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He didn’t object—or shout in pain— and I finished up without blood on my hands, so that was good. His eyes locked on my face for a moment, then his gaze wandered off. This time, he noticed his limp arm and gave out a mild, “Ow.” he tried again. “Can’t afford another one.” “If I go check on the lens, will you stay still? He had a Russian accent and rough gardener’s hands and a farm- er’s tan. The driver had climbed out of the car and was leaning unsteadily on it. He was unconscious, and that gray sheen had gone even whiter. Even the motor­cycles were having trouble lane-splitting between the close-crammed cars. “I think we’d better lay him out.” The lady driving the subcompact had a blanket in her trunk, which we spread out on the weedy ground alongside the median, which glittered with old broken glass. His ponytail had come loose and it was hanging in his face. it was two in the morning by then, and maybe the lateness of the hour explains how I ended up promising Pug that I’d be his arm and hand on the playa-dust printer and that I’d come with him to Fourth of Juplaya in order to oversee the installation of the device. That is how I came to be riding in a big white rental van on the Thursday before July Fourth weekend, departing L. at zero-dark-hundred with Pug in the driver’s seat and classic G-funk playing loud enough to make me wince in the passenger seat as we headed for Nevada.

That done, I gave him a quick once-over, lightly running my hands over his legs, chest, and head. “The lens,” he said, again, and tried once more to twist around in his seat. You need to stay still until the ambulance gets here. I need you to stay still.” “But the lens,” he said. I was keenly aware that this was probably his livelihood. There was someone in the passenger seat with a phone clamped to his head, beneath the brim of a cowboy hat. The entire rear end was lifted clean off the road, the rear wheels still spinning lazily. The same couldn’t be said for the low-slung hybrid that had rear-ended us, which had been considerably flattened by its harrowing scrape beneath us, to the extent that one of its tires had blown. I jogged around the back of the subcompact and then ran up the driver’s side and yanked open Pug’s door. The traffic beyond the car was at a near standstill. “on its way, I guess.” he put his ear close to Pug’s mouth, listened to his breathing, put a couple fingers to his throat and felt around. It was technically illegal to fly one except over your own private property, but that was nearly impossible to enforce. As it turned out, I ended up giving him a lift home in a cab, then getting it to take me home, too.

Minus’s space program was your standard hackerspace extraterrestrial project: sending balloons into the upper stratosphere, photographing the earth’s curvature, making air-quality and climate observations; sometimes lofting an ironic action figure in 3D-printed astronaut drag. 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. It also hadn’t escaped my notice that he, like me, was a single guy who spent an awful lot of time wondering what this said about him. What you don’t know is how life-changing this can all be. It’s like—” he waved his hands, smacked the dashboard a couple times, cracked and swigged an energy beverage. Worrying about whether you’re getting enough fiber or eating too many carbs. After a big one, there’s this moment, a kind of silence. ’ in the movies, they always show every­one running around looting as soon as the lights go out, but I can’t say as I’ve ever seen that. But the feds and the cops from over the state line, they’re bad news.

The dentist had reinforced the floors for the big chairs and brought in 60 amp service for the X-ray machines, which made it perfect for our machine shop and the pew-pew room full of lasers. I have a personal tub at Minus, filled with half-finished projects: various parts for a 3D-printed chess-playing automata; a cup and saucer I was painstakingly covering with electroconductive paint and components; a stripped-down location sensor I’d been playing with for the Minus’s space program. “Minus is pretty safe, you know, but I don’t want to tempt fate. It helped once I realized that he was mostly worried about looking like an idiot in front of his once-a-year friends, the edgiest and weirdest people in his set. You think you’re going to go drink some beers, eat some pills, blow stuff up, and maybe get lucky. Worrying about whether you’ve got enough socked away to see you through your old age without ending up eating cat food. I mean, assuming you’re not caught in the rubble, of course. Everyone around here grew up with Burning Man, and it’s been the only real source of income since the gypsum mine closed.

The tension that whoofed out of me like a gutpunch left behind a kind of howling vacuum of relief, but not joy. At the moment, it was more like the head-bees feeling of three more cups of espresso than was sensible. I knew that if I’d had a hard time concentrating before, I was in for an even harder time getting down to business now. 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. I was wandering around the parking lot, mashing the alarm button on my key chain, when I ran into Pug. We’d even equipped it with a set of purely ornamental goggles and a filter mask, just to make it fit in with its neighbors on the Playa.

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She listened to me, she took my history, she wrote down the names of the anti-inflammatories I’d tried, everything from steroids to a climbing buddy’s heavy-duty prescription NSAIDs, and gave my knee a few cautious prods. By the time I was thirty-five, I had an actual funeral suit I kept in a dry-cleaning bag in the closet. Robot had reached his conclusion and would the stupid human please sanity-check the results and call the other stupid human and tell him whether he’s won the cancer lottery (grand prize: cancer)? I stared spacily at them until they both stopped arguing with each other and glared at me, a guy in his forties and a kind of miniature, female version of him, both sweaty in their sweats. Pug grew progressively more manic as we approached the turnoff for Black Rock desert and was practically drumming on the dashboard by the time we hit the dusty, rutted side road. The same assemblage of attention-snagging interesting weirdos doing what they did. I was seized by a sudden, perverse urge to go and take some risks: speed down the highway, BASE jump from minus’s roof, try out some really inadvisable parkour moves. 3D printing with the sun.” the bed started to jerk and move with the characteristic stepper-motor dance of a 3D printer. You could have put it in a museum and labeled it “Hardware hacker hand (typical).” “I’m Pug,” he said. A lot like Burning Man used to be like, when ‘Safety third’ was the guiding light and not just a joke. 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. The Strandbeest is an ingenious wind-powered walker that looks like a blind, mechanical millipede. 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. “This wouldn’t happen to be a Burning Man thing, would it? I shook, and his grip was warm, firm and dry, and rough with callus. I watched him tinker for a while, then walked away, forgotten in his creative fog. The key was the realization that it didn’t matter where the Gadget went, so long as it went somewhere, which is how we ended up in Strandbeest territory. “I’ll take that ride.” “Great,” he said, and gave me a Buddha smile of pure So Cal serenity. We turned Pug on his side, and I rolled up my jacket to support his arm. The gardener guy checked his pulse again, then rolled up his own jacket and used it to prop up Pug’s feet. all stored and locked away in accordance with the laws of both Nevada and California, as verified through careful reference to a printout sheathed in a plastic paper-saver that got velcroed to the inside of the van’s back door when we were done. We worked with a minimum of talk, and for me, the sounds of the highway and my weird postanxiety haze both faded away into barely discernible background noise. Behind us, in the van’s cargo area, was everything we needed for a long weekend of hard-core radical self-reliance—water cans to fill in Reno, solar showers, tents, tarps, rebar stakes, booze, bikes, sunscreen, first-aid k its, a shotgun, an air cannon, a flamethrower, various explosives, crates of fireworks, and more booze.

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