Pilots, part 7

posted 03 September 2009

We thought the explosion of applications for switching on earth was hard to keep up with. Once we got into space, things went even more Wild West on us.

Understand: the launch cost of a satellite used to be millions of dollars for anything bigger than a shoebox. After Switch Orbital started commercial flights, the price dropped overnight to roughly the cost of a ticket to New York from Los Angeles. The result was an explosion in the number of satellites, from just a few hundred to hundreds of thousands in the course of just a few years. Collisions became a real problem, especially in popular orbits like geosynchronous.

After the Hubble 2 was trashed by that stupid Italian company's media broadcast satellite, governments got together and laid down the law -- after a brief pause to invent the law. Now the Orbital Traffic Authority will forcibly de-orbit any unauthorized satellite, especially if it's anywhere close to the major commercial orbits. But by that point who cared about the satellites? The Indians were on Mars.

Partly it was just flexing their new-found economic muscle on an international stage, but a bigger reason was that they'd spent billions developing their own space program, just in time for pilots to render it completely irrelevant. They needed to justify the investment, so they threw their ground-to-orbit launcher designs away and plowed everything into making a ship that could take a sizeable crew to Mars -- one way. They could switch back, of course.

They had no shortage of pilots by that point, mostly because they had no shortage of people. Initially they had an interesting cultural roadblock: pilots are generally not religious -- like I said, fundamentalism of any kind tends to warp the brain -- so saying you could switch was like renouncing your faith, no matter what claims you made to the contrary.

The turning point was a guy called Nayan Cansai. He was one of Switch's own pilots, born in America. He gave a speech to the Indian parliament in 2025, a really excellent defence of his ability to be both a Hindu and a pilot. I can't remember most of it now -- you'll have to look it up -- but the famous line was "How can you claim I am not close to God, when every day I ascend to the heavens by the power of my faith alone?" It's a great line. I still have no idea if he was sincere. But it did the trick, and unlocked huge reserves of Indian pilots.

Once they got to Mars -- a hefty nine-month one-way trip -- they didn't need their ships anymore. Their pilots switched home in just a couple of hops, and the route was open. The Indian government wanted to charge Switch Transport an absolute fortune for access to the route -- they figured they had a great monopoly going. Instead we just head-hunted away a single pilot for a fraction of the price. They just didn't understand the mechanics of what they were dealing with, and we did.

There was some controversy once regular routes to Mars opened up, about contamination. Switches brought piles of red dust back to earth, and inevitably dumped some residual pool water on Mars, full of earth bacteria. The Indians claimed they were sterilizing everything, switching in and out of clean environments -- and so did we. But the whole thing was theatre. There's no way to be sure. But the whole thing became academic anyway once the Chinese decided they were going to terraform the whole planet.

Looking back, I figure even if the Chinese hadn't done it, we probably would have, and not too long after. Getting to Mars had been a dream for generations, but really, what was the plan once we got there? The Indians did a ton of great science: research into the history, searching for native life, geology, atmosphere, all the rest. But once you've got all the data you could ever want... then what? Mars is a cold, barren rock, with barely any atmosphere. Once getting there costs almost nothing, it becomes this huge, empty frontier. The natural impulse, the inevitable conclusion, is to try and make it habitable. The Chinese weren't the first to have the idea, they were just the ones with the balls to start. Once they kicked off, the rest of us weren't shy about chipping in.

Twenty years later Mars is still a freaking cold, barren rock. But now it's got a couple thousand crazy libertarian hippies living on it in that commune, dug into the ground, battening down the hatches every time we crash another comet into the surface. It's got something like a third of earth's atmosphere at this point. But if we ever do get it habitable, it's already all carved up between a hundred different nations, and those hippies are gonna have to start paying taxes or take a hike. The only reason nobody's gone to war over territory on Mars is because it's all worthless right now anyway -- mining asteroids is a lot cheaper. Maybe in another century or so. Mars is a crazy dream, a sideshow.

The really important places were the asteroid belt, and Jupiter. Switch internal R&D were the first to recognize the importance of Jupiter. Other people were looking at Europa, remember old Arthur C. Clarke novels, and wondering if we'd find life there. What we saw was Jupiter itself: a huge ball of gas, nearly 90% hydrogen. It was the world's biggest gas tank. We were the ones who built the first atmospheric skimmers, sucking up the upper atmosphere, compressing it, and then using an endless series of switch pilots to ferry it back to earth.

The up-front development costs were just staggering. This wasn't the saucers, which are just armoured air bubbles with a couple jets attached. The skimmers are serious pieces of aeronautical engineering. It took a decade to get them right, get them safe. But now... we have Switch Energy. Endless, cheap hydrogen powers the whole goddamn planet, except a few middle-eastern countries, still burning off their worthless hydrocarbons. The only by-product of our hydrogen plants is fresh water -- another thing we used to think we'd run out of.

While we were focussed on that, other people got the jump on us with asteroid mining, especially the Indians and the Chinese. It's not that we didn't think of mining asteroids, we just didn't think it was as big an opportunity as Jupiter was. And we were right in the long-run. But in the meantime they made a killing.

And the technique! It's pretty awe-inspiring. I think only the Chinese could have come up with it. They land on an asteroid, then get a pilot to zone up to the biggest sphere they can manage -- and then switch that straight out of space into the desert. It carves a big scoop out of the asteroid, and lands a mountain-sized chunk of iron ore in the middle of the desert. Creates an earthquake, of course, but it's not like anybody lives nearby. They mine that rock for as much as is easy to get out -- and then switch the slag right back into space.

It's crazy, but wow, it's impressive watching them pull the orbital hop trick with a goddamn mountain-sized sphere of loose rubble. Sure, they lose a bunch of rock on the way up, but what do they care?

There's a thousand other things we've done that I could talk about. Waste disposal by throwing it into the sun -- the Ukrainians scooping Chernobyl out of the ground. Fighting rising sea-levels by switching huge volumes of water to Mars. The last thirty years have been one continuous boom. Maybe if it ever ends we'll give it a name: the Great Switch Rush, or maybe just The Madness. Or maybe it won't end. Maybe there's just so much space, so many things we can do now, that we'll keep on pushing outwards forever.

But you don't want to hear about any of that stuff. You want to hear about Max. Or X, I guess I should say. I always thought it was a stupid name.

So you should know that Switch Transport has a huge pro-bono operation, in both disaster relief and long-term aid. We switch mountains of surplus food from the first world to drought-hit areas, and in acute disaster situations we are by far the fastest way to get personnel, vehicles and supplies to anywhere. Get one helicopter with a couple of pilots to the scene, and no matter how remote, they can switch back and open up a route. A team of fifty pilots on a steady rotation can shift as much material as a two-lane highway right to the middle of the disaster zone.

That's how Max came to our attention. There'd been an earthquake in north-western Tibet, near a town -- or it might be a region, I'm not too clear -- called Luotoho. Satellite pictures showed this village right at the epicentre, tucked into a tight little valley, that had been hit by massive landslides. We donated some transports, and started switching into a lake near the site.

The village was a mess, complete carnage. It hadn't been a landslide. It was one of those pilots who recognized the pattern: it had been pushback. Giant, catastrophic pushback, on a scale he'd never seen before, but unmistakeable -- a quiet circle at the center that had fallen into the crater created by an unbelievably powerful explosion outside of it. Like my first switch, put on a huge scale -- the center zone was nearly a kilometer wide, the crater hundreds of metres deep. The sides of the valley had collapsed into an existing hole.

We think the explosion and subsequent falls and landslides killed something like a thousand people. It was hard to tell. Outside of the circle, there was nothing left. Stuff had just been pulverized, crushed to dust against the sides of the valley. Nearly all of the official records of the town were destroyed along with the town itself. There was exactly one survivor, critically injured, right at the center of the wreckage. Max.

Max isn't his real name, any more than X is now. He was born Lhak-Pa. In the first few weeks, when he was really banged up, he could barely speak, and in any case we didn't speak Tibetan, so staff at Switch's clinic couldn't tell what part of what he said was his name. They heard him mumble "Lhak" and it somehow became "Max". It stuck; he liked it, at least to start with.

He'd been training to be a monk. Of course, you think, that makes sense in retrospect, right? Why hadn't we been scouring the world for Zen masters and Buddhist novices, the most chilled-out people in the world?

Understand: we didn't need to. The perception that nearly all pilots are buddhists is confusing cause and effect: most pilots are buddhists because of Max, they convert after they become pilots. There was never any shortage of new pilots, just of trained ones. They came to us, and it was all we could do to keep the crowd orderly. Switch Recruitment never needed to go anywhere, certainly not to some remote fucking valley in the middle of goddamn Tibet.

It makes you wonder, though: how many times had this happened, before Switch Transport turned up and humanity realized what switching was? There's this story of this thing in Siberia, called the Tunguska event, back in 1908. A giant explosion of some kind flattened every tree for a hundred miles, in a big radial pattern. It was like a twenty-megaton bomb had gone off -- in 1908, before the word "megaton" had even been invented. There was no radioactivity, no debris, no crater: just hundred of square miles of scorched and flattened trees. A spaceship crash? An asteroid vaporizing before impact? Or some Russian dude out in the woods with one hell of a pushback?

When Max healed up, we had to let him know what had happened: he'd accidentally killed everyone he loved, everyone he knew. It shattered him. He would never switch; the pain was too much. That was the opinion of everyone, including us.

Switch has a clear policy: anybody who finds themselves unable to switch is on their own after that. It's the only way to deal with a staff of tens of thousands of people who are basically lazy hippies, like me. Especially since switching is entirely a mental process. If we didn't have the policy, somebody could just pretend to be unable to switch again and live off our dime the rest of their lives. So you manage your own money, take your own risks, and we'll take great care of you as long as you're a functioning pilot.

This kid hadn't even been a pilot, and was never going to be. But... we're human, right? This kid, he'd never even heard of switching, beyond some third-hand reports that everybody figured were just stories. He'd sat in the courtyard of the monastery with his fellow novices one morning, contemplated the mysteries of the universe, had an awe-inspiring moment of cosmic revelation -- and then killed everyone he knew.

So we put him into rehab. Who was going to object? He had no family -- they'd been killed, all of them, in the explosion, bar some far-distant cousins who'd never met him and wanted nothing to do with him. The Chinese government was too busy disintegrating to care, beyond regarding him as a potentially destructive menace. No other switch companies were interested, obviously.

Rehab is supposed to be for burned-out pilots who we think have a chance of making it back. They're given meditation classes, yoga sessions, exercise, a structured environment, comfortable surroundings, daily therapy, creative outlets -- whatever they want, basically, as long it gets them chilled out. They either get it back -- usually inside of three months -- or they get bored and leave, which they can do any time.

Max stayed for three years. I mean, it really wasn't that different from what his life plan had been in the first place, except the surroundings were a lot more luxurious and we had toilets that flushed. He was still searching for enlightenment and inner peace -- even more so now. Buddhism is all about helping others, but he was a mass-murderer. But it was a while before he could face that. For the first few months the only activity he stuck with was English lessons; other than that he just ate a lot of junk food and watched a lot of TV.

I guess we should have, I dunno, parented him more. He was only fifteen when we found him. But we were a company, you know? And the world's busiest, fastest-growing, most profitable company at that. We were remaking the world, we didn't have time to worry about whether he was being given appropriate boundaries. Nobody on the team had kids, none of us had even hit thirty yet. We just patted ourselves on the back for giving the Tibetan orphan this awesome wonderland to live in, and signed the checks. He could sponge off the company for the rest of his life and it wouldn't begin to approach the amount we spent daily on scented fucking candles.

After six months he finally got bored of TV and pigging out. He'd gained a lot of weight, actually; he felt like shit, and he didn't have any direction in his life. He had an emotional crisis, but man, is rehab ever the place to have one of those. The best shrinks in the world talked him through it, got him to face the guilt he was ignoring, the pain of those deaths, got him to see that it wasn't his fault.

He got back in shape -- we have great nutritionists. He went back to school, too. Of course, it was the only kind of schooling we provided: pilot training. A grounding in mathematics, physics, astronomy, orbital geometry -- practical skills for people whose main business was rapidly becoming shifting supertanker-sized tanks of hydrogen around the solar system.

Two years into training, hearing about nothing all day but the mechanics of switching, watching the joy of his fellow recruits as they switched for the first time, then graduated to full pilots, he decided to try switching again. The pushback that first time, back in Tibet, had been unprecedentedly powerful, and the size of his "natural" sphere had been huge, suggesting he had something special -- probably a really huge volume, useful for bulk transfer. That's what we thought most likely. If could contribute something novel or at least exceptional to the world, maybe that's how he could attone for the slaughter, I think that's how he thought of it at the time. So he switched from theory -- he knew it back-to-front by that point anyway -- to practice.

The funny thing was, in three years, nobody had asked him: where was it you were trying to go, that first time? Switching requires a destination, but he'd never been outside his village, and was really happy where he was in fact -- as evidenced by his mega-bliss moment. Partly nobody had asked because it had been so painful for him to remember that day, and partly, I guess, because we just assumed it wasn't anywhere very interesting. There should have been some evidence of his destination -- a monster pile of unseasonal frost, a gravitational anomaly, whatever -- but everybody figured it had been buried with the rest of the town.

It turns out that he'd been thinking of going to Heaven -- or one of them, something his sect called Tusita. It was just a vague idea; a concept of "up". So three years later, they put him in a standard switch environment capsule, push him out into the middle of one of our biggest training lakes -- it was two miles wide -- and tell him to try switching. The tech -- the idiot tech -- was just expecting a huge pushback. That's what nearly everyone gets on their first try. So he didn't bother to tell him to focus on a destination in particular. So Max just picked "up" again.

And went into orbit.

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