“High Awareness,” by David Brin and Tobias S. Buckell

Illustration by Brian Miller

This story is part of Overview: Stories in the Stratosphere, a collection of science fiction stories, art, and speculative timelines exploring the near future of the stratosphere, published by Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination and edited by Michael G. Bennett, Joey Eschrich, and Ed Finn. From Star Trek and 2001: A Space Odyssey to The Martian, great science fiction stories have shaped how we think about voyages into deep space — but what kinds of gripping confrontations and adventures might unfold in near space, above the clouds? Overview provides several compelling answers to that question, created by renowned science fiction authors, working in collaboration with designers, illustrators, and experts in fields ranging from human spaceflight and signal processing to law and tourism. The book is free to download in EPUB and MOBI formats, as well as through Apple’s iBooks Store. Learn more at http://csi.asu.edu/books/overview.

Noriko hurried across the Spaceport Tucson tarmac with her grab-bag of tools toward a just-inflated polyurethane bag that towered overhead, glinting in the bright Arizona sun against a hyper-blue sky. A cluster of comparatively minuscule humans gathered beneath the tall, slender stratospheric balloon — ground crew, pilot-guides, and paying passengers, clueless that their sky-tourism jaunt was about to be hijacked.

Noriko glanced at the balloon. Okay Odin, old gasbag. How about it, big guy? Can you help rescue my baby?

“This is a bad idea,” Richard complained from alongside Noriko as he scurried to keep up. “FAA radar shows the Aesir Stratollite alone up there! Just one object. I shouldn’t have said anything.”

“No, you convinced me,” she answered, picking up speed, despite the heavy tool bag. “The data feed from Aesir is corrupted and it has to be something physical up there messing with the equipment.”

“I never said has to! Look, let’s run this by the boss upstairs. Shay Rodriguez won’t approve — ”

“Again, you’re right, and that’s why we don’t tell her till we launch.” Noriko glanced sideways at Richard with a clear warning. Aesir had been her project, since it was just a sketch in the World View cleanroom. Bristling with solar panels and prototype sensors, it was key to the All-Sky Awareness Program and she wasn’t about to give up on it lightly.

“Come on. We’ve lost balloons before.”

“Not like this and not this way. Something’s wrong. Three Stratollites have had similar issues in the last week. But by the time we’re able to do a deep audit, we’ll be too late to find any issues in the code, they’ll have it hidden. And a flyby won’t help then. We need to go have a look while it’s glitching. Now.”

Operating high in the stratosphere, above any airplanes and out of the way of rockets headed to orbit, a growing network of professional and amateur Stratollite balloons spanned vast distances with comms and sensors, linking ground stations so far apart the Earth’s curvature bulged between them. Far cheaper than orbiting satellites, they provided a new way to link all manner of paid cloud clusters and peer-to-peer systems in an alternative web, doubling in size every year now. But one of these services — All-Sky Awareness — was Noriko’s obsession, and Aesir was key. The other affected Stratollites had been smaller components of the system. Aesir was a Noriko-conceived-and-managed mothership, placed in a crucial part of the network.

Richard, his face red and sweat dripping from his jet-black hair, ran around in front of her. “Listen, I set up this conference call for the big stakeholder clients. These are the contracts that support the network. We need to sort out their system needs, now.”

“Push them back again. This is more important.” If Aesir was having issues, she needed to know. It had a bearing on the future of the whole network. If someone was doing something to it, then she needed to figure out how.

“No.” Richard held out his hands. “Look, I know I’m your assistant, but this is literally your job as liaison. I know you hate the face-to-face meetings, but these folks fund us.”

Noriko looked at the teardrop-shaped envelope towering behind Richard. Ground crew dressed in anti-static garb hurried around the tubular, airtight gondola with its large oval viewing windows on the underside. The loose fabric wouldn’t finish filling for at least ten more minutes. Stomping around impatiently wasn’t going to get her up there any faster.

“Okay, let’s do it,” she relented.

Richard pulled a screen out of his messenger bag, unfolding it to the size of a poster; each conference participant occupied a square inside it. No one would find it weird that Noriko was doing this outside — she often showed off Spaceport Tucson like this.

“Alex Mascart is on,” Richard announced.

The space debris guy. He had a grant to scan low orbit for debris smaller than the marble-sized chunks that NASA and the Air Force tracked. Mascart fretted that something pea-sized could hit a satellite and start a chain reaction. The network’s cheap Stratollites made LEO tracking affordable. A first use of All-Sky Awareness.

“Welcome, Ruth Obatola,” Noriko said, as a woman’s face popped in, the Lagos skyline visible behind her. Obatola had signed over to World View a big U.N. World Security contract after the Stratollite network analyzed a two-kiloton airburst off northern Japan last year. They’d proved it had been a meteoroid and not a provocation by a nuclear-armed neighbor. Again, All-Sky-Awareness — or ASA — proved its worth. Obatola wanted more data on near-Earth asteroids and cometary material, and the Stratollite network seemed the cheapest way to get it fast.

“Berson Singh,” Richard announced the next one to pop in, with palm trees and the white sand gleam of a private beach in the background. Show-off, Noriko thought, with barely enough tact and common sense not to say it aloud. A trillionaire, Singh wanted the network to aim sensors far higher than Mascart’s. Singh’s passion focused on the stars, listening for “pings” that might indicate a transitory SETI signal, indicating the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Of course, there were gigantic telescopes — on Earth and in space — staring at individual objects out there one at a time. ASA offered a way to scan the whole sky at lower sensitivity, but around the clock. Singh had been a major early investor in the network.

There was a Ph.D. candidate in upper atmosphere chemistry — Susan Smythe — studying auroras, lightning strikes. She was also trying to find someone who was dumping aerosols into the upper atmosphere in an illegal geoengineering attempt to cool the Earth. Noriko had advised Susan to narrow down to one topic, but she seemed determined to use ASA to investigate it all.

And then there was Lieutenant Jason Zhou. Noriko glared at Richard, who quickly tapped mute and said, “I set up the group chat a week ago.”

The military had sensors and several Stratollites in the network. Zhou always told them he just wanted to be in the conferences where they determined how the ASA resources were being used, so the Air Force had a bead on what was going on. They were solid silent partners, but he was the last face Noriko wanted to see right this second.

Richard unmuted the call. Everyone started talking at once, pointing out how their money, their mission, or both, meant that they should be able to use more of the Stratollite network.

Noriko wanted to shout at them all. None of this scheduling mattered if something was going wrong with the Stratollites, if someone was messing with them. Noriko had a sneaking suspicion someone was trying to infiltrate the system. Take over her babies. These glitches, they couldn’t be mistakes. And if they were mistakes, if something was wrong with Aesir — the Stratollite she’d designed and watched being built with her own eyes — then she wanted to find out herself.

So she took a deep breath and started sorting out the competing demands of the people in front of her. Not the part of the job I wanted, or that I enjoy, she thought, while balancing the priorities, appeasing some demands, refusing others, and delaying most of them, with promises for another meeting next week. But I’m good at it. And it keeps me high enough on the chain of command to do what I’m about to do.

She kept her eye on that tautening envelope above the gondola, pulling at the restraining lines as it become more and more buoyant. Carefully giving each participant the impression that he or she had benefited from the meeting, she gave her final, placating summary and wrapped up the conference call. That done, she spun away from Richard and marched over to the gondola, waving away the puzzled tour guide and flight attendant just stepping into the airlock door.

“Passengers out!” Noriko shouted at five very startled multibillionaires sitting in plastic molded chairs in their flight suits.

“What’s going on?” the pilot asked, pausing his preflight checklist in the tiny cockpit. He was a new hire. Gavin something, Noriko remembered after a moment.

“I need you to change the flight plan, quickly. We’re going to do a flyby of Aesir.” Noriko looked back at the rich passengers as she secured her satchel under a chair. “Come on, let’s go. We’ll get you on the next flight, there’s an emergency.”

They filed out in a state of confusion and simmering complaint.

“You.” Noriko pointed at the last one out, an older woman about the same height as her. “I need your emergency gear. Perfect.”

“This is outrageous. What kind of emergency could justify such a thing? What’s your name?”

“I’m Noriko Chen. My assistant over there, Richard, will help with whatever you need.”

“That name sounds made up,” the woman huffed.

“Dad was Chinese and mom was Japanese. They met in San Francisco.” Noriko took the woman’s gear and started to close the hatch.

“Noriko, you’re not cleared for this,” Richard hissed at her through the closing gap. “You’ve been grounded and on probation since you used Aesir sensors for personal — ”

She slammed the door shut and dogged it tight.


After watching Spaceport Tucson drop away beneath them, Noriko stopped paying attention to the ascent. While suiting up in the emergency jump gear, she had her tablet out, showing Aesir data, combing through to find something, anything, that might explain what was going on.

Outside, the expanse of khaki, tan, and brown vistas fell slowly away. Gavin appeared to know his stuff, ascending at the maximum safe rate. Aesir was in trouble, and that speed was of the essence.

“If we get in trouble, I’m pointing at you,” Gavin said.

“I take full responsibility,” said Noriko.

“I have family in L.A., so I owe you one,” Gavin said. “I’ll turn off the comms so that no one can tell us to come back.”

“Thank you.”

Richard’s final warning ran through her thoughts as she skimmed the data. Her position with the company was high and fragile, with both a recent promotion and ongoing probation. The latter because she had abused her authority over a previous Stratollite, using its ground-facing cameras to track a civilian — a cheating, lying civilian — who was no longer her husband. She’d gotten used to access to the entire system, regarded it as her baby.

The promotion? It came after three days with no sleep using the Stratollite network to find a radioactive dirty bomb that terrorists had smuggled across the Nevada desert toward Los Angeles — hence the grateful pilot. She’d been able to do that because the system, and Aesir, were her babies. But she knew she was using the last of her hero points with this current stunt, going up to put her own eyes on the glitch.

The data were screwy, though. Way too screwy for an equipment problem.

“How are we doing?” Noriko asked.

“I have to climb a bit higher to get an easterly, then we can drop down to Aesir. Ten or so minutes.”

Noriko checked her phone. Thirty texts, o-mails and voicemails over the past ninety minutes. Shay had resorted to using caps in her texts, too. People were Very Angry.

The ground bent like a bow outside, the gorgeous-awesome arc that made the stratosphere an elite tourist destination. But the vastness of this vista had practical uses. From this high, Stratollites helped with water and land management across the Southwest. Ocean farms relied on them. And it had been so easy to track Andrew from up here. Find his car parked in the driveway of Sophia, who was far more than “just a friend.”

Laws against privacy breaching were stricter now — a backlash against the abuses at the start of the century. If she hadn’t used the same skills to find that bomb, she’d be unemployable now.

“Holy shit,” Gavin yelped. “You were right. There’s something attached to the top of Aesir! How’d they clamp on like that?”

Noriko’s phone blurted out an emergency alert, even though she’d silenced it. She glanced down.

NORIKO, CALL ZHOU NOW.

The Air Force had hacked the emergency alert system just to send her a message. A massive privacy breach. Noriko thought about it for a long moment, thought about how they might change her plans.

She had to respond to this and make the call.

“Zhou?”

“You went up,” he said.

She didn’t bother lying. Peering ahead over Gavin’s shoulder, she stared in awe.

“Another balloon has attached itself to Aesir. It’s blocking our sensors,” she said. Her instinct had been right. Someone was trying to hijack the system. “The physical link means they can get access to the network in a way we can’t trace back. Any changes they make are embedded, and we’ll have no idea what they did or who they are because we didn’t design against this sort of backdoor.”

The Air Force officer was quiet for a long moment. “We’ve discovered that our own information on your network is being tampered with. We’re scrambling something to fly as high as possible with a missile-drone to get a flyby, maybe shoot down whatever is there.”

“No! You’ll take down Aesir. I’m already here, and …. ” She suddenly realized she was going to do something that had only been a distant contingency in the back of her mind. “… And I’m going to board. We have a better chance of finding out what they’re trying to do or who they are that way, instead of shooting it down.”

Another long moment. “You can do that?” Zhou asked.

Up in the cockpit, Gavin had turned around to stare back at her as well.

“I’m going to try.” Aesir was her baby, dammit. And if the system was compromised, if people were using it like she’d used it to invade someone else’s privacy ….

“Keep me updated. I’ll do what I can from my end.”

Noriko tore open her satchel, pulling out and unfolding what looked like a scuba diver’s speargun, snapping it together as she looked at the interloper balloon. It was tethered to the gas release valve, atop Aesir’s own large envelope, using gear that Noriko instantly recognized.

“Someone ripped off my patents!”

“Your what?” Gavin asked.

“A way to grab hold of a failing Stratollite. Why do you think I have this thing?” She brandished the speargun. “Someone must have stolen it for that … thing over there. Can you get us within a hundred meters?”

She was pushing her ability to ask for favors. One thing a pilot didn’t want to do was move in close enough to get tangled with another craft.

“You’re going aboard?” Gavin asked. He looked stunned, and maybe a little bit excited about the idea. “Were you planning on that from the start?”

He was probably assuming she was doing this to prove her concept. Promote her patents and gear. Maybe she was. But Noriko hadn’t really woken up this morning thinking about doing something this crazy, this dangerous.

“No. I really want in there to find out who’s doing this,” she said, after a moment of considering her true motives. “They’re trying to take over our Stratollite. Based on the glitches from a few others I’ve seen reported, this isn’t the first. They’ve taken all sorts of precautions, messing with Air Force data. But maybe they don’t expect an in-person approach. Just like we didn’t.”

She’d been there since the start helping build out the ASA network. If the public found out it was being misused, condemnation would be swift.

Gavin nodded. Normal navigation with a balloon called for rising or falling into different wind streams, but this fine maneuvering was something different altogether. Small thrusters on the outside of the gondola kicked as he piloted Odin closer. Noriko moved into the airlock. Once the cabin door was shut, she opened the outer hatch with a hiss of escaping air.

They truly were in the stratosphere. It hit her now. The lip of the airlock door was barely a few inches wide. Beyond that was the Jump Ledge, from which paying tourists — after training and signing a meter-high stack of release forms — would leap for the ultimate skydiving experience. None of the zillionaires on this day’s flight had paid for that deluxe package, so there was no full diving suit and parachute aboard, damn the luck. Just the emergency suit she had taken from that woman, with its backup chute. A kind that no one had ever used from this height.

Stepping onto the Jump Ledge, she felt instincts inherited from a million generations of ancestors start to howl up in her. Under the tip of her thin suitboot yawned a hundred thousand feet of all-too-wispy atmosphere. The topmost clouds, far below, looked way closer to the surface than they were to her.

“Get us just above the other balloon,” she ordered Gavin.

Fumbling and almost dropping the speargun, Noriko took controlled breaths before carefully aiming at the release valve at the very top of the many-stories-tall balloon, now distended into a round shape. The tiny screen on the gun locked in on the target.

“I can’t hold this for very long,” Gavin complained.

Noriko fired.

The self-guided rocket on the tip flew, adjusting course till it struck the valve, clamping on tightly.

It worked! I told that patent examiner it would.

Noriko tied her end off by looping it around the door hinges. This was all theoretical. No one had ever done this before.

“I’m going over,” Noriko said with false confidence.

She pulled out a small bar and clamped it to the spider-silk wire. Then, not giving herself time to ponder the immensity below, she zip-lined across the shifting space between balloons.


Damn, it’s squishy.

Noriko shifted her weight gingerly atop the filmy skin of the interloper balloon. Now came the tricky part. Getting down to what Noriko thought of as the “enemy” gondola required slipping through the balloon’s release valve — a mechanical device, six feet around, that pushed rubber flaps up to occasionally release some hydrogen, letting the balloon fall quickly if needed. Whoever was responsible for all this, they had used the rise-and-fall method to navigate above Aesir, so the valve must be working.

Of course, the valve might also be booby-trapped. It’s what I’d do, Noriko thought, while purposefully not looking anywhere other than just below her hands and feet. But no, they hadn’t expected anyone to be stupid enough to climb aboard in midflight. The valve opened easily and a soft push of gas flew up at her from within.

Although hydrogen was associated with the ill-fated Hindenburg, it was cheap and plentiful and more buoyant than helium. Safe, too, if balloons were built well. And the Hindenburg burned, after all, because the metallic paint on its skin was ignited by lightning.

Noriko slipped through the valve into the heart of the enemy balloon, a vast spherical chamber whose translucent skin transmitted more than enough light. She used more spider-silk rope to rappel down, landing delicately on the balloon’s floor. She then used a utility knife to slice her way through to the fill-valve that ground crews used to pump gas in before launch. The enemy gondola was within reach of another, much shorter spider-line rappel.

Fortunately, the gondola maintenance hatch — it wasn’t built for passengers — also wasn’t booby-trapped. Noriko pried it open and crawled into a cramped sphere housing automated equipment …

… and stared at a cluster of what looked like C4 explosives connected to a digital timer.

Damn!

She didn’t know anything about explosives, but the whole thing was clearly rigged to take Aesir down. And all evidence with it.

“Gavin,” she called over the helmet radio. “Get into the airlock and cut loose.”

“What? But what about you?”

“There’s a bomb.”

Typing was awkward with the spacesuit’s gloves, but she took pictures of the entire interior with her phone and sent them to Zhou.

“Then get back up here,” Gavin said, after a pause.

“You have ten minutes to get clear. Get away! I’m not coming back that way.”

She carefully climbed out through the gondola’s hatch to examine the clamps and tethers used to dock with Aesir. There was no way to cut the craft loose, or save Aesir from the explosion. Her utility knife couldn’t cut through the tethers.

Her phone vibrated. “GET OUT,” Zhou had texted.

Noriko couldn’t find any sign of who made the gondola, though maybe the photos would help the security guys figure it out. She ducked back inside and started tracing equipment.

This is one of ours! Noriko realized.

World View sold a line of Stratollites for use by city governments, NGOs, and even private clubs, whether their goal was to join the growing ASA network, establish comms in remote areas, or provide a backup system for first responders in emergencies like earthquakes. This was a recent, top-of-the-line model. If she had time, she could probably find out which particular unit. But something else was far more urgent.

They shut off the transponders and other transmission systems, for secrecy. But if they weren’t really careful, then they’d have missed …

There! Yanking one console aside, she found what she was looking for. The diagnostic backup drives, under an equipment cluster near the front perspex window.

Gotcha.

Using her utility knife as a screwdriver, then just slashing away, Noriko severed cables, glancing every other second at the timer, and finally yanked a palm-sized memory unit free. At minimum there’d be flight path data, and probably codes for every patch and mod the enemy had made. With luck, the data store might even include the original data they stole from Aesir and re-transmitted to their home base. A proper postmortem would reveal many secrets.

That’s why there’s a bomb ticking away on this: tying up loose ends.

She moved over to the hatch and pulled out a cable, hooking the memory to her phone.

Noriko glanced back. Three minutes. There came a soft jolt as the gondola quivered.

“I’m free,” Gavin reported.

She connected her phone, then set it to work squirting data to Zhou. His team could start working on this. She strapped the phone and hard drive into her chest pocket.

Two minutes.

Not allowing herself the luxury of thinking, Noriko jumped and landed on Aesir’s balloon envelope. She put out a hand as she started to slide down the shivering skin, touching it for the first time since she’d seen it stretched out on Spaceport Tucson’s grounds.

“I’m sorry, baby,” Noriko said as her slide down the balloon started to speed up. She took an involuntary deep breath as her heart raced … and the gasbag seemed to flex, pushing her off as if urging her to flee. She bounced off and out, away from Aesir.

Rolling over onto her back, she looked up for the first time. The sky was infinite black, dusted with a few stars, but over a daylit, curving Earth.

Noriko plunged, the lack of air resistance letting her go supersonic. Alone. She was out of range of Gavin, and she couldn’t use her phone — it was busy transmitting the data. I hope getting this stuff to Zhou turns out to have been worth my life.

A different inner voice answered.

What, are you giving up already?

Flexing her body to roll around, she faced downward, toward the vastness of the Sonoran Desert, and chided her inner optimist.

Have you any idea how badly the odds are stacked against us? First there’s the bomb, which will go off in —

She winced at the brightness as the explosion reflected in her helmet, and instinctively tucked herself into a ball. With any luck the shrapnel wouldn’t hit her.

A patter of small taps rattled along her back and thighs, two of them painful pricks. They were probably just tiny bits of gondola or balloon skin, propelled at high speed — unimpeded by much air. She might be bleeding somewhere on her back.

Then she realized something more important. That’s where the parachute is.

Far, far below, as the late afternoon waned, the glittering firefly lights of Tucson were flicking on with the dusk. They sparkled with brittle, almost hypnotic clarity, seeming to drift leftward as the curved horizon gradually flattened.

And still Noriko fell.

So far, so good.

A faintly whining wind began to grow around her, building louder by the second. Air resistance. Noriko weight-shifted till her body was well-aligned, then spread her arms and legs. Airspeed would reach a peak and then start slowly falling. The higher clouds began to visibly rise toward her.

So far, so good.

Shifting her arms and leaning forward, she started to maneuver her descent toward a paved portion of the desert, near an army of sand dunes that glinted in the low-angle sunlight. She wobbled, and the motion caused her heart to leap. If she lost control, she’d spin and pass out.

It’s cold! This suit wasn’t made for true strato-jumping. As near-vacuum gave way, the sub-zero stratosphere began convecting away heat and laying tiny sikes of ice in every crevice that shattered when she moved her arms, or even shivered. She hoped the suit’s seals held. She’d hate to die of hypothermia or asphyxiation.

Impact. Now that’s a better way to go. She spread her arms as if to embrace the looming Earth.

So far, so good.

Behind the adrenaline and fear was a second feeling. A lifting. Those rich tourists know something we don’t. This is beautiful.

Noriko looked around as the atmosphere deepened and the sky overhead brightened, converging into a late afternoon blue. She gasped as wispy, wafer-thin cirrus clouds shot past her.

And still she fell.

So far, so good.

“Noriko!” Zhou’s familiar voice cut into her helmet radio amid a burst of static. “Are you okay?”

“Yes. Did the data help?”

“It sure did. They — you were right, the bastards were trying to create a permanent backdoor to use All-Sky Awareness for themselves. Free spy network.” Static crackled through, briefly drowning him out. “We have to act fast to backtrack and find the people who purchased and launched the vehicle. I’ve got to go, but we think there’s still time, thanks to you. We’re sending out rescue parties to meet … that is, if you …”

If I don’t go splat? Even if the emergency chute was undamaged, it was far less than what real strato-diving called for. More a sop to nervous tourists and the insurance companies.

“I’ll talk to you when I get to ground,” she said, hoarsely, unsure he would hear it.

The connection died, leaving her balanced between her flying thoughts. And the one that kept repeating itself was —

So far, so good.

She had always wanted to know things. To see truth, even if it hurt. And Stratollites were going to help billions of humans to see better. To see their world and evaluate and argue and use data to negotiate over its many problems. To keep an eye on their planet, its resources, its farms and factories and cities. To communicate, no matter what! And to achieve something no society ever had. All-Sky-Awareness. To know — finally — what’s going on above, in real time.

A project worth dedication, and Noriko would give it her all … tomorrow, maybe. If there was a tomorrow. But she couldn’t do anything more right now.

So far, so good.

Right now, all she wanted was to watch the Earth loom and grow and flatten, gaining clarity and resolution beneath her. And the plummeting dive took her through thicker clouds.

Okay, I have just GOT to become a billionaire. No wonder they pay so much to do this. But none of them — nobody — has ever jumped free of an exploding Stratollite — in a minimal suit — and lived.

So far.

Whatever the next few minutes brought, she was alive. Alive right now! She laughed.

Zhou would tell her what he discovered. Rodriguez would back down once the full story came out. After she parachuted all the way back to the spaceport.

And she knew what was so good. Staying aware. Of ground and sky. Of people and things. Of danger and opportunity. Look down, look out! Look around. Look up.

And for right now, aware meant just being present and falling through the clouds until her drogue chute deployed.

So far …


The team that collaborated with David Brin and Tobias S. Buckell on this story was focused on Earth observation for commercial, civil, and national security applications, and included Margaret Coulombe, Darshan Karwat, Byron Lahey, Brian Miller, and Alan Stern.

To read the rest of Overview: Stories in the Stratosphere, and to see more original art for the project, visit http://csi.asu.edu/books/overview.