The Man Who Sold The Stars

Nuclear Spaceship Leaving OrbitThis story follows on the logic of Neal Stephenson’s story, but over a longer timeline, as the interplanetary economy develops in wild west fashion. Modeled somewhat upon the famous Robert A. Heinlein story, in treats a focused man who has one dream and devotes his life to it.

THE MAN WHO SOLD THE STARS

Gregory Benford

 Vain is the word of that philosopher which does not heal any suffering of man.  — Epicurus

 It will take a thousand years for the frontier to reach the Pacific. —                                                                     Thomas Jefferson

2016

Harold Mann idled at a corner and watched an enormous guy come out of one of the adult movie houses and stride over to his Harley.

Harold was on his second job — at fifteen, using fake ID — driving a cab on South Jefferson Street of St. Louis. Business late on a sweltering night was slow. The big bearded guy’s bike was under a light post next to a Honda Hawk. The man in black leather pants and a black T-shirt shouted at the whole street, “Who parked this turd next to my bike?”

He then grabbed the Honda Hawk, grunted as he lifted it, and threw it all the way across the street. It hit another Japanese bike, a yellow Kawasaki. The clanging smashup echoed in the moist night.

Some gasoline dripped from the Kawasaki and the man walked over, puffing on a brown Sherman’s cigarette, and — dropped it. The gasoline whomped sending flames licking across the sidewalk. The biker glared at Harold and walked up to the cab window. He pulled out a big Bowie knife, grinning. Harold looked straight ahead and heard the tapping on the window.

“What ya think a dat?” He slurred the words and spat on the blacktop.

Harold rolled down the window and looked into the scowling sweaty face. “I don’t think you threw that rice burner hard enough.”

Glowering: “Yeah?”

“Man’s got to throw long in this life.”

The biker walked away laughing. The bikes burned. Harold finished his duty time, drove to the cab station, and quit. Maybe not my best line of work, he thought.

Five months later he had turned sixteen and had another fake ID saying he was twenty-one. He pitched a smartware app to a startup company in St. Louis, by walking in cold and asking to see the vice president. The app assisted robots with finding their footing and orientation while working in Low Earth Orbit. They could then assemble parts for the first orbital hotel.

The key to the app was using the new composite carbon girders with holes punched every half meter.  Robots could count on having a dual-pivot purchase no more than 50 centimeters away, to torque or support a mechanical advantage.  This increased their mobility and mass carrying capacity.

The vice president was intrigued. While his engineers looked over the app he asked Harold for his credentials. He gave them a certificate saying he had graduated from MIT with a degree in astronautics, remarking that it was the same program in which Buzz Aldrin had gotten his PhD. The e-certificate was authentic, though he had artfully hacked it to omit the detail that he had done the classes entirely online in three years without ever being in Boston.

The startup bought his app and he got a job. Within two years he was their CEO, and they issued an Initial Public Offering. His share was nearly a million, since he had worked mostly for stock options.        Driving home that night, he saw the same biker guy coming out of a bar. Harold pulled over and bought the guy a drink, never saying why.

***

He recalled his first job as he watched the vids from the latest big satellite telescope. The deep resolution views were striking, and they brought back a moment when he was ten years old.

He had rented beach chairs to tourists down at Orange Beach, Alabama. All day long he let nobody get past him without a friendly, insistent, “A chair to make you more comfortable? The sand’s hot. Just five bucks for the day.”

The usual brush-off he eased by with, “Keeps you away from the sand flies, sir.”—and that usually did the trick, especially if he had a woman with him. She would usually wrinkle her nose and badger the man into it.

Decent money, and he was only ten. His father thought it was good training and Harold did, too—the Great Recession was not yet in the rear view mirror. The tourists officially had the chairs till sundown but many stayed with their beer and got fried oysters from the stand down the way. He stayed late, reading used paperback science fiction novels under the fluorescents of the greasy burger stand. He was an addict; science fiction sold the sizzle of the science steak. Even when he got tired he remembered to be polite, smiling and using the yes sir a lot—and so he discovered tipping.

Some just left the chairs strewn around, so he had to drag them back, two in each hand, to the shed. He had just finished stacking chairs and was turning to plod down to the bus stop to ride home when he turned toward the surf and saw them.

Saw them truly, for the first time. The whole grand sprawl of jewels across the blue-black carpet, hovering above the salty tang of gulf waters like a commandment. The Milky Way spanned the sky, vanishing into the horizon, glows shimmering of emerald, ruby and hard diamond whites.

That’s what we’re part of, he thought. The real, ultimate way the universe is, not just this moist curtain above a sandy stretch. Reality, big and strange and wonderful.

***

 This is the opening of a 16,500 word novella describing the emergence of the interplanetary economy over the next century.

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