The four men came from the four corners of the Earth, each from their own respective corner.  It was no coincidence that their destination was high in the Swiss Alps; not merely for the convenience of a central location, but more so for the classic neutrality it represented.  For the journey, each man took on a false identity such that they not be recognized for who they were or who they represented.  But the artifice was for others; the four knew each other well.

     Three of the four sat waiting around a rough-hewn table in the cellar of a remote chalet, an equally-rustic wooden chandelier suspended over its center sporting a half dozen thick, multi-wick candles that lit the chamber with a flickering, medieval light.  No food or drink sat on the table; this was not a social gathering.  The hour was late, physically as well as metaphorically; it was a gathering that should have been held long ago.

     The American arrived last, and all eyes were upon him as he quickly took the only remaining seat.  He returned their scrutiny one by one, then spoke.  "Now gentlemen, we know why we are here.  We've not much time, and quite a problem here."

     "A trick or two with rockets," the Frenchman added with a dismissive snap of his fingers, "and the whole world's at his feet."

     "He is dangerous," the Chinese cautioned.

     Anger burned visibly in the Russian's eyes.  "We have been sitting on the fence for far too long!  We must take action!"

     The American nodded his agreement.  "But how do we deal with this rocketry king?  Where do we start with a space force that's far better than anything that any of us have been able to create on our own?"

     Bedlam burst out as the other three men vehemently reacted to the affront, drowning each other out.  "We are testing a reusable engine!"  "We have a program well advanced!"  "Funding has been secured!"  The pandemonium raged on and on.

     Impatiently, the American swept away their protests with the broad wave of the back of his hand, shouting over them all.  "Fools!  You have no perception.  The stakes we are gambling are frighteningly high."  His glance found the Frenchman.  "You used to rule more than half the space market.  Where is that share now?"  He fixed his eye on the Chinese.  "You have what amounts to a bottomless pile of cash.  What has it bought you?"  He turned to face the Russian.  "And you!  The progeny of Gagarin!  What have you done with that legacy?"

     The Russian leapt to his feet, his face a beet red.  "And what have your people—or even NASA!—done with Armstrong's legacy?  Tell me that, American!  Instead, your country chooses to support our destroyer with billions!"  He paused briefly to catch his breath and added with finality, "It is your fault we are here today!"  He slowly took his seat as a lengthening silence spread across the table.

     The Frenchman stepped into the silence.  "But how can we stop him?  His glamour increases by leaps every moment."

     The Chinese spread his hands helplessly.  "It will be our elimination because of one man."

     With that, the Russian inexplicably brightened.  "Not necessarily true!"  He swung his gaze around the others at the table.  "It is true he may be one man.  But in my country, we have tried and true ways of dealing with one man..."  He let the words trail off meaningfully.

     A heavy silence descended upon the group.  The reluctance of each to meet the eyes of the others was almost palpable.  Finally, the American let out a resigned sigh.  "I don’t see how we have any other option."  He waited as the seconds passed in silence.  When no one challenged his statement, he spoke the unspeakable.  "Then we are decided?"

     The men looked around the table at each other gravely.  Seconds passed.  Heads nodded.  With finality, the American intoned, "Then we are decided."

     The Russian stood, beaming.  "Good!  I'll take care of it myself."  His broad smile broadened further.  "Just like old times."  He turned to go.

             *        *        *

     "Let me get this straight," the man interrupted from behind his office desk.  "You want to buy an ICBM from me?"

     The Russian smiled broadly.  "Exactly!  Although I would not necessarily call it an ICBM.  I was merely referring to the day when you came to Mother Russia to buy an ICBM from us! "  The smile vanished.  "The quality control for our rockets has been suffering, as I am sure you well know, so today it is we who must come to you for the trampoline."

     "And the payload...?"

     "The first module of our new space station.  It is too precious to trust to our Soyuz."

     "We'd have to clear it with the State Department, but I don’t see any reason why we couldn't loft it for you—and for a far lower cost."

     "Excellent!"  The Russian fumbled in his jacket pocket and extracted a gray metal flask.  "Then let us toast to our future success!"  He held out the flask.  "Our best vodka!"

     "Well, I don't typically drink, but sure, let's toast."  He took the flask and began to unscrew the cap when without warning all hell broke loose.  Bright lights flashed and a piercing siren keened.  The Russian fell back in his chair dumbstruck, panic plain on his face.

     But the other man just sat there unperturbed and calmly tightened the cap.  He smirked slightly and commented aloud, "Why am I not surprised?"  But his words were swallowed by the siren.  With the same suddenness with which it started, the light-and-sound show abruptly halted.  Still holding the smirk, the man added, "You really didn't think that trick would work twice, did you?"  He manipulated his tablet's flatscreen a moment, scanned the result, then added, "It's even polonium.  Have you no imagination?"

     "How did you...?" the Russian gasped, swirling an indicating finger in the air, a look of incredulous confusion on his face.

     "Sorry, can't tell you," he confessed.  "Except to say we do a lot of defense work here.  The whole plant has radiation sensors because of it."

     The confusion clouding the Russian's face quickly melted and hardened into a red fury as he shook an accusing finger at the man.  "You were lucky today, comrade!  But one day soon, one of us will stop you!"

     The man shrugged.  "Maybe.  But it's already too late to matter. "

     "What do you mean, 'too late to matter'?"

     "Because I'm not the threat—not anymore, anyway.  Ten years ago taking me out of the picture might've worked to slow things down.  But not today."

     No wiser, the Russian repeated, "What do you mean?"

     "Because it's no longer about me.  I've built a juggernaut here"—he waved a hand toward the office window—"with some of the best people on the planet, a human juggernaut.  Much more capable than any alien one.  And just as Apple could flourish without Steve Jobs, we've reached the point where any of my companies could easily flourish without me.  That's because it's no longer about me.  It's about them."  Again, he waved toward the window.  "You'd have to kill them all to stop us—and even that wouldn't work, because we've proven to the world that reusable rockets are feasible, that sustainable energy is there for the taking, that it can be used to power a very compelling car, that neural damage no longer needs to be a barrier to a normal life, that tunnels are the future, not just on Earth but on Mars too.  I wasn’t sure for a long time, but I am sure now.  The bottom line is that I'm no longer necessary, except as their goad.  And making a martyr of me would only strengthen their resolve."

     At first, the Russian's mouth hung open in disbelief, but slowly closed as understanding came over him.

     "As I said," the man quipped as security guards poured into the room, "it's too late to matter."


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Ken Krawchuk

Background Marscape courtesy of NASA & JPL-Caltech
(C) 2021 Amendment Sixteen Limited