Pilots, part 1

posted 18 July 2009

I just wanted to get home. That was how it started.

I'd had a hard day at work. At the time I lived in San Francisco, but worked an hour south of it, in Silicon Valley, like a lot of people. Because I liked to pretend that I cared about the environment, I used to take the train. Remember that? We were so scared that we were gonna burn all this oil and drown the polar bears. It seems so silly now.

Anyway, I had just left the office and was heading for the train. I was really tired, it had been a really long week and it was still only Wednesday. I was walking a familiar route, you know how it is when you're in routine, you zone out, think about other things. I started thinking about how much I wanted to be home. I started wishing really hard that I was there, visualizing myself walking down my own street, a few steps from my door instead of a half-mile from the train station.

I closed my eyes, still walking -- just for a second or two, like a long blink -- thinking really hard about my street. The smell around there, the quality of the light, the sounds of my neighbourhood. And then something happened, something changed, and it felt like I was no longer imagining it. It felt like if I opened my eyes I would really be there. So I did, and for a split second it was true. I saw my street. I remember seeing the lady who lived around the corner, walking her dog. I could actually *see* my street. But then the real world snapped back into place, and all hell broke loose.

I woke up in a hospital. I'd broken my leg falling to the bottom of a huge pit in the road. Not a pit so much as a crater -- ten feet wide, three or four feet deep. According to the nurses, there had been an explosion of some kind, or a collapse, or both. Whatever had happened, a blast wave that had shattered windows up and down the street and apparently created the crater into which I'd fallen.

They had a lot of questions for me. The emergency crews were really puzzled about what had happened. At first they thought a gas main had exploded, or maybe a high-pressure water main had burst and undermined the street, causing it to collapse. But there were no pipes in the crater or underneath it -- just this big, round hole in the dirt. And there wasn't a lot of flying debris -- just the shockwave, and the hole, with the remains of the masonry of the sidewalk at the bottom of it, like a giant had tried to punch a hole in the street. But if there'd been a shockwave strong enough to make dust out of concrete and shatter windows a hundred yards away, how was my only injury a broken leg? I should have been pulverized.

At first I said I didn't know. And I really didn't. I mean, what could I say? That I'd imagined going home really hard, and caused an explosion? What the fuck is the connection between those two? I didn't want them to think I was crazy. But I was sure they were connected, secretly.

There was a little media attention, local news. Most took the "lucky victim of mysterious explosion" angle. One shady blogger tried to paint me as some kind of terrorist suspect, said I'd have to have been carrying X pounds of C4 to cause an explosion that big, though he didn't have any explanation as to where all the explosive residue had gone, and why I wasn't a red smear on the ground. I got kind of annoyed about it.

So when this SF Chronicle reporter turned up, Bob Cranfeld, I wasn't exactly eager to talk to him. I'd been in the hospital a few days -- I was still pretty shaken up, and I lived alone, so they wanted to keep an eye on me -- and I was bored. But Bob was a nice guy. He covered the "weird news" beat for the Chronicle, so he had an appreciation of crazy theories, and an uncritical ear. He got me to tell the full story, about the daydream of being back on my street. He asked me to try and describe it. He wanted as much detail as possible. I was calm -- bored in fact -- and pretty eager to get home, so it was easy to recreate the feeling. I closed my eyes and started to describe it.

About five seconds later, an explosion ripped through the room. It didn't blow out the windows, it took out the entire wall, throwing chunks of masonry into the parking lot. One of them hit a guy in the side, broke his arm and a couple of ribs. He was lucky, really -- a foot higher and he'd have been decapitated -- but he didn't see it that way, more about that in a second.

This time, there was no doubt. Me thinking about heading home had caused an explosion. This one was even bigger than the last one. In addition to the wall, it had taken out the roof -- we were on the top floor, luckily -- and a huge, circular chunk of the floor. Me and Bob fell through that into the rooms below, a storage room and a staff bathroom. Bob was fine, I had managed to land on the leg already in plaster, so there was a hell of a bruise all up one side of me but I was otherwise okay.

People freaked out. Man accompanied by mysterious explosions wherever he goes! Cause unknown! It made national news this time. In true American style, the dude with the broken ribs sued me, and so did the hospital -- they had to try, I guess, I'd blown a half-million dollar hole in their building. The hospital dropped the suit when it became clear I only had about five grand in my savings account, barely enough to hire a lawyer. That other guy, the dick from the parking lot, wouldn't let up though. I was still in hospital -- a different wing, obviously -- and there was a media circus, some of them curious, some excited, some alarmist. It was stressing me out.

Some guys from the military came to see me. They said they'd take care of my bills, the lawsuit, everything, if I just agreed to go with them and let them study me, see what was going on. I'm no fan of the military, and anyway, I've watched enough sci-fi movies to know that the military is always the bad guy when something mysterious happens. They'd just murder me in my sleep, to make sure I didn't explode again while crossing the Golden Gate bridge, or something. Right?

I asked the military guys -- it was a general, and a couple of flunkies -- if it was really a request, or if I had to go with them no matter what. To my surprise, they were totally cool about it. They said I was a free man, and I could do whatever I wanted, they just wanted to help out if they could. That the US military was not in the habit of holding citizens against their will. How much of that was them being nice guys, how much of it was politics -- the new administration was still very eager to distance itself from unlawful detentions -- and how much of it was them being very careful not to upset a guy who could punch a truck sized hole in a building apparently at will, I don't know.

Then Mister V.C. contacted me. I called him that from day one, still do. I mean, it's great, right? Your name is Victor Corrigan, and you get into managing a venture capital group for a living? You're literally Mister VC! I still get a kick out of that.

VC had a much more interesting offer than the military guys, or so it seemed to me. The first part was the same -- he'd handle the hospital bills, fend off the dick with the lawsuit, all that hassle. On top of that, he'd give me a hundred grand to work for him for six months, try to find out if I could do the explosions again, on demand, maybe in a controlled way, to see if anything useful could be made of it. He thought maybe there was a potential alternative energy source in there. Either way, no matter what happened, even if I didn't create so much as a popping noise, I'd still get the hundred grand and all expenses paid for six months.

It seemed like a sweet deal already, but he had more. He would set up a company to handle the money. If we did make anything useful out of it, anything profitable, I would have a 25% stake in it. I thought that was fine. And that's why VC, not me, is the richest man on the planet these days. Looking back, people say I was crazy to give away 75% of the stake. But I say, of what? At the time there wasn't anything there. He was gambling a hundred grand on some freak of nature who'd caused a lot of mysterious property damage. It seemed like I was getting a great deal. And I was! I got a great deal. I still think that. It's not like my 25% stake hasn't done well for me. I still have more money than I'll ever know what to do with.

The first six months were a disaster.

VC let me do whatever the hell I wanted. At his suggestion, I rented an aircraft hangar -- on his dime -- holed up inside, and tried to do it again. For a month, that was all I did, six, eight, ten hours a day. Just tried to recreate the feeling of trying to get home. I was living in the hangar, too -- nobody wanted to risk me blowing a hole in their building, least of all me. Of course, we know now that being really relaxed is a big part of getting it to work, but I didn't then. So I couldn't do it, and then my failure to do anything stressed me out, making it even less possible. I felt like I'd cheated VC out of his hundred grand.

VC took a personal interest -- I didn't know this at the time, but his firm hadn't approved the investment case, so the hundred grand and all the expenses were his own personal funds. People forget that VC was pretty fucking rich before he even met me. Towards the end of the first month, when I was getting discouraged, he brought over a load of beer and told me not to worry. I had six months, and he hadn't expected immediate results. He talked about extending to a year if it didn't work. He was totally cool about it. I really like VC -- I mean, apart from all the obvious reasons for me to be grateful to him, I actually just really like him as a person. So for the first time in a month, I relaxed. The beer probably helped, too.

I sat back in my chair tried to describe the feeling for VC. I remember we were sitting on these two folding lawn chairs, with a little plastic cooler full of beer, right smack in the middle of this hilarious giant aircraft hangar, in the twilight. I talked about wanting to be home -- I was sick of a cot bed in the office of the hangar -- and talked about my apartment, how much I liked it, how comfy the bed was. I started to get that little drifty feeling I'd begun to associate with the explosions, and I was real careful not to let it slip away. I just went with the flow, relaxed, closed my eyes. And then blew out every fucking window in that entire hangar, with me and VC tangled up in our deck chairs at the bottom of a hole in the concrete floor.

I was mortified. I'd trashed the whole hangar! But VC didn't give a shit about that. He was ecstatic. *His* eyes had been open, he'd seen the ground drop under us like it was punched, seen the windows shatter -- but not felt the shockwave. I saw a fucked-up, destructive way of digging wide, shallow holes in the ground. But as far as he was concerned, this was an amazing new energy source. Think how much energy it takes to punch a hole in the floor that size! Where's that coming from? We gotta get this right!

He admitted the hangar had been a mistake. He found some farmer who wasn't doing well, paid him off, and rented a whole set of fields for an entire season. He decided leaving me to my own devices wasn't working out too well, though, so he threw down another five hundred grand -- I told you he was already loaded -- and hired a staff to help me out. He got a bunch of guys just out of grad school -- Terence Dodwell, a theoretical physicist, Greg Malbroue, psychologist, and Rick Blanco, who worked on a consultant basis while he earned his residency. Following the pattern, I called them Mr Physics, Mr Shrink, and Mr Medic. VC also hired some guys as "field techs" -- just gophers, really, to help set up whatever we needed on site. He also came up with an official name for the company -- Pacific Energy Research. That's still the business he thought he was in, see?

Because of the energy focus, VC put Mr Physics in charge. I wasn't the boss, I was the test subject. Looking back, that was my first hint at what the future would be like, but I didn't think anything of it at the time. I thought it was a good idea. Dodwell had a methodical mind, and he put everything onto a much more scientific basis. He didn't like that a successful experimental outcome seemed to revolve around me being relaxed and happy that day, but he gave us a framework to work in -- noting all the variables, changing one at a time. It's thanks to him we discovered that my being relaxed and happy was important in the first place -- Mr. Shrink was interviewing me about my mood all the time, but Mr. Physics was the one who decided to check those interviews against the results.

So we were about four or five months in at this point, and we had a routine going. Mr. Physics (we were calling him Fizz for short by this time) and the techs covered the area around me with sensors, every kind of sensor they could think of -- temperature, pressure, humidity, electric charge, magnetic field strength, radiation, seismometers, a dozen more -- I would relax, think hard about home, and then punch a hole in the dirt, varying in size from a large car to a small swimming pool. I got pretty good at landing safely on uneven ground when dropped suddenly from heights between three and ten feet. None of the sensors showed much until the moment of impact, when they were completely flattened.

That was when Fizz had a brainstorm, and I have to hand it to him, it was really the breakthrough. It's one of those ideas that in retrospect seems so completely obvious it seems amazing we hadn't tried it before. He marched out into the field, planted a big stick with a bright day-glo strip wrapped around it, backed well away, and told me to think about going *there*, not going home. I tried it, and the stick fell over instantly.

That was it. Fizz and the techs covered the whole damn field in sensors, a cluster every square meter, and around the marker every twenty centimetres for about ten metres. Then we tried it again, and bingo. Every time I punched a hole in the ground, it was preceded by a sudden, drastic drop in temperature around the area of the marker. Magnetic fields went nuts. It seemed acceleration due to gravity weakened. Fizz even threw some microphones in there, and it seemed like things went really quiet too, although it might just have been a side-effect of the magnetic disturbances messing up their equipment.

It wasn't an energy source -- I wasn't creating energy. Fizz was disappointed about that, of course, but sort of relieved at the same time, y'know? Like, I hadn't broken the model of the universe. Of course, I'd bent it pretty badly. I was moving energy from one end of the field to another, really quickly, through no means they could detect. From a theoretical physics perspective, this was hot shit. He was going to write paper after paper, come up with whole new unified theories to try and explain what was going on. On that score, he was over the moon.

Who wasn't pleased was Mister VC. He'd wanted an energy source, not just a conductor. Was there something useful I could do? Contain bomb explosions? Instantly put out fires? Damp down a nuclear reactor before it went critical? He asked us to look for practical avenues.

It was month six since the first explosion when it all changed. I don't know how it happened. I guess it was just six months of constant practice. I tried something different, and it was suddenly very different. It's hard to explain. It's like I'd been trying to push open a door, over and over for months, and suddenly I realised I needed to pull instead.

You've seen the pictures of that moment on TV a hundred times by now, I'm sure. People ask how we knew to take a picture that time. Was it staged afterwards for publicity? No way. They always had cameras on me in the field, a ton of them, super-HD, covering me and the marker, in still and video, black and white, colour, and infra-red, from a half-dozen angles. As far as Fizz was concerned it was just another sensor.

Of course, I've seen it a hundred million more times than you have, probably in higher quality and slower slo-mo, but only from outside. To this day, I've never managed to do it with my eyes open. But what it looks like is a sphere. Not a perfect one, not even close. A big, grey, bumpy, fuzzy one, like a cloud. If you look at it really closely -- as far as you can, getting too close will turn your camera to dust -- it looks fuzzy all the way down to the limits of perception. It's what Fizz calls a "fractal surface".

In the ultra slo-mo, you can see that it expands from within me. Really, really quickly, but it's not instantaneous. It grows, with the center apparently at the base of my skull, where the brainstem is. I'm pretty sure you've seen that poster, the really popular one, where they took a freeze-frame of me just as the cloud envelops my head, so all you can see is my body and the fractal cloud where my head should be. The caption is in big white letters at the bottom: "My body is here, but my mind is elsewhere". Cute.

Anyway, you've seen the moment. I give this little surprised expression, then I vanish, and appear on the other side of the field.


Phew! That's quite enough for one evening. Let me know what you think.

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