The Gadget and the Burn

by CORY DOCTOROW


An excerpt from “The Man Who Sold the Moon,” a novella featured in Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer.


“Hey,” someone said behind me. “Hey, dude?”

It occurred to me that I was the dude in question, and that this person had been calling out to me for some time, with a kind of mellow intensity — not angry, but insistent nonetheless. I turned around and found myself staring down at a surfer-looking guy half my age, sun-bleached ponytail and wraparound shades, ragged shorts and a grease-stained long-sleeved jersey and bare feet, crouched down like a Thai fisherman on his haunches, calf muscles springing out like wires, fingertips resting lightly on a gadget.

Minus was full of gadgets, half built, sanded to fit, painted to cover, with lots of exposed wiring, bare boards, blobs of hot glue and adhesive polymer clinging on for dear life against the forces of shear and torque and entropy. But even by those standards, surfer-guy’s gadget was pretty spectacular. It was the lens — big and round and polished, with the look of a precision-engineered artifact out of a real manufacturer’s shop — not something hacked together in a hacklab.

“Hey,” I said.

“Dude,” he said. “Shadow.”

I was casting a shadow over the lens. I stepped smartly to one side and the pitiless L.A. sun pierced it, focused by it down to a pinprick of white on a kind of bed beneath the lens. The surfer guy gave me an absentminded thumbs-up and started to squint at his laptop’s screen.

“What’s the story with this thing?” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “Solar sinterer. 3D printing with the sun.” The bed started to jerk and move with the characteristic stepper-motor dance of a 3D printer. The beam of light sizzled on the bed like the tip of a soldering iron, sending up a wisp of smoke like a shimmer in the sun’s glare. There was a sweet smell from it, and I instinctively turned upwind of it, not wanting to be sucking down whatever aromatic volatiles were boiling off the print medium.

“That is way, way cool,” I said. “Does it work?”

He smiled. “Oh yeah, it works. This is the part I’m interested in.” He typed some more commands and the entire thing lifted up on recessed wheels and inched forward with the slow grace of a tortoise.

“It walks?”

“Yeah. The idea is, you leave it in the desert and come back in a couple of months and it’s converted the sand that blows over its in-hopper into prefab panels you can snap together to make a shelter.”

“Ah,” I said. “What about sand on the solar panel?” I was thinking of the Mars rovers, which had had a tendency to go offline when too much Martian dust blew over their photovoltaics.

“Working on that. I can make the lens and photovoltaic turn sideways and shake themselves.” He pointed at a couple of little motors. “But that’s a lot of moving parts. Want it to run unattended for months at a time.”

“Huh,” I said. “This wouldn’t happen to be a Burning Man thing, would it?”

He smiled ruefully. “That obvious?”

Honestly, it was. Half of Minus were burners, and they all had a bit of his look of delightful otherworldly weirdness. “Just a lucky guess,” I said, because no one wants to be reminded that they’re of a certain type — especially if that type is nonconformist.

He straightened up and extended his hand. He was missing the tip of his index finger, and the rest of his fingernails were black with grease. I shook, and his grip was warm, firm and dry, and rough with callus. You could have put it in a museum and labeled it “Hardware hacker hand (typical).”

“I’m Pug,” he said.

“Greg.”

“So the plan is, bring it out to the desert for the Fourth of Juplaya, let it run all summer, come back for Burning Man, and snap the pieces together.”

“What’s Fourth of Jup-whatever?”

“Fourth of Juplaya. It’s a July Fourth party in Black Rock. A lot like Burning Man used to be like, when ‘Safety Third’ was the guiding light and not just a joke. Much smaller and rougher, less locked down. More guns. More weird. Intense.”

His gadget grunted and jammed. He looked down at it and nudged one of the stepper motors with his thumb, and it grunted again. “’Scuse me,” he said, and hunkered down next to it. I watched him tinker for a while, then walked away, forgotten in his creative fog.

I went back down into Minus, put away my stuff, and chatted with some people I sort of knew about inconsequentialities, in a cloud of unreality. It was the hangover from my week of anxiety and its sudden release, and I couldn’t tell you for the life of me what we talked about. After an hour or two of this, I suddenly realized that I was profoundly beat, I mean beat down and smashed flat. I said good-bye — or maybe I didn’t, I wouldn’t swear to it — and went out to look for my car. I was wandering around the parking lot, mashing the alarm button on my key chain, when I ran into Pug. He was (barely) carrying a huge box, shuffling and peering over the top. I was so tired, but it would have been rude not to help.

“Need a hand?”

“Dude,” he said, which I took for an affirmative. I grabbed a corner and walked backward. The box was heavy, but it was mostly just huge, and when we reached his beat-up minivan, he kicked the tailgate release and then laid it down like a bomb-disposal specialist putting a touchy IED to sleep. He smacked his hands on his jeans and said, “Thanks, man. That lens, you wouldn’t believe what it’s worth.” Now that I could see over the top of the box, I realized it was mostly padding, layers of lint-free cloth and bubblewrap with the lens in the center of it all, the gadget beneath it. “Minus is pretty safe, you know, but I wouldn’t want to tempt fate. I trust 99.9 percent of ‘em not to rip it off or use it for a frisbee, but even a one-in-a-thousand risk is too steep for me.” He pulled some elasticated webbing over it and anchored it down with cleats bolted inside the oily trunk.

“Fair enough,” I said.

“Greg, buddy, can I ask you a personal question?”

“I suppose.”

“Are you okay? I mean, you kind of look like you’ve been hit upside the head with a brick. Are you planning on driving somewhere?”

“Uh,” I said. “Truly? I’m not really okay. Should be, though.” And I spilled it all out — the wait, the diagnosis.

“Well, hell, no wonder. Congratulations, man, you’re going to live! But not if you crash your car on the way home. How about if I give you a ride?”

“It’s okay, really — ”

He held up a hand. “Greg, I don’t know you and you don’t know me, but you’ve got no more business driving now than you would if you’d just slammed a couple tequila shots. So I can give you a ride or call you a cab, but if you try and get into your car, I will argue with you until I bore you into submission. So what is it? Ride? Taxi?”

He was absolutely, totally right. I hated that. I put my keys back into my pocket. “You win,” I said. “I’ll take that ride.”

“Great,” he said, and gave me a Buddha smile of pure SoCal serenity. “Where do you live?”

“Irvine,” I said.

He groaned. “Seriously?” Irvine was a good three-hour drive in traffic.

“Not seriously,” I said. “Just Burbank. Wanted to teach you a lesson about being too free with your generosity.”

“Lesson learned. I’ll never be generous again.” But he was smiling.

I slid into the passenger seat. The car smelled like sweat and machines. The floor mats were indistinct gray and crunchy with maker detritus: dead batteries, coffee cups, multidriver bits, USB cables, and cigarette-lighter-charger adapters. I put my head back on the headrest and looked out the grimy windows through slitted eyes as he got into the driver’s side and started the engine, then killed the podcast that started blasting from the speakers.

“Burbank, right?”

“Yeah,” I said. There were invisible weights on my chest, wrists, and ankles. I was very glad I wasn’t behind the wheel. We swung out onto Ventura Boulevard and inched through the traffic toward the freeway.

“Are you going to be all right on your own?”

“Tonight? Yeah, sure. Seriously, that’s really nice of you, but it’s just, whatever, aftermath. I mean, it’s not like I’m dying. It’s the opposite of that, right?”

“Fair enough. You just seem like you’re in rough shape.”

I closed my eyes and then I felt us accelerate as we hit the freeway and weaved over to the HOV lanes. He put down the hammer and the engine skipped into higher gear.

“You’re not a burner, are you?”

I suppressed a groan. Burners are the Jehovah’s Witnesses of the counterculture. “Nope,” I said. Then I said what I always said. “Just seemed like a lot of work.”

He snorted. “You think Burning Man sounds like a lot of work, you should try Fourth of Juplaya. No rules, no rangers. A lot of guns. A lot of serious blowing shit up. Casual sex. No coffee shop. No sparkleponies. Fistfuls of drugs. High winds. Burning sun. Non-freaking-stop. It’s like pure distilled essence of playa.”

I remembered that feeling, like I wanted to BASE jump off the roof. “I have to admit, that sounds totally amazeballs,” I said. “And demented.”

“Both, yup. You going to come?”

I opened my eyes wide. “What?”

“Well, I need some help with the printer. I looked you up on the Minus database. You do robotics, right?”

“A little,” I said.

“And you’ve built a couple RepRaps, it says?”

“Two working ones,” I said. Building your own 3D printer that was capable of printing out nearly all the parts to build a copy of itself was a notoriously tricky rite of passage for hackerspace enthusiasts. “About four that never worked, too.”

“You’re hired,” he said. “First assistant engineer. You can have half my van, I’ll bring the cooler and the BBQ and the pork shoulder on dry ice, a keg of beer, and some spare goggles.”

“That’s very nice of you,” I said.

“Yeah,” he said. “It is. Listen, Greg, I’m a good guy, ask around. I don’t normally invite people out to the Fourth, it’s a private thing. But I really do need some help, and I think you do, too. A week with a near-death experience demands a fitting commemoration. If you let big stuff like this pass by without marking it, it just, you know, builds up. Like arterial plaque. Gotta shake it off.”

You see, this is the thing about burners. It’s like a religion for them. Gotta get everyone saved.

“I’ll think about it,” I said.

“Greg, don’t be offended?”

“Okay.”

“Right. Just that, you’re the kind of guy, I bet, spends a lot of time ‘thinking about it.’”

I swallowed the snappish reply and said nothing.

“And now you’re stewing. Dude, you are so buttoned down. Tell you what, keep swallowing your emotions and you will end up dying of something fast and nasty. You can do whatever you want, but what I’m offering you is something that tons of people would kill for. Four days of forgetting who you are, being whoever you want to be. Stars, dust, screwing, dope, explosions, and gunfire. You’re not going to get a lot of offers like that, is what I’m saying.”

“And I said I’d think about it.”

He blatted out a raspberry and said, “Yeah, fine, that’s cool.” He drove on in silence. The 101 degenerated into a sclerotic blockage. He tapped at the old phone velcroed to the dashboard and got a traffic overlay that showed red for ten miles.

“Dude, I do not want to sit in this car for the next forty-five minutes listening to you not say anything. How about a truce? I won’t mention the Fourth, you pretend you don’t think I’m a crazy hippie, and we’ll start over, ‘kay?”

The thing that surprised me most was how emotionally mature the offer was. I never knew how to climb down from stupid fights, which is why I was forty and single. “Deal,” I said.

Just like that, he dropped it. We ended up talking about a related subject — selective solar laser-sintering — and some of the funky things he was having to cope with in the project. “Plenty of people have done it with sand, but I want to melt gypsum. In theory, I only have to attain about 85 percent of the heat to fuse it, but there’s a lot of impurities in it that I can’t account for or predict.”

“What if you sift it or something first?”

“Well, if I want it to run unattended, I figure I don’t want to have to include a centrifuge. Playa dust is nanofine, and it gets into everything. I mean, I’ve seen art cars with sealed bearings that are supposed to perform in space go gunky and funky after a couple of years.”

I chewed on that problem. “You could maybe try a settling tray, something that uses wind for agitation through graduated screens, but you’d need to unclog it somehow.” More thinking. “Of course, you could just melt the crap out of it when you’re not sure, just blaze it into submission.”

But he was already shaking his head. “Doesn’t work — too hot and I can’t get the set time right, goes all runny.”

“What about a sensor?” I said. “Try to characterize how runny it is, adjust the next pass accordingly?”

“Thought of that,” he said. “Too many ways it could go wrong is what I’m thinking. Remember, this thing has to run where no one can tend it. I want to drop it in July and move into the house it builds me by September. It has to fail very, very safe.”

I took his point, but I wasn’t sure I agreed. Optical sensors were pretty solved, as was the software to interpret what they saw. I was about to get my laptop out and find a video I remembered seeing when he slammed on the brakes and made an explosive noise. I felt the brakes’ ABS shudder as the minivan fishtailed a little and heard a horn blare from behind us. I had one tiny instant with which to contemplate the looming bumper of the gardener’s pickup truck ahead of us before we rear-ended him. I was slammed back into my seat by the airbag a second before the subcompact behind us crashed into us, its low nose sliding under the rear bumper and raising the back end off the ground as it plowed beneath us, wedging tight just before its windshield would have passed through our rear bumper, thus saving the driver from a radical facial rearrangement and possible decapitation.


Hieroglyph brings writers, scientists, engineers and other creative thinkers together to dream big about the future. Read about the science behind this story and join the conversation at Project Hieroglyph.


Cory Doctorow’s “The Man Who Sold the Moon” is a novella featured in Hieroglyph: Stories and Visions for a Better Future, edited by Ed Finn and Kathryn Cramer. Reprint permission from William Morrow/HarperCollins. Copyright © 2014 CorDoc-Co, Ltd. Released under a CC BY-NC 4.0 License.

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Adapted illustrations from El Bibliomata