Never Go Back
by James Goodwin
This story was inspired by "The Man Who Sold The Moon" by Robert Heinlein and news stories about Elon Musk, Richard Branson, and Jeff Bezos ventures in space exploration. The question in my mind was "Yes they're smart, but are they sane?"
Garrett Raine sat at his keyboard in his cubicle in a giant building in a suburb of Boston filled with floors of identical cubicles. He was tall and thin and bald, he had minimalist wire rimmed glasses that sat on his narrow angular nose. Garrett was a lot smarter than the other people in all of other cubicles; in fact he was one of the smartest people on the planet. The huge company he worked for had collected him when he was a teenager, already done with school and way beyond his professors. The huge company had also wasted his time for 20 years, paying him large sums of money, starting and then canceling his brilliant projects, always with a pat on the head saying “It’s just too far ahead of the market.” He had stopped trying somewhere along the way and now just made elaborate PowerPoint presentations for executives to use in duping their corporate clients into ever larger, and more lucrative, enterprise licensing contracts with a pile of consulting hours.
Two years ago Garrett had stopped sleeping. Actually, he had an idea that made him stop sleeping. Since then he had focused all of his time on carrying out this idea. He never went on vacation, he’d long since alienated his family, he had no friends, his apartment was the cheapest he could find. The most expensive furnishings were the computers. The not-sleeping only had one downside. Every few months he’d have a psychotic break and wake up in his apartment broken objects all around, dangerous for the computers. So, he analyzed the schedules and precursor signs for the breaks and built a room to have them in. Problem solved.
Today was an important moment for the idea, he was going to take the first outward step. He pressed send on his resignation email to the fourth boss he’d never met, this one in Raleigh, NC. He logged out. He walked out of the building to his car. He drove home to his apartment, sat down at his computer and continued his work. He never got the calls from HR asking for an exit interview or from his boss who read the email 3 days later. He’d given them a fake telephone number. He did get their letters at his post office box, and after noting that they were going to stop paying him, he threw them away.
A year to the day after his resignation, a year of working around the clock, and burning a lot of CPU cycles in various cloud platforms in the most cost efficient way possible, he was ready for the next outward step. He called up an executive at the huge company. The executive was having a hard time placing him, then Garrett explained what he wanted to show them, then the executive remembered why they’d recruited Garrett. An appointment was made, experts called, financing discussed, because if he had what he said he had, then they wanted it.
Garrett went to their offices dressed in his usual outfit, a black T-shirt -- This one with a picture of a cute bunny pulling a pin from a hand grenade-- jeans and Merrell hiking shoes. He sat down in the conference room with the suits and a few actual mathematicians and engineers, identified by their lack of suits. He opened his laptop, hooked into their projector and began.
“Simply put, I’ve figured out the holy grail of simulation problems, I can forecast accurate business results for any business a year in advance in about two days compute time. And by accurate I mean, date, time, cash flow, revenue, profit, the whole thing. It even deals with probable new products, marketing and arbitrage options, the works.” He then showed them five case studies where he had used the model to predict the performance of different companies of different sizes, in different businesses and in different places in their development. He had contracted with a third party to make the results double blind. He’d had no access to the execution of the model, and no knowledge of its outcome.
Garrett let them ponder this as he looked around the room, gauging their reactions. The executive was about to speak, and Garrett beat him to it. “I’ve done the math.” he said, “This system is potentially worth trillions. But, I have a one time deal for you all; because I am working on something even more important, and I need a large amount of cash immediately. I will sell this implementation, and all of the theoretical work, all of the patent rights to your company for ten billion dollars, today.”
The executive sputtered, the finance guys started typing and calculating, and there was a general buzz around the table. “You have to decide in this meeting, in this room, today, or I walk and talk to your largest competitor.” The executive’s face was bright red, not used to making decisions without the firewall of lots of people between him and it. He glared at Garrett, then he motioned the finance guys and the math guys across the room for a whispered conversation.
On the drive home, Garrett’s hands and arms started to shake, he could feel the leading edge of a break coming. He focused on the next steps, of course they had paid, he had what he needed, and he was going to Texas for the next phase. He got home, to his apartment door, he could barely get the key in the lock, he could feel the psychosis welling up inside him. He entered and locked the door, he ran to the safe room shedding his keys, glasses and his clothes. He locked the door and set the automatic timer that would let him out in 24 hours. A few seconds later he was screaming, a swirl of horror in his mind, slamming his body into the padded walls. In a while he collapsed to the floor and the visions turned to nightmares as he passed out.
Two days later he was standing next to Route 55 in Texas, North of Uvalde, surrounded by many many miles of blazing hot scrub land. Scrub land he now owned, 200 miles from the Gulf of Mexico, as close as he could get and keep to his schedule. He turned towards the circle of work trucks that were arranged off the highway, each of the men the general contractor for a different part of the project. He shook their hands and then he went over the plan again with them.
“We’re going to build a very large solar farm here, it will generate a huge amount of electricity. We are also going to build a pipeline, I’ve bought the right of way, it will bring sea water here from the Gulf. We’re going to crack the water and capture hydrogen and hydrocarbon-based fuels, and we’re going to liquify it and store it. This will become a production and distribution center for a hydrogen fuel cell franchise that I am building across the country.”
One of the men raised his hand “What are you going to do with the hydrocarbon-based fuels ? Won’t that compete with your fuel cells ?” Garrett looked at him and said “I’m going to use them in another project I have planned. I’ll need all that I can generate.”
Within two years, due to his almost prescient business planning (powered by Garrett’s own simulation software), and a cunning acquisition of every failing car dealership and gas station he could lay hands on, G-Corp’s fuel cells were powering cars, trucks, houses and businesses across the country. It had been such a lightning strike of expansion, involving subsidizing car companies to accelerate their fuel cell car production plans, greasing the EPA to approve devices faster, and buying as many small and medium politicians as needed, that the old energy companies had barely begun to react. Garrett’s ten billion investment was now generating hundreds of billions in cash flow, of which only a precisely limited amount was going back into the business.
Billions were flowing out, to a subsidiary, G-Space, which, unlike the other billionaire space companies was not building spacecraft. It was instead buying up land, seemingly worthless land, up the sides of mountains along the equator. His teams were already digging massive underground tunnels leading to the mountains, and a track that ascended their side stopping part of the way up. The local people thought it was madness, but the money was good. G-Space had also bought a patent and a design for a failed scramjet, essentially an air breathing jet/rocket hybrid. This design had failed during early testing, it was inexpensive to build compared to other scramjets, it produced the required thrust, but they couldn’t manage to not melt and consume the engine after the thrust phase. Other space agencies wanted reuseable engines, G-Space had a different idea.
Governments had noticed G-Corp and G-Space and deduced what the tunnels and tracks were for. They weren’t completely happy. For this reason Garrett now lived at a mobile address, an apartment inside a non-descript container ship, which rarely came into port and which spent most of it’s time somewhere along the equator in international waters. He used various means to do all of his business indirectly, and now there were redundancies to secure against interference from the outside. He’d also found it quite easy to hire his own military scale forces to protect his sites, even in Texas.
At this moment, he was actually headed to a site, in the Republic of Congo for a test of the launch vehicle that he had aboard his container ship. The tunnel and ramp at the Bouloukombo site was near completion and the railgun installed. It would throw the launch vehicle out of the tunnel and up the ramp on the side of the mountain fast enough that the scramjet would be able to blast it out of the atmosphere and set it on it’s trajectory. That was the theory, if it worked it would be the cheapest way to throw mass towards his objective, Mars. And it had to be cheap, he wanted to throw a lot of mass at Mars.
A few days later Garrett was in Bouloukombo, he was wearing another black t-shirt with an image of a car crash in white with “ctrl-z” next to it. He was in the bunker that housed the control center of the railgun, he was looking at the launch vehicle which looked like a huge dart, laying on it’s side on the railgun track. They had modified the original “failed” scramjet engine so that not only would it burn up near the end of the run, it’s mass would add some thrust as it burned away. They had also been able to simplify it and reduce the cost of the materials since it didn’t need to be reused. If this worked, he had a converted car factory that would be retooled to mass produce them. The dart contained a test payload that was basically a huge block of frozen carbon dioxide. It had only minimal guidance capability, it could be steered onto a trajectory away from Earth and then it was essentially going to crash on Mars.
The countdown to launch was ticking away by seconds, the huge superconducting capacitors that would deliver their energy in one violent burst to the railgun were fully charged. Everything was correct, and due to the simplicity of the system, there was very little to go wrong. Garrett watched impassively as the count reached zero and there was a loud snap and the dart was gone. It had accelerated so fast it was already out of the tunnel and as they could see on the monitors, the scramjet had come on as planned, and it arced up and out of the atmosphere as the bright light of the burning scramjet went out. A couple of course corrections and it was on a trajectory for intercept with Mars. At its velocity, it would be crashing into Mars in 180 days.
The launch crew around Garrett were jumping up and down, someone even grabbed him and hugged him. He didn’t respond. He was almost in the grip of a break, he strode out of the room and to the suite that he’d had built into every one of these launch sites. Two days later he stood outside the padded room looking at the bloody tooth he was holding in his hand. Apparently, he’d removed it with his fingers. He’d have to arrange for some restraints now.
As the other sites came online and the round the clock launches of payloads full of volatile hydrocarbons flew from the earth. They formed a chain of synthetic meteors heading to Mars. The world press screamed about destroying Mars, environmental corruption, loss of scientific evidence, piracy… Garrett had to laugh, he was creating New Mars, in a few years it would have an atmosphere and it would warm up enough that water would run there again. Countries tried to attack some of the sites, and to seize some of his facilities. They were very well defended, and Garrett sent a discrete anonymous note to them saying “All of my payloads are currently heading to Mars to terraform it, if you insist on interfering with me I can drop them on your cities as well, at the speed they are going when they hit they’ll knock down everything and then a huge fireball will burn what’s left to a crisp.” The interference stopped after about a week.
Three years later, they started launching the biological payloads. Designed to crash more gently, they would thaw and seed the planet with organisms. Mars had already changed, it had warmed up enough that the poles had thawed, there was a dense atmosphere that was a little off kilter for human breathing, but just right for lots of microbes and even plants. They had also started launching parts for an enormous ship into earth orbit, along with the fuel it would need to push itself to Mars. Garrett had started another subsidiary G-Trans which quietly and very selectively recruited people for a one-way trip to Mars. G-Trans screened them, trained them, and had begun scheduling them.
Most of the railguns accelerated their payloads too rapidly to be used with human passengers, but two of them had been built extra-long and with a reasonable curve, so that while they’d take a lot of G’s, the soft humans wouldn’t die. The robots had completed most of the high level construction on the space station and the Mars ship, so they started launching humans and supplies up to finish the space station and the ship. And some people so they could continue training to be in one of the first groups to land on Mars. These first groups would have it the hardest, they had to establish the living environments, collect the supplies that had been dropped, figure out how to get some kind of agriculture started, and not die from all the things on New Mars that might kill them.
After his most recent break, Garrett felt different, when he stood up from the released restraints, he had the urge to write something down. He almost wrote it without actually knowing what he was going to write, still naked, in his office a pile of sticky notes the only thing he could find to write on. He read back the notes: “1. No religion 2. No government 3. No going back.” What was he supposed to do with that? An alert sound rang from his tablet, and he glanced down at it, it said “Meet to discuss screening criteria for colonists.” Oh. Within two weeks the washout rate for G-Trans had leapt from 60 percent to 80 percent, and many were being crossed off right at the background check.
In a year the first ship with colonists rendezvoused with the landing ships already in orbit around Mars and they began descending to the surface. There were several terrible accidents, some diseases that wiped out whole groups, some interactions with the atmosphere that caused inflammation and madness, but enough survived to get the first big enclosure built. Everyone had at least three jobs, decisions were made by expert groups at all levels, teams were given guidelines and could improvise as needed. Function was beauty, and beauty was function. They managed to start growing non-poisonous plants outside. Every so often someone would get some friends together to read from the Bible or the Koran or other sacred texts. They’d be found out and the official account was that they were “Sent back.” In reality, they were killed and their bodies turned into fertilizer. In the core teams who carried out these actions, closest to Garrett himself, focus on the mission and loyalty to Garrett were more important than individual lives.
A couple of years later, Garrett was aboard a colony ship, heading to Mars, he would finally see the world that he’d built. He had often thought that now certainly he should be able to sleep, but it just seemed like he’d forgotten how. It had turned into a positive in any case, many of his best ideas seemed to be waiting for him when he emerged from a break. This was the last colony ship they were going to send, he had all the people who would ever qualify. Now they just needed to look forward, onward, not back, no going back.
When he landed on New Mars, and walked outside in his protective suit with it’s atmosphere transformer and radiation shielding, he saw all of the plants and animals, now native to Mars after some genetic modifications, and the strange purple color of the sky with it’s bizarrely shaped clouds and he wept. He ran forward and clawed the facemask off of the suit, gasping in the strange and acidic air, burning his eyes and his lungs. They chased him down and saved him from dying. He came out of the break a few days later, longer than usual. He called the core teams experts to him, he told them what had to be done.
Over the next few years they built bigger enclosed cities, expanding their farming and livestock, and further improved the atmosphere. The population was growing steadily. Most people were in agriculture or some form of engineering or science. They were all working on the next big leap. Garrett led a project which was building launch facilities around New Mars’ equator, up the sides of large mountains, some people said a lot more launch facilities than were needed. It was about 20 years since they’d first landed, and Garrett woke up from a break, or at least he thought he might have, he had just entered codes to launch vehicles from all of the sites. He thought, that seems excessive for a test, they’re just filled with rock. Then he looked at where they were going, a crash landing on Earth. No going back. He turned the launch key.