Pilots, part 3

posted 23 July 2009

The very first thing we discovered, after the first week of tests, is that switching on solid ground is a terrible idea. The pulverised dust and atomized rock mixture isn't really toxic of itself, but it fills your lungs like smoke and then congeals like cement dust. Nasty. We were coughing our lungs up for days; Rick made us stop switching until we came up with a better solution.

We tried a bunch of crazy things first. Jumping up in the air didn't get me high enough; I still took a pile of dirt with me, and anyway it's hard to chill out when you're jumping up and down. Obviously any kind of raised platform would have its legs chopped off when it came out the other side. One solution that almost worked was this big platform with shock-absorber mounted legs, like a moon lander, mounted on some sacrificial supports. I'd switch over, snapping the bottom set of legs, then the whole thing would fall down and bounce to a stop. There's no dust, but in every other way it's a terrible solution: you waste a ton of raw material on the sacrificial legs, and anything on your platform gets bounced around.

We also considered switching from an airplane or a helicopter, but the idea scared the shit out of me, and anything that scared me couldn't work, by definition, so we abandoned it quickly. That's another one of those decisions that seemed small at the time but was probably huge, if we'd taken that idea to its logical conclusion sooner.

A few weeks in, one of the techs, Simon, came up with the solution in the hot tub. Yeah, we had a pretty nice setup even by that time: VC was paying a fortune to have five-star accommodation built on site, and in the meantime he had this crazy super-luxury RVs and tents and things. Anyway, Simon's idea: floating platforms. The solution is so everyday now, again, you forget at the time it was a breakthrough. If you vaporize water, it's just that -- water vapor. Totally harmless. And if you get pushback, well, you've punch a hole in some water. It flows back quickly, no harm done.

We tried it out the first time with two commercial, above-ground pools that we ordered out of a catalog, straight out of the seventies. It tooks days and days to fill them, all we had was a couple of garden hoses to start with. We took the time to build the platform: it was basically a raft of plastic barrels, with a place for me to sit and a bunch of measuring equipment. We still hadn't tried to carry any passengers. It shouldn't have taken us a week to build a raft, but there were still less than ten of us -- VC wasn't ready to hire anybody yet. And it's not like any of us had built a raft before.

They had me all dressed up for the first water trial. Nobody knew what was going to happen, see? Fizz was worried that the interface would generate a bunch of superheated steam and boil me alive, or I'd end up upside down and drown. So they had me put on this big insulated wetsuit, full scuba gear -- Nick, another tech, was from SoCal somewhere on the coast, he was an experienced scuba guy. It took me a whole week to get comfortable enough with all that stuff to be able to chill out and switch with it on.

In the end it was a total non-event: it worked first time! They put me on my raft in one pool, and told me to switch to the next one. The raft was well within the normal size of my sphere, to be on the safe side. So I sat back, zoned out, switched, and there I was in the other pool. The water didn't even ripple. It turns out that water mixed at the interface with other water basically doesn't do anything. You get a little steam right at the surface of the pool, but underwater you just get a cloud of bubbles as dissolved oxygen escapes. No broken supports, no bouncing. Pools were the way to go.

The only problem: we'd just spent months and a ton of money building a huge compound with a crazy expensive security perimeter, in the middle of the fucking desert! Again, to VC this just wasn't a problem. When we came to him with it, he didn't even understand what we were worried about. If Vegas can have dolphin aquariums, then we can have swimming pools, that was his position. He paid another ton of money, got pipes laid, and that was it. We could have as many pools as we wanted, as big as we wanted. Crews started digging the first lake that week.

While we were solving that problem we were also working on how big the sphere could get for a switch. Initially we figured the biggest it could get was the size of the biggest hole we'd made back in the field in California, about seven metres across -- that was a hell of a fall for me that time. But we didn't hit that limit. Now I was switching instead of getting pushbacks all the time, things were a lot easier.

We found that as long as long as I could stay zoned, the cloud stayed put, visible, and I could make it bigger by exerting the right kind of pressure. I didn't need to switch instantly: that was a big discovery. It was just a matter of staying zoned out, chilled out, long enough to encompass everything I wanted to switch with me. Stuff passing through the edges of the cloud as it got bigger was completely unaffected -- the visibility of the cloud was just optical distortion, like a heat haze.

What kind of pressure is the "right kind"? It's hard to describe. You know when people say they're feeling "expansive"? Don't laugh, because that's exactly what it's like. You get really chilled out, and you feel at one with your surroundings. And the more peaceful you feel, the safer and more relaxed, the bigger the sphere gets. You see why we spend so much time with shrinks? You have to be totally blissed out all the time to get the job done. But I'm getting ahead of myself again. There was no "we" yet, there was just me.

Basically, there seems to be no hard limit to how big it gets, just a mental limit to how long you can stay zoned. I remember at the beginning, when hadn't built the lakes yet and we were still using the surface-pools, I was having a really great day, just really relaxed, they told me to switch and instead of just taking the raft I took the whole pool. Huge cloud of dust of course, and the pipes and electrics to the pool were toast, but everyone was so pleased to have switched something so big -- I think the sphere was twenty metres -- that nobody gave a shit, everybody was just clapping and cheering. And of course, once everybody was cheering, I felt great, so I broke that record immediately, shifted a big stretch of desert the size of a football field.

Now, I'm talking about all of this as if we were just calmly trying these experiments, one after the other for months, and nothing was happening in the world outside. And that was almost how it seemed to us, sometimes -- VC spent a lot of time and what at the time seemed an unbelievable amount of money making sure our perimeter was both locked tight and invisible to us.

It was a pretty sweet life. We had great digs -- it's called the Switch Ritz now, still right in the center of the compound at HQ, it's where guests stay -- and we were in the middle of the desert, which is pretty beautiful from inside a five-star hotel room. Great sunsets, when seen from a hot tub. It doesn't look like much from outside -- they threw it together in five months, so no wonder -- but from inside you'd never know that. Big windows, air conditioning, and every comfort you can imagine. VC got the guys who do penthouse suites in Vegas to do it.

In fact, Vegas was his model for nearly everything at Switch HQ, because it was almost the same thing: a big crazy playground built in the middle of the desert on a pile of money. We used to joke that instead of building a replica of Eiffel Tower or the pyramids or whatever, we should just switch over the real thing. We laughed at the time, but Switch Urban Redevelopment is still a big business even these days. When Chicago gave me the key to the city, they said it was because Switch U.R. had saved that town from a slow death.

But outside the compound, things were going crazy. We could watch it on TV, though I tried not to do it too much -- Shrink didn't want me getting stressed out, and I figured it was good advice. I heard a lot more about it later.

First off, the perimeter was a great fucking idea. For the first year we were in the desert, thousands of people were just turning up all the time, trying to see in. The security guys kept the perimeter locked down -- they were practically a solid wall of men and hardware all the way around the compound -- but nobody was really trying to sneak in, for the most part. They were just curious. When they realized the edges of the perimeter were still literally miles from the compound, they took to the hills with telescopes, and hired helicopters to do fly-overs.

VC was pissed the first time the helicopters showed up. Some nutbag could drop anything from a helicopter. He went apeshit at the security guys, but what could they do? We were in fucking Nevada, not Afghanistan, it's not like we could shoot them down. VC tried to find some legal way of preventing overflight of our land, tried to pull strings with politicians.

Eventually the problem resolved itself: having a helicopter overhead spooked me, and that meant nothing happened. We put the word out -- if you come in a helicopter, you're wasting your money. People figured we were bluffing, but after a stretch of three weeks of helicopters and not a single switch, the sheer pointlessness of it killed the flyover business. VC was glad the flights had stopped, but was kind of annoyed that we'd seemed to prove, again, that switching and flying don't mix.

So instead of helicopters, we just had thousands of people crawling over the hills. They were five or six miles away from the compound, but if you've got a decent telescope that's nothing. Enterprising types set up super-expensive telescopes and projector systems, and you had this ridiculous situation where people were driving into the middle of the desert and climbing up hills to basically watch us on TV, which they could have done anywhere. But they didn't care, they just wanted to say they'd been there, even if there was miles away from the actual switching.

Watching us work was an obsession for a lot of people, worldwide. The webcam guys who'd broken the news -- switchwatchers.com, they're still around today -- were the first to set up a 24-hour cam watching the compound, and followed up with dozens more. But soon actual TV networks started leaving cams in place to catch anything interesting that happened. A couple of the DTV networks threw the feeds into dedicated channels.

Clips of the more interesting firsts -- the big ones, the first time we moved cargo and passengers -- those clips would make the nightly news. The day I switched the pools, that was a favourite one, because it was so dramatic: a huge cloud of dust, the techs running around. That ran first on news everywhere, it pushed out news of a war man. I mean, it was war in the Congo, not exactly novel, but still.

I think the reason everyone was so fascinated by switching was because it's so obviously useful: everyone could think of a way it would make their lives easier, even if it was just getting out of traffic or moving house. Little everyday things like that. It appealed to everybody.

Big concerns were even more enthusiastic. Aid workers could see us shifting mountains of wasted food from areas of over-supply to famine-struck countries. Tinpot generals dreamed of switching a battalion of soldiers into the ground of the white house. FEMA asked VC, pretty early on, if he thought we would be able to "do something" about hurricanes and tornadoes. Like, switch the hurricane to somewhere safer, or move towns out of the way. It grabbed the imagination.

And also, I guess, the uniqueness of it. It was just me! In the whole world, the only person who could pull of this trick was me. Talk about a celebrity. It's hard to imagine now, but it was like I was a goddamn super-hero. I started featuring in unauthorized comic-books. And the media started looking into my background, trying to dig up dirt.

There wasn't a whole lot to find. I was born, like every bio you've ever read about me loves to mention, in the improbably-named town of What Cheer, Iowa, population 673. I got the hell out of there as soon as I could and went to a little college -- not so little these days -- called Hamilton Tech in Davenport. I got a bachelor's in industrial electronics. After college I moved to Chicago immediately, worked in a bunch of shitty little jobs, repair shops. After a few years of that I decided I was sick of it, and the heartland, and moved to California, where it wasn't so fucking cold.

The weed in Cali was a lot cheaper, too, and I won't lie, that was a factor, as was it being legal for recreational use. It wasn't, like, the deal-maker for me, but it was definitely there in the "plus" column when I was trying to decide where to go. I remember some reporter found this guy who was sort of my dealer, I guess, back in college, and interviewed him like he was some kind of major influence in my life. It was so funny. The guy was clearly baked all the way through the interview, hadn't been watching the news, didn't know why the reporter was asking all these questions about me.

By the time Switch happened I was pretty much over my mild stoner phase. By the time of that first pushback, on the way to the train, I was barely smoking, I think the last time had been four months before that. I didn't try again until one night at HQ maybe a year later, and it totally blew my switching for weeks. I think probably the pot itself was only responsible for the first few days -- it doesn't take long to get out of your system -- but of course I freaked out that smoking a single joint had blown my ability to switch, so the freaking out meant I couldn't switch, which meant I freaked out more... the old feedback loop. Shrink was great that month, he talked me down. I think that was probably the last time he did anything useful for the company, in fact. The day I got switching back after that episode he went to Vegas, went on a massive bender, didn't come back for a week.

I try not to feel guilty about Greg. It mostly works. I know I wasn't really responsible. He was just the kind of guy who couldn't deal with getting rich really suddenly, and all the attention. If he'd got rich in the lottery the same thing would have happened to him. But he didn't get rich in the lottery, he got rich from Switch Transport, and that was partly my doing. I think VC feels the same way, maybe worse 'cause he hired him, and didn't really pay attention when he started going off the rails. I know that Switch still pays all his medical bills.

Anyway, I'm way off topic now. Back to the reaction out in the real world, the reporters digging for dirt on me. We're pretty much up to where I was when Switch started. I lived in San Francisco, because I was single and that's where the chicks were, but not in North Beach because I'm a geek, not a frat boy. I worked down-peninsula, at a little electronics firm that's now a big electronics firm and doesn't like me mentioning them. You can find out easily, anyway.

I'd had a few girlfriends, there and back in Iowa and Chicago, but never anything really serious. Oh, yeah, and that one guy I made out with in college. My god, that was even more overblown than the pot thing, the way the media ran with that story, trying to see if there was some requirement that people who could switch be bisexual. This one guy doing a special had a great line about it, I still remember: "the duality of their nature inherently lending itself to the split nature of the switching phenomenon". Looking straight at the camera, all serious, suggesting that bisexuals had magical powers. Like who you liked to fuck had some profound bearing on the makeup of your brain and thus your ability to move a million tons of rock with your mind.

Because that's what all of it was about, right? All the media attention. The reason they wanted to know so much about me was because a hundred thousand smart people had looked at me doing magic tricks in the desert and thought: is there anybody else who can do that? And can I find that person before everybody else does, become the next VC, found my own Switch Transport, make billions of dollars and spend the rest of my life doing blow off of strippers in Vegas with Shrink? What was it about him? His genes, his upbringing, his medical history, his fucking diet? What makes him able to do it when I can't?

And a million more people, a hundred million people were thinking: I bet I can do that. I bet I just have to unlock it somehow. Read what he read. Eat what he ate. Whatever. A whole cargo cult sprung up overnight, made of people trying to imitate every aspect of my life, molding themselves desperately into my image. It was driving people crazy: were there any more people like me?

And it turns out there were. A whole bunch more. And that's what really changed the game. And the world, like they say.

tagged with
0 comment