A prologue to Homeworld
Brayden sat down on the floor of the control room. He held the overload switch in one hand and a gun in the other. Outside the sealed doors he could hear the faint crackle of gunfire. The crisp, sharp pops of the Marine’s NATO carbines contrasting with the heavy, violent barks of the Communists AK’s, mixing and combining in a deadly staccato. The sounds were faint and far away for now, but he knew there would not be much time. Soon he would have to decide. Brayden looked at his choices, well choice really, and wondered how it had come to this point. All he wanted was to help people. It was him and his generation who would save the world and advance humanity. How had he failed so badly? His mind began to wander.
Brayden Holtz was born in suburban New Jersey. At a young age he showed tremendous aptitude for computer programming, especially in cryptography. At fifteen he managed to break into the secure server for his school and gave every student an “A+” average while rating every teacher’s peer review an “F”. He was found out and mildly disciplined for the prank. So the next semester he did it again for the entire district and two neighboring ones. This got him expelled and almost criminally prosecuted. It also got him a cover story in a national magazine, a broadcast interview and a scholarship to Cal Tech’s computer engineering program.
Brayden leapt at all of these opportunities. He had wanted to get out from under the control of his dependable but dull and average parents for a long time and when he got to southern California he immersed himself in the world of the Technocracy. A world he had only had access to through second hand stories and fleeting internet discussions. In an instant he had gone from yearning outsider to being inside the beating heart of the new world.
During his five years at Cal Tech, where he earned a bachelor’s and a master’s, he was fully inculcated into the techno-aristocracy. He had arrived as a rockstar prodigy and for the most part he did not disappoint. His ego and arrogance grew and though this caused problems with some of his professors, it only endeared him to the elite hegemons of the internet who viewed themselves somehow as cultural insurgents.
After graduation he stayed on for a semester and a half as a doctoral assistant. But he performed poorly as a teacher and was dismissive and condescending to almost all his students. This was coupled with certain rumors about how he treated the few female students he had in his recitation classes. Although all the criticisms of Brayden could also be leveled at his doctoral supervisor, Brayden didn’t have tenure. After a serious clash with his supervisor he abruptly left Cal Tech and went to work for one of the major Tech Companies in Silicon Valley.
There he performed extremely well but brought his personality issues with him. After yet another bitter confrontation with a superior he struck out on his own and started his own tech company. He was still viewed as a rock star, having cultivated an image as the “Bad Boy” of the information sector. Driven by fashion as much as sound judgement, all the venture capitalists in the valley wanted in on his new endeavor. With all the start up cash he needed, Brayden rolled up his sleeves, fired up the servers, and in eighteen months had developed a new pseudo crypto currency. Blockchain based currencies, called cryptocurrency, or simply cryptos, had been floating around the internet for some time. However there were some limitations. For example simply to maintain the accounting ledger required massive amounts of computing power and electricity, which drove up cost. Also these currencies had a “pirate” or illicit stigma attached to them. Most transactions they were used for were for illegal goods and services. These problems combined to make cryptos more a curiosity for commodity trading rather than money for day to day transactions. Brayden’s adaptation of blockchain technology solved many of these issues, but his genius was using a lot of his start up money to lobby California, Texas, New York, and Illinois state legislatures to legalize his crypto. He also spent a lot of time lobbying (bribing) federal SEC and IRS officials to keep their hands off his company while he cut side deals with VISA and Wall Street banks to provide the infrastructure backbone for his idea. When Millennium Coin launched it was immediately adopted as an alternative currency by 15% of US citizens. Within a year that had grown to 35% in US and Canada, and 23% in Europe. When the Fed and the IMF came knocking on his door, as he knew they would, he cut a deal with them too.
A big part of the deal was ceding a certain amount of control of the currency to both the IMF and the Fed. He also worked with other major central banks in England, Germany, Russia, Israel, and Saudi Arabia to solidify his currency’s legality. A year after that, China, Japan, South Korea, taiwan, and the Philippines had adopted his currency. By the time Brayden’s global blitzkrieg was finished, Millenium Coin was the everyday means of exchange of 65% of the world’s population. By this time Brayden had made so many deals he himself could lay claim to only 0.5% of shares in his company and technology. Howecer absolute control was not the point. Near monopolization of the world currency supply was the point.
As his currency spread he began to be hailed as a savior. People credited him with doing more to end world poverty than anyone else in history. When he stepped down as chairman of the board after only five years he was simultaneously awarded Nobel Prizes in Economics and Peace, as well as a Turing Award. In a grandiose gesture he donated all of the prize money to computer literacy schools in Africa and southeast Asia. This was nothing to him because with his technology taking off he had acquired a net worth nearly twenty times that of the next wealthiest person in the world. All this before he even turned 30.
His private sector goals accomplished, Brayden turned his sights on his real mission: Space. Like all socially ostracised middle school computer nerds, Brayden held a special fascination with space and space exploration. He loved the science fiction movies, tv shows, and novels that portrayed people zipping around space, fighting aliens, and exploring the endless horizons of the universe. Within the cultural milieu of the Technocracy reinvigorating America’s ambition for space exploration became something of a divine edict. Though many in Silicon Valley and the internet world bemoaned the lack of investment in NASA and cheered any public intellectual who called for more funding, few of the infocractic elite could really do anything about it. Now that he was far and away the wealthiest person in Human history Brayden could.
At first he sought a partnership with NASA and the leading private rocket company in the US. He bought up land in the Nevada desert to build a space facility. But as he began negotiating with NASA and floated his ideas, both the government and the private rocket company scoffed at him. Flying through space was no big deal. In fact ionic engines were possible that could reduce the travel time to Mars from three months to five weeks. Building things in space was also easy. Zero gravity and no atmosphere meant much, much lower manufacturing effort and therefore costs. Mining asteroids and low gravity moons? More geological problems, but still cheaper than drilling on Earth. The problem was getting people and material from Earth into space and vice versa. The vast costs of rocket fuel and one use rockets was immense. Brayden’s idea was to cut the fuse as it were and research parallel technologies. Unsurprisingly, the two organizations that made their living off of rocketry were not interested. Brayden pushed on alone, but though he had huge influence in currency and banking, the special interest that controlled how congress spent his crypto-coins was beyond him. Soon NASA and his competitors in the private sector used their influence to get him shut down and pushed out.
But only pushed out of the US. Which is really where the trouble started, Brayden thought. Losing Nevada was no big deal. Instead he moved operations to the caribbean. The government of Suriname was in financial trouble after an election that swung socialist. Brayden approached their government with the idea of buying ocean space from them, but after some tough haggling he had to settle for an extremely liberal lease. Brayden then set about contracting mining companies for huge blocks of granite and inside of two years he had turned the ten square mile patch of leased, shallow water ocean into an artificial island complete with an aristocratic estate. He also built a private research facility complete with dormitories, recreational facilities, and self sufficient lab based agriculture. It took another three years to staff his island and ensure it was as self-contained as possible so that no embargos or economic interventions could derail him. Brayden’s island was not a private nation state, exactly, but there was no one who could tell him what to do, or when to stop. He was completely unchecked.
By then people had begun to look at him sideways. His rock-star, rebel-without-a-cause image had slowly morphed into something more cult like. His fans and employees looked on him with reverence and considered him a visionary. Meanwhile his detractors and economic antagonists began to whisper analogies to David Koresh and L. Ron Hubbard. Brayden didn’t much care either way, though the loyalty and praise of his fans and employees certainly stroked his ego the right way. And while he didn’t do much to encourage a cult like following, he didn’t do much to dispel it either.
All this had cost a fortune. In fact it had cost several fortunes each of a magnitude that was unimaginable. Luckily Brayden had twenty such fortunes to spend, and the technologies he would soon develop would generate even more revenue. After recruiting and seducing all the right researchers and engineers to the project it was only five years before his first prototype device was ready.
Ironically it was the ancillary research that provided the most benefit. His new currency stabilized the world monetary supply but was reactive to market shifts, shortening credit crunches and lessening the severity of financial crises. His laboratory based agriculture, dubbed agri-tech, was far more resource efficient, lower cost, and produced more nutritious food than the industry driven monocultures of the American plains. His use of genetically modified trees allowed responsible and sustainable harvesting of everything from building material to fibers for clothing, paper, and furniture. Finally his recycling of organic waste to create methane coupled with Thorium powered nuclear reactors provided clean, near zero emission energy at almost no cost. Brayden’s island had become some kind of strange, futuristic Utopia. As these ancillary technologies we released to the public they were adapted and adopted in some way by most industrialized nations.
But none of this was the point. The point was dark matter, the great unknown. Five years of intense study and research by his team yielded little fundamental, scientific, theoretical understanding, but made great practical breakthroughs. It had been proven by Hubble that the universe was expanding at an ever increasing rate. When dark matter was later discovered it was hypothesized that somehow dark matter was responsible for this ever intensifying repulsion. Brayden’s team threw themselves single mindedly into this research and though the true nature of dark matter was still unknown, they had found a way to harness some kind of repulsive force innate to the universe. Brayden had invented anti-gravity technology.
The first demonstration was mild, but mind blowing. They built a circular steel platform eight feet in diameter and two and half feet thick that sat in a huge subsurface engine. In the first demonstration, which was live streamed to the whole world across the internet, Brayden stepped onto the platform and ordered it activated. After theatrically appropriate humming and whirring from the massive machine, the platform began to lift, and lift and lift. It lifted thirty feet in the air and just hovered there for approximately thirty minutes. Then in a controlled descent it returned to its original launching point. The world was amazed.
This was a small test, of course, and there were some problems to work out. Energy cost for example was immense, but there were efficiencies in the machine that could be improved. Also, the anti-gravity force appeared to work as a focused beam, so as the platform rose, and was disconnected from the centripetal motion of Earth’s rotation, it would drift west, or rather it would raise straight and the beam would drift east, causing the platform to lose repulsion and fall. But this too could be overcome. Brayden put his people to work double time and in two years they were able to hit a ceiling of 35 miles, into the mesosphere. It was this demonstration that began to catch the eye of world governments and moved Brayden from cooky cultist to possible threat. Once again, Brayden didn’t seem to notice or care.
The next five years were spent pushing the technology to the final goal: putting objects in orbit at one one-hundredth the cost of conventional rockets. And, of course, the first orbital pod that went up contained Brayden and special journalists meant to capture the moment for history. It was on this journey that Brayden coined the name for his technology as he had the pod play Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” as they officially entered space. It was corney, played out, and silly for Brayden to do so. And while he did this out of some kind of strange nihilistic irony, the semi-religious overtones of the song’s name were not lost on his detractors and only fueled their image of him as a cultist pide piper leading his lambs to slaughter. And, like always, Brayden missed this too. He always wrote off his detractors and critics as misguided political antagonists who clung to antiquated ideas and values so fiercely they could not appreciate the glorious new world he was ushering in.
Now, at the end, as he sat in the heart of his life’s work, clutching destruction of his dreams in one hand and destruction of himself in the other, he realized that this is where he had made his most fatal mistake: dismissing his enemies. The last three years since the Stairway demonstration had rushed by as if they were only three days. Their memories ran through his head so quickly that he began to feel sick from vertigo. Everything had happened so fast, though at first they seemed to move so slowly.
Initially despite the heightened boldness of his critics, things seemed to go as they always had. Brayden welcomed a congressional delegation and some high-ranking military officers to assure them his technology would not be used for military applications. He also opened talks with countries who wer unable to fund their own space program but might be able to afford his technology and services. Things were looking up, way up. So up in fact that Brayden did something out of character: He took a vacation. Brayden also granted everyone on his island an extended furlough.
At the start of his project Brayden had been possessed by a strange frenzy. Nothing could be done fast enough, there was never enough time, and he worked himself and his people to their last nerves. Now he was nearly forty. Either age or the accomplishment of his goals had seemed to mellow his tempermant. So he gave everyone except certain essential personnel a three month vacation to relax and recharge. Overnight Brayden’s island was depopulated.
It was during these three months that the narrative finally turned against him. At first it wasn’t a problem. He had several very powerful, and very persuasive public relations firms on retainer and they were able to control the narrative in his favor, for a time. However, two months into the furlough a major American newspaper broke a huge story. It was an expose from an ex-employee who told a sordid tale of the inner sanctum of Brayden’s world. It told of sex and drugs, backstabbing, high-tempers, cruelty, and exploitation. It painted a picture of Brayden as a mad Ahab working his people to near death and he and his inner circle venting their exhaustion and frustration through wild, MDMA fueled orgies. It painted a picture of tired, angry, and abused lower tier workers taking out their frustrations through rape and assault on the poor, helpless women who lived and worked on Brayden’s island. Far from being a Utopia, his private island was a sadistic hell, born out of the worst perversions of the Technocratic culture.
Most of this scandalous tale was embellishment, and more than a little of it was flat out lies, but enough of it was true, and the story itself so sensational that people believed it. During the last month of the furlough, as more and more employees corroborated more and more of the story, public opinion turned fiercely against Brayden and his mad crusade for control of the stars. This time the critiques stung. This time Brayden found himself feeling the shame. He felt it more when at the end of the furlough, fully one third of his employees, including most of the women, chose not to return.
At the same time Brayden found out he was almost broke. His net worth was still the highest in the world, of course, but the vast majority of that was tied up in the island and its facilities. To fund his quixotic mission he had sold off most of his investment portfolio and assets that weren’t immediately tied to the island. While the company that really was the island was still profitable, it only made money on patent licenses, many of which were either subverted or about to expire. Moreover he no longer had any control or interest in Millenium Coin. While he had made most of his money by being an early miner and then gaining value as the crypto took off, the fiat currencies he supplanted were now worthless and his personal wallet of millenium coin was mostly exhausted. Sure on paper he was still the wealthiest man ever, but in reality he was critically short in liquidity.
This coupled with a sudden staffing crisis caused most of the major international investors who might have been interested in the Stairway project to back off just as his potential client nations distanced themselves.
Brayden was at the nadir of his fortunes. No matter, he thought. He would soldier on and when his technology proved its potential they would come back. So he pushed forward, though at a much slower pace and with much more difficulty than he wished.
The next year was a frantic one. Desperate calls trying to find liquidity or staff often became long rambling speeches explaining himself, mostly to strangers. As his cash dried up he had to let people go. In short order the island went from bustling, gleaming utopia to rundown ghosttown. More than once he found himself willing to pack it in, but the only thing stopping him is that there were no buyers for his island. No one except the wealthiest nations could afford it. He came close to securing a deal with the US government, but details leaked to the media and negative public opinion evaporated any congressional support. After an extremely stressful nine months things began to turn around. A few of his patents were still bringing in cash to cover costs and begin rebuilding liquidity. He was forced to strike a handful of extremely bad, one-sided deals, using these patents as collateral, to open up his credit. A big PR push to demonstrate the New Culture of Tolerance and Cooperation was enough to hire back some important personnel and recruit new researchers and engineers. Overall, though, it was a tough year. The toughest of his life.
His team newly assembled, Brayden finally got back to work. But it was another year after the restart before they put a second pod into orbit. This time they elevated the test device to low earth orbit, let it circle the planet five times, and retrieved it from space. This was a major breakthrough. It really was the proof of the technology and the fulfillment of everything he had been trying to do. Unfortunately no one really cared. The stench of the scandal lingered and while some people were open to what he had done, most had a wait and see approach. Specifically, they were waiting to see if Brayden would collapse again.
He hoped to get back in everyone’s good graces by launching another mission, a project that would be more audacious and incredible than anything he had done before. He would begin shuttling construction material and personnel into space, build a ship manufacturing facility, and then launch probes into the asteroid belt to start searching for ideal places to mine rare earth metals such as Tungsten, Iridium, and Titanium. There were hints at permanent bases on the Moon and even Mars. The gossip about his new ambitions began to scrub the tarnish from his name and finally, finally! Brayden thought things could get back on track. His latest mission, called project Phoenix, would solve everything. Unfortunately it never happened. For the last time reality would crash into Brayden’s utopian fantasy and finally strangle it once and for all.
Suriname was never a completely stable nation, which is why he could buy ocean from them. Just before his second mission a former captain of the secret police was elected to high office on a very populist, socialist platform. Once in office he began nationalizing most of Suriname’s economy. A few months after the orbital/retrieval mission’s success, this new Jeffe staged a serious coup and wiped out all opposition to his total rule. Then in a fiery speech broadcast to the world he nationalized Brayden’s island. He canceled the lease and claimed ownership of all the technologies Brayden had developed. He made a special point to mention the Stairway and not too subtly reminded everyone of the potential military applications. Afterall, what was a nuclear ICBM if a tungsten rod dropped from orbit could do the same job? And this dictator now claimed to have the power to cheaply put endless numbers of said rods into orbit.
After the speech the world went berserk. Accusations and counter accusations were hurled between Brayden’s enemies and fans the world over. Every media outlet, online forum, and internet news outlet exploded with fear, panic, and speculation. Every national legislature and the United Nations debated the implications of such a technology being controlled by a thuggish brute. Stock markets crashed then rebounded, then crashed again. Millennium coin dramatically deflated in value, but when the old fiats and ancient crytos couldn’t fill the void, Millennium shot back up, plateaued, then began to fluctuate wildly. Value uncertainty in the world’s chosen means of exchange ground economies to a halt, nations armed.
No one was more frightened than Brayden of course. It was his life, his wealth, his island, his dream that was at stake. Everything he had worked for was going to be seized and confiscated while he was lined up against the wall and shot. To save his dream from the dread thugs in Paramaribo he turned to the only people who could save him: the United States. When he reached out to his contacts in Congress and the White House, he was relieved to learn that the president had already dispatched a fleet, complete with a detachment of Marines and SEALs to block the dictator’s seizure of the island and its technologies. When they arrived he was dismayed to find that yes, the Marines had come, but they had not come to save him. There were no negotiations, and it was made extremely clear that Brayden was finished. He was going to be taken back to the US and held under house arrest until congress could decide what to do with him. The island, his patents, his technology was now property of the US Government. The Stairway had the power to undermine the US’s nuclear hegemony and that simply would not be tolerated.
These plans, too, were thwarted. The initial landing force was one platoon of marines and three squads of SEALs supported by a destroyer. A full carrier group with a much larger occupation force was on its way, but would take a few days to arrive. The communist dictator of Suriname had gambled a lot of support and taken out a lot of loans on the idea that he would soon control Brayden’s futuristic technologies. And while he had no hope of holding off a full US battle fleet, the small advance force may be overrun before the cavalry arrived. From there he may be able to bargain his way into some control over the technology. The Dictator had no choice but to try and seize the island before the US fully entrenched themselves. So the morning before Brayden was set to leave, the jeffe attacked.
Brayden was under guard on his balcony taking in the scenic, caribbean view from his bedroom balcony. If the Destroyer had not been sitting just off the harbor, it would have been perfect. Just as Brayden began to muse about what life as a hostage may be like, the ship exploded. Old Huey helicopters carrying the dictators soldiers came rushing over the horizon and disgorged their men onto the island. Within an hour the once gleaming futuristic Utopia, turned ghosttown, turned recovering rustbelt city made one last transformation into a warzone. The marines tried to rush Brayden to an evacuation point, but the escort was ambushed. Then the communists who captured him were ambushed in return. In the chaos, he snatched a sidearm from a dead soldier and ran. But he didn’t run away. Instead he made his way to the power generator, conveniently located next to the subsurface engines of the Stairway. There he sealed himself inside while the free and the communist battled for control of the future. In the early days he knew some kind of extreme measure may be needed and so he used the secret code only he knew to open the secret compartment in the control room of the generator. It contained an overload switch. Not for the nuclear reactor, for the gas turbine. His Thorium reactor didn’t melt down, could not melt down. This was part of their appeal: it was physically impossible for a Chernobyl or Fukushima to happen. The gas turbine, however…
Well, what would happen if you turned off all the safety mechanisms on a giant combustion cylinder that spun at 6000 rpm? What would happen if you jammed the fuel line open and then disabled the backflash valves? What if it was running all out when this happened? Brayden was about to find out. After quickly disabling by hand all the mechanical safeties, he returned to the control room and ran the turbine up to maximum, then he ramped it up another 25%. Then he hit the overload switch. Soon enough the turbine would rip itself apart and send pieces flying at high speeds in all directions. The electricity for the island would be ended, the Stairway’s delicate underbelly would be shredded, the fuel line would catch fire and the massive fuel tank underneath his laboratory and research building would explode. Most importantly his life’s work would remain his and his alone.
As the turbine reached critical failure, Brayden could hear the rifle cracks getting closer and fewer. No longer were the cruel barks of the communist AK’s to be heard. Only the swift, professional darts of NATO carbines adorned the air of his island. Soon the marines were banging on his door, soon they would breach the control room and it would be over.
Brayden put the gun to his head. He wasted a few moments on regret. Regret for his aloofness and self isolation that cut him off from the world. Regrets for mismanaging the jealous idiots who brought him down, regret that having come so close, his dreams would go unfulfilled. If only… he thought, If only…
The door gave way, the marines rushed in, the turbine finally caught fire and began to tear itself apart. It was over.
“God forgive me.” Brayden said. Then he pulled the trigger.