light shows and doing aerobatics that pushed their collision-avoidance routines to the limit (every time one buzzed me, I flinched, as I had been doing since the accident).
Blight dusted her hands off on her thighs. “Now what?”
I looked around. “Dinner?”
“Yeah,” she said, and linked arms with me and led me back to camp.
Sometime around midnight, I had the idea that I should be getting to bed and getting a good night’s sleep so I could get the Gadget up and running the next morning. then Pug and I split a tab of E and passed a thermosful of mushroom tea back and forth—a “ hippie flip,” something I hadn’t tried in more than a decade—and an hour later I was dancing my ass off and the world was an amazing place.
I ended up in a wonderful cuddle puddle around 2 a.m., every nerve alive to the breathing chests and the tingling skin of the people around me. Someone kissed me on the forehead and I spun back to my childhood, and the sensation of having all the time in the world and no worries about anything flooded into me. In a flash, I realized that this is what a utopian, postscarcity world would be like. A place where there was no priority higher than pleasing the people around you and amusing yourself. I thought of all those futures I’d read about and seen, places where everything was built atop sterile metal and polymer. I’d never been able to picture myself in those futures.
But this “future”—a dusty, meaty world where human skin and sweat and hair were all around, but so were lasers and UAVs and freaking wind-walking robots? That was a future I could live in. A future devoted to pleasing one another.
“Welcome to the future,” I said into the hollow of someone’s throat. That person chuckled. The lasers lanced through the dust overhead, clean multicolored beams sweeping the sky. The drones buzzed and dipped. The Moon shone down upon us, as big as a pumpkin and as pale as ancient bone.
I stared at the Moon. It stared back. It had always stared back, but I’d always been moving too quickly to notice.
I awoke the next day in my own airbed in the back of the van. It was oven hot inside and I felt like a stick of beef jerky. I stumbled out shirtless and in jeans and made it to the shade structure, where I found my water pack and uncapped the hose. I sucked it dry and then refilled it from a huge water barrel we’d set up on a set of sawhorses, drank some more. I went back into the van and scrounged my shades and goggles, found a t-shirt, and reemerged, made use of the chem toilet we’d set up behind a modesty screen hammered into the playa with rebar and nylon rope, and then collapsed into a hammock under the shade structure.
Some brief groggy eternity later, someone put a collection of pills and tablets into my left hand and a coffee mug into my right.
“No more pills, thank you.”
“These are supplements,” he said. “I figure half of them are harmless BS, but the other half really seem to help with the old seratonin levels. Don’t know which half is which, but there’re a couple neuroscientists who come out most years who could argue about it for your amusement if you’re interested. Take ’em.”
Pug thrust a paper plate of scrambled eggs, sausages, and slices of watermelon into my hands. Before I knew it, I’d gobbled it all down to the watermelon rind and licked the stray crispy bits of sausage meat. I brushed my teeth and joined Pug out by the Gadget. It had gone walking in the night, leaving a beautiful confusion of footprints in the dust. The wind was still for the moment, though with every gust it creaked a little. I steadied Pug as he climbed it and began to tinker with it.
We’d put a lot of energy into a self-calibration phase. In theory, the Gadget should be able to tell, by means of its array of optical sensors, whether its test prints were correct or not, and then relevel its build plate and recenter its optics. The unfolded solar collectors also acted as dust collectors, and they periodically upended themselves into the feedstock hopper. This mechanism had three fail-safes—first, it could run off the battery, but once the batteries were charged, power was automatically diverted to a pair of servos that would self-trip if the battery ran too low. they each had enough storage to flip, shake, and restore the panels—working with a set of worm-gears we’d let software design and had printed off in a ceramic-polymer mix developed for artificial teeth and guaranteed not to chip or grind away for years.
There was a part of me that had been convinced that the Gadget just couldn’t possibly work. Too many moving parts, not enough testing. It was just too weird. But as Pug unfurled the flexible photovoltaics and clipped them to the carbon-fiber struts and carefully positioned the big lens and pressed the big, rubberized on button, it made the familiar powering-up noises and began to calibrate itself.
Dust had sifted into the feedstock hopper overnight and had blown over the build plate. The sun hit the lens, and smoke began to rise from the dust. The motors clicked minutely and the head zipped this way and that with pure, robotic grace. Moving with the unhurried precision of a master, it described a grid and melted it, building it up at each junction, adding an extra two-micron Z-height each time, so that a tiny cityscape emerged. the sensors fed back to an old phone I’d brought along—we had a box of them, anticipating a lot more failure from these nonpurpose-built gadgets than our own—and it expressed a confidence rating about the overall accuracy of the build. The basic building blocks the Gadget was designed to print were five-millimeter-thick panels that snap-fit without any additional fixtures, relying on a clever combination of gravity and friction to stay locked once they were put together. The tolerances were fine, and the Gadget was confident it could meet them.
Here’s a thing about 3D printing: it is exciting; then very, very boring; then it is exciting again. It’s borderline magic; when the print-head starts to jerk and shunt to and fro, up and down, and the melting smell rises up off the build platform, and you can peer through that huge, crystal-clear lens and see a precise form emerging. It’s amazing to watch a process by which an idea becomes a thing, untouched by human hands.
But it’s also s-l-o-w. From the moment at which a recognizable object begins to take shape to the moment where it seems about ready to slide off, there is a long and dull interregnum in which minute changes gradually bring the shape to fruition. It’s like watching soil erosion (albeit in reverse). This is the kind of process that begs for time-lapse. And if you do go away and come back later to check in on things, and find your object in a near-complete state, you inevitably find that, in fact, there are innumerable, mysterious passes to be made by the print-head before the object is truly done-done, and once again, you wish that life had a fast-forward button.
But then, you hold the object, produced out of nothing and computers and light and dust, a clearly manufactured thing with the polygonal character of everything that comes out of a 3D-modeling program, and once again—magic.
This is the cycle that the spectators at the inauguration of the Gadget went through, singly and in bunches, on that day. The Gadget performed exactly as intended—itself the most miraculous thing of the day!—business end floating on a stabilization bed as its legs clawed their way across the desert, and produced a single, interlocking shingle made of precision-formed gypsum and silicon traces, a five-millimeter, honeycombed double-walled tile with snap-fit edges all around.
“That’s what it does, huh?” Blight had been by to see it several times that day, alternating between the fabulous dullness of watching 3D paint dry and the excitement of the firing range, from which emanated a continuous pop-pop-pop of gleeful shooting. Someone had brought along a junker car on a trailer, covered in improvised armor, rigged for remote control. The junker had been lumbering around on the desert while the marksmen blasted away at its slowly disintegrating armor, raising loud cheers every time a hunk of its plating fell away, exposing the vulnerable, rusted chassis beneath.
“Well, yeah. One after another, all day long, so long as the sun is shining. We weren’t sure about the rate, but I’m thinking something like five per day in the summer sun, depending on the dust storms. It’ll take a couple hundred to build a decent-sized yurt on Labor Day, and we should easily get that many by then.” I showed her how the tiles interlocked, and how, once locked, they stayed locked.
“It’s more of an igloo than a yurt,” she said.
“Technicality,” I said. “It’s neither of those things. It’s a 3D-printed, human-assembled temporary prefabricated experimental structure.”
“An igloo,” she said.
“Time for some food,” Pug said. It could have been anywhere between three and seven p.m. none of the burner phones we were using to program and monitor the Gadget had network signal, so none of them had auto-set their clocks. I wasn’t wearing a watch. I woke when the baking heat inside the van woke me, and ate when my stomach rumbled, and worked the rest of the time, and danced and drank and drugged whenever the opportunity presented itself.
My stomach agreed. Blight put a sweaty, tattoo-wreathed arm around each of our shoulders and steered us to the plume of fragrant BBQ smoke.
I am proud to say I administered the killing shot to the target car. It was a lucky shot. I’d been aiming for center mass, somewhere around the bullet-pocked midsection, staring through the scope of the impossibly long rifle that a guy in cracked leathers had checked me out on. He was some kind of physicist, high energy at JPL, but he’d been coming out since he was a freshman and he was a saucer-pupiled neuronaut down to his tattooed toes. He also liked big hardware, guns that were some kind of surrogate supercollider, like the rifle over which I’d been given command. It was a sniper’s tool, with its own tripod, and he told me that he had to keep it locked up in a gun club over the Nevada state line because it was radioactively illegal in sweet gentle California.
I peered down the scope, exhaled, and squeezed the trigger. Just as I did, the driver jigged the toy wheel she was using to control it, and the car swung around and put the middle of its grille right in my crosshairs. The bullet pierced the engine block with a fountain of black smoke and oil, the mighty crash of the engine seizing, and a juddering, shuddering, slewing cacophony as the car skidded and revved and then stopped, flames now engulfing the hood and spreading quickly into the front seat.
I had a moment’s sick fear, like I’d done something terrible, destroying their toy. The silence after my shot rang out couldn’t have lasted for more than a second, but then it broke, with a wild whoop!, and a cheer that whipped up and down the firing line.
The car’s owner had filled it with assorted pyro—mortars and roman candles—that were touched off by the fire and exploded out in every direction, streaking up and out and even down, smashing into the playa and then skipping away like flat stones. People pounded me on the back as the car self-destructed and sent up an oily black plume of smoke. I felt an untethered emotion, like I’d left behind civilization for good. I’d killed a car!
That’s when my Fourth of Juplaya truly began. A wild debauch, loud and stoned and dangerous. I slept in hammocks, in piles of warm bodies, in other people’s cars. I danced in ways I’d never danced before, ate spectacular meals of roasted meat and desserts of runny, melted chocolate on fat pancakes. I helped other people fix their art cars, piloted a drone, got a naked (and curiously asexual) massage from a stranger, and gave one in return. I sang along to songs whose words I didn’t know, rode on the hood of a car while it did slow donuts in the middle of the open desert, and choked on dust storms that stung my skin and my eyes and left me huddled down in total whiteout while it blew.
It was glorious.
“How’s your windwalker?” Blight said, as I passed her back her water bottle, having refilled it from our dwindling supply.
“Dunno,” I said. “What day is it?”
“Monday,” she said.
“I don’t think I’ve looked in on it today. Want to come?”
In the days since we’d staked out the Gadget, more tents and trucks and cars and shade structures and exotic vehicles had gone up all around it, so that its paddock was now in the midst of a low-slung tent city. We’d strung up a perimeter of waist-high safety-orange tape to keep people from blundering into it at night, and I saw that it had been snapped in a few places and made a mental note to get the spool of tape off the post where we kept it and replace it.
The wind had been blowing hard earlier that day, but it had died down to a breathless late afternoon. The Gadget was standing and creaking softly at the end of its tether, and all around it was a litter of printed panels. Three of its legs were askew, resting atop stray tiles. We gathered them up and stacked them neatly and counted—there were forty all told, which was more than I’d dared hope for.
“We’re going to be able to put together two or three yurts at this rate.”
“Yours can be an igloo,” I said.
“That’s very big of you, fella.”
“Monday, you said?”
She stretched like a cat. She was streaked with dust and dirt and had a musky, unwashed animal smell that I’d gotten used to smelling on myself. “Yeah,” she said. “Packing up tonight, pulling out tomorrow at first light.”
I gulped. Time had become elastic out there on the desert, that school’s-out Junetime feeling that the days are endless and unrolling before you and there are infinite moments to fill and no reason at all in the whole world to worry. Now it evaporated as quickly as sweat in the desert. I swallowed again.
“You’re going to get up at first light?” I said.
“No,” she said, and pressed a couple of gel caps into my palm. “I was going to stay up all night. Luckily, I’m not driving.”
At some point we worked out that Pug and I had three filled solar showers warm on the van’s roof and then it was only natural that we strung them up and pulled the plug on them, sluicing the hot, stale, wonderful water over our bodies, and we took turns soaping each other up, and the molly and whatever else had been in her pills made every nerve ending on my body thrum. Our gray water ended up in a kiddie pool at our feet, brown and mucky, and when we stepped out of it the dust immediately caked on our feet and ankles and calves, gumming between our toes as we made a mad, giggling dash for the van, threw our bodies into it and slammed the door behind us.
We rolled around on the air mattresses in the thick, superheated air of the van, tickling and kissing and sometimes more, the madness of the pills and that last-night-of-summer-camp feeling thrumming in our veins.
“You’re thinking about something,” she said, lying crosswise so that our stomachs were pressed together and our bodies formed a wriggling plus sign.
“Is that wrong?”
“This is one of those live-in-the-moment moments, Greg.”
I ran my hands over the small of her back, the swell of her butt, and she shivered and the shiver spread to me. The dope made me want to knead her flesh like dough, my hands twitching with the desire to clench.
“It’s nothing, just—” I didn’t want to talk about it. I wanted to fool around. She did too. We did.
“Just what?” she said, some long time later. At one point, Pug had opened—and then swiftly shut—the rear van doors.
“You and Pug aren’t . . . ?”
“Nope,” she said. “Are you?”
“Nope,” I said.
“Just what, then?”
I rewound the conversation. I’d already peaked and was sliding into something mellow and grand.
“Just, well, default reality. It’s all so—”
“Yeah,” she said. Default reality was cutesy burner-speak for the real world, but I had to admit it fit. That made what we were in special reality or maybe default unreality.
“I know that we’re only here to have fun, but somehow it feels like it’s been . . .” Important was the word on the tip of my tongue, but what an embarrassing admission. “more.” Lame-o!
She didn’t say anything for so long that I started to get dope paranoia, a fear that I’d said or done something wildly inappropriate but been too high to notice.
“I know what you mean,” she said.
We lay together and listened to the thump of music out in the desert night. She stroked my arm lazily with fingertips that were as rough as sandpaper, rasping over my dry, scaly skin. I could distinctly feel each nerve impulse move up my arm to my spine and into my brain. For a while, I forgot my curious existential sorrow and was truly, totally in the moment, just feeling and hearing and smelling, and not thinking. It was the refrigerator hum that Pug had told me about, and it had finally stopped. For that moment, I was only thinking, and not thinking about thinking, or thinking about thinking about thinking. Every time my thoughts strayed toward a realization that they were only thinking and not meta-cognizing, they easily and effortlessly drifted back to thinking again.
It was the weirdest moment of my life and one of the best. The fact that I was naked and hot and sweaty with a beautiful woman and stoned off my ass helped. I had found the exact perfect mixture of sex, drugs, and rock and roll to put me into the place that my mind had sought since the day I emerged from the womb.
It ended, gradually, thoughts about thoughts seeping in and then flowing as naturally as they ever had. “Wow,” I said.
“You too?” she said.
“That’s what I come here for,” she said. “If I’m lucky, I get a few minutes like that here every year. Last time was three years ago, though. I went home and quit my job and spent three hours a day learning to dance while I spent the rest of my time teaching small-engine repair at a half way house for rehabilitated juvenile offenders.”
“Really?” I said.
“What job did you quit?”
“I was CTO for a company that made efficient cooling systems for data centers. It had some really interesting, nerdy thermodynamic problems to chew through, but at the end of the day, I was just trying to figure out how to game entropy, and that’s a game of incremental improvements. I wanted to do stuff that was big and cool and weird and that I could point to and say, ‘I did that.’ Some of my students were knuckleheads, a few were psychos, but most of them were just broken kids that I helped to put together, even a little. and a few of them were amazing, learned everything I taught them and then some, taught me things I’d never suspected, went on to do amazing things. It turns out that teaching is one of those things like raising a kid or working out—sometimes amazing, often difficult and painful, but, in hindsight, amazing.”
“Have you got a kid?”
She laughed. “Maya. She’s thirteen. Spending the week with her dad in Arizona.”
“I had no idea,” I said. “You don’t talk about her much.”
“I talk about her all the time,” she said. “But not on the Playa. That’s a kind of vacation from my other life. She keeps asking me to come out. I guess I’ll have to bring her some year, but not to the Fourth. Too crazy. And it’s my Blight time.”
“Your name’s not Blight, is it?”
“Nope,” she said. I grinned and smacked her butt, playfully. She pinched my thigh, hard enough to make me yelp. “What do you do?” she said.
I hated that question. “Not much,” I said. “Got in with a start-up in the nineties, made enough to pay cash for my house and then some. I do a little contract coding and the rest of the time, I just do whatever I feel like. Spend a lot of time at the hackerspace. You know Minus?”
“Yeah. Are you seriously rich?”
“No,” I said. “I’m just, I don’t know what you’d call it—I’m rich enough. Enough that I don’t have to worry about money for the rest of my life, so long as I don’t want much, and I don’t. I’m a pretty simple guy.”
“I can tell,” she said. “Took one look at you and said, that is one simple son of a bitch.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Somehow, I thought this life would be a lot more interesting than it turned out to be.”
“So volunteer. Do something meaningful with your life. Take in a foster kid. Walk dogs for cancer patients.”
“Yeah,” I said.
She kissed my shin, then bent back my little toe and gave it a twist. “Just do something, Greg. I mean, you may not get total satori out of it, but sitting around on your butt, doing nothing, of course that’s shit. Be smart.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“Oh, hell,” she said. She got up on her knees and then toppled forward onto me. “Do what you want, you’re an adult.”
“I am of adult age,” I said. “As to my adulthood—”
“You and all the rest of us.”
We lay there some more. The noise outside was more frenetic than ever, a pounding, throbbing relentless mash of beats and screams and gunshots and explosions.
“Let’s go see it,” she said, and we staggered out into the night.
The sun was rising when she said, “I don’t think happiness is something you’re supposed to have, it’s something you’re supposed to want.”
“Whoa,” I said, from the patch of ground where I was spread-eagled, dusty, and chilled as the sky turned from bruisey purple to gaudy pink.
She pinched me from where she lay, head to head above me. I was getting used to her pinches, starting to understand their nuances. That was a friendly one. In my judgment, anyway.
“Don’t be smart. Look, whatever else happiness is, it’s also some kind of chemical reaction. Your body making and experiencing a cocktail of hormones and other molecules in response to stimulus. Brain reward. A thing that feels good when you do it. We’ve had millions of years of evolution that gave a reproductive edge to people who experienced pleasure when something pro-survival happened. Those individuals did more of whatever made them happy, and if what they were doing more of gave them more and hardier offspring, then they passed this on.”
“Yes,” I said. “Sure. At some level, that’s true of all our emotions, I guess.”
“I don’t know about that,” she said. “I’m just talking about happiness. The thing is, doing stuff is pro-survival—seeking food, seeking mates, protecting children, thinking up better ways to hide from predators . . . Sitting still and doing nothing is almost never pro-survival, because the rest of the world is running around, coming up with strategies to outbreed you, to outcompete you for food and territory . . . if you stay still, they’ll race past you.”
“Or race backward,” I said.
“Yeah, there’s always the chance that if you do something, it’ll be the wrong thing. But there’s zero chance that doing nothing will be the right thing. Stop interrupting me, anyways.” She pinched me again. This one was less affectionate. I didn’t mind. The sun was rising. “So if being happy is what you seek, and you attain it, you stop seeking. So the reward has to return to the mean. Happiness must fade. Otherwise, you’d just lie around, blissed out and childless, until a tiger ate you.”
“Have you hacked my webcam or something?”
“Not everything is about you,” she said.
“Fine,” I said. “I accept your hypothesis for now. So happiness isn’t a state of being, instead it’s a sometimes-glimpsed mirage on the horizon, drawing us forward.”
“You’re such a fucking poet. It’s a carrot dangling from a stick, and we’re the jackasses plodding after it. We’ll never get it though.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I think I just came pretty close.”
And that earned me another kiss, and a pinch, too. But it was a friendly one.
Blight and her campmates pulled up stakes shortly thereafter. I helped them load their guns and their ordnance and their coolers and bales of costumes and kegs and gray water and duffel bags and trash bags and flaccid sun showers and collapsed shade structures, lashing about half of it to the outside of their vehicles under crackling blue tarps. Her crew had a storage locker in Reno where they’d leave most of the haul, only taking personal gear all the way home.
Working my muscles felt good after a long, wakeful night of dancing and screwing and lying around, and when we fell into a bucket-brigade rhythm, I tumbled directly into the zone of blessed, tired physical exertion, a kind of weary, all-consuming dance of moving, lifting, passing, turning, moving . . . and before I knew it, the dawn was advanced enough to have me sweating big rings around my pits and the cars were loaded, and Blight was in my arms, giving me a long hug that continued until our bodies melted together.
She gave me a soft, dry kiss and said, “Go chase some happiness.”
“You too,” I said. “See you at the burn.”
She pinched me again, a friendly one. We’d see each other come Labor Day weekend, assuming we could locate each other in the sixty-thousand-person crush of Burning Man. After my intimate, two-hundred-person Fourth of Juplaya, I could hardly conceive of such a thing, though with any luck, I’d be spending it in the world’s first 3D-printed yurt. Or igloo.
Pug got us early admission to the burn. From the turnoff, it seemed nearly as empty as it had when we’d been there in July, but by the time we reached the main gate, it was obvious that this was a very different sort of thing from the Fourth.
Once we’d submitted to a search—a search!—of the van and the trailer and been sternly warned—by a huge, hairy dude wearing the bottom half of a furry monkey costume, a negligee, and a ranger’s hat—to stay under 5 mph to keep the dust plumes down, we were crawling forward. No GPS this time. During the months that we’d spent in L.A. wondering whether the Gadget was hung up, crashed, stuck, blown away, or stolen, so many vehicles had passed this way that they’d worn an unmistakable road into the Playa, hedged with orange-tipped surveyors’ stakes and porta-sans.
The sun was straight overhead, the air-conditioning wheezing as we crept along, and even though the sprawling, circular shape of Black Rock City was only 10 percent full, we could already make it out against the empty desert-scape. In the middle of it all stood the man, a huge, angular neopagan idol, destined for immolation in a week’s time.
Pug had been emailing back and forth with the Borg—the Burning Man organization, a weird cult of freak bureaucrats who got off on running this circus—all summer, and he was assured that our little paddock had been left undisturbed. If all went according to plan, we’d drop off the van, unpack it and set up camp, then haul bike-trailers over to the paddock and find out how the Gadget had fared over the summer. I was 90 percent convinced that it had blown over and died the minute we left the desert and had been lying uselessly ever since. We’d brought along some conveniences that could convert the back of the van into a bedroom if it came to that, but we were absolutely committed to sleeping in the yurt. Igloo.
We set off as quickly as we could, in goggles and painter’s masks against the light, blowing dust. Most of the campsites were empty and we were able to slice a chord across Black Rock City’s silver-dollar, straight out to walk-in camp, where there were only a few tents pitched. Pug assured me that it would be carpeted in tents within a couple of days.
Just past walk-in camp, we came upon the Gadget.
It had changed color. The relentless sun and alkali dust had turned the ceramic/polymer legs, sails, and base into the weathered no-color of driftwood. as we came upon it, the solar panels flickered in the sun and then did their dust-shedding routine, spinning like a drum-major’s batons and snapping to with an audible crack, and their dust sifted down into the feedstock hoppers, and then over them. They were full. Seeing that, I felt a moment’s heartsickness—if they were covered with dust, there’d be no power. The Gadget must not have been printing.
But that only lasted a moment—just long enough to take in what I should have seen immediately. The Gadget’s paddock was mounded with tiles.
“It’s like a bar chart of the prevailing winds,” Pug said. I instantly grasped what he meant—the mounds were uneven, and the hills represented the places where the wind had blown the Gadget most frequently. I snapped several photos before we swarmed over the Gadget to run its diagnostics.
According to its logs, it had printed 413 tiles—enough for two yurts, and nearly double what we’d anticipated. The data would be a delicious puzzle to sort through after the burn. Had the days been longer? The printer more efficient?
We started to load the trailers. It was going to take several trips to transport all the tiles, and then we’d have to walk the Gadget itself over, set up a new paddock for it on our site, and then we’d have to start assembling the yurt. Yurts! It was going to be punishing, physical, backbreaking work, but a crackle of elation shot through us at the thought of it. It had worked!
“Master, the creature lives!” I bellowed, in my best Igor, and Pug shook his head and let fly with a perfect mad-scientist cackle.
We led the Gadget back by means of a pair of guide ropes, pulling for all we were worth on them, tacking into the wind and zigzagging across the Playa, stumbling over campsites and nearly impaling ourselves on rebar tent pegs. People stopped what they were doing to watch, as though we were proud hunters returning with a kill, and they waved at us and squinted behind their goggles, trying to make sense of this strange centaur with its glinting single eye high above its back.
We staked it into the ground on our site on a much shorter tether and dusted it off with stiff paintbrushes, working the dust out of the cracks and joints, mostly on general principle and in order to spruce it up for public viewing. It had been running with amazing efficiency despite the dust all summer, after all.
“Ready to get puzzling?” Pug said.
“Aye, Cap’n,” I said.
We hadn’t been sure how many tiles we’d get out of the Gadget over the course of the summer. They came in three interlocking sizes, in the Golden ratio, each snapping together in four different ways. Figuring out the optimal shape for any given number of panels was one of those gnarly, NP-complete computer science problems that would take more computational cycles than remained in the universe’s lifetime to solve definitively. We’d come up with a bunch of variations on the basic design (it did look more like an igloo than a yurt, although truth be told it looked not very much like either) in a little sim, but were always being surprised by new ways of expanding the volume using surprisingly small numbers of tiles.
We sorted the printouts by size in mounds and counted them, plugging the numbers into the sim and stepping through different possibilities for shelter design. There was a scaling problem—at a certain height/diameter ratio, you had to start exponentially increasing the number of tiles in order to attain linear gains in volume—but how big was big enough? After a good-natured argument that involved a lot of squinting into phone screens against the intense glare of the high sun, we picked out two designs and set to work building them.
Pug’s arm was pretty much back to normal, but he still worked slower than me and blamed it on his arm rather than admitting that he’d picked a less-efficient design. I was half done, and he was much less than half done, when Blight wandered into camp.
“Holy shit,” she said. “You did it!”
I threw my arms around her as she leaped over the knee-high wall of my structure, kicking it slightly askew. She was wearing her familiar sleeveless overalls, but she’d chopped her hair to a short electric-blue fuzz that nuzzled against my cheek. A moment later, another pair of arms wrapped around us and I smelled Pug’s work sweat and felt his strong embrace. We shared a long, three-sided hug and then disentangled ourselves and Pug and I let fly with a superheated sitrep on the Gadget’s astounding debut performance.
She inspected the stacks of tiles and the walls we’d built thus far. “You guys, this is insane. I didn’t want to say anything, you know, but I never bought this. I thought your gizmo”—Pug and I both broke in and said Gadget, in unison, and she gave us each the finger, using both hands—“would blow over on its side in a windstorm, break something important, and end up buried in its own dune.”
“Yeah,” I said. “I had nightmares about that, too.”
“Not me,” said Pug. “I knew from day one that this would work. It’s all so fault tolerant, it all fails so gracefully.”
“You’re telling me that you never once pictured yourself finding a pile of half-buried, smashed parts?”
He gave me that serene look of his. “I had faith,” he said. “It’s a gadget. It does what it does. Mechanism A acts on Mechanism B acts on Mechanism C. If you understand what A, B, and C do, you know what the Gadget does.”
Blight and I both spoke at the same time in our rush to explain what was wrong with this, but he held his hands up and silenced us.
“Talk all you want about chaos and sensitivity to initial conditions, but here’s the thing: I thought the Gadget would work, and here we are, with a working Gadget. Existence proofs always trump theory. That’s engineering.”
“Fine,” I said. “I can’t really argue with that.”
He patted me on the head. “It’s okay, dude. From the day I met you, I’ve known that you are a glass-half-empty-and-maybe-poisonous guy. The Playa will beat that out of you.”
“I’ll help,” Blight said, and pinched my nipple. I’d forgotten about her pinches. I found that I’d missed them. “I hate you both,” I said.
Pug patted me on the head again and Blight kissed me on the cheek. “Let me finish unpacking and I’ll come back and help you with your Playa-tetris, okay?”
Looking back on it now, I think the biggest surprise was just how hard it was to figure out how to get the structure just right. If you fitted a tile the wrong way in row three, it wasn’t immediately apparent until row five or six, and you’d have to take them all down and start over again. Pug said it reminded him of knitting, something he’d tried for a couple years.
“It’s just that it’s your first time,” Blight said, as she clicked a tile into place. “The first time you put together a wall of lego you screwed it up, too. You’ve been living with this idea for so long, you forgot that you’ve never actually dealt with its reality.”
We clicked and unclicked, and a pile of broken tiles grew to one side of the site. As we got near the end, it became clear that this was going to be a close thing—what had started as a surplus of tiles had been turned into a near shortage thanks to breakage. Some of that had been our fault—the tiles wanted to be finessed into place, not forced, and it was hard to keep a gentle approach as the day lengthened and the frustration mounted— but some was pure material defect, places where too many impurities had ganged up along a single seam, waiting to fracture at the slightest pressure, creating a razor-sharp, honeycombed gypsum blade that always seemed to find exposed wrists above the glove line. A few times, chips splintered off and flew into my face. The goggles deflected most of these, but one drew blood from the precise tip of my nose.
In the end, we were three—three!—tiles short of finishing; two from mine, one from Pug’s. The sun had set, and we’d been working by head-lamp and the van’s headlights. The gaps stared at us.
“Well, shit,” Pug said, with feeling.
I picked through our pile of postmodern potsherds, looking for any salvageable pieces. There weren’t. I knew there weren’t, but I looked anyway. I’d become a sort of puzzle-assembling machine and I couldn’t stop now that I was so close to the end. It was the punch line to a terrible joke.
“What are you two so freaked out about?” Blight said. “Just throw a tarp over it.”
We both looked at each other. “Blight—” Pug began, then stopped.
“We don’t want to cover these with tarps,” I said. “We want to show them off! We want everyone to see our totally awesome project! We want them to see how we made bricks out of dust and sunshine!”
“Um, yeah,” Blight said. “I get that. But you can use the tarps for tonight, and print out your missing pieces tomorrow, right?”
We both stared at each other, dumbfounded.
“Uh,” I said.
Pug facepalmed, hard enough that I heard his glove smacking into his nose. When he took his hand away, his goggles were askew, half pushed up his forehead.
“I’ll get the tarps,” I said.
They came. First in trickles, then in droves. Word got around the Playa: these guys have 3D printed their own yurt. Or igloo.
Many just cruised by, felt the smooth finish of the structures, explored the tight seams with their fingernails, picked up a shard of cracked tile to take away as a souvenir. They danced with the Gadget as it blew back and forth across its little tethered paddock, and if they were lucky enough to see it dropping a finished tile to the desert, they picked it up and marveled at it.
It wasn’t an unequivocal success, though. One old-timer came by, a wizened and wrinkled burner with a wild beard and a tan the color of old leather—he was perfectly naked and so unselfconscious about it that I ceased to notice it about eight seconds into our conversation—and said, “Can I ask you something?”
“Sure,” I said.
“Well, I was just wondering how you turn these bricks of yours back into dust when you’re done with them?”
“What do you mean?”
“Leave no trace,” he said. His eyes glittered behind his goggles. “Leave no trace” was rule number eight of the ten hallowed inviolable holy rules of Burning Man. I suppose I must have read them at some point, but mostly I came into contact with them by means of burnier-than-thou dialogues with old-timers—or anxious, status-conscious noobs—who wanted to point out all the ways in which my burn was the wrong sort of burn.
“Not following you,” I said, though I could see where this was going.
“What are you going to do with all this stuff when you’re done with it? How are you going to turn your ceramics back into dust?”
“I don’t think we can,” I said.
“Ah,” he said, with the air of someone who was winning the argument. “Didn’t think so. You going to leave this here?”
“No,” I said. “We’ll take it down and truck it out. Leave no trace, right?”
“But you’re taking away some of the desert with you. Do that enough, where will we be?”
Yep. Just about where I figured this was going. “How much playa dust do you take home in your”—I was about to say clothes—“Car?”
“Not one bit more than I can help bringing. It’s not our desert to take away with us. You’ve got sixty thousand people here. They start doing what you’re doing, next thing you know, the whole place starts to vanish.”
I opened my mouth. Shut it. Opened it again.
“Have you got any idea of the overall volume of gypsum dust in the Black Rock desert? I mean, relative to the amount of dust that goes into one of these?” I patted the side of the structure—we’d started calling them yurtgloos.
“I knew you’d say that,” he said, eyes glittering and beard swinging. “They said that about the ocean. Now we’ve got the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. They said it about space, and now low Earth orbit is one stray screwdriver handle away from a cascade that wipes out every communications satellite and turns the Lagrange points into free-fire zones. Anywhere you go in history, there’s someone dumping something or taking something away and claiming that the demand’ll never outstrip the supply. That’s probably what the first goat-herder said when he turned his flock out on the Sahara plains. ‘No way these critters could ever eat this huge plot down to nothing.’ Now it’s the Sahara!”
I had to admit he had a point.
“Look,” I said. “This is the first time anyone’s tried this. Burners have been changing the desert for years. They excavate tons of the surface every year to get rid of the burn platform and the scars from the big fires. Maybe we’ll have to cap how many robots run every year, but you know, it’s kind of a renewable resource. Dust blows in all the time, over the hills and down the road. It goes down for yards and yards. They mined around here for a century and didn’t make a dent in it. The only thing that doesn’t change the world is a corpse. People who are alive change the planet. That’s part of the deal. How about if we try this thing for a while and see whether it’s a problem, instead of declaring it a disaster before it’s gotten started?”
He gave me a withering look. “Oh yeah, I’ve heard that one before. ‘Give it time, see how it goes!’ That’s what they said in Fukushima. That’s what they said when they green-lit thalidomide. That’s what they said at Kristallnacht.”
“I don’t think they said that about Kristallnacht,” I said, and turned on my heel. Decades on the Internet had taught me that Godwin’s law was ironclad: as soon as the comparisons to Nazis or Hitler came out, the discussion was over. He shouted something at my back, but I couldn’t hear it over the wub-wub of an art car that turned the corner at that moment, a huge party bus/pirate ship with three decks of throbbing dancers and a PA system that could shatter glass.
But that conversation stayed with me. He was a pushy, self-righteous prig, but that didn’t mean he was wrong. Necessarily.
If you’re a burner, you know what happened next. we kickstarted an entire flock of Gadgets by Christmas; built them through the spring, and trucked them out in a pair of sixteen-wheelers for the next Fourth, along with a crew of wranglers who’d helped us build them. It was the biggest Fourth of Juplaya ever and there were plenty of old-timers who still say we ruined it. It’s true that there was a lot less shooting and a lot more lens-polishing that year.
The best part was the variation. Our three basic tiles could be combined to make an infinite variety of yurtgloos, but to be honest, you’d be hard-pressed to tell one from another. On our wiki, a group of topology geeks went bananas designing a whole range of shapes that interlocked within our three, making it possible to build crazy stuff—turrets, staircases, trusses. Someone showed how the polyominoes could be interlocked to make a playground slide and sure enough, come the summer, there was a huge one, with a ladder and a scaffolding of support, and damned if it wasn’t an amazing ride, once it was ground down to a slippery sheen with a disc-polisher.
The next year, there were whole swaths of Black Rock City that were built out of dust-bricks, as they were called by that time. The backlash was predictable, but it still smarted. We were called unimaginative suburbanites in tract-house gated communities, an environmental catastrophe— that old naked guy turned out to be a prophet as well as a crank—and a blight on the landscape.
Blight especially loved this last. She brought Maya, her daughter, to the Playa that year, and the two of them built the most amazing, most ambitious yurtgloo you’d ever seen, a three-story, curvy, bulbous thing whose surfaces were finely etched with poems and doodles that she’d fed to the paramaterizer in the 3D-modeling software onboard her Gadgets. the edges of the glyphs were so sharp at first that you could literally cut yourself on them, and before the wind and dust wore them down, they cast amazing shadows down into the gullies of the carve-outs when the sun was rising and setting, turning the wall into a madman’s diary of scribbles and words.
Maya was indifferent to the haters. She was fifteen and was a troubleseeking missile with a gift for putting creepers in their place that I was in absolute awe of. I watched her fend off the advances of fratty jocks, weird old dudes like me, and saucer-eyed spacemen dancing to the distant, omnipresent thunder of EDM.
“You raised her right, huh?” I said to Blight.
Blight shrugged. “Look, it sucks to be a fifteen-year-old girl. All that attention, it just gets in the way of figuring out who you are. I’m glad she’s good at this, but I wish she didn’t have to do it. I wish she could just have a burn like the rest of us.”
I put my arm around her shoulders. “Yeah,” I said. “Yeah, that sucks.”
“It does. Plus, I don’t want to get high because I feel like I’ve got to keep an eye on her all the time and—” She threw her hands up in the air and looked angrily at the white-hot sky.
“You’re feeling guilty for bringing her, aren’t you?”
“No, Dr. Freud. I’m feeling guilty for regretting that I brought her.”
“Are you sure you’re not feeling guilty for regretting that you feel guilty that you brought her?”
She pinched me. “Be serious.”
I wiped the smile off my face. “Blight, I love you.” I’d said it the first time on a visit to her place just after the last burn, and she’d been literally speechless for a good ten minutes. Ever since, it had become my go-to trick for winning arguments.
She pinched me hard in the arm. I rubbed the sore spot—every time I came back from a visit to see her, I had bruises the size of grapefruits and the color of the last moment of sunset on both shoulders.
Maya ran past, pulling a giant stunt kite behind her. She’d spent the whole burn teaching herself new tricks with it and she could do stuff with it that I never would have believed. We cheered her on as she got it into the sky.
“She’s an amazing kid,” I said. “Makes me wish I’d had one. I would have, if I’d known she’d turn out like that.”
Maya’s dad was a city manager for a small town in Arizona that was entirely dependent on imported water. He came out twice a year for visits and Maya spent three weeks every summer and alternate Christmases and Easters with him, always returning with a litany of complaints about the sheer tedium of golf courses and edge-city megamalls. I’d never met him but he sounded like a good guy, if a little on the boring side.
“Never too late,” Blight said. “Go find yourself some nubile twentyfive-year-old and get her gravid with your child.”
“What would I want with one of those flashy new models? I’ve got an American classic here.” I gave her another squeeze, and she gave me another pinch.
“Nothing smoother than an automotive comparison, fella.”
“It was meant as a compliment.”
“I know,” she said. “Fine. Well, then, you could always come down and spend some time when Maya is around, instead of planning your visits around her trips to see her dad. There’s plenty of parenting to go around on that one, and I could use a break from time to time.”
I suddenly felt very serious. Something about being on the Playa made it seem like anything was possible. I had to literally bite my tongue to stop myself from proposing marriage. Instead, I said, “That sounds like a very good plan. I shall take you up on it, I think.”
She drew her fingers back to pinch me, but instead, she dragged me to her and gave me a long, wet, deep kiss.
“Ew,” shouted Maya as she buzzed us, now riding a lowrider playa bike covered in fun fur and duct tape. She circled us twice, throwing up a fantail of dust, then screeched to a hockey stop that buried our feet in a small dune that rode ahead of her front wheel like a bow wave.
“You’ve gone native, kiddo,” I said.
She gave me a hilarious little-girl look and said, “Are you my new daddy? Mommy says you’re her favorite of all my uncles, and there’s so many of them.”
Blight pounced on her and bore her to the ground, where they rolled like a pair of fighting kittens, all tickles and squeals and outflung legs and arms. It ended with Maya pinned under Blight’s forearms and knees.
“I brought you into this world,” she said, panting. “I can take you out of it, too.”
Maya closed her eyes and then opened them again, wide as saucers. “I’m sorry, Mom,” she said. “I guess I took it too far. I love you, Mom.”
Blight relaxed a single millibar and Maya squirmed with the loose-jointed fluidity of wasted youth and bounced to her toes, leaped on her bike and shouted, “Suck-errrrr!,” as she pedaled away a good ten yards, then did a BMX-style front-wheel stand and spun back around to face us. “Bye-ee!”
“Be back for dinner!” Blight shouted.
The two stared at each other through the blowing dust.
“He’s pretty good,” Maya shouted again. “You can keep him.”
Blight took a step toward her. Maya grinned fearlessly. “Love you, Mom! Don’t worry, I won’t get into any trouble.”
She jammed down on the pedals and powered off toward open playa.
“You appear to have given birth to the Tasmanian Devil,” I said.
“Shut up, amateur,” she said. “This is what they’re supposed to be like at fifteen. I’d be worried otherwise.”
By the time they sent Pug home to die, Blight was practically living with me—after getting laid off and going freelance, there was no reason not to. I gave her the whole garage to use as workspace—parked my car in the driveway and ran an extension cord out to it to charge it overnight— but half the time she worked at Minus. Its latest incarnation was amazing, a former L.A. Department of Water and Power Substation that was in bankruptcy limbo. After privatization and failure, the trustees had inventoried its assets and found that it was sitting on all these mothballed substations and offered them out on cheap short-term leases. Minus was practically a cathedral in those days, with thirty-foot ceilings, catwalks, even two behemoth dynamos that had been saved from the scrappers out of pure nostalgia. They gave the place a theatrical, steampunk air—until someone decided to paint them safety orange with hot-pink highlights, which looked pretty damned cool and pop art, but spoiled the theater of the thing somewhat.
Pug was no idiot—not like me. So when he found a lump and asked the doctor to look into it and spent a week fretting about it, he’d told me and Blight and a bunch of his other friends and did a week of staying on people’s couches and tinkering with the Gadget and going to yoga class and cooking elaborate meals with weird themes—like the all-coconut dinner that included coconut chicken over coconut rice with coconut flan for dessert. And he arranged for me to drive him to the doctor’s office for his follow-up visit.
We joked nervously all the way to the waiting room, then fell silent. We declined to be paged by the receptionist and sat down instead, looking from the big, weird, soothing animation on the fifty-inch TV to the health pamphlets that invited us to breathe on them or lick them for instant analysis and follow-up recommendations. Some of them seemed to have been licked already.
“Scott Zrubek?” said the receptionist from the door, looking from her screen to Pug’s face.
“That’s my slave name,” he said to me as he got up and crossed to her. “Forget you ever heard it.”
Twenty minutes later, he was back with a big white smile that went all the way to the corners of his eyes. I stood up and made a question of my raised eyebrows. He high-fived me and we went out to the car. The nurse who’d brought him back watched us go from the window, a worried look on her face, and that should have tipped me off.
“All okay, then,” I said. “So now where?”
“Let’s get some lunch,” he said. “There’s a chicken shack up on the left; they serve the best chili fries.”
It was one of those drive-in places where the servers clipped trays to the windows and served your food on them, a retro-revival thing that made me glad I had vinyl seats.
“What a relief,” I said, slurping on my shake. They had tiger-tail ice cream—a mix of orange and black licorice flavor—and Pug had convinced me to try it in a shake. He’d been right—it was amazing.
“Uh-huh,” he said. “About that.”
“Doc says it’s in my liver and pancreas. I can do chemo and radiotherapy, but that’ll just tack a couple months on, and they won’t be good months. Doc says it’s the kind of cancer where, when a doctor gets it, they refuse treatment.”
I pulled the car over to the side of the road. I couldn’t bring myself to turn my head.
“Pug,” I said. “I’m so sorry—”
He put his hand on mine and I shut up. I could hear his breathing, a little fast, a little shallow. My friend was keeping it together so much better than I was, but he was the one with the death sentence.
“Remember what you told me about the curve?” he said. “Back when you thought you had cancer? The older you get, the more friends will die. It’s just statistics. No reason I shouldn’t be the next statistic.”
“But you’re only thirty—”
“Thirty-three,” he said. “A little lower on the curve, but not unheard of.” he breathed awhile longer. “Not a bad run.”
“Pug,” I said, but he squeezed my hand.
“If the next sentence to come out of your mouth includes the words ‘spontaneous remission,’ I’m going upside your head with a roll of quarters. That’s the province of the Smurfs’ Family Christmas, not the real world. And don’t talk to me about having a positive attitude. The reason all those who’ve died of cancer croaked is because they had cancer, not because they were too gloomy.”
“How about Laura?” I said. They’d been dating on and off for a couple months. She seemed nice. Did some kind of investment analysis for an ethical fund.
“Oh,” he said. “Yeah. Don’t suppose that was going to be serious. Huh. What do you think—tell her I’m dying, then break up; break up and then tell her I’m dying; or just break up?”
“What about telling her you’re”—I swallowed—“dying, then giving her the choice?”
“What choice? Getting married? Dude, it’s not like I’ve got a life-insurance policy. She’s a nice person. Doesn’t need to be widowed at thirty-two.” he took his hand back. “Could you drive?”
When we got onto the 10, he chuckled. “Got some good birthdays in at least. Twenty-seven, that’s a cube. Twenty-nine, prime. Thirty-one, prime. Thirty-two, a power of two. Thirty-three, a palindrome. It’s pretty much all downhill from here.”
“Thirty-six is a square,” I said.
“Square,” he said. “Come on, a square? Don’t kid yourself, the good ones are all in that twenty-seven to thirty-three range. I got a square at twenty-five. How many squares does a man need?”
“Damn, you’re weird,” I said.
“Too weird to live, too beautiful to die.” he thumped his chest. “Well, apparently not.” he sighed. “Shit. Well, that happened.”
“Look, if there’s anything you need, let me know,” I said. “I’m here for you.”
“You’re a prince. But you know what, this isn’t the worst way to go, to tell the truth. I get a couple months to say good-bye, put things in order, but I don’t have to lie around groaning and turning into a walking skeleton for six months while my body eats itself. It’s the best of both worlds.”
My mouth was suddenly too dry to talk. I dry-swallowed a few times, squeezed my eyes shut hard, put the car in gear, and swung into traffic. We didn’t speak the rest of the way to Pug’s. When we pulled up out front, I blurted, “You can come and stay with me, if you want. I mean, being alone—”
“Thanks,” he said. He’d gone a little gray. “Not today, all right?”
Blight wasn’t home when I got back, but Maya was. I’d forgotten she was coming to stay. She’d graduated the year before and had decided to do a year on the road with her net-friends, which was all the rage with her generation, the second consecutive cadre of no-job/no-hope kids to graduate from America’s flagging high schools. they’d borrowed a bunch of tricks from their predecessors, most notably a total refusal to incur any student debt and a taste for free online courses in every subject from astronomy to science fiction literature—and especially things like agriculture and cookery, which was a critical part of their forager lifestyle.
Maya had cycled to my place from the Greyhound depot, using some kind of social bike-share that I hadn’t ever heard of. On the way, she’d stopped and harvested berries, tubers, herbs, and some soft-but-serviceable citrus fruit. “The world’ll feed you, if you let it,” she said, carefully spitting grapefruit seeds into her hand. She’d scatter them later, on the next leg of the bike journey. “Especially in L.A. All that subsidized pork-barrel water from the Colorado River’s good for something.”
“Sounds like you’re having a hell of a time,” I said.
“Better than you,” she said. “You look like chiseled shit.” She grabbed my shoulders and peered into my eyes, searched my face. It struck me how much like her mom she looked, despite the careful checkerboard of colored zinc paste that covered her features in dazzle-patterns that fooled facial-recognition algorithms and fended off the brutal, glaring sun.
“Thanks,” I said, squirming away, digging a glass bottle of cold-brewed coffee out of the fridge.
“Seriously,” she said, pacing me around the little kitchen. “What’s going on? Everything okay with mom?”
“Your mother’s fine,” I said. “I’m fine.”
“So why do you look like you just found out you’re going to have to bury euthanized dogs for community service?”
“Is that real?”
“The dogs? Yeah. You get it a lot in the Midwest. Lot of feral dogs around Ohio and Indiana. They round ’em up, gas ’em, and stack ’em. It’s pretty much the number one vagrancy penalty. Makes an impression.”
“Stop changing the subject. What’s going on, Greg?”
I poured myself some coffee, added ice, and then dribbled in a couple of teaspoons’ worth of half-and-half, watching the gorgeous fluid dynamics of the heavy cream roiling in the dark brown liquid.
“Come on, Greg,” she said, taking the glass from me and draining half of it in one go. Her eyes widened a little. “That’s good.”
“It’s not my story to tell,” I said.
“Whose story is it?”
I turned back to the fridge to get out the cold-brew bottle again. “Dude, this is weak. Come on, shared pain is lessened, shared joy is increased. Don’t be such a guy. Talk.”
“You remember Pug?”
She rolled her eyes with teenage eloquence. “Yes, I remember Pug.”
I heaved in a breath, heaved it out again. Tried to find the words. Didn’t need to, as it turned out.
She blinked a couple times. “How long has he got?”
“Couple months,” I said. “Longer, if he takes treatment. But not much longer. And he’s not going to take it anyway.”
“Good,” she said. “That’s a bad trade anyway.” She sat down in one of my vintage vinyl starburst-upholstered kitchen chairs—a trophy of diligent L.A. yard-saling, with a matching chrome-rimmed table. She looked down into her coffee, which had gone a thick, uniform pale brown color. “I’m sorry to hear it, though.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah. Me too.” I sat with her.
“What’s he going to do now?”
I shrugged. “I guess he’s got to figure that out.”
“He should do something big,” she said, under her breath, still staring into the drink. “Something huge. Think about it—it doesn’t matter if he fucks it up. Doesn’t matter if he goes broke or whatever. It’s his last chance, you know?”
“I guess,” I said. “I think it’s really up to him, though. They’re his last months.”
“Bullshit,” she said. “They’re our last months with him. He’s going to turn into ashes and vanish. We’re going to be left on this ball of dirt for however many years we’ve got left. He’s got a duty to try and make something of it with whatever time he’s got left. Something for us to carry on. Come on, Greg, think about it. What do you do here, anyway? Try to live as lightly as possible, right? Just keep your head down, try not to outspend that little precious lump of dead money you lucked into so that you can truck on into the grave. You and Mom and Pug, you all ‘know’ that humans aren’t really needed on Earth anymore, that robots can do all the work and that artificial life forms called corporations can harvest all the profit, so you’re just hiding under the floorboards and hoping that it doesn’t all cave in before you croak.”
“And don’t you dare give me any bullshit about generational politics and demographics and youthful rage and all that crap. Things are true or they aren’t, no matter how old the person saying them happens to be.” She drained her drink. “And you know it.”
I set down my glass and held my hands over my head. “I surrender. You’re right. I got nothing better to do, and certainly Pug doesn’t. So, tell me, wise one, what should we be doing?”
Her veneer of outraged confidence cracked a tiny bit. “Fucked if I know. Solve world hunger. Invent a perpetual motion machine. Colonize the Moon.”
We wrote them on the whiteboard wall at Pug’s place. He’d painted the wall with dry-erase paint when he first moved into the little house in Culver City, putting it where the TV would have gone a few decades before, and since then it had been covered with so much dry-erase ink and wiped clean so many times that there were bald patches where the underlying paint was showing through, stained by the markers that had strayed too close to no-man’s-land. We avoided those patches and wrote:
SOLVE WORLD HUNGER
PERPETUAL MOTION MACHINE
The first one to go was the perpetual motion machine. “It’s just stupid,” Pug said. “I’m an engineer, not a metaphysician. If I’m going to do something with the rest of my life, it has to be at least possible, even if it’s implausible.”
“When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however implausible, must be—”
“How have you chosen your projects before?” Maya said. She and Blight sat in beanbag chairs on opposite sides of the room, pointedly watching the wall and not each other.
“They chose me,” Pug said. She made a wet, rude noise. “Seriously. It never came up. Any time I was really working my nuts off on something, sweating over it, that was the exact moment that some other project demanded that I drop everything, right now, and take care of it. I figure it was the self-destructive part of my brain desperately trying to keep me from finishing anything, hoping to land a Hail Mary distraction pass.”
“More like your own self-doubt,” Maya said. “Trying to keep you from screwing something up by ensuring that you never finished it.”
He stuck his tongue out at her. “Give me strength to withstand the wisdom of teenagers,” he said.
“Doesn’t matter how old the speaker is, it’s the words that matter.” She made a gurulike namaste with her hands and then brought them up to her forehead like a yoga instructor reaching for her third eye. Then she stuck her tongue out, too.
“All right, shut up, Yoda. The point is that I eventually figured out how to make that all work for me. I just wrote down the ideas as they came up and stuck them in the ‘do-after’ file, which means that I always had a huge, huge do-after file waiting for me the second I finished whatever I was on at the time.”
“So fine, what’s the next on your do-after file.”
He shook his head. “Nothing worth my time. Not if it’s going to be the last splash. Nothing that’s a legacy.”
Blight said, “You’re just overthinking it, dude. Whatever it is, whip it out. There’s no reason to be embarrassed. It’d be much worse to do nothing because nothing was worthy of your final act than to do something that wasn’t as enormous as it could have been.”
“Believe me, you don’t want to know,” Pug said. “Seriously.”
“Okay, back to our list.” She closed her eyes and gave a theatrical shudder. “Look, it’s clear that the methods you use to choose a project when you have all the time in the world are going to be different from the method you use when there’s almost no time left. So let’s get back to this.” She drew a line through PERPETUAL MOTION. “I buy your reasons for this one. That leaves MOON COLONY and WORLD HUNGER.” She poised her pen over MOON COLONY. “I think we can strike this one. You’re not going to get to the Moon in a couple of months. And besides, world hunger—”
“Fuck world hunger,” Pug said, with feeling.
“Very nice,” she said. “Come on, Pug, no one needs to be reminded of what a totally with-it, cynical dude you are. We’ve all known all along what it had to be. World hunger—”
“Fuck. World. Hunger,” Pug repeated.
Blight gave him a narrow-eyed stare. I recognized the signs of an impending eruption.
“Pug,” I said, “Perhaps you could unpack that statement a little?”
“Come on,” he said. “Unpack it? Why? You know what it means. Fuck world hunger because the problem with world hunger isn’t too many people, or the wrong kind of agriculture, or, for fuck’s sake, the idea that we’re not doing enough to feed the poor. The problem with world hunger is that rich, powerful governments are more than happy to send guns and money to dictators and despots who’ll use food to control their populations and line their pockets. There is no ‘world hunger’ problem. There’s a corruption problem. There’s a greed problem. There’s a gullibility problem. Every racist fuck who’s ever repeated half-baked neo-malthusian horseshit about overpopulation, meaning, of course, that the ‘wrong’ kind of people are having babies, i.e., poor people who have nothing to lose and don’t have to worry about diluting their fortunes and squandering their pensions on too many kids—”
“So there’s a corruption problem,” I said. “Point taken. How about if we make a solution for the corruption problem, then? Maybe we could build some kind of visualizer that shows you if your Congresscritter is taking campaign contributions from companies and then voting for laws that benefit them?”
“What, you mean like every single one of them?” Maya pushed off the wall she’d been leaning against and took a couple steps toward me. “Get serious, Greg. The average elected official spends at least half of their time in office fund-raising for their next election campaign. They’ve been trying to fix campaign financing for decades and somehow, the people who depend on corrupt campaign contributions don’t want to pass a law limiting corrupt campaign contributions. Knowing that your senator is on the take only helps if the guy running against him isn’t also on the take.
“Come on, dude,” she said. “The guy is dying, you want him to spend his last days making infographics? Why not listicles, too?” She framed a headline with her hands. “Revealed: the ten most corrupt senators! Except that you don’t need a data analysis to find the ten most corrupt—they’ll just be the ten longest-serving politicians.”
“Okay,” I said. “Okay, Maya, point taken. So what would you do to fight corruption?”
She got right up in my face, close enough that I could see the fine dark hairs on her upper lip —she and her cohort had rejected the hair removal mania of the previous decade, putting umpteen Brazilian waxers and threaders and laser hair zappers on the breadline—and smell the smoothie on her breath. “Greg, what are you talking about? Ending corruption? Like there’s a version of this society that isn’t corrupt? Corruption isn’t the exception, it’s the norm. It’s baked in. The whole idea of using markets to figure out who gets what is predicated on corruption— it’s a way to paper over the fact that some people get a lot, most of us get not much, and so we invent a deus ex machina called market forces that hands out money based on merit. How do we know that the market is giving it to deserving people? Well, look at all the money they have! It’s just circular reasoning.”
“So, what then? Anarchist collectivism? Communism?”
She looked around at all of us. “Duh. Look at you three. You’ve organized your whole lives around this weird-ass gift-economy thing where you take care of yourself and you take care of everyone else.”
“Burning man isn’t real life,” Blight said. “God, I knew I should have waited until you were over eighteen before I took you to the Playa.” Her tone was light, but given their earlier fury at each other, I braced for an explosion.
But Maya kept her cool. “It’s a bitch when someone reminds you of all the contradictions in your life, I know. Your discomfort doesn’t make what I’m saying any less true, though. Come on, you all know this is true. Late-stage capitalism isn’t reformable. It’s an idea whose time has passed.”
We all stared at one another, a triangle of adulthood with solitary, furious adolescence in the center.
“You’re right, Maya. She’s right. That’s why the only logical choice is the Moon colony.”
“You’re going to secede from Earth?” Blight said. “Start a colony of anarcho-syndicalist Moon-men?”
“Not at all. What I want is, you know, a gift economy dangling like a carrot, hanging in the sky over all our heads. A better way of living, up there, in sight, forever. On the Moon. If civilization collapses and some chudded-out mutant discovers a telescope and points it at the Moon, she’ll see the evidence of what the human race could be.”
“What the hell are you talking about?” I said.
He stood up, groaning a little, the way he’d started to do, and half shuffled to his bookcase and picked up a 3D-printed miniature of the Gadget, run up on one of Minus’s SLS powder printers. It even had a tiny, optically correct lens that his favorite lab in Germany had supplied; the whole thing had been a premium for a massively successful kickstarter a couple of years before. He handed it to me and its many legs flexed and rattled as it settled on my palm.
“I want to put Gadgets on the Moon. Mod ’em to print moondust, turn ’em loose. Years will pass. Decades, maybe. But when our kids get to the Moon, or maybe Maya’s kids, or maybe their kids, they’ll find a gift from their ancestors. Something for nothing. A free goddamned lunch, from the first days of a better nation.”
One part of me was almost in tears at the thought, because it was a beautiful one. But there was another part of me that was violently angry at the idea. Like he was making fun of the world of the living from his cozy vantage point on the rim of the valley of death. The two of us had a way of bickering like an old married couple, but since his diagnosis, every time I felt like I was about to lay into him, I stopped. What if, what if. What if this was the last thing I said to him? What if he went to his deathbed with my bad-tempered words still ringing in the air between us? I ended up with some kind of bubbling, subcutaneous resentment stew on the boil at all times.
I just looked thoughtfully at the clever little Gadget in my palm. we’d talked about making it functional—a $7 Gorseberry Pi should have had the processing power, and there were plenty of teeny-tiny stepper motors out there, but no one could figure out a way of doing the assembly at scale, so we’d gone with a nonfunctional model.
“Can you print with moondust?”
Pug shrugged his shoulders. “Probably. I know I’ve read some stuff about it along the way. NASA runs some kind of ‘What the fuck do we do with all this moondust?’ challenge every year or two—you can order synthetic dust to play around with.”
“Pug, I don’t think we’re going to get a printer on the Moon in a couple of months.”
“No,” he said. “No, I expect I’ll be ashes long before you’re ready to launch. It’s gonna take a lot of doing. We don’t know shit about engineering for low-gravity environments, even less about vacuum. And you’re going to have to raise the money to get the thing onto the Moon, and that’s gonna be a lot of mass. Don’t forget to give it a giant antenna, because the only way you’re going to be able to talk to it is by bouncing shortwave off the Moon. Better hope you get a lot of support from people around the equator; that’ll be your best way to keep it in range the whole time.”
“This isn’t a new idea, is it?”
“Honestly? No. Hell no. I’ve had this as a tickle in the back of my brain for years. The first time we put a Gadget out in the dust for the summer, I was 99 percent certain that we were going to come back and find the thing in pieces. But it worked. And it keeps on getting better. That got me thinking: where’s there a lot of dust and not a lot of people? I’d love to stick some of these on Mars, send ’em on ahead, so in a century or two, our great-greats can touch down and build Bradburytown pretty much overnight. Even better, make a self-assembling reprap version, one that can print out copies of itself, and see how fast you can turn any asteroid, dustball, or lump of interstellar rock and ice into a Hall of Martian Kings, some assembly required.”
None of us said anything for a while.
“When you put it that way, Pug . . .” Blight said.
Pug looked at her and there were bright tears standing in his eyes. Hers, too.
“Oh, Pug,” she said.
He covered his face with his hands and sobbed. I was the first one to reach him. I put an arm around his shoulders and he leaned into me, and I felt the weird lump where his dislocation hadn’t set properly. He cried for a long time. Long enough for Blight, and then Maya, to come and put their arms around us. Long enough for me to start crying.
When he straightened up, he took the little Gadget out of my hand.
“It’s a big universe,” he said. “It doesn’t give a shit about us. As far as we can tell, there’s only us out here. If our grandchildren—your grandchildren, I mean—are going to meet friendly aliens, they’re just going to be us.”
Pug lived longer than they’d predicted. The doctors said that it was his sense of purpose that kept him alive, which sounded like bullshit to me. Like the stuff he’d railed against when he’d bitten my head off about “Positive attitudes.” I having a sense of purpose will keep you alive, then everyone who died of cancer must not have had enough of a sense of purpose.
As Pug would have said, Screw that with an auger.
It was a funny thing about his idea: you told people about it and they just got it. Maybe it was all the Gadgets out on the playa percolating through the zeitgeist, or maybe it was the age-old sorcerer’s apprentice dream of machines that make copies of themselves, or maybe it was the collapse of the Chinese and Indian Mars missions and the bankruptcy of the American company that had been working on the private mission. Maybe it was Pug, or just one of those things.
But they got it.
Which isn’t to say that they liked it. Hell no. the day we broke our kickstarter goal for a private fifty-kilo lift to the Moon—one-fifth the weight of a standard-issue Gadget, but that was an engineering opportunity, wasn’t it?—the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space called a special meeting in Geneva to talk about prohibitions on “environmental degradation of humanity’s moon.” Like we were going to mess up their nice craters.
The Green Moon Coalition was a weird chimera. On the one hand, you had a kind of axis of paranoid authoritarianism, China and Russia and North Korea and what was left of Greece and Cyprus, all the basket-case countries, and they were convinced that we were a stalking horse for the American spookocracy, striking in the hour of weakness to establish, I don’t know, maybe a weapons platform? Maybe a listening post? Maybe a killer earthquake machine? They weren’t very coherent on this score.
Say what you will about those weird, paranoid creeps: they sure understood how to play UN procedure. No one could game the UN better except for the USA. If only we’d actually been a front for Big Snoop, maybe they would have had our back.
But that was only to be expected. What I didn’t expect was the other half of Green Moon: the environmental movement. I sincerely, seriously doubt that anyone in the politburo or Damascus or the Kremlin or Crete gave the tiniest, inciest shit about the Moon’s “environment.” They just hated and feared us because our government hated and feared them.
But there were people—a lot of people—who thought that the Moon had a right to stay “pristine.” The first time I encountered this idea—it was on a voice chat with a reporter who had caught a whiff of our online chatter about the project—I couldn’t even speak coherently about it.
“Sorry, could you say that again?”
“Doesn’t the Moon have a right to be left alone, in a pristine state?”
“There’s a saying, ‘that’s not right. It’s not even wrong.’ The Moon doesn’t have rights. It’s a rock and some dust, and maybe if we’re very lucky, there’s some ice. And the Moon doesn’t do ‘pristine.’ It’s been hammered by asteroids for two billion years. Got a surface like a tin can that’s been dragged behind a truck for a thousand miles. There’s no one there. There’s nothing there.”
“Except for craters and dust, right?”
“Yes, except for those.”
The call developed the kind of silence I recognized as victorious. The reporter clearly felt that she’d scored a point. I mentally rewound it.
“Wait, what? Come on. You’re seriously saying that you think that craters and dust need to be preserved? For what?”
“Why shouldn’t they?”
“Because they’re inanimate matter.”
“But it’s not your inanimate matter to disturb.”
“Look, every time a meteor hits the Moon, it disturbs more dust than I’m planning on messing up by, like, a millionfold. Should we be diverting meteors? At what point do we draw a line on nature and say, all right, now it’s time for things to stop. This is it. Nature is finished. Any more changes to this would be unnatural.”
“Of course not. But are you saying you don’t see the difference between a meteor and a machine?”
There was no hesitation. “Human beings have just about terminally screwed up the Earth and now you want to get started on the Moon. Wouldn’t it be better to figure out how we all want to use the Moon before we go there?”
I don’t remember how I got out of the call. It wasn’t the last time I had that discussion, in any event. Not by a very, very long chalk. They all ended up in the same place.
I don’t know if the mustache-and-epaulet club were useful idiots for the deep greens or vice versa, but it was quite a combo.
The one thing we had going for us was the bankruptcy of Mars Shot, the private Mars expedition. They’d invested a ton in the first two stages of the project: a reusable lifting vehicle and a space station for it to rendezvous with. The lifter had been profitable from day one, with a roaring trade in comsat launches. But Mars Shot pumped every dime of profit into Skyhaven, which was meant to be a shipyard for the Burroughs, a one-way, twenty-person Mars rocket with enough technology in its cargo pods to establish a toehold on our neighboring planet. And Skyhaven just turned out to be too goddamned expensive.
I can’t fault them. They’d seen Mir and Skylab and decided that they were dead ends, variations on a short-lived theme. Rather than focusing on strength, they opted for metastability: nested, pressurized spheres made of carbon-fiber plastic that could be easily patched and resealed when— not if—it ripped. Free-floating, continuously replenished gummed strips floated in the void between the hulls, distributed by convection currents made by leaking heat from within the structure. They’d be sucked into any breach and seal it. Once an outer hull reached a critical degree of patchiness, a new hull would be inflated within the inner hull, which would be expanded to accommodate it, the inside wall becoming the outside and the outside becoming recyclable junk that could be sliced, gummed, and used for the next generation of patchwork. It was resilient, not stable, and focused on failing well, even at the expense of out-and-out success.
This sounded really good on paper, and even better on video. They had a charismatic engineering lead, Marina Kotov, who’d been laid off from JPL during its final wind-down, and she could talk about it with near-religious zeal. Many were the engineers who went into one of her seminars ready to laugh at the “space condom” and bounded out converts to “fail well, fail cheap, fail fast,” which was her battle cry.
For all I know, she was totally right. There were a lot of shakedown problems with the fabric, and one of their suppliers went bust half way through, leaving them with a partial balloon and nothing they could do about it. Unfortunately for them, the process for making the fabric was patented to hell and back, and the patents were controlled by a speculator who’d cut an exclusive deal with a single company that was a lot better at bidding on patent licenses than it was at making stuff. There was a multi-month scramble while the bankruptcy trustees were placated and a new licensor found, and by then, Skyhaven was in deep shit.
Mars Shot had attracted a load of investment capital and even more in convertible bonds that they’d issued like raffle tickets. Building a profitable, efficient orbit-lifter wasn’t cheap—they blew billions on it, sure that they’d be able to make it pay once Skyhaven was done and the Mars Shot was launched. I’ve seen convincing analysis that suggests that they would never have gotten there—not if they’d had to repay their lenders and make a 10x or 20x exit for their investors.
Bankruptcy solved that. I mean, sure, it wiped out thousands of old people’s pensions and destroyed a bunch of the frail humans who’d been clinging to financial stability in a world that only needed banks and robots—people like me. That sucked. It killed people, as surely as Pug’s cancer had killed him.
The infrastructure that Mars Shot owned was broken up and sold for parts, each of the lifter vehicles going to different consortia. We thought about kickstarting our own fund to buy one, but figured it would be better to simply buy services from one of the suckers who was lining up to go broke in space. Blight had been a small child during the dot-com crash of the 1990s, but she’d done an AP history presentation on it once, about how it had been the last useful bubble, because it took a bunch of capital that was just being used to generate more capital and turned it into cheap dark fiber bundles and hordes of skilled nerds to fill it with stuff. All the bubbles since had just moved money from the world of the useful into the pockets of the hyperrich, to be flushed back into the financial casino where it would do nothing except go around and around again, being reengineered by high-speed-trading ex-physicists who should know better.
The dot-com legacy was cheap fiber. Once all the debt had been magically wiped off the books and the investors had abandoned the idea of 10–20x payouts, fiber could be profitable.
Mars Shot’s legacy was cheap lift. All it took was a massive subsidy from an overly optimistic market and a bunch of hedgies with an irrational belief in their own financial infallibility and bam, there it was, ten glorious cents on the dollar, and all the lift you could want, at a nice, sustainable price.
It’s a good thing there was more than one consortium running lifters to orbit, because our Indonesian launch partner totally chickened out on us a month before launch. They had deep trade ties to Russia and China, and after one of those closed-door plurilateral trade meetings, everyone emerged from the smoke-filled room convinced that nothing destined for the Moon should be lifted by any civilized country.
It left me wishing for the millionth time that we really were a front for Uncle Sam. There was a juicy Colombian lift that went up every month like clockwork, and Colombia was the kind of country so deep in America’s pocket that they’d do pretty much anything that was required of them. OrbitaColombia SA was lifting all kinds of weird crap that had no business being in space, including a ton of radioisotopes that someone from GE’s nuclear division blew the whistle on much later. Still gives me nightmares, the thought of all those offensive nukes going into orbit, the ghost of Ronald Reagan over our heads for the half-life of plutonium.
In the end, we found our home in Brazil. Brazil had a strong environmental movement, but it was the sort of environmental movement that cared about living things, not rocks. My kind of movement, in other words.
We knew Pug’s death was coming all along, and we had plenty of warning as he got sicker and the pain got worse. He got a morphine pump, which helped, and then some of his chemist friends helped him out with a supply of high-quality ketamine, which really, really helped. It wasn’t like he was going to get addicted or OD. At least, not accidentally.
The last three weeks, he was too sick to get out of bed at all. We moved his bed into the living room and kept the blinds drawn and the lights down. We worked in whispers. Most of the time, he slept. He didn’t get thin the way that people with cancer can get at the end, mostly because of his decision to bow out early, without chemo and radiation therapy. He kept his hair, and it was only in the last week when I was changing his bedpan that I noticed his legs had gotten scarily thin and pale, a stark contrast to the day we’d met and the muscular, tanned legs bulging with veins as he crouched by the proto-Gadget.
But he kept us company, and when he was awake, he kibbitzed in a sleepy voice. Sometimes he was too stoned and ended up making no sense, just tapering off into mumble-mumble, but he had surprisingly lucid moments, when his eyes would glitter and he’d raise his trembling arm and point at something on the whiteboard or someone’s screen and bust out a change or objection that was spot-on. It was spooky, like he was bringing us insights from the edge of death, and we all started jumping a little when he’d do it. In this way, little by little, the project’s roadmap took shape: the order of lifter consortia to try, the approaches to try with each, the way to pitch the kickstarter, and even the storyboard for the video and engineering suggestions for sifting regolith.
Pug slept on his hospital bed in the living room. In theory, we all took turns sleeping on the sofa next to him, but in practice, I was the only one who could sleep through the groans he’d make in his sleep but still wake up when he rasped hoarsely for his bedpan. It was just after two, one night, when he woke me up by croaking my name, “Greg, hey, Greg.”
I woke and found that he’d adjusted the bed to sit up straight, and he was more animated than he’d been in weeks, his eyes bright and alert.
“What is it, Pug?”
He pointed at a crack in the drapes, a sliver of light coming through them. “Full moon tonight,” he said.
I looked at the blue-white triangle of light. “Looks like it,” I said.
“Open the curtains?”
I got up and padded to the window and pulled the curtains back. A little dust rained down from the rods and made me sneeze. Out the window, framed perfectly by it like an HD shot in a documentary, was the moon, so big and bright it looked like a painted set lit up with a spotlight. We both stared at it for a moment. “It’s the moon illusion,” he said. “Makes it seem especially big because we don’t have anything to compare it to. Once it dips a little lower on the horizon and the roofs and tree branches are in the same plane, it’ll seem small again. That’s the Sturgeon moon. August’s moon. My favorite moon, the moon you sometimes get at the burn.” It was almost time for the burn, and my email had been filled with a rising babble of messages about photovoltaics and generators, costumes and conductive body paint, bikes and trailers, coffee and dry ice, water and barbecues and charcoal and sleeping bags. Normally, all this stuff would be a steadily rising chorus whose crescendo came when we packed the latest Gadgets into the van, wedged tight amid groceries and clothes and tents, and closed the doors and turned the key in the ignition.
This year, it was just an annoying mosquito-whine of people whose lives had diverged from our own in the most profound way imaginable. They were all off for a week of dust and hedonism; we were crammed together in this dark, dying room, planning a trip to the Moon.
“Outside,” he said, and coughed weakly. He reached for his water bottle and I helped him get the flexible hose into his mouth. “Outside,” he said again, stronger.
I eyed his hospital bed and looked at the living room door. “Won’t fit,” I said. “Don’t think you can walk it, buddy.”
He rolled his eyes at the wall, and I stared at it for a moment before I figured out what he was trying to tell me. Behind the low bookcase, the garbage can, and the overstuffed chair, that wall was actually a set of ancient, ever-closed vertical blinds. I dragged the furniture away and found the blinds’ pull chain and cranked them back to reveal a set of double sliding doors, a piece of two-by-four wedged in the track to keep them from being forced open. I looked back at Pug and he nodded gravely at me and made a minute shooing gesture. I lifted out the lumber, reaching through a thick pad of old cobwebs and dust bunnies. I wiped my hand on the rug and then leaned the wood against the wall. I pulled the door, which stuck at first, then gave way with a crunchy, squeaky sound. I looked from the hospital bed to the newly revealed door.
“All right, buddy, let’s get this show on the road. Moon don’t wait for no one.”
He gave me a thumbs-up and I circled the bed, unlocking each of the wheels.
It was a good bed, a lease from a company that specialized in helping people to die at home. If that sounds like a ghoulish idea for a start-up, then I’m guessing you’ve never helped a friend who was dying in a hospital.
But it was still a hell of a struggle getting the bed out the door. It just fit, without even a finger’s width on either side. And then there was the matter of the IV stand, which I had to swing around so it was over the head of the bed, right in my face as I pushed, until he got wedged and I had to go out the front door and around the house to pull from the other side, after freeing the wheels from the rubble and weeds in the backyard.
But once we were out, it was smooth rolling, and I took him right into the middle of the yard. It was one of those perfect L.A. nights, the cool dividend for a day’s stifling heat, and the Moon loomed overhead so large I wanted to reach out and touch it. Pug and I were beside each other, admiring the Moon.
“Help me lower the back,” he said, and I cranked the manual release that gently lay the bed out flat, so he could lie on his back and stare up at the sky. I lay down in the weeds beside him, but there were pointy rocks in there, so I went inside and got a couple of sofa cushions and improvised a bed. On my way out the door, I dug out a pair of binoculars from Pug’s Burning Man box, spilling fine white dust as I pulled them free of the junk inside.
I held the binocs up to my eyes and focused them on the Moon. The craters and peaks came into sharp focus, bright with the contrast of the full Moon. Pug dangled his hand down toward me and wriggled his fingers impatiently, so I got to my feet and helped him get the binoculars up to his face. He twiddled the knobs with his shaking fingers, then stopped. He was absolutely still for a long time. So long that I thought he might have fallen asleep. But then he gently lowered the binocs to his chest.
“It’s beautiful,” he said. “There’ll be people there, someday.”
“Hell yeah,” I said. “Of course.”
“Maybe not for a long time. Maybe a future civilization. Whatever happens, the Moon’ll be in the sky, and everyone will know that there’s stuff waiting for them to come and get it.”
I took the binocs out of his loose fingers and lay back down on my back, looking at the Moon again. I’d seen the Apollo footage so often it had become unreal, just another visual from the library of failed space dreams of generation ships and jetpacks and faster-than-light travel. Despite all my work over the past weeks and months, the Moon as a place was . . . fictional, like Narnia or Middle Earth. It was an idea for a theme camp, not a place where humans might venture, let alone live there.
Seen through the binocs that night, all those pits, each older than the oldest living thing on Earth, I came to understand the Moon as a place. In that moment, I found myself sympathizing with the Green Moonies, and their talk of the Moon’s pristineness. There was something wonderful about knowing that the first upright hominids had gazed upon the same Moon that we were seeing, and that it had hardly changed.
“It’s beautiful,” I said. I was getting drowsy.
“Jewel,” he said, barely a whisper. “Pearl. Ours. Gotta get there. Gotta beat the ones who think companies are people. The Moon’s for people, not corporations. It’s a free lunch. Yours, if you want it.”
“Amen,” I said. It was like being on a campout, lying with your friends, staring at the stars, talking until sleep overcame you.
I drifted between wakefulness and sleep for a long, weird time, right on the edge, as the Moon tracked across the sky. When I woke, the birds were singing and the sun was on our faces. Pug was lying in a stoned daze, the button for his drip in his loose grasp. He only did that when the pain was bad. I brought his bed inside as gently as I could, but he never gave any sign he noticed, not even when the wheels bumped over the sliding door’s track. I put things back as well as I could and had a shower and put breakfast on and didn’t speak of the Moon in the night sky to Blight or Maya when they arrived later that morning.
Pug died that night. He did it on purpose, asking for ketamine in a serious voice, looking at each of us in turn as I put the pills in his hand. “More,” he said. Then again. He looked in my eyes and I looked in his. I put more tablets in his hand, helped him find the hose end for his water as he swallowed them. He reached back for the morphine switch and I put it in his hand. I took his other hand. Blight and Maya moved to either side of me and rested their hands on the bed rail, then on Pug, on his frail arm, his withered leg. He smiled a little at us, stoned and sleepy, closed his eyes, opened them a little, and nodded off. We stood there, listening to him breathe, listening to the breath slowing. Slowing.
I couldn’t put my finger on the instant that he went from living to dead.
But there was a moment when the muscles of his face went slack, and in the space of seconds, his familiar features rearranged themselves into the face of a corpse. So much of what I thought of as the shape of Pug’s face was the effect of the tensions of the underlying muscles, and as his cheeks hollowed and slid back, the skin on his nose stretched, making it more bladelike, all cartilage, with the nostrils flattened to lizardlike slits. His lips, too, stretched back in a toneless, thin-lipped smile that was half a grimace. his heart may have squeezed out one or two more beats after that; maybe electrical impulses were still arcing randomly from nerve to nerve, neuron to neuron, but that was the moment at which he was more dead than alive, and a few moments after that, he was altogether and unmistakably dead.
We sat there in tableau for a moment that stretched and stretched. I was now in a room with a body, not my friend. I let go of his hand and sat back, and that was the cue for all of us to back away.
There should be words for those moments, but there aren’t. In the same way that every human who ever lived has gazed upon the Moon and looked for the words to say about it, so have we all looked upon the bodies of the ones we’ve loved and groped for sentiment. I wished I believed in last rites, or pennies on the eyelids, or just, well, anything that we could all acknowledge as the proper way to seal off the moment and return to the world of the living. Blight slipped her hand in mine and Maya put her elbow through my other arm and together we went out into the night. The Moon was not quite full anymore, a sliver out of its huge face, and tonight there were clouds scudding across the sky that veiled and unveiled it.
We stood there, the three of us, in the breeze and the rattle of the tree branches and the distant hum of L.A. traffic and the far-off clatter of a police helicopter, with the cooling body of our friend on the other side of the wall behind us. We stood there and stared up at the Moon.
Adapting the Gadget to work in a lunar environment was a substantial engineering challenge. Pug had sketched out a map for us—gathering regolith, sorting it, feeding it onto the bed, aligning the lens. Then there was propulsion, which was even more important for the Moon than it was on Earth. We’d drop a Gadget on the Playa in July and gather up its tiles a couple of months later, over Labor Day. But the moonprinter might be up there for centuries, sintering tetroid tiles and pooping them out while the humans below squabbled and fretted and cast their gaze into the stars. If we didn’t figure out how to keep the Gadget moving, it would eventually end up standing atop a bed of printed tiles, out of dust and out of reach of more dust, and that would be that.
This wasn’t one Pug had a solution for. Neither did I, or Blight, or Maya. But it wasn’t just us. There was a sprawling wiki and mailing list for the project, and at one point, we had three separate factions vying to go to the Moon first. One was our project, one was nearly identical in goals except that its organizers were totally committed to a certain methodology for sealing the bearings that our side had voted down.
The third faction—they were weird. /b/ was a clutch of totally bizarro trolls, a community that had cut its teeth drawing up detailed plans for invading Sealand—the offshore drilling platform that had been converted to an ill-starred sovereign data haven—moved on to gaming Time magazine polls, splintered into the Anonymous movement with all its many facets and runs and ops, fighting everyone from the Church of Scientology to the Egyptian Government to the NSA and that had proven its ability to continuously alter itself to challenge all that was sane and complacent with the world, no matter what it took.
These people organized themselves under the banner of the Committee to Protect Luna (SRSLY), and they set out to build a machine that would hunt down our machine, and all the tiles it dropped, and smash it into the smallest pieces imaginable. They had some pretty talented engineers working with them, and the designs they came up with solved some of the issues we’d been wrestling with, like a flywheel design that would also act as a propulsive motor, its energy channeled in one direction so that the Gadget would gently inch its way along the lunar surface. They produced innumerable videos and technical diagrams showing how their machine would work, hunting ours down by means of EMF sensors and an onboard vision system. For armament, it had its own sinterer, a clever array of lenses that it could focus with software-controlled servos to create a bug-under-a-magnifying-glass effect, allowing it to slowly but surely burn microscopic holes through our robot.
The thing was, the technical designs were absolutely sound. And though 90 percent of the rhetoric on their message boards had the deranged tinge of stoned giggles, the remaining 10 percent was deadly serious, able to parrot and even refine the Green Moon party line with stony earnestness. There were a lot of people in our camp who were convinced that they were serious—especially after they kickstarted the full load for a killer bot in thirty-six hours.
I thought it was trolling, just plain trolling. DON’T FEED THE TROLLS! I shouted online. No one listened to me (not enough people, anyway), and there was an exhausting ramble about countermeasures and armor and even, God help us all, a lawsuit, because yeah, totally, that would work. The wrangle lasted so long that we missed our launch window. The leaders of the paranoiac faction said that they’d done us all a favor by making us forfeit the deposit we’d put down, because now we’d have time to get things really right before launch time.
Another group said that the important thing wasn’t countermeasures, it was delay —if we waited until the /b/tards landed their killer bot on the Moon, we could just land ours far enough away that it would take five hundred years for the two to meet, assuming top speed and flat terrain all the way. That spun out into a brutal discussion of game theory and strategy, and I made the awful mistake of getting involved directly, saying, “look, knuckleheads, if your strategy is to outwait them, and their goal is to stop us from doing anything, then their optimal strategy is to do nothing. So long as they haven’t launched, we can’t launch.”
The ensuing discussion ate my life for a month and spilled over into the real world, when, at an L.A. burners’ event, a group of people who staunchly disagreed with me made a point of finding me wherever I was to make sure I understood what a dunderhead I was.
I should have known better. Because, inevitably, the /b/tard who was in charge of the money fucked off with it. I never found out what he or she did with it. As far as I know, no one ever did.
After that, I kept my mouth shut. Or rather, I only opened it to do things that would help the project go forward. I stopped knocking heads together. I let Maya do that. I don’t believe in generalizations about demographics, but man, could that girl argue. Forget all that horseshit about “digital natives,” which never meant anything anyway. Using a computer isn’t hard. but growing up in a world where how you argue about something changes what happens to it, that was a skill, and Maya had it in ways I never got.
“What’s wrong with calling it the Gadget?”
Blight looked up from her weeding and armed sweat off her forehead, leaving behind a faint streak of brown soil. She and I traded off the weeding and this was her day, which meant that I got to spend my time indoors with all the imaginary network people and their arguments.
“Leave it, Greg,” she said, in that tone that I’d come to recognize as perfectly nonnegotiable. We’d been living together for two years at that point, ever since I sank a critical mass of my nest egg into buying another launch window and had had to remortgage my house. The vegetable garden wasn’t just a hobby—it was a way of life and it helped make ends meet.
“Come on,” I said. “Come on. We’ve always called it ‘the Gadget.’ that’s what Pug called it—”
She rocked back on her heels and rose to her feet with a kind of yogic grace. Her eyes were at half-mast, with that cool fury that I’d come to know and dread.
“Pug? Come on, Greg, I thought we agreed: no playing the cult of personality card. He’s dead. For years now. He wasn’t Chairman Mao. He wasn’t even Hari Seldon. He was just a dude who liked to party and was a pretty good engineer and was an altogether sweet guy. ‘That’s what Pug called it’ is pure bullshit. 'The Gadget’ is a dumb name. It’s a way of announcing to the world that this thing hasn’t been thought through. That it’s a lark. That it’s not serious—”
“Maybe that’s good,” I said. “A good thing, you know? Because that way, no one takes us seriously and we get to sneak around and act with impunity until it’s too late and—”
I fell silent under her stony glare. I tried to keep going, but I couldn’t. Blight had the opposite of a reality distortion field. A reality assertion field.
“Fine,” I said. “We won’t call it the Gadget. But I wish you’d told me before you went public with it.”
She pulled off her gardening gloves and stuffed them into her pockets, then held out her hands to me. I took them.
“Greg,” she said, looking into my eyes. “I have opinions. Lots of them. And I’m not going to run them past you before I ‘go public’ with them. Are we clear on that score?”
Again, I was stymied by her reality assertion field. All my stupid rationalizations about not meaning it that way refused to make their way out of my mouth, as some latent sense of self-preservation came to the fore.
“Yes, Blight,” I said. She squeezed my fingers and dropped her stern demeanor like the mask it was.
“Very good. Now, what shall we call it?”
Everyone who had come to know it through Burning man called it the Gadget. Everyone else called it the moonprinter. “Not moonprinter.”
“Why not? It seems to have currency. You going to tell everyone the name they chose is wrong?”
“Yes,” I said.
“Okay, go,” she said.
“Well, first of all, it’s not a printer. Calling it a 3D printer is like calling a car a horseless carriage. Like calling videoconferencing ‘the picture-phone.’ As long as we call it an anything printer, we’ll be constrained by printerish thinking.”
“All right,” she said. “Pretty good point. What else?”
“It’s not printing the Moon! It’s using moondust to print structural materials for prefab habitats. The way you ‘print’ a moon is by smashing a comet into a planet so that a moon-sized hunk of rock breaks off and goes into orbit around it.”
“So what do you think we should call it?”
I shrugged. “I like ‘the Gadget.’ ”
I ducked as she yanked off one of her dirty, balled-up gloves and threw it at my head. She caught me with the other glove and then followed it up with a muscular, rib-constricting hug. “I love you, you know.”
“I love you, too.” and I did. Despite the fact that I had raided my nest egg, entered the precariat, and might end up someday eating dog food, I was as happy as a pig in shit. Speaking of which.
“Dammit, I forgot to feed Messy.”
She gave my butt a playful squeeze. “Go on then.”
Messy was our pig, a kunekune, small enough to be happy on half an acre of pasture grass, next to the chicken run with its own half acre. The chickens ate bugs and weeds, and we planted more pasture grass in their poop, which Messy ate, leaving behind enough poop to grow berries and salad greens, which we could eat. We got eggs and, eventually, bacon and pork chops, as well as chickens. No external fertilizer, no phosphates, and we got more calories out for less energy and water inputs than even the most efficient factory farm.
It was incredibly labor-intensive, which was why I liked it. It was nice to think that the key to feeding nine billion people was to measure return on investment by maximizing calories and minimizing misery, instead of minimizing capital investment and maximizing retained earnings to shareholders.
Messy’s dinner was only an hour late, and she had plenty of forage on her half acre, but she was still pissed at me and refused to come and eat from my hand until I’d cooed at her and made apologetic noises, and then she came over and nuzzled me and nipped at my fingers. I’d had a couple dogs, growing up, but the most smartest and most affectionate among them wasn’t a patch on a pig for smarts and warmth. I wasn’t sure how we’d bring ourselves to eat her. Though, hell, we managed it with the chickens, which were smarter and had more personality than I’d ever imagined. That was the other thing about permaculture: it made you think hard about where your food came from. It had been months since I’d been able to look at a jar of gas-station pepperoni sticks without imagining the animals they had once been.
Messy grunted amiably at me and snuffled at my heels, which was her way of asking to be let out of her pasture. I opened the gate and walked around to the small part of the house’s yard that we kept for human leisure. I unfolded a chair and sat in it and picked up her ball and threw it and watched her trot off excitedly to fetch it. She could do this for hours, but only if I varied where I threw it and gave her some tricky challenges.
Maya called them the “brick shitters,” which was hilarious except that it was a gift for the Green Moon crowd, who already accused us of shitting all over the Moon. Blight wanted “homesteaders,” which, again, had all kinds of awful baggage about expropriation of supposedly empty lands from the people who were already there. She kept arguing that there were no indigenous people on the Moon, but that didn’t matter. The Green Moon people were determined to paint us as rapacious land grabbers, and this was playing right into their hands. It always amazed me how two people as smart as Blight and Maya could be so dumb about this.
Not that I had better ideas. “The Gadget” really was a terrible name.
I threw the ball and thought some more.
We ended up calling it “Freelunch.” it wasn’t my coinage, but as soon as I saw it, I knew it was right. Just what Pug would have wanted. A beacon overhead, promising us a better life if only we’d stop stepping on one another to get at it.
The name stuck. Some people argued about it, but it was clear to anyone who did lexicographic analysis of the message boards, chats, tweets, and forums that it was gaining with that Internet-characteristic, winner-take-all, hockey-stick-shaped growth line. Oh, sure, the localization projects argued about whether free meant “libre” or “gratis” and split down the middle. In Brazil, they used “livre” (Portugal’s thirty-years-and-counting technocratic “ interim” managers translated it as “grátis”).
More than eight thousand of us went to Macapá for launch day, landing in Guyana and taking the new high-speed rail from Georgetown. There had been dozens of Freelunch prototypes built and tested around the world, with teams competing for funding, engineer time, lab space. A co-op in Asheville, blessed by NASA, had taken over the production of ersatz regolith, a blend whose composition was (naturally) hotly debated.
The Brazilian contingent went all out for us. I stayed up every night dancing and gorging, then slept in a different family’s living room until someone came to take me to the beach or a makerspace or a school. One time, Maya and Blight and I were all quartered in a favela that hung off the side of an abandoned office tower on impossibly thin, impossibly strong cables. The rooms were made of waxed cardboard and they swayed with the wind and terrified me. I was convinced I’d end up stepping right through the floor and ended up on tiptoes every time I moved. I tried not to move.
Celesc Lifter SA had a little VIP box from which customers could watch launches. It held eight people. The seats were awarded by lottery and I didn’t get one. So I watched the lift with everyone else (minus eight), from another favela, one of the old, established ones with official recognition. Every roof was packed with viewers, and hawkers meandered the steep alleys with bulbs of beer and skewers of meat and paper cones of seafood. It was Celesc’s ninety-third lift, and it had a 78 percent success rate, with only two serious failures in that time. No fatalities, but the cargo had been jettisoned over the Pacific and broke up on impact.
Those were good odds, but we were still all holding our breath through the countdown, through the first flames and the rumble conveyed by a thousand speakers, an out-of-phase chorus of net-lagged audio. We held it through the human-piloted takeoff of the jumbo jet that acted as a first stage for the lifter and gasped when the jet’s video stream showed the lifter emerging from its back and rising smoothly into the sky. The jet dropped precipitously as the lifter’s rockets fired and caught it and goosed it up, through the thin atmosphere at the edge of space in three hundred seconds.
I watched the next part from the lifter, though others swore it was better from Al Jazeera’s LEO platform, framed against the earth, the day/night terminator arcing across the ocean below. But I liked the view from the lifter’s nose, because you could see the Moon growing larger, until it dominated the sky.
Decades before, the Curiosity crew had endured their legendary “seven minutes of terror” when its chute, rockets, and exterior casings had to be coordinated with split-second timing to land the spunky little bot on our nearest neighbor without smashing it to flinders. Landing the first Freelunch on the Moon was a lot simpler, thankfully. We had a lot of things going for us: the Moon was close enough for us to get telemetry and send new instructions right up to the last second, it exerted substantially less gravity than Mars, and we had the advantage of everything NASA had learned and published from its own landing missions. And let us not forget that Earth sports a sizable population of multigenerational lunar lander pilots who’ve trained on simulators since the text-based version first appeared on the PDP-8 in 1969.
Actually, the last part kind of sucked. A lot of people believed they were qualified to intervene in the plan, and most of them were not. The signal:noise ratio for the landing was among the worst in the whole project, but in the end the winning strategy was the one that had been bandied about since the ESA’s scrapped lunar lander competition, minus the observational phase: a short series of elliptical orbits leading to a transfer orbit and a quick burn that set it falling toward the surface. The vision systems that evaluated the landing site were able to autonomously deploy air jets to nudge the descent into the clearest, smoothest patch available.
Celesc’s lifter released the Freelunch right on time, burning a little to kick itself back down into a lower orbit to prepare for descent. As their vectors diverged, the Freelunch seemed to arc away, even though it was actually continuing on the exact curve that the lifter had boosted it to. It dwindled away from the lens of AJ’s satellite, lost against the looming Moon, winking in and out of existence as a black speck that the noise-correction algorithms kept erasing and then changing their mind about.
One by one, all the screens around me converged on the same feed: a split screen of shaky, high-magnification real-time video on one side, a radar-fed line-art version on the other. The Freelunch wound around and around the Moon in four ever-tightening orbits, like a tetherball winding around a post. A tiny flare marked its shift to transfer orbit, and then it was sailing down in a spiral.
“Coming in for a landing,” Blight said, and I nodded, suddenly snapped back to the warm Brazilian night, the smell of food and the taste of beer in my mouth. It spiraled closer and closer, and then it kicked violently away, and we all gasped. “Something on the surface,” Blight said.
“Yeah,” I said, squinting and pinch-zooming at the view from its lower cameras. We’d paid for satellite relay for the landing sequence, which meant we were getting pretty hi-res footage. But the Moon’s surface defies the human eye: tiny pebbles cast long, sharp shadows that look like deep cracks or possibly high shelves. I could see ten things on the landing site that could have been bad news for the Freelunch—or that could have been nothing.
No time. Freelunch was now in a wobbly, erratic orbit that made the view from its cameras swing around nauseously, a roil of Earth in the sky, mountains, craters, the ground, the black sky, the filtered gray/white mass of the sun. From around us came a low “wooooah!” from eight thousand throats at once.
Maya switched us to the magnified AJ sat feed and the CGI radar view. Something was wrong—Freelunch was supposed to circle two or three times and land. Instead, it was tumbling a little, not quite flipping over on its head, but rolling more than the gyros could correct.
“Fuck no,” I whispered. “Please. Not now. Please.” No idea who I was talking to. Pug? Landing was the riskiest part of the whole mission. That’s why we were all here, watching.
Down and down it fell, and we could all see that its stabilizers were badly out of phase. Instead of damping its tumble, the stabilizer on one side was actually accelerating it, while the other three worked against it.
“Tilt-a-whirl,” Maya said. We all glared at her. In a few of the sims that we’d run of the landing, the Freelunch had done just this, as the stabilizers got into a terminal argument about who was right. One faction—Iowa City–led, but with supporters around the world—had dubbed it the tilt-a-whirl and had all kinds of math to show why it was more likely than we’d estimated. They wanted us to delay the whole mission while they refactored and retested the landing sequence. They’d been outvoted but had never stopped arguing for their position.
“Shut up,” Blight said, in a tight little voice. The tumble was getting worse, the ground looming.
“Fuck off,” Maya said absently. “It’s the tilt-a-whirl, and that means that we should see the counterfire any . . . second . . . now!”
If we hadn’t been watching closely, we’d have missed it. The Freelunch had a set of emergency air puffers for blowing the solar collectors clear if the mechanical rotation mechanism jammed or lacked power. The tilt-a-whirlers had successfully argued for an emergency command structure that would detect tumble and deploy the air jets in one hard blast in order to cancel out the malfing stabilizer. They emptied themselves in less than a second, a white, smudgy line at right angles to the swing of the Freelunch, and the roll smoothed out in three short and shortening oscillations. An instant later, the Freelunch was skidding into the lunar surface, kicking up a beautiful rooster-tail plume of regolith that floated above the surface like playa dust. We watched as the moondust sifted down in one-sixth gee, a TV tuned to a dead channel, shifting snow out of which slowly emerged the sharp angles of the Freelunch.
I registered every noise from the crowds on the roofs and in the stairways, every moan and whimper, all of them saying, essentially, “Please, please, please, please let it work.”
The Freelunch popped its protective covers. For an instant they stayed in place, visible only as a set of slightly off-kilter corners set inside the main boxy body of the lander. Then they slid away, dropping to the surface with that unmistakable Moon-gee grace. The simultaneous intake of breath was like a city-sized white-noise generator.
“Power-on/self-test,” Maya said. I nodded. It was going through its boot-up routines, checking its subsystems, validating its checksums. The whole procedure took less than a minute.
Ten minutes later, nothing had happened.
“Fuck,” I said.
“Patience,” Blight said. Her voice had all the tension of a guitar string just before it snaps.
“Fuck patience,” I said.
“Patience,” Maya said.
We took one another’s hands. We watched.
An hour later, we went inside.
The Freelunch had nothing to say to us. As Earth spun below the Moon, our army of ham operators, volunteers spread out across the equator, all tried valiantly to bounce their signals to it, to hear its distress messages. It maintained radio silence.
After forty-eight hours, most of us slunk away from Brazil. We caught a slow freighter up the Pacific Coast to the Port of Los Angeles, a journey of three weeks where we ate fish, squinted at our transflective displays in the sun, and argued.
Everyone had a theory about what had happened to the Freelunch. Some argued that a key component—a sensor, a power supply, a logic board—had been dislodged during the tilt-a-whirl (or the takeoff, or the landing). The high-mag shots from the Al Jazeera sat were examined in minute detail, and things that were either noise or compression artifacts or ironclad evidence of critical damage were circled in red and magnified to individual pixels, debated and shooped and tweaked and enhanced.
A thousand telescopic photos of the Freelunch were posted, and the supposed damage was present, or wasn’t, depending on the photo. It was sabotage. Human error. Substandard parts. Proof that space was too big a place for puny individual humans, only suited to huge, implacable nation-states.
THERE AIN’T NO SUCH THING AS A FREELUNCH, the /b/tards trumpeted, and took responsibility for all of it. An evangelical in Mexico claimed he’d killed it with the power of prayer, to punish us for our hubris.
I harbored a secret hope: that the Freelunch would wake up someday, having hit the magic combination of rebooting, reloading, and reformatting to make it all work. But as the Freelunch sat there, settled amid the dust of another world—well, moon—inert and idle, I confronted the reality that thousands of people had just spent years working together to litter another planet. Or moon.
That wasn’t a good year. I had another cancer scare because life sucks, and the doc wanted a bunch of out-of-policy tests that cost me pretty much everything left in my account.
I made a (very) little money doing some writing about the Freelunch project, postmortems and tit-for-tats for a few sites. But after two months of rehashing the same ground, and dealing with all the stress of the health stuff, I switched off from all Freelunch-related activity altogether. Blight had already done it.
A month later, Blight and I split up. That was scary. It wasn’t over any specific thing, just a series of bickery little stupid fights that turned into blowouts and ended up with me packing a bag and heading for a motel. The first night, I woke up at 3 a.m. to vomit up my whole dinner and then some.
Two weeks later, I moved back in. Blight and I didn’t speak of that horrible time much afterward, but when we held hands or cuddled at night, there was a fierceness to it that hadn’t been in our lives for years and years. So maybe we needed it.
Money, money, money. We just didn’t have any. Sold the house. Moved into a rental place, where they wouldn’t let us keep chickens or pigs. Grocery bills. Moved into another place, this one all the way out in Fresno, and got a new pig and half a dozen new chickens, but now we were a three hours’ drive from Minus and our friends.
Blight got work at a seniors’ home, which paid a little better than minimum wage. I couldn’t find anything. Not even gardening work. I found myself sitting very still, as though I was worried that if I started moving, I’d consume some of the savings.
She was working at a place called Shadow Hills, part of a franchise of old folks’ homes that catered to people who’d kept their nest eggs intact into their long senescences. It was like a stationary cruise ship—twentyfive stories of “staterooms” with a little living room and bedroom and kitchenette, three dining rooms with rotating menus, activities, weekly crafts bazaars, classes, gyms and a pool, a screening room. The major difference between Shadow Hills and a cruise ship—apart from Fresno being landlocked—was the hospital and palliative care ward that occupied the tenth and eleventh floors. That way, once your partner started to die, you could stay in the stateroom and visit her in the ward every day, rather than both of you being alone for those last days. It was humane and sensible, but it made me sad.
Blight was giving programming classes to septuagenarians whose high schools had offered between zero and one “computer science” classes in the early 1980s, oldies who had managed to make it down the long road of life without learning how to teach a computer how to do something new. They were enthusiastic and patient, and they called out to Blight every time she crossed the lobby to meet me and shouted impertinent commentary about my suitability as a spouse for their beloved maestra and guru.
She made a point of giving me a big kiss and a full-body hug before leading me out into the gardens for our picnic, and the catcalls rose to a crescendo.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that,” I said.
“Prude,” she said, and ostentatiously slapped my ass. The oldies volubly took notice. “What’s for lunch?”
“Coconut soup, eggplant curry, and grilled pumpkin.”
“Hang on, I’ll go get my backup PB and J.”
I’d been working my way through an online cooking course one recipe at a time, treating it like a series of chemistry experiments. Mostly, they’d been successful, but Blight made a big show out of pretending that it was inedible and she demanded coaxing and pushing to get her to try my creations. So as she turned on her heel to head back into work, I squeezed her hand and dragged her out to the garden.
She helped me lay out the blanket and set out the individual sections of the insulated tiffin pail. I was satisfied to see that the food was still hot enough to steam. I’d been experimenting with slightly overheating food before decanting it for transport, trying to find exactly the right starting point for optimal temperature at the point of consumption. It was complicated by the fact that the cooldown process wasn’t linear, and also depended on the volume and density of the food. The fact that this problem was consuming so many of my cycles was a pretty good indicator of my degraded mental state. Further evidence: I carefully noted the temperature of each tiffin before I let Blight tuck in, and associated the correct temperature with the appropriate record on my phone, which already listed the food weight and type details, entered before I left home.
Blight pulled out all the stops, making me scoop up spoonfuls of food and make airplane noises and feed her before she’d try it, but then she ate enthusiastically. It was one of my better experiments. At one point, I caught her sliding my sticky rice pudding with mango coulis across to her side of the blanket and I smacked her hand and took it back. She still managed to sneak a spoonful when I wasn’t looking.
I liked our lunches together. They were practically the only thing I liked.
“How long do you figure it’ll be before you lose your marbles altogether?” she asked, sipping some of the iced tea I’d poured into heavy-bottomed glasses I’d yard-saled and which I transported rolled in soft, thick dish towels.
I started to pack up the lunch, stacking the tiffin sections and slipping the self-tensioning bands over them. Blight gently took them out of my hands and set them to one side.
“Greg,” she said. “Greg, seriously. This isn’t good. You need to change something. It’s like living with a ghost. Or a robot.”
A bolt of anger skewered me from the top of my head to my asshole, so sharp and irrational that I actually gasped aloud. I must be getting mature in my old age, because the sheer force of the reaction pulled me up short and made me pause before replying.
“I’ve tried to find work,” I said. “There’s nothing out there for me.”
“No,” she said, still holding my arm, refusing to surrender the physical contact. “No, there’s no jobs. We both know that there’s plenty of work.”
“I’ll think about it,” I said, meaning, I won’t think about it at all.
Still, she held on to my arm. She made me look into her eyes. “Greg, I’m not kidding. This isn’t good for you. It’s not good for us. This isn’t what I want to do for the rest of my life.”
I nearly deliberately misunderstood her, asked her why she wasn’t looking for work somewhere else. But I knew that the “this” she meant was living with me, in my decayed state.
“I’ll think about it,” I repeated, and shrugged off her hand. I packed up the lunch, put it on the back of my bike, and rode home. I managed to stop myself from crying until I had the door closed behind me.
That night we had sex. It was the first time in months, so long that I’d lost track of how long it had been. It started with a wordless reaching out in the night, our habitual spooned-together cuddle going a little further, bit by bit, our breath quickening, our hands and then our mouths exploring each other’s bodies. We both came in near silence and held each other tighter and longer than normal. I realized that there’d been a longer gap since our last clinging, full-body hug than the gap since our last sex. I found that I’d missed the cuddling even more than the sex.
I circled the Freebrunch— as the Freelunch’s successor had been inevitably named—nervously. For days, I poked at the forums, downloaded the prototypes, and watched the videos, spending a few minutes at a time before clicking away. One faction had a pretty credible account of how the landing had been blown so badly, and pretty much everyone accepted that something about the bad landing was responsible for the systems failure. They pointed to a glitch in the vision system, a collision between two inference engines that made it misinterpret certain common lunar shadows as bad terrain. It literally jumped at shadows. And the tilt-a-whirl faction was totally vindicated and managed to force a complete redesign of the stabilization software and the entry plan.
The more I looked over Freebrunch, the more exciting it got. Freelunch had transmitted telemetry right up to the final moments of its landing, definitively settling another argument: “How much should we worry about landing telemetry if it only has to land once?” The live-fire exercise taught us stuff that no amount of vomit-comet trial runs could have surfaced. It turned out, for example, that the outer skin of the Freelunch had been totally overengineered and suffered only a fraction of the heating that the models had predicted. That meant we could reduce the weight by a good 18 percent. The cost of lifting mass was something like 98 percent of the overall launch cost, so an 18 percent reduction in mass was something like a 17.99 percent reduction in the cost of building Freebrunch and sending it to the surface of the Moon.
Blight knew I was hooked before I did. the third time I gave her a cold sandwich and some carrot sticks for lunch, she started making jokes about being a moon widow and let me know that she’d be packing her own lunch four days a week, but that I was still expected to come up with something decent for a Friday blowout.
And just like that, I was back in.
Freelunch had cost me pretty much all my savings, and I wasn’t the only one. The decision not to take commercial sponsorship on the project was well intentioned, but it had meant that the whole thing had to be funded by jerks like me. Worse: Freelunch wasn’t a registered 501(c) (3) charity, so it couldn’t even attract any deep-pocketed jillionaires looking for a tax deduction.
Freebrunch had been rebooted by people without any such burning manian anticommodification scruples. Everything down to the circuit boards had someone’s logo or name on it, and they’d added a EULA to the project that said that by contributing to Freebrunch, you signed over all your “intellectual property” rights to the foundation that ran it—a foundation without a fully appointed board and no transparency beyond what the law mandated.
That had sparked a predictable shitstorm that reached the global newspapers when someone spotted a patent application from the foundation’s chairman, claiming to have invented some of the interlock techniques that had been invented by Pug himself, there on the playa. I’d seen it with my own eyes, and more important, I’d helped document it, with timestamped postings that invalidated every one of the patent’s core claims.
Bad enough, but the foundation dug itself even deeper when it used the donations it had taken in to pay for lawyers to fight for the patent. The schism that ensued proved terminal, and a year later, the Freebrunch was dead.
Out of its ashes rose the Freebeer, which tried to strike a happy medium between the Freelunch’s idealism and the Freebrunch’s venality. The people involved raised foundation money, agreed to print the names of project benefactors on the bricks they dropped onto the Moon’s surface, and benefited from the Indian Space Research Organization’s lunar-mapping initiative, which produced remarkably high-resolution survey maps of the entire bright side of the Moon. On that basis, they found a spot in Mare Imbrium that was as smooth as a baby’s ass and was only a few hundred K from the Freelunch’s final resting place.
Of course, they failed. Everything went fine until LEO separation, whereupon something happened—there are nine documentaries (all crowd-funded) offering competing theories—and it ended up in a decaying orbit that broke up over Siberia and rained down shooting stars into the greedy lenses of thousands of dashcams.
(Supported, of course, by a series of stadium shows and concert tours.)
(this one printed out leaked WikiLeaks cables from early in the century and won a prize at the Venice biennale, held in Padua now that the city was entirely underwater. It helped that they chose cables that dealt with the American government’s climate change shenanigans. the exiled Venetians living in their stacked Paduan tenements thought that was a laugh-riot.)
That took seven years.
The lost cosmonaut conspiracy theory holds that a certain number—two? three?—of Russian cosmonauts were killed before Gagarin’s successful flight. They say when Gagarin got into the Vostok in 1961, he fully expected to die, but he got in any way, and not because of the crack of a commissar’s pistol. He boarded his death trap because it was his ticket into space. He had gone to what could almost certainly have been his death because of his belief in a better future. A place for humanity in the stars.
When you think of a hero, think of Gagarin, strapped into that capsule, the rumble of the jets below him, the mutter of the control tower in his headset, the heavy hand of acceleration hard upon his chest, pushing with increasing, bone-crushing force, the roar of the engines blotting out all sound. Think of him going straight to his death with a smile on his face, and think of him breaking through the atmosphere, the sudden weightlessness, the realization that he had survived. That he was the first human being to go to space.
We kept on launching printers.
Blight and I threw a joint seventieth birthday party to coincide with the launch of the Freerunner. There were old friends. There was cake. There was ice cream, with chunks of honeycomb from our own hive. There were—I shit you not—seventy candles. We blew them out, all of them, though it took two tries, seventy-year-old lungs being what they were.
We toasted each other with long speeches that dripped with unselfconscious sentiment, and Maya brought her kids and they presented us with a little play they’d written, involving little printed 3D printers on the Moon.
And then, as we tuned every screen in the house to the launch, I raised a glass and toasted Pug: “Let us live as though it were the first days of a better nation.”
The cheer was loud enough to drown out the launch.
Freerunner landed at 0413 Zulu on August 10, 2057. Eight minutes later, it completed its power-on self-test routine and snapped out its solar collectors. It established communications with nine different HAM-based ground stations and transmitted extensive telemetry. Its bearings moved smoothly, and it canted its lens into the sun’s rays. The footage of its first sintering was low-res and jittery, but it was all saved for later transmission, and that’s the clip you’ve seen, the white-hot tip of the focused energy of old Sol, melting regolith into a long, flat, thin line that was quickly joined by another, right alongside it. Back and forth the head moved, laying out the base, the honeycombing above it, the final surface. the print bed tilted with slow grace and the freshly printed brick slid free and fell to the dust below, rocking from side to side, featherlike as it fell.
One week later, Freerunner established contact with the Freelunch, using its phased-array antennas to get a narrow, high-powered signal to its slumbering firmware. Laboriously, it rebuilt the Freelunch’s BIOS, directed it to use what little energy it had to release the springs that locked the solar array away in its body. It took thirty-seven hours and change. We were on the Playa when we got word that the solar array had deployed, the news spreading like wildfire from burner to burner, fireworks rocketing into the sky.
I smiled and rolled over in our yurt. Igloo. Yurtgloo. I was very happy, of course. But I was also seventy. I needed my rest. the next morning, a naked twenty-year-old with scales covering his body from the waist up cycled excitedly to our camp and pounded on the yurt’s interlocking bricks until I thought he might punch right through them.
“What,” I said. “The fuck.”
“It’s printed one!” he said. “The Freelunch shit a brick!” he looked at me, took in my tired eyes, my snowy hair. “Sorry to wake you, but I thought you’d want to know.”
“Of course he wants to know!” Blight shouted from inside. “Christ, Greg, get the man a drink. We’re celebrating!”
The playa dust whipped up my nose and made me reach for the kerchief around my neck, pull it up over my face. I turned to the kid, standing there awkwardly astride his bike. “Well?” I said. “Come on, we’re celebrating!” I gave him a hug that was as hard as I could make it, and he squeezed me back with gentle care.
We cracked open some bourbon that a friend had dropped off the day before and pulled out the folding chairs. The crowd grew, and plenty of them brought bottles. There were old friends, even old enemies, people I should have recognized and didn’t, and people I recognized but who didn’t recognize me at first. I’d been away from the Playa for a good few years. The next thing I knew, the sun was setting, and there were thousands of us, and the music was playing, and my legs were sore from dancing, and Blight was holding me so tight I thought she’d crack a rib.
I thought of saying, We did it, or You did it, or They did it. None of those was right, though. “It’s done” is what I said, and Blight knew exactly what I meant. Which is why I loved her so much, of course.
• Cory Doctorow writes books. His latest are: a YA graphic novel calledIn Real Life(with Jen Wang); a nonfiction book about the arts and the Internet calledInformation Doesn't Want to Be Free: Laws for the Internet Age(with introductions by Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer) and a YA science fiction novel calledHomeland.