Pilots, part 8

posted 05 September 2009, updated 06 September 2009

This is the final installment of Pilots. Hope you enjoyed it! If you are by any chance some sort of masochist and would like to read more things I've written, I recommend Code, a play I wrote five years ago.

And not just him. Him, the boat, the switch lake, half of the neighbouring switch lake, the monitoring station, that idiot tech, a goodly-sized chunk of mountain were sent instantly into geosynchronous orbit. He's sitting there, in fucking outer space, feeling the atmosphere whip away at hurricane speeds, the lake rapidly freezing. He looks up and sees the earth above him, that big blue globe. He works out where he is. No more than ten seconds have gone by. And he switches back. He puts the lakes -- what's left of them -- the mountain, the fucking idiot tech, everything right back, perfectly. The tech suffered a mild head wound from being thrown against the wall by the outrushing atmosphere, but he was fine. Nobody had been hurt, although the ice and atmosphere he lost did very expensive damage to some nearby satellites.

We dropped everything, obviously.

He'd never been in orbit before. Short of an alien abduction -- and we seriously investigated that possibility -- there was no possible way he could ever have been in a geostationary orbit before. Of course, he understood the concept: he'd had more pilot training than anybody, having gone through the whole training program twice before he worked up the nerve to try it. And he was so calm, so ridiculously chilled out, that having accidentally transported himself into fucking hard vacuum, watching the air boil away, he could still switch back.

He loved it. He was over the moon. Literally over the moon, by his next switch: he looked at a real-time model of the moon relative to his current position on a computer screen, and dropped straight into orbit around it. His sphere was so perfectly sized that he barely took anything with him. And then, just to underline that he was so far out of our league, he dropped himself straight down to the lunar surface. He walked around in his environment suit, took some pictures, switched back into space -- replacing the disc of moon-rock he'd left in orbit from his downward journey -- and then back to earth with a minor thunderclap and moon dust all over his boots.

In subsequent trips he got even better, did things we hadn't even known were possible. He could switch orientation like a ten-year pro, he could selectively transfer velocity -- so he could course-correct: give himself a boost into orbit by switching in and out with a chunk of rock from the planet below. For fuck's sake, he could fly. Or as close as to make no difference.

He'd jump into the air -- like we'd tried, all those years ago -- then while he was two feet off the ground, he'd switch a hundred feet up. He'd do a little somersault -- totally for show -- and start falling back to earth, head-first. Then he'd switch again, two hundred feet up -- but this time angled upwards, travelling like a bullet from a gun. He could fly, in an endless chain of ballistic trajectories. When he wanted to stop, he'd shoot straight up, wait until gravity exactly cancelled out his upward motion -- then switch back to the ground, two feet up, completing that first little jump.

You do the math -- Fizz did. No energy was created or destroyed. For every leap through the air he made, a patch of air got sent rushing in the opposite direction at speeds like a jet exhaust. Net energy zero, and yet there he was, flying. Switching doesn't break physics, but it sure looks like cheating.

He wouldn't work for the company. Not properly, not like it was a job. Sometimes, if we needed something special done, he'd help us out -- he was grateful, genuinely and deeply, for pulling him out of the rubble, rehabilitating him, training him, all of it. But he was grateful like a child is grateful to his parents: he loved us for it, but he didn't owe us anything. You're not going to spend your whole life paying your parents back for raising you, not while they're clearly doing very well all on their own. You have your own life to lead.

And he felt that deeply. He had some kind of mission, a higher calling. He would take a standard orbital capsule and disappear for months; he'd take a handful of trainees his own age with him sometimes. They'd zip around the solar system and pop back to Chicago for lunch. Chicago actually has a "switch-thru" restaurant, on a floating dock between the planetarium and the aquarium. The food is great: four Michelin stars, and if you turn up via switch, the food is free -- because everybody else is paying extra for the chance of seeing the wild young switch pilots turn up, meeting them, these crazy interplanetary travellers with their mad hair and mood rings and "free Australia" t-shirts*.

What else could be expected to happen? He was eighteen, and unbelievably talented. He abbreviated "Max" to just "X". We went with it -- it was great publicity for us -- and so soon there were X t-shirts, posters, a whole clothing line, a sports drink. A fucking sports drink! Max only drinks water and green tea, he's a fucking monk! There was even a cartoon series for kids, "Xploring the Universe". Jesus. It was a hundred-million-dollar business all by itself. He certainly paid us back that way.

In retrospect it was a terrible idea. It just fuelled the cult of X. Kids who grew up watching him be a superhero on TV... what would they think when they met him in person ten years later? We should have considered that. But as usual we were much, much better at building a business off the merchandising than we were at considering the consequences of our actions.

It helped that he was very photogenic. He'd burned off the junk-food fat and then kept it off religiously -- again, not a figure of speech, he's an actual monk. He spent a lot of time on the water, near coasts, so of course he got into water sports, so there was no shortage of pictures of him with his shirt off. That captured the female teen and tween markets pretty effectively.

Of course, we were looking for more people like him. We went crazy looking. We must have sent agents to every buddhist temple in the whole of Asia -- the more remote the better, as far as we were concerned. We enrolled promising recruits from other countries into Tibetan monasteries, got them to take the vows and everything, in case it was something special about his training that had given him his abilities. It was just like the cargo cults right at the beginning. We had his genes, and his brain scans, but nothing was unusual. It was another five years before somebody else turned up who could match X.

Katherine -- Kay -- was the daughter of two retired pilots -- more evidence of the genetic link. She'd been put on the fast track training anyway, a privilege of family connections, and had been given the full twelve months of pilot training before she attempted her first switch. Hers was nothing like X's first switch: it was a simple, standard lake-to-lake initial switch. It was neat, quiet, and perfect the very first time. That's unusual -- and promising -- but not incredibly rare.

But as she continued to train, she just didn't run into any limits. Switch trainers would set her a goal -- this many perfect switches, with so much load, of such-and-such a size of sphere -- and she'd just execute them flawlessly, one after the other. She completed the entire second year's worth of practical exercises in three weeks. She was in orbit by the end of the month. After that, she finally did what any twenty-one year old college kid who suddenly discovers she's fucking invincible would do -- she went off on her own.

She took off to the moon, and scoured the net for mentions of X's last known location, and set off after him. The entire community of switch geeks helped her out -- news of her amazing switches had been leaking out for weeks. She proved her identity by taking pictures of herself on the moon. With so many kids tracking down rumours and sightings, she found X in less than a day. He was surfing off an isolated beach in northern Australia -- a little fuck-you gesture on X's part, he loved uploading pictures of himself in Australia just to piss off the government there -- when she switched down to the beach.

X was in love, I think, before the sand even settled.

Wouldn't you have been? Up until that point, as far as he knew, he was the only person in existence who could do what he could do. Then Kay turns up, and she's as good as him -- maybe better. He'd had five years' experience, and she was just starting and already nearly as good as he was. He could only either hate her or love her. And she's undeniably a very pretty girl. But of course, they tried hating each other first.

It started with a race. They had to upload pictures from every major planet and moon in the solar system. SwitchWatchers were there to make sure they were original shots, not just stuff they'd found on the net, or from previous switch trips. It made worldwide news -- two superswitchers! -- that what they called them. They even took shots of the dark side of mercury for the first time. Ridiculously dangerous to switch to, especially blind -- orbit round to the wrong side and you're literally cooked. X won, but by a matter of minutes.

So then he switched to loving her. She resisted for a while. She was the daughter of two very laid-back pilot parents, and kids like that are either crazy or totally straight-laced as a reaction to that. She was the straight-As student, non-drinker, non-smoker, very serious about her career... she wanted to work for the company. She thought it was the best way to use her gifts to make the world a better place as fast as possible.

And X was... basically none of those things. Well, maybe that's not totally true. I mean, he was a monk. He took his place in the universe very seriously, was vegetarian, careful about exercising -- though how much of that was being a monk and how much was being a rock star I'm not sure. But he was very much a monk in a school all of his own: half Tibetan Buddhism, half Californian psychiatric doublespeak. He sure wasn't celibate. He was basically a hippy.

And he certainly didn't look like a monk. On top of bleeding-edge fashion and that washboard stomach, he also had this crazy anime hair, two feet long, a new colour every couple of weeks. There was this salon in Tokyo that did it for him; they had a koi pond they kept permanently available for him to switch into. X was careful about cosmic balance, but he had his own take on that.

Switching, he figured, was bifurcated in its very nature: it was both yin and yang. So this gift the universe had given him, to swap two spaces, it must be a balancing. He was moving energy around, balancing out the universe. The more he switched, the more he fulfilled his destiny. So he could do what he wanted, and fate would make sure it was the right thing to have done. Simple, convenient, and he didn't have to work for the Man.

So he and Kay circled each other for more than a year. X was certain they were destined to be together -- no bullshit romantic words there, he literally believed it was destiny -- and she was equally convinced that the dilettante rock-star-slash-superhero was just trying to get into her pants. Which was also true, of course.

But there was no denying it, eventually. After a year of working for the company she realized that profit motives and humanitarian concerns did not align as perfectly as she had optimistically believed. Of course, Switch gave her special license to do more than the usual amount of pro-bono work, but we could tell she was getting disenchanted.

He meanwhile realized that being wild and crazy and a superhero was not going to get him anywhere with Kay, who didn't like crazy and was a superhero herself. For the first time ever, he was having to work for it. So he... moderated. The fashion stayed edgy, but he stopped going for deliberate shock value. The hair stayed the same; his abs stayed the same -- he was pretty sure those weren't hurting his chances. He did fewer protest dousings** and more putting out forest fires.

He didn't stop spouting his philosophy at every turn, though, and eventually she started to listen. It became a sort of soap opera for the switch geeks of the world, watching their relationship develop. He would spell out a question on the surface of an asteroid, carving the letters out of the rock in a series of tiny craters left by switching. Sometimes she'd answer the question; other times -- if she thought it was a stupid question -- she'd launch the asteroid into the sun, or dump it into Jupiter. Grand dramatic gestures are so much easier when you're a god, right?

What finally sealed the deal wasn't a grand gesture, but a deliberately humble one. He switched into a remote area in southern Sudan. They were really far away from the world; they received the occasional humanitarian switch delivery, but it was food aid only. There was no education program and no real organization to speak of -- we can't be everywhere -- and they had a pretty shitty life.

He turned up with some simple, practical gifts: a load of garden tools, resealable containers for water, seeds, and a book of farming techniques straight from the most successful UN agricultural programs. He spent a month with them, and didn't switch once in that time. He dug fields with them, taught them new techniques, helped them dig deeper latrines, dug a new well, sweated by their side, slept in their huts, ate their food. At the end of the month, he thanked them humbly, and switched away -- but not before executing a complicated series of switches that dug two more wells, ploughed a dozen fields, and delivered a load of freshly-cut timber to their doors.

It was a month before she even found out where he'd gone, and I think that might have been what impressed her most of all. She got the message, too: they had amazing gifts. Using it to the limits of their ability wasn't arrogance, it was just the best way of making the world a better place. They could do more in a few minutes of switching than a month of ordinary labour could achieve -- so why not do it?

She broadcast her capitulation to the net, like everything else about their relationship -- I mean, it's not like she could call his cell phone, reception isn't so good around Neptune. She said she understood, and as a compromise, some sort of a surrender, she signed it "Y", dropping the first two letters of her name like he had. X and Y. Cute, huh?

For their first proper date, we know they went to Europa. They took capsules separately, and landed on the bright side next to each other, then space-walked from one capsule to the other. Actually, we don't know who went to which one -- the SwitchWatchers would have a field day with the symbology either way -- because uncharacteristically, neither of them recorded the event or posted it back to their customary audience of millions of switch geeks. They said they had a picnic, but we've only got their word for it.

After that, they worked as a team. Every three or four years we'd find somebody else with their gifts -- what we call an Arbitrary Destination Pilot, and everybody else calls a SuperSwitcher -- and without fail, X and Y recruited them. Their little group pushed the boundaries of switching -- bigger and bigger asteroids, faster, more precisely, further in single switches. They sent back pictures that defy causality: pictures of the solar system from 30 light-years away, light that left the sun before they were born.

And that brings us to today, and the reason you're interviewing me now. Yesterday, something like twenty hours ago, Ganymede, one of Jupiter's biggest moons, disappeared. In its place is a pile of rubble of roughly equivalent mass, which closer inspection has revealed is composed of asteroids, carefully pulled from all over the solar system so as not to cause too much gravitational disruption.

Also gone, more prosaically, is a very large amount of vacuum-capable equipment from Switch Transport warehouses all over the world, and big chunks of surplus food from various aid warehouses. X, Y and their little band of five superswitchers, painstakingly gathered over the last decade and a half, are also missing, along with two or three hundred "ordinary" pilots. We don't yet know exactly how many; none of those who left gave any indication they were leaving, and we are still tracking down our pilots, those from other companies, and the small number of independent switch-capable individuals who are not professional pilots.

Ganymede has a sizeable reserve of water ice, and unusually, a magnetosphere like Earth's, that provides some protection against cosmic radiation. People in a speculative mood have suggested that these facts all taken together suggest that they have turned an entire moon, very roughly a quarter the size of Earth, into a space-going vehicle, along with vast stores of water, food, and energy, and that they've gone off to explore the universe.

Further speculation suggests that people of their talents could, if they so chose, find any other solar system with a rock about the right size and bombard it with resources mined from elsewhere in the system until they had terraformed a whole new world for themselves, without any of the compromises in size or distance from the sun that Mars presents. Until the terraforming was complete, they could live a reasonably comfortable life on their moon, with a sufficiently large breeding population to prevent the worst types of inbreeding, in a population consisting of most of the top pilots in the world. Reports in the last few hours of thefts of sperm and eggs from various fertility clinics are not confirmed, by me or anybody else.

The very wildest speculation suggests that X would have confided in me, the first pilot, as to their plan and their destination, or even that the whole project was my idea. People say only I had all the access codes necessary to get the equipment out of the warehouses, that nobody switched into the warehouses directly.

I deny all of that categorically. If we want to know what happened to them, I guess we'll have to wait until they tell us themselves. They are pilots, after all. They can come home any time they like.

* Australia's government struggled to deal with the massive population boom caused by switching, and by the early 2030s had become almost a fascist state, paying only lip-service to its former democracy. Internet access and all forms of media are heavily controlled. This is partly to keep the population controlled, but mostly because it makes the country a much less popular destination for switchers while they get their infrastructure problems under control.

** A sufficiently talented switcher can switch a large load into the air, deploy a parachute, and then switch back, leaving the load to fall on its own. This became popular amongst young switchers as a symbolic protest action: the pilot would switch a load of seawater (or something less pleasant) and leave it in the air over the head of an unpopular political figure, ideally when the cameras were rolling. To this day, Australian politicians give all public speeches indoors for this reason.

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