Cameras stare across a forbidden desert, monitoring disputed territory in a conflict that is so bitter the opponents cannot even agree what to name it.
One side calls the struggle a war, with countless innocent lives in jeopardy.
The other side claims there are no victims.
And so, suspicious cameras peer and pan, alert for encroachment. Vigilant camouflaged monitors scan from atop hills or under innocuous piles of stones. They hang beneath highway culverts, probing constantly for a hated enemy. For some time — months, at least — these guardians have succeeded in staving off incursions across the sandy desolation.
That is, until technology changes yet again, shifting the advantage briefly from defense to offense.
When the enemy struck this time, their first move was to take out those guardian eyes.
Infiltrators arrived at dawn, under the glare of the rising sun. Several hundred little flying machines jetted through the air, skimming very low to the ground on gusts from whispering motors. Each device, no larger than a hummingbird, followed a carefully-scouted path toward its selected target, some stationary camera or sensor. The attackers even looked like native desert birds, in case they were spotted during those crucial last seconds.
Each little drone landed behind the target, in its blind spot, and unfolded wings that transformed into a high resolution graphics displays, depicting perfect false images of the same desert scene. Each robot inserted its illusion in front of the guardian lens — carefully, so as not to create a suspicious flicker. Other small spy-machines sniffed out camouflaged seismic sensors and embraced them gently, providing new cushioning that would mask the tremors to come.
The robotic attack, covering an area of more than a hundred square kilometers, took only eight minutes to complete. The desert now lay unwatched, undefended.
From over the horizon, giant vehicles started moving in. They converged along several roadways toward the same open area — seventeen quiet, hybrid-electric rigs... tractor trailers disguised as commercial cargo transports, complete with company holo-logos blazoned on their sides. But when their paths intersected at the chosen rendezvous, a more cryptic purpose revealed itself. Crews wearing dun-colored jumpsuits leaped from the cabs to start unlashing container sections. Auxiliary generators set to work. The air began to swirl with shimmering waves of exotic stench, as pungent volatiles gushed from storage tanks to fill pressurized vessels. Electronic consoles sprang to life, and hinged panels fell away from the trailers, revealing long, tapered objects that lay on slanted ramps.
With a steady whine, each cigar shape lifted its nose from horizontal to vertical, aiming skyward, while stabilizer fins popped open at the tail end. Shouts between the work crews grew more tense as a series of tightly coordinated countdowns commenced. There wouldn't be much time to spare before the enemy — sophisticated and wary — picked up enough clues and figured out what was going on.
Soon every missile was aimed... launch sequences engaged... and targets acquired. All they lacked were payloads.
Abruptly, a dozen figures emerged from an air conditioned van, wearing snug suits of shimmering material and garishly painted helmets. Each one carried a small satchel that hummed and whirred, pumping air to keep the suit cool. Several had trouble walking normally. Their gait seemed rubbery, as if both excited and anxious at the same time. One of the smaller figures even briefly skipped.
A dour-looking woman wearing a badge and a uniform awaited them, holding a clipboard. She confronted the tallest figure, whose helmet bore a motif of flames surrounding a screaming mouth.
"Name and scan," she demanded in a level tone of voice.
The helmet visor swiveled back, revealing a heavily tanned face, about thirty, with eyes the color of a cold sea.
"Hacker Sander," he said, as her clipboard automatically sought his left iris, reading its unique patterns to confirm his ID. "And yes," he continued. "I affirm that I'm doing this of my own free will. Can we get on with it?"
"Your permits seem to be in order," she replied, unhurriedly. "Your liability bond and waivers have been accepted. The government won't stand in your way."
The tall man shrugged, as if the statement was both expected and irrelevant. He flung the visor back down. There were other forces to worry about, more formidable than mere government. Forces who were desperate to prevent what was about to take place here.
At a signal, all of the suited figures rushed to ladders that launch crew members braced against the side of each rocket. Each hurried up the makeshift gantry and, slipping inside a narrow capsule, squirmed into the cramped couch with unconscious grace, having practiced the motions hundreds of times. Even the novices knew exactly what they were doing. What the dangers might be. The costs and the rewards.
Hatches slammed shut and hissed as they sealed. Muffled shouts could be heard as final preparations were completed.
The countdown for the first missile reached zero.
"Yeeeee-haw!" Hacker Sander shouted, before a violent kick of ignition flattened him against the airbed. He had done this several times before, yet the sheer ecstatic rush of this moment beat anything else on Earth.
Soon, he would no longer even be part of the Earth... for a little while.
Seconds passed amid a brutal shaking as the rocket clawed its way skyward. A mammoth hand seemed to plant itself on his chest and shove, expelling half the contents of his lungs in a moan of sweet agony. Friction heat and ionization licked the transparent nose cone just inches from his face. Shooting toward the heavens at Mach 15, he felt pinned, helplessly immobile... and completely omnipotent.
I'm a freaking god!
Somehow he drew enough breath to let out another cry — this time a shout of elated greeting as black space spread before the missile's bubble nose, flecked by a million glittering stars.
Back on the ground, the last rocket was gone. Frenetic cleanup efforts then began, even more anxious than setup had been. Reports from distant warning posts told of incoming flying machines, racing toward the launch site at high speed. Men and women sprinted back and forth across the scorched desert sand, packing up to depart before the enemy arrived.
Only the government official moved languidly, using computerized scanners, meticulously adding up the damage to vegetation, erodible soils, and tiny animals. It was pretty bad, but localized, without appreciable effect on endangered species. A reconditioning service had already been called for. Of course that would not satisfy everybody....
She handed over an estimated bill as the last team member revved his hybrid engine, impatient to be off.
"Aw, man!" he complained, reading the total. "Our club will barely break even on this launch!"
"Then pick a less expensive hobby," she replied, and stepped back as the driver gunned his truck, roaring away in a cloud of dust, incidentally crushing one more small barrel cactus enroute to the highway. The vigilant monitoring system in her clipboard noted this and made an addendum to the excursion society's final bill.
Sitting on the hood of her jeep, she waited for another "club" to arrive. One whose members were just as passionate as the rocketeers. Just as skilled and dedicated, even though both groups hated each other. Sensors announced they were near, coming fast from the west — radical environmentalists whose no-compromise aim was to preserve nature at all costs.
The official knew what to expect when they arrived, frustrated to find their opponents gone and two acres of precious desert singed. She was going to get another tongue-lashing for being "evenhanded" in a situation where so many insisted you could only choose sides.
Oh well, she thought. It takes a thick skin to work in government nowadays. Nobody thinks you matter much. They don't respect us like in the old days.
Looking up, she watched the last of the rocket contrails start to shear apart, ripped by stratospheric winds. For some reason it always tugged the heart. And while her intellectual sympathies lay closer to the eco-enthusiasts, a part of her deep inside thrilled each time she witnessed one of these launches. So ecstatic — almost orgiastic — and joyfully unrestrained.
"Go!" She whispered with a touch of secret envy toward the distant glitters, already arcing over the pinnacle of their brief climb and starting their long plummet toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Hacker Sander found out something was wrong, just after the stars blurred out.
New flames flickered around the edges of his heat shield, probing every crevice, seeking a way inside. These flickers announced the start of re-entry, one of the best parts of this expensive ride, when his plummeting capsule would shake and resonate, filling every blood vessel with more exhilaration than you could get anywhere this side of New Vegas. Some called this the new "superextreme hobby"... more dangerous than any other sport and much too costly for anybody but an elite to afford. That fact attracted some rich snobs, who bought tickets just to prove they could, and wound up puking in their respirators or screaming in terror during the long plunge back to Earth.
As far as Hacker was concerned, those fools only got what they deserved. The whole point of having money was to do stuff with it! And if you weren't meant to ride a rocket, you could always find a million other hobbies....
An alarm throbbed. He didn't hear it — his eardrums had been drugged and clamped to protect them during the flight. Instead, he felt the tremor through a small implant in his lower jaw. In a simple pulse code the computer told him.
GUIDANCE SYSTEM ERROR...
FLIGHT PATH CORRECTION MISFIRED...
CALCULATING TRAJECTORY TO NEW IMPACT ZONE...
"What?" Hacker shouted, though the rattle and roar of re-entry tore away his words. "To hell with that! I paid for a triple redundancy system —"
He stopped, realizing it was pointless to scream at the computer, which he had installed himself, after all.
"Call the pickup boats and tell them —"
COMMUNICATION SYSTEM ENCRYPTION ERROR...
UNABLE TO UPLOAD PRE-ARRANGED SPECTRUM SPREAD...
UNABLE TO CONTACT RECOVERY TEAMS...
"Override encryption! Send in the clear. Acknowledge!"
No answer came. The pulses in his jaw dissolved into a plaintive, juttering rhythm as sub-processors continued their mysterious crapout. Hacker cursed, pounding the wall of the capsule with his fist. Most amateur rocketeers spent years building their own sub-orbital craft, but Hacker had paid plenty for a "first class" pro model. Someone would answer for this incompetence!
Of course he'd signed waivers. Hacker would have little recourse under the International Extreme Sports Treaty. But there were fifty thousand private investigation and enforcement services on Earth. He knew a few that would bend the uniform ethics guidelines of the Cop Guild, if paid enough in advance.
"You are gonna pay for this!" He vowed, without knowing yet who should get the brunt of his vengeance. The words were only felt as raw vibrations in his throat. Even the sonic pickups in his mandible hit their overload set points and cut out, as turbulence hit a level matching any he had ever known... then went beyond. The angle of re-entry isn't ideal anymore, he realized. And these little sport-capsules don't leave much margin.
I could be a very rich cinder... any moment now.
The realization added a new dimension that had not been there during any of his previous amateur sub-orbital flights. One part of Hacker actually seemed to relish a novel experience, scraping each nerve with a howling veer past death. Another portion could not let go of the galling fact that somebody had goofed. He wasn't getting what he'd paid for.
David Brin's bold newest novel EXISTENCE explores the ultimate question: Billions of planets may be ripe for life, even intelligence. So where is Everybody? Do civilizations make the same fatal mistakes, over and over? Might we be the first to cross the mine-field, evading every trap to learn the secret of EXISTENCE?
"Aficionado" takes you on a wild rocket ride — the new sport of the super-rich in 2050. Hacker Sander is spoiled, temperamental and a champion rock-jock, expert at the game of Space War... till a crash landing throws him into lethal peril.
Originally published as "Life in the Extreme" by Popular Science Magazine Special Edition, 8/1998. Copyright © 1998 by David Brin. All rights reserved.
Amazon.ca Canada: paperback
Amazon.co.uk UK: paperback
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The Player of Games, by Iain M. Banks
Otherworld, by Jason Segel and Kirsten Miller
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David Brin's science fiction novels have been New York Times Bestsellers, winning multiple Hugo, Nebula and other awards. At least a dozen have been translated into more than twenty languages. They range from bold and prophetic explorations of our near-future to Brin's Uplift series, envisioning galactic issues of sapience and destiny (and star-faring dolphins!).
Short stories and novellas have different rhythms and artistic flavor, and Brin's short stories and novellas, several of which earned Hugo and other awards, exploit that difference to explore a wider range of real and vividly speculative ideas. Many have been selected for anthologies and reprints, and most have been published in anthology form.
Since 2004, David Brin has maintained a blog about science, technology, science fiction, books, and the future — themes his science fiction and nonfiction writings continue to explore.
Who could've predicted that social media — indeed, all of our online society — would play such an important role in the 21st Century — restoring the voices of advisors and influencers! Lively and intelligent comments spill over onto Brin's social media pages.
David Brin's Ph.D in Physics from the University of California at San Diego (the lab of nobelist Hannes Alfven) followed a masters in optics and an undergraduate degree in astrophysics from Caltech. Every science show that depicts a comet now portrays the model developed in Brin's PhD research.
Brin's non-fiction book, The Transparent Society: Will Technology Force Us to Choose Between Freedom and Privacy?, continues to receive acclaim for its accuracy in predicting 21st Century concerns about online security, secrecy, accountability and privacy.
Brin speaks plausibly and entertainingly about trends in technology and society to audiences willing to confront the challenges that our rambunctious civilization will face in the decades ahead. He also talks about the field of science fiction, especially in relation to his own novels and stories. To date he has presented at more than 200 meetings, conferences, corporate retreats and other gatherings.
Brin advises corporations and governmental and private defense- and security-related agencies about information-age issues, scientific trends, future social and political trends, and education. Urban Developer Magazine named him one of four World's Best Futurists, and he was appraised as "#1 influencer" in Onalytica's Top 100 report of Artificial Intelligence influencers, brands & publications. Past consultations include Google, Microsoft, Procter & Gamble, and many others.
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