© 2018 by Rob Favre

Grant's Gorge

7/3/2016

The rumors had spread, whispered in the hurried bustle after a board meeting, in the back room of a cocktail party, during the lazy denoument of a conference call when almost everyone had dropped off.  They had all secretly known something like this was going to happen. There were late night calls to secret cell phones, cryptic messages to encrypted email accounts.  It was very important that the circle be kept small.  It wasn’t easy to coordinate this many schedules that were this busy, but Grant made it happen. 

On the day of the meeting, fifty chilled bottles of sparkling mineral water sat on spotless tables in front of fifty billionaires in a single sparkling steel-and-glass conference room.  Had there ever been a gathering like this one?  Each of the men in this room commanded a financial empire, real estate and businesses and securities.  Shell corporations and secret bank accounts across the globe.  They controlled the world, and they controlled it so thoroughly that nobody gave them credit for controlling it.  But the world was about to find out just how important they were.

Grant smoothly and professionally ran through the big points of his big idea.  His audience had, over the course of many years and many presentations, developed a finely honed sense of what makes a good Powerpoint deck, and this one was very impressive.  Clean, big letters.  Easy to read.  The background color was a pleasant shade of blue.  There were many charts and graphs.

But once the broad outlines were on the table, Grant ceded the floor to the heavy hitters, the visionaries he had spent so long bringing together.  Soon enough they were running with it, ticking like Swiss clockwork through the agenda and getting things done, efficiently and decisively.

Benson, who had leveraged his grandfather’s fortune into ownership of film studios, skyscrapers, and a basketball team, addressed his peers.  “I’m not a big fan of the oak.  Can we make all the tables mahogany?”

There were knowing and confident rumbles of approval at this suggestion.  These were men who knew how to make a decision and follow through.  No endless discussion and delay.  That was for schoolteachers and middle managers.  They were closers, deciders.  Winners.

 “And we need real crystal glasses.  Not cheap imitation crap,” said Monroe, who owned substantial minorities of most of the oil and energy companies in the world. 

Grant noted it, along with all the other suggestions.  There was a fierce debate about the color of the lettering on the outside of the ship.  Rogers felt that black didn’t really have any personality, and suggested that red would be better.  Chesterton objected, sensibly, that he didn’t like red and the letters should be dark blue because it was much classier.  They finally agreed to table their discussion until next time, to allow some time for tempers to cool down.

When the meeting adjourned, fifty billionaires left feeling excited and confident.  They had all been through launching a new venture enough times to know the way successful ones felt.  This was a bold idea, innovative, no competition, and best of all, nothing to get in their way.  No governments, or unions, or snarling packs of news mongrels yipping about every little misstep and minor fatal industrial accident.  It would be just them, the titans, alone and unimpeded by the concerns of lesser men. At the least they were going to make some money and have a great story to tell; at best, they would be a shining beacon that finally set humanity on the right course.

Early on, Benson had mentioned that although everyone invited to the project was a formidable businessman with impeccable credentials, none of them had come from technical backgrounds.  Grant had assured them that there was a very good reason for that – technical people tend to get hung up on little details, to spin themselves into tiny little unproductive baroque curlicues that waste time and money and don’t end up mattering in the long run.  He wanted men who would always be looking at the big picture. You could hire experts to handle technical issues, but what the project really needed was vision and leadership.  Benson had nodded, satisfied.  Vision and leadership, those were his specialties.

The most ambitious project ever undertaken by the combined ambition of the most ambitious men on earth came together quickly.  Tens of thousands of craftsmen and engineers and physicists and designers and interior decorators  and lobbyists and image consultants were employed in a project that made the Titanic look like a model built by a hobbyist in his basement.  The billionaires sighed and shook their heads at every dollar spent, every request for overtime, every delay because of illnesses or threats of strikes.  That kind of inefficiency was the past they were abandoning.  The future was sleek, efficient technology, not lazy, squabbling workers trying to squeeze as much as they could from their employers. In fact, that was the key to Grant’s plan, the reason no one had attempted it before.  Robotics and computers had passed some threshold of sophistication that would allow all the work to be done without any human labor required.  There would be machines to do the work, and machines to repair the broken machines.  The only people needed in the business were the ones at the top, making the decisions.  Pure business, pure exchanges of goods and services.  No labor, no inefficiency.

Some of the billionaires felt a twinge of sadness at the thought of what would happen on Earth once they were gone.  Without the makers at the top, would the takers collapse into a spiral of self-destruction, bitterly fighting tooth and claw over scraps of food in the litter-strewn canyons between empty  skyscrapers?  Or would the fall be more subtle, a gradual lowering of standards and lack of innovation until Earth was locked into a sad, stagnant morass?  It was sad to contemplate, but they had carried the takers long enough. It was finally time for these billionaires to think about themselves.

Launch day came, and fifty billionaires, clad in million-dollar designer jumpsuits, waved at a hundred thousand cheering onlookers as they boarded their vessel, the Rockefeller, the biggest and most expensive engineering project ever undertaken.  It was both business and pleasure, packed with super-advanced robotic machinery and dripping in every imaginable luxury.  Spectometric ore smelters and mahogany wet bars, mining rovers the size of small buildings and a wine cellar that shamed those of the finest three-star restaurants.  Also, they had decided on a majestic shade of navy blue with a subtle metallic finish for the lettering, and though Rogers was never really happy with it, he had agreed for the sake of getting the project off the ground.

The engines thundered to life, and fifty billionaires were crushed down into their ergonomic Italian leather couches.  A few minutes later, the pressure stopped.  They were free, free of Earth’s pull, and  free of all the laws and regulations and moochers and takers that were now far behind them.  They were headed to a new home, where gravity was less and taxes were nonexistent.  And now there was  nothing holding them down – they floated around the tastefully appointed cabin unrestrained and free.

“I don’t feel so great,” Lawrence said weakly, and was violently sick. 

It turned out that space travel in zero-G was not nearly as comfortable as they had been led to believe, and no amount of silk and leather makes much of a difference when one is floating in the middle of the room and cracking heads with another billionaire.  But these were not the sort of men who cower and turn back in the face of profound discomfort; they pressed on, floating and vomiting and complaining to Grant back on Earth, who assured them that it was only temporary and that once they reached their destination, it would all be worth it.  They ate $10,000 tins of caviar, and puked them back up, and then stopped eating them because what was the point anyway.  And every time a shard of crystal from one of the many glasses that had shattered during liftoff floated by, they grabbed it and carefully disposed of it with no more than the expected amount of complaining.

And after three months, thinner and a bit smellier but unbowed, they arrived.  Mars was all rust-colored dust and howling winds, towering terra cotta mountains on every side.  They had carefully chosen their landing site, protected from the worst of the winds by mountains and close to the limitless mineral wealth they contained.  Benson had proposed the name “Grant’s Gorge” for their new home, and forty-nine other billionaires had agreed, partly because they liked the idea of acknowledging Grant’s contribution to their enterprise, but mostly because it sounded catchy.

Back in the welcome embrace of a planet’s gravity, they set to work almost right away.  There were lots of things to negotiate, territories and schedules, storage allocations and transportation fees.  Lawrence and Bernoulli traded some mineral rights for some storage space.  Hopkins and Johnson (the younger one) formed a secret cartel, agreeing to share their territorial rights as a hedge against either of their territories being sparse.  And of course there was the actual programming of the massive mining rovers themselves, which most of the billionaires very nearly managed to do on their own without resorting to sending instructions to the engineers on Earth and just having them do it remotely. 

How glorious when those rumbling behemoths shuddered out over the ochre plain, leaving meter-wide tread marks in a spiderweb with the colony at the center!  They gathered iron, but also manganese, and titanium, and other ores that were increasingly scarce on Earth but here on Mars were lying around, just waiting to be scooped up and sold.  Fifty billionaires toasted each other with Cristal and watched the sun set behind the black mountains, dusky rose and dim.

Day after day, trip after trip, the ore rolled in and the harvesters went back out.  Inventory was taken, projected profits gleefully totaled.  They sent messages to Grant back on Earth, eagerly getting updates on the prices for metals on the commodities exchanges.  Oh yes, Grant had decided to stay back on Earth.  He had claimed it was so he could be a more effective liaison for them back on Earth, at least until they got things rolling, but a few of the billionaires thought maybe he didn’t feel like he was really worthy to join them.  They hadn’t corrected him.

One morning one of Monroe’s machines simply refused to leave the unloading bay – he had the engineers back on Earth check it, and was getting impatient with their delays.  At one point he sent them a message asking why their analysis was taking so long.  He had lost the better part of a day already and didn’t want to fall further behind the others.  It took them an hour – an entire hour! – to get back to him, and what he got back was a reply that said, in the profoundly apologetic way that only engineers can say things, that they were very sorry about the delay but that it was a slow process because of how long it took to get data to and from the module.  Monroe sent them another message, phrased in the profoundly results-driven way that only billionaires can phrase things, saying that he didn’t understand, they should have thought of this and built a faster communication system.  About an hour later he got back another, even more profoundly apologetic message saying that the engineers were so very sorry, but the messages were traveling at light speed already and that Mars and Earth were just so far apart that it took light that long to get there.  He sent them a final message saying that if there was anything they could do to make it faster, they should do it.  An hour later, he got a message saying they would look into it and get back to him.

Over and over again the miners went out and came back, leaving their tracks gouged into the rusty dry sand.  Over and over again, the wind swept the tracks away, leaving no sign that they had ever been there.  Weeks turned to months, as the mineral stores grew and the anticipation of the first shuttle’s arrival grew in proportion.  They made request after request for the items they wanted delivered on the first trip.  Spring water, fresh game, live lobsters and tanks to keep them in.  They were going through cigars faster than anticipated, so they needed more cigars and more air filters for the smoking lounge.  Lawrence wanted a Dalmatian.  And sure, the costs were adding up, but there were mountains of ore waiting to be sold, and didn’t they all deserve some reward after all their hard work?  They got requests from the operations team back on Earth to trim some of their requests, that it was going to be difficult to accommodate both refrigeration for that much beef and life support for both lobsters and dogs for the entire length of the journey.  But billionaires who will just meekly acquiesce to requests to make the engineers’ jobs easier are not the type of billionaires who end up forging a new frontier for humanity on another planet – they responded to the operations team that there was plenty of room, they would just have to figure out how to make everything fit.  They got the final cost estimate a week in advance of the shuttle launch, and though the amount was a little staggering, even for billionaires, only a few of them shouted and swore and threatened to build their own shuttle rather than pay these prices, before they were gently reminded that they had actually built this shuttle.  But they divided up the bill and grimly authorized the necessary wire transfers to make everything happen, knowing that they would make it all back and more once their ore started selling.

But Grant had some good news as well.  The public on Earth was eating up their story, desperate to hear news from the farthest outpost of humanity, and what’s more, there was a lot of buzz circulating in the highest circles, other titans and magnates tired of shouldering the burden of a lazy planet, who were starting to ask around about how they might be allowed to join the fledgling colony.  There was even a term for this, sibilating around in the darkened corners of conference rooms.  They called it “Going Grant.” 

The night before the shuttle arrived, there was a grand celebration in the ballroom.  Through the glass-domed ceiling fifty billionaires watched the bloody Martian sunset slowly give way to the glittering brilliance of a billion stars.  They feasted, they drank, they danced and laughed and toasted and fell.  They each had lost about a quarter of their weight by coming to a new planet after all, and dancing was easier than ever before, even for those with older knees and hips who hadn’t really done much dancing back on Earth anymore.

The next morning the shuttle arrived in a cinnamon hurricane, and spirits were high among those living on humanity’s frontier, at least until the unloading process began.  After crates of food and drums of water came a tank full of rank, greenish water with sad black husks stacked a foot high at the bottom.  The lobsters had died on the way when their oxygenation system broke and there was so much other cargo that nobody could reach them to repair it.  The crew was extremely apologetic, but they were surprised that only about five or six of the billionaires really raised their voices or questioned their ability to do their jobs and their basic value as human beings. 

Twelve more billionaires, looking pale and weak from their journey, took wobbling steps off the shuttle and grinned.  They had made it.  The hard part was over.  Now, they were safe.  They were home.

The Dalmatian had survived also, but after three months in zero-g, he was afraid of walking and just hid in the shuttle behind a cask of bourbon, shivering.

The magnates sipped champagne and nibbled on smoked salmon canapés as they watched the shuttle’s crew load tons of metal onto the shuttle, and their spirits began to rise as they estimated and predicted the net they would see after all this ore sold in the commodity markets back on Earth.  If they got current market price for it, this much.  If the price went up 5%, this much more; 10%, this much more again.  They were surprised to learn that in three months, they had mined enough ore that it wouldn’t all fit onto the shuttle.  But that was alright – they could keep stockpiling and it wasn’t like ore was going to spoil.  It just meant they would have to have shuttles come more often than every three months.  More shuttles meant more sales, which just meant they would make money that much faster. They watched the shuttle roar up into the high Martian noon, heading for the dim and distant Sun and the Earth that circled it.

It was back to business, and the harvesters rolled out and back in day after day like the tide.  The Dalmatian slowly got used to walking again and Lawrence tried to figure out what to call him. 

“A dog needs a tough and scary name.  A dog needs to know that he is feared,” said Bernoulli as he scratched behind the Dalmatian’s ears.

“We should call him ‘Taxes’,” Monroe joked, and they laughed, and it stuck.

The halls of Grant’s Gorge echoed with purposeful footfalls, with whispered negotiation, and with the happy barking of a dog who dined on table scraps that would have been the best meal of the year for most of the people back on Earth.  The rookies were at a disadvantage, trying to break into an established economy, but they were ready and hit the ground running, buying rights and trading for access to equipment.  Anticipation built toward the big day in a few months when the shuttle would arrive back on Earth and they would see how much money they had made.

Monroe’s machine broke down again, and the others smelled blood in the water.  He got offers of spare parts in exchange for rights to part of his territory, of temporary use of other machines in exchange for a percentage of his gross.  They had leverage, and Monroe knew it.  He was falling behind and messages to the engineers back on Earth seemed to have no effect on making his machine work again, regardless of how urgently he worded them.  It seemed they had done all they could do from Earth; the only other option was to have engineers come out on the shuttle and take a look.  So Monroe asked for a team to fly out on the next shuttle, which would be leaving just as soon as they could get it loaded up and turned around.  Until they arrived, he would just have to carve out a living with nothing but his bare negotiation skills and his billions of dollars.

One day a table full of billionaires was sitting around talking about important matters.  The topic turned, as topics do, to swapping stories about the most beautiful women each of them had ever slept with.  Pretty soon there was general agreement about how much they missed having a feminine presence around, how the other billionaires didn’t smell nearly as good.  They all laughed and looked at each other.  Had they been the sort of men who lacked nerves of steel, it might have been nervous laughter.  They all quietly sipped their brandy. 

And then Harris said what was on all their minds.  “We’ve been working hard, gentlemen, and though I respect all of you, I’m getting a little tired of looking at your ugly faces.”  The others laughed.  None disagreed.   “Let’s face it, gentlemen, four months is a long time to go without.  I think we should arrange to have some companionship arrive on the next shuttle.  And I don’t mean another dog.”  They laughed, and toasted the possibilities, and contacted Grant.  To make sure there were no misunderstandings, they described to him, creatively and colorfully, a number of very specific acts which the lucky ladies who chose to make the voyage should be willing to perform. 

Monroe felt a lance of schaudenfreudic joy on the evening that Bernoulli’s miner did not return with its ore.  It had gone offline completely, and wasn’t responding to any messages.  He quickly started feeling his way around what despondent, hopeless Bernoulli might be willing to pay for some work from the engineers Monroe was bringing on the next shuttle.  He quickly realized that it would be a sizeable amount, but being a seasoned negotiator, he didn’t let himself smile until he was back in his cabin.

Sale day!  Sity-two billionaires eagerly gathered around to await the news of their first profits.  If a dust storm hadn’t been whistling and howling around outside, there would have been no sound at all.

The message arrived on the screen.

The only response was from the wind outside.  For some reason it sounded like laughter.

A handful of billionaires walked away silently, looking for some booze to ease their disappointment.  Some of the others tried to stay upbeat.  This was only a minor setback, it wasn’t like they didn’t have the resources to keep going.  So the prices for minerals on the commodities markets had been slightly down and they hadn’t really made any money.  They had very nearly broken even.  And it was just bad luck.  No reason to stop trying.  The next sale would go much better.  They contacted Grant and he assured them that this was just a temporary setback, that excitement for the first shipment had actually been very high, and that everyone on Earth viewed them as heroes.  That cheered up all the billionaires.  It was funny how you could be a hero, a builder, a creator all along, but never have it recognized until you left your home planet.  They asked Grant how things were going back on Earth, and he said that they were continuing pretty much as before.  But the billionaires knew what was coming.  Each arrival would bring more magnates throwing down their burdens and “Going Grant”.  With all the best talent leaving Earth, it was only a matter of time before things started to fall apart.  Besides, Grant had also managed to arrange some companionship to join them.  Sixty-two billionaires had smiled and toasted each other.  After the next shuttle, things would be a lot less lonely in Grant’s Gorge.

In the months it took for the next shuttle to arrive, things certainly did not begin to fall apart at all for the billionaires on Mars.  Perhaps a couple more machines had some technical problems.  And the air filtration in the west branch stopped working.  But that just meant a couple of men had to make arrangements for other bunks temporarily. 

Finally, the shuttle arrived.  Nine more new arrivals wobbled out, frail and tired but eager to join the grand enterprise.  They weren’t greeted quite as enthusiastically as the first group had been. 

Meanwhile, the engineers disembarked and looked at the list of problems, consulted amongst themselves, and came up with a plan, which their lead engineer, a thin and graying man named Preston, then presented to the billionaires.  They were a little disappointed that there weren’t any slides to help them follow along, but sometimes you just have to make do.

“We can fix everything you need fixed,” Preston said matter-of-factly.  “But I’m afraid it’s going to be costly.”

The billionaires grumbled.  They had sort of expected this, but it was par for the course when you dealt with greedy labor.

Preston told them the number.

A couple of billionaires chuckled.  Engineers with a sense of humor.

Preston kept looking at them expectantly.

The silence grew and loomed.

Monroe finally spoke up.  “So, really, what’s the actual cost?”

Preston’s face didn’t change.  “I just told you.”

Fifty billionaires began to anxiously exchange glances, the realization slowly dawning on them that Preston might not be joking.

“Outrageous!” Bernoulli stood up and shouted.  “That is a preposterous figure.  Many times more than the work should cost.  Under no circumstances will pay that much.”

Preston shrugged.  “That’s the price my team and I came up with.  If you don’t wish to pay it, we can pack up our stuff and be on our way.”

Seventy billionaires sat in stunned silence.  Bernoulli was still standing, also silently.  Certainly, it was not an unattainable number if they pooled their resources.  But it would push any hope of profit out of this quarter.  And anyway, it was deliberate price gouging, made artificially high just because they didn’t have any other option to turn to.  No, they were not about to bow to this naked greed, stripping them of their wealth and dignity in exchange for basic necessities like shelter and working industrial equipment.

They told Preston to go to hell.  He shrugged and returned to the shuttle.

Having completed the pressing business at hand, and puffed up with pride that they had stood their ground against the bullying engineers, seventy-one billionaires prepared for the ladies to join them.   Now billionaires of this caliber, given three months to plan and let’s say quite a lot of motivation, can put together one hell of a party, even on a distant planet.  They all wore their finest tuxedos, brought out the best food and champagne, and gathered in the main ballroom in the ruby glow of the Martian sunset, eagerly awaiting their new companions.

They were understandably surprised when the shuttle crew wheeled out a series of a dozen large crates.

Inside each crate was a mannequin.  More than a mannequin really.  A state-of-the-art human-shaped pleasure aid with advanced artificial intelligence, lifelike simulskin, and real human hair.  They were dressed in slinky black gowns and high heels.  When the crates were opened, they batted their eyes and smiled at the billionaires in a very close approximation of how an actual woman might have, had she been interested in these billionaires in that way.

The billionaires were disgusted and disappointed, of course.  They sent Grant more than one strongly worded message, reprimanding him for failing to find any actual humans to keep them company.  And as the red night turned to black, they slowly dispersed, leaving bottles of champagne to sit unopened in no longer icy buckets of water.  Twelve woman-shaped figures tilted their heads alluringly in the dark to no one.

Later on that night, none of the pleasure aids remained in the ballroom, though they were all back more or less in place by morning.

The engineers offered to take the figures back to Earth on the shuttle.  After a few seconds of cautious silence, Monroe said he thought it best if they stay here, a source for spare parts that could be used to repair the other machinery.  This sound and responsible suggestion was met with enthusiastic agreement. 

The shuttle, full of ore but without any advanced pleasure aids that could potentially be used for spare parts, roared into the sky.

For the next few months, seventy-one billionaires held things together the way that heroes and pioneers do.  When the air filtration failures started to spread, they rearranged the living quarters.  It got pretty close and claustrophobic, with as many as three men sharing a 10-room suite meant for just one.  Some of the food storage refrigeration started to fail, but there was still plenty of food if they rationed it and limited themselves to caviar once per week.  Oh, and there was the thing with the plumbing.  They chose a room to be the new lavatory once the plumbing stopped working.  But these men were leaders and heroes; they held their noses and in any case keeping the door closed contained most of the odor.

As the mining equipment suffered more and more failures, those with working equipment began to squeeze those without tighter and tighter.  Even so these men kept their cool in a way lesser men would not have been able to.  There were only a handful of fistfights, and even then only one led to serious injury.  Poor Benson had to wear a bandage over his eye for a week.  Everyone was pretty sure it wouldn’t get infected.

When the second shipment of ore sold, the loss was much smaller than the loss on the first sale.  Percentage wise.

Before its return journey, Grant asked if they had any special requests this time.  Sixty-nine billionaries and 2 millionaires – the mining downtime had hit Benson and Harris especially hard – conferred and decided that yes, it might be a good idea for some engineers to come out and take a look at some of the systems that just needed a bit of fine-tuning.  No emergencies or anything, just a bit of preventative maintenance.

A few months later, when the shuttle arrived, sixty-eight emaciated billionaires and two frail millionaires waited eagerly.  It turned out Benson’s eye had been infected.  The engineers stepped out into a corridor that smelled like a sewer full of rotting meat.  It turned out things were in pretty good shape.  In addition to the plumbing and air filtration, all the refrigeration systems had failed, meaning that the heroes of Grant’s Gorge had been forced to become a little more creative with their meals. 

One of the engineers, who had been along on the last run, asked where Taxes was.  Nobody was really able to give a good answer.

The good news was that three of the mining machines were still running at full capacity, and there was enough ore stockpiled to fill up the shuttle for one more return run.  If prices went up as much as they were projected to, they would make enough money to get another shuttle running, and then things would really start to turn around.  But to get there, they were going to have to get things fixed up and running right again.

The engineers looked around for a few hours, running diagnostics and checking computer terminals.  They came back with their estimate for the repair costs.  It was extravangant.  It was otherworldly.  It made sixty-two billionaires and two millionaires pause to catch their breath.

But, eventually, they looked around and began to nod to each other.  That wasn’t so much, in the long run, to keep their grand adventure up and running.  And anyway, the profits would start to roll in and pretty soon this place would pay for itself.  Getting through the startup period, that was always the key.

It took a couple days, but the engineers got the colony systems working again, and even got most of the mining equipment back online.

When the shuttle left carrying a very nearly full load of ore, twenty-one billionaires, thirty-six millionaires, and eleven other men sent Grant a message asking how things were going back on Earth, hoping for some news to lift their spirits.  Surely by now things back on the old blue marble must be starting to unravel a little without the titans of industry to power the economy.  The message they got back said that things were actually better than ever, that the global economy was humming along steadily, that unemployment was lower than it had been in recent memory.  Monroe jokingly wrote back that it almost seemed like all that had happened so far was a bunch of their money had been transferred to other people.  An hour later, they got a strange reply from Grant.  It simply said “Isn’t that funny?” 

Nobody on Mars found it especially funny.

Twenty-one billionaires, thirty-six millionaires, and eleven other men talked among themselves as the sky darkened and a billion stars covered it from black horizon to black horizon.  Grant was just sugar coating the situation back on Earth, they were sure.  All they had to do was hold out a little longer until the profits started rolling in, and those teeming masses back on Earth would be sorry they weren’t up here on the Red Paradise.  They toasted one another with the last of their brandy.  They were up hours into the night, planning where the next five colonies would go once they got them built, then dividing Mars into mighty empires for the future.  The beauty of it brought some of them to tears as they imagined the bright future, thousands of mining rigs and hundreds of bases, the atmosphere oxygenated, the red planet green with life as they fertilized the soil to grow their own food.

The sound of an alarm echoed plaintively down the still corridors.  There was another problem with the air filters.