Besides, nobody called a Sander a “poser.”

The other rocket jockeys intervened before he could use his fist-probably a good thing, at that-grabbing the two men and separating them. Pushed to the end of the queue, Smits stewed and cast deadly looks toward Hacker. But when his turn came again, the nobleman went through ID check with composure, as cold and brittle as some glacier.

“Your permits are in order,” the functionary concluded, unhurriedly addressing Hacker, because he was most experienced. “Your liability bonds and Rocket Racing League waivers have been accepted. The government won’t stand in your way.”

Hacker shrugged, as if the statement was both expected and irrelevant. He flung his visor back down and gave a sign to the other suited figures, who rushed to the ladders that launch personnel braced against each rocket, clambering awkwardly, then squirming into cramped couches and strapping in. Even the novices had practiced countless times.

Hatches slammed, hissing as they sealed. Muffled shouts told of final preparations. Then came a distant chant, familiar, yet always thrilling, counting backward at a steady cadence. A rhythm more than a century old.

Is it really that long, since Robert Goddard came to this same desert? Hacker pondered. To experiment with the first controllable rockets? Would he be surprised at what we’ve done with the thing he started? Turning them into weapons of war… then giant exploration vessels… and finally playthings of the superrich?

Oh, there were alternatives, like commercial space tourism. One Japanese orbital hotel and another under construction. Hacker owned stock. There were even multipassenger suborbital jaunts, available to the merely well- off. For the price of maybe twenty college educations.

Hacker felt no shame or regret. If it weren’t for us, there’d be almost nothing left of the dream.

Countdown approached zero for the first missile.


“Yeeeee-haw!” Hacker Sander shouted…

… before a violent kick flattened him against the airbed. A mammoth hand seemed to plant itself on his chest and shoved, expelling half the contents of his lungs in a moan of sweet agony. Like every other time, the sudden shock brought physical surprise and visceral dread-followed by a sheer ecstatic rush, like nothing else on Earth.

Hell… he wasn’t even part of the Earth! For a little while, at least.

Seconds passed amid brutal shaking as the rocket clawed its way skyward. Friction heat and ionization licked the transparent nose cone only centimeters from his face. Shooting toward heaven at Mach ten, he felt pinned, helplessly immobile…

… and completely omnipotent.

I’m a freaking god!

At Mach fifteen somehow he drew enough breath for 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, cleanup efforts were even more frenetic than setup. With all rockets away, men and women sprinted across the scorched desert, packing to depart before the enemy arrived. Warning posts had already spotted flying machines, racing this way at high speed.

But the government official moved languidly, tallying damage to vegetation, erodible soils, and tiny animals-all of it localized, without appreciable effect on endangered species. A commercial reconditioning service had already been summoned. Atmospheric pollution was easier to calculate, of course. Harder to ameliorate.

She knew these people had plenty to spend. And nowadays, soaking up excess accumulated wealth was as important as any other process of recycling. Her ai-board printed a bill, which she handed over as the last team member revved his 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 clouds of dust, incidentally crushing one more barrel cactus en route to the highway. Her vigilant clipboard noted this, adjusting the final tally.

Sitting on the hood of her jeep, she waited for another “club” whose members were as passionate as the rocketeers. Equally skilled and dedicated, though both groups despised each other. Sensors showed them coming fast, from the west-radical environmentalists. The official knew what to expect when they arrived. Frustrated to find their opponents gone and two acres of desert singed, they’d give her a tongue-lashing for being “evenhanded” in a situation where-obviously-you could only choose sides.

Well, she thought. It takes a thick skin to work in government nowadays. No one thinks you matter much.

Overhead the contrails were starting to shear, ripped by stratospheric winds, a sight that always tugged the heart. And while her intellectual sympathies lay closer to the eco-activists, not the spoiled rocket jockeys…

… a part of her still thrilled, whenever she witnessed a launch. So ecstatic-almost orgiastic.

“Go!” she whispered with a touch of secret envy toward those distant glitters, already arcing toward the pinnacle of their brief climb, before starting their long plummet to the Gulf of Mexico.


Wow, ain’t it strange that…

… doomcasters keep shouting the end of the world? From Ragnarok to Armageddon, was there ever a time without Jeremiahs, Jonahs, and Johns, clamoring some imminent last day? The long list makes you say Wow-

* * *

– ain’t it strange that millenarians kept expecting the second coming every year of the first century C.E.? Or that twenty thousand “Old Believers” in Russia burned themselves alive, to escape the Antichrist? Or that the most popular book of the 1790s ingeniously tied every line of Revelation to Napoleon and other current figures, a feat of pattern-seeking that’s been repeated every generation since? Like when both sides of the U.S. Civil War saw their rivals as the Beast. Later mystics ascribed that role to the Soviet Union, then blithely reassigned it to militant Islam, then to the rising empire of the Han… and now to artificial reality and the so-called Tenth Estate.

Can anyone doubt the agility of human imagination?

Nor is it always religion. Comets and planet alignments sent people scooting to caves or hilltops in 1186, 1524, 1736, 1794, 1919, 1960, 1982, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2020, and so on. Meanwhile, obsessive scribblers seek happy closure in Bible codes and permutations of 666, 1260, or 1,000. And temporal hypochondriacs keep seeing themselves in the vague, Rorschach mirror of Nostradamus.

* * *

And wow, ain’t it strange that… computers didn’t stop in 2000, nor jets tumble from the sky? Remember 2012’s Mayan calendar fizzle? Or when Comet Bui-Buri convinced millions to buy gas masks and bury time capsules? Or when that amalgam of true believers built their Third Temple in Jerusalem, sacrificed some goats, then walked naked to Meggido? Or when the New Egyptian Reconstructionalists foresaw completion of a full, 1,460-year Sophic Cycle after the birth of Muhammad? Or the monthly panics from 2027 to 2036, depending on your calculation for the two-thousandth Easter?

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