Back | Next



People respond to incentives, although not necessarily in ways that are predictable or manifest. Therefore, one of the most powerful laws in the universe is the law of unintended consequences.

—Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, SuperFreakonomics

The clear, peaceful sky made the perfect backdrop for a beautiful explosion. The Kestrel Heavy rocket—three skyscraper-tall white cylinders strapped together, poised to launch another habitat module—gleamed in the morning sun.

The first explosions began so majestically. Huge fireballs from twenty-seven rocket engines appeared simultaneously below the craft, pushing it gracefully yet relentlessly upward. Controlled explosions these were, and all five of the people in the control room sighed with relief as she accelerated and began to tilt away to the south, over the ocean.

Then a small warning light flickered on one of the boards in the control room. A shout went up. Everyone rushed to figure out what was wrong, what to do. Too late. The computer chip dynamically controlling the fuel and oxygen flow on the port booster compensated for a thrust fluctuation a moment too late. The consequent small imbalance caused a slight twisting, which accelerated the lengthening of a microscopic fracture in one of the couplers holding the booster to the core. An instability in the airflow around the rocket wrenched the fracture into a complete break. The booster deformed from the asymmetric forces now at play along its length. The deformity ruptured the methane tank to unleash the next inferno. The fire instantly transformed into a new explosion, quite uncontrolled, that ripped through the entirety of the first stage. The whole ship flared in a blast bright enough to make the sun look dim.

From among the people watching below, silence reigned. Was this fireball intentional, somehow? Was it simply the separation of the second stage? Or had something terrible happened? Surely not.

But one person in the crowd, a gentleman so old he remembered the death of the Challenger space shuttle, knew what had happened. He pulled out his phone and called an old friend. "Colin. SpaceR just lost a ship launching from Vandenberg," he said. "They'll probably want to talk to you now. It'll take forty-eight hours or so, but they're going to be frantic when the fallout comes down. You'll be looking at a crash project, like nothing you've seen since the startup effort twenty years ago. But why am I still talking? You already know what you should do."

As he spoke, the first fallout was already making its impact felt. A helium bottle, whose contents normally regulated pressure flow from the LOX tank, hurtled free, intact and on a near-optimal trajectory to fly as far as gravity let it. Spinning on its axis with hardly a wobble, more a bullet than a tumbling piece of debris, it sailed into Los Angeles and plummeted straight into the cat's water bowl at 9080 Minerva Avenue.

The perfection of the bulls-eye would have been remarked on by neighborhood residents under any circumstances. But as it happened the young cat, a tabby with orange blotches named Marmalade, was lapping up a drink at the time. While the helium tank did not explode, its effect when it struck Marmalade was indescribably horrific. The effect on the four-year-old owner of the excessively cute fluffball was almost as bad, since she was recording the historic water-drinking event on the vidcam of her cell phone.

Although she stood far enough from the event to avoid physical harm, the little girl ceased speaking. Within the hour, the parents had decided to enter her into therapy. Long before her first session, however, her video went viral. Seventeen million views and three hours after the first round of explosions, the next series of explosions went off. These secondary blasts, political in nature, occurred in Sacramento, the capital of the Great Blue State of California.

The Governor forced his drumming fingers to still. A great opportunity had arisen here. Governors made their bones by leading forcefully in a crisis, getting out ahead of the media wave and guiding it to the desired conclusions. But risk lurked in these opportunities as well. He had this sinking feeling that it would be too easy this time to push too hard. He'd seen more than one golden goose killed in his beloved state. Worse, the memories of how GPlex and FB had responded when Federal Deportation Phase Two expelled all their immigrant engineers still sent shudders through the hierarchies of governmental power even now, decades later. The governor couldn't afford to lose any more multi-billion dollar businesses from his tax and employment base.

However concerned the governor might be, his Attorney General couldn’t contain his glee. He'd been chomping at the bit for years to take these money-grubbing rocketeers down and harness them to the needs of the state. "We could never tax them as aggressively as we should have because the CEO was too damn popular," he growled.

"He is the last best example of the innovative spirit of California," the governor said dryly. "You might say he's earned it."

"Well, the kitty cat took care of that," the Attorney General replied with delight. "We can do what we want."

"What do you propose?"

"A four-billion-dollar civil forfeiture suit for public endangerment." He paused for a moment. "We can spend it immediately filling the holes in our educational and healthcare budgets."

While the amount was large enough to surprise the governor, he’d expected the Attorney General to invoke civil forfeiture. In civil forfeiture, no person or corporate entity was accused of a crime. Rather, the house, yacht, twenty-dollar bill, or in this case, the multi-billion-dollar financial account, was held accountable for illegal activity. The government never took the case to court, they just took the property regardless of the guilt or innocence of the nominal owners.

Back in the 90s, civil forfeiture had been abused so blatantly that many states had enforced limitations to keep injustice low enough to avoid headlines. But in 2017, the Federal Attorney General had announced that an inadequate number of people of unproven guilt were being targeted. He had created mechanisms to allow local law enforcement to bypass state limits.

After an initial period of slow acceptance, the states transformed into eager adopters. Civil forfeiture became the go-to legal justification for governors of both Red and Blue states. The Red governors used it simply to ruin their enemies. The Blue states used it for the more prosaic purpose of balancing their budgets.

Still, the amount of money to be taken in this instance was certainly a national record. "Four billion? Can SpaceR really survive if we take that much?" the governor asked in amazement.

"You bet they can," the Attorney General answered with a vicious undertone. "They have it now, stashed away as a rainy day fund for future R&D."

"But don't they need it for R&D? If we want them to innovate they sort of have to continue that, you know."

The Attorney General shrugged. "We’ll let them keep a couple hundred mil. They can fund the rest with future profits. It'll hardly slow them down at all."

"Well, it sounds like we’re finally about to get our fair share, at least. A very fair, fair share." The governor gave it some thought. It certainly sounded reasonable. "We need to pass some new regulations too, so people can feel safe again." Get ahead of the media and stay ahead, he repeated his mantra.

"Oh, sure." The Attorney General waved his hands and relaxed now that the governor had accepted the important part of the decision. "We'll require them to have twenty people in the control center in the future to watch for problems. Did you know they'd winnowed it down to just five? And we'll require them to retire the first-stage rockets after five uses. One of those boosters was on its twenty-first launch. Talk about a safety hazard! Damned greedy profiteers." The Attorney General knew that the mechanical part that had actually failed was only on its fourth launch and on the far side of the ship from the old booster, but factual relevance had ceased to be a consideration in government decision-making generations earlier. "If they have to make four times as many rockets, they'll have to open another assembly line in Hawthorne. Lots of jobs there."

The governor smiled. "That does sound good." He snorted. "The Feds will even like it. SpaceR launches will get more expensive. It might even let the SLS folks win a launch or two." The Space Launch System was an enormously expensive rocket project started in ancient times, back in 2011. Grossly over schedule and over budget, it had continued for decades with the support of powerful senators. It had been far too expensive to win a launch mission, but the senators had justified it “to maintain the expertise.” The governor continued, "With the Feds supporting the new regulations along with us, I don't see any way it can go wrong."

A long silence ensued as the Attorney General savored the moment, and the governor thought up new things to worry about. The governor spoke hesitantly. " there anything SpaceR can do about it?"

The Attorney General stared at him. "Like what?"

"Could they...move their operations?"

"To where, Canada? You know the Canadians would put even more restrictions on them than we do. And there isn’t another reasonable place in the USA to launch to polar orbit. Anyplace else and the rocket would fly over land. That would be seriously dangerous."

"I suppose. But..." The governor’s voice fell to a frightened whisper. "What about the BrainTrust?"

The Attorney General slapped his hand on his knee and laughed loudly—perhaps too loudly. "The BrainTrust? You think they can launch from the middle of the ocean with waves ripping by all the time? Let's be real. We have a monopoly on polar orbit launch capabilities in North America. It's about time we took advantage of it."

One of the merits of living in the digital age was that government could move very swiftly to protect the needs of the people, so less than twenty-four hours later the California Assembly passed the new laws. The little girl who had lost her kitty was only just entering therapy when the next media storm broke, carrying the word of the record-breaking civil forfeiture.

Mixed reactions greeted the news. Traditional Blues celebrated the governor’s decision to get California’s fair share. Stalwart believers in the human mission to space may have opposed the confiscation, but political correctness muted their response. Defending a big corporation would incur a wrathstorm on social media.

The union that controlled the workers at the SpaceR manufacturing plant in Hawthorne was ecstatic with the five-launch limit. Of course, the new regulation did not surprise them; they had lobbied for such regulations for years. Now that they had finally won, they eagerly anticipated the opening of more production lines. More union members meant more power.

No one would have been surprised to hear that less enthusiasm energized the reactions in the SpaceR boardroom. Everyone outside SpaceR figured that the fat cats would be licking their wounds and watching morosely as the state’s coffers slurped up their pile of cash.

Oddly, the actual conversation at SpaceR headquarters would have surprised the general consensus. It would have astonished the governor and the Attorney General. The loss of their entire four-billion-dollar R&D fund was difficult to accept, but in the end, it was just money. They could make more.

The restriction of five launches for each rocket would impose a frightening ongoing cost, but SpaceR could have swallowed that too. The CEO, who passionately believed in California as an operational base, certainly would have gritted his teeth and lived with the cost. But a greater problem accompanied the five launch restriction.

Far worse than the cost was the launch-capacity shortfall. They would need lots more first-stage boosters, but they could not ramp up production fast enough to replace the existing rockets before forced retirement left them dead on the launch pad. SpaceR simply could not meet their schedule with the boosters they had if rockets could not be reused as many times as they had proven safe. They would have to renege on their contracts with their customers. And that was intolerable.

The SpaceR board of directors had had a contingency in place for many years in case something terrible happened to the CEO, such as death or an intransigent refusal to face a changing reality. So the Board moved swiftly, with much personal regret but great business determination, to remove the now-not-quite-so-popular CEO and replaced him with someone considerably younger and almost as dynamic. Twenty-four hours later the new CEO’s helicopter landed on the Argus, the ship-manufacturing vessel of the BrainTrust.

A smiling young woman escorted Matthew Toscano, the new CEO of SpaceR, and his Chief Engineer, Werner Halstead, through the ship to their meeting place. The Argus, like most of the isle ships, rendered the passageways of each deck with a different theme. Matt felt like hunching down when he first stepped onto the Banzai Pipeline deck. A wave off the North Shore of Oahu covered on the passage’s walls and ceilings, apparently curling over his group as they walked along. The wave and a pair of surfers hanging ten as they slid through the pipe contrasted oddly with the large workspaces they passed where the latest in 3D printers hummed on diverse projects.

Eventually, Matt and company entered a small conference room with a rosewood table circled by Aeron chairs. There Argus’ Chief Engineer Alex Turner greeted them. Alex, in turn, introduced Matt and Werner to Dr. Dash, a medical research scientist, and Colin Wheeler, who had no title.

Matt had been a wide receiver for Notre Dame while getting his degree in aerospace engineering. Fast starts off the mark and quick hands, both on and off the field, had been his trademarks—or at least that was what his wife had said when he’d asked her to marry him during her brief vacation between college cheerleading and modeling for Vogue.

Matt had thrived as an engineer, plucked from school by SpaceR when he graduated. But he found that he had an even greater talent for management than for engineering. He had hoped to do both. He could still remember the last time he had put an engineering task on the schedule for him to complete. As time passed and the project progressed, his task remained untouched. So the Friday before the Monday when his part of the project would become the critical failure in the schedule, he took a sleeping bag into the office, had his assistant manager teach him to use the current versions of the CAD and simulator software, and went to work. On Monday morning he delivered his completed task. Miraculously, he had not harmed his team or his project, but…

He had never assigned himself a task again. Instead, he rose through the ranks to his present place, depending now on Werner for technical expertise. He appraised the people. Werner appraised the tech.

At this moment, attempting to appraise the people, Matt was puzzled indeed. Alex, the Chief Engineer for the Argus, was a sensible person to meet. But why was a medical researcher here? And who was Colin Wheeler? He studied the tall, silver-haired gentleman—clearly quite old, but remarkably fit—and dim memories started to come back. "Colin Wheeler? The original project director for the development of the BrainTrust?" He would have sworn Colin Wheeler had passed away years ago.

Colin smiled. "That's me." He sighed. "That was a long time ago." He leaned forward. "But it was much like the problem you face now. The feds were assembling the 101st Airborne to drop into Silicon Valley and round up all the immigrant engineers. To make those jobs available for Americans, you know. But GPlex and FB didn't want to hire a whole bunch of people who were not quite as qualified and way behind the learning curve. And they sure didn’t want to fire loyal employees of proven worth. So we had to rush the first couple isle ships to completion and get them out into international waters before the troops landed. It was a close thing."

Matt felt relief flow through all the hypertense muscles in his body. He started thinking they might possibly pull this off. "And here we are again. You understand the problem?"

Colin nodded. "If you can't use your rockets more than five times you can't fulfill your contracts."

Werner spoke. "So we need to be able to launch from a ship. But the ship needs to be as robust as a standard launch facility, and just as stable. As stable as your standard isle ship may be, it is not stable enough."

Alex nodded. "We were thinking about rocket launch facilities for the BrainTrust even before your tragic accident," he confessed. "No real work, just daydreaming about it, figuring that it would be important someday. " He smiled. "Besides, it was fun." He touched his tablet, and the wallscreen behind him lit up with a photorealistic rendering of a ship, the likes of which had never before been seen. "Behold the Heinlein. We worked on it all night."

It was a beautiful ship in its own way. The outline followed the same rectangular, barge-like hull shape as the isle ships, but no superstructure rose from the deck except a complex metal skeleton on the starboard side amidships. Fore and aft, two solid black circles filled a large fraction of the bow and stern. A thick black line stretched from each circle to the gunwales on port and starboard sides. Clearly, the circles were launch pads, though the color was a surprise.

Werner asked the obvious question. "Are those circles just paint, or do they have some special significance?"

Alex looked sidelong at the medical scientist. "Dr. Dash, perhaps you would care to explain?" He looked back at Matt and said almost apologetically, "It was her idea."

The doctor rose to her feet and moved to the rendering of the Heinlein. "Thank you, Alex." Suddenly she put her hand over her mouth as a sound suspiciously like a giggle fell from her lips. "First, let me just say I am very excited by this opportunity to work with you. I have been interested in space and rocketry since I was a little girl, painting the stars in the constellations on the ceiling in my bedroom. I too have thought much about the challenges of ocean-based rocketry since I was awarded a research investment on the BrainTrust."

Matt couldn't contain himself. "A research investment in what, may I ask?"

"Telomeres," she said and turned to the display.

Matt shook his head. "Telomeres? As in the fountain of youth?"

Dash looked down at him with pursed lips. "It is most certainly not the fountain of youth. It is just telomeres. They do happen to play an important role in aging."

Matt nodded gravely. "Ah." He decided not to pursue the matter further.

Dash turned back to the rendering and zoomed it on the circular pad. The pad consisted of large numbers of black tiles. "These tiles are composed of a new material devised by a startup on the Dreams Come True, in collaboration with a professor and a student aboard the BrainTrust University. The new material is a variant of carbon-fiber-reinforced carbon, or CFRC. You probably know it best as the tiles for the nose of the old Space Shuttle."

Werner doubled over as if in pain. "You have got to be kidding me. Those tiles were so fragile they made the shuttle a death trap."

Dash nodded her head. "Yes. The multiple shuttle tragedies caused by tile failure tainted the material in the eyes of the public, but this is a very different application and a significantly better material. A tile failure has no dramatic consequences for the launch pad. A cracked tile merely needs to be replaced before the next launch.”

She opened a small side window that displayed a complex interlace of material. “But more fundamental is the difference in the material itself. Instead of reinforcing the basic carbon matrix with carbon fiber, our people have reinforced it with graphene. Graphene Reinforced Carbon, or GRC."

Matt thought about the possible ramifications of substituting graphene, then whistled. He asked, "So it's both stronger and more heat-resistant?"

Dash bobbed her head.

Matt leaned forward suddenly like a tiger preparing to leap. "But if I recall my history correctly, those tiles were not only fragile, they were also damned expensive."

Dash nodded again. "At the time they cost a hundred thousand dollars per square foot."

Everyone gasped except Colin.

Dash continued, “A large part of the cost was the result of the extremely precise aerodynamically curved shapes required for the shuttle application. In contrast, we are simply mass-producing a standard flat hexagon. And our manufacturing techniques have advanced as well, with robotic control of the entire process. As a result of the streamlined manufacture of simple shapes, even with our more advanced and complex process using graphene, we have reduced costs to one percent of the shuttle tile costs."

Matt shook his head. "That's still pretty expensive. Why not make a normal concrete pad?"

Colin explained, “Your current pads are only normal by some very special standards. Notably, the Fondu Fyre concrete that coats the flame trench would be expensive to import here, and we can’t make it. Since it ablates during each launch and needs to be replaced, this gives you both an ongoing cost and a cycle-time-to-next-launch problem. The GRC, on the other hand, has only one elemental ingredient, carbon. We manufacture carbon cheaply by harvesting and cooking algae from our artificial reef. When maintenance and replacement costs are included, I think you'll find Dash's solution is both cheaper and better."

Dash spoke. “And I think the big advantage, as Colin mentioned in passing, is the cycle time to next launch. You should be able to launch every one to two hours from a graphene-reinforced carbon pad.”

Werner looked excited. “If it works, that would be magnificent.”

Matt found himself distracted by applications far beyond tiling a launchpad. “Why haven’t I heard of graphene-reinforced carbon before?”

Colin answered, “Many years ago, a famous actress developed a brain tumor. She claimed it was caused by graphene. The claim was controversial and the scientific evidence almost nonexistent, but on her deathbed, she was awarded four hundred million dollars. Graphene research pretty much stopped after that. Except—”

Matt finished for him, “On the BrainTrust.”

Dash continued, “Anyway, to import the materials for a classic launch pad would take about as long as manufacturing the tiles—which brings up an issue. The tiles must be steeped in a carbon-rich vapor. Think of it as a curing process. It will take us a week to make the tiles, and a day to place them. Can you wait that long?"

Matt blinked. "You think you can start launching in a week? What about building the ship that needs to go underneath those launch pads?"

Alex supplied the answer. "We have a partly-completed isle ship currently under construction. We had intended to make it into the manufacturing ship for the Fuxing archipelago. We can repurpose the ship, and build another ship for the Fuxing project."

Matt knew what was coming. "For a satisfactory fee."

Alex nodded. "We’ve assumed that time is more important than cost for you, within limits."

Matt laughed playfully. Everyone understood that Matt would fight tooth and nail over the costs of the more outrageous line items, but for now… "Price is no object. It's so freeing, isn't it, to unshackle yourself from the constant grinding need to reduce costs?" He turned sober. "You do realize we have a little financing problem as well? The four billion in liquid assets we had two days ago is going away."

Colin leaned forward. "We’re aware. And to fulfill your needs on a crash-project timeline, it looks like we’re talking about a two-billion-dollar undertaking here. But there are several financing alternatives." He held up his phone. "I have representatives from both the Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan offices here on the BrainTrust sitting outside eager to talk with you about some possibilities." He rolled his eyes as he reluctantly added another option. "And in a few days the new isle ship Haven, a residential ship built and populated by billionaires, will arrive. You could probably make a deal with their consortium." He grimaced. "I would be careful with them, however."

Matt laughed again. "And I don't have to be careful with the boys and girls from Goldman?" He expression turned speculative. "Are you really sure you can be ready to launch in a week?"

Alex shrugged. "Ten days," he admitted cautiously. "No more than that, if you give me the go-ahead today."

Matt shook his head. "I can't possibly get the finances all lined up in time."

Colin waved it aside. "We don't need the finances all fixed to begin work. You have an excellent reputation, Matthew Toscano. We just need your handshake. We'll take the risk that your word is good."

Werner growled, “We still haven't talked stability."

Alex answered, "I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised."

Werner looked skeptical.

Matt leaned forward and thumped the table. "Werner, you stay here and talk stability." He looked at Colin. "Is there a private place—a very private place—where I can talk to the Goldman rep? I have an idea." His face had turned hard and angry, but a hint of a smile now played on his lips. "A very satisfying idea, actually. Let justice be served." He clenched his fist and released it. "Werner, if you get an adequate answer on the ship, and I get an adequate idea on the money, we'll see if we can kick this plan off by dinnertime."

So Colin introduced Matt to Keenan Stull of Goldman Sachs, and Alex and Dash talked with Werner, and many hurdles were identified and overcome, at least on paper. And so when Alex met Werner and Matt for dinner, the real work began.

Half-empty champagne glasses sat on the desk in the office of the President of the Russian Union, seeming to glow in the setting sun’s light. Pascha gazed into the mirror in the lid of her compact and fixed her lipstick. The President buckled his pants.

Except I am no longer President, he reminded himself as he picked up the champagne flute for another sip in self-congratulation. He was now the Premier of the Russian Union. No more pesky elections. The Premiership was a lifetime post. He had certainly earned it.

Now that he had finally freed up all the time he used to spend managing the electoral cycle, destroying his dangerously popular opponents, setting up dummy candidates as alternatives on the ballots, and making sure the news media toed the line, he could focus on wielding that power fulltime rather than just half.

It was time to take the matter of getting old seriously. He was having trouble giving Pascha all the satisfaction she deserved.

Judging by his last, admittedly hasty effort to retrieve the rejuvenation doctor from the BrainTrust, he needed a more serious plan this time—even if it meant blowing the cover on one of his top assets.

Back | Next